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French National Assembly re-introduced amended law on “cults"

(Russian SWAT team raiding the premises of a “cult” (AI-generated based on actual images released by the Russian police of anti-cult raids of February 2024)

The following article was written recently by Eileen Barker O.B.E. She is Professor emerita of Sociology at the London School of Economics. She is widely regarded as one of leading contemporary sociologists of religion and the founder of the academic subfield of new religious movements studies. In 1988, she founded INFORM, the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, with the aim of offering unbiased information on new religious movements to the media and the public.

I don't agree with all her views and have highlighted the points where I find her take on cults problematic.

What do you think?

The French National Assembly has re-introduced in the amended law on “cults” the crime of “psychological subjection” the Senate had eliminated.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of political approach to legislation. There are those states that punish perpetrators for an actual harm “after” they have been proved guilty in court of law. This is the approach to be found in the USA, the UK, and most other Western democracies. Alternatively, there are those States which claim to protect their citizens from potential harm “before” any criminal act has been perpetrated. This latter approach tends to be found among some of the more totalitarian states, such as Russia and China—but also, it might appear, in France for instigating a law that is designed to protect its citizens from potential harm from groups exhibiting “dérives sectaires,” a concept roughly equivalent to religious movements referred to by the pejorative term “cults” in English. This can mean not only that behavior by one religion, labelled as a “cult,” can be deemed criminal in law whilst the same act performed by a group considered a “religion” could be perfectly legal, but also that “cults” may be legally condemned before they have actually done anything illegal other than being labelled a “cult.”(= this is something the Watchtower fears, being labeled as a cult beforehand)

There is, however, no agreed definition of a “cult,” the term generally being used to denote a religion or other movement of which one disapproves. I cannot tell the number of times I have been asked whether a particular movement is a “cult” or a “real religion.” If I ask what the questioners mean by a “cult,” they are rarely able to give a coherent reply, but might, on being pressed, mumble something about brainwashing, child abuse, suicide, murder, or belief in some kind of satanic heresy, whereupon I am usually able to reassure them that the movement in question does not fit their description.(= we know this is not true if a "religion" has systematically portray this characteristics , that is, failing to protect CSA victims or lead members with their practices to suicide then the authorities should have their right to extent their powers via legislation)

Countries such as Russia and China solve the problem of definition simply by creating lists that designate certain movements as criminal. In the Russian case, the members of such movements are said to be reading extremist literature and are thus themselves extremist and the movement is banned. In the case of China, there is a list of “xie jiao” (literally “unorthodox teachings,” but commonly translated as “evil cults”). Any religion on the list is automatically defined as a criminal organization rather than a religion and thus not eligible for the protection of any right to religious freedom.

Whilst acknowledging that no satisfactory definition of “cults” exists, a report to the French National Assembly in 1995 included a list of over 170 cults including several that are accepted as “ordinary (legitimate) religions” in most other democracies. Designation as a “cult” was justified by itemizing a number of examples of “bad things” that had been done by one or more of the movements—but most, if not all, of these “bad things” were covered by the law anyway, and most, if not all, of them had been committed by mainstream, legitimate religions as well. One might well ask why there is any need to introduce a special law when “bad things” are already covered—or could as easily be covered—by universally applicable legislation. As it happens, the 1995 list was not adopted in law, but it is still being used to categorize and discriminate against the named movements as “cults.”

Let me turn now to the subject of mental manipulation, psychological subjugation, and “brainwashing.” Such terms are used pretty much interchangeably. “Brainwashing” is a concept which has been ruled out of court in the USA and elsewhere when so-called “experts” have tried to introduce it. It dates back to the 1950s and the days of the Korean war when the USA attempted to explain why a small number of US prisoners of war had apparently been made to pledge allegiance to communism. The clinical psychologist Margaret Singer was one of those instrumental in attempting to legitimize the “brainwashing” theory to explain how “cults” influenced their members, but her claims were rejected following scrutiny by both the American Psychological Association and the US courts.

In the 1970s, the concept of “brainwashing” was being popularized by the media, by a growing number of so-called “anti-cult” organizations, and by concerned parents who were having difficulty understanding how their (adult) children could have converted to a strange group and were now believing and doing things that they would not have previously chosen to do. These parents were being told that the explanation was their offspring had been “brainwashed,” and so the “victims” would be unable to free themselves. Consequently, hundreds of parents were paying large sums to professional “deprogrammers” to “save” converts by illegally kidnapping them until they managed to escape or convince their captors that they had renounced their faith. Often this was a traumatic experience for the convert and many of those who subsequently returned to their religion would tell horror stories about how they had been treated.

As a sociologist, who is concerned about the relationship between individuals and society, I saw both “brainwashing” and deprogramming as interesting concepts apparently describing extreme situations of a social context having control over the individual. I was also of the opinion that if the converts were not “brainwashed,” then they should be allowed to manifest their religion—so long as they did not break the law to which everyone was subject. If, on the other hand, they had been subjected to some kind of well-nigh irresistible and irreversible techniques, as deprogrammers were asserting, then something should be done, and they ought to be helped by specially trained professionals rather than the self-appointed deprogrammers.

A chance meeting with members of the Unification movement (UM), which was one of the most dreaded and generally disliked new religions at the time, led me to undergo a research project in which I asked whether Unificationists were freely choosing to convert or whether they had, indeed, had their capacity to choose removed by the movement.(=you know how that works out in the Jehovah's Witnesses, don't we?)

Whilst the posited “brainwashing” / mental manipulation might be described as a (potentially illegal) “process” by which people become members of a “cult” and thereafter do whatever the “cult” wants them to do, one of my first observations was that, rather than describing, let alone explaining, such a process, people seemed more likely to express disapproval of the “result” of the process (the new beliefs and/or actions of the convert), this result being something strongly disapproved of that only a process such as “brainwashing” could explain. In other words, it was frequently the consequences of the conversion rather than the conversion process itself that was being proffered as proof of manipulative techniques.

However, there were some claims to describe and explain the process itself. These fell into three main categories. First there was physical control, when the subjects were held against their will, as had been the case with the American prisoners of war. Physical control is, however, extremely rare among any of the religions on “cult” lists. However, it was true in many of the deprogrammings that were taking place at the time; there were cases when captives or their movements had tried to contact the police after a “snatch” and the police had turned a blind eye. There was also at least one case when a writ of habeas corpus by the UM was rejected by a judge on the grounds that the parents knew best what was right for their 28-year-old daughter. It was only after being held in captivity in a foreign country for over a month that the woman was able to return to the UM.

A second description of “brainwashing” is that the brain, if not literally washed (“brainwashing” is, of course, a metaphor), is made to malfunction through various means such as drugs, sleep deprivation, or poor diet. I attended several of the residential weekend workshops that were run by the UM and were said to be the place where the “brainwashing” occurred, and I spoke to scores of others who had also undergone the experience. Like me, none of them could say that they had been deprived of more sleep or given worse diets than might have happened on plenty of other occasions, and participants were instructed that under no circumstances should they take any drugs during the workshop.

The third description, rather than being of “brainwashing,” might more appropriately be termed mind control or mental manipulation, sometimes with the suggestion that some sort of hypnotic Svengali-like techniques were being employed to control the mind of victims so they could no longer exercise their free will.

For millennia, philosophers have argued over the existence of free will and determinism, often ending with various examples of circular argument. Unificationists told me that when they protested that they were not “brainwashed” they would frequently be told that they had been “brainwashed” into thinking they were not “brainwashed.”

To get round some of the futileness of such arguments, I decided to define choice as the possibility that (a) an individual (with his/her DNA, values, fears, hopes, past experiences etc.) would be capable, in (b) a specific social context (the residential workshop being run by Unificationists), of drawing on his present dispositions while imagining two potential future outcomes: (c) to become a Unificationist or (d) not to become a Unificationist.

I then hypothesized that if “brainwashing”/mind control were being applied, it would mean that the only variable that was responsible for the outcome would be the social context, and the individual would have no choice but to join the UM.

However, out of the more than 1,000 workshop attenders whose “Unification career” I followed, 90% did not join the movement, and of those who did join, the majority had left within the following two years. (Furthermore, I was later to find that the overwhelming majority of the first cohort of the second generation of Unificationists left the movement as soon as they could, despite—or perhaps because of —the socialization they had received throughout their life).

Clearly, the process which the potential recruits experienced was neither irresistible nor irreversible. However much the Unificationists may have wished they could manipulate their guests into joining—or their children into staying—it was obvious that their techniques were not very efficient. (The Unification socialization process could, indeed, be seen to be considerably less effective than that of the Roman Catholic Church).

One response to these findings was that the UM was manipulating those people who were particularly suggestible: “They must have been, because they joined, didn’t they?” To test this, I looked at some of the factors that were posited as making a person particularly vulnerable—e.g. an unhappy childhood; a broken relationship; doing badly at school and/or college; suffering from poor health.

I then compared people who had joined the UM with those who had gone to the workshop and not joined, and a control group of people matched as far as possible with the age and socio-economic background of Unificationists. In fact, it turned out that the most “suggestible” were among those who went to the workshop and did not join or who joined for a week or less before leaving. Those who did join appeared to be more susceptible than suggestible. For a number of reasons, they had felt that the UM could offer them something that they were not able to get in the wider society—and if they then found that the movement was not fulfilling their expectations, they left.

Other scholars have had similar results when researching different religions that are referred to as “cults.” This is not to say that some of the “bad things” that “cults” are reputed to do are never done by “cults.” Some of the new religions have undoubtedly performed some bad things at some times and some places. But the same could be said about the established, “legitimate” religions. Why, one may ask, cannot the bad actions, whatever they be, be dealt with by legislature applicable to all religions and their members—indeed, all citizens—once it is alleged they have broken a law?

Finally, it might be useful to recognize that, while terms such as “brainwashing” or mental manipulation can be prejudicial to the manifestation of certain unpopular religions, they can serve a useful purpose for other people: (a) Some former members, who now regret their membership, can have their actions “explained”—they, and perhaps their relatives are absolved from all guilt; It just wasn’t something for which they were responsible. (b) Deprogrammers have been able to charge tens of thousands of euros to “rescue” “victims” who were allegedly “unable to leave by themselves.” (c) Such terms make good headlines for media exposés of “evil cults.” (d) Mainstream religions have a reason why their “true” beliefs have been rejected. (e) “Cult-watching” organizations are more likely to receive state (and other) funding if they can convince potential donors of the danger of “cults in our midst.”

To conclude, were this proposed legislation to be adopted in the form just passed by the National Assembly, it could pose some serious threats to France as a democratic society in which all citizens are not only equal before the law but are also free to manifest their religion unless and until they are found guilty of breaking the law.

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