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The siege of Waco; nerve gas attacks on the Tokyo subway; mass suicide as a comet passes in the night sky – think of the word “cult” and these images could well spring to mind.

To most of us, “cult” conjures up an evil religious group, often with a charismatic leader, engaged in brainwashing and other mind control techniques. No doubt it believes that the end of the world is imminent. And just for good measure it probably collects large amounts of weaponry in preparation for an apocalyptic war.

In which case, of course, you would suppose that such groups were made for the Internet, with its global reach and propensity for the weird and wonderful. A quick search on the web reveals dozens of sites discussing the term; however, most are “anti” organisations or individuals, as by definition a “cult” probably does not call itself such. Of course, one man’s cult can also be another’s religion, so it comes as no surprise that few of these sources actually agree what a “cult” is – despite the fact the subject is debated in great length and often with strong emotions.

What seems to be an acceptable compromise among the sites and newsgroups I visited is the term “new religious movement” (NRM). According to the Ontario-based group Religious Tolerance there are at least eight different definitions of the word “cult”, generally with negative connotations and often promoted by those in the anti-cult movement (itself often comprised of ex-cult members), or the media.

Whether or not the Net really is the main medium by which NRMs approach the world is also debatable. On his web page Professor Jeffrey Hadden, who was one of the first to coin the term “tele-evangelist”, says:

“The Internet does provide an opportunity to immerse oneself – however deeply one may choose – in the subcultural world of new religious movements. One can delve into the products being created for the goal of proselytising. Or one can log onto news groups that are mostly used by believers to discuss the fine points of their faith. Or, one can participate in heated debate about any number of groups. There are no small number of web sites and news groups that are run by people whose primary objective in life seems to be the destruction of some religious group.”

But according to Professor Hadden, “however exciting the experience of ‘virtual reality’, the Internet will never be able to capture the feeling of being in the midst of Holiness people handling poisonous snakes, or the ecstasy of being ‘slain in the spirit’ at a Pentecostal meeting, or the awe and wonderment of watching the Reverend Sun Myung Moon joining in marriage two thousand couples in a mass ceremony.”

What you can find online, though, runs the whole possible gamut of extremes and even humour. You can join Circlemakers, an online community of – funnily enough – crop circle makers. At the same time, I can point my browser at www.messiahcam.org and take a look at the sealed East Gate of Jerusalem, waiting for the Messiah to appear. Similarly Beastwatch tells me of the Coming of the Beast. Should I want to ‘stray from the path’ I can look up Satanism at any number of sites (e.g. www.satanism.net) or, on the other hand, join online prayers with the Jesus Army. And just recently the Mormons announced the launch of a new web site, called the FamilySearch Internet Genealogy Service, holding links to 400 million names of dead people; it is a religious duty of members to identify ancestors – some of whom can be “baptised”– and in an eight week test the site received over 200 million hits.

All this is set against an obsession with things millennial. According to Daniel Wojcik, author of The End of the World As We Know It: “The approach of the new millennium has increased the number of people who believe in a coming apocalypse.” Various US opinion polls show that between 20 and 40 percent of Americans believe Armageddon is imminent. “There is nothing in the Bible about the world ending in the year 2000, but these ideas have grown up as a sort of folk belief,” says Wojcik. But he adds that there is an interesting dichotomy here, in that many millennialists blame technology and industrial progress, but push their ideas through the Internet.

At the same time, other survey research has shown that 70 to 75 percent of the US believes in extra-terrestrials and UFOs and numerous NRMs have grown up surrounding this area (perhaps the best known being L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology). There are now even “anti-UFO” cults, according to Professor Irving Hexham, who runs an NRM discussion group and web site (nurel-l@majordomo.ucalgary.ca; www.ucalgary.ca/~nurelweb), “based on cosmic theories that threaten their version of Christianity.”

Brenda Brasher, of Mount Union College in the States, has studied the growth of the Internet and its relation to NRMs, and in particular millennial groups. She draws an analogy between the spread of such groups and the growth of Christianity through ancient Rome. “The roads that made co-ordinating a far-flung empire possible facilitated the spread of millennial enthusiasm. Today, thanks to the Internet, millennial groups disseminate their teachings internationally on the world wide web.”

Announcing one’s “end times belief” on the web has become a standard practice, she says, such that it is rare that a millennial group does not use the Net to publish its beliefs. When members of the group Concerned Christians were arrested in Israel last autumn – suspected of plotting violent acts to ‘hasten’ the coming of the Messiah – one Israeli millennial specialist expressed shock to discover the group did not have a web site. “How can any self-respecting millennialist group not be on the web?!” he exclaimed.

Law enforcement agencies are also concerned about the use of the Net by NRMs. When FBI agents met with millennial scholars at the 1998 AGM of the American Academy of Religion, they repeatedly probed them on how millennialists use the Internet. The academics confirmed the agents’ worst fears, in that nearly every millennial group had an active web site and used the Internet as a primary mode of communication. “Cross-group fertilisation via the web was a regular feature of cyberspace millennialism,” says Brasher.

One of the most shocking and well-documented examples of web use by an NRM was the case of Heaven’s Gate. The Heaven’s Gate community consisted of 39 well-educated individuals who committed suicide two years ago, believing they were transporting themselves to a space craft tailing the Hale-Bopp comet.

Dwelling communally in a small mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, California, the group supported itself designing web sites, through a company called Higher Source. Formed by Marshall H. Applewhite and Bonnie Lu Trusdale Nettles, the leaders travelled throughout the USA for years, gathering followers, arguing that they had arrived on Earth via a space ship in the 1970s and had incarnated into human bodies.

They taught students a bizarre mix of beliefs, founded on a diet of Bible-meets-Star Trek philosophy. When Hale-Bopp appeared, the Heaven’s Gate community interpreted it as a sign that their class was ready to “graduate”. On their home page the words “Red Alert” flashed. The page explained that Hale-Bopp was the marker for which they had been waiting.

Applewhite – calling himself “Do” – decided that a ‘laying down’ of their bodies was necessary. So it was that the 39 members committed mass suicide on 25 March 1997, killing themselves in a three-day ritual. They had no more than 100 members at their peak, but the suicide ensured that the whole world soon knew of their existence. There was even an online epitaph coined by one of their members, making a poignant plea to the world to understand what they had done:

“Now, all this talk of the Second Coming? Guess what? It’s really here! We are at the End of the Age, where it is our understanding that all minds/souls are back for another chance to choose what path they wish to pursue. And what I know from my Teachers is that the time has come for this Next Level classroom to close, and for us to make the transition from this world to Our Father’s World.”

Not all NRMs using the Net attract such great controversy. A great many of the Christian evangelical/charismatic movements use the web to attract newcomers, or allow casual visitors to view inside the group. John Campbell, webmaster for the Manchester-based Jesus Army explains simply: “Our aim on the Internet is to communicate the unchanging Christian message in a modern manner. I’m sure if Jesus was around today he’d use the Internet! The pages are aimed at people who wouldn’t normally think of going to church.”

The site runs a message board that Campbell maintains attracts a lot of good natured discussion, as well as a prayer request service called Can We Help? According to Campbell: “We started the site in May 1995, originally to make sure there was a Christian presence on a medium where it seemed likely to go by default. I’ve tried to keep the pages reasonably up to date with web technology like MP3 files, Real video, e-commerce, java and so on” and he insists that the group doesn’t send out unsolicited emails.

Echoing claims made time and again about the Net, he says: “The amazing power of the web for communication means that I can develop genuine friendships with people I have never met, and barriers of space and time can be overcome in an unbelievable way.”

Another NRM which has made extensive use of the Internet is the Church of Scientology. On the Church’s official site you can take a personality test online, for example – although you have to meet someone in person to receive and explain the results – and chat with over 13,000 Scientologists.

However, it is the battles between the Church and its detractors which have become legendary on the Net. As one British opponent of Scientology explained to me: “The battle between Scientology and its opponents has been absolutely transformed by the Net. Since 1995, the whole nature of our activism has changed because individuals are much less isolated.”

At one point the newsgroup alt.religion.scientology was more popular than alt.supermodels, he jokes, and became the key battleground between the two sides. As writer William Shaw, author of Spying In Guru Land and Westsiders explains, the main reason that the Church of Scientology has a large Internet presence is predominantly due to the high Net profile of its opponents.

“The Scientology presence on the Internet was largely a response to the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, and the posting of ‘sacred’ texts on the Net through ex-members. The CoS are very proficient at the Internet now, but I believe that was only responding to certain well-known individuals who created very successful anti-Scientology sites on the web in the early 90s.”

For example, one of the Church’s US lawyers tried to send a cancel message to get news servers to drop the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup, which not only failed, but also created an outcry among netizens. The newsgroup was and is flooded with thousands of excerpts from a Scientology text, in what became known as “vertical spamming.” Other critics were sued if they tried to post any of the Church’s secret teachings onto the web, and homes were raided in several prominent cases. The Church also bought up the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) after it went bankrupt in 1996; CAN’s website is now controlled by the Scientologists.

The British anti-Scientologist mentioned earlier talks of his understanding of a cult being “one that is very controlling of its members’ access to information. When this mentality confronts the Internet frontier mentality, which is one of extreme liberalism, then there will naturally be a clash. We see this in Scientology’s attempt to shut down or flood the alt.religion.scientology newsgroup and in the massive reaction of netizens against this (including) an international picketing campaign, the springing up of hundreds of critical pages – including a massive anti-Scientology rebellion in Amsterdam which involved 119 individuals creating web pages to host formerly secret Scientology teachings.”

Much of the background to the war between Scientologists and their detractors can be seen at Operation Clambake run by Andreas Heldal-Lund in Norway. His site includes many examples, too numerous to mention here. One of the latest incidents he highlights was when Amazon.com dropped the book A Piece of Blue Sky, by Jon Atack, which was critical of the group. There was a massive outcry from netizens and free speech advocates, and Amazon promptly reversed its decision.

In fact, some of the most visible web presences are the “anti” cultists. Sites such as the Cult Information Centre, include definitions of a cult and descriptions of ‘mind control’ techniques. The American Family Foundation is one of the main anti-cult groups in the US, and houses a huge and comprehensive site. Triumphing Over London Cults specifically targets the International Churches of Christ in great detail, including testimonies of former members, audio recordings of leaders and links to dozens of other groups. Another site discusses the experience of ‘survivors’ of Siddha Yoga.

William Shaw underlines this point: “Are new religious movements using the Internet to disseminate their message? I’m very dubious about this. I think they’re remarkably quiet on the Internet, as it goes. I don’t think people who are seriously interested in winning souls are that into it.”

To Shaw, it is these anti-cult groups which need and utilise the Net most effectively: “People in cults don’t need ‘virtual’ communities. They’ve got their own virtual communities in the cults they’ve joined. But people who’ve left cults are often desperate to recreate the experience they’ve left...however hostile they are to the religion they were in. They joined cults because they wanted to save the world from evil. They join anti-cult groups to do the same thing, to recreate evangelising communities. The web provides the perfect opportunity to do so.”

Professor Hadden sums it up: “The World Wide Web can’t really take one into the innersanctum of religious groups, or the hearts and minds of those who believe. But without question, anyone who chooses can get much closer to scores of religious movements than has ever before been possible without actually encountering groups in the flesh. It’s a great show and a great learning laboratory.”

This story first appeared in Internet Magazine© 1999. A separate story about holy wars in cyberspace appeared in The Guardian.

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