The attitudes of Western European states towards new religious movements

Research: a brief overview of the attitudes of Western European states towards new religious movements is an interesting article by Jean-François Mayer, founder and editor of Relioscope — an independent website that provides ‘news and analysis about religions in today’s world.’

The article describes official responses to cults during the 1980s and 1990s.

Under the heading ‘General Comments and Observations,’ Mayer writes:

If we summarize the current situation, beside a few centres receiving local or regional subsidies, three Western European countries — Austria, Belgium[75] and France — have established agencies or centres for monitoring NRMs; these institutions are the outcomes of state initiatives at the national level.[76] Despite the successive waves of concerns about “cults”, most European countries do not have state agencies dealing with cult-related issues. In some cases, this has not prevented targeted measures against a specific movement, as evidenced by the years of surveillance of Scientology by German security agencies.

State-sponsored institutions dealing with cults are supposed to be neutral observers — which was one of the reasons for their founding. What happens in reality is nuanced and should certainly not be over-simplified. In practice, representatives of some official or state-supported agencies are seen more often at conferences of people with shared anti-cult assumptions than at academic conferences attracting sociologists of religion and other scholars conducting fieldwork. This has not prevented some members of these agencies’ staff from gaining considerable knowledge through years of work. One should understand that from the start the very roots of such agencies made it difficult for them to be really “neutral” (whatever meaning is ascribed to this word), since they were supposed to help solve a social problem, to support people seen as victims and to deal with deviations. Social scientists studying NRMs usually work from a quite different starting point.
– Source: Jean-François Mayer, Research: a brief overview of the attitudes of Western European states towards new religious movements, Religioscope, November 5, 2016

Mayer also notes that the situation has changed a bit over the past 15 years.

Firstly, except for the deaths of hundreds of members of the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda in 2000 (unfortunately, when news of this kind comes from Africa, it does not have the same impact as similar events in the West would), there have been no further major, dramatic “cult tragedies”. With the exception of Scientology, which remains quite controversial, most NRMs that were at the top of the list from the 1970s to the 1990s have lost much visibility, and several well-known cult leaders have died: their movements now have a lower profile or have partly reformed themselves (with ISKCON being one of the most significant instances of such internal reforms). There are still tensions within families as a consequence of spiritual quests and reorientations, but they are less associated with clearly identifiable groups. The Western European environment has become more individualistic: the appeal of radical forms of communitarian life has declined, especially at a time when most young people are primarily concerned with getting a job and keeping it. Certainly, the repeated warnings about the dangers associated with recruitment into “cults” have made some people more cautious when encountering missionaries of various persuasions.

Most of all, Westerners no longer experience the same fears: we live in the post-9/11 environment. Islamic radicalism looks like a much more serious threat than do small religious movements. Security agencies invest more time in monitoring Salafi mosques or jihadist websites than the followers of Hindu gurus or Japanese new religions. Some religious groups still require attention, but they are no longer the same ones.
– Source: Ibid

From ‘Cult Wars’ to Dialogue

Indeed, much has changed from about the turn of the century. The so-called ‘cult wars‘ have largely abated in favor of a more constructive, communicative approach in which people with various, often polarized viewpoints share knowledge and perspectives — agreeing to disagree when and where necessary, but all the while learning from each other.

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) — formerly American Family Foundation — describes this development in its statement, Dialogue and Cultic Studies: Why Dialogue Benefits the Cultic Studies Field.

That said, to those people who help victims of cults regain their freedom and deal with the aftermath of their involvment in such movements, the attitude of many religion academics still comes across as rather sympathetic toward what is euphemistically referred to as ‘New Religious Movements.’1

It is not just anti-cult activists who have called out certain academics for their cozy and at times almost PR-like relationships with religious cults

On the other hand, such academics have also learned that the internet has made it a lot easier for interested observers to scrutinize — and critique — their work.

Jihadism and Deradicalization

Mayer continues his comments and obervations by saying that Jihadism is now seen by some anti-cult groups as another form of “cultic deviation.”

More recently, as we see young Muslims leaving Western cities to join Islamist groups in Middle East war zones, relatives or acquaintances of these young people have spontaneously explained that they had been brainwashed: this often seemed to them to be the only “rational” explanation for such radical departures. This has quite naturally been grafted onto a “cult brainwashing” narrative. The metaphor of mind control offers an attractive model to explain various situations. Despite initial reluctance by some cult critics to venture into that field, we are seeing what to some extent looks like a new incarnation of the cult controversies around jihadism, with deradicalization becoming a new keyword (as well as a new industry).
– Source: Ibid.

Clearly, many expressions of what is known in Islam as ‘lesser Jihad‘ (holy warfare against the enemies of Allah and Islam) — as opposed to ‘greater Jihad’ (the personal struggle against sin) are indeed cult-like in nature. The possibility that such recruits are victims of Brainwashing and/or Mind Control — concepts certain religion academics crusade against with something very much akin to holy fervor — should not be summarily dismissed.

That some cult experts see similarities between the recruitment tactics of apocalyptic Islamist terror groups and those of other destructive cults is logical. The process of undue influence is the familiar and follows a predictable tract.

Not surprisingly Mayer’s comments include a nod toward the semantics problems that have plagued the ‘New Religious Movements’ debates: How does one define terms like ‘cult’ or ‘sect’? According to him, shift from “cults” or “sectes” to “cultic deviations” does not really solve the problem because the term is “not as neutral as it claims to be.”

As James Lewis has observed, “the minority religions lose their chance for a fair hearing as soon as the label ‘cult’ is applied”.[94] The shift from “cults” or “sectes” to “cultic deviations” has been an attempt to resolve the dilemma and deal with the tricky issues presented by such a vocabulary without a clear legal basis when it is being used by supposedly “neutral” states. It fits the model according to which only questionable behaviour is targeted, but it fails to really solve the problem. The talk is indeed not merely about deviations, but about sectaires, thus qualifying a very specific type of alleged deviations that most people associate with a specific type of group. It is therefore not as neutral as it claims to be. Moreover, this shift has contributed to wider applications of the label “cultic deviations” to a variety of groups and individuals.[95] The cult controversies of the past decades have thus even led to the modification and possibly the extension of the meaning of words such as “secte” or “cult”.

In the end, the overview is of interest to those who are familiar with the issues discussed.

Mayer’s comments provide some insight into current thinking about the topic from a perspective that seems more worried about the impact of activists on ‘New Religious Movements’ than about the damage cults, sects, or other groups that engage in cultic deviations have on victims.


  1. New Religious Movement (NRM) or sometimes Alternative Religious Movement (ARM) are terms often used as ‘neutral’ descriptions of what others would refer to as ‘cults’ or ‘sects’


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This post was last updated: Nov. 7, 2016    

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