They have unlisted telephone numbers. They get two or three letters daily, mostly from worried parents asking for help. The threat of lawsuits is constant, heard like Muzak droning in the background. They sometimes fear for the safety of their families.

And so the cult watchers, as they have been called, were happy to congregate in San Diego recently for the third annual Cult Summit Conference. About 90 attended, reading and hearing papers, developing strategies, and commiserating with each other on what one called “this rather insane enterprise we’ve been involved in so long.”

The conference was sponsored by Spiritual Counterfeits Project, based in Berkeley, California, and a handful of leading evangelical cult watchers. It was different from the preceding two conferences in that wider viewpoints were represented. Although most participants were evangelicals, some voices from the Jewish and nonreligious academic communities were heard as well.

Rabbi Steve Robbins opened the conference. The chairman of the Task Force on Cult and Missionary Actions for the Jewish Community, Robbins eloquently conveyed the “persistent sense of loneliness” he feels after 10 years of striving to keep Jews out of the cultic web.

“We are running to catch up to a reality that has staggered our imaginations, shaken our conceptions of what religion is, and even what human beings are,” Robbins said. He claimed the personal dimension of the issue is hardest to deal with, exhorting his listeners to determine “what it is that can be done to other people in the name of religion and what we can do in the name of God to stop it.”

Robbins blamed deficiencies in society for the popularity of cults. Children ...

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