Cult. The word has a sinister ring to it – and has done since the 1970s, when the Unification Church, a messianic hybrid of Christianity and Korean tradition, started large-scale recruiting of young people in America and Europe. Adherents were called Moonies, after their leader, the Rev Sun Myung Moon, and the media had a field day. The papers were full of accounts of teenagers being held against their will in Moonie compounds, of brainwashing and broken families. Some of these stories were true, others completely false; many were exaggerated. "Anti-cult" activists made a nice living trooping in and out of studios warning that all "cults" – Moonies, Scientologists, Hari Krishna, Mormons (they cast their net wide) – played the same tricks with people's minds. Elaborate theories of "mind control" were wheeled out to explain why cults were different from legitimate religions. The result? A young person had only to attend a meeting organised by a fringe religion and their parents would utterly freak out.
Enter Dr Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, surely the only sociologist in the world to have begun her career as a professional actress. In 1981, she published The Making of a Moonie, a book that meticulously followed the progress of people who attended Moonie recruiting sessions. Only a tiny percentage ended up joining the Unification Church, she discovered. So if the Moonies were practising brainwashing, they were spectacularly bad at it.
Prof Barker, as she became, worked with other sociologists of religion to develop a new framework for analysing "cults". Here's my summary. Cults, sects, new religious movement – it doesn't matter what you call them – are not essentially different from other religions, most of which began as some sort of cult, Christianity being a classic example. They should be judged by the same rigorous criteria as any other group.
But Eileen Barker didn't deny that people who join small groups often experience psychological difficulties, or that recruitment methods can be underhand, or the families come under strain, or that sexual abuse can occur in a closed, highly charged environment. What was needed was a body studying new and minority religious movements (her preferred terminology) based on evidence rather than scaremongering or the cults' own propaganda.
And so Inform (Information network on religious movements) was born 25 years ago. Since then it's helped countless religious believers, ex-members, worried parents, curious academics and nosy journalists uncover the messy reality of faith in the modern era. It has also organised conferences and study days, and advised the British government and police – which is why, quite rightly, it receives public funding.
Interestingly, its focus has shifted as the religious landscape has evolved. There are fewer old-style "cults" now, and more controversial groups emanating from Islam and Christianity, many of them associated with immigrant communities: the theology of "spirit possession" in West African churches, for example, requires constant and sensitive monitoring.
I must declare an interest: Eileen was my (wonderful) PhD supervisor and for several years I was a pretty useless governor of Inform. She's a forceful, funny, affectionate and sometimes rather scary lady – and she continues to drive the few remaining "anti-cult" activists nuts by testing their wild claims.
From Friday 31 January to Sunday 2 February, Inform is holding a fascinating 25th anniversary conference on Minority Religions. You can find all the details here – and there's an early bird discount if you book before Friday. Heartily recommended. Never in Inform's history has its expertise been so valuable: small, unstable religious allegiances have the power to cause terrible disruption in our society, but we need to know where to look.
A final thought. I remember, back in the 1990s, Eileen telling me: "I hope you realise that you can find the same sorts of abuses in 'old' religion – say, a Benedictine monastery – as you do in the cults." Alas: how right she was.