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The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame 2.0

                           Copyright  1979, 1996 c.e., Isaac Bonewits


Events in the last few 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 caveats that could be issued, ordinary people
faced with friends or loved ones joining an "unusual" group, or perhaps contemplating joining it
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 year's revised edition of my book, Real Magic (Samuel Weiser Pub., 1989). 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 person's 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 invention.

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 theocratic agendas. Worse, these members of the
Religious Reich 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.

             The Advanced Bonewits' Cult Danger Evaluation Frame
                                         (version 2.0)

                                                          1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

                                                          Low                      High

     INTERNAL CONTROL: Amount of internal political power
     exercised by leader(s) over members.

2 WISDOM CLAIMED by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations. 2
3 WISDOM CREDITED to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s). 3
4 DOGMA: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or "fundamentalism." 4
5 RECRUITING: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing. 5
6 FRONT GROUPS: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group. 6
7 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. 7
8 POLITICAL POWER: Amount of external political influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members' secular votes. 8
9 SEXUAL MANIPULATION: of members by leader(s); amount of control exercised over sexuality of members; advancement dependent upon sexual favors or specific lifestyle. 9
10 CENSORSHIP: Amount of control over members' access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s). 10
11 DROPOUT CONTROL: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts. 11
12 VIOLENCE: amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s). 12
13 PARANOIA: amount of fear con- cerning real or imagined enemies; perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories. 13
14 GRIMNESS: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s). 14
15 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). 15
16 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 group's declared principles for political, psychological, economic, or other gain. 16
A German translation of this is available at: Isaac Bonewits' Sektengefahr Checkliste. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Low High

Copyright 1979,1996 c.e., Isaac Bonewits. This text file may be freely distributed on the Net,
provided that no editing is done, the version number is retained and this notice is included. Note: this
is one of my most popular essays, so if you want to mirror it, that's fine with me, but please check
back regularly for updates. If you would like to be on the author's personal mailing list for upcoming
publications, lectures, song albums, and appearances, send your snailmail and/or your email address
to him at PO Box 1021, Nyack, NY, USA 10960-1021 or via email to "".

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Snailmail: PO Box 1021, Nyack, NY, USA 10960-1021 This webpage is copyright 1996 c.e., Isaac Bonewits Most recently updated: July 26, 1998 c.e. (formatting changes only) This page's URL is < /ABCDEF.HTML> My Homepage URL is < >