Cult Danger Evaluation Frame

Groups can raise power, but can also supress individuality and encourages critical thinking, particularly when you first meet new people and magical groups or covens.  The evaluation frame is a small tool you can use to remind yourself to see clearly.  This is a great aid to discourage predatory situations, and to encourage strong personal growth and critical thinking.

The Cult Danger Evaluation Frame was created by Isaac Bonewits and is reprinted here with permission.  Note that is normally very strict about publishing only original materials, but some gems warrant reprinting when done so with full permission and proper credit to the author.  This is one such gem, and is a good reference to print out for your Book of Shadows.

There are translations of the Cult Danger Evaluation Frame through Isaac Bonewit's site here. Current languages include Dutch, Polish, German, Italian, French, and Portuguese. Check the website for more updates.

Below is the introduction and evaluation frame by Isaac Bonewits, Version 2.6-2.7

Version 2.7 Introduction
by 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” (because evaluating these groups should be elementary). A copy was included in that year’s 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 potentially dangerous ones and distinguish harmful ones from those that are merely unusual to the observer. 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. It has been used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in its Meddigo Report on Bible-based cults (which really bothered some members of the Religious Reich). It was also used by by the government of the Union of South Africa, in its report on minority religions. This latter led to the legalization of same-sex marriage there. It has appeared in a few books by other Pagan authors as part of discussions about choosing ethical teachers and groups.

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 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 many of 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 2.6)

1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Low                      High
1 Internal Control: Amount of internal political and social power exercised by leader(s) over members; lack of clearly defined organizational rights for members. 1
2 External Control: Amount of external political and social influence desired or obtained; emphasis on directing members’ external political and social behavior. 2
3 Wisdom/Knowledge Claimed by leader(s); amount of infallibility declared or implied about decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations; number and degree of unverified and/or unverifiable credentials claimed. 3
4 Wisdom/Knowledge Credited to leader(s) by members; amount of trust in decisions or doctrinal/scriptural interpretations made by leader(s); amount of hostility by members towards internal or external critics and/or towards verification efforts. 4
5 Dogma: Rigidity of reality concepts taught; amount of doctrinal inflexibility or“fundamentalism;” hostility towards relativism and situationalism. 5
6 Recruiting: Emphasis put on attracting new members; amount of proselytizing; requirement for all members to bring in new ones. 6
7 Front Groups: Number of subsidiary groups using different names from that of main group, especially when connections are hidden. 7
8 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. 8
9 Sexual Manipulation of members by leader(s) of non-tantric groups; amount of control exercised over sexuality of members in terms of sexual orientation, behavior, and/or choice of partners. 9
10 Sexual Favoritism: Advancement or preferential treatment dependent upon sexual activity with the leader(s) of non-tantric groups. 10
11 Censorship: Amount of control over members’ access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines or leader(s). 11
12 Isolation: Amount of effort to keep members from communicating with non-members, including family, friends and lovers. 12
13 Dropout Control: Intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts. 13
14 Violence: Amount of approval when used by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s). 14
15 Paranoia: Amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies; exaggeration of perceived power of opponents; prevalence of conspiracy theories. 15
16 Grimness: Amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines or its leader(s). 16
17 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). 17
18 Hypocrisy: amount of approval for actions which the group officially considers immoral or unethical, when done by or for the group, its doctrines or leader(s); willingness to violate the group’s declared principles for political, psychological, social, economic, military, or other gain. 18


1  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10

Low                      High

 [Note from Phaedra Bonewits: Isaac Bonewits passed away August 12, 2010.]

Copyright © 1979, 2008 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 everything in this notice box is included. If you would like to be on one or more of Isaac Bonewits’ emailing lists, click here to get subscription information.

Note: this is one of his most popular essays, so if you want to mirror it, that’s fine with him, but please check back regularly for updates. If anyone wants to translate this or others of his essays into other languages, he will be happy to post them on his website.

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About the Author
Author: FridayWebsite: http://PaganPath.comEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
Author & Academy Instructor
Friday is devoted to writing books and articles on a variety of Pagan subjects, and is the instructor of the online PaganPath Academy. She has studied and practiced the Craft since 1987, and worked as a professional tarot reader and vice president of a national psychic network for several decades. Currently, she is now a practicing herbalist and ordained minister. As a Master Gardener with a deep interest in permaculture, she is developing the PaganPath Sanctuary with her partner. This long term community project is an edible landscape demonstration, orchard and educational facility for future generations.

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Go to the full Comments and Discussion Area for this Pagan Path Article (2).
Posted: 27 Sep 12 6:22 pm America/Chicago by bruja #235
bruja's Avatar
This evaluation tool is "right on the money". Over the years I've seen many groups , Pagan and Christian alike , that would qualify as high scorers on the test.
Posted: 28 Sep 12 4:12 am America/Chicago by Otatara #236
Otatara's Avatar
Agreed - it is indeed, right on the money, as Bruja said.
In Mr Bonewit's article, he also points out that many people in the anti-cult movement attack them on theological or ideological grounds, when more empirical data such as control over their members, and wealth of the leaders as opposed to the members, are more successful counter-arguments.

I was musing over his list, thinking of a man I know who was entrapped into a church here in New Zealand, which I believe to be a cult. He got his family into it, and after they tried to make him participate in a ritual he felt to be degrading, he left with his oldest son. His wife remained in the cult with their six other children. He has since regained two other children, but he lost his marriage and some of his children, all four of whom are indoctrinated with the cult's beliefs.

My parents (Christian) also lost a friend to that group, as he objected to their theological and ideological arguments. Whilst I feel that control and manipulation are far harder to dispute, and better argument tools, I cannot help but agree it is unlikely that God (or any deity), would approve of a congregation of mostly lower socio-economic class people being forced to give 10% of their meagre incomes so that the leaders can live a luxurious lifestyle. Reinforcing my idea that the "church" is a cult, is the feeling that their arguing against it without using theology, would have been equally as ineffective. They've never seen him again.

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