The Swiss National Council's Report on Cults (July 1, 1999): a preliminary note

by Massimo Introvigne

See full text of the report (in French)

On July 1, 1999 the Commission of Management (Commission de Gestion) released its 59-pages report to the Swiss National Council on "Cults and Indoctrinating Movements in Switzerland". The concept of "indoctrinating movements" (mouvements endoctrinants) is comparatively new (and the expression somewhat awkward) also in French and other European languages. However, the Commission tries with this term to avoid both a judgement about doctrine and religion and the use of the word "brainwashing" (in fact, never used in the report).

Pages 8-12 explain how the Commission worked. It heard a number of witnesses including academic scholars, anti-cultists, members of the mainline churches and of some new religious movements (including Scientology). Pages 12-40 are the core of the report. Possible definitions of "cult" (secte) are examined, but none is accepted as fully satisfactory. The Commission is aware of the mainline Swiss scholarship about new religious movements and reports some key findings, including the small percentage of the Swiss population involved in the movements and the need to examine movements on a case by case basis. While avoiding expressions such as "brainwashing" or "mind control", and noting that even in Europe (where it has not been discussed as much as in the U.S.) there is no academic consensus on the matter, the report defines "indoctrination" as "the key element" in order to keep a movement under watch for possible "cultic" features (p. 24). "Indoctrination", the Commission concedes, is part of a continuum between acceptable forms of influence and undue pressure, and is not easy to define for legal purposes. However, it may involve an "alteration of free will which in some cases may reach the total loss of personal autonomy" (p. 31). In case of "alteration or suppression of free will" (p. 36) the State should protect the individual against the "indoctrinating movement". This is particularly true for two categories: children, and those seriously ill who may believe in pseudo-therapeutic "miracle cures" proposed by some movements.

In conclusion (pages 41-55) the report does not recommend any new legislation against cults. The proposal by the Canton of Geneva to legislate against mind control is regarded as "premature" at the federal level. However, existing laws should be strongly enforced. Particularly, the report adopts a consumer protection approach and suggests a regulation making it easier to apply existing consumer protection statutes to "for-profit spiritual assistance" (p. 51). It also suggests a federal service "of information and consultation", which should not offer information "from one side only", should be secular, and should include both academic scholars and cult awareness activists.

In a paper I co-authored with Jim Richardson ("European Parliamentary and Administrative Reports and the Brainwashing Argument", a first version of which was presented at CESNUR 99 in Bryn Athyn) we argue that European reports may be classified by distinguishing them into Type I documents adopting in full the anti-cult model (France 1996 and 1999, Belgium, Canton of Geneva), and Type II reports taking into account scholarly criticism of the anti-cult model and offering a more balanced perspective (Sweden, Italy, Canton of Ticino), with Germany (1998) as an intermediate case. We also note that, as far as mind control and brainwashing are concerned, Type II reports are only slightly more moderate than Type I reports and, while terminology may vary, the substance of the brainwashing argument is maintained. This is the case for this Swiss document, another Type II report, with a number of acceptable and moderate comments (and no hit list of "dangerous cults"). However, the very notion of "indoctrinating movement" is largely indebted to the anti-cult brainwashing model (although the effort of avoiding terms such as "brainwashing" and "mind control" should also be noted). One should hope that the call for further studies and the repeated indication that academic scholars should be involved in any follow-up to the report will lead Swiss authorities to consider the difference between mainline theories of social influence and control and the anti-cult mythology of brainwashing (called by any other name).

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Sat, Dec 18, 1999