by Camelia Marin

Making a short research on the angles that Netflix takes in its documentaries about spiritual movements, we can notice that Netflix follows playbook of anti-cult movement to make all new religious movements look bad.

In May this year was published an interesting article named: „Is Netflix a Threat to Religious Liberty?” by Dr. Massimo Introvigne, in which he present about „Sensational TV series about religious leaders sentenced for sexual abuse are broadcast without considering that they wreak havoc in the lives of their innocent followers.”

A step in finding the truth is to raise an interest on the subject, watching the series produced by Netflix.

Are these series just another way of raising scandal, sensational, drama, etc., without caring about real people? Does Netflix become a tool in spreading information that can affect lives of spiritual practitioners?

The article mentioned above refers to members of different spiritual communities, such as Providence, of the Mexican megachurch La Luz del Mundo, of the Czech Guru Jára Path, of the Buenos Aires Yoga School in Argentina which either lost their job or had serious problems in their workplaces. The same happened to "devotees of Shincheonji in South Korea after the accusation (later declared false by the local Supreme Court) that their religious movement had willingly spread the COVID-19 virus, or members of the Unification Church/Family Federation in Japan."

The Netflix platform offers an abundance of new and exciting series, saying that „Documentaries and docuseries about cults expose not only their warped power dynamics and chilling secrets, they also explore the voices and lives of those involved.”

It is easy to find the documentaries about spiritual communities and leaders, just search “Documentaries on cults” and already some titles, and their short explanation pop up.

Several of such series are based on apostates, former students’ statements, and they play around a subject. The easy way to sell and make it sensational and scandal is about sexual abuse. 

In such series, one or more women claim, in some cases many years after the facts, that they had consensual sexual relationships with the leaders, but they gave their consensus because they were “brainwashed” by the religious movements.

I quote here from the article of Dr Massimo Introvigne: „Media in general have a bias against groups labeled as “cults” and rely heavily on “apostates,” a technical word used by sociologists that is not synonym of “ex-member” but identifies the small minority of ex-members who become militant opponents of the groups they have left (most ex-members don’t). Television knows that illicit sex always titillates and sells, and this is even more true for the combination between religion and illicit sex.”

On Netflix we can easily find series about:

- the Indian guru Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh (Osho), his one-time personal assistant Ma Anand Sheela, and their community of followers in the Rajneeshpuram community located in Wasco County, Oregon, US.

- about Mormon Church Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints

- about Bikram Choudhury which is associated with the brand of yoga — practiced in a 104-degree room — that he popularized in the US and Europe.

- about Providence from Argentina and other Korean „cults”

- about Unification Church leader Sun Myung Moon

and the list can continue, giving more names of the series on cults and spiritual leaders that can explain a lot of the perspective that Netflix approaches.

Further, in order to have a closer look on the information that Netflix presents in its series, lets explain a bit more about the series on Unification Church.

In one of the episodes of How to Become a Cult Leader on Netflix, the Unification Church is presented in a limited persective.

In one of the opening scenes of this Netflix series, sociologist David Taylor says, “Of all the new religions that emerged in the 70s, you’d have to consider the Unification Church as being the most successful. They’ve proven they can sustain themselves.”

The actor Peter Dinklage, hired as executive producer and narrator, admits, “You can even say he (Father Moon) went mainstream.”

After these neutral perspective, almost the rest of the content can be seen as clear propaganda for the anti-cult movement, or as a piece of pure advocacy journalism of the anti-cult movement.

It seems that this series may well have been served the content by the anti-cult movement. The so-called “experts” interviewed are part of it or associated with it in some way, and their statements are not questioned critically at all.

We can look at the experts quoted extensively in this serie and we easily see that they are cult-experts, quoting from the article Appalling Netflix Smear by Knut Holdhus

  • Diane Benscoter (67) was a member of the Unification Church for five years, before she got kidnapped and was held in forced confinement by professional deprogrammers. Then she herself joined the criminal activities of the deprogrammers and got involved in kidnapping adherents of new religious movements. She was arrested for kidnapping, and was so shocked that she gave up her anti-cult activism for close to 20 years.
  • Rachel Bernstein describes herself as a “cult intervention specialist”, another expression for a deprogrammer or activist within the anti-cult movement. On her website there is a link to ICSA, a controversial anti-cult organization that used to be associated with Cult Awareness Network, an organization founded by Ted Patrick, the “father” of deprogramming, who was sentenced to many years in prison for kidnapping and forcible detention of followers of new religious movements.
  • Kimiaki Nishida is a social psychologist at Rissho University in Tokyo and chair-person of a Japanese anti-cult movement.
  • David Taylor, a sociology professor, is known for his research into a UFO sect in the 1970s.
  • Teddy Hose is an anti-cult activist. He was for some years as a child associated with the Unification Church through his parents, who were members in the 1970s/1980s.

The basic message this so-called appalling Netflix brings is revealed in one of the last sentences the narrator reads, “Just remember, in this world you’re either the predator or the prey.”"

Besides Unification Church series, we can refer also to the one about Providence.

I quote a short message from Providence: "A Netflix docuseries In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal was release in March this year painting malicious & one-sided narratives about Christian Gospel Mission (CGM, or Providence) and its founder Pastor Jung Myung Seok. The main informant to the director of the docuseries is Kim Do Hyeong. Since the docuseries release in March this year, Kim Do Hyeong has portrayed himself to be a hero to have uncovered the “secrets”.

Christian Gospel Mission has released an investigative series on YouTube in response to the Netflix docuseries, titled: SSullock & Wassul: Uncovering the truth behind “In the Name of God: A Holy Betrayal.”

The producers and actors of the Netflix docuseries used a form of storytelling that involves distorting the truth and reconstructing it intentionally. We will explain each of these suspicions and truths within this series."

Throughout the Netflix documentaries on spiritual communities, the derogatory terms “cult” is used. Most scholars of religion reject such concepts as pseudoscience.

Cult’ is just a label used to discriminate against groups that powerful lobbies, for whatever reasons, do not like.” (Quoted from the article of Massimo Introvigne The Abe Assassination. The Word ‘Cult’ Is A Tool for Discriminationpublished by Bitter Wintera magazine on religious liberty and human rights, 2nd Sept. 2022.)

The defamation doesn’t stop there. The Netflix documentaries mix some spiritual communities together with groups that are totally unrelated to.

The wrongdoings of some extreme groups – also called “cults” – are used indiscriminately to create stereotypes and vilify all new religious movements. This is a standard strategy and part of the playbook of the anti-cult movement.

We can observ that the message that “you’re either the predator or the prey”, colours the Netflix style. And seems that the documenaries are done from the persoective of "the predator". Gues who is " the prey"?

We can say that the source of much of the content in the Netflix series is the anti-cult movement, without that being made clear to the viewer.

Considering the above mentioned, we can say that the tools of the anti-cult organizations multiplied, including also the visual media, much more than before.

Reading books was replaiced nowadays with watching TV, passively, "absorbing" all information, without criterias.

Knowing about such documentaries and how some of them were produced, following up on the so-called “specialists” invited, which are from “anti-cult” organisations that target spiritual movements, raise in us questions and make us study before accepting the stories presented.

In all these and many others, the goal for all of us should be searching for the truth and respecting one another's rights.