Ian Haworth sees cult recruiters everywhere. “It could be somebody knocking at your door, it could be somebody you meet at a party, it could be your doctor, your dentist, your husband, your wife … it could be that teacher at school, the person at university that you bump into.”Friends of Mohan
A leaflet produced by Friends of Mohan, the group led by Michael Lyons, who was convicted of rape in 2010

For Haworth, it was a beautiful young woman with a clipboard. Originally from Lancashire, Haworth was living in Canada when the glamorous recruiter approached him on a Toronto street. After helping with a survey, he signed up for a four-day self-improvement course on the promise that it would help him stop smoking. In those four days Haworth claims he was hypnotised 16 times. “Initially we just followed the instructions of the person running the workshop and sat there with our eyes closed listening to her talking,” he says, “but by the time the end of the course came along she would say, ‘Let’s meditate’ and get us into a deep trance.”

Haworth left the group soon after, but not before he’d handed over all the money he had. The experience led him to found the Council on Mind Abuse (COMA), a Toronto-based agency providing information to those affected by similar groups. When Haworth lost a court case brought by the founder of a controversial training programme he had publicly criticised, he returned to the UK and established a new educational charity called the Cult Information Centre (CIC).

That was 25 years ago; today Haworth is one of the British anti-cult movement’s most prominent figures. From his London office – the exact location is kept secret, as are the identities of the CIC’s trustees – Haworth responds to thousands of queries from current and former cult members, their families and the media each year. He also lectures widely, helping to “immunise” the public against cult recruitment tactics.

But that work is now under threat. Following complaints that the CIC’s educational work was, in fact, more like political campaigning, the Charity Commission is considering removing its charitable status – a move that would cut off donations from charitable trusts and force the CIC to close. Haworth believes the latest complaint was made by someone involved in the Church of Scientology, though the Commission will not confirm or deny that.

Scientology is perhaps the group most likely to be labelled a cult, but other names crop up almost as often. The LaRouche Movement, a far-right international political network, faces increasing allegations of violence and intimidation. The Unification Church (better known as “the Moonies”), the Family International (formerly the Children of God) and the Hare Krishna movement still cause concern too, despite internal reforms. The notoriously litigious Landmark Education – whose self-improvement seminars promise a “positive, permanent shift in the quality of your life”– is a relatively recent addition to the list, although it was developed from the theories of the man who sued Haworth in the ’80s.

Haworth has identified 26 separate techniques by which cults control individuals. They include sleep and food deprivation, chanting, isolation, “love bombing” (where new recruits are showered with affection), even verbal abuse. But the most powerful, it seems, is hypnosis – not that you’re likely to realise it’s happening. “If cults were swinging watches in front of people and telling them they’re going to go to sleep it would be pretty obvious, so they disguise the hypnotic process as something that’s going to sound beneficial, like a new form of meditation or something else that sounds harmless and helpful.”

For Haworth, it is the prolonged use of these mind control techniques – rather than specific beliefs – that distinguishes a cult from a religion. “We’re not questioning philosophies, doctrines or the worldview that a particular group or individual may have, but questioning how they came by it,” he insists. “And if it’s through the use of techniques of psychological coercion we’d see that as a big human rights problem.”

Haworth estimates that there are between 500 and 1,000 cults in the UK today and says the problem has got worse in his quarter century working in the field – partly due to public apathy. “It’s old hat now, there isn’t the fear, there isn’t the concern that there might have been in the early days when people started to used the word ‘cult’,” he says resignedly. “I get calls today from people who’ve never heard of the Moonies, if you can imagine that.” Nor is government doing enough to deal with the problem, he says. When contrasted with France, Germany and Spain, all of which have taken legislative action against cults, Haworth says Britain is “so far behind it’s tragic”.

Not everyone agrees. Indeed, the anti-cult movement is continually accused of scaremongering and paranoia, of causing unnecessary anxiety for concerned relatives – even of being cult-like in its Manichean view of the world. The other side of the debate is represented by a government-backed organisation called the Information Network on Religious Movements (Inform). Based at the London School of Economics, Inform ostensibly has the same charitable objectives as the CIC – but takes a very different approach. And it is towards Inform, rather than any cult, that Haworth directs his real ire. “Nobody in our field in Europe will deal with them and yet it’s being financed by taxpayers’ money,” he sputters. “I think that’s appalling.”

Inform was established in the late ’80s by sociologist Eileen Barker, whose work with members of the Unification Church led her to conclude that many so-called cults were being unfairly stigmatised. Barker’s research revealed something surprising – the Moonies, supposedly brainwashers par excellence, were markedly bad at recruiting and retaining members. The majority of potential recruits did not join, and many of those that got involved did so in a superficial or peripheral way.

At that time the primary sources of information on groups like the Moonies were the tabloid press and groups like the CIC. As a result, terrified families were commissioning self-styled “deprogrammers” to abduct loved ones and force them to abandon their beliefs – an unethical and often violent process that led to several high-profile payouts.

Barker believed the anti-cult movement wasn’t simply misguided, it was harmful. So she set out to collate reliable, up-to-date and objective information on what she and her fellow sociologists preferred to call new religious movements (NRMs) – the word “cult” was deemed meaningless at best, slanderous at worst.

Inform’s disinterested, evidence-based approach is a world away from that of the CIC – and has attracted accusations of cult apologism from the outset. “When Inform was founded it was controversial,” explains Amanda Van Eck, Inform’s deputy director and a sociologist of religion. “There were already a few support groups who were ready to educate the world about the evil of cults and what should be done about them – mainly that they should be banned – without a very clear definition of what a cult is.”

Originally funded by the Home Office, Inform now receives an annual grant from the Department for Communities and Local Government, alongside donations from the Church of England and the Methodist Church. Its database lists around 900 groups that are active in the UK – though van Eck says that there are undoubtedly many more – and is regularly consulted by government and the police.

The groups on Inform’s database tend to fall into a few broad categories. There are those that have developed, or broken away from, major world religions, and those which fuse several religious traditions together. Then there are the personal transformation programmes promising new lives free from suffering. Occult and esoteric groups offer secret wisdom, while extremist political movements provide simple, all-encompassing answers to complex social problems. Two major NRM growth areas, says Van Eck, are the field of complementary and alternative medicine and the phenomenon of “reverse mission” – African and Latin American Christian groups re-evangelising the West.

Inform’s website stresses that murders and suicides related to new religions are extremely rare, which is why their names are so well known: Charles Manson’s “Family”, Jonestown, the Order of the Solar Temple, Aum Shinrikyo, Heaven’s Gate, the Branch Davidians. But while Van Eck insists the majority of groups on the Inform database are harmless, she says a small number will “strongly manipulate and coerce” their members, most often through sexual abuse or financial deception. “It’s the ones that are under the radar that are most problematic because you don’t find out until it’s too late,” she says. “Suddenly a case goes to court and the evidence presented goes back 20 years.”

Van Eck cites a number of recent cases of self-styled gurus who have abused or defrauded followers. There’s Michael Lyons, who styled himself as guru Mohan Singh, jailed for ten years in 2010 for the rape of one woman and sexual assault of another. Then there’s Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dhama (real name Judy Rena Denton), who judges found had “unduly influenced” members of her Self Realization Healing Centre in Somerset to part with property and hundreds of thousands of pounds.Colin Batley
Occultist Colin Batley, who was convicted for child abuse in 2011

A trawl through the newspaper archives reveals a host of similar cases. Last year occultist Colin Batley and three of his followers were jailed for a catalogue of sexual crimes against children and in 2008 Lee Thompson – leader of a group inspired by a series of misogynistic fantasy novels called the Chronicles of Gor – was found guilty of forcing his girlfriend to have sex with another man. The mainstream churches haven’t been immune either – in the mid-’90s the leader of a new youth-oriented evening service at an Anglican church in Sheffield was accused of sexually abusing more than 20 women members.

So while academics and the anti-cultists may argue about the extent of the problem – and the terminology – it’s clear that some groups exert enormous psychological and social influence over their members. They do so, says social psychologist Rod Dubrow-Marshall, by systematically breaking down an individual’s identity structures. “Normally people move imperceptibly between levels of identity from moment to moment,” he explains, “but members of cults tend to become fixated on the group, their identity becomes totally dominated by the group to the exclusion of other identities.”

Rod and his wife Linda, a psychologist and psychotherapist originally from the US, head the British branch of the Re-entry Therapy Information and Referral Network (RETIRN), an association of mental health professionals working with individuals making the transition from highly coercive groups to life in society at large. One of the most important aims of this therapeutic process, explains Linda, is the recovery of independent thought and critical thinking. “People lose the ability to make decisions on their own,” she says. “Often when people come out of groups they’re confused about little things like what to wear, what to eat, because all this has been controlled.”

While the Dubrow-Marshalls share some of the sociologists’ concern about the term “cult”, they are pragmatic about its use. “I think it can be a helpful overall description or category to explain a number of phenomena,” says Rod, “but it’s not a particularly specific term and if it’s used too loosely then there is a danger that groups can all be lumped together as if they all have exactly the same characteristics.”

The world of cults, NRMs or whatever else we choose to call them is certainly a contentious one. There are, however, some points of consensus. One is that the UK’s relaxed regulation of medical practice – unlike in France and Belgium, anyone can diagnose and treat illnesses privately as a “healer” – makes it a relatively fertile ground for fraud and deception. Another is that the government’s commitment to giving religious groups a greater role in the delivery of public services – particularly through its “free schools” programme – means that politicians may soon be forced to confront the issue directly.

A final area of agreement is that the number and reach of these groups are only going to increase in the coming years – and that means we should all start taking them seriously. ■

In brief: Britain's cults

Friends of Mohan: Police say Michael Lyons – in the persona of Buddhist guru Mohan Singh – used a programme of sleep deprivation and psychological harassment to rape and sexually assault women in his group. During his trial in 2010, 50 followers testified to his mystical abilities, including X-ray vision.

Self Realisation Meditation Healing Centre: Last year Judy Rena Denton, known as Mata Yogananda Mahasaya Dhama, was found to have “unduly influenced” a former army officer to donate his converted farmhouse to her spiritual retreat. The case followed a string of allegations of financial deception from former members of Denton’s “Alpha-Omega Family”.

The Nine O’Clock Service: Diocesan authorities in Sheffield were initially delighted when young people started flocking to a rave-inspired service led by charismatic preacher Chris Brain in the late ’80s. But when allegations of sexual abuse began to surface the “Nine O’Clock Service” was shut down and Brain expelled from the Church.

The Christian Israelite Church: When 19th-century evangelist John Wroe demanded seven virgins to “comfort and cherish” him, members of his Christian Israelite Church offered their own daughters. But after the women accused Wroe of indecency, his followers revolted. Wroe fled to America and Australia, where he established new Christian Israelite communities.