Some politicians and media insisted that “cultic deviances” increased during the COVID-19 crisis. Their claims were met with healthy Swiss skepticism.
by Massimo Introvigne
“Dans l’ombre du covid, la tentation sectaire”: “In the shadow of the COVID, the cults’ temptation.” This was the main title in the front page of the Lausanne daily Le Temps for March 26, reporting on interrogations filed by politicians of different parties to the Grand Council of the Canton of Vaud and the City Council of Lausanne. The politicians quoted recent documents produced by the French governmental anti-cult agency MIVILUDES, that we reviewed and criticized in Bitter Winter. They asked whether the same “cultic deviances” (dérives sectaires) were not at work, taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis, in the Canton of Vaud.
Le Temps interviewed anti-cultists, some of them connected with the European anti-cult organization FECRIS (denounced by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom as a serious danger for international religious liberty), who not surprisingly answered in the affirmative. A few lines were also granted to the most well-known Swiss scholar of new religious movements, Jean-François Mayer, but his position on the issue of “cults” and COVID-19, which is known, did not emerge clearly, and we suspect it was not his fault.
What is this all about? Based on the MIVILUDES documents (I use the expression “documents” because a press release included different information from the official report), the Swiss politicians claim that “cultic deviances” increased significantly during the COVID-19 crisis, and that Switzerland should follow the example of France and take some action. They also note the “great novelty” of “cultic deviances” that are not religious, including conspiracy theories about the COVID, dubious alternative medical proposals, and the rise of QAnon.
Reading between the lines, there is also some criticism of the CIC, the Centre d’information sur les croyances (Center for Information on Beliefs), a publicly supported independent watchdog financed inter alia by the Canton of Vaud that publishes reports on religious pluralism and deviances connected with religious movements. The CIC had published in 2020 a report on COVID-19 and religion, and it is not a mystery that Swiss anti-cultists are unhappy with CIC’s moderate attitude.
On March 19, 2021, the CIC has published a brochure, “Note préliminaire: COVID-19 et religions,” answering the questions raised by the politicians. The document inserts into the debate a healthy dose of Swiss skepticism.
With all due respect to the MIVILUDES, it doubts that there have been more “cultic deviances” during the COVID-19 crisis than before. It is certainly the case that in time of crisis some seek the comfort of religion, but on the other hand all religions, mainline or otherwise, have been limited in the possibility of carrying on face-to-face missionary activities or organizing events. Most of them have reacted by increasing their online presence, or sending letters or emails. While the MIVILUDES regards this as a “deviance,” mentioning mails sent by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a particularly sinister example of what is going on, there is nothing especially “deviant” in using the mail or the Internet to replace in-person contacts, and this is something done by mainline religions as well.
The CIC also doubts the wisdom of liberally using the expression “cultic deviances.” In France, it is included in the name of a governmental agency, but the CIC politely notes that Switzerland is not France. “Cultic deviances,” the CIC observes, is an expression adopted because of the problems connected with “cults” (“sectes,” in French), a label used to discriminate against some minority religions. But it did not really solve the problem, because it still implies that “deviances” occur more often in the “cults” (whose definition remains elusive) than in other groups, including mainline religions, which is not proved. Of course, there are occasional “deviances” or crimes perpetrated by movements labeled as “cults,” but there is no evidence that they are more prevalent in the “cults” than elsewhere.
I agree with the CIC. Since there is no evidence that real “deviances” connected with new religious movements increased during the COVID-19 pandemics, enter the “great novelty,” MIVILUDES’ and FECRIS’ “discovery” that most “cultic deviances” come from groups that are not religious. This is reminiscent of what is perhaps the most famous passage in Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll’ sequel to Alice in Wonderland. To a confused Alice, Humpty Dumpty explains that, “When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
The “great novelty” is not that there are new “cultic deviances” but that FECRIS and its politician disciples have decided, to stay in business and perpetuate the moral panics they promote, to call “cultic deviances” something that has nothing to do with “cults,” which in the normal popular meaning of the word are “bad” religious movements.
To claim that there are thousands of “cultic deviances,” and that they proliferated during the pandemic, anti-cultists need to argue that the no-vax movement, QAnon, or alternative cures for the COVID-19 and other illnesses are all “cultic deviances.” And you can go even further: an internationally famous dance ensemble Interface, based in Sion, Switzerland, has now been accused of “cultic deviances,” based on the alleged authoritarian methods and sexual harassment of female members by its founder. I have no idea whether Interface’s founder did something wrong, but wonder what exactly this has to do with “cults.”
Even moderate anti-cultists such as Michael Langone have noted the difficulty of using the “cult” model for QAnon (while a Swiss researcher told Le Temps it is “the first cult globalized via the Internet”). There is no clear leader, no indoctrination except via the Web, and no ideology flowing from the leaders to the members—rather, all participants can contribute to the grow and metamorphosis of the conspiracy claims. Langone believes addiction to QAnon is more similar to video game or social media addiction than with membership in a “cult.”
Of course, there may be serious problems of violence associated with QAnon, and risks for public health in the no-vax or other movements that reject doctors and medicines. But using words such as “cults” or “cultic deviances” does not help in any way understanding these phenomena. On the other end, this Humpty-Dumpty-style manipulation of the language can help FECRIS and some unscrupulous politicians manipulating the fear of political or no-vax radicalism to promote their agenda of opposition to religious movements that, if anything, did their share in supporting healthy practices during the pandemic and helping those in need.