An appeal to avoid labels that have no accepted scientific meaning and are used as tools of discrimination.
by Massimo Introvigne*
*A paper presented at the panel “Religious Freedom: A Right Under Threat in the World,” sponsored by the Universal Peace Federation (UPF) Argentina, the Interreligious Association for Peace and Development (IAPD), and Acercando Naciones Asociación Civil, at the III World Forum on Human Rights Argentina 2023, co-organized by the UNESCO International Center for the Promotion of Human Rights and the Secretariat of Human Rights of the Argentinian Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, Faculty of Architecture, Design and Urbanism, University of Buenos Aires, March 22, 2023.
On July 28, 2014, Pope Francis was the first Pope to visit an Evangelical Pentecostal church: the Church of Reconciliation, in the Italian city of Caserta. I remember this episode with emotion, because I had played myself a very small role in the preparation of the dialogue between the Church of Reconciliation and the Catholic Church. On that occasion, Pope Francis apologized to the Pentecostals for the collaboration of some Catholics with the laws of the Italian fascist regime, which discriminated and persecuted them by calling them “cults,” promising never to encourage discrimination again with formulas such as “I am the church, you are the cult.”
In fact, even today, in many countries of the world, minority religions and spiritual movements are still discriminated against by calling them “cults” (or by using the equivalent words “secta” in Spanish or “Sekte” in German and similar, which should be translated into English as “cults,” not as “sects”). But what is a “cult”? I am a sociologist of religions, and I am aware that a century ago “cult” had a clear and legitimate sociological meaning.
According to the founding fathers of my science, Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, a “cult” (“Sekte,” in German) was a young religion in which most of the members were not born, but converted. If successful after a few generations, a “cult” became a religion, with a majority of members born of parents of the same faith. It is clear that this meaning of the word “cult” did not have a negative sense. For Troeltsch, who was a good Protestant, Jesus and the apostles formed a “cult” (“Sekte,” again), which would become a church after two centuries.
Around World War II—but with a precedent in Italian language that goes back to the very father of criminology Cesare Lombroso—specialists in another science, criminologists, began to use “cult” with a different meaning. They began to call a “cult” a religious group that commits serious crimes or can be expected to commit serious crimes in the future.
These two meanings of the word “cult” are opposites, and their coexistence has created great ambiguity. If I say that the Hare Krishnas of Italy are a “cult” in the traditional sociological sense, because most of their members are not Hare Krishnas by birth, I am saying something that is true in the terminology of Weber and Troeltsch, but the listener is likely to understand that they are a dangerous and criminal group, which is false.
That is why, at the end of the last century, the vast majority of religious scholars stopped using “cult” and replaced it with the less ambiguous term “new religious movements.” Of course, these scholars do not think that all religious movements are good, kind, and bring flowers. Some commit serious crimes. But to avoid the ambiguities associated with the term “cult,” I and others call them “criminal religious movements.”
Let us point out that “criminal religious movements” exist both in the new and small religious traditions, and in the old and larger ones. Just think of the terrorists who kill using or abusing the name of Islam, or the networks of pedophile Catholic priests (yes, there are networks too, and not only individual pedophile priests).
In addition to sociologists and criminologists, a third group of people, mostly non-academics, who use the term “cult” has emerged in the last fifty years. These are the so-called “anti-cult” movements and activists, who define “cults” as groups that, unlike religions, convert and control their members by “brainwashing”, also called “mental manipulation” or “destruction of personality.”
In fifty years of battles, the specialists in new religious movements, or at least the vast majority of them, have expressed themselves on this question with great clarity, followed by the courts of the United States and other countries. As it is normally presented by the anti-cult movements, “brainwashing” does not exist. It is only a pseudoscientific notion and a tool to arbitrarily discriminate against unpopular religious and spiritual minorities. And, if we define them as religious groups that control their members by “brainwashing,” “cults” do not exist either, and “cult” is just an insult to be avoided.
The so-called criteria for recognizing a “cult” and distinguishing it from a religion are, at best, inapplicable, because many of the same characteristics can be found within the mainline religions; at worst, they are an intellectual fraud that justifies repression and discrimination.
On December 13, 2022, in the case of Tonchev v. Bulgaria, the European Court of Human Rights, reversing its previous case law, ruled that calling a group a “cult” (“sekti” in Bulgarian) in official government publications constitutes defamation and discrimination.
In recent months, we have witnessed tragic episodes that demonstrate how dangerous hate speech and discrimination against groups stigmatized as “cults” is. On July 8, 2022, a man killed former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, claiming he wanted to punish him because he had attended via a video and a message two events organized by a group linked to the Unification Church, now called the Family Federation for World Peace and Unification.
The man said he hated the Unification Church, because twenty years earlier his mother had to declare bankruptcy because of excessive donations she had made to this church. On March 9, 2023, a former member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses entered through the window into a place of worship of this organization in Hamburg (Germany) and killed seven worshippers and a baby in the womb before committing suicide.
These cases are clear. Former Prime Minister Abe and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were the victims. In both cases, one wonders whether the hate campaigns of a certain press against the Unification Church and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, presented as “evil cults,” did not contribute to excite the weak minds of the murderers.
However, in a spectacular reversal of truth and justice, both in Japan and Germany, we see instead campaigns and proposals of laws against the Unification Church, the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and groups labeled as “cults” in general, with the argument that it was the “cults” that had destabilized the psychology of the murderers, who were thus somehow justified.
Since I am in Argentina, I am also examining very carefully the case of the Buenos Aires Yoga School, because studying controversial groups that are the subject of serious accusations in the media and in the courts is my profession and my specialization. I have already read more than 1,000 pages of documents and judicial acts, and I have interviewed several people.
My goal is not to determine who is guilty and who is innocent. Religious scholars simply do not have the tools to reach these conclusions, which are the province of the courts. However, they can study and explain contextual elements about belief systems and sociological dynamics of groups, where, by contrast, academics may have tools that courts often lack.
This is an ongoing study, about which I would not draw conclusions today. All I can anticipate is that—leaving aside for the moment the specific facts concerning this group—my modest suggestion is not to use categories such as “cult” and “brainwashing.” This is a general consideration, which applies to any group. In the terms in which these words are used by the media and anti-cult activists, the question is not whether this or that group is a “cult” or practices “brainwashing.” The question is whether “cults”—in this meanings of the term—and “brainwashing” exist, and the answer is no. They do not exist.
I am well aware that in the current Argentinian context some may disagree. However, more than forty years of experience in this field and several cases in which I have served as an expert both for the defense and the prosecution, persuaded me that getting rid of the useless and dangerous concepts of “cult” and “brainwashing” is the best way to protect both religious freedom and the possibility of successfully prosecuting groups guilty of real crimes such as murder, sexual abuse, or theft, which should not be confused with the imaginary crimes of being a “cult” or using “mental manipulation.”