Over the edge into collective lunacy: Cults spring from social isolation and absolute leadership, writes Andrew Brown

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IT IS not strange beliefs that define a cult, but the absence of unbelief, according to Professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics.

She said yesterday that three factors might push a group over the edge into a sort of collective lunacy, as seems to have descended on the Branch Davidians in Waco. The first is social isolation: if the members of the group never meet anyone but other members; the second is an unaccountable and absolute leadership; and the third is the prohibition of questioning.

If these three conditions are fulfilled, a group may get so far from the norms and beliefs of the rest of society that any conflict becomes violent. Eccentricity of belief alone is not enough: there are many people whose followers believe them to be the messiah without getting into shoot-outs with the local customs.

Most recently, the Lubavitch sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews has been thrown into confusion by the failure of its leader, the 90-year-old Grand Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, to declare himself the Messiah at a ceremony in Brooklyn broadcast to the faithful in five countries. Yet the Lubavitcher Hasidim are generally described as a sect rather than a cult.

Professor Barker is the author of the standard Home Office guide to New Religious Movements, the term she prefers to cult, even though, she says, 'some are not new, some are not religious, and some are not moving at all. But I do think it does quite a lot of harm to bung them all together and call them cults. A lot of harm is done by some of them, but it is mostly grossly exaggerated.'

She estimates that there are about 500 New Religious Movements active in Britain, and perhaps 1,300 in the US. It is difficult to estimate how many people are wholly committed to them: one estimate, from the mid-Eighties, suggests about 15,000. These figures include many bodies such as the Hare Krishna Movement, which are generally regarded as religions rather than cults.

This reinforces the point that a cult cannot really be distinguished by the oddness of its beliefs so much as by the absence of the social controls which operate to damp down religious fervour in most cases.

The Branch Davidian movement was itself an offshoot of the eminently respectable Seventh-Day Adventists. David Koresh, the leader, travelled around England last year recruiting from Seventh-Day Adventist meetings.

Professor Barker notes that the New Religious Movements will often have a reckless character because their active membership is younger and more vigorous than in older religions. Most members of traditional religions believe what they do because their parents did, whereas almost all the members of a new religious movement are by definition converts.

By far the greatest number of people who join these movements leave, and they tend to do so because they have grown out of it. Even the Moonies, one of the groups most often accused of brainwashing, seem strikingly unsuccessful at it. Out of 1,000 people who attended a residential Moonie workshop in London in 1979, only about 80 joined as full-time members for more than a week; fewer than 40 were still members after two years.

'Serious research suggests that many of the processes involved in becoming a member of a New Religious Movement differ little, if at all, from the sorts of processes that occur in the family, the school, the army, or some traditional religions,' according to Professor Barker.