Hey everyone, we are back after a short break from this series, breaking down this book, Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis and featuring academic essays and articles written by religious scholars, sociologists and the like, mostly in praise of or apologizing for Scientology as a religous practice. Since I don’t happen to think that Scientology is a legitimate religious practice and have been an outspoken critic against it for the last three years, I can’t claim to be unbiased but as I’ve been showing in this series, neither are these folks.
This week we are tackling chapter 15, “The Church of Scientology in France: Legal and Activist Counterattacks in the ‘War on Sectes'” by Susan J. Palmer. She is a Canadian sociologist and author whose primary research interest is new religious movements. She is a professor of religious studies at Dawson College in Westmount, Quebec, and an adjunct professor at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec. She teaches sociology of religion courses and Scientology is only one of many groups she’s taken an interest in. To this day she still speaks out in favor of them because, as I laid out in my last video in this series, there are some religous scholars who don’t take a critical view of any new religious movement because they mistakenly believe that none of them are truly dangerous or harmful. They believe that freedom of religion trumps any critique of these groups and that it is better that they be allowed to not only exist but practice in whatever way they wish without government regulation or interference.
Here is a quote from a book review of Susan’s book The Church of Scientology: The New Heretics of France from a website called “freedom of conscience.” This gives a summary of the issues involved in the country of France when it comes to new religious movements.
“Since the Age of Enlightenment, France has upheld clear constitutional guidelines that protect human rights and religious freedom. Today, however, intolerant attitudes and discriminatory practices towards unconventional faiths have become acceptable and even institutionalized in public life. Susan Palmer offers an insightful examination of France’s most stigmatized new religions, or ‘sectes,’ and the public management of religious and philosophical minorities by the state.
“The New Heretics of France tracks the mounting government-sponsored anti-cult movement in the wake of the shocking mass suicides of the Solar Temple in 1994, an event that ushered France’s most visible religious minorities onto a blacklist of 172 sectes commissioned by the National Assembly. Drawing on extensive interviews and field research, Palmer describes the controversial histories of well-known international New Religious Movements including the Church of Scientology, Raelian Movement, and Unificationism, as well as esoteric local groups. Palmer also reveals the partisanship of Catholic priests, journalists, village mayors, and the passive public who support La Republique’s efforts to control minority faiths – all in the name of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.“
So you can see that some of these scholars believe that they truly are fighting for the greater good in acting as apologists for these new religious movements. I don’t doubt that in some cases, they are doing good but in the case of the Church of Scientology, they could not be more misguided in their efforts. When they go on talk shows, podcasts and write supportive papers for Scientology, they are playing right in to the hands of the Office of Special Affairs in giving Scientology a credibility it most certainly does not deserve. I truly wish these people would be more discerning in who they choose to support.
In fact, Palmer begins her paper with a personal appeal to emotion concerning Michel Raoust, whose name I’m probably butchering because I don’t speak French, and how his wedding day was ruined by anti-cult activists. Michel is an extremley active Scientologist in France and has been since the 1970s. In fact, he was one of the first winners of the coveted International Association of Scientologists Freedom Medal in 1985, just one year after the IAS was formed.
According to Palmer’s essay, Michel’s brother-in-law-to-be got hold of some anti-Scientology literature concerning Michel personally and was so alarmed by it that he spread it to the wedding guests, denouncing Michel and this caused half their wedding guests to not show up. This was only one skirmish in what are known as the Sect Wars in France, a war which Michel has apparently been on the front lines of for decades.
Apparently Michel gained access to the government intelligence file that was kept on his activities and I had to laugh when he told Palmer why he did this:
“‘Because transparency is one of my subjects of interest,'” he said. “‘I don’t like a police that spies on people’s philosophy or religious beliefs and keeps secret reports on them.'” (p. 296)
The irony in this statement is immense considering that Scientology has literally warehouses of secret files of confessional information they keep on every one of their parishioners, sometimes numbering over a hundred folders per person. Although these folders are all marked “Confidential – Priest/Penitent Information” it has been well documented how Scientology’s Office of Special Affairs will not hesitate to use any information from these files as a form of blackmail over its parishioners if they should get out of line. No Scientologist has permission to look at or access any of the information in these files. Palmer goes on with this:
“Michel Raoust’s story is a miniature version of the ‘French cult wars.’ He is one of the many members of NRMs whose professional and family life has been adversely affected by the French ‘war on sects’ — in this sense a ‘victim’ — but he is one of the few who decided to fight, and the trajectory of his battle, between the 1980s to the present, reflects the gradual ‘lightening up’ of the fierce opposition to unconventional religions in France.” (p. 297)
Palmer wants to use the story of Scientology in France as an example of how NRMs in general gain acceptance in societies despite initial opposition.
“The story of Scientology in France is the story of a ferocious battle. On one side of the field, we find a new religion surrounded by a militantly secular society, struggling to survive, and appealing to foreign troops and standards to support their demands for religious recognition and freedom. On other side, we have France’s cult-watching, secte-fighting movement — which since 1996 has gained status as a government body. The action (aside from a few bombs tossed into Scientology centers) is nonviolent and quite legal. It takes place in the administrative and criminal courts, in the appeals court, and in the Supreme Court. But this bureaucratic war is nevertheless fraught with passion and invective. It is a ‘war of words,’ of name-calling, deviance-labeling, and defamation suits.” (p. 297)
She goes on to describe how Scientology is notable in fighting against the government for two reasons: (1) it is overtly aggressive towards its critics and takes the fight to their doorstep and (2) it has attempted to form coalitions with other sects to launch an organized resistance against government interference. Her next section is called “The Rise of France’s State-Sponsored Antisecte Movement” and begins in what is clearly a biased presentation against the French government:
“The French law of 1905 established the principle of secularism as a rational means to separate church and state. But this principle has since developed into a militant and highly politicized form of secularism. The principle of la laïcité tolerates the Catholic Church but distrusts philosophical ‘obscurantisme,’ exotic imported spirituality, and foreign expressions of overtly mystical or enthusiastic religiosity. Thus, the principle of freedom of religion became a cry for freedom from religion. In the 1970s, the first cult-watching/fighting organizations sprang up. By the mid-1990s these private groups were supported and subsidized by the French government, so that they gained recognition as public service organizations.
“France’s closest equivalent to the old Cult Awareness Network in the United States is UNADFI (Union Nationale des Associations de Défense des Familles et de l’Individu), a grassroots organization that developed in the early 1980s with help from Catholic countercult groups. In 1996 UNADFI was recognized as a public service organization and became eligible for large subsidies from the government. Many NRMs in France trace the origins of their conflicts with society to their local ADFI, whose officials contact the media and the local mayor with discrediting information about sectes in their area. Another anticult movement was founded by Roger Ikor, called Centre de documentation, d’education et d’action contre les manipulations mentales (CCMM). A law passed in June 2000 (section 105) entitles anticult groups like UNADFI to initiate criminal proceedings against sectes and secte members on behalf of the victim, even without the latter’s consent or knowledge.
“In 1995 the OTS (l’Ordre du Temple Solaire) staged a third ‘transit,’ or mass suicide/homicide, this time in France. As Jonestown was to the American anti-cult movement, this tragic event proved to be a catalyst for the French antisecte movement, which gathered momentum and government support. That same year, the Renseignement Généraux compiled information in a list of 172 groups that was adopted by the first Parliamentary Board of Inquiry into the secte phenomenon, headed by Jacques Guyard and Jean-Pierre Brard. In December 1995, this Guyard Commission submitted a report to the National Assembly, and the controversial list of 172 sectes became official. Academics who specialized in the study of esoteric movements complained of not being consulted during this process, and the groups could not challenge their inclusion on the stigmatizing list.
“In May 1996 an Observatoire Interministériel sur les sectes was created by Prime Minister Alain Juppé. It was replaced in 1998 by MILS (Mission Interministérielle de Lutte contre les Sectes), whose director was Alain Vivien. Alain Vivien had written a report for the Prime Minister Pierre Mauroy (Les sectes en France, 1983), which was the first major anticult book. In 1999 a second parliamentary board of inquiry was set up to investigate the (presumed shady) financial dealing of sects, and the results were published in the 1999 report Sectes et Argent.
“On November 28, 2002, MILS was replaced by MIVILUDES (Mission Interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires). As its title demonstrates, this new interministerial mission gave up trying to fight sectes directly, and focused instead on the derives (derailments or harm) issuing from the sectes. A new law designed to target cult leaders who cause harm to their followers — the About-Picard law — was passed in June 2001. This law incorporated a diluted notion of brainwashing theory into France’s Common Law, by making ‘abus de faiblesse‘ (abuse of weakness) a misdemeanor.” (p. 299)
Now as you can tell by how badly I’m butchering French words, I don’t know much about France and it’s certainly possible given the nature of governments and bureaucracies that things have gotten out of hands in some cases in terms of prosecuting New religious Movements. Yet it appears to me, knowing what I know first-hand about so many destructive cult groups and how they operate, that concerned government officials in France were actually listening to their citizens and trying to take legal action against the harm these groups do.
Yet you wouldn’t be able to tell that from the overtly biased descriptions by Palmer because she does not give any credence or respect to France’s government or the grassroots movements which started UNADFI. Grassroots means that citizens themselves cared enough about these groups to come forward, organize against them and try to do something effective to combat them. People don’t just do that for no good reason. If UNADFI is truly a parallel group to the Cult Awareness Network, then it’s a given that many of its supporters and members are family, friends or even ex-members of destructive cult groups. Palmer can’t dare to comment on any of that because it would destroy her narrative of how all these groups are simply besieged and persecuted religions.
It’s also interesting how Palmer’s assertion is that these sects were simply minding their own business until the bad old UNADFI came along and stirred up trouble against them. Is it not possible that any of these groups were engaged in questionable or even illegal activities for which they should have been investigated? Scientology certainly is and it’s not beyond the margin of belief that some of these other groups could have been too, but Palmer is going to be the last person to admit that, except for downplaying an incident of mass murder committed by the Solar Temple group.
It is a tightrope walk balancing the rights of citizens to have their own religious beliefs against the rights of citizens to not be lied to, unduly influenced or harmed in the name of those religious beliefs. This is a vastly complicated and very serious situation and one that requires deep discussion of the moral, legal and ethical consequences of actions a government can take. In this instance, France has taken actions that are an attempt to do more than the United States in this regard and I applaud their effort even if I’m sure they may have made some mistakes along the way. We in the United States hear about the human rights violations, physical abuses and emotional blackmail that Scientology inflicts on its members and we wonder why the government won’t step up and do something about it.
Susan Palmer as a religious scholar and academic should understand that there are two sides to this story and that cultic abuses are real. But she can’t be bothered with any of that. In her essay, the government is the oppressor and any New Religious Movement are the good guys. She ignores everything these groups do that are shady, dishonest, immoral or even illegal. To be honest, I find such black and white thinking on her part to be kind of cultish and certainly inappropriate for someone who should be taking a much more nuanced and balanced approach to these groups.
Her descriptions in the rest of this essay are just as one-sided as what I’ve already presented. In fact, what I read from so far was the lightest of her bias. So I’m just going to spare you from going over the rest of Scientology’s legal victories in France and how they have been the standard bearer for religious freedom in Europe. If you’ve followed this series so far, you already know how the apologetics roll, using academic language and tone to describe how persecuted Scientology is by people who don’t understand new religious movements at the level that these academics do, and how if only the academics had been consulted, none of this persecution would be necessary. It’s a tired story and so overtly biased towards these destructive cults that I personally find it disturbing, if not outright horrifying. Especially when these supposedly “academic essays” really read more like Scientology promotional pieces that might as well have been written by the Office of Special Affairs.
As I mentioned earlier, Susan continues to this day to preach apologetics towards new religious movements. Where these groups are benign, I certainly have no problem with religious tolerance, understanding and mutual support. Where these groups are as overtly destructive as the Church of Scientology, I have nothing but contempt for anyone who would support it or its causes. If my channel has not been enough for you to learn about it, there are plenty of other outlets including the documentary Going Clear directed by Alex Gibney or Leah Remini’s amazing show on A&E, Scientology and the Aftermath. There is no excuse for these academics to continue living in an academic bubble when it comes to supporting destructive cults like Scientology.
Next time, we embark on chapter 16, “Scientology Missions International (SMI): An Immutable Model of Technological Missionary Activity” by Bernadette Rigal-Cellard. Should be interesting stuff but again, I’m not holding out any hope that Bernadette is any more unbiased than the rest of these Scientology mouthpieces have been. Maybe she’ll surprise us.
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