Since the beginning of time, human beings have been attracted to individuals who proclaim divine messages. They have also felt the need to share their beliefs and practices with others. Therefore, the existence of groups referred to as “new religious movements,” “spiritual groups” or “cults” is not a new phenomenon.

Since the 60s, these groups have elicited reactions from the media, the public, academics and governments. For some, they are innovative organizations trying to respond to the needs of specific groups of people and should not be the object of monitoring or special attention. For others, they warrant closer observation in order to better understand the experiences of their members and to step in when members are being harmed.

When tragedy strikes, fear of these groups is re-ignited. Examples include the deaths of 913 members of Jim Jones' People's Temple in Guyana in 1978; the violent deaths of members of the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993; the murder, arson and suicide carried out by members of the Order of the Solar Temple in 1994, 1995 and 1997; the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway by members of Aum Shinrikyo in 1995; and the suicide of Heaven's Gate members in California in 1997. These dramatic events reinforced the idea that “cults” are dangerous.

While these events (arson, murder or suicide) are extremely rare, they do occur and are a serious issue that merits attention.

The “cult” phenomenon is first and foremost a group phenomenon. Understanding how groups operate and the rules that govern interpersonal relations can provide insight into all of the organizations termed “cults” or “new religious movements.”

Info-Cult produced this publication to address these various issues and to inform the public about the internal and external functioning of groups.

Work on this publication began in 1999, which coincided with the 25th anniversary of the National Assembly's adoption of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and the 20th anniversary of the creation of Info-Cult. Four years later, the project has become a reality. This book, inspired by the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms as well as a desire to understand how these groups operate in a democratic society, explores various aspects of the “cult” phenomenon. Here are some of the objectives:

· Inform the reader about the position of groups in a democratic society;

· Understand the internal and external operations of groups as well as some of their problematic aspects;

· Foster discussion and debate about groups in general and on the “cult” phenomenon;

· Promote the development of critical thinking about groups in our society.

To achieve these objectives, each chapter addresses a different aspect of how groups operate in a democratic society.

Chapter 1 offers an historical overview of Info-Cult, from its creation to the present. It also traces the organization's understanding of the cult phenomenon, its services, its clientele and relations between Info-Cult and national and international organizations.

Chapter 2 provides a summary of the Québec Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms and explains the role of the Commission (Commission des droits de la personne et des droits de la jeunesse).

Chapter 3 focuses on how groups operate. How they serve as places of social participation, reassurance and exchange, but also as places of exclusion and psychological brutality. This chapter provides an introduction to the general knowledge of how groups operate and their effects on their members.

Chapter 4 looks at how three groups function: Roch “Moses” Thériault's group, the Order of the Solar Temple (OTS) and Heaven's Gate. These portraits provide a history of each group, from its inception to the violent acts that lead to the physical abuse or death of their members.

Chapter 5 provides answers to some of the most frequently asked questions received by Info-Cult.

Six appendices complete the publication.

The “cult” phenomenon is a vast topic that can be approached from a number of different angles. This book does not address all of the questions that can be asked on this subject but the objective is to present a different view of the “cult” phenomenon.


©Info-Cult 2006