Blacklisting or Greenlisting? A European Perspective on the New Cult Wars

by Massimo Introvigne

The following article has been published in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, vol. 1, no. 3, October 1998, 16-23, as part of an ongoing debate on ethical issues associated with scholarly research in the field of new religious movements.

In a number of Western European countries, and in virtually all of Eastern Europe, private anti-cult organizations enjoy an unprecedented degree of power, wealth, and public support. In the wake of the Solar Temple suicides/homicides, not only have anti-cult groups managed to be funded by taxpayers' money, but they have succeeded in converting their ideas into the backbones of the parliamentary reports on "cults" produced in France (1996)[1] and Belgium (1997)[2], and in influencing the report of the German parliamentary commission (1998).[3] (I am normally opposed to the use of the word "cult", and will only use it here in a derivative sense, referring to how it is used in the European context. Also, in Europe the four-letter word translated by the English "cult" is the word literally meaning "sect".) In France the first yearly report (December 1997) of the Prime Minister's National Observatory of Cults, instituted after the 1996 parliamentary report, includes the proposal that anti-cult organizations may become parties in cult-related controversies and collect damages from cults. This legal monstrosity has been hailed by a part of the French press as a sort of final solution to the cult problem in France. A structure similar to the Observatory is on its way in Belgium.

The anti-cult ideology now receiving so many official blessings in Europe includes four main tenets.

(1) Cults are not religions. International and constitutional guarantees of religious liberty do not apply to cults.

(2) Cults are distinguished from religions because the former use brainwashing, thought reform or mind control[4], while the latter respect their converts' and members' free will.

(3) Although most scholars find brainwashing theories misguided, we may come to know that these theories are "true" by interviewing ex-members. These ex-members know "the truth", and are by definition more reliable than scholars. The latter are, more often than not, cult apologists or hired guns for the richest cults.

(d) Not all ex-members reconstruct their experience in the cults focusing on brainwashing. Only some of them are "apostates", ex-members turned bitter enemies of the movement they have left. Many ex-members are not "apostates"[5]. As a consequence, we need private agencies to tell us which ex-members are reliable. These agencies are the anti-cult movements.

Combined, these four tenets mean that the anti-cult movements have the power to decide what groups will be blacklisted as cults. Unfortunately, this is by no means a metaphor. Both the French and Belgian reports include lists of suspicious groups (172 in France and 189 in Belgium). These lists include inter alia Jehovah's Witnesses, Baha'is, Zen Buddhists, Seventh-day Adventists, Quakers, the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, and most Pentecostal Churches. Baptists have also been mentioned as a cult, although possibly not a dangerous one. In April 1998 the cultural supplement to the well-known French daily newspaper Le Monde commented that "religious groups classified as `cults' here [in Europe] would not receive the same treatment elsewhere. Bill Clinton, a Baptist, would be regarded as a cultist in France"[6]. The Belgian list even includes the YWCA (but, for some reason, not the YMCA). Being on the list means being subject to a number of discriminatory actions. In France, for example, large cities have decided not to rent public halls to groups included on the list of cults.

Any different opinion held by scholars is regarded as irrelevant or worse. The French parliamentary commission heard a number of witnesses, but none of these were scholars or faculty members at the Sorbonne or any other institution of higher learning. When a number of scholars protested the report, they were not only insulted as cult apologists by the tabloids but also harassed in many ways by the authorities. In the meantime the president of the largest French anti-cult organization, ADFI (Association pour la défense des familles et de l'individu), was awarded the Legion d'Honneur, the highest French public honor. Although anti-cult pressure is minimal in some Western European countries, including Italy and Holland, the situation is even worse in Eastern Europe. There Western anti-cultists have joined forces with the Eastern Orthodox churches to draft laws severely restricting any form of religious liberty. The best- known example is the 1997 Russian law on religions.

In most European countries anti-cultists are not blacklisted but greenlisted (to use a term referring to money). They have access to almost unlimited sources of institutional support. In France, the academics who are not anti-cult are the ones who are blacklisted, producing a situation exactly contrary to the one depicted by Benjamin Zablocki in his essay "The Blacklisting of a Concept" in the first issue of this journal.[7] Some anti-cultists contend that non-anti-cult scholars still receive money from the cults; they point to court cases such as the 1996 Lyons criminal trial of a number of French Scientologists in which several scholars (including Bryan Wilson, Karel Dobbelaere, and myself) were heard as witnesses. The American reader should, however, note that in continental European law there is no such a thing as the familiar American "expert witness". In continental Europe experts and witnesses are different figures. Experts may only be designated by the parties in order to counter a report produced by an official expert designated by the judge. These experts normally render their counter-report in writing and are paid by the parties. Witnesses, on the other hand, are deposed orally before the judges. In most continental European countries, including France, there is neither direct examination nor cross-examination by the attorneys for the parties. Only the judges are entitled to ask questions. In most countries, a witness (unlike an expert) cannot receive an honorary for his or her deposition. In cult-related cases, mental health scholars sometime produce reports as experts, but social scientists are almost invariably called as witnesses. This means that in a number of countries they receive no honorarium.

Skeptical anti-cultists may object that, although they are not paid for a specific court case, scholars who serve as witnesses for a cult may be rewarded in other forms. The Church of Scientology, for example, asked a number of scholars to produce monographs on the religious nature of Scientology, which were later published by one of its publishing houses. I was not among the scholars who agreed to write monographs, but, from conversations with colleagues who did, I have concluded that the money involved was minimal[8]. This assessment is made in comparison not only with normal honoraria for consultation activities paid to academics by governments or corporations, but also with money available for lecturers on the international anti-cult circuit. For some reason, when discussing cult-related court cases nobody asks the question who pays the anti-cultists who invariably appear as witnesses.

One may also argue that scholars would fare better if they simply stayed away from court cases, an idea I find attractive. In fact, in sixteen years of activity in this field, I have appeared only three times as a witness in a court of law[9]. The problem is perhaps different from country to country. On October 8, 1997 the Italian Supreme Court rendered an important decision, recognizing Scientology as a genuine religion and including a lengthy discussion of whether religion can be defined. The Supreme Court argued that, on issues such as the evaluation of Scientology, courts should be guided by the "common consent of the scholars". By contrast, the "common consent" of the "public opinion", the Supreme Court said, is irrelevant. "Public opinion" is normally not familiar with minorities and may easily follow biased media reports[10]. How is a court supposed to ascertain the "common consent of scholars" if it does not interview scholars? On the other hand, there are countries other than Italy in which the attempt to use scholars as witnesses by the parties has produced only minimal results. The courts have decided that the opinion of scholars is less relevant than other sources.

But are the scholars offering their opinion on new religious movements unbiased? Or are they, in fact, hired guns? Perhaps the answer is both complex and simple. Scholars produce narratives or pieces of secondary reality from observation (as ostensibly do reporters and other categories of observers). As social scientists, we know that there is no such thing as an absolutely objective, value-free observation or narrative. The most elementary sociology of knowledge tells us that all narratives are socially constructed, culturally conditioned and politically negotiated[11]. In the social-scientific study of religion, direct funding by the religious group being studied is but a part of the possible conditioning. Besides, conditioning a study is something different from determining it.

A case in point is the much maligned field trip to Japan in April 1995 by a team of American experts to investigate Aum Shinrikyo after the gas attack of 20 March 1995. Their plane tickets and hotel accommodations were paid for by Aum Shinrikyo, although they received no honoraria. One scholar initially concluded that Aum Shinrikyo was being framed. Most of its leaders, he suggested, had no responsibility in the gas attack and the other crimes of which they were accused[12]. The other scholar soon prepared a paper (read in absentia at the yearly conference of CESNUR held at the University of Rome on 10-12 May 1995), in which he suggested that Aum's top leaders were not only guilty of the gas attack, but probably also part of a much larger criminal scheme, involving dealing in drugs and consorting with local organized crime. Both scholars concurred in denouncing human rights violations against hundreds of members of Aum who, unlike the leaders, were certainly neither guilty nor aware of any criminal activity. Otherwise, however, their analyses were quite different. Often cited by anti-cultists in the European debate as the ultimate evidence that scholars are hired guns for the cults, this Japanese experience proves in fact quite the opposite. The fact that two scholars, both with return tickets to Japan paid for by Aum, reached opposite conclusions on Aum's involvement in terrorist and criminal activities is strong evidence that funding from the movements may influence but does not necessarily control the results of research.

In addition to money, other factors also influence scholarly research. Scholars are conditioned by their academic affiliations. In the wake of the French report, some scholars were told in none-too-subtle terms that the French government they were criticizing was, after all, their employer. (Most universities are government-owned in France.) Scholars are also conditioned by their religious affiliation. Stories abound of scholars being called by their bishops or equivalent when their findings appear not to be faith-promoting. Moreover, European scholars in religious studies and other fields are often funded by foundations connected to large transnational corporations. Would they not be conditioned by the corporations' own agendas? For instance, a number of large transnational pharmaceutical corporations are at war with the Church of Scientology over the issue of psychiatric drugs. Corporations that produce or promote alcoholic beverages or tobacco do not like Mormonism and other alcohol- or tobacco-free religions.

Many scholars in Europe and elsewhere write op-ed pieces in mainline newspapers and normally receive payment for their work. Would they easily oppose a crusade (for example, an anti-cult crusade) dear to the heart of the publisher or the editor? What about scholars who are members of political parties or contemplate running for office? What about the larger publishing houses where scholars may hope to be published? What about a spouse, a loved one, or a friend whom a scholar may risk offending? Or sexual preferences - would a gay scholar not be prejudiced against homophobic religions? Instances of possible conditioning are potentially infinite, so direct funding is not perhaps the main issue. After all, losing an occasional honorarium is less serious than losing a spouse, being excommunicated, or jeopardizing a career.

One would need a Sherlock Holmes or a James Bond to compile the endless list of possible conditioning factors behind any scholarly research or paper. They may range from spousal influence to a more or less friendly call by the scholar's dean, pastor, or bishop. Are these investigations - and these invasions of scholars' privacy - really necessary in order to evaluate their research? There are three possible answers to this key question. Religionists of all kind would claim that it is acceptable to be influenced or funded by legitimate religious organizations (meaning their own). On the other hand, they would say, it is scandalous to be influenced or funded by heretical religious organizations or by secular humanists. The German Lutheran Church surely regards as legitimate the inviting of foreign scholars supporting the brainwashing model to be wined and dined in Germany by church-affiliated anti-cult agencies. Yet, German Lutherans and other anti-cultists have used "sock puppets" and worse terminology for scholars who testified before parliamentary commissions and courts in Europe and criticized the German campaign against Scientology and other cults. (Name-calling is directed at the scholars because of their opinions, whether or not these scholars have accepted funds from the cults themselves[13]).

Alternatively, the Church of Scientology presumably regards it as entirely acceptable for scholars to write monographs on its behalf, but it would likely regard as criminal scholars cooperating with foundations sponsored by pharmaceutical industries dealing in psychiatric drugs. Secular anti-cultists would declare it accptable to receive money from worthy organizations defending the victims (perhaps even from deprogrammers, although most of them have a criminal record). It is another thing to receive money from the "perpetrators", i.e. the cults.

The large majority of social scientists normally do not adopt either a pro-cult or an anti-cult approach. They regard it as inappropriate - and impossible - to establish a preliminary distinction between influences by good guys and those by bad guys. They also know that they cannot conceivably know to what influences the author of a paper has been subject. But they simply do not very much care. They rather resort to the time-honored strategy of peer review and scholarly evaluation of each paper, book or piece of research on its own merit. Since it is by definition impossible to know in full to what kind of conditioning or influence a scholar has been exposed, the result of his or her research can only be evaluated apart from what is known - or not known - about the author. In most academic journals, partisan papers will usually be rejected within the frame of the normal peer review process as poorly researched. There would be no need of analyzing in depth the author's sources of income, religious affiliation, or sexual preferences. Some journals posing as academic may have adopted a one-sided policy of consistently rejecting papers criticizing the journal's hidden or open agenda. Such journals are easily identified as partisan in the academic community, and scholars know their shortcomings. The few books authored or edited by scholars that are obviously partisan or which include partisan chapters (a minority among hundreds of excellent studies) in turn have normally not been saved by academic solidarity from the wrath of bitter reviewers in the leading scholarly journals.

Imre Lakatos, an influential philosopher of science, proposed the distinction between the external and internal history of scientific theories. The internal history deals with how theories are proposed, accepted, or rejected within the community of scholars and contribute to the advancement of knowledge. The external history deals with the private lives of scholars who propose theories[14]. External history may make for entertaining reading - a good example being the paradoxical and reactionary book by E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns[15]. Jones argues that the most influential scholarly theories of our century arise from the "sexual misbehavior" of the scholars who proposed them and from their covert attempt to rationalize or justify such activities. Lakatos would counter that, even if it were true, the argument would hardly be relevant. Scholars have no tools to evaluate external history, and they would do better to leave it alone. Internal history is more than enough to occupy a productive scholarly life.

[1] Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la commission d'enquête sur les sectes (Paris: Les Documents d'information de l'Assemblée Nationale, 1996). For criticism by scholars and by the mainline churches see Massimo Introvigne and J. Gordon Melton (eds.), Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire, 3rd ed. (Paris: Dervy, 1996).

[2] Chambre des Répresentants de Belgique, Enquête parlementaire visant à élaborer une politique en vue de lutter contre les pratiques illégales des sectes et le danger qu'elles représentent pour la société et pour les personnes, particulièrement les mineurs d'âge, 2 vols. (Brussels: Chambre des Représentants de Belgique, 1997).

[3] Deutscher Bundestag - 13. Wahlperiode, Endbericht der Enquete-Kommission "Sogenannte Sekten und Psychogruppen" (Bonn: Deutscher Bundestag, 1998). There is also a report by a commission of the Canton of Geneva: Audit sur les dérives sectaires. Rapport du groupe d'experts genevois au Département de Justice et Police et des Transports du Canton de Genève (Geneva: Suzanne Hurter, 1997).

[4] Since the word "brainwashing" has been somewhat discredited also in Europe, parliamentary reports and other documents use words such as "mental manipulation" or "mental destabilization", but these are largely synonymous of "brainwashing". In the current European debate brainwashing theories are used in order to distinguish cults from religions. Thus, by necessity, theories of brainwashing claim to explain both affiliation and life in the cults. They are different from the theories advanced by Benjamin Zablocki and others that, while attempting a difficult rescue of the word brainwashing, in fact use it with a different meaning and focus on techniques allegedly used to maximize exit costs. See the debate between Zablocki and David Bromley in Nova Religio I, 2 (April 1998) on this point.

[5] David G. Bromley, "The Social Construction of Contested Exit Roles: Defectors, Whistleblowers, and Apostates", in The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements, ed. David G. Bromley (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1998), 19-48.

[6] Marc Couty, "Sectes, le dernier des cultes?", Le Monde de l'éducation, de la culture et de la formation 257 (April 1998): 82.

[7] Benjamin Zablocki, "The Blacklisting of a Concept: The Strange History of the Brainwashing Conjecture in the Sociology of Religion," Nova Religio 1 (October 1997): 96-121.

[8] Occasionally, anti-cultists argue that money changes hands when this is simply not the case. I contributed a chapter to Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating The Family/Children of God, eds. James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton (Stanford, CA: Center for Academic Publication, 1994). Whatever the shortcomings of some papers in that book, I surely did not receive any money from The Family (or from any other source) for my contribution. The book also came under criticism for ignoring material offered by ex-members. Again, this is not the case as far as my paper is concerned. Most of my information on The Family in Italy in fact comes from the most prominent Italian ex-member.

[9] One was the Lyons Scientology case. The other two actions were brought respectively by Jehovah's Witnesses and by the Unification Church against media and anti-cultists who had accused them of "prostitution", in both cases confusing different movements with the early Children of God and their "flirty-fishing" activities. I have also assisted Italian law enforcement agencies in prosecuting several small Satanist groups accused of a variety of felonies.

[10] Corte Suprema di Cassazione, Bandera e altri, unpublished decision of October 8, 1997. The case has now been sent back (for the second time) to the Court of Appeal of Milan for re-evaluation.

[11] See David G. Bromley, "Organized Opposition to New Religious Movements", Handbook of Cults and Sects in America, eds. David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, Greenwich (Connecticut): JAI Press, 177-198.

[12] In a number of private conversations the researcher in question later explained to the undersigned (and to many other scholars) that he subsequently changed his mind.

[13] I am managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions). In Germany (and France) conspirationist anti-cultists have accused CESNUR of being a front, inter alia, for Freemasonry, a "Methodist cult", the Roman Catholic Church and a number of Catholic organizations, including Opus Dei and Alleanza Cattolica. In turn, on April 5, 1998 members of the Raelian Movement protested against a CESNUR seminar in Torino, Italy, featuring the undersigned and J. Gordon Melton as speakers. The Raelians carried signposts accusing us of being part of a Catholic anti-cult conspiracy. By a common non sequitur, individual affiliations of scholars serving in the board of directors of CESNUR are attributed to the whole organization. While no director of CESNUR International (as far as I know) is a member of Opus Dei or of Freemasonry, one of the directors, J. Gordon Melton, is an ordained minister in the United Methodist Church, and I am a member of Alleanza Cattolica. The latter is a lay Catholic organization, enjoying a good relationship with a number of Italian Catholic dioceses where it is established, about which much nonsense has been written in Germany (perhaps based on the limited knowledge of Italian of some local anti-cultists). CESNUR's only institutional funding comes from the government of the State of Piedmont. CESNUR does not receive funds from any religious organization or institution, including the Roman Catholic Church and Alleanza Cattolica. As part of its normal activities, CESNUR has provided speakers to events organized by a number of Catholic and Protestant organizations (including Opus Dei, the Italian Catholic Bishops' Conference, and Alleanza Cattolica as well as the Italian Waldensian-Methodist Church, Evangelical colleges, and secular organizations such as the Italian largest cultural leftist group, Associazione Ricreativa e Culturale Italiana).

[14] See Imre Lakatos, "History of Science and Its Rational Reconstructions", in PSA 1970. In Memory of Rudolf Carnap. Proceedings of the 1970 Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, eds. Roger C. Buck and Robert S. Cohen (Dordrecht: D. Reidel, 1971), 91-124.

[15] E. Michael Jones, Degenerate Moderns: Modernity as Rationalized Sexual Misbehavior (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).

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