Debating New Religions : the German Discussion in International Perspective

Marburg, Alte Universität (Lahntor), March 27-29 1997

Greetings and Introduction

Dr. Massimo Introvigne

This week the international community of scholars of new religious movements shared two exciting stories. On March 19 Gilbert Bourdin (1923-1998), known to his followers as the Lord Hamsah Manarah, died in Grasse, France. Bourdin was the founder of the French-based Aumist religion, headquartered at the Holy City of the Mandarom, in Southern France. His conflict with French anti-cultists is one of the most interesting pages of the recent French cult wars. Further conflicts have arisen this week about the burial site of Bourdin, after the authorities denied permission to bury him at the Mandarom. In the meantime the Aumists announced that there would be no immediate succession. They, like the Tibetan monks when the Dalai Lama dies, will start searching for a male infant who may be recognized as the reincarnated Bourdin. The boy will receive an appropriate education and will eventually become the new leader of the religion.

On March 25 Hon-Ming Chen, leader of the Taiwanese new religion Chen Tao, or Godís Salvation Church, currently headquartered in Garland (Texas), publicly renounced his prediction that God will appear in his physical body on March 31 in Garland. Chen had also predicted that God would appear on television channel 18 worldwide on March 25 at 12:01 a.m., U.S. Central Standard Time. When God failed to appear on TV on March 25, Chen -- who was eagerly awaiting with his followers the historical event in Garland -- announced that: "Because we did not see God's message on television tonight, my predictions of March 31 can be considered nonsense".

Not only were the events surrounding the French Aumist religion and Chen Tao reported by a number of international newspapers and TV networks, including CNN. More quietly, they were the subject matter of an international conversation of specialized scholars mostly conducted via the Internet. CESNUR maintains Web pages on both the Aumist religion and Chen Tao, among many other matters.

During the course of this conversation we have somewhat missed the contribution of our German colleagues. Very few German scholars of new religious movements attend the large international academic events devoted to this field of research, including the new religious movements groups and sessions of the American Academy of Religion, the Association for the Sociology of Religion, and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. A very limited number of articles by German scholars on new religious movements appear in international journals such as the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion or the recently established Nova Religio. CESNUR conferences -- where, from 1988 on, more than 500 papers were read by scholars of countries ranging from South Africa to Russia and Japan -- have included, to my recollection, only four German speakers (although one of them, Dr. Hans Gasper, has participated more than once). Although these conferences and journals are primarily an English-speaking, if not American, affair, a number of Scandinavian, French, Dutch, Belgian, Russian, Italian and Latin American scholars are regularly involved. The limited involvement in these projects of scholars from Germany -- in many senses the mother country of the sociology of religion, and a country where all of us come having much to learn-- is so surprising that it becomes in itself a matter worthy of sociological investigation.

In order to study new religious movements (NMR) and those I have suggested be called "new magical movements", normally three methods are proposed, as Dutch scholar Wouter Hanegraaff remembered us in his recent important book on the New Age. First, there is the "religionist" approach. It consists in assuming from the outset that a religious or spiritual doctrine is "true" and in examining from this point of view what are the "errors" and "deviations" from the "truth" of all other currents and movements. The "religionist" approach, applied respectively to the authorís own group or to others, results in apologetics or heresiology. Second, there is the "anti-cult" approach. It is a secular version of the "religionist" approach. It often claims to be interested in deeds, not in creeds. In fact, however, it compares each movement with the basic values of modernity such as rationality, conceived in a rather positivist manner; science; and democracy, regarded as a method for all fields of human life, including religion. If the movement deviates too much from these values it becomes a "cult", labelled as "destructive" or "totalitarian" and stigmatised by an image of subversion. Most scholars, on the other hand, try to adopt in most cases a "value-free" approach (although, of course, there are many scholars in the religionist camp, and a very small but vocal number of them are also in the anti-cult camp). The value-free approach tries not to compare the values of a spiritual movement with those of the researcher or of the society at large, but only to analyse its main features within the appropriate context.

Of course the "religionist" and the "anti-cult" approach are not illegitimate in themselves. They can contribute to the debate and even address interesting questions. Yet, they cannot be accepted when they claim to present themselves as universal points of view. They also become dangerous when they ask the State to protect a majority religion, or group of religions, or a supposedly dominant ideology. The "value-free" approach is of course conscious that it is ultimately impossible to present a position totally separated from all values. It accepts that the observer influences the perception of the observed phenomenon and that scholarsí attitudes are themselves socially constructed. However at least it tries, although it never succeeds completely, to present each religious movement from the standpoint of its own values. This is surely a different method from submitting the movement to an examination according to the criteria of the observer (whether or not they are presented as "universal" criteria, which every "reasonable person" surely would admit).

Germany has produced a high number of well-known papers, books and pamphlets on new religious movements from either the religionist or the anti-cult perspective (occasionally, from the two perspectives, religionist and anti-cult, combined). These perspectives also appear to dominate the debate about new religious movements among political circles and the mainline Churches. This is possibly one of the factors why the voice of the third, "value-free" approach, while dominant in the international academia, is less often heard in the German public arena and why, conversely, German scholars are reluctant to participate in the international conversation about the subject.

CESNUR was established in 1988 in order precisely to promote this international conversation everywhere in the world. It also has the ambition to make the results of the research by mainline scholars available as a tool in the public debate about new religious movements. CESNUR is independent from every conceivable brand of old or new religious movement, religion, denomination or Church. Its only institutional funding come from Italian government agencies, who support inter alia its large Turin library with more than 11,000 books, open to the public and now with an easily accessible catalogue on the Web. While CESNUR directors have their own individual opinions and affiliations in matter religious, these are not opinions or affiliations of CESNUR. The president of the Italian branch of CESNUR, for example, is a Roman Catholic Archbishop. He was with us as a professor of history before becoming an Archbishop and CESNUR is not financed or sponsored by the Roman Catholic Church. Gordon Melton, a director of CESNUR, is a Methodist minister, but CESNUR is not financed or sponsored by the Methodist Church. I am myself a member of a lay Catholic organization, Alleanza Cattolica (about which critics perhaps not entirely familiar with the Italian language have written much nonsense precisely in Germany). Again, CESNUR is not financed or sponsored by Alleanza Cattolica (whose Web site, much to the scandal of certain German critics, mentions the fact that "members of Alleanza Cattolica were, with others, among the founders of CESNUR", as well as of other cultural institutions). I am also a participant in the works of the national council of the Christian Democrat Centre, one of the Italian Christian Democrat parties; CESNUR is not supported or financed by the party. I am also a strong supporter of the football team Lazio of Rome, but there is no obligation for CESNUR members to support this particular team either.

The kind of attacks -- including personal attacks -- CESNUR is receiving from the anti-cult milieu in Germany is an interesting example of how the century-old paranoid rhetorics of conspiracy theories is applied today to "the danger of the cults" and to "cult apologists". This is another matter worthy of serious sociological investigation. Critics do not realize that, through these verbal assaults, they offer themselves as a subject matter for our investigation and make our presence in a given country still more attractive and interesting. This happened in France, where CESNUR France was established in 1996 and is today a key player in the academic arena, and where a similar opposition, its language and style have become the subject of an interesting and well-attended conference organized by CESNUR France at the Sorbonne.

As I mentioned earlier, scholars trying to adopt a value-free approach do not claim any monopoly to a more or less mythical "truth" about new religious movements. They are more than ready to engage in conversation and dialogue with those adopting a different approach. Nova Religio, the journal in whose Board of academic consultants I serve as well as Gordon Melton and Jim Richardson, has been and is willing to publish and discuss papers representing the anti-cult approach. At a CESNUR conference in California, years ago, we had as luncheon speakers Heber Jentzsch, president of the Church of Scientology International, and Priscilla Coates, one of the leading American anti-cultists who was among the founders of the Cult Awareness Network. It was a memorable lunch.

Incidents surrounding this conference -- and similar incidents in France -- perhaps indicate that in some European countries the situation is simply not mature enough to allow a dialogue between different and conflicting approaches to take place. In fact, when governments in a cultural and religious debate support one side against others, they make dialogue all more difficult. However, mainline scholars are men and women of dialogue and we do not give up. While we reserve the right to clearly express our opinions -- and some of our opinions about the present European situation may be radically critical -- we remain open to controversy, dialogue, debate, and discussion. This is what serious scholarship, CESNUR, and this conference are all about.

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