Is Scientology getting a free pass from academics?
Earlier this year French Scientologist Eric Roux attended a conference in London to give his take on the history of the movement.
Roux's presentation was entitled “Scientology: from controversy to global expansion and recognition” and he has posted it in English at his website.
The conference he attended, “Minority Religions: Contemplating the Past and Anticipating the Future”, was hosted by INFORM, the Information Network on New Religious Movements.
As you might imagine, Roux's account differs substantially from the version familiar to most critics of the movement (of which more later). But it is not clear if the audience got to hear the other side of the story.
Now Roux has announced he will be giving another presentation, at a conference organised by the British Sociological Association at the University of Sussex on July 2.
It is only natural of course for academics who want to learn about Scientology to invite a Scientologist. Given the movement's problematic relationship with the truth however, an alternative perspective does not seem like a bad idea either.
Once again it is not clear who at the BSA presentation will be on hand to present the other side of the argument. So it is worth asking: is Roux – is Scientology – getting a free pass in academia?
INFORM is run by Professor Eileen Barker, an academic with decades of experience in the sociology of religion. While some of Barker's critics have denounced her as an apologist for the movements she studies, dismissing her in this way is a little too facile.1
For years now, a fierce debate has been raging in the academic community over how best to approach the issues surrounding cults – or new religious movements as Barker and others prefer to call them.
What some scholars still refer to the “cult wars” arguably reached its climax in the 1990s, though the basic issues remain unresolved.
Crudely put, one side sees cults as authoritarian groups that can be highly destructive both to their members and the society in which they operate; while the other sees them rather as minority, fringe movements unfairly demonized because of their unorthodox beliefs and practices. (I will publish a slightly more detailed map of the battlefield, “The Cult Wars”, shortly.)2
Barker was one of the first to try to build bridges between the rival camps in this debate. While some remained entrenched in their positions in 1998 she attended her first conference in the “enemy” camp: the American Family Foundation, now called the International Cultic Studies Association or ICSA.
Her efforts to promote dialogue between the different sides in this controversy were acknowledged in 2013 by her peers when she was honoured with a lifetime achievement award at the ICSA annual conference.3
Barker is still trying to maintain that dialogue.
INFORM regularly invites members and former members of the movements in question to regular seminars and workshops, to join anti-cult activists, academics and other professionals working in the field – which brings us back to Roux's talk in February at the INFORM conference.4
“A standing ovation”
The London conference was part of INFORM's work promoting dialogue, featuring speakers from both sides of the cult-NRM academic debate – as you can see from the provisional programme.
Panellists included Gordon Melton for example, whose complacent treatment of Scientology's official literature has won him few friends among critics of the movement.5
Also scheduled to speak was a certain Jura Nanuk, who runs the Central-European Religious Freedom Institute. As as I reported in April over at Tony Ortega's Underground Bunker, it is not entirely clear who the Institute represents – nor why Nanuk has not been more open about the fact that he is a Scientologist.
Academics more sceptical of Scientology and other abusive movements were also invited, among them ICSA executive director Michael Langone.
Langone, a counselling psychologist with more than 30 years experience, did not in the end make it to London and so could not shed any light on Roux's talk.
Mike Kropveld, founder and executive director of Canada's Info-Cult/Info-Secte and an ICSA board member, did attend. But he did not manage to catch Roux's presentation.
“I would have liked to but had a conflict and attended another session that was running at the same time,” he told Infinite Complacency.
“I’m not sure who I know that would have sat in on his presentation but, I’m pretty sure there were people at the conference that would not have taken what he said at face value,” he added.
Israeli academic Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, who had also been scheduled to speak, is not so sure.
In the late 1990s, Beit-Hallahmi published a scathing denunciation of the standards of some academics studying NRMS/cults: “Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research”.6 He returned to that theme in the context of Scientology in a 2003 paper “Scientology: Religion or Racket?”.7
Beit Hallahmi told Infinite Complacency that although he had been scheduled to speak in London, he had not in the end been able to attend.
He was not convinced that an audience of academics would necessarily take Roux's presentation with a pinch of salt.
“Roux is part of the $cientology organization, so he is giving the usual $cientology position,” he wrote.
“Actually, the audience could have been quite sympathetic,” he wrote. “INFORM has been important in offering $cientology legitimacy.
“In 1992, if I remember correctly, I attended an INFORM conference where Heber Jentzsch gave a speech and compared $cientology to Jews in Germany under the Nazis,” he recalled.
“How did the audience react? A standing ovation.”
(According to several former members, Jentzsch is one of a number of once-senior veteran Scientologists who have in recent years fallen foul of the movement's current leader, David Miscavige.8)
Terril Park, who is very active in Scientology's Freezone movement, gave a presentation at the INFORM conference, but he did not make it to Roux's talk either.
Park belongs to a growing number of “independent” Scientologists disaffected with the official movement. He sent me a copy of his talk, a damning critique of the excesses of the Miscavige regime.
And the impression that he got at the conference was that even academics on the NRM side of the debate were increasingly sceptical when it came to Scientology, he added.
“I'm friends with Dr David Barrett who did his PhD under Eileen Barker... Dave has written about CO$ and is very critical of the organization,” he wrote.
“James R Lewis of Tromso university has had conversations with me and is also very critical of CO$. He currently writes about the FZ [Freezone]...
“I was introduced to Gordon Melton at INFORM and found he hadn't read Brennan's essay on CO$ religious cloaking so I sent it to him. No response back.”
Don't worry Terril: you're not the only one.9
A 'variety of perspectives'
I checked with the organisers to see if they could track down someone who had attended Roux's talk. Dr Amanda van Eck, deputy director of INFORM, did manage to find someone who let her see the notes he had taken.
She confirmed that Roux had shared the panel with two or three representatives from other movements, as the programme indicates.
There had been a question to Roux about training and possibly about legal cases, said van Eck – but it was not clear if Roux had been challenged on anything he had said.
Nevertheless, she argued, Terril Park's presentation could in some sense be regarded as a “general rebuttal” to Roux's talk.
Certainly, Park gave his presentation at a separate event. But he had been speaking at one of the plenary sessions which, unlike Roux's talk, was attended by everybody as there were no parallel events, she pointed out.
Dr van Eyk added:
The Inform conference had a wide range of speakers and attendees, from a variety of perspectives. Hence aside from academics there are those with a personal interest and perspective, be they ex members, critics, representatives from religious groups, current members, etc. Hence controversial comments rarely go unchallenged.
Whatever does go unchallenged in one particular talk (some individuals choose not to speak up) will have been challenged by other talks within the overall conference.
Still, it does seem a shame that while Eric Roux was allowed to present the official version of Scientology history, those present – so far as we can tell – did not get to hear an informed response.
So I asked former Scientologist Jon Atack, author of Let's Sell these People a Piece of Blue Sky, the definitive history of Hubbard-era Scientology, to look over the text of Roux's speech and provide some commentary – and he was good enough to agree.
With Roux's latest outing at the University of Sussex next Wednesday, his critique could hardly be more timely.
I will run his response on Monday.10
1 For an idea of her position see “What should we do about the cults.” Alternatively there is a 2012 interview with her over at the Religious Studies Project in which she gives a good overview of her work and her position.
2 Many of these same issues were re-aired in the debate at the Council of Europe in April over French deputy Rudy Salles to introduce stronger measures to protect children from the influenced of cultic abuse. See my previous post, “Cult Wars at the Council of Europe”.
3 See also the ICSA statement “Dialogue and Cultic Studies: Why Dialogue Benefits the Cultic Studies Field”.
4 Listen to the passage about 15 minutes in to the interview listed in Note 1.
Barker also talks about how she has invited representatives from cult-watching groups from France (MIVILUDES presumably) and Belgium, which take a completely different line on the issue to that pursued by INFORM (about 17 minutes in); and she has set up meetings between counter-cult organisations and the groups they are fighting (about 18 minutes in).
5 See for example Melton's “The Birth of a Religion”, the opening chapter of Scientology, a collection of papers by academics sympathetic to the movement, edited by James R. Lewis. (OUP, 2009). There, he shows no scepticism towards long-disputed claims about Hubbard's life, such as: his claim that he was made a blood brother of the Blackfoot Tribe at the age of six; that the ship he commanded sank a Japanese sub off the Pacific coast; that he withdrew from the management of Scientology in the final years of his life (see Atack on this point above). Time permitting, I'll try to write a separate analysis of Melton's work at a later date.
6 An expanded version of that paper forms the opening chapter of Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, (University of Toronto Press, 2001).
7 Published in the Marburg Journal of Religion in 2003 but based on a 1999 paper. It is worth nothing that among the acknowledgements at the end of the paper, he thanks academics on the other side of the barricades in what became known in academic circles as the “cult wars” – including Gordon Melton.
8 I checked with INFORM: Jentzsch gave his talk in March 1993. For more on Jentzsch's current plight, see Tony Ortega's August 2012 report in the Village Voice: “Scientology's Concentration Camp for Its Executives: The Prisoners, Past and Present”. Several leading former members including Marty Rathbun and Mike Rinder are campaigning on his behalf. See Rathbun's April 2010 blog post “Free Heber”.
9 Larry Brennan's comments about Scientology's efforts to push its religious aspects for the tax breaks and social protection it afforded are important because as a senior executive during the early 1980s he played a role in implementing the policy. See Brennan's “The Miscavige Legal Statements: a Study in Perjury, Lies, Misdirection”.
10 A confession: I've actually been sitting on Jon's piece for a couple of months now, but the brief introductory passage I had planned mutated into this separate piece – and the accompanying annex on the cult wars. Sorry about that, Jon.