The suicides and homicides of the Order of the Solar Temple in the 1990s were used to justify a witch hunt against hundreds of groups. Scholars reacted.
by Massimo Introvigne.
In the previous article, we discussed the origins of the secular anti-cult movement in the United States. Shortly after the first anti-cult organizations were established in the U.S., a number of anti-cult movements were created in Western Europe, including in 1976 FAIR (Family, Action, Information, Rescue) in the United Kingdom, and in 1974 ADFI, the Association pour la défense des valeurs familiales et de l’individu (Association for the defense of family values and individuals), later Association de défense des familles et de l’individu (Association for the defense of families and individuals), in France, where several local ADFIs federated in a national UNADFI in 1982.
In Europe in general, anticultism was revitalized after the suicides and homicides perpetrated by the Order of the Solar Temple, a new religious movement based on a mixture of esoteric ideas and apocalyptic expectations, in Switzerland, France, and Canada, in 1994, 1995, and 1997. Although several of those who died in the Solar Temple tragedy were wealthy professionals, which contrasted with the popular image of “cults” finding their followers mostly among marginal or poor segments of the population, large media anti-cult campaigns followed.
In the wake of the Solar Temple incidents, in many Western European countries (with the significant exception of the United Kingdom) parliamentary or administrative committees were appointed that produced reports about “cults” or about specific groups. In some countries, the reports called for the appointment of specific anti-cult agencies, new bills, or amendments to existing laws.
In a study I co-authored with James T. Richardson, we reviewed the reports published in Europe between 1996 and 2000, distinguishing between what we called Type I and Type II documents. Type I documents were all published in the French language, in France, Belgium, and the French-speaking part of Switzerland, adopted the classic anti-cult model, and called for new legislation. Type II reports, including a Dutch report and a long document approved by the German Parliament, considered the scholarly criticism of the anticult “brainwashing” model, and were more nuanced in their conclusions.
In the end, Belgium did not legislate on “brainwashing” but in 1998 created an administrative task force and an information center to combat cults, CIAOSN (Centre d’information et d’avis sur les organisations sectaires nuisibles, Centre for information and advice on harmful cultic organizations). France established first the Observatoire interministériel sur les sectes (Inter-ministerial Observatory of Cult, 1996–98), then the MILS (Mission interministérielle de lutte contre les sectes, Inter-ministerial mission for combating cults, 1998–2002), and finally in 2002 the MIVILUDES (Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires, the Inter-ministerial mission for monitoring and combating cultic deviances). Because of the peculiar tradition of hostility to religion in France, these agencies emerged among the main purveyors of the anti-cult ideology internationally.
They were also influenced by both Catholic counter-cultists and secular anti-cultists and, from the beginning, targeted large religious organizations considered unorthodox by the Catholics such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses together with newly established religious movements. The attempt to apply to organizations such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses an anti-cult model that had been created for groups including mostly young and full-time members exposed the MIVILUDES documents to sustained criticism by academic scholars.
In 2001, France also introduced a new provision in the Criminal Code (article 223-15-2) aimed at repressing “cultic brainwashing,” punishing with a jail penalty of up to three years for those who use techniques creating a state of “physical or psychological subjection.” Anti-cultists also persuaded the government to use tax tools and issue heavy tax bills against “cults,” including the Jehovah’s Witnesses, although these measures were later cancelled by the European Court of Human Rights, which consistently ruled against France, including in a landmark case that the Jehovah’s Witnesses won in 2011.
The fact that in Europe, unlike in the United States, the anti-cult movement heavily influenced the legislation and actions of some governments persuaded many scholars that they cannot remain “neutral,” and should expose the pseudo-scientific theories of the anti-cultists. While the anti-cult movement developed, academic scholars created the new discipline of new religious movements (NRM) studies. Most of them concluded, based on their own observation of the movements, which they refused to call “cults,” believing that the term was loaded with a negative value judgement, that anti-cultism was based on faulty pseudo-scientific theories such as “brainwashing,” and that there were no reasons to maintain a distinction between deviant “cults” and “genuine” or “legitimate” forms of religion. Crimes had been committed by leaders and members of some NRMs, but there had been criminals among mainline religionists too.
European anti-cultists also relied on a handful of North American scholars, who lectured in support of campaigns against Scientology and other new religious movements, including Janja Lalich, who based her writings on what she described as her personal experience in a “political cult,” the Marxist-Leninist Democratic Workers Party, and Alexandra Stein, a social psychologist based in England. Just like Lalich, Stein has also been associated with what she called a “political cult,” the Minneapolis Maoist group known as The O. Self-styled cult experts who had been active in deprogramming, such as Steven Hassan and Rick Ross, also lectured internationally on behalf of the anti-cult ideology.
W. Michael Ashcraft noted in his seminal history of the academic study of new religious movements, that a handful of scholars seceded from the majority of their colleagues to create a new discipline they called “cultic studies.” This branch accepts the distinction between religions and “cults,” and identifies “cults” by their harmfulness to their members and society and the use of mind control techniques. As Ashcraft observed, cultic studies were never accepted as mainstream scholarship. They continued as “a project shared by a small cadre of committed scholars” but not endorsed by “the larger academic community, nationally and internationally” (A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements, London and New York: Routledge 2018, 9). Lalich and (later) Stein were part of this project, but it was Canadian sociologist Stephen A. Kent who emerged as the most well-known exponent of “cultic studies” and a popular lecturer in the international anti-cult circuit.
A scholar who proposed a somewhat more moderate anti-cult model was American sociologist Benjamin Zablocki (1941–2020). He was also one of the participants from the “cultic studies” side in a dialogue with scholars of new religious movements aimed, if not at resolving the differences, at least at avoiding the name-calling and lawsuits typical of the years of the so-called “cult wars,” which took place in the last decades of the 20th century. Thanks to the efforts of Eileen Barker, Michael Langone, and others, in the twenty-first century this dialogue has increasingly developed between some of the “cultic studies” activists and mainline scholars of new religious movements, although in Europe it has remained somewhat more difficult than in the United States.