You can tell a nice day from the morning...
"But why wonders in Turin? And why is such a social and national alarm provoked by the wonders of Turin? This is what we shall try to find out, in a rapid tour of the city of wonders of yesterday and today, where the presence of bizarre parties, mad hatters, policemen and queens truly requires Alice as our guide"
While looking for a word of introduction to my reflections about the International Conference of CESNUR Religious and spiritual minorities: towards the 21st Century, held in Turin from September 10 to 12, 1998, I decided to choose this paragraph, taken from the book Il ritorno della magia (The Return of Magic) (1), since it seemed especially suitable.
The Conference, sponsored by the regional government of Piedmont, was held at the Congress Hall of the Industrial Union, in Via Fanti 17.
The comfortable venue of the Industrial Union was well suited for hosting the illustrious personalities of this Conference, and the young Cesnur staff members gave a warm welcome to those attending. In the large entrance hall, two tables displayed many books published by Catholic and non-Catholic publishers, as well as publications donated by "religious minorities" to the CESNUR library. Several publications were available free of charge, such as "The Twelve Tribes Freepaper", the booklet "Restoring and Safeguarding Freedom of Religion, care of the European Office for Human Rights and Public Affairs of the Church of Scientology", folders promoting "Social Compass", an international review of sociology of religion, an issue of "Bullettin de l’Omnium", and others.
The theme of the conference, Religious and spiritual minorities: towards the 21st Century, inspired thoughts of a wonderland, full of mystery, which would have caught the attention of Alice - the famous character of Lewis Carroll.
The words, "religious and spiritual minorities", could indeed include anything in the so-called "spiritual" world, a truly vague and rather misty term. And of course, the vaguer the words, the thicker the mystery, and the greater the curiosity.
The expression "religious minorities" is
intended to replace the old expression, "New Religious Movements", which
in its turn had replaced the "archaic" terms "sect" or "cult". Some
people might find this disquisition on the progressive replacement over
the years, of expressions which seem innocent synonyms describing the same
reality, a waste of time...
Many have probably read George Orwell's novel, "1984". In this story, Newspeak is the official language of Oceania, invented to satisfy the needs of Ingsoc, English Socialism, the regime under whose dictatorship the main character of the novel, Winston, lives. Newspeak was supposed to gradually replace Oldspeak (i.e., English), used before the regime came to power. Final replacement was supposed to take place in 2050, after which nobody was supposed to ever use Oldspeak again. The regime had set up a special Ministry (the Ministry of Truth), in order to change the language, and a team of linguistic experts were employed full time in drawing up the Newspeak dictionary.
A significant paragraph in the novel says: " The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible. It was intended that when Newspeak had been adopted once and for all and Oldspeak forgotten, a heretical thought - that is, a thought diverging from the principles of Ingsoc- should be literally unthinkable, at least so far as thought is dependent on words ... This was done partly by the invention of new words, but chiefly by eliminating undesirable words and by stripping such words as remained of unorthodox meanings, and so far as possible of all secondary meanings whatever... Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought, and this purpose was indirectly assisted by cutting the choice of words down to a minimum" (2).
The "Newspeak" metaphor can help us to
understand how even changing a few words can affect reality. Those who,
on a certain level and speaking from a certain position, use or change
words, never do so by chance. What could be the purpose of the progressive
replacement we find in " cults - new religious movements - religious
movements - religious minorities"? The answer lies perhaps in the
direction that this replacement has taken, towards increasingly inclusive
and general terms.
The data I provide here are taken from the programme and the update sheets distributed by CESNUR, as well as from what I gleaned directly by attending the various sessions.
The Conference was attended by 104 speakers, who attended several sessions (29 altogether). According to the data provided by CESNUR, 54 are professors or academics variously associated with Universities, 11 are listed as students who are working for their degree or their Ph.D, 30 are presented without any title, 6 are lawyers, 1 a politician, 1 a member of a foundation, 1 a psychiatrist. 14 scheduled speakers did not turn up. Some speakers were members of "religious minorities". These included: Cristina Valle of the Hindu Union of Carcare, Jane Williams-Hogan of the Academy of the New Church College, Bryn Athyn, Mario Affuso of the Italian Apostolic Church, Paolo Fezzi, Buddhist. Mario Ambrosetti of the National Federation of Sukyo Mahikari, S. Yogananda Giri of the Italian Hindu Union and others also spoke.
The number of participants, including the speakers who took turns as listeners, changed from session to session, and was generally between 80 and 120, with a minimum of 65 and a peak of about 150.
Besides people who came out of curiosity, those attending for other reasons -including several Catholic priests - and the observers, there were also members of such "religious minorities" as Aumists, Hindus, Kremmerzians, Raelians, Scientologists, followers of the Reverend Moon, Mormons, Mahikari, Apostolicals, Damanhurians, Swedenborgians, Orthodox, Buddhists, etc.
Also present were members of GRIS (Group for Research and Information on Sects), of ARCA, and even of CAN (Cult Awareness Network). The presence of representatives of several associations, interested for various reasons in the issue of "religious minorities", also gave me an opportunity to get to know several activities.
During the coffee break, while speaking to other attendees, I had the interesting experience of meeting a young man, who introduced himself as the director of the Italian branch of CAN (Cult Awareness Network). Such congresses afford an opportunity for making contact between associations dealing with the same issues, exchanging information on case histories and comparing operations in the field of shared interest. Among other things, this person told me that CESNUR occasionally receives requests for help from people with problems due to some "religious minority"; since it is not CESNUR's task to provide such help, CESNUR addresses such people to CAN, among others [see this important advice].
I also had the pleasure
of meeting and sharing views and information with Gianni Trapletti and
Paolo Maggi, members of ARCA, a Catholic group which deals with the issue
of "religious minorities". It was an interesting exchange, which would
not have been possible without this Congress, with its variuous stimulating
Any object can be observed in a different manner, depending on the perspective of the observer. Perspectives are always partial, and it is never possible to look at all the aspects of one phenomenon at the same time. This is why choosing one perspective instead of another is very important for an overall and final description of the object being observed. The paper entitled Who is Afraid of Religious Minorities? The Social Construction of a Moral Panic, read in full by Massimo Introvigne, introduced the Conference. It shows, in a certain sense, the perspective from which the Conference dealt with the issue of " Religious and spiritual minorities: towards the 21st Century ".
The title of the paper clearly reveals the perspective which was chosen: religious minorities are viewed as the target of unjustified attacks, out of all proportion to the actual danger they may pose to society. These unjustified attacks, spread by the mass media and by anti-cult organisations, are supposed to have led to a reaction of "moral panic". "Moral panics were 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" (3). "Moral panics" supposedly have the function of presenting social problems which have been around for decades as something new, thus exaggerating their impact, thanks to the spreading of "folklore statistics", not supported by academic studies.
While this stance is perfectly in line with the point of view of the speaker, the issue might also be put in a completely opposite manner. For example, in cases of mass suicides/homicides or of the Tokyo gas outrage, many people complained that certain groups, the dangerousness of which was already known to the authorities, were never properly monitored and enjoyed de facto impunity, since they were "religious" groups and hence above all control.
A typical case is that of Aum Shinrikyo. According to Prof. Beit-Hallahmi, Japanese authorities were not only cautious but even negligent and possibly protective towards the criminal activities of Aum, thanks to its status as a NRM. It seems that serious evidence had already turned up, before the outrage, concerning certain activities by Aum which would have required far more careful police monitoring - 33 Aum followers killed between 1988 and 1995, another 21 missing and perhaps dead, a triple homicide in 1989, and another nerve gas attack in 1994 which killed 7 people, along with other less serious crimes which the police had not investigated (4).
If one views so-called "religious minorities" from this point of view, one can hardly say that societies and governments exert repressive police action against them; indeed, one could say that they enjoy a certain "freedom of action" thanks to the shield provided to them by - among others - scholars, experts, academics, researchers, lawyers and politicians strenuously engaged in defending "freedom of religion".
Therefore, if the issue of discrimination against "religious minorities" does exist, there is also the opposite problem of overly protected minorities which commit crimes. The proper attitude of course is to distinguish objectively among them; however it is strange, to say the least, that certain scholars made the long trip to Japan only in order to defend an organisation which, according to several sources, had for years been committing illegal actions, some very serious, and which peaked in the Tokyo outrage.
In such cases, an attempt is often made in court to justify the organisation involved, claiming it has nothing to do with deeds committed by a few individual members. This kind of defence can however be counterproductive, since it could play into the hands of those who intend to exploit the label of "religion" in order to achieve a sort of "legal impunity".
When the author of a crime can be clearly identified, one must ask whether this individual is a monad isolated from any context, with no relations to the group he belongs to. Such a group certainly includes honest people in good faith, but also less honest people who give orders and use their followers to implement them. In ordinary crimes, it is not only the person who actually commits them who is sought, but also the person commissioning the deed. When a murderer is suspected of belonging to a criminal group, investigations focus not only on him, but also on possible instigators. Investigators also have to look for those commissioning and paying for the crime, since it is only by tracking down instigators and planners that one can pull out the root of the criminal enterprise.
This very obvious procedure in ordinary cases is supposedly not suited for dealing with crimes committed in the "world of religious minorities".
In the Tokyo case, for example, we may ask: were the people who placed the nerve gas in the underground simply deranged individuals who just "happened" to have some gas at home, and decided to spend a few free moments releasing it in the underground for the amusement of the passengers? And were the people who "committed suicide" or were murdered at Jonestown just suddenly seized by an incomprehensible and contagious fit which led them to prepare a poisonous brew which they "freely" drank and "freely" administered to their children? Did Jim Jones simply "invite" his followers to commit an act which they "freely" executed? And in this case too, did nobody in the US suspect anything, and was nobody aware of Jim Jones "eccentricity"? Or can we say that there was a guilty passivity on the part of those who could have done something? And did nobody ever notice the weapons stockpiled in the Waco ranch, or did somebody know and let things run?
These are doubts which come to mind when we consider certain very serious facts which are called to our attention by the mass media, certainly in a scandal-mongering and crude fashion. One can agree with this criticism of the media, but one is left with the suspicion that it can also mask the unease of those who do not appreciate the broadcasting of alarming, but unfortunately true, information on certain groups, since they fear that this "bad publicity" could affect other, similar, groups.
Speaking of such serious episodes, Introvigne says "The real problem, however, is prevalence, not existence" (5). Does this mean that, since these are sporadic episodes, generalised implication of all groups should be avoided? In this case, one can only agree. If however, it means that one should extend the same criteria used in sociological research, opinion polls or epidemiological studies, then we honestly cannot share this view. In the case of an illness in a country, the statistical principle holds according to which health authorities must intervene only when such an illness has a statistically significant effect on the population; however, we do not believe that this method can be applied in the same fashion to such serious episodes as those we mentioned. This would in fact be equivalent to the statement, that the TRUE problem is not whether mass suicides, poison gas outrages, murders or fraud actually take place, but only in WHAT PERCENTAGE!
The introductory paper at the CESNUR conference also mentions the existence of something like an "anti-cult" coalition, whose members are called "moral entrepreneurs" who supposedly amplify social panic. Such "moral entrepreneurs" supposedly have a "vested interested" in amplifying information and exaggerating the seriousness of the phenomenon. What such interests are is never specified, although it is explicitly stated that " … some of them receive today in several European countries an unprecedented degree of public support" (6).
Such vague statements, not bolstered by any clear information or certain evidence, only create an atmosphere of suspicion. It would be better if those who know of any "vested interests" of individuals or groups in fomenting hatred against religious minorities clearly specified names, places and circumstances, so as to unmask any abuses or even crimes or violations of the rights of such groups to profess and spread their beliefs freely. Should such accusations be proved, this would serve a positive social function; if, on the other hand, this is mere hearsay, it can only help to discredit the so-called "anti-cult" movements. In this case one is free to suspect that someone else may have "personal interests".
The paper then includes a critique of what are called "Type I reports", such as those of the French and Belgian parliaments… these are supposed to follow a "four stage pattern" and to " …have adopted an interpretative model that is … a virtual guarantee that moral panics will be inflated rather than deflated" (7). These reports are supposed to be based on the so-called brainwashing theories, used to discriminate against religious groups, as contrasted with all others. Speaking of the reliability of such theories, the speaker says that "By the end of the 1980s the first "crude" theories of brainwashing had been largely debunked in the English-speaking debate " (8).
For a proper understanding of the circumstances which conditioned the debate about these theories, and made it particularly heated, further examination of the context in which it took place would be necessary (9).
The other criticism against "Type I reports" is "apostates", i.e. " … the former members converted into active opponents of the group they have left" (10), are used as sources, while the contribution of scholars is rejected; concerning this matter, we refer to a previous article (11). In any case, it should be appreciated that the speaker explained that the term "apostate" is only "technical, not derogatory", and also hinted at the possibility of replacing this term in the future, a change which we believe would be good idea. Mention should also be made of Introvigne's statement, that "apostates" are "an interesting minority" (supposed to be around 15-20 percent of former members) and that " 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" (12). These data, drawn from empirical studies and " … available only for a limited number of new religious movements…" (13), are certainly not final, but they are interesting, and show that, in the case of certain groups, there is active dissent on the part of a minority (a percentage of 15-20% does not seem negligible to us), while the "majority" is supposed to have "mixed feelings" about the group the belonged to.
Certainly, former members, when asked to speak of the group they have left, will give different information and express different opinions. For this reason, anybody seeking truthful information has a very difficult task.
Perhaps one useful criterion for distinguishing between various testimonies, and making the best use of them, is to assign greater reliability to those which are supported by a certain amount of evidence, documents and other useful comparisons; such material, it appears, is often provided by so-called "apostates" too. It would be interesting, and objective, to compare the documentation provided by the critics of the group with the documentation in the hands of the organisation. In our experience, it has often happened that the group replies to the documentation provided by the "apostate", by merely declaring it to be false, without providing any evidence.
Why should the burden of proof always lie on the shoulders of so-called "apostates"?
The final part of the paper says that moral panics "… disappear when either the general public loses interest in the issue, or is reached by more balanced assessments and statistics"(14).
We hope that any such "loss of interest" on the part of the public will be due to a change of the climate, with an end being put to episodes of serious abuse such as take place in certain "religious" organisations. If the climate changes, and abuses against individuals cease, then there will no longer be any talk of a "danger posed by cults". This would be better for all concerned, including those who defend religious freedom.
We also hope that "more balanced assessments and statistics" will be real, and obtained using scientific methods, objectively and without ideological prejudices. Objective and accurate research and information will certainly be of service to society as a whole, and will help to discriminate between "religious minorities" which need to be "defended" and those which should be monitored since their actions are harmful to human rights. However, if information and scientific research continue to be the uncontested and uncontrollable monopoly of a few individuals, then there will be a lasting risk of favouring antidemocratic systems which are only interested in continuing to hold power without being controlled in any way.
Let us hope that the history of our times
will not be remembered for such a "catastrophe". Should there actually
be such a danger, then there would be reason for all to fear, and the "panic"
in such a case would not be only "moral", but would turn into a "real panic".
(9) We refer to the Memorandum, signed by the BSERP (11 maggio 1987) and by some members of Professional Bodies. For further information, we invite you to read some other articles.
(11) Cfr. Blind or just don’t want to see?