CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
Massimo Introvigne first encountered what he considered "exotic" faiths in a six-volume encyclopedia of religion he bought in 50-cent installments when he was 9.
The young Italian was entranced further by his mother's reports of strange beliefs from her visits to Bali, Polynesia and India and by teenage fiction about Haiti and the mysterious world of voodoo.
Thus was born Introvigne's lifelong fascination with what is known today as "new religious movements," which includes any religious or spiritual group that is not part of an established denomination, church or religious body. Typically, Mormonism, Christian Scientists, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, Scientology, The Children of God/The Family, Jehovah's Witnesses and Falun Gong as well as other smaller groups are on the list, and new ones are constantly added.
Although the LDS Church is not technically a new religious movement, it is certainly seen as a model of what such groups can become after successive generations of growth and development, says Utah attorney Michael Homer. "The term is also used as a less judgmental way to describe what some anti-cultists have called 'cults' or 'sects.' "
In 1988, with the help of an Italian Catholic bishop, Introvigne launched CESNUR, the Center for the Study of New Religions, as an international network of religion scholars from leading universities in Europe and the Americas.
Since then, the group has met each year in places as diverse as Bordeaux, France; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Recife, Brazil. On Thursday, it comes to Salt Lake City for its 22nd international meeting, "Mainstreaming and Marginalization of Religious Movements."
Co-sponsored by the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah and the Office of the Salt Lake City Mayor, the conference features presentations ranging from a discussion of decisions by the European Court of Human Rights to the first American Buddhist Census, Turkey's politics of religion, a study of British Druids and Stonehenge, and coverage of Falun Gong in Western media.
The conference will open with a speech by Bishop John Wester of the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, and will conclude with an address by Elder Robert S. Wood of the LDS Second Quorum of the Seventy.
Because of its Utah location, the conference will offer numerous explorations of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, discussing Mitt Romney's failed campaign for president, the enduring significance of Mormon gathering, defending Mormonism, and polygamy, to name a few.
"We try to bring understanding of new religious movements and take down the heat on them," says Homer, who has been on CESNUR's board since its founding. "We have people from virtually every religious persuasion. But we don't want anyone on a soapbox with an agenda."
The goal, says Homer, who served an LDS mission to Italy, "is to get people to think about religious issues in a global context."
Setting the record straight » When CESNUR began, the only Italians interested in minority religions were Roman Catholic "countercultists," who mostly dealt with Jehovah's Witnesses, Introvigne says. But he wanted to study new faiths, not attack them. He thought such groups should be allowed to speak for themselves, rather than be represented by their critics. When he asked one such Catholic how many Witnesses he had interviewed, the man said, "none," and had no intention of doing so.
So Introvigne went his own way, until he met Homer, the Utah attorney, at a Mormon History Association event at Oxford in 1987. At that time, he also met Jean-Francois Mayer, a Swiss historian of religions. Together the threesome organized the first CESNUR conference in 1988. They enlisted the help of "the most famous international scholars in the field," Eileen Barker and J. Gordon Melton of UC Santa Barbara (both will be in Utah as well).
Introvigne gathered a library of materials in his Torino, Italy, home, published essays, books and encyclopedias on new faiths and, eventually, hired research assistants and scholars to help manage the material.
While the group often was attacked by the anticult crowd as "cult apologists," many Italian journalists and government officials came to rely on these scholars for even-handed comments and perspectives.
In 2001, CESNUR produced the first reliable map of religious bodies in Italy, which was the home to the richest variety of Pentecostal bodies in Europe.
It became the "single most reviewed nonfiction book in Italy that year," he says.
Then came Sept. 11 and suddenly everyone wanted to know about radical Islam groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Al Qaida, which joined the group of "new religions."
Bigger still was the phenomenon of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code , which triggered so much interest in secret societies that Introvigne created a separate group, CESPOC, the Center for Studies on Popular Culture, to handle all the questions.
Making a difference » Working together, these scholars have brought civility into Europe's raging religion debates.
"The situation has certainly improved at the level of academics, quality media and some governments," Introvigne says.
There also have been some setbacks.
When searchers found a mass grave near Milan in 2004, containing the bodies of three people killed by a small Satanist group, the Beasts of Satan, he says, "It did not improve the situation."
Although Introvigne repeatedly told reporters that the Beasts of Satan were not typical of new religious movements in general, the case was so sensational that the stereotype of "cult" resurfaced almost everywhere in Europe.
Still, he argues, the work of CESNUR continues to be needed.
"We believe that research on new religious movements, anticult and countercult movements, and minority religions is still a needed task," Introvigne said in a speech last year at the American Academy of Religion in Chicago. "While some 'old' new religious movements lose members, 'new' new religious movements arise literally every day and need to be studied."
When » June 11-13
Where » City and County Building, 451 S. State St., Salt Lake City
Attendance » Open to the public
More information » www.cesnur.org