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Cults need vigilance, not alarmism

18 June 2008

New religious movements are best monitored rationally, argues James Beckford

Released: children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints being returned to their parents this month AP

Released: children from the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints being returned to their parents this month AP

THIS YEAR sees both the 30th anniversary of the Jonestown massacre, and the 20th anniversary of Inform (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), a charity providing information on “cults”, or new religious movements.

At Jonestown in Guyana, more than 900 people died — most were murdered by the Revd Jim Jones and the supporters of his People’s Temple commune. The years since 1978 have been punctuated by other episodes of violence involving cults. The Solar Temple, the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and Aum Shinrikyo all illustrate the tragic fallout from intense spiritual communities, which either destroy themselves, or fall victim to botched attempts to control them.

These episodes raise difficult questions about the appropriate public response to religious groups that may be abusive or violent. The main challenge for public authorities is to devise a strategy for dealing with any problems without complacency, alarmism, or heavy-handedness. Access to good-quality information about alleged wrongdoing in religious groups is essential to such a strategy.

One response to such allegations is to lump all unconventional religious groups together into a single category of “cults”, and to argue that public authorities should not only monitor their activities, but also prevent them from operating. Part of the argument is that, by definition, cults are not really religious, and so should not benefit from the privileges that are still available to mainstream religions.

This response also voices a strong sense of indignation that government is wilfully neglecting to protect citizens against the allegedly growing threat of cultic brainwashing and the exploitation of innocent victims. As such, this amounts to a populist clamour to “clobber the cults”, perhaps echoing the policies of successive governments in France for dealing with “cultic aberrations” (dérives sectaires).

French authorities have commissioned several parliamentary inquiries into new religious movements since the 1980s, and introduced legislation designed to outlaw “the abuse of ignorance or weakness” that is supposedly associated with them. France also has an Inter-ministerial Mission for Vigilance in the Struggle against Cultic Aberrations (la MIVILUDES), which co-ordinates its public-sector response.

The response of British Governments has been different. They have consistently taken the line that the activities of religious groups — however controversial or unconventional — require no special legislation, provided that they remain on the right side of the law. The key issue is not whether an action is defined as a “cultic aberration”, but whether it breaks the law, or threatens to do so.

This approach can work well, but only if public authorities have access to reliable information about problems that might arise in any religious group. On the other hand, there can, of course, be varieties of harm that fall into ambiguous territory as far as the law is concerned.

Authorities in the UK keep a watching brief on religious groups, and take action against individuals convicted of illegal activity. So that people can make informed choices, Inform — founded by Professor Eileen Barker of the LSE, with the support of the Home Office and mainstream Churches — provides information that is as accurate and up to date as possible.

Inform is criticised in some places for failing to signal the harm that religious movements are alleged to cause, and for neglecting to advocate the suppression of cults. These criticisms are doubly misguided.

First, they show ignorance of the fact that Inform regularly supplies the relevant authorities with any evidence that it collects of the illegality or serious harm of which some movements are accused.

Second, Inform’s function is not to campaign for or against religious movements: it is to collect and assess the best available information, on which law-makers, law-enforcers, and the general public can base their decisions about the threat that movements may represent. This requires a rational approach to cult controversies — not a knee-jerk reaction.

No tragedy on the scale of Jonestown or Waco has occurred in the UK, but there is still a need for reliable, objective information about religious movements. This is partly because the internet and other new technologies have given a boost to the market for entrepreneurs in all faith traditions. The result is that the scope for fraud and exploitation has increased dramatically in cyberreligion — alongside many perfectly lawful initiatives.

There is also a need for information about new movements in religion because the growing interest in strands of Christianity emphasising “deliverance” and “possession” has raised questions about the potential for abuse, particularly of children.

In addition, the growing number of children and grandchildren being born into the religious movements that were new in the 1960s calls for careful research. As the current case of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in the United States illustrates (News, 11 April), states have a responsibility towards minors.

People need reliable information if they act on concerns about communities that have few contacts with the surrounding society. Religious movements may change, but the need for Inform’s objective approach remains as strong as ever.

Dr James A. Beckford is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the University of Warwick, and chairman of Inform’s management committee (www.inform.ac).

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