An early May conference of the American Family Foundation (AFF) showed a growing effort to forge a middle ground between “anti-cultists” and so-called “cult apologists,” as well as revealing new divisions on questions of religious freedom for minority religious groups.
Anti-cultists have usually been tagged by their concern with “brainwashing” or thought reform and other abuses by cults, while “cult apologists” is the name anticultists dub scholars — usually sociologists — who see little validity in the thought reform label and tend to view new religious movements as legitimate expressions of religion whose freedoms need to be defended.
The AFF conference, held in Newark, N.J., is the leading anti-cultist gathering in the U.S., but there was a conciliatory mood running through the proceedings, with some considered “cult apologists” invited to the sessions. “There’s a growing dialogue and conversation between different groups and even with new religious movements. We’re rejecting the `cult wars.’You don’t paint groups you don’t like as a cult. But you have to look at the process of manipulation and control [in some groups],” said Michael Langone, director of AFF.
Rutgers University sociologist Benjamin Zablocki said there is a “third camp” of scholars emerging who eschew the extremism on both sides of the cult controversy. They would not rule out abuse and even thought reform in certain cases while avoiding the broad-brush tactics of some anti-cultists. The problem is that much of the debate has been over legal and policy issues. Defenders of new religions and anti-cultists have been involved in litigation cases (such as over child custody or abuse) where polarization is intensified, Zablocki said.
Zablocki added that the matter of religious freedom, particularly in Europe, will continue to be a divisive issue in the near future. The matter is far from academic. New religious movements are expanding throughout the world, with Russian, Japanese and other groups from foreign countries starting satellite branches in the U.S. Judging from the roster of speakers at the conference, U.S. anticultists are likewise building new ties to and collaborating with their colleagues in Europe and Russia who have recently expanded efforts to monitor, and in some cases, restrict cults and minority religions.
As Langone and others noted, anti-cultists are likely to balance religious freedom with cultural concerns (i.e., the right of a nation to restrict some religious expressions thought to be harmful to its culture) and the rights of individuals who have been victimized by abusive groups.
One session on governmental responses to cults brought together officials from state services monitoring “cult” activities in several European countries, including France, Belgium, and Austria. Several of these state services are interacting with anti-cultist associations . . . Representatives from those official institutions attend conferences organized by cult-watching organizations (though it should be added that some representatives, such as those from Belgium, have also participated in several recent academic conferences on new religious movements).
These representatives included Henri de Cordes, vice-president of the official Information and Advice Center on Harmful Sectarian Organizations (Brussels), who cited a wide range of measures to investigate cults in those cases where public security could potentially be threatened. In Austria, a Federal Office for Sectarian Questions was created in 1998. According to its manager German Muller, among the office’s tasks are the collection of information, advice to concerned people and exchange of information with other organizations in Austria and abroad. In France, the president of the Interministerial Mission for Combating Cults, expressed confidence that a law recently adopted by the French Senate (approved by the National Assembly in late May) in order to strengthen prevention and repression of cults deemed to be harmful, would be implemented next year.
The fact that France tends to play a key role in the international “fight against cults” at a State level was emphasized by Friedrich Griess, a leading member of the Austrian Society Against the Dangers of Sects and Cults and the vice-president of the FECRIS (European Federation of Centres of Research and Information on Sectarianism): the international activities of the FECRIS would not have been possible without the subsidies allotted to the Federation by the French government, he explained.
Meanwhile, scholars working on new religious movements as well as cult-watching groups increasingly come across unexpected visitors at conferences or at their offices — official representatives, academics or journalists from the Peoples Republic of China. Those visitors seem eager not only to inquire about the international situation, but also to warn about Falun Gong, the Chinese meditation movement, and justify the policy followed by the Chinese government against it, as well as to find new arguments in order to legitimize the repression currently going on.
There is now a Chinese Anticult Association (CAC) with nicely presented pamphlets in English. Despite claims about its independent character, there is little doubt to outsiders that it enjoys strong support from the Chinese authorities. However, it is not uninteresting to listen to some of the reports about Falun Gong by Chinese scholars attending conferences such as the AFF. While there are papers which sound rather like propaganda exercises, other ones — while hostile to Falun Gong — also offer useful insight and research about the background of this movement.
Especially informative was a paper by Zixian Deng, currently a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of North Texas. According to his research, one could distinguish four stages in the history of Falun Gong. The first stage lasted from 1991 to 1993, the group was then a mixture of Qigong (Chinese healing teachings and practices) and Taoism. Its leader Master Li was just considered a mere human being, explained Zixian Deng.
The second stage, from 1994 to 1996, was marked by an increasing criticism toward the other schools of Qigong, all seen as corrupt, while traditional religions also are seen as having declined; the role of the Master increased in the doctrine of the group, he came to be seen as endowed with unique abilities (omniscience, etc.).
Since 1996 the group is reported to have become increasingly active in proselytizing activities. In the Fourth stage: since 1999, the Chinese government is seen as devilish due to its reaction against the group, God is testing the disciples and uses the Chinese government for that purpose. If the Chinese scholar’s interpretation is correct, Falun Gong began as a mere meditation group, but rapidly evolved into a group holding a salvific truth and with a much more ambitious purpose.
On March 17, 2000, several hundred members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG), a schismatic group around a group of visionaries who had come out of the Roman Catholic Church, lost their lives in a fire in Kanungu, a small town in South-Western Uganda. Subsequently, 444 bodies were uncovered in mass graves at four different locations in Uganda. reporting on his preliminary research in Uganda, Jean-Francois Mayer of the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, cast doubt on the view that the disaster was associated with an endtime expectation in late 1999.
Actually, the group had consistently predicted for many years that the endtimes would arrive in 2000 and the beginning of a new earth in 2001. This does not mean that there was not possibly an element of prophetic failure in the events: after a recent trip to Uganda, Mayer tends to think that the group had developed a kind of Catholic version of the rapture: the elect would be taken to Heaven, and there would still be a few months left for a group of people to repent and preach the message. Many questions still remain, however, including whether the leaders of the group perished during the incident.
Mayer attempted to draw some parallels with other cases of religious violence over the past few years. But he also found that there are a number of other emergent and new religious groups in that part of the world, including movements in Uganda coming out of the same Marian visionary background as the MRTCG. While nothing indicates as yet that other groups are inclined to follow the same path, religious innovation in Uganda and other countries is a development in need of more investigation.
— This report was written with J.F. Mayer