03: High-Control Groups


Sects, sectarian organisations, cults, New Religious Movements (NRM), destructive and authoritarian groups, high-control groups; these and others are all terms used by researchers to describe groups that exert power and undue influence over its members. In order to facilitate our understanding of the phenomenon investigated in this study, it is crucial to pay attention to the terms used to describe these groups. The terms cults and sects, even though historically a neutral term used by sociologists of religion, have gained a pejorative meaning over time, and additionally lack an agreed upon definition, making them too vague to use in academic research (Richardson, 2013, p. 33). The term New Religious Movements (NRM) has been used by scholars since the 1970s (Barker, 2014), albeit used inconsistently and perhaps too narrow in focus. NRMs, according to Barker (2004 & 2014, p. 238-240) refer to religious groups and communities that developed after the second world war and have predominantly first-generation members. However, the term itself has its problems; firstly there is an inherent difficulty in defining what constitutes as ‘religious’, furthermore many groups that have been labelled by scholars and non-members as NRM do not like to be associated with the term ‘religion’, but prefer to be referred to as spiritual community or a similar term. Another difficulty lies in defining the term ‘new’. When is something new and when is it old? In fact, many groups that are labelled NRMs have formed as breakaway groups from larger, more mainstream religious groups and had, in fact, existed for centuries. Barker (2014, p. 239) suggests that the term NRM would be most useful if applied to first-generation religions only.

Another term that appears in sociological research and shares similarities with the type of coercive groups investigated in this study is ‘total institutions’. The term emerged as part of Goffman’s research in asylums (1961a). Goffman’s research interests lay in the mechanisms employed by institutions in the reformation and reshaping of individuals’ identities. Goffman postulated that the reformation of individual identities was made possible through the existence of coercive practices and power imbalances between ‘inmates’ and ‘staff’. He concluded that the absence of external control and critique enabled staff to erase ‘inmates’ former selves and replace them with new ones. Goffman’s (1961a) total institutions were characterised by individuals whose daily routine unfolded in the same place under the same staff. ‘Inmates’ were accustomed to rigid timetables and activities were not freely chosen but imposed by officials and employees working in the institution. Barriers between the inside and the outside world were created to establish a world that was completely secluded from outside influences. There was also a clear and uniform plan, namely the re-socialisation of inmates. Goffman (1961a) argued that an individuals self does not exist independently, but is shaped in social interaction with others:

‘The self in this sense is not a property of the person to whom it is attributed, but dwells rather in the pattern of social control that is exerted in connexion with the person by himself and those around him. This special kind of institutional arrangement does not so much support the self as constitute it.’

(Goffman 1961a: 154)

Scott (2011) revisited Goffman’s concept of total institutions and compared it to newer forms of similar institutions, which she termed ‘re-inventive institutions’. Even though, as Scott postulates, individuals join these groups voluntarily, as opposed to Goffman’s asylum, they nevertheless become exposed to a, yet more subtle, form of power and control. Scott (2011, p. 40-43) describes ‘re-inventive institutions’ as places of ‘biographical identity work’. In these new institutions power no longer flows from top-down, but is distributed multi-directional, as members enforce rules via a system of peer-to-peer surveillance. Scott explains the rise in re-inventive institutions (RI) as a result of the self-becoming ever-increasingly fluid and thereby causing ontological insecurity and existential angst. RI offer to ‘process, reshape and reform’ the self. However, by doing so, individuals whose primary concern is to find their ‘true’ self and live authentically fail to see that the opposite happens. Rather than being unique and finding one’s true self, they are turning into ‘gingerbread people’, (Craib, 1994, as cited in Scott, 2011, p. 40) ‘all fitting the same cookie-cutter model and chanting the same views’. Scott (2011) explains the shift from total to re-inventive institutions as a change in power dynamics. Accordingly, RIs have moved away from explicit and direct coercion and employ disciplinary power (Foucault, 1975). Foucault (1975) positioned that the use of force and violence by authority figures has become obsolete as it has been replaced with a disciplinary power that individuals have learnt to conform to and discipline themselves. Such disciplinary power is present in various administrative and disciplinary institutions, such as schools, prisons and mental hospitals.

Another term used by Coser (1974) to describe groups exerting coercive control over its members is ‘greedy institutions’. His description appears to lie somewhere in the middle between total institutions and re-inventive institutions. Coser (1974, p. 4) postulates that such institutions ‘make total claims on their members and […] attempt to encompass within their circle the whole personality […] they seek exclusive and undivided loyalty’. He distinguishes them from total institutions, in the sense that they do not utilise physical force to control their members but use ‘non-physical mechanisms to separate the insider from the outsider’ (p.6).

As this paper focuses on second-generation members of religious communities, it is crucial to examine the applicability of these terms in that context. While the concept of power in re-inventive institutions, as described by Scott (2011) has merit in examining group processes in contemporary institutions or groups, the idea of ‘voluntary joining’ is problematic for second and later generation members of groups, as their membership has been imposed on them by being born into it. Furthermore, seen that Scott (2011) acknowledges the presence of power dynamics in these groups, it is questionable to what extent membership of those who become involved with these groups in adulthood, is truly voluntary.

While the terms ‘total institutions’, ‘re-inventive institutions’ and ‘greedy institutions’ facilitate the understanding of these groups and even highlight the historical development of these groups, they draw limited attention to the central characteristic of these groups, namely control. For the purpose of this paper, I, therefore, choose to use the term ‘high-control group, as I believe this term is the most accessible, as the key mechanism by which these groups operate and keep members dependent and obedient – control – is part of the term.


I, therefore, define high-control groups as any group, regardless of ideology, that purposefully utilises social influence techniques to facilitate the recruitment and retainment of members, to further its own cause, disregarding its members benefits or well-being.

A crucial part of this definition, is the breadth of this definition, as it includes any group regardless of ideology. While the current paper focuses on a high-control group that can be described as being of a religious or spiritual nature, it is important to be aware that high-control groups are not limited to spiritual groups but also include groups that are political, psychotherapeutic/educational, commercial, etc. in nature.


Researchers have developed various models and checklists to describe the characteristics of high-control groups. Most notable is Lifton’s model ‘Eight Criteria of Thought Reform’, which is based on interviews with American Prisoners of War in North Korea (Lifton, 1961). Lifton was one of the first researchers to develop a theoretical model to describe the characteristics of these groups and many subsequent models are based on this model. In fact, one of the most accessible models developed, the BITE model is based on Lifton’s ‘Eight Criteria of Thought Reform’. The BITE model, developed by Steven Hassan (2013, p. 21 – 31) offers several advantages over other theoretical models: Firstly, the acronym BITE, readily describes the four key strategies (Behaviour, Information, Thought and Emotions) used to control individuals in high-control groups and/or relationships. The acronym is furthermore easy to remember and is thus an excellent educational and preventive tool due to its retainability. The BITE model is also much more concise than other models, which often list dozens of criteria for identifying controlling behaviour, making them confusing and difficult to remember.


The following section describes Steven Hassan’s (2013, p. 21 – 31) BITE model in more detail and applies its key components – behavioural control, information control, thought control and emotional control – to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Behavioural control

Behavioural control in high-control groups is marked by control over people’s environment: controlling with whom, where, when and how (friendships, romantic relationships, sexual partners) members live and associate, physical or psychological isolation from the outside world, the amount of sleep, work hours and type of occupation, dress code and food choices (Hassan, 2013).

In some groups, behavioural options may be limited due to finances available to individual members. Other groups, particularly human trafficking groups, restrict members free movement by taking away members passports and other ID documents. Many high-control groups will ask individual members to cut off contact with former friends and relatives or, if they are allowed to continue relationships, they may need to ask for permission to communicate with them. Many groups instil fear of outsiders by demonising them (Hassan, 2013).

High-control groups also operate with a system of rewards and punishments, where loyalty and strict adherence to internal rules are rewarded, and unwanted behaviour is punished to reinforce norm conformity. (Parlementair onderzoek, 1997). Each high-control group also has its own set of ‘special rituals and traditions’ to create a sense of unity and special bond between members.

Barker (2004) postulates that the extent of isolation that takes place in the group can be a sign of a potentially dangerous high-control group. The more isolated the members become from mainstream society and the more they internalise a world-rejecting attitude in favour of the group’s ideology the more dangerous a group becomes. The most prominent examples include the suicide-murders of members of the Solar Temple in Europe and Canada, Aum Shinrikyo and sarin gas release in Tokyo, Heaven Gates collective suicides in 1997 (Barker, 2014, p. 240) and Jonestown in 1978 (Hassan, 2015, p. 226)

In the Jehovah’s Witnesses, behavioural control takes the following forms: Members are dictated with whom they can associate, become friends and romantic partners. According to Jehovah’s Witness doctrine, members are encouraged to be friendly to people outside of their own community. However, they are discouraged from forming friendships or entering romantic relationships with people who are not Jehovah’s Witnesses. The reason behind this is that association with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses is seen by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a danger to ‘Christian Integrity’. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also discouraged from associating with members who have left the community either voluntarily or who have been excluded (Watchtower, 2015, p. 24).

Also, Jehovah’s Witnesses clothing choices are limited by doctrine. Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to wear clothes that allow for gender distinction. Women are discouraged from wearing clothing that make them look masculine (such as trousers), whereas men are discouraged from wearing feminine clothing. The reasoning behind the restriction of clothing choice is to ‘make it easier for others to remain chaste and to maintain God’s standards of holiness’. (Watchtower, 2016, n.p.).

Sexuality is another behavioural component that is doctrinally regulated. Members are discouraged from engaging in any premarital sexual activities (Young People Ask, n.d. Retrieved from: https://www.jw.org/en/bible-teachings/family/teenagers/ask/explain-my-beliefs-sex/ on 31/07/2017.) Masturbation is also discouraged, as it is seen as a ‘spiritually unhealthy habit, that instils attitudes that foster self-centeredness and corrupt the mind’ (Gain the Victory over Masturbation, n.d. Retrieved from: https://www.jw.org/ase/publications/books/gods-love/stop-masturbation/ retrieved on 31/07/2017). Homosexuality is another area that Jehovah’s Witnesses are taught to reject, as it does, according to doctrinal rules, not live up to Jehovah’s standards and constitutes sexual misconduct (Awake!, 2016, p. 7). Members are encouraged to marry only within the Jehovah’s Witness community and any romantic relationships with outsiders are forbidden (Watchtower, 2015, p.30).

Career ambitions and working hours are areas that are regulated by the organization too. Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to engage in proselytizing activities, and three levels of proselytising commitments exist Auxiliary pioneers, who are those that are unable to commit to full-time proselytising work. Auxiliary pioneers preach 30 to 50 hours a month. Regular pioneers engage in 70 hours of preaching work each month. Whereas special pioneers engage in 130 or more hours of preaching work each month. Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged from spending as much time as possible on preaching work, as they believe that this is important to save unbelievers (What is a pioneer, n.d. Retrieved from https://wol.jw.org/en/wol/d/r1/lp-e/1102012154, on 31/07/2017) Jehovah’s Witnesses are encouraged from rejecting ‘worldly’ career ambitions and in fact, Jehovah’s Witness are taught that career ambitions foster competitiveness and a desire to control others (Watchtower, 2017, p. 20).

The amount of time members spend on preaching work, has a direct impact on the time available for other leisure activities. On top of time restrictions, due to preaching requirements, Jehovah’s Witnesses are discouraged from engaging in certain recreational activities, such as competitive sports, activities that involve excessive risks, anything involving ‘violence, sadism, demonism, homosexuality, pornography, or other immoral practices’. Jehovah’s Witnesses are required to put their preaching work and other congregational work first and pursue leisure activities secondary (Watchtower, 2011, p. 8-12). Another restriction on members time is due to the ritualistic character of the community. Jehovah’s Witnesses meet twice a week, at the Kingdom Hall, for worship meetings. On top of these meetings, weekly Bible studies are held at members’ homes, and members are required to prepare for worship meetings in advance by reading relevant Bible passages and engaging in proselytizing activities, which take a social character, as members preach in groups or pairs.

Information control

Information control, for members who are recruited, as opposed to born into the group, starts during recruitment. During the recruitment process, group members (recruiters) withhold or distort information about the group. Recruiters are being trained by the group to gain strangers trust and quickly find out personal details to use in an attempt to connect with the person they are trying to recruit.

Information control over established members is achieved through limiting members access to any media or material that is not controlled or produced by the group itself. Depending on the level of isolation of the group, this media may simply not reach the group environment or group members may be discouraged from reading any other material that the group has labelled as satanic, having a bad influence or being apostate literature. Peer-to-peer surveillance in high-control groups is encouraged, and members are required to report any rule violations to the leaders or other members higher up in the ranks.

Some high-control groups have different information materials available depending on which rank or level the member is in. Newer members may only have access to material where doctrines are presented as relatively harmless. When members share doubts or problems with leaders, they are informed that they have not yet advanced far enough to understand this particular problem (Hassan, 2013, p. 28). Members thereby are gradually indoctrinated to the group’s belief. High-control groups reinforce an image of the world that is black and white, good versus evil and produce simplistic answers to difficult and complex life questions. The use of insider terms or ‘loaded language’ creates a barrier between insiders and outsiders. Groups will also anticipate questions by explaining and disproving existing critical arguments.

To prevent members from engaging with former members and thereby running the risk of current members accessing negative information about the group from a former member, high-control groups utilise shunning to avoid contact between current members and ex-members.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses make extensive use of insider material via the distribution of magazines, books, videos, newsletters, apps and their website. Jehovah’s Witnesses are advised against reading material that is not approved by them. The organisation creates a divide between members and non-members, declaring that members are not part of the world and should not be engaging in ‘worldly’ matters (Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society of Pennsylvania, 2008, p. 51). This strict division of insiders and outsiders limits the amount of information members have access to.

The Jehovah’s Witnesses also make use of peer to peer surveillance and members are encouraged to report other members’ wrongdoings. Reporting on other members wrongdoings is seen as being loyal to Jehovah and to the member, as this will, according to doctrine standards, allow them to access help for the committed sins (Awake!, 2008, p. 19-21). Peer to peer surveillance also means that any type of relationship is conditional and subordinate to the group and its leaders.

Thought control

High-control groups promote their group as possessing the ultimate truth. These groups have simple answers for difficult questions. Group members are made to believe that the group leader is always correct and members doubts are caused by their own weaknesses. Techniques, such as thought-stopping, meditation and chanting mantras are taught to members to stop any critical thoughts from arising (Hassan, 2013, p. 29).

The Jehovah’s Witnesses teach their members that they hold the ultimate truth, based on their revision of the Bible. Jehovah’s Witnesses use the Bible as a definitive guide (Watchtower, 2007, p. 32). Doubts about the Bible or doctrinal rules are seen as ‘spiritual weakness, spiritual unsteadiness or spiritual fatigue’ and members who admit to having doubts receive ‘counsel’ from congregation Elders to prevent spiritual weakness from developing into serious sins (The Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, 2010, p. 48). However, if members raise doubts openly in the congregation, or spread information that is contrary to Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Bible teachings they may face disciplinary actions, such as being disfellowshipped. Disciplinary action in regard to spreading information contrary to Jehovah’s Witnesses teaching is both a way of controlling individual members behaviour, as well as limiting the kind of information members have access to (information control).

Emotional control

Emotional control is another central strategy of high-control groups. This level of control attempts to limit the members’ range of emotions and proactively induce feelings, such as shame and guilt, to influence members’ behaviour. Emotions and feelings are also being re-evaluated as good and bad feelings. For example, many groups use a variety of ‘confession’ rituals, where members are forced to confess embarrassing and shameful events in their life. These forced confessions may be used later to control members’ behaviour or make them afraid of leaving the group because their secrets could be exposed (Hassan, 2013, 29 – 30).

Fear is another central emotion which is created via the introduction of an enemy. Enemies, in these groups, are people who are not part of the group or people who teach or spread information that is contrary to the group. The introduction of an outside enemy serves to instil mistrust in the outside world, and by doing so, the group prevents members from leaving the group. Fear within the group is created using peer-to-peer surveillance that evokes fear of getting caught by other members. Emotional control is additionally achieved through the control of relationships. As mentioned earlier some groups ask their members to cut ties with people in their former lives, others determine who their new friends can be, whom they can marry or have sexual relationships with (Hassan, 2013, p. 29-30).

Given that second and subsequent generation members have been born into these groups, it may be easier for the group to exert power and emotional control over them, as previous ties to mainstream society do not exist for these individuals, and thus less effort needs to be spent on breaking ties and on reforming their identity to match the group’s ideology, as the individual is socialised directly by the group. Furthermore, second and subsequent generation members only know the life inside the group and take it for granted. It may also be harder for second generation and following generation members to leave the group, as they have very limited if any, knowledge of mainstream society and how to behave in it, often accompanied by the group’s instilled fear(s). Converts to the group, on the other hand, have a pre-group identity and in some cases pre-group ties that, depending on their situation, they may be able to return to, if they decide to leave (Barker, 2014, p. 247).

In the Jehovah’s Witnesses, emotional control is achieved through separating behaviours into acceptable and unacceptable/sinful behaviours. Members, who are acting in an unacceptable manner are encouraged to consider how Jehovah would feel about their behaviour and are advised that sinful behaviour is upsetting Jehovah. Members are also taught that Jehovah’s ‘beaming eyes’ see everything and that no sin goes unnoticed, inducing a feeling of constantly being watched (Watchtower, 2008, p. 3-7). As mentioned above, Jehovah’s Witnesses also make use of peer-to-peer surveillance which can invoke a fear of being caught by others and mistrust toward other members. Furthermore, the prohibition of friendships and relationships with non-Jehovah’s Witnesses, as discussed earlier, is part of the Jehovah’s Witnesses use of emotional control.


It is pivotal to point out that not all non-mainstream (religious) groups are high-control groups (as defined in this paper) and that control is not always coercive or destructive. In fact, control exists on a spectrum ranging from healthy and constructive control to destructive and unhealthy/unethical or undue influence. Furthermore, abuse of power and social influence is not only a problem found in non-mainstream groups but is also present in official institutions such as officially recognised religions, residential units for children, elderly homes, etc. The difference between official institutions and secluded high-control groups is that checks and balances found in mainstream institutions are not present in non-mainstream high-control groups.

Even though control mechanisms in mainstream institutions have unfortunately not always prevented abuse, they provide greater protection for victims and vulnerable people, a system for detection and official and transparent protocols and laws are in place to ensure that abuse is addressed uniformly when it is detected (Kendall, 2011, p. 3).
Equally worth pointing out is that coercive and destructive control is not a phenomenon exclusively found in groups or institutions, but is also present in one-to-one relationships. Domestic abuse is an example of a high-control one-to-one relationship. For example, the definition England uses for the 2015 law that regulates ‘Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship’ (Home Office, 2015, p. 3) bears resemblance with the paragraphs above. The law defines:

Controlling behaviour as ‘a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour.’

Coercive behaviour as ‘a continuing act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim.’


It is difficult to estimate the number of high-control groups and its members. Several factors contribute to this difficulty, such as disagreements over defining high-controlgroups, oftentimes the size of high-control groups is so small that the groups are not officially known. Other groups are very secluded and removed from mainstream society and fail to register new-born children. Other difficulties arise with the accuracy of group membership statistics, which can be the case when groups publish membership numbers that are inaccurate, in an attempt to make their group appear much more popular and larger than it is in reality (Hassan, 2015, p. 41).

Several countries responded to religious high-control movements by introducing specific laws, frequently referred to as ‘anti-cult’ laws. Some countries, such as Belgium and France, introduced these laws as a reaction to the murder-suicides committed by the Order of the Solar Temple in the 1990s. Other countries, notably Germany and Russia, have been motivated by a desire to regulate groups that, according to them, pose a danger to the countries’ public order (Stinnett, 2005, p. 431).

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia originally positioned itself as open to new religious communities and faiths, by introducing the ‘On Freedom of Religious Confession’ law. This law declared all religions as equals and religious groups were able to benefit from tax exemptions and were permitted to build places of worship. This religious freedom in Russia was soon curtailed by the introduction of the 1997 law known as ‘On Freedom of Conscience and on Religious Associations’ (FCA). This law required religious communities to be established in Russia for at least 15 years and count a specific number of members, to register as a religious ‘group’ or ‘organisation’ (FCA, supra note 21, art. 9.1.) Only once a religious community is officially registered, may they benefit from tax exemption status, proselytizing activities, open bank accounts, own property, etc. Russia defends its position, as being in ‘the defence of the country and the security of the state’ (FCA, art. 3.2).

The Belgian Parliament established a special commission in 1996, to determine the danger ‘sekten’ (sects, as used by the Belgian Parliament) pose to society and individuals, and in particular to minors. The report distinguished between groups that were recognised and acceptable and groups that they defined as ‘harmful sectarian organisations’. The 1998 law that established the Belgian Observatory for ‘harmful sectarian organisations’ defined them as:

‘groups having or claiming to have a philosophical or religious purpose whose organization or practice involves illegal or injurious activities harms individuals or society, or impairs human dignity.’

(Belgisch Staatsblad, 25/11/1998)

The Belgian Parliament also drew attention to minors who are part of ‘harmful sectarian organisations’, and pointed out that parents do not have the right to put their children’s lives in danger based on religious doctrines, such as refusing blood transfusion in Jehovah’s Witnesses.

Upon recommendation from the Belgian commission, an independent body (IACSSO/Dutch, CIAOSN/French) was set up to act as an observatory to provide information, advice, research, an archive and support regarding ‘harmful sectarian organisations’ to official institutions and individuals alike.

Similar to the case in Belgium, France held an inquiry into ‘sectes’ (sects) in 1995. While the Board of Inquiry stayed clear from defining the term sect, as it admitted that this was a difficult term to define, it proposed the following characteristics of sects:

‘Mental destabilisation; exorbitant character of the financial requirements; isolation from society; danger to physical health; embrigadement [forced conscription] of the children; the more or less antisocial speech; disorders with the law and order; importance of the legal contentions; the possible diversion of the traditional economic circuits; [and] attempts at infiltration of the public authorities’

(Assemblée Nationale, 1995, n.p.)

The French report also identified a list of ‘sects’, that include amongst others the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. However, the list has not resulted in any bans. France led two subsequent Inquiries, one concerning financial matters regarding ‘sects’ and one regarding minors’ physical and mental health in ‘movements with a sectarian character’ (Assemblée Nationale, 2006, n.p.). The French Inquiry into minors argues that children living and growing up in sects, are at a disadvantage in comparison to other children as the social seclusion hinders their development and leads to an underdevelopment of their critical thinking skills. The Inquiry further postulates that children are unlikely to leave the group, as mainstream society has been depicted throughout their childhood as ‘monstrous and harmful’ and even if they should decide to leave, they are maladjusted to life outside the group. If children actually leave, it is often a result of their parents leaving, divorce, where one parent is a member, and the other is not, or forced removal after statutory services become involved on child protection grounds (Lalich & Tobias, 2006, p. 253). Moreover, the Inquiry estimates that leisure time for children growing up in ‘sects’ is severely limited. The Inquiry estimates that Jehovah’s Witnesses’ eight-year-old children devote around 23 hours weekly to studying the Scriptures, preparing for meetings and proselytizing – on top of school and homework. Children’s interests are limited to the group and many ‘sects’ such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses discourage children from entering further education by denying that anything children are taught in the outside world is true or valuable to the group and its mission. Moreover, for Jehovah’s Witness children school is often the only place where they interact with people and children outside their congregation. The balancing of black and white group values with outside values, such as those learnt at school and the groups instiled polarization of society as good versus evil places a burden on children’s everyday lives (Lalich & Tobias, 2006, p. 253). Children are made to believe that the only important work they are doing is for the group. ‘Sects’, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, further induce feelings of responsibility and guilt in children by asking them to convert as many people as possible in an attempt to save them. The Inquiry further estimates that there are approximately 100,000 children raised in ‘sects’ in France. However, this number is not verifiable since the report is not very clear on which ‘sects’ are included in that estimation and which criteria have been used to arrive at this estimation.

The introduction of specific laws to regulate religious high-control groups has been met with a big outcry of criticism. Critics argue on the basis of Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, amongst other international treaties.

‘[e]veryone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.’

(The United Nations, 1948, art. 8)

It is argued that countries should abandon the often, vague, preferential religious schemes that are a direct violation of the right to freedom of religion. Countries and legislators are instead ought to focus on the specific illegal activities and individuals who are committing them (Stinnett, 2005, p. 451).

A similar point has been raised by Hassan (2015, 317 -318), who argues that the legal protection of religions is afforded to their beliefs and does not extend to behaviors and that, with regards to high-control groups, the social influence techniques or unethical recruitment practices (behaviors) should be the subject of criminalization. He further makes the point, that targeting and banning groups specifically, will not necessarily make them disappear, but may lead them to disappear underground where the potential for abuse and harm is only increasing. Another difficulty, which arises when high-control groups are being persecuted, is that it would be difficult to account for changing group dynamics. Groups are affected by political and economic situations and general advances in society, and these may bring changes to the group (Barker, 2014, 243 – 250). Furthermore, a central characteristic of high-control groups is that they rely on a strict leadership, from either a single or a group of leaders. Thus, groups can change its makeup depending on social climates as well as the group leaders. These group dynamics would be difficult to account for in laws and legislation may be too slow to react to group changes. Furthermore, banning a group may impose a long-lasting stigma, that it can struggle to rid itself of even when it is changing.

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