Organization for the Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) - Supplementary Meeting on Freedom of Religion - Vienna March 22, 1999

Misinformation, Religious Minorities and Religious Pluralism

Statement of Dr. Massimo Introvigne (Managing Director of CESNUR, Center for Studies on New Religions, Torino, Italy)


1. Sociological background

a. Social Problems

Religious minorities today are more often perceived as a social problem than as a social resource. Social scientists traditionally define a social problem as "a condition which is defined by a considerable number of persons as a diversion from some social norm which they cherish" (Fuller and Myers 1941). A larger recent scholarship suggests that, while social problems start from conditions open to empirical verification, how they develop and are represented, constructed, or negotiated is the result of much more complicated social processes.

b. Moral Panics

In the 1970s the new concept of "moral panic" was developed (see Jenkins 1998) in order to explain how some social problems become overconstructed and generate exaggerate fears. Moral panics are defined as socially constructed social problems characterized by a reaction, both in media representation and in political forums, out of proportion to the actual threat, often based on folk statistics that, although not confirmed by scholarly studies, are repeated from media to media and may inspire political measures. According to Philip Jenkins (a leading scholar of moral panics), "the panic reaction does not occur because of any rational assessment of the scale of a particular menace". Rather, it is "a result of ill-defined fears that eventually find a dramatic and oversimplified focus in one incident or stereotype, which then provides a visible symbol for discussion and debate"(Jenkins 1996, 170). Jenkins also emphasizes the role in the management of moral panics of "moral entrepreneurs," who have vested interests in perpetuating the specific fears.

c. "Cults" and "Sects" as Targets of Moral Panics

"Sects" and "cults" have often been studied as quintessential targets of moral panics. According, again, to Jenkins: "Sects perform a convenient integrative function by providing a common enemy, a ‘dangerous outsider' against which the mainstream can unite and reassert its shared standards and beliefs. Depending on the legal and cultural environment of a given society, the tension between sects and mainstream community might result in active persecution or it can take the form of ostracism and negative stereotyping" (Jenkins 1996, 158). As mentioned earlier, moral panics are never without some sort of objective basis. Nobody would seriously deny that some new religious movements have been and consistently are guilty of a number of criminal activities, from obvious cases of frauds up to the horrors of the Solar Temple. The real problem, however, is prevalence, not existence. Most scholars of new religious movements would subscribe to the conclusion of the Swiss federal report on Scientology that "the immense majority of these groups ["sects" or "cults"] does not represent a danger for their members nor for the State" ("La Scientologie en Suisse" 1998, 132-133). Only a very small minority of scholars, on the other hand, would agree with the French (1996) or Belgian (1997) parliamentary reports that have listed dozens of groups as "sects" or "cults" actually or potentially dangerous.

Moral panics start with a basis in reality, but escalate through exaggeration and folk statistics when comments appropriate for one or more particular incidents are generalized. This happened in the United States after Jonestown (1978) and is happening in Europe after the Solar Temple (1994, 1995, and 1997). It is in escalating - not in creating - the moral panic that moral entrepreneurs with vested interests enter the picture. They include a whole range of different anti-cult movements, and some of them receive today in several European countries an unprecedented degree of public support.


2. "Type I" Official Reports on "Sects" and Cults" in Western Europe

Within this context, some of the European parliamentary and other official reports generated after the Solar Temple incidents have adopted an interpretative model inflating rather than deflating moral panics. What I would call Type I official documents include the French report (1996), the Belgian report (1997), large parts of the Canton of Geneva report (1997) and certainly all that is known of the deliberations of the French Prime Minister's Observatory of Sects (1998) and of its successor, the Mission to Fight Against Sects (MILS). A four-stage interpretative model lies at the core of Type I reports.

a. "Cults or Sects are not Religions"

First, the model claims that some minorities are not really "religions" but something else: "cults" or "sects" (something different from genuine religions. Since in Western Europe religious liberty is recognized as a value and constitutionally protected (including by international treaties and declarations), the only way to discriminate a religious minority is to argue that it is not religious at all. This is not to say that defining religions is an easy task, or that scholars are entitled to impose their functional definitions to larger societies. One may agree with sociologist Larry Greil that, from a certain point of view ,"religion" is "not (...) a characteristic which inheres in certain phenomena, but (...) a cultural resource over which competing interest groups may vie. From this perspective, religion is not an entity but a claim made by certain groups and - in some cases - contested by others to the right of privileges associated in a given society with the religious label" (Greil 1996, 48). Legitimate debates on how to define religion are, at any rate, something different from the quick dismissal of any unpopular religious minority as not "really" religious.

b. Brainwashing and Mind Control

Second, the model posits that what distinguishes genuine religions from groups falsely claiming their right to the religious label is something called brainwashing, mental manipulation, or mind control. Since religion is, by rhetorical definition, an exercise of free will, a non-religion may only be joined under some sort of coercion. The hypnotic paradigm used against Mormonism and other groups by early 19th century counter-cultists resurfaced - after the cold war conveniently supplied the metaphor of brainwashing - in the 1970s cult wars in the United States and elsewhere. By the end of the 1980s the first "crude" theories of brainwashing had been largely debunked in the English-speaking debate. "New" brainwashing theories have recently been proposed by some authors. Although otherwise controversial, they do not claim to explain why people join certain movements (rather, they would explain why groups may make more difficult for members to leave by maximizing their exit costs). They also do not claim to have found a formula to distinguish genuine religions from non-religions such as "sects" or "cults". "Crude", old-fashioned theories of brainwashing (with or without the use of the word "brainwashing" itself) are, on the other hand, used in Type I European official documents, and are part and parcel of the model.

c. "Apostates"

Third, since brainwashing theories are the object of considerable scholarly criticism, the model requires as a third step discrimination among sources and narratives. The French and Belgian reports make little or no use of scholarly sources. The Belgian report explicitly says that it is aware of scholarly objections against the mind control model, but it has made the "ethical" choice of preferring to these objections the accounts of "victims". By "victims" the Belgian Commission means those normally defined by social scientists as "apostates". These are the former members converted into active opponents of the group they have left. Although many such ex-members resent being called "apostates" the term is technical, not derogatory, and has been used for some decades, as documented in a recent excellent volume edited by David Bromley (1998). Although perhaps terms other than "apostates" may be used in the future, some sort of term is necessary in order to distinguish between "apostates" and other ex-members who do not turn against their former group. Empirical evidence on the prevalence of apostates among former members is available only for a limited number of new religious movements, but uniformly suggests that they are a minority, perhaps between 15 and 20 per cent (Solomon 1981; Lewis 1986; Lewis 1989; Introvigne 1999). Most former members have mixed feelings about their former affiliations and, at any rate, are not interested in joining a crusade against the group they have left. "Apostates" are an interesting minority, and no serious scholar suggest that they should be ignored. The model, however, faulty regards them as if they were the only representatives of the whole larger category of former members.

d. Anti-Cult Movements

Objections that "apostates" are not necessarily representative are met by the fourth stage of the model. "Cults" or "sects" are not religions. They are not because they use brainwashing, while religions are by definition joined out of free will. We know that they use brainwashing because we rely on the testimony of "victims" (i.e. "apostates"). We know that "apostates" are representative of the groups' membership, or at least former membership, because they are screened and selected by private, reliable watchdog organizations. One easy objections to the Belgian report (where, unlike in the French case, proceeding of the hearings have been published) is that for most "cults" or "sects" the Commission has heard one, two or at any rate a very limited number of ex-members. Why they should be regarded as representative of the larger category of ex-members in general is not really explained. However, in light of comments in the report itself, it is at least likely that in most cases they have been hand-picked and introduced to the Commission by anti-cult organizations, whose role is both praised and supported by the report. Anti-cult organizations, we are told, are more reliable than academics because the former, unlike the latter, have a "practical" experience and work with "victims".

This four-stage model plays an important role in perpetuating the moral panic, and is apparently strictly followed by official documents and institutions throughout French-speaking Europe. Occasionally, it pops up also elsewhere.


3. "Type II" Reports

If not in France, scholarly criticism directed against Type I reports (see Introvigne and Melton 1996) seems to have exerted some influence in other countries. We have in fact seen what I would call Type II reports published in 1998 from the German Parliament, the Italian Ministry of the Internal Affairs (although this latter report was perhaps not originally intended for public consumption), the Swiss Canton of Ticino and the Swedish Commission that investigated new religious movements. I would include in the larger Type II category the general part on "sects" of the Swiss report on Scientology, and the Berger report that was proposed to, but ultimately not adopted by, the European Parliament. Although these reports differ from each other, and are the subject of considerable debate, they do not apply the model inspiring Type I reports, and pay more attention to academic findings. They generally acknowledge that:

- It is extremely difficult to define terms such as "cults", "sects" or "religion"; perhaps, it is impossible and it may not be the province of secular States to attempt such a definition.

- Although there is a concern that some new religious movements may exert excessive psychological pressures on their members, there is no agreement among scholars about the definition of "brainwashing" or "mind control", and most scholars simply deny their very existence (at least in their common popular representation).

- Militant ex-members are not the only reliable source of information about the groups they have left. Those who report positive experiences should also be heard (the Swedish report notes that "the great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership": "In Good Faith" 1998, 1.6).

- Private anti-cult organizations may perform a legitimate function but - as the Canton of Ticino report puts it - governments should not support them to the point of "co-operating in spreading prejudices", or even a sort of "anti-cult terrorism" ["terrorismo antisetta"].

One area where reports of Type II are still very much uncertain is mind control (point b above). They seem to believe that a real problem exist and that something should be done. It seems that the radical extent of criticism of the brainwashing theories by most (English-speaking) mainline scholars has not yet been appreciated even by Type II reports. Behind these labels, however, there is often in Type II reports a legitimate concern for consumer protection. U.S.-headquartered religious movements operating mostly through the sale of seminars or courses against a fee should perhaps consider how different consumer protection law and consciousness are in some European countries with respect to the United States. On the other hand, applying consumer protection laws and ideas to spiritual consumers is a difficult exercise. We cannot require religions to prove the existence of the spiritual benefits they promise without creating gross discrimination (what if we should require Christianity to "prove" the empirical reality of eternal salvation?). But, to some extent, it is not unreasonable to protect spiritual consumers by requesting religious movements to announce beforehand, as clearly as possible, what will be required from prospective members and what financial obligations, if any, will be connected with their membership.

Be it as it may be, Type II reports - even without being entirely satisfactory when examined from the point of view of religious liberty - represent a step in the right direction when compared with Type I reports, and prove that cooler tempers may ultimately prevail.


4. Why the Reports?

Why exactly moral panics about religious minorities became more frequent in recent years in Western Europe? The Solar Temple incidents, horrible as they were, were a catalyst rather than a cause.

General accounts of postmodernization normally include a discussion of the emergence of a critical attitude against rationalization, rationalism, and the modern concept of science. Although we are frequently warned against seeing postmodernization as simply "irrational", the crisis of modern rationalism opens the way to a new attitude towards the sacred. This attitude does not necessarily revitalize mainline religion, since the latter had often adjusted itself to rationalization and modernity. "Irrational" postmodern religion happening mostly outside the mainline churches (and somewhat inside, but in the form of new movements) has been called new religiosity, or new religious consciousness. Not everybody is happy with postmodernization processes. Institutions exist to protect the core values of modernity. Almost everywhere "official" science warns against "pseudoscience". "Mainline" religion, having accomodated itself to modernity, exposes the dangers of "new", "bizarre" religious movements. While in other countries organized secular humanism is reduced to a small phenomenon, in French-speaking countries the century-old revolutionary heritage of "laïcité" is taken very seriously. In Observatory and MILS documents, we are told that secular values are threatened by "cultic" ideas. In fact, the French Observatory quoted in its first (and last) yearly report as potentially dangerous, in the same vein, the New Age and the activities of American evangelists in France. "Sects" and "cults" are easily singled out as agents of irrationality. Moral panics about religious minorities may thus be read, particularly in some countries, as a form of reaction against postmodern religion. This is a reaction from (a) secular humanism, institutionalized as "laïcité" through French-speaking Europe; (b) mainline religions, who feel threatened by what they perceive as an "explosion" of fringe religions (a rather incorrect perception, since in fact new religious movements have recruited only around one percent of the population in Western Europe, and the real competition for mainline churches come from non-institutionalized religion, "believing without belonging": Davie 1994).

From the point of view of religious liberty, opposing postmodern religion through legal means (as opposite to cultural campaigns, or a renewed evangelism by mainline churches) is clearly illegitimate. State-imposed secularism is no less unacceptable that State-imposed religion. What is legitimate, on the other hand, is an assessment of potential risks of violence involved with postmodern religion. While moral entrepreneurs focus on large (and largely law-abiding) religious movements, law enforcement agencies throughout the world are seeking the co-operation of scholars in order to identify what kind of postmodern religion, particularly in the area of "catastrophic millennialism" (Wessinger 1997), may involve actual violence. The comparative study of groups that "went wrong" such as the Solar Temple or Heaven’s Gate is a promising area. A developing scholarship in this area shows, first, that comparatively small groups living in seclusion from the larger society are more likely candidate for violence. And, second, that groups do not "go wrong" alone. If their ideas bear a substantial part of responsibility, societal reactions may also determine the final outcome, and this is why determining how to deal with these groups is so delicate. It is, at any rate, on these small, reclusive (and well-armed) groups that a study of really dangerous new religious movements should focus while the year 2,000 approaches. This may be part of a normal process where societies learn to identify and assess in a more realistic way the objective conditions at the roots of the moral panic. Thus, real evils are confronted from what they are, and lunatic fringes exposing imaginary evils are slowly but surely marginalized, as they rightly deserve.



Bromley, David G. (ed.). 1998. The Politics of Religious Apostasy: The Role of Apostates in the Transformation of Religious Movements. Westport (Connecticut): Praeger Publishers.

Davie, Grace. 1994. Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging. Oxford (UK) - Cambridge (Massachusetts): Blackwell.

Fuller, Richard C. - Richard R. Myers. 1941 "The Natural History of a Social Problem." American Sociological Review 6: 320-329.

Greil, Arthur L. 1996. "Sacred Claims: The 'Cult Controversy' as a Struggle over the Right to the Religious Label". In David G. Bromley and Lewis F. Carter (eds.), The Issue of Authenticity in the Study of Religions, Greenwich (Connecticut): JAI Press, 46-63.

"In Good Faith. Society and the New Religious Movements" [Official English-language Summary, Report of the Swedish Commission]. 1998. Stockholm: Norstedts Tryckeri AB.

Introvigne, Massimo. 1999. "Defectors, Ordinary Leave-takers, and Apostates: A Quantitative Study of Former Members of New Acropolis in France". Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, forthcoming.

Introvigne, Massimo and J. Gordon Melton (eds.). 1996. Pour en finir avec les sectes. Le débat sur le rapport de la commission parlementaire. 3rd ed. Paris: Dervy.

Jenkins, Philip. 1996. Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jenkins, Philip. 1998. Moral Panic: Changing Concepts of the Child Molester in Modern America. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

"La Scientologie en Suisse. Rapport préparé à l’intention de la Commission Consultative en matière de protection de l’État". 1998. Bern: Département Fédéral de Justice et de Police.

Lewis, James R. 1986. "Reconstructing the ‘Cult’ Experience". Sociological Analysis 47, 2: 151-159.

Lewis, James R. 1989. "Apostates and the Legitimation of Repression: Some Historical and Empirical Perspectives on the Cult Controversy". Sociological Analysis 49, 4: 386-396.

Solomon, Trudy. 1981. "Integrating the Moonie Experience: A Survey of Ex-Members of the Unification Church". In Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony (eds.), In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, Princeton (New Jersey): Rutgers University Press, 275-294.

Wessinger, Catherine. 1997. "Millennialism With and Without the Mayhem". In Thomas Robbins and Susan J. Palmer (eds.), Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem, New York and London: Routledge, 47-59.


[Home Page] [Cos'è il CESNUR] [Biblioteca del CESNUR] [Testi e documenti] [Libri] [Convegni]

[Home Page] [About CESNUR] [CESNUR Library] [Texts & Documents] [Book Reviews] [Conferences]