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

Should scholars write sect reports?

by Audhild Skoglund

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


I am here to speak about a Norwegian sect report that I have been working on as a researcher and main author for the last year. The report is not yet released, so I cannot speak about the conclusions. The report is due to be released in a few weeks, and will include a summary in English. I am therefore in the final stages of drafting the report.

What I want to speak about, is the ethical problems in working in this kind of pre-ordered research. I think this might be of interest to other scholars who might engage in this line of work, or read such reports.

First a few words about the background for the Norwegian sect report. First of all, I believe it to be of great relevance to know that Norway is a country with a state church which follows the Evangelical Lutheran tradition. 83 % of the Norwegian population belong to the Church of Norway. Norway is therefore a country with a very homogenous population when it comes to religious matters, and the state church has high acceptance amongst most Norwegians, whether or not they consider themselves religious.

The Norwegian sect report was ordered by the Ministry for Children and Equality. It has a smaller scope than many of the other reports previously published throughout Europe on the same topic. Its main goal is defined as to suggest what kind of help victims of cults, in Norway commonly known as sects, would need and how these needs could be met.

When I was hired to do the job, much of the groundwork was already laid out. The ministry in charge had put the task of producing the report to a research institute called The Norwegian centre for studies on violence and traumatic stress. The centre focuses, as the name says, on trauma and violence studies, and on help care needs for victims of different kinds of abuse or traumatic episodes. They have not previously been engaged in studies on religion.

A research partner had also been appointed, a Christian institute working with exit councelling and ex-members. The institute is closely affiliated with the Church of Norway, and also with a psychiatric hospital that the Norwegian centre for studies on violence and traumatic stress frequently work with. The leader of the Christian institute and people from the associated Christian psychiatric hospital are frequently cited in news media as experts on destructive cults.

There are several issues to be raised here: Firstly: How did a situation develop in such a way that the state did experience the need to order a sect report? Secondly: Why was not an institution with previous knowledge in the field of religious studies chosen to conduct the research project? Thirdly: Is it possible to make unbiased research on a subject when the only research partner is an institution that already has been highly vocal on its stance on the subject of so-called sects? And at the same time the task is defined as one of trauma research?

I think it is in order to explain a little bit about the cult or sect in Norwegian debate. Norway is, as previously mentioned, a country where an overwhelmingly majority of the people still belong to the state church. Still, a large proportion of the members do consider themselves atheist or do not believe in Biblical principles. As in most other European countries, church attendance is low. At the same time, the government has a strong grip on the state church. Till this date bishops are appointed by governmental bodies, not the church itself. The different governments have by appointing bishops and deciding church policy constantly been working on shaping the state church as an institution that shall appeal to everybody, including the non-religious. For most Norwegians, being a Christian does therefore not demand anything of you, and the picture of what being a Christian means, is in the public eye largely painted by the image of rather passive state church members. Whenever questions such as gay marriages, lesbian priests or other controversial issues is the focus of attention, newspapers and politicians will demand that the church conform to political goals of the government. The state church – most of the time - adjusts to political demands and is therefore considered very liberal. In newspaper debates it is usual for defenders of the state church system to attack those who want a separation of state and church of wanting the church to become a sect, which is used as a derogatory term. The state church system has from the beginning been a system that defines correct Christendom, and to a large degree it still is.

At the same time, we have a lot of academics working in the field of theology or Christian studies, and relatively few scholars are working in independent religious studies. Even fewer of these are involved in any empirical research, and most of the research is focused on historical or theoretical studies within the large traditions. Very few Norwegian scholars study minority religions.

The Norwegian society is therefore used to consider religious practices and beliefs that do not conform to the state church type as unhealthy, dangerous or wrong, since we already have a church that adjusts to what most people consider to be politically correct. We are used to the idea that if we don’t agree with the church agenda, politicians will see to it so that the church will change and be in accordance with politics and popular sentiments.

I believe this background information to be of importance for understanding how the image of the sect has developed in Norway. Of course it does not explain how a sect report would be considered a topic for trauma research, or why it wouldn’t be considered a topic for religious studies research.

In order to understand this curious conclusion, one has to know a little bit about what has taken place in the public debate on religion the last couple of years.

The one factor that most contributed to the states wish to investigate how we can help ex-members of religious minority groups, was a project conducted by the Norwegian  children’s rights group Save the Children. A few years ago a distinguished person in the public life in Norway contacted the minister for children and equality after his niece had left the religious group The Family. The niece was joined by other ex-members of the same group, and the concerned relative plus the ex-members arranged a meeting with representatives of the government. The project was given governmental funding to help ex-members of sects in general, and the task of helping ex-members was placed with Save the Children.

The children’s rights organization published two small reports and two brochures where they reported abuse children had experienced in religious groups, and warning society of the dangers of sects and private Christian schools. The reports were quite compelling and dramatic in the portrayals of the problems children experienced, and drew the attention to problems such as violence and sexual abuse towards children, children living in fear of hell and not being allowed to exercise their right to free thinking and expression of thought, and children lacking education. The reports by Save the Children received massive media coverage, and in many ways has formed the image of religious minorities these last couple of years.

Save the Children received calls from about 150 different people who considered having problems after leaving sects, the term originally used in the reports. The organization did not distinguish between different faith communities or give any information about how many had experienced each type of abuse. No scholars were involved in the project, which used classical brainwashing theory to interpret what so-called sects were all about. One of the reports even made a list of what constitutes a “sect”, also typical of arguments used by anti-cult organizations. The list was provided by the before mentioned concerned relative of an ex-member of The Family. No references were given as to where the information came from, or what kind of research it drew upon. Save the Children also worked in close connection with the Christian institution that was later on appointed as our research partner.

So – to sum in up thus far: Before the Norwegian sect report, there had been other reports made with governmental funding. These reports, although more reminiscent of compelling brochures than research, had been made by an institution that is highly regarded amongst most people in Norway. Save the Children have, together with the Christian institution now several times mentioned, been considered the experts on the topic of how sects or cults mishandle people. And since Norway has a state that is both highly concerned with children’s rights and also with providing help for all the needs of its citizens, the decision was made to investigate how help could most effectively be provided.

When the ministry ordered the report, they therefore seem to have taken for granted that there was such a thing as religious groups that were particularly harmful to the health of children. The focus of the report that I was hired to work on, should therefore be to suggest help for these victims, not to investigate the whole subject. Neither the ministry nor my employer seem to have been aware of any sect reports having been written anywhere else, or of the large amount of debate having taken place internationally over the same issues.

When I applied for and got the job to research and write this report, I must admit I was not myself aware of these reports. I did – on the other hand – consider it to be a valid point of research to investigate abuse of children made in religious groups. I was told that research already existed both from Save the Children and from the Christian institution, and that informants would be provided by the latter.

As it turned out, there was no systematic research to lean on. The informants didn’t even turn up through our research partner as expected. It also soon became clear that they had no experience working with children. Even the interviews in the reports made by Save the Children were conducted with adults, not children. The leader of the Christian institution had published one book on the subjects of “sects”. It had no references to systematic research in Norway, but mainly consisted of warnings against the lure of the cults. A major reference in the book was a film made on recruitment methods and deprogramming in The Unification Church in the United States in the 1970s, a film called “Moon child”. There were many attacks on cults and gurus who lured the young and innocent into cults, but no analysis on how this translated to conditions in Norway.

One of my first worries was therefore that there was no research to build on, and a research partner that seemed more interested in warning against sects than researching the subject with academic methods. My second concern was that the so-called relevant information that I was being fed, did not match well with what I already knew about religion and religious communities. Be as it may with abuse made by The Family or the Unification Church some decades ago, or by any suicide cult, these groups are not the ones from which the help institutions in Norway drew their informants. The Family isn’t even present in Norway at the moment, and hasn’t been for years. Most people who had contacted either Save the Children or the Christian institution actually came from the Faith Movement or from Christian minority groups that had been established in Norway for about a 100 or more years. These groups were such as the Jehova’s Witnesses or conservative churches that are particular to Norway. Very few of the so-called victims had been involved with any kind of guru movement, as is a wording frequently used by the Christian institution in question when warning about the dangers of sects. And even fewer had been involved with any other kinds of controversial new religious movements that supposedly recruit youngsters off the streets and brainwash them into new and unconventional ideas. The picture drawn did not match well with the actual situation. The Norwegian religious scene is actually quite boring, with only slightly different interpretations of Christian theology. And the “victims” didn’t even come from the more imaginative religious groups that exist in our country.

I therefore consumed myself with intense reading, realizing I wasn’t going to get any help from either my employer or our research partner in doing much else than reproducing badly researched “truths” about the Norwegian sect scene.

Quite early on I also started working on separating our report from the works of the Christian institution. As a cooperation was part of the deal, I chose to focus on how to separate our report from their opinions. The Norwegian sect report will therefore actually consist of two reports, one written by me and a colleague at the Centre for violence and traumatic stress, and a separate report from the Christian institution. We co-worked on arranging a seminar at the premises of the Christian institute, but otherwise the research has been separated from their activities up to the point where we haven’t even read each others reports fully yet.

Still, I have over and over again been asking myself: Could any sound advice come from a report that essentially was grounded on classical anti-cult outlooks from the beginning? How could the methods that were prescribed for the work make this report into good research?

The cooperation with an anti-cult institution wasn’t the only methodical problem. Just as difficult was the problem of how to contact informants. How should I initially make contact? Should I ask for informants who had been in a cult or sect? Should they consider themselves as in need of help, or was it ok to interview ordinary former members? And what was a cult? Was it everything outside the state church and organizations affiliated with the Church of Norway? What kind of biased knowledge would that give?

Most of the people at my work are psychologists, psychiatrics or doctors, and the focus is therefore mainly on describing problems from a medical mode. From this understanding, religion is always a suspect of traumatizing people. At the same time, the mantra is to “believe in the victims”. I was not aware of how separate the medical community actually is from research in the fields where I have my background, folklore and religious studies. In 1993 I wrote my bachelor thesis on the satanic panic in Norway. I was therefore quite shocked to discover – 14 years later – that the only thing my employer had on religion on their web pages, was a report that described satanic and ritual sexual abuse as though it were a threatening fact for children’s health workers to be worried about. The next big fight was therefore to exclude health workers who treated satanic abuse patients from what we should include in the report as experts with special knowledge in the field of cults.

All problems aside – I still think it was a right decision to get involved in this study. The final report includes interviews made with ex-members of different Christian congregations in Norway, of which most have been termed sects or cults by the media or the previously mentioned help institutions, and a quite big literature study. I am quite comfortable that the report can offer at least more nuanced knowledge to authorities than what they already had. It can rightly be criticized for having a biased groundwork, and it could easily have turned out to be a report such as those issued by French authorities. In the end I don’t think it will turn out that way. But have we managed to balance all the different political demands with sound research? I frankly don’t know, but I hope so. I still believe the state has a right to investigate a topic when reports are being made that some of its citizens are being deprived of their basic rights to education, health and well-being. Although I do find it in place to criticize the fact that the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs did not see the need for them to get involved in research that clearly has to do with the religious culture in our country, or the fact that an institution with research experience in religious matters was not elected to do the report.

From the interviews I am also quite certain that some of my informants have experienced things that they should not have had to, as they have been growing up or leaving their religious communities. I am equally convinced that an anti-cult rhetoric is not a sound way to follow in order to explain these difficulties.
The task of writing sect reports is highly frustrating, because of its many political complications. But if scholars shy away from the task, we leave the field to moral entrepreneurs. I would wish that another time such a report is being written, the research in the field will be better known. I also hope that in the future studies in this field will not be considered to be something completely different from studies made on the state church religion. This I can only hope for.

At the moment the Norwegian media is full of reports on how a young woman took her own life after taking a stress test administered by the Church of Scientology. The young woman was the daughter of a well-known politician, who blames Scientology. There has been several news shows discussing the dangers of sects in general, with the recent Scientology case as a starting point. The sect scene in Norway is, I am afraid, not going to cool down in the immediate future.

Reflections after the conference:

I finished working on the report a few weeks after I presented this paper, which is to say in the beginning of May 2008, and went on to start a new job as editor of an independent university newspaper. The report has to this date, October 12. 2008, still not been published. It has, on the other hand, been through several re-writing processes by other people. One of the main aims of this has, as I have understood it, been to make it less “cult apologetic”. In doing so, several quotations from a self biography with former members of The Family has been added, along with what I have been told are “more balanced” analyzes. Some of these analyzes I find very hard to discover any justification for in the research material brought forward. A summary in Norwegian and English has also been added, which is probably the part which is going to be read. For this I am deeply sorry, as it is very difficult to see its connection to the report and the conclusions that can be drawn from the research we have done. All methodical reflections have also been removed. I have been told the report is still due to be published, and that it has been enthusiastically received by the Ministry for Children and Equality.


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