Tolerance should extend to cults

rod-blackhirst-thumb Dr Rodney Blackhirst


First published in the Bendigo Advertiser on 5 January, 2012

Australia has an admirable tradition of religious tolerance in a secular framework. Religious freedom and separation of Church and State are explicit provisions in the Australian constitution. Our society is religiously diverse, religious passions are generally muted, and there is little or no sectarian strife.

According to some, though, this landscape of freedom is blighted with hundreds, or even thousands, of sinister "cults". The Cult Information & Family Support group in NSW recently reported that there are "about 3000" cults operating in Australia. At a recent conference hosted by Liberal Senator Sue Boyce and independent Senator Nick Xenophon there have been calls for tough new laws to deal with a supposed proliferation of "cults" and "sects" who, we are told, prey on the weak in uncertain times.

The premise of this conference, and media portrayal of so-called "cults", needs to be challenged.

Firstly, what is a "cult"? The word is thrown around very loosely and can simply mean no more than a religious group that one does not like. Anti-cult or "cult-buster" groups tend to be extremely loose with the term, and this is how they arrive at alarming figures like the 3000 "cults" in Australia. Such figures will include groups like the Mormons, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Jehovah's Witness, the Hare Krishna, Sufism, Freemasonry and just about anyone else with a belief system deemed exotic or weird.

Secondly, the claim that "cults" are all around us and are tearing up the social fabric has no foundation in facts. The "problem" is largely media generated. The heyday of "cults" and wayward gurus was the 1980s. Membership in many groups, such as the Church of Scientology, has been in decline in recent decades. (Although both the CoS and their enemies would deny this. They both inflate membership figures for opposing reasons.) Small groups come and go at a rapid rate, of course, but the idea that the country is swarming with "cults" is simply untrue.

Thirdly, even among groups that do cause concern, there is little evidence of illegal activities. The "cultic deviances" of which the French speak are usually the product of custody battles over children, but such battles are rarely more vicious and traumatic for families in so-called "cults" than for non-religious people. And a religious conversion to Catholicism, or Buddhism, or other mainstream faiths, can cause as much trouble in families as conversions to fringe groups. Converts to all sorts of groups will often shun their former life. There are groups that are more exclusive and secretive than others, but there is little evidence that they are endemic and having such a corrosive impact upon Australian family life that our governments need new, invasive powers to stop the rot.

Indeed, from a law enforcement point of view, it is often the over-zealous "cult busters" who cause more concern than the cults they purport to bust. There are celebrated cases where "cult busters" have kidnapped unwilling family members from so-called "cults" and then tried to "deprogram" them. Anti-cult vigilantes often have no respect for the privacy or property of supposed "cults" and no respect for the religious rights of "cult" members.

I recently spent over six months making a study of anti-cult literature on and offline. Some of it can only be described as witch-hunt literature. There is now a long history of anti-cult organisations inflating figures and bending the truth in order to bolster their case and create alarm. If you believe some anti-cult websites, the things that happen behind closed doors at your local Masonic lodge would make your hair curl! According to some, your local Steiner school is a hotbed of cultic evil. Increasingly, anti-cult groups (like other victims advocacy groups) have the ear of media outlets who know that cult-bashing makes good press. Increasingly, they also have the attention of politicians who think they are onto a popular cause.

It is worrying, therefore, that such "cult-busters" are now seeking greater legal backing for their crusade. And it is very worrying, under our tradition of secularism, when the State takes it upon itself to extend the policing of people's religious beliefs and practices.

There are undoubtedly a few dangerous cults in the mix - a very small number according to my studies - but this is the price we pay for an open, free and religiously diverse community. Such groups will almost always fall foul of existing criminal laws anyway. And there are, no doubt, cases of exploitation and manipulation, but by and large members of so-called "cults" are simply exercising their right to freedom of worship.

The fact that their families might not like their choice, and society at large might find their beliefs and practices strange, does not make the group involved sinister. The popular notion that there are hundreds of confused people struggling to free themselves from the clutches of manipulative cults is not supported by studies. Generally, members of groups routinely labelled as "cults" (the Hare Krishna, for example) are very happy.

There is no need for governments to acquire new, invasive powers to deal with a problem that is largely the making of the tabloid media. Certainly, history tells us that state intervention in religion is a dangerous path to tread. As long as religious groups - regardless of how "weird" they might be - stay within the law they should be tolerated and defended against vengeful and uncomprehending families and against anti-cult zealotry in all its forms.

Dr Rodney Blackhirst is a lecturer in religious studies at La Trobe University.