In what may be a groundbreaking cooperative effort, the University of Utah and Brigham Young University are working together to bring an international conference to Utah next year focused on a subject the two schools are known as rivals over -- religion.
Often divided along secular versus religious lines, officials at the two schools are working with two renowned scholarly forums to host a conference on "Minority Religions, Social Change and Freedom of Conscience," scheduled for June 20-23, 2002.
Organized under the auspices of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Turin, Italy, the conference is expected to draw religion scholars from around the world "to share their insights and perceptions concerning the reaction and adaptation of individuals, religions and secular institutions to the growing diversity in many countries."
Cole Durham, director of the BYU International Center for Law and Religious Studies, said CESNUR personnel "thought that Utah would be an interesting and appropriate place for a conference dealing with religious-freedom issues, and they are aware that there are good conference facilities in Utah." Durham, a recognized expert on religious freedom, has supported and presented at other CESNUR conferences in the past and was approached by the group to see if BYU would co-host the event.
He said the division of responsibilities between the two schools is still being worked out. "I imagine that some sessions will be held in Provo and some in Salt Lake so that both the University of Utah and BYU can benefit from the event."
Also working in cooperation with the U. and BYU is the Institute for the Study of American Religion, based in Santa Barbara, Calif. Headed by J. Gordon Melton, a high-profile religion scholar, the institute is known for its study of new religious movements, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
The thrust behind the international nature of the conference is CESNUR, an international network of associations of scholars working in the field of new religious movements. Much of the group's work is dedicated to the preservation of religious freedom for all faiths.
The group seeks "to spread reliable and responsible information and to expose the very real problems associated with some (religious) movements, while at the same time defending everywhere the principles of religious liberty."
In that context, the group has lobbied heavily against recent legislation in France seeking to control more than 150 religious "sects." There is a vast "anti-cult" agenda now filtering into proposed legislation in Europe and elsewhere, Durham said. Because the LDS Church is sometimes labeled a "cult" or "sect" along with other American-born faiths like the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Scientology, the conference seems particularly timely for Utah.
CESNUR is vocally opposed to special legislation that seeks to control "cults" or "sects." "Any minority happening to be unpopular could be easily accused to own the invisible and non-existing weapon of 'brainwashing,' and special legislation would reduce religious liberty to an empty shell," according to the group's religious policy statement.
"Protection of religious liberty also requires that each group be examined on its own merits, comparing different sources and not relying exclusively on information provided by hostile ex-members. Experiences of disgruntled ex-members should certainly not be ignored, but they should not become the only narratives used to build our knowledge of a group.
"Information supplied by anti-cult activists claims to be eminently practical but in fact is largely theoretical and anecdotal, based as it is on secondary sources, from press clippings to accounts of families of members (not necessarily familiar with the movements) or of ex-members rationalizing their past experiences. Scholars having a direct contact both with ex-members and actual members may supply more balanced information. And balanced information is precisely what the public powers and the media need."
CESNUR is headed by Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne and is independent from any religious group, church, denomination or association. Boasting the second-largest religion library in the world dedicated to new religions, the group tracks religious-freedom issues around the globe and provides a forum for scholars from a variety of related fields including sociology, anthropology, social psychology, history of religion, law, religious studies and theology.
The Utah event will be the group's 16th annual conference, touted as "the largest world gathering of those active in the field of studies on new religions," with each conference featuring from 50 to 80 scholarly papers. A call for papers to be presented at next year's conference has already been issued.
Previous conferences have been held at the London School of Economics, the State University of Rome, the University of Montreal, the Free University of Amsterdam, the Industrial Union in Turin and the Bryn Athyn College in Pennsylvania.
The 2002 Conference in Utah, June 20-23, 2002
See Call for Papers