I would not start my speech without quoting the opening sentence of the masterpiece that I consider the real “must read” for those who are involved in the study of Minority Religions, New Religious Movements, New Religions, Sects – to be brief: just call it as you prefer (as of me, I will call it Scientology, Unification Church, Hare Krishna, The Family, Nessie Cult, and so on). I am referring to Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick or the Whale. I guess all of you know very well that Moby Dick is not simply “the Whale”. In a way, Moby Dick is “the Whole”. So welcome in this particular Pequod navy which is today for us the London School of Economics, and let’s hear Melville’s ouverture:
“Call me Ishmael. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – having little or no money in my purse, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world.”
Actually, in a way, this was my personal biography when I first met Massimo Introvigne (but not yet CESNUR), twenty years ago, in 1988. At the time, I was still living in Verona, North-East of Italy, Europe, Earth, Milky Way Galaxy. You certainly remember what William Shakespeare put in the tongue of Romeo in the famous Romeo and Juliet third act:
“There is no world without Verona walls
But purgatory, torture, hell itself.”
Well, this is absolutely true. By the way, a few of you are aware of the fact that we from Verona are considered in a very typical Italian proverb as “completely crazy”. Once again, yes indeed, this is absolutely true.
When I came to Turin at the end of 1998, CESNUR had already settled some of its cultural policies, mostly through its very important library (today some 40,000 books devoted to religious pluralism), the well established annual International Conference, the dawn of a website, and the first important seminal books published in Italy by its managing director, Massimo Introvigne. Especially, I would like to remind the 400-pages book Le nuove religioni (“The New Religions”), published in 1989, and the 500-pages book Il cappello del mago (“The Hat of the Magician”), published in 1990. In my view, these two books will be remembered for long time in Italy as an important event for those who started to perceive that a scholarly study of religious pluralism was badly needed. Italian sociology of religion was literally imprisoned within the walls not of Verona but of the debate on past Vatican-II Roman Catholicism and secularization. The study of religious phenomena outside the Catholic fold offered a way out, an escape.
As I said, I started to collaborate with CESNUR and its managing director during 1988. Then, in 1996, I started to closely collaborate with Massimo Introvigne, with an intensive stage at CESNUR to edit the French edition of his 400-pages book Enquête sur le satanisme (“Investigation on Satanism”, originally published in Italy in 1994). This work was a methodological adventure. Although I had worked as a professional editor before, Massimo Introvigne taught me how to double-check every single quote, if necessary in several languages, every relevant edition of each book quoted, and the dates of birth and death of every character mentioned (which would later become a CESNUR trademark). This may seem an idiosyncratic feature of Massimo Introvigne’s character, and in a way it is. But it was also an insurance for CESNUR against future criticism, since all information was almost maniacally checked more than once.
It was exactly during that period, in the second half of the 1990’s, that Massimo Introvigne and me started to work on the first series of an Italian collection of books devoted to Minority Religions and the New Spiritualities, called “Religioni e Movimenti” (“Religions and Movements”), which finally started in 1997. Elledici, a prominent Italian Catholic publisher, accepted to publish the CESNUR collection, in which each title is opened by the following disclaimer: “This series is intended to present a first scholarly approach to the movement (…) No judgements of value are included.”
We started to liaise with a number of well reputed scholars all around the world, in order to ask for brand new books of around 100 pages / 30.000 words. The task was not so easy, but it has been for us a great adventure. In a decade, 1997-2007, we published 42 books in this collection, and 13 of them has been translated and published abroad, in 6 languages (Spanish, English, French, Czech, Japanese, Portuguese) and 5 countries (Colombia, US, France, Czech Republic, Switzerland), by various publishing companies.
Let’s have a rapid overview of some of the books we published in such a collection.
For those 42 books, CESNUR and his authors sold around 140,000 copies, that is an average of more than 3,300 copies each, not a small result considering the limited size of the Italian language market. Some sold more than 5,000: Massimo Introvigne’s four books on Satanism, Freemasonry, Protestantism, and Jehovah’s Witnesses; Luigi Berzano’s on Damanhur; Silvia Scaranari’s on Islam; J. Gordon Melton’s on Scientology; Karel Dobbelaere’s on Soka Gakkai; Veronica Roldan’s on Universal Soul; and my own on New Age.
Clearly, publishing the “Religions and Movements” book series is not the only task of CESNUR, if we consider that in the same decade Massimo Introvigne published another couple of dozens of books through prominent Italian publishers (but I had 5 childrens, while he’s only at four). As I already said – and as much of you well know –, managing the CESNUR library (something for which we must be deeply grateful to our excellent librarian, Luca Ciotta, who works at CESNUR since 1997) means also receiving daily at CESNUR headquarters scholars and students from all the world, for doctoral dissertations and research. Also, organizing yearly an International Conference (in Europe, in North or South America, in former Soviet Union) is an important task, as it is to manage our website, which is visited each day by thousands of people.
Also, our website hosts yearly on April 1st a very important “April Fool’s Day Event”, which is open only to a handful of scholars and academics. In 2003 we discovered that a Swiss historian “is a Roman Catholic agent specialized in infiltrating certain splinter Russian Orthodox groups” (or maybe a member of the Orthodox Church of Mother of God “Majestic”). In 2004 it was the turn of Eileen Barker, J. Gordon Melton and Massimo Introvigne, discovered during the CESNUR Conference in Lithuania as being part of an academic, crypto-Jewish network inside the Karaite sect based in Trakai. In 2007, new revelations by the sole survivor of Heaven’s Gate and confidential sources allowed us to reveal that during his stay in Tbilisi for a conference on Gurdjieff, the director of CESNUR organized a revolutionary event together with Connie Jones. They went to Gori, hometown of Stalin, and in front of the statue of the maximum communist leader of the XX Century, signed a political compass whose aim was the instauration of the Communist Kingdom as a pre-figuration of the second coming of Jesus Christ, as announced by Heaven’s Gate in its messages to the humanity.
Finally, in order to come back seriously to CESNUR and its cultural policies, CESNUR’s main project, since its foundation, was the publication of a reliable statistical, historical, and descriptive map of religions in Italy. This project, for years in the making, is now complete. In 2001 and 2006 the 1.200 pages encyclopedia Le religioni in Italia (“Religions in Italy”) was published, and since one year it is updated daily through our website, where the entire project is available (unfortunately, only in Italian). This big volume includes entries on quite 650 religious and spiritual groups active in Italy, with large general introductions to each of the fourty families or subfamilies of movements or denominations. In a way, I think this encyclopedia represents CESNUR’s main claim to a permanent place within Italian religious studies.
That is why I am honestly proud to close with my speech, once again with a sentence taken from chapter 41 of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick:
“I, Ishmael, was one of that crew.”