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

On the road from Salt Lake to the conversion of French academia

by Bernadette Rigal-Cellard (Université de Bordeaux, France)

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


         Since Cesnur and Inform are looking into « empirical and theoretical contributions to the scholarly understanding of minority religions and to the variety of societal and individual responses to them », I wish to present my own individual participation in such studies. I will thus be a little bit autobiographical for a change. I will explain how, coming from a French university background that looked at anything spiritual with a cynical eye, I was converted to the study of American “minority religions” thanks to Mormon missionaries and an encounter on a Greyhound Bus leaving Salt Lake City. I will then explain how the empirical approach taught in the Religious Studies courses at the University of California changed my perspective thoroughly, and how over the years I have modestly contributed to the transformation currently at work among French academics regarding the study of non conventional spiritualities. Changing French society’s views has been more challenging and has so far met with less success, even if more and more people now adhere to such faiths. I have divided my presentation in 14 points, to evoke, modestly, and sacrilegiously the Way of the Cross, along with the Damascus metaphor. These 14 points are grouped in three major periods:
1st major period: My own conversion to the study of Minority religions
2nd major period: Towards the conversion of academia?
3rd major period: Is conversion possible in France outside academia?

1st major period: My own conversion to the study of minority religions

1. Station: What led me to Salt Lake in the first place?
As a first year English student at the University of Bordeaux, a huge one, I met various friends who were all deeply interested in searching for an appropriate religion. We were the typical product of the Sixties but this was rather new for France. One was a Protestant with many existential problems, the other one was the sister of a Catholic priest, not so sure about Catholicism herself. I was a moderate Catholic. We went church shopping. This was the period when American “sects” were actively missionizing campuses. 2 Mormon missionaries knocked on my door in the dorms, which of cause was and still is totally forbidden. The only thing I saw was that they were American and I loved that. They invited me to their church the following Sunday. I went along with my friends. We discovered a close-knit community, most welcoming and they showed us pictures of the pyramids in Mexico as the proof that the Hebrews had built them. I suddenly recalled what my Spanish teacher had said about how the Aztecs had welcomed the conquistadores, as if they had expected the return of White heroes who had previously visited them. Everything clicked into place. The warmth, the nice blue tiles of the baptismal font, the historical proof of the veracity of their story: I decided to convert. This was completely out of the blue though, never had we spoken about that at home. But I was a student first, so I read a few books on Mormonism, though there were not many available then and there. Another click: Mormonism had been founded by an American, for the Americans, on America. I would not convert. Yet I had discovered the thread that would to this day lead my research: how far does culture enter into religious doctrines, how are these elaborated to fit the needs of their nurturing societies? A few years later, for my Master I chose to study the link between Mormonism and American society. I then was most fortunate to be offered a generous grant by the University of California, our major partner, and was admitted at UCSB. I crossed the country with Greyhound and made a point of spending time in Salt Lake.

 2nd station: Conversions
Meanwhile, my Protestant friend had fallen for the Jehovah’s Witnesses that we would visit regularly as well. She thus became a maverick, the member of “a sect”. I would in time also become branded: “ a pro-sect Trojan horse of the American empire”. The other friend fell out completely from the Catholic Church and became involved in leftist politics. She opted for the canonical French attitude in the 60s and 70s. Most of our other friends were not interested at all in any kind of quest.

3rd station: On the bus from Salt Lake
After a few days there, I boarded again the Greyhound bus and obeyed the advice given to foreign passengers in the good old days: pick up your seat partner, don’t sit by an empty seat. There were a couple of people already on the bus and I chose a young man! A few minutes later, he started to wave his hands around him and pronounce strange words, repeatedly and at full speed. I thought I had picked up a gogo but did not dare move for fear he would get worse. Once we had departed I started looking at the LDS literature I had gathered. Without asking for it, he took it from my hands and later concluded: “this is very similar to what we do”. I of course immediately asked: well what do you do?
This was the beginning of a fabulous trip across the salt flats of Utah, resplendent under the full moon, and then across the deserts of Nevada, with the strange passenger explaining all the intricacies of the Summit Lighthouse, later to be known as Church Universal and Triumphant. As we approached Reno, he went back to his weird waving and esoteric chanting. By then I was familiar enough to ask: “what are you doing?” He answered: “I am chanting to ward off the evils spirits of Reno, north, south, east, west. In Salt Lake I did that to make sure someone interested in my religion sit by me.” This time I knew it must be efficient and my career lay clear ahead...
The chela was heading to Santa Barbara where the Summit had one of its major centers, and so was I. I was to attend many retreats there for the years to come. I have followed all the later developments of the group and recently met the new leaders and Murray Steinman in Montana.

4th station: Santa Barbara: the Religious studies Department
UCSB developed one of the first religious studies departments and at the time it was still very eclectic. I registered there and in particular took the courses and MA seminar of Doctor Michaelsen. One requisite was to write a report on a local group. I picked up the Summit and must have been one of the first people to study them, back in 1973. I reported on a few other groups. This is really where I learned to drop my French cynicism and self-righteousness. I am profoundly indebted to my teachers there.

5th station: I had become a Mormon
Back in France, I defended my MA thesis on “Mormonism and American Society” and as I just said, I had dropped by then any kind of satirical perspective. My personal views did not enter in the text that had thus become so “neutral” that for the professors on the panel, I could not but now be a Mormon myself. How could I dare not plainly denounce such imposture, such fraud? It was blatant that my presentation came from an insider. When I heard this, I burst out laughing and explained I had been taught to present and explain without systematically criticizing. I am still blamed for this nowadays.
The professors were “Americanist” as we say (American studies specialists) so they were more open than most and they did not hold my lack of criticizing against me at all. One of them became my dissertation supervisor.

II. Major period: Towards the conversion of academia?

6th station: My PHD dissertation
I guess he had by then understood my position and he let me choose my subject completely. I wanted to write it on the so-called 4th Awakening and wanted to focus exclusively on the new religions that I knew in California. Wisely, he advised me to look into Evangelism as well, a major trend of the Awakening. I guess this was what allowed me to become a “specialist of American religions” and not just of NRMs. I analyzed all the groups I selected with the same approach and was then congratulated for this. The four French professors in American studies on my PhD panel obviously enjoyed reading and hearing about the current religious scene in America and saw there an important phenomenon not to be discarded.

7th Station: my recruitment at the university
After several years as a lecturer, tenured, I defended more work to become a professor. I France you have to sit an interview with a national board of elected professors who meet in Paris to screen every candidate to make sure local politics did not interfere too much. Here again the questions were somehow bemused, but not overtly negative, for they were all clearly interested in NRMs and Evangelism as well.

8th Station: Teaching religions and NR at the university and conferences
My 3rd year course on the “history of American religions and present-day communities” is optional and is rather popular. Because of my experience at UCSB, my students must study an American group in France. They choose the one they will meet: Scientology, Mormonism, the Baptists (of American lineage), The Twelve Tribes, TJ, etc. At first they are terrified: they have never done a field survey and never contemplating knocking on the door of “les sectes”… Once they have finished their report, I allow them to add personal remarks: they are all thankful because their report has lifted the veil of the interdict and they have met “normal people” who did not coerce them into joining. Their perspective has changed radically.
Also with my research group, we have organized over the years several international conferences on how religious groups, notably NRMs, adapt to foreign milieus on their expansionist course or when they follow immigration routes. These conferences have often received public funds without any kind of censorship.

9th Station: creating a full Master program in Religious studies: “ Religions and societies”
With the European reform imposed on universities a few years ago I seized the opportunity and built such a program, hoping it would be authorized. In the Humanities at Bordeaux University, many departments (at least 9) harbor a specialist of a specific religious field. I thus gathered all their courses, added new ones to form a coherent program. The project was approved by all the boards. The President, Professor Singarelou, was most supportive, which is what is required if the project is to accepted above by the State Department of Education. At this level, the answers were most positive: the experts congratulated me for such a program, one of the very few such programs in the country, a totally transdisciplinary and not solely sociological or theological one. The program is now offered as a regular master fully funded by the State. Minority Religions are part of the program, as well as Masonry.
Academia thus seemed to be moving steadily on the road to Damascus. But the veil was not completely lifted however.

10th Station: Watch what you study even in academia
The monitoring of research by the CNRS: The national research committee is very picky about what the people they finance can and cannot do. My research group in American studies had worked for several years (from around 1977 to 1983) with government money on the “religious factor in American and Canadian Society” and again we were among the very few French University scholars exploring the contemporary scene. But the CNRS told us: you are not sociologists so you cannot study religions, stick to literature. So we veered to the study of multicultural literatures and I chose Native American literature for it is deeply religious, but  I continued to study religions. I joined CESNUR after meeting in 1990 with Gordon Melton once he had moved to UCSB.
As for people working exclusively for the CNRS in the field of religions, they have to be very careful and most have focused their research on the potential danger of the sects. They stress the link with the secular state, the famous laicite. If they work on NRMs, they are immediately accused of being insiders. Several friends have had problems to this day even within their own research bodies if they wrote on groups deemed suspect by the anti-cults lobbies. Their career has not moved along as it should have because of negative perceptions by suspicious peers.

3rd Major period: is conversion possible outside academia?

11th Station: Public lectures on the history of religions. Restrain yourself.
My university and the local Museum have organized several rich series of public lectures on the history of religions, and I have always been asked to speak on American groups. Various members of CESNUR have participated over the years and the general public has always been most interested. For the fall 2006 cycle, my friends at the museum wanted me to speak on a sect… I chose Scientology. All hell broke loose…

12th Station: you are in deep trouble
The lecture was announced in the yearly program and provoked no reaction whatsoever. I gave my talk to a full theater. I opened it by warning that I would not talk about money or networks, that there were specialists of that and that I would just speak of the history and the doctrine. I spoke for one hour and fielded regularly questions. Only a couple of people criticized the group. One young girl claimed she was disappointed because she had come for a public lecture and she had got a university course. She also pitied my students who were forcibly indoctrinated. This was apparently all the heat I would take.
Yet, at the same time it had been decided that I would organize the 2007 CESNUR conference a few months later and it was announced on the website. My fault was doubled. As we all know CESNUR is Devil incarnate for the anti-cultists.
A week later a local journalist tried to get an appointment. I thought it was to speak of the American mid-term elections and I met her at the next lecture at the museum (which was on Opus Dei). She immediately attacked me on my talk and revealed that M. Picotin, the director of Info-sects had sent a long letter of denunciation to all the local authorities to force them to ask the university to cancel CESNUR conference.
She told me how the RG (Renseignements généraux, intelligence service) knew which conferences I attended and which people I met. I burst out laughing and she was surprised: “Are you not scared???” Not in the least. At last, I could experience what my American friends had denounced in my country, and that I had never encountered personally as I made clear in the first part. The journalist then called her photographer… I had not realized she was writing a paper... I warned her to be faithful to what I had said to her. She did, she transcribed all my words, literally in an almost full page article that she entitled “Scientology: I only give the facts”. She also interviewed my president who then was quoted under his photograph with the title: “She gets support from president”. But below my interview and picture stood the quote from Picotin about my being a “revisionist”, a major accusation in France since it meant that my crime equated the negation of the Holocaust!
This was only the beginning of a long media campaign that only ended when the CESNUR conference did take place as planned. ADFI (family anti-cult group) had got hold of the paper I hand out to students to tell them how to go about their report on an American group. I was accused of forcing my students to infiltrate dangerous sects, notably Scientology. Picotin wrote to the head of education for the whole region, to the mayor of Bordeaux to force him to forbid the conference, as if a mayor had power over the university, to all the representatives, to the president of the region. Everyday the president would inform me of more attacks. Once a journalist rushed for an interview with the president, she had a scoop she said: She now had the proof I was a member of Cesnur. The president replied that he had known all along and that it was a remarkable research group… and that she should interview me on this. He stole her show. She came to my house and I showed her the latest parliamentary report that quoted Cesnur as a major scientific group against the sects. To no avail. “Sects” do sell well and you don’t want the local newspaper to be soft on their obvious danger.
An article accused me of being an acolyte of evil Massimo Introvigne who had dared give a lecture in the museum on Satanism. Hence city hall was infiltrated (the museum is run by city hall), the university also. In the Conseil regional newsletter I was accused of “introducing the fascist and Catholic Italian extreme right into the French university system and then into France”. Picotin gave press conferences to fight the Beast. The TV people gave me the right to respond and so I became a media star. I must say all the TV and radio people liked my position: one needs to understand religious groups before one can criticize them, and so all the quotes from me they broadcast were very balanced. The day before CESNUR opened, the local paper ran this article: “Les sectes dans l’amphi” (“the sects will invade the lecture halls”). We were forcing students to see sect members and pro sect scholars. To contradict this the local TV people on the other hand shot the campus that was completely empty since I had chosen the recess week between exam sessions and the clever journalist underlined this fact in the voice off commentary. This media campaign had a most positive impact: my students told me they would never believe what they read in the local papers since they could see how they twisted the truth to comply with their own agenda.

13th Station: The complete support of my institution
Again all my colleagues were most supportive. My president stood by me against all attacks. He knew Massimo Introvigne who had come several times already and trusted him. Yet he was also at risk. The Department of Education called us the morning before CESNUR opened because AFP had also written a report, which meant that the “affair” was now not just in the local paper but in the major media and offices. I was quoted (rightly) saying that this was a typically French assault against scholars, an assault by troglodyte anti-cultists allied with the Masons (who notoriously staff all the anti-cult government committees). The Secretary of Education was getting worried. A letter from the President reassured her.

14th Station: Peace at last.
In case the anti-cultists came for a show of force, the President asked the security people to be present, something never done for conferences. But the anti-cultists did not budge. Everything went perfectly well. The journalist who had helped launch the affair was disappointed and exclaimed: “Well I really wonder what the fuss was about.” I did not dare return the question. In fact all the journalists were thrilled at the prospect of having Moonies, Scientologists and all kinds of gurus on campus and all the local TV and radio people came to ask for interviews and to broadcast the conference. They were pretty disappointed to see that we would just talk on “Religious changes brought about by migrations and globalization.” We were turning into a “non-event”.

Now then, can we say French academia has been converted? I would answer: Yes, but only in some places. I did not get into major trouble before CESNUR because:
First, since I was dealing with religions IN America, so that few people outside of American studies specialists in France knew my work.
Second, according to what I have heard elsewhere, I am very fortunate to be teaching at Bordeaux University: as I said, religion is taught here in various disciplines and does not raise any criticism. In other universities where religion is seldom part of the curriculum, my friends have confirmed that I would not have received the same support for the creation of my Master program for example. In the nearest university, Toulouse, a hot bed of political radicalism, it would simply have been rejected, possibly not by all the teachers but definitely by the non-teaching staff who is extremely anti-religion oriented.
Third: I am first a professor of English, of American studies, and this is how people have known me. Then I have been involved in administration a lot and I have thus gained a form of respectability that my specializing in NRMs could not erode. Even in Bordeaux, had I just been a young lecturer who dared to speak on Scientology objectively, I may not have been supported because I would have been suspected of having gained information “from the inside”.
As for the general public, it is clear it has not been converted yet, unless people are part of these minority groups themselves! Lecturing on religions in general is in high demand and this why lectures on the subject are those that attract the greatest crowds, but the speaker walks a tight rope and some groups are strictly out of bounds. When my neighbors saw my picture in the paper the first time with the heading “Scientology: I only give facts”, they did not understand the article, they immediately thought I was a Scientologist.
As you know President Sarkozy has dared mention religion in his speeches. He had once before invited Tom Cruise to his office. He must be himself a Scientologist. Then in Rome, in St-John of Latran he dared say that laicite (the famous French version of “secular state”) should not evict religion from the public sphere. Thus he has been accused of “working for the Americans”. Recently one of his spokespersons said that there was no sect problem in France. Well, she had to retract…
Clearly however, there has been some progress in the academic study of minority religions: several sociologists work in the field, and there are more and more dissertations on them, but we don’t know how they will be viewed by the outside world. In our country the supreme insult is to call you “pro-American” and since many of the “sectes” come from the USA, studying them is an act of betrayal towards our nation. Just the other day, I was talking about the CESNUR conference in Bordeaux with Jean-Paul Willaime. He told me he was often asked to testify in Parliament. Some time ago he was facing one of our staunchest anti-sect crusaders, Jean Pierre Brard, who shouted: “Willaime works for the Americans, I work for France”.
With the rising number of serious studies and the opening of more dialogues between members of minority movements and the general public, the histrionics of anti-cultists are bound to wane and appear for what they are: hot air that has tried to be as destructive as the heat of the Inquisition stakes.


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