Friday, May 29, 2009

Cults, sects, and the Scientology trial

On Wednesday I had a post about the Scientology trial in France and was wondering about the line between cults and religions. Well...Laura Sizer to the rescue. She sent me an entry from the Encyclopedia of Religion (ed. Lindsay Jones; 2nd Edition). It is a fascinating read and it seems that there is no real consensus on these terms. Below are excerpts in the entry in the encyclopedia on Cults and Sects by Massimo Introvigne.
First on the usage of the terms:
The terms cult and sect are regarded as stereotype-loaded terms that are associated with new or unpopular religious movements, and these terms are thus mostly avoided by scholars. They are, however, widely used by the media and by groups (especially so-called anticult groups) that perceive certain new religious movements as objectionable and dangerous. In contemporary English, cult functions as the derogatory word, with sect reserved for less controversial groups. In French, German, Spanish, and Italian, the derogatory word is the local equivalent of sect, and the word cult is rarely used. Some dictionaries now translate the French secte and similar non-English words with cult rather than with sect. Originally, however, the English cult and sect were nonpejorative, scholarly terms.
But people have made attempts at the definition of cults and sects over the past century. It should be noted, however, that many of these definitions have largely been abandoned by sociologists. However, for a sampling, here is one of the earliest definitions by Ernst Troeltsch:
Ernst Troeltsch (1865–1923), a German theologian and sociologist, elaborated in the early twentieth century an influential distinction between churches, sects, and mysticism. Churches, according to Troeltsch, are religious groups well integrated into the larger society. A typical mark of this integration is the fact that most members are born into churches, rather than converted to them. Coming to conclusions similar to those of Max Weber (1864–1920), Troeltsch saw the sect as a religious movement where most members are first-generation converts. Troeltsch's "sect" refers to a group that is typically hostile or indifferent to the larger society and that may criticize churches as being "this-worldly." Sects prefer to remain poor and comparatively small rather than compromise their integrity. Sects, however, may eventually evolve into churches and move toward the mainstream, being replaced at the margins of the religious field by new sects. This happens less often, according to Troeltsch, with mysticism, which is less structured and organized, and survives as a sum of individual experiences.
But of course, almost all of these boundaries have problems. You can read more about those in the encyclopedia entry. More to the current concerns, cults and sects have become a loaded term today and sociologists prefer using new religious movements:
Eventually, Stark, Bainbridge, and Wilson all recognized that cult and sect were becoming ambiguous labels and should preferably be avoided. Sociologists may use them in a purely neutral, Troeltschian way, without implying that cults or sects are morally or socially "evil," or less acceptable than "genuine" religions. However, since the media, beginning in the 1970s, were using the words cult and sect to mean dangerous or even criminal religious organizations, most sociologists and historians of religion eventually accepted the proposal by Eileen Barker to use new religious movement as a value-free, nonderogatory substitute for sect or cult. The term new religions had already been introduced by various authors, but had gained more acceptance in literature written in French rather than in English. Although there are problems with the concept of "new religious movement," a large majority of scholars follow Barker's suggestion, and the small minority of academics still using sect or cult is in fact making an implicit statement of sympathy with the goals of the anticult movement.
Relevant to the ongoing Scientology trial in France, there is a fascinating discussion of the anticult movement, both in the US and abroad. Furthermore, it is bizarre to find out about their brainwashing accusations and their appalling deprogramming. It seems that the US courts have ruled against these deprogramming efforts - and heck we still have Gtmo in business. But Europe, it seems, is still buying into this:

For the anticult movement, the distinction is simple. Religions and churches are joined out of free will. Cults and sects (the distinction between the two being somewhat blurred) use mind control, or "brainwashing," in order to attract members and keep them within the fold. Although only a tiny minority of academic scholars throughout the world would take this distinction seriously, it has been used in parliamentary reports and laws (particularly in Europe) and is still widely quoted by the news media.
Based on the brainwashing arguments, private vigilantes started kidnapping adult members of new religious movements on behalf of their families, then subjected them to a sort of "counterbrainwashing" technique, which they called deprogramming. The largest organization of the American anticult movement, the Cult Awareness Network, was often accused of referring families to deprogrammers, although courts were initially tolerant of the practice.

Criticism of the brainwashing model was offered by the American Sociological Association and the American Psychological Association, as well as by several prominent scholars of new religious movements. Scholarly criticism eventually reversed the trend toward belief in brainwashing in U.S. courts, starting in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in United States v. Fishman (1990). Some later decisions deviated in varying degrees from Fishman, so this ruling did not spell out once and for all the death of the brainwashing theory. Nevertheless, an important precedent had been set in the United States that later triggered a chain of events which led to the end of deprogramming and even of the largest American anticult organization, the Cult Awareness Network. Caught in the act of referring a family to deprogrammers, the Cult Awareness Network was sentenced to such a heavy fine that it was forced to file for bankruptcy. In 1996 the court-appointed trustee-in-bankruptcy sold by auction the organization's files, name, and logo to a coalition of religious liberty activists led by Church of Scientology members.

This is where the current case against Scientology comes in and it builds on a 2001 amendment to the French criminal law that specifically targets cults and sects (also read this Guardian article from 2001: France arms itself with legal weapon to fight sects):
Although the brainwashing theory lost its momentum in U.S. courts in the 1990s, the suicides and homicides associated with the Temple Solaire in Switzerland and France in 1994 and 1995 gave the theory new impetus in Europe, where it influenced parliamentary reports (largely unaware of the complicated history of the U.S. controversy) and even resulted in a controversial amendment to the French criminal code in 2001. Paradoxically, although the concept of brainwashing was used during the Cold War in American anticommunist propaganda targeting Chinese Communists, the ideology of brainwashing was used in the People's Republic of China beginning in 1999 to distinguish between "evil cults" and legitimate "religions" in a campaign that initially targeted Falun Gong, but was extended to several underground Christian organizations. The same rationale was applied by the French government's several attempts to prevent "cults" such as the Church of Scientology from operating in France, starting from a parliamentary report published in 1996. In the United States, notwithstanding the prevailing attitude of the courts against the theory of brainwashing, brainwashing metaphors were widely used by the media to provide a quick explanation for why such groups as the Branch Davidians and even al-Qā‘idah should be seen as cults rather than religions.

Although only a handful of academics accept them, distinctions between legitimate "religions" and dangerous "cults" and "sects" remain popular in some European political milieus and in the media, while acquiring a new currency to explain suicide terrorism in the wake of the events of September 11, 2001.

Well...all of this places the Scientology trial in a whole new light [Read more about the French anti-cult measure here and here]. I can't believe I'm saying this - but my sympathies here are with Tom Cruise. And as a bonus, here is Colbert as Scientology's New Galactic Overlord - but also notice his balancing dig at Christianity:

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Space Module: Colbert - Scientology's New Galactic Overlord
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorKeyboard Cat


Anonymous said...


Mark Gisleson said...

There are many benchmarks for cults that you haven't mentioned. Cults favor submission to the leader. Not just like a Catholic to the Pope but in real and immediate terms. It's hard to imagine many Catholics knowingly drinking poisoned koolaid just because the Pope said so. Cults leaders are also known to sleep with their followers which I think is taboo in every known religion.

This is an awkward topic to discuss briefly, but if your definition of cult does not include Scientology or Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, you either don't believe in cults or you don't know much about those groups.

I speak as an atheist, and I will not cede that religions necessarily are preferential to cults, only that they are two different things however much they may resemble each other at times.

Salman Hameed said...


I was pointing out the problems of such narrow classifications. You mention two more benchmarks. Lets briefly take a look at both:
"Cults favor submission to the leader. Not just like a Catholic to the Pope but in real and immediate terms."
There are (at least) several hundred new religious movements - and many are beyond their second or third generation following their founders (hmm...Mormonism, Jehova's witnesses - or even in the category of UFO religions, the Unarians).

"Cults leaders are also known to sleep with their followers which I think is taboo in every known religion."
Really, is this a benchmark??? So yes, one may define a cult like that. But that will make most New Religious movements qualify as a regular religion - as you only hear about the most notorious ones. One may also define a "cult" as suicidal (from your poisoned koolaid example). But then again, a vast vast majority of New Religions are non-suicidal - and on the flip side a number of mainstream religions have apocalyptic visions (such as Mahdism in Islam) that may make them qualify as a cult by your definition.

I don't think there is any sharp boundary between a cult and a religion - and we need to appreciate this complexity. One can, of course, define a category with Scientology in mind (alien-based, secretive, limited membership, etc.) - and then claim that Scientology is a cult. But then this will not be a universal category.

Mark Gisleson said...

Newness doesn't make for a cult. New religions have every right to spring up in response to people's spiritual needs. But the stronger and more "hands on" the leadership, the more I worry about cultism.

I really don't think there are many tough calls on this one. If the leader of the "religion" benefits disproportionately, you've got a cult. And yes, I think many mega-churches are clearly cults in the making whatever their broader affiliation.

Salman Hameed said...

"I really don't think there are many tough calls on this one. If the leader of the "religion" benefits disproportionately, you've got a cult. And yes, I think many mega-churches are clearly cults in the making whatever their broader affiliation."

And so is the Catholic Church. So was Iran under Khomeini. So are the Ismailis under their Aga Khans. If these are all cults, then I have no problem putting Scientology in the this category.

(Regarding benefits for the leader, check out Jared Diamond's chapter on Kleptocracy in Guns, Germs, and Steel. Also, for problems in defining religions, see his lecture on The Evolution of Religions here.)

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