A controversial Belgian report offers the opportunity of reflecting on real and fabricated “victims” of new religious movements.
by Massimo Introvigne
On June 26, 2023, the Belgian federal observatory on “cults” CIAOSN published a document titled “Recommendations on Help Supplied to Victims of Cultic Control.”
It mentioned six ways in which “cults” create “victims”: by making them “dependent” on “gurus” and leaders; separating them from their families; selling to them courses and items at exorbitant prices; soliciting extravagant donations; controlling them through “abus de faiblesse” (abuse of weakness) and “emprise mentale” (mind control)—which are versions of the discredited theory of “brainwashing” typically used by the French-speaking anti-cult movements; and endangering the “physical and moral health” of minors.
The document offers a good opportunity to reflect on the notion of “victims” of new religious movements (called “cults” by the followers of the anti-cult ideology). Anti-cultists often claim that mainline scholars of new religious movements are “cult apologists” who believe, in good or bad faith, that all “cults” promote love and peace and bring flowers to our suffering world. Perhaps such “cult apologists” exist, but in some forty years of activity in this field I have never met one. On the contrary, scholars of new religious movements are very much aware of cases where the groups they study have perpetrated a variety of crimes, from terrorism to sexual abuse of both adults and children. Some do it systematically, or justify their crimes theoretically, and I have created for those the category of “criminal religious movements” that others have quoted and used.
The controversy with the anti-cultists is not on whether some new religious movements commit crimes. Obviously they do. It is on the definition of crimes. For me and most of my colleagues, crimes include physical violence, sexual abuse, terrorism, theft, and the apology of violence (which is also a crime): in one word, “common” crimes, not unique to “cults.” We do not believe that “being a cult” or “using brainwashing” (by whatever name) are real crimes.
There are two other points I would make. The first is that there is no evidence that common crimes are more prevalent among new religious movements than among mainline religions. There have been proved cases of sexual abuse in groups labeled as “cults,” but in general they have been statistically more numerous in the Roman Catholic Church and some other “old” religious organizations. New religious movements have been guilty of a few terrorist attacks, but their size and the number of victims pale in comparison with terrorism that used or misused the name of Islam and other mainline religions.
The second is that there may have been more crimes perpetrated by anti-cultists than by “cults.” Deprogramming, i.e. kidnapping adult members of new religious movements and illegally detaining them and submitting them to all sorts of pressures until they renounce their faith, is an obnoxious crime, recognized as such by courts of law in most democratic countries of the world. There have been cases of deprogrammers beating and raping their victims, and some victims have even been killed. Deprogramming attempts were in excess of 4,000 in Japan before the Supreme Court intervened as late as 2015 in the case of Toru Goto, a member of the Unification Church who had been detained for more than twelve years, and in excess of 1,500 for Shincheonji only in South Korea (plus many others against members of other “cults”), where some courts of law still tolerate them, not to mention other countries.
Once these precisions are made, probably even most members of new religious movements would acknowledge that within “new” religions there are leaders and devotees guilty of rape, sexual abuse, violence, and murder. They should be punished not less (nor more) severely than any other citizen guilty of the same crimes, and certainly cannot use religious liberty as an excuse for their criminal acts.
There are, however, two more problematic categories of alleged “victims” of new religious movements. The first are those we may call “time-bomb victims,” of which some former members of sacred eroticism groups are the clearest example.
New religious movements teaching sacred eroticism, which I have studied for more than twenty years, by definition promote a way to enlightenment through erotic practices, which has a venerable tradition within ancient religions such as Hinduism and Taoism. More often than not, they include an erotic initiation by the leader of the group or a senior disciple. They do not hide it. For example, anybody who had read one of the books by the Czech master Guru Jára before joining his group would have immediately understood that a sexual encounter with him might have been part of the experience female devotees could expect.
In the case of Guru Jára, just as in others concerning MISA or the Loup Blanc teachings in France, certain devotees initially reacted with enthusiasm to the erotic initiations, and some even consigned their experiences in writing. It was only after several years, having left the movements and being socialized into the anti-cult community, that they came to claim that their willingness to submit to such initiations was not spontaneous but caused by brainwashing. This is an extreme example of “time-bomb victims” but there are others. In Japan, only after they were deprogrammed, alleged victims “understood” that their donations had not been spontaneous.
A third category includes, simply, imaginary victims. It includes two sub-categories. One, studied in a recent article by Canadian scholar Susan Palmer as fabricated victims in the case of the Buenos Aires Yoga School, refers to members of new religious movements who flatly deny having been victims of anything and denounce the tall tales of anti-cultists about them as imaginary and even offensive. However, the more they deny being victims, the more anti-cultists and some police and prosecutors insist that their denial is just evidence that they are still under the effect of brainwashing.
The second sub-category includes “victims” of practices that are regarded as illegal if found among “cults” but perfectly legal when one encounters them among mainline religions and even secular organizations. For instance, one would find harsher forms of separation from the families and obedience requested to the leaders among cloistered and non-cloistered monks and nuns in mainline religions than in most new religious movements, yet only the practices of the latter are denounced as objectionable. The same happens with donations or the sale of religiously significant objects at a price greatly exceeding their material value.
In the main Italian court case against Scientology (which the religious movement eventually won), the judges noted that some may regard the cost of OT courses and special editions of L. Ron Hubbard’s books as extravagant but on the other hand huge donations were also solicited by the Roman Catholic Church and collectors spend millions on objects whose intrinsic value is not easy to demonstrate. Italian judges made these comments long before a collector paid $91.8 million to buy the NFT version of a work by Pak, a digital artist nobody has ever seen and who may not even exist.
Those who object that these are investments made with the hope to resell miss the point that real collectors may never be willing to part company with their treasures. Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism had already explained in the 19th century that the prices we are prepared to pay for certain goods and services depend from their social function and have nothing to do with their real value. Note that Marx borrowed the word “fetishism” from scholars of religion. If those who buy goods and services from new religious movements are “brainwashed,” so are those donating to mainline religions and book, comic, and trading card (not to mention NFT) collectors. Yet, only those who give their money to “cults” are called “victims.”
Are there victims of real, common crimes perpetrated by new religious movements? The answer is yes. Are those who commit these crimes protected by religious liberty? The answer is no. But common crimes (which are not less and probably more prevalent in mainline religions and in the anti-cult movements) should not be confused with the imaginary crimes of “being a cult” or “using brainwashing.”