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What You Should Know About CESNUR

Non-Christian What You Should Know About CESNUR


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CESNUR describes itself as "an international network of associations of scholars working in the field of new religious movements." It has gained a reputation for being mostly uncritical and, in fact, supportive of movements considered to be cults by secular anticult- and/or Christian countercult professionals.

Indeed, co-founded by - among others - Massimo Introvigne (Managing Director), J. Gordon Melton, and Eileen Barker, CESNUR is seen by many as an organization of cult apologists. At the very least, it has an anti-anticult stance - meaning that it opposes the doctrines, methods and goals of anti-cult and counter-cult organizations.

Some of CESNUR's principals have testified in court on behalf of cults, presented papers supportive of such movements, and have even accepted payments or other benefits from these groups.

Ironically, the "About CESNUR" section on its web site includes this statement:

CESNUR does not believe that all religious movements are benign. The fact that a movement is religious does not mean that it could not become dangerous. To the contrary, our experience shows that dangerous or even criminal religious movements do exist. CESNUR invites scholars not to ignore questions of doctrine, authenticity, and legitimacy of spiritual paths. Although questions of authenticity could not be addressed by courts of law in a secular State, the latter could and should intervene when real crimes are perpetrated. Consumers of spiritual goods should not enjoy less protection than consumers in other fields. And when suicide, homicide, child abuse or rape are condoned or promoted, we urge a strong application of criminal laws.

So far, so good. Yet it continues by saying

On the other hand "cults" in general should not suffer for the crimes of a minority of them. We are against special legislation against "cults", or against "brainwashing", "mind control" or "mental manipulation" (by any name). Any minority happening to be unpopular could be easily accused to own the invisible and non-existing weapon of "brainwashing", and special legislation would reduce religious liberty to an empty shell.

CESNUR actively opposes legislation against "cults," on the grounds that a) an unpopular minority group might be falsely accused of something CESNUR claims does not exist (see CESNUR and Brainwashing, addressed later in this article), and b) any legislation would make a mockery out of the concept of religious liberty.

Religious liberty is, of course, not harmed by what would amount to consumer protection laws. CESNUR has already noted that not all religious movements are benign, and admits: "Consumers of spiritual goods should not enjoy less protection than consumers in other fields." Failure to provide such protection simply because the movements involved claim to be "religions" can and does lead to serious consequences:

For example, in cases of mass suicides/homicides or of the Tokyo gas outrage, many people complained that certain groups, the dangerousness of which was already known to the authorities, were never properly monitored and enjoyed de facto impunity, since they were "religious" groups and hence above all control.

A typical case is that of Aum Shinrikyo. According to Prof. Beit-Hallahmi, Japanese authorities were not only cautious but even negligent and possibly protective towards the criminal activities of Aum, thanks to its status as a NRM. It seems that serious evidence had already turned up, before the outrage, concerning certain activities by Aum which would have required far more careful police monitoring - 33 Aum followers killed between 1988 and 1995, another 21 missing and perhaps dead, a triple homicide in 1989, and another nerve gas attack in 1994 which killed 7 people, along with other less serious crimes which the police had not investigated.
You Can Tell A Nice Day From The Morning..., Raffaella Di Marzio (GRIS), citing B. Beit-Hallahmi's, "Dear colleagues: integrity and suspicion in NRM research," a paper presented at the 1997 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Tilman Hausherr notes in his Cult Apologist FAQ that CESNUR board member J. Gordon Melton took

... a trip to Japan in 1995 to investigate the "persecution" of AUM (together with James Lewis, Barry Fisher and Thomas Banigan). Through his friend Introvigne, he is now trying to redefine this "visit" as a trip to protest the mistreatment of average members.

In its fight against legislation, CESNUR always uses three main arguments:
  • It argues against "brainwashing" theories. Long story short: CESNUR scholars play semantics games in order to deny that some movements use unethical persuasion tactics in recruiting and maintaining members. This issue is addressed here.
  • It calls into doubt the truthfulness of apostates. Rather than see them merely as ex-members who may or may not speak out against the movements they were involved in, CESNUR considers apostates to be "former members converted into active opponents of the group they have left." CESNUR board member J. Gordon Melton's comments on apostates are typical of the way these ex-members are maligned. This issue will be soon be addressed on this site.
  • It denounces and dismisses anticult organizations as ill-informed. In the process, CESNUR also ignores - willfully, or from ignorance - the differences between the anticult- and countercult movements. That issue is addressed here.

Here is how CESNUR's "poison the well" approach plays out on its web site:

Protection of religious liberty also requires that each group be examined on its own merits, comparing different sources and not relying exclusively on information provided by hostile ex-members. Experiences of disgruntled ex-members should certainly not be ignored, but they could not become the only narratives used to build our knowledge of a group.

Information supplied by anti-cult activists claims to be eminently practical but in fact is largely theoretical and anedoctical, based as it is on secondary sources, from press clippings to accounts of families of members (not necessarily familiar with the movements) or of ex-members rationalizing their past experiences. Scholars, having a direct contact both with ex-members and actual members may supply more balanced information. And balanced information is precisely what the public powers and the media need.

CESNUR's Spin and Misrepresentation

Unfortunately, "balanced information" is not what CESNUR provides. And sometimes, it blatantly misinforms. E.g. in a March 22, 2000, message posted to the NUREL mailing list, Massimo Introvigne (a ''board member'' of that list) claimed that Apologetics Index is "mostly engaged in name-calling about ''cult apologists''". [Message on file] That is poor scholarship on the part of Mr. Introvigne.  For the record,
  • Among other things, Apologetics Index addresses the issue of cult apologists. Labeling that term as "name-calling" is incorrect. The words "apologist" and "apologetics" derive from the Greek apologia ("defense") and apologeo ("to defend"). Hence, people who defend the Christian faith, are Christian apologists. And people who defend cults, are cult apologists. Note that the term ''cult apologist'' is technical, and not derogatory - just as Massimo Introvigne states ''... apostates' (a technical, not a derogatory term).''  (5) 
  • Since only a small fraction of this site's 800+ pages deals with cult apologists, Apologetics Index is "mostly engaged" in addressing other issues. No part of this site is hidden from view, so anyone can research and verify this information.

Mr. Introvigne was called on his misrepresentation, but remains petulantly unrepentant. Instead, Mr. Introvigne often portrays himself as a victim of what he calls ''anti-cult terrorism.'' The pattern is this: cooperate with CESNUR and you'll be considered a scholar or well-informed layperson; criticize CESNUR, and you're a terrorist.

But how scholarly is it for CESNUR's principals to dismiss information supplied by ''anti-cult activists'' as ''largely theoretical and anedoctical''? He claims such information is based on ''secondary sources, from press clippings to accounts of families of members (not necessarily familiar with the movements) or of ex-members rationalizing their past experiences.'' (As an aside, it should be noted that Introvigne himself based a recent ''analysis'' largely on information from press clippings.).

CESNUR's implication is that a) this is the only information anticult- and countercult professionals rely on, and b) that this information can not be trusted - which is indeed the general view of cult apologists with regard to apostates. J. Gordon Melton even goes as far as to claim apostates always lie.

Compare this with the views of another scholar, who says:

Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers. The reality revealed in the cases of People's Temple, Rajneesh International, Vajradhatu, the Nation of Yahweh, the Branch Davidians, the Faith Assembly, Aum Shinrykio, the Solar Temple, or Heaven's Gate is much more than unattractive; it is positively horrifying. In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years, starting with Krishna Venta (Beit-Hallahmi, 1993), we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors' allegations.

Anticult- and countercult activists are not the only ones who note CESNUR's unbalanced approach. See, for example, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi's paper, quoted above, or Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs' Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters.

Following the CESNUR '97 conference in Amsterdam, Holland, Dutch scholar Dr. Herman de Tollenaere - who himself presented a paper - reported on some of the controversies surrounding that year's conference in particular, and CESNUR in general. Regarding CESNUR, he said:

CESNUR is a private organization. Its headquarters are in the lawyer's office in Turin of its founder, the Italian Massimo Introvigne. It studies organizations which others may call 'sects' or 'cults'; but which it calls 'new religions'. Some of these studies may not be critical enough. A book, published by CESNUR in 1996, contained a not thoroughly critical article on New Acropolis, based largely on oral statements by New Acropolis leaders.

One sometimes finds a 'doctrine only' approach to new religious movements in CESNUR. This approach may work well for one book, for one individual, or for several individuals doing research. However, it can never work for the sociology of religion; or for the history of religion, as a whole. One should also study an organization's finances; its official and unofficial power structures; its relationship to its economic, social, and political context. A 'doctrine only' approach to, eg, Scientology may lead, and in practice does lead in cases, to a far more rose-coloured picture than a 'finances also' approach.

Often, outsiders criticize some people in CESNUR for having too close personal and/or financial ties to problematic religious organizations.

CESNUR leaders have testified on behalf of groups like Scientology and the Unification Church (Moonies) in court cases.

As my provisional conclusion about the conference and CESNUR: we certainly need organizations for scientific research on new and not so new religious movements. Such organizations should be open to diverse approaches.

However, sometimes one gets the impression of people blurring lines between such a scientific organization, and an apologetic political lobby group for those movements.
Scholars or Apologists? Dr. Herman de Tollenaere

For a general understanding of CESNUR's viewpoints, see Misinformation, Religious Minorities and Religious Pluralism - a statement presented by CESNUR director Massimo Introvigne at an OCSE meeting in March, 1999.

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