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The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame 2.5
Copyright © 1979, 2001 c.e., Isaac Bonewits
Events in the last several decades have clearly
indicated just how dangerous some religious and secular groups
(usually called cults by those opposed to them) can
be to their own members as well as to anyone else whom they can
influence. Brainwashing, beatings, child abuse, rapes,
murders, mass suicides, military drilling and gunrunning, meddling
in civil governments, international terrorism, and other crimes
have been charged against leaders and members of many groups,
and in far too many cases those accusations have been correct.
None of this has been very surprising to historians of religion
or to other scholars of what are usually labled new
religions (no matter how old they may be in their cultures of
origin). Minority groups, especially religious ones, are often
accused of crimes by members of the current majority. In many
ways, for example, the Mormons were the Moonies
of the 19th century at least in terms of being an unusual
minority belief system that many found shocking at
the time and the members of the Unification Church could
be just as respectable a hundred years from now as
the Latter Day Saints are today.
Nonetheless, despite all the historical and
philosophical warnings that could be issued, ordinary people
faced with friends or loved ones joining an unusual
group, or perhaps contemplating joining one themselves, need
a relatively simple way to evaluate just how dangerous or harmless
a given group is liable to be, without either subjecting themselves
to its power or judging it solely on theological or ideological
grounds (the usual method used by anti-cult groups).
In 1979 I constructed an evaluation tool which
I now call the Advanced Bonewits Cult Danger Evaluation
Frame, or the ABCDEF, a copy of which was included
in that years revised edition of my book, Real
Magic. I realize its shortcomings, but feel that it can
be effectively used to separate harmless groups from the merely
unusual-to-the-observer ones. Feedback from those attempting
to use the system has always been appreciated. Indirect feedback,
in terms of the number of places on and off the Net this ABCDEF
has shown up, has been mostly favorable. For example, it was
chosen by and is now displayed on the website of the Institute
for Social Inventions, who paraphrased it for their Best Ideas
A compendium of social innovations listing.
The purpose of this evaluation tool is to
help both amateur and professional observers, including current
or would-be members, of various organizations (including religious,
occult, psychological or political groups) to determine just
how dangerous a given group is liable to be, in comparison with
other groups, to the physical and mental health of its members
and of other people subject to its influence. It cannot speak
to the spiritual dangers, if any, that might be involved,
for the simple reason that one persons path to enlightenment
or salvation is often viewed by another as a path
to ignorance or damnation.
As a general rule, the higher the numerical
total scored by a given group (the further to the right of the
scale), the more dangerous it is likely to be. Though it is obvious
that many of the scales in the frame are subjective, it is still
possible to make practical judgments using it, at least of the
is this group more dangerous than that one? sort.
This is if all numerical assignments are based on accurate
and unbiased observation of actual behavior by the groups
and their top levels of leadership (as distinct from official
pronouncements). This means that you need to pay attention to
what the secondary and tertiary leaders are saying and doing,
as much (or more so) than the central leadership after
all, plausible deniability is not a recent historical
This tool can be used by parents, reporters,
law enforcement agents, social scientists and others interested
in evaluating the actual dangers presented by a given group or
movement. Obviously, different observers will achieve differing
degrees of precision, depending upon the sophistication of their
numerical assignments on each scale. However, if the same observers
use the same methods of scoring and weighting each scale, their
comparisons of relative danger or harmlessness between groups
will be reasonably valid, at least for their own purposes. People
who cannot, on the other hand, view competing belief systems
as ever having possible spiritual value to anyone, will find
the ABCDEF annoyingly useless for promoting their theological
agendas. Worse, these members of the Religious
Reich and their fellow theocrats will find that their own
organizations (and quite a few large mainstream churches) are
far more cult-like than the minority belief systems
they so bitterly oppose.
It should be pointed out that the ABCDEF is
founded upon both modern psychological theories about mental
health and personal growth, and my many years of participant
observation and historical research into minority belief systems.
Those who believe that relativism and anarchy are as dangerous
to mental health as absolutism and authoritarianism, could (I
suppose) count groups with total scores nearing either extreme
(high or low) as being equally hazardous. As far as dangers to
physical well-being are concerned, however, both historical records
and current events clearly indicate the direction in which the
greatest threats lie. This is especially so since the low-scoring
groups usually seem to have survival and growth rates so small
that they seldom develop the abilities to commit large scale
atrocities even had they the philosophical or political inclinations
to do so.
I have made some changes to the order, number
of, and content of the following in April 2001 c.e., to reflect
suggestions by users and some additional thought.
The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Low - - - - - - - - High
1. Internal Control: Amount of internal political power
exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined
organizational rights for members.
2. External Control: Amount of external political influence
desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members secular
Wisdom Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility
declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations.
Wisdom Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of
trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made
Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount
of doctrinal inflexibility or fundamentalism.
Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members;
amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring
in new ones.
Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different
names from that of main group, especially when hidden.
Wealth: Amount of money and/or property desired or
obtained by group; emphasis on members donations; economic
lifestyle of leader(s) compared to ordinary members.
Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s); amount
of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of
sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners.
Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment
dependent upon sexual favors provided to the leader(s).
Censorship: Amount of control over members access
to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s).
Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating
with non-members, including family, friends and lovers.
Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at
preventing or returning dropouts.
Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the
group, its doctrines or leader(s).
Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined
enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence
of conspiracy theories.
Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about
the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
Surrender of Will: Amount of emphasis on members not
having to be responsible for personal decisions; degree of individual
disempowerment created by the group, its doctrines or its leader(s).
Hypocrisy: amount of approval for other actions (not
included above) which the group officially considers immoral
or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or
leader(s); willingness to violate the groups declared principles
for political, psychological, economic, military, or other gain.
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10
Low - - - - - - - - High
Copyright © 1979, 2001 c.e.,
Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the
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