Over the years, a small number of sociologists of religion have gained a reputation as so-called Cult Apologists (cult defenders).
While claiming to champion the worthwhile causes of religious freedom and religious tolerance, these academics have been known to go as far as to produce what amounts to paid-for PR material (passed of as 'research') for some of the New Religious Movements they claim to have studied.
In his paper, "Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research," Sociologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi addressed the problems created by such collaborationism. See also, Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters, by sociologists Stephen Kent and Therese Krebs.
What follows illustrates just how seriously misguided some cult apologists can be.
After the 1995 gas attacks committed by Aum Shinrikyo, some American cult defenders - on a trip to Japan paid for by the cult - confidently, and erroneously, declared that the group could not have produced the Sarin poison gas:
As new evidence seems to implicate
the secretive Aum Shinrikyo in cases of terrorism, murder and kidnapping the sect's leaders have found an unlikely supporter: an officer of the American Bar Association.
Barry Fisher, a lawyer in Los Angeles who said he is chairman of the bar association's subcommittee on religious freedom, traveled to Tokyo with three other Americans - Aum paid the bill - to warn that the Japanese police were threatening the group's religious freedom.
The Americans said Monday that they spent three days in Japan talking to cult officials and others, but were not permitted to visit the sect's chemical factories or its headquarters campus.
The American held a pair of news conferences to suggest that the sect was innocent of criminal charges and was a victim of excessive police pressure.
The sect has emerged as the chief suspect in the gas attack on the Tokyo subways on March 20, that left 12 dead. The police are also said to be investigating whether the sect is linked to a 1994 poison gas case that killed seven, and to the shooting of the national police chief who was supervising the investigation of the cult.
One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases.
He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.
One of the Americans, James Lewis
, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.
Four California activists
are investigating charges of religious persecution against Aum Supreme Truth, the sect suspected in a poison gas attack against subway riders here in March.
In an interview Friday, Los Angeles lawyer Barry Fisher said he and the others decided to visit after hearing that authorities had conducted mass arrests of Supreme Truth members, that sect children had been removed from their families and that officials were making allegations of mind control against the group.
These actions, and other steps taken by the government against Supreme Truth, may suggest persecution of the group, he said, adding that, even if some sect members were involved in illegal acts, it does not justify attempts to scapegoat all followers or quash the entire religion.
"How a country reacts to religious persecution is a test of basic freedoms, and Japan doesn't have a long history of fundamental freedoms," said Fisher, chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s subcommittee on religious freedom. He arrived in Japan on Wednesday to investigate whether Supreme Truth, which adheres to Buddhist and yogic beliefs and has branches in Russia, the United States, Germany and Sri Lanka, is a legitimate religion.
He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans - J. Gordon Melton
, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education--and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
On this, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi writes:
In early May 1995,
as Japanese law-enforcement authorities were collecting evidence linking the Aum Shinrikyo NRM
to the March 20 poison gas attack which killed 13 commuters, and preparing what they thought was a strong case, they discovered, to their utter surprise, that they were under attack from an unexpected direction. According to media reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo
to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to ''crush a religion and deny freedom'' (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995).
Reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM. ''Some observers wonder what took the Japanese authorities so long to take decisive action. It seems apparent that enough serious concerns had been raised about various Aum activities to warrant a more serious police inquiry prior to the subway gas attack'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 321). The group can only be described as extremely violent and murderous. ''Thirty-three Aum followers are believed to have been killed between ...1988 and ...1995...Another twenty-one followers have been reported missing [and presumed dead]'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 320). Among non-members, there have been 24 murder victims. One triple murder case in 1989 and another poison gas attack in 1994 which killed seven have been committed by the group, as well as less serious crimes which the police was not too eager to investigate (Beit-Hallahmi, 1998; Haworth, 1995; Mullins, 1997). So it is safe to conclude that religious freedom was not the issue in this case. Nor is it likely, as some Aum apologists among NRM scholars have claimed, that this lethal record (77 deaths on numerous occasions over seven years) and other non-lethal criminal activities were the deeds of a few rogue leaders. Numerous individuals must have been involved in, and numerous others aware of, these activities.
Some NRM scholars have suggested that the trip to Japan, as reported in the media, caused the field an image problem (Reader, 1995). Let me make clear right away that my concern here is not with images, but with the reality of scholarship. I am afraid that in this case, as in many others, the reality may be actually worse than the image. How do we react to the Aum episode? Do we raise our eyebrows? Do we shrug our shoulders? Is it just an isolated case of bad judgment? Are we shocked by the alleged involvement of NRM researchers in this tragic story? Given the climate and culture of the NRM research community, and earlier demonstrations of support for NRMs in trouble, we are not completely surprised. Much of the discourse in NRM research over the past 20 years has been marked by a happy consensus on the question of the relations between NRMs and their social environment.
An expanded version of Beit-Hallahmi's article is published as Chapter 1 in: Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001). Here, Beit-Hallahmi adds:
Another claim by the AUM apologists is that the trip to Japan was initiated and financed by AUM 'dissidents,' shocked by the acts of their leaders. The reality is that the trip was initiated by the NRM scholars involved, who contacted AUM to offer their help, and that there are no AUM dissidents. As of 1999, AUM Shinrikyo is alive and well, one and indivisible, the members united in their loyaly to Shoko Asahara, and this includes the alleged dissidents who hosted our collegues in 1995.
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