CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

Twenty Years of Studies of New Religious Movements: Autohagiography or Post-Mortem?

by Massimo Introvigne (CESNUR)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


“Once More with Feeling”

In 2001 something we all remember happened. Many of us even remember where we were and with whom we were… I am talking, of course, of the TV serial Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which had what may well have been its most memorable episode. It was a musical episode, Once More with Feeling, in which a demon compels the main characters to sing and reveal their hidden secrets. At the end the demon is apparently defeated, but he has in fact achieved his purpose. He sings:

What a lot of fun
you guys have been real swell
and there is not one who can say
this ended well
all those secrets
you've been concealing
say you're happy now
once more with feeling
now I gotta run
see you all in hell!”.
Buffy and her sidekicks can only answer:
“The battle’s done
and we kinda won
so we sound our victory cheer
tell me...
where do we go from here?”.

Considering that – believe it or not – Buffy the Vampire Slayer has been subject to several serious academic studies about the kind of technopagan new religious mythology it embodies, this is a good starting metaphor for a meditation on twenty years of studies of new religious movements, and twenty years of CESNUR. I will take three clues from the song: “See you all in hell”; “We kinda won” and “Where do we go from here?”.

“See you all in hell”

CESNUR started in 1988 as an international body (it was even incorporated as “CESNUR International”) but was, in another way, a very Italian enterprise. It imported into Italy a field of study that did not really exist in the country’s academia. “Cults” (called in Italian “sette”, “sects”, just as they were in France, Spain and Germany) were the province of Catholic priests who feared new competition (and focused almost single-mindedly on Jehovah’s Witnesses), and of a small number of ex-members, families, prosecutors and judges who paid some attention to Scientology, the Unification Church, ISKCON, or The Family.

Although CESNUR was established precisely in order to promote a scholarly study of these groups, and we naively believed that our involvement in the cult wars would be minimum, that quickly proved an impossibility. Media, Catholic priests, “cultists” and anti-cultists were all interested in our project, but wanted to know whose side we were on. Claims of being neutral quickly failed. We did decide that, although there were a few really criminal “cults” out there, the media generally erred on the side of anti-cultism. Co-operating with foreign scholars we started, quite consciously, to systematically deconstruct the stereotype of the “destructive cult” based on brainwashing and mind control.

We were quite successful in doing this within the academia, the scholarly journals, and the boards of most mainline publishers although, when we started, we were a small band of three or four independent scholars. At some stage during the 1990s those who had reasons to be hostile to “cults” discovered that, quietly and without much fanfare, CESNUR had become a serious opponent and one capable of influencing decisions by publishers, politicians, and to some extent courts of law. There was no single decision to start a campaign against CESNUR made by a single or a group who whispered like Buffy’s demon “See you in hell”. At the end of the 1990s, however, in fact all hell broke lose, particularly on the Internet. CESNUR became one of the main targets of those believing that a sinister lobby of “cult apologists” was working on behalf of “destructive cults” and was probably receiving money by them in order to poison the well of reliable information about the evil of cultism. Those associated with CESNUR were subjects to years of Internet defamations and letter-writing campaigns. In retrospective, our public and international criticism of the French report on cults published in 1996 was the single most controversial action we took. But the anti-CESNUR campaign would have started at any rate.

In a sense, this campaign was remarkably unsuccessful. It had some effects in countries like France, Belgium, Germany, and Russia, where CESNUR’s activities were either limited or non-existing. It had practically no effect at all in Italy. Almost no single national daily newspaper or weekly, when dealing with CESNUR, mentioned the hostile Web sites. Our relationship with governmental and other official agencies in Italy did not suffer at all, and the requests for books, TV appearances, lectures and seminars, if anything, continued to grow.
On the other hand, some sensationalist media and a handful of police officers and prosecutors did buy the anti-cult rhetoric. “A handful” is the operative word here, since the number of law enforcement officers co-operating with CESNUR remained in fact higher. In a recent (2008) incident Dr. Raffaella Di Marzio, a distinguished critic of “cults” (and a member of the Editorial Board of ICSA’s Cultic Studies Review), who had decided to publish articles in CESNUR printed and electronic publications, had her own rich Web site temporarily closed by the police and was herself indicted by a prosecutor in Bari for criminal conspiracy. The matter is still unresolved. Her alleged crime was to have helped a group known as Arkeon to re-organize after judges in Bari had closed most of its activities. Arkeon started as a Reiki group but later became both close to the Roman Catholic Church and controversial in gay circles for its willingness to deal with homosexuality as a condition that some can (and did) eventually overcome. Branded as a quintessential “cult” by some media and anti-cult activists, it had its share of legal problems. Arkeon’s ideas are quite complicate, and we at CESNUR do not claim to have a clear picture of them. In fact, we were awaiting Dr. Di Marzio’s forthcoming study with interest. The quite original idea that a scholar’s study of a “cult” amounts to its “reorganization”, and automatically makes the scholar a co-conspirator in any present or past crime allegedly committed by the group, may seem absurd, but one can easily imagine the problems it is causing to Dr. Di Marzio. Apparently, the fact that she is by no means a “cult apologist” was not counted as an excuse. Comments on the Web showed that, to some radical anti-cultists, the scholar’s co-operation with some CESNUR projects made her an “apostate”. Apparently, apostates from “cults” are by definition reliable, while those defined as apostates from anti-cultism should be mercilessly punished even when their apostasy is largely imaginary.

This Italian story is very sad. It shows that the dialogue and co-operation between moderate elements in the cult awareness movement such as Dr. Di Marzio, and scholars of new religious movements with different views, is perceived as deeply disturbing by radical anti-cultists, who are prepared to take extreme measures in order to prevent this from happening. These extremists, in turn, would not succeed if they did not have the ear of sensationalist talk show hosts and of some within law enforcement and the judiciary inclined to anti-cult prejudice. In this sense, the cult wars are not over. Of course, very real crimes committed by NRMs such as the so called Beasts of Satan in Italy do more than their share in periodically revamping the controversy.

“We kinda won”

All this notwithstanding, and as Buffy sang, “we kinda won”. Simply put, there was a market for what we had to offer, and very few real competitors. In its two decades of existence in Italy CESNUR largely defined the field, signed agreements with several leading publishers, organized large conferences, and (last but not least) was mentioned almost weekly in the mainline media with frequent invitations of the undersigned and other directors as guests in prime-time talk shows. I had to prepare a fame book about CESNUR  for a recent court case involving a fundamentalist imam who claimed I had something to do with his expulsion from Italy, and asked for a nice sum of money as damages. I was almost embarrassed from the number of references to CESNUR in the leading mainline print and electronic media, the overwhelming majority of them very favorable. Simply, there has been no other comparable resource in the last twenty years for adequately documenting religious pluralism, a comparatively new phenomenon in Italy.

Anti-cultists, on the other hand, did not achieve any significant result. For all the media hype on the “danger of cults”, large new religious movements won most of their court cases and anti-cult draft bills were regularly defeated in the Italian Parliament. That the brainwashing rhetoric is wrong is something even most of those hostile to “cults” (and to CESNUR) are now prepared to admit. Probably the publication of several little known documents on the brainwashing controversy by the CESNUR Web site did have an influence in countries other than Italy as well.

This success, however, did not extend to the most sensationalist media (where “evil cults” make better copy than sedate “new religious movements”). And, in retrospect, it took perhaps an undue amount of energy and resources of CESNUR and the scholarly community studying new religious movements, which may have been devoted to other worthy pursuits. Such as defining what our field exactly is.

“Where do we go from here?”

Now that the brainwashing controversy is, on the one hand, a thing of the past, and on the other hand a battle we cannot truly win (sensationalist medias always nurtured something similar to the “evil cult” stereotype, since the invention of the printing press, and probably always will), we can return to our very beginnings and think again on how exactly our field can be defined. When  we started twenty years ago we had two models: Eileen Barker and Gordon Melton. Both were very generous in helping the fledging CESNUR. Although we did realize this only later, their respective approaches were to some extent different, although they shared two things we both admired and originally lacked: solid information on hundreds of groups, and an analytical framework for understanding why several “new” movements were showing up in Italy in the 1980s (as they had done in the UK or in the US much earlier).

In fact, Eileen Barker did believe that there were such things as “new religious movements” – NRMs. She possibly invented the word, and certainly made it academically respectable. She, as Robbins and Lucas recently noted, emphasized the “new” in  NRMs. “Eileen Barker (…) argued forcefully that the fact of chronological ‘newness’ is indeed sociologically significant because chronologically and organizationally ‘new’ movements tend to share certain typical, important features” (Robbins and Lucas 2007, 228). Originally, we went this way, although problems immediately emerged. When discussing “new religious movements” (a label we slowly managed to substitute to “sects” or “cults” in mainline and polite academic talk in Italy) most Italian scholars and reporters immediately mentioned the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which had been established in the U.S. in the late 19th century and in Italy in 1903. In what sense exactly did they have a “chronological ‘newness’”? We did include Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons in CESNUR’s field of attention, however. But at the same time we devoted some time to try to define what that field should be. That, as Lewis and Peterson would later write in 2005, the field of NRM studies “is a very odd field of specialization that lacks the adequate internal logic for determining which phenomena fall within its purview” (Lewis and Peterson 2005, 3-4) was a problem immediately apparent. The matter was never fully clarified, however, since more pressing concerns emerged in the shape of the brainwashing/anti-cult controversy.

Gordon Melton, in the meantime, had largely abandoned, for all practical purposes (although he remained interested in the theoretical problem), the effort of defining NRMs. He preferred to present the data as they were on both “old” and “new” religions, by simply dividing them into spiritual families. We were still undecided on what approach we should follow when something happened in 2001. In that fateful year Buffy sang Once More with Feeling, but the noise the world paid attention to came from the explosions of 9/11. Unlike in France or in the UK, where there was a robust specialized community of scholars of Islamic fundamentalist and ultra-fundamentalist movements, in Italy (and to some extent in the United States) scholars of Islam were very reluctant to consider the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone Al Qaida, as something rightly belonging to their field. These were, they claimed, aberrations not to be touched with a ten-feet pole. CESNUR had collected data on all religious minorities in Italy, including Islam, which in fact was largely featured in the first edition of our encyclopedia of religions in Italy, also dated 2001. For reasons discussed in a book I co-wrote with American sociologist Larry Iannaccone (and which was published only in Italian), scholars of NRMs were both equipped and willing to deal with new radical movements within Islam (Iannaccone and Introvigne 2004). All of a sudden, requests for seminars, books and lectures on Scientology or the Hare Krishnas declined (although they by no means disappeared), while everybody was prepared to fund research or co-organize conferences and seminars on radical mosques or the relationship between religion and violence. In the meantime, we had come to regard CESNUR as dealings with religious minorities and religious pluralism in general, not only NRMs, and were prepared to respond to the challenge.
Then, in 2003, something entirely different happened with the publication of Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code. Priests and pastors published books evidencing that the novel’s view of Christianity was heretical and historically false, but that did not exhaust the questions the general public had for scholars about the Code. Did the movements mentioned in the book and the other suddenly popular Brown’s novels, such as the Illuminati or the Priory of Sion, really exist? Where did they come from? Since CESNUR had gathered extensive data from its very beginning about esoteric and occult movements, and was fortunate in having as its deputy director Italy’s recognized specialist in the field, PierLuigi Zoccatelli, we were, once again, uniquely equipped to answer these questions. My study of the Illuminati and the Priory of Sion was in fact my only book ever to make the Italian bestseller list, courtesy of Dan Brown. Introductions of this book attracted crowds we had never seen before (1,000 attended in Lugano, Switzerland, more than 500 in each of some fifty Italian larger and medium-sized towns) and will probably not see again.

These events created a growing awareness that CESNUR was no longer only about NRMs. We saw our task as documenting religious pluralism in terms of both religion and spirituality, movements within “old” as well as “new” religions, secularization and de-secularization (in conversation with sociologists of such different persuasions as Rodney Stark and Karel Dobbelaere), globalization and immigration. The fact that in 2006-2007 our most important research project, conducted in co-operation with the University of Turin and funded by a leading Italian private foundation, dealt with Chinese immigration to Turin in general, without limiting itself to religion, confirmed that we had gone a long way from “cults” and related controversies. Venturing beyond religion was however seen by us as an exception rather than a rule, and we enlisted the co-operation of sociologists with different backgrounds.

On the other hand, when “cult” controversies arise, as they obviously still do, we are game. Documenting and analyzing religious and spiritual pluralism is different in the post-9/11 era than it was before. It may need a re-definition of the whole concept of “new religious movements”. But it will continue to be a highly moral enterprise connected with our deepest beliefs about truth, integrity, and religious liberty. Hopefully, it will also continue to be a lot of fun.



Iannaccone, Laurence R. - Massimo Introvigne. 2004. Il mercato dei martiri. L’industria del terrorismo suicida. Turin: Lindau.

Lewis, James - Jesper Peterson. 2005. “Introduction”. In J. Lewis - J. Peterson (eds.), Controversial New Religions, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 3-4.

Robbins, Thomas - Phillip Charles Lucas. 2007. “From ‘Cults’ to New Religious Movements: Coherence, Definition, and Conceptual Framing in the Study of New Religious Movements”. In James A. Beckford - N. J. Demerath III (eds.), The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, London: SAGE Publications, 227-247.