Religion News Report
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No sects, please - we're French
Montreal Gazette (Canada), Sep. 4, 2001 (Opinion - Susan Palmer)
On a recent research trip to France, I visited communes and meditation centres, interviewing people who define themselves as being on the spiritual path.
All the groups I visited are on a government list of 172 "sectes," presumed dangerous. They are regarded with jaded suspicion, much like biker gangs or terrorist cells would be here. In May, France passed the About/Picard law that criminalizes missionary activity and makes it easy to dissolve voluntary associations.
As a religion teacher and researcher of new religious movements (NRMs we scholars like to call them), I can invite Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Moonies to speak in my Cults and Religious Controversy class at Concordia University. I take my Dawson College students on field trips to the Hare Krishna temple and to Raelian UFO baptisms to observe the rituals.
I never realized this before, but we are spoiled. Canadians enjoy a level of academic freedom and religious liberty unheard of in most countries, even in France, with its brilliant intellectual tradition. If I were a French sociologist and behaved this way, I would be out of a job. I would be called a "cult-lover," a closet Scientologist or a "revisionist" downplaying the atrocities perpetrated by the sects.
Shocked at Intolerance
Social scientists are not supposed to make value judgments, but I was shocked by what I observed in France. Shocked at the intolerance and prejudice toward minority religions, the assaults on individual rights and, most of all, by the sheer stupidity and willful ignorance of France's government, which created MILS (Inter-ministerial Mission for the Fight against Sects).
I teach a course on research methods at Dawson College in which social-science students learn not to trust popular opinion but to read, collect data using various sampling methods and analyze the data systematically before presenting findings. If MILS had handed in its report on sects in my class, I would have had to flunk it.
When I testified I had been conducting field research on the group since 1989 in Vermont and published six articles, two book chapters and two encyclopedia entries on them, it became apparent that in France real hands-on research disqualifies one as an expert. I was contaminated, for I had consorted with the enemy. I was asked if I were a member of the community. My research was dismissed by the judge because it was only in the United States and because my stay in the French community of the Twelve Tribes was only for five days.
The parents were sentenced to six years in prison, and the judge ruled that unless the Tribes children were sent to public school and given vaccinations, they would be taken away and the fathers sent to jail.
It was clear to me that had these parents been secular parents, they would have had a better case. Had they been Catholics, the tragic death of their child would not have been used to control and stigmatize the Catholic church.
I felt frustrated. I had taken a week off teaching, flown to France, planned my testimony and been told to shut up, presumably because I was a ghastly American with misguided notions of religious liberty who actually had the bad taste to consort with the sects.
The 1995 Guyard report on sects, commissioned for the National Assembly compiled a report of 172 sects presumed dangerous. I was astonished that the report had distorted Rael's philosophy and made false allegations of criminal conduct. It even got the dates of Raelian history wrong.
Some groups have succeeded in having their names taken off the infamous list. The Mormons (whose Latter-day Saints number over 10 million) were removed, but other Christian minority churches - Christian Science, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses - are still on it and have all been disestablished and hit with back taxes.
In my research-methods course at Dawson College, we talk about low-impact participant observation, on not disturbing the research field. We worry about how to compensate for cultural biases in interpreting data. I don't know what is going to happen in France's anti-sect war now the About/Picard law is in place. But at least I have collected some excellent examples of how not to conduct research that I can use in my classes.
Ms. Palmer's suggestion that France's cult-crimes law ''criminalizes missionary activity'' is a deliberate misrepresentation. The law specifically addresses crimes committed by cults. It prohibits the kind of deceptive recruiting tactics many cults are known for.
The law came about in response to a long string of crimes committed by cults - a fact usually ignored by sociologists and cult defenders. Not surprisingly, ever since the law was first proposed, cults, extremist groups, and cult defenders have done their best to misrepresent it.
Regarding the Twelve Tribes group, see the series of articles in today's issue of RNR.
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