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.'[ref]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'[/ref]

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.

Full story: The attitudes of Western European states towards new religious movements

Nobody joins a cult, but it is easy to get radicalized

how people get radicalized

how people get radicalized

Today's edition contains stories about the Palmarian Catholic Church, how easily people get radicalised, and what IS jihadists have in mind for Europe's cities. Also: tongue-in-cheek, How do Operating Thetans get in touch with eachother? And is Crossfit a religion? Finally: Religion News Blog's new design.

Religious cult took our sister from us, says family

The Palmarian Catholic Church, a secretive Spanish cult is in the news.

The family of a Wexford pensioner, whose body lay undiscovered in her home for two months, believe the public should be vigilant to "the dangers of alternative faith-based groups, sects and cults".[...]

A member of a group known as the 'Palmarian Catholic Church' - a highly secretive Spanish sect that broke away from the Catholic Church and has declared a series of its own 'Popes' - Bridget effectively was forced to cut herself off from her family when she became involved with the sect in the late 1970s, around the same time she returned to Ireland to look aft er her parents.[...]

Michael Garde, Director of Dialogue Ireland, an independent trust that works to promote awareness and understanding of new 'religious' movements and cultism in Ireland, told the Irish Independent: "We are regularly contacted by families who have seen a loved one lost to the Palmarian church. We are deeply concerned by the group and how it destroys families and isolates people, especially the elderly. There are also reports that the Palmarians are targeting younger people and students."

Mr Garde said there have been many examples of Irish people adjoined to the Palmarians selling their homes, or leaving their property to the group in their wills, with proceeds going to the 'church' which has its headquarters in the remote Spanish town of Palmar de Troya, where it has a lavish basilica behind high walls.
"Groups like the Palmarians have undue influence on people, they remove the rational capacity for people to deal with things. In Ireland, these groups have left behind a trail of hundreds of people no longer connected to society."

This website provides information and support to those affected by Palmar de Troya / Palmarian Church cult.

Earlier this month the New Zealand Herald published an article about Maria Hall, who was a nun in the Palmarian Catholic Church.

Established in the 1970s, after four young girls claimed to have seen a holy apparition on farmland near the village of Palmar de Troya, the Palmarian church has distanced itself from Rome; it’s created its own rites, liturgies and its own bible.

Ms Hall’s life within it was dominated by religious rituals, sleepless nights, punitive regimes and temperamental superiors. The daily routine was controlled by tolling bells, endlessly gruelling domestic tasks all done in the compulsory silence enforced outside of prayer or song. She slept in a tiny room, with a threadbare blanket on a wooden bed, wore ill-fitting hand-me down clothes and shoes and was cut off from friends, family and the rest of the outside world, with no television, radio, newspaper or telephone.

When her father and sister did one day make the trip across the world to visit her, she was only allowed to see them only twice in her ten minute breaks. “Many years later she [my sister] told me that she felt like I had died.” Eventually this thankless commitment eroded what was left of her once unfaltering faith. She left and was cast out of the convent with nothing but a plane ticket home, some money and a shoulder bag containing her bible, writing pad and passport.

At home, in New Zealand, Ms Hall had to “relearn” what it meant to be human.

Maria Hall has recently written REPARATION: A Spiritual Journey, described as the true story of one woman’s journey from the sweeping coastlines of New Zealand to the barren plains of Southern Spain, from youthful hope to deep despair, and from sin to reparation.

If you want to dig deeper, check this research paper by Dr Magnus Lundberg of Uppsala University, Sweden.

Dialogue Ireland has additional information as well.

The story of a radicalisation: 'I was not thinking my thoughts. I was not myself'

how easily people are radicalised

If you think you would not ever find yourself in a cult, consider these words:

Nobody joins a cult.

You join a self-help group, a religious movement, a political organization.

They change so gradually, by the time you realize you’re entrapped – and almost everybody does – you can’t figure a safe way back out.
- Deborah Layton, survivor of Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple cult

This story in The Guardian in a case in point. Maysa, a teenager from Brussels, was a music fan and a ‘ray of sunshine’ at school. But an encounter on social media had changed her within a year.

“I was so nearly there, just hours from leaving. I was there in my head: in Syria, with Islamic State,” the 18-year-old says. [...]

Her parents are Muslims, but not rigorous. Maysa first donned a jilbab -- a long and loose-fit coat or garment worn by some Muslim women who observe the Islamic dress code -- after she had put on some weight.

After she posted a selfie wearing her new clothes on social media, she was contacted by another woman also in her late teens. They went shopping together, and some time later Maysa was introduced to a group of young women from a similar background to her own.

First the conversation was about Islam, and the failures of many so-called Muslims. Then about politics, and the worldwide persecution of Muslims. Then finally about Isis, and life in the new “caliphate”, and how good life was there. [...]

“They told me how there was no crime and no discrimination in the Islamic State. They spoke about relations between men and women, and said that I would find a good husband, even if I would be one of several of his wives. They spoke about fighting the unbelievers and the heretics, but never mentioned any violence or executions or anything like that,” Maysa says.

Within weeks, her new friends provided Maysa with a cheap mobile phone with a pre-paid sim card and told her to keep it secret. It was on this phone that she was contacted, usually by text message, and told where and when the next meeting of the group would take place.

When the group told Maysa it was time to travel to Syria (they would help her, regardless of whether or not she had a passport), something held her back. "And then came the threats: if she did not travel with them, Maysa would be tracked down, her family and friends too, and the consequences would be terrible."

Read the article, which also addresses the reason why parents and other family members usually don't notice anything is wrong until much later.

Learn more about brainwashing

What the Paris Attacks Tell Us about IS Strategy

The new jihadists have our cities in their sights, German news weekly Der Spiegel says.

The attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris and Copenhagen at the beginning of 2015 weren't isolated cases, Peter Neumann, a professor of security studies at King's College London, warned in his new book "The New Jihadists," published in September in German. He believes what we have just witnessed are the "first, very dramatic warnings of what will play out on the streets of Europe in the next decades." Europe, he cautions, is standing "at the precipice of a new wave of terror that will still occupy us for a generation to come."

How much do you know about Jihad?

How do Operating Thetans contact each other?

British film maker Louis Theroux -- whose latest film is a feature length documentary entitled My Scientology Movie -- used Twitter to contact John Sweeney, the BBC journalist and author know for, among other things, the Scientology and Me documentary.

Note Sweeney's tongue-in-cheek reply:

Not sure what an Operating Thetan is? Operation Clambake explains what Scientology is trying to sell. It should be clear that there are no Operating Thetans.

Consumer Alert: Scientology

Is Crossfit a religion?

Crossfit Church

A for-profit gym franchise founded in 2000 that now has 13,000 licensed operators serving at least two million exercisers, CrossFit — like television, sports fandom and health fads — has become the focus of study by researchers trying to pinpoint what constitutes religiosity in America. [...]

In an increasingly secular America, all sorts of activities and subcultures provide the meaning that in the past, at least as we imagine it, religious communities did.

"Skeptics might scoff that Crossfit is just a gym," Mark Oppenheimer writes, but "[i]t is a culture that can produce effects more often associated with church."

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Full story: Nobody joins a cult, but it is easy to get radicalized

International Cultic Studies Association: Upcoming Events

ICSA International Cultic Studies Association

ICSA International Cultic Studies Association

Founded in 1979, the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is a global network of people concerned about psychological manipulation and abuse in cultic or high-demand groups, alternative movements, and other environments. ICSA is tax-exempt, supports civil liberties, and is not affiliated with any religious or commercial organizations.

ICSA is unique in how it brings together former group members, families, helping professionals and researchers.

We highly recommend ICSA. See our sister site,, for details.

International Cultic Studies Association

Upcoming Events

Recovery Workshop for Former Group Members (July 31 - August 2, 2015) - Colorado Springs, Colorado

Organized by Carol Giambalvo, a thought reform consultant, these workshops are for former group members only, not family or friends (ICSA has other events for these persons. ICSA also has a special workshop for former group members who were born or raised in high-demand groups.)
ICSA Recovery Workshops: The Colorado Model

High-Control Groups: Helping Former Members and Families (November 6-8, 2015) - Santa Fe, New Mexico

This conference will focus on the needs of former group members and families and will include a training track for mental health professionals.

Surviving and Moving On After a High-Demand Group Experience: A Workshop for Second-Generation Former Members (April 15-17, 2016) - Chester, CT

As increasing numbers of people born or raised in cultic movements have reached adulthood, the International Cultic Studies Association has developed a program that addresses their special needs. Two articles describe this program: (1) Lessons Learned from SGAs About Resiliency and Recovery (Leona Furnari and Rosanne Henry) and (2) My Perspective of Rosanne Henry and Leona Furnari’s Presentation to the Annual SGA Workshop (Patrick Rardin) describe this program. There is also a video on ICSA's YouTube channel: "Born or Raised in Cultic Groups" with Lorna Goldberg and Leona Furnari.

Meeting annually since 2006, this workshop addresses the needs of SGAs (Second Generation Adults) through presentations by specialists and former members, including discussions in which attendees may participate according to their comfort levels. Special attention is paid to the need of SGAs for privacy, reflection, and working at their own pace.

Call for Papers: ICSA Annual Conference (June 30 - July 2, 2016; preconference workshops on June 29th) - Dallas Texas

The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) is conducting its 2016 Annual International Conference jointly with Info-Secte/Info-Cult of Montreal in Dallas, Texas. The conference will take place from June 30 through July 2, 2016 (preconference workshops on Wednesday June 29). The conference will address the needs and interests of ICSA’s four main constituencies: former group members, families, helping professionals, and researchers.

Full story: International Cultic Studies Association: Upcoming Events