Tuesday, 1 July 2014

The Cult Wars: a beginner's guide

Scientologist Eric Roux will be addressing another academic conference this week. Will there be anyone on hand to challenge his claims?

Eric Roux
Frenchman Eric Roux is arguably Scientology's most prominent ambassador in Europe. A member for more than 20 years, his current post is President of the Union of the Church of Scientology in France.

During the later stages of Scientology's court battle in France he spoke for the Paris Celebrity Centre, one of two Scientology organisations convicted of organised fraud.

He gave a composed and polished performance at the Paris appeal court, even if his testimony did not in the end sway the judges. In October last year the Cour de Cassation, France's top court, confirmed the landmark convictions against the movement.1

Roux describes himself as a religious freedom campaigner and has spoken on the issue at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), at the Council of Europe and in Washington.2

He also sits on the Steering Committee of the European Interreligious Forum for Religious Freedom (EIFRF), an organisation whose origins are not entirely clear (anybody heard of Djemad Sedik?).

Roux keeps followers posted on his activities via a blog and a Twitter account. And in addition to his media appearance and other campaign work he also addresses academic conferences.

As reported earlier at Infinite Complacency, in February of this year Roux gave a presentation at the INFORM conference in London: “Scientology: from controversy to global expansion and recognition”.

INFORM, the Information Network on Religious Movements founded by Professor Eileen Barker goes out of its way to build dialogue with movements such as Scientology. It does not consider confronting such groups to be part of its role.

On Wednesday, at the University of Sussex in England, Roux will address another audience of academics, this time on: “Scientology versus Crisis: New Religious Approach or Old Schemes Remodelled?”

This time he is a panellist at a meeting of the British Sociological Association at SOCREL, its annual conference on the sociology of religion.

Is Roux's presence at the conference an issue? Of course not: he has every right to tell the truth as he sees it to whoever wants to listen.

But it does seem worth asking if anyone will be on hand to present the other side of the story – especially given Scientology's troubled relationship with the truth.

Here is what the movement's founder, L. Ron Hubbard had to say on the subject:

THE ONLY WAY YOU CAN CONTROL PEOPLE IS TO LIE TO THEM. You can write that down in your book in great big letters. The only way you can control anybody is to lie to them. … He's got to tell you lies in order to continue control, because the second you start telling anybody close to the truth, you start releasing him and he gets tougher and tougher to control. So, you can't control somebody without telling them a bunch of lies.3

Roux's co-panellists at SOCREL are Donald Westbrook, an academic doing research into Scientology; and lawyer and rights activist Alessandro Amicarelli.

Amicarelli has quite rightly denounced Russia's persecution of Scientology as a violation of human rights.

But the title of his talk at SOCREL suggests more scepticism towards counter-cult groups than to Scientology iself: “The Church of Scientology, from the Attacks of Secto-phobic Groups to the Victories in the Courts: A New Slant on Life for the Heirs of Hubbard?”

Amicarelli's work is cited in five separate posts at the EIFRF website; Roux quotes him approvingly on his Twitter feed. Difficult then to see any tough questions coming from this side of the panel.

Donald Westbrook is a young academic conducting research into Scientology. He takes the movement seriously as a religion and has criticised France's heavy-handed approach to “cult-like excesses”.

It looks then, as if both Roux’s fellow panellists come from the same side in the so-called “cult wars” – the longstanding, acrimonious dispute among scholars over how best to study movements such as Scientology.

For those of you who arrived late, here's a rough map of the battlefield – painted with a broad brush, admittedly.

Hawks, doves and zombies

The conventional approach to movements such as Scientology and others is to label them as abusive cults who practise mind control to manipulate recruits into switching their loyalty from family and friends to the group, with often disastrous consequences.

But while not denying that some movements can be destructive, some academics argue that the situation is not quite so clear-cut.

Some people have perfectly legitimate reasons for joining and staying in these movements, they say – and not all of those who leave necessarily see their time inside the group as having been uniformly negative.

They also argue that we need to get rid of the negative preconceptions we bring to the debate about such movements – which is why they object to the word "cult". The word is problematic because it is a loaded term, packed with negative connotations – it is, in effect, a “thought-stopping cliché” to put it in terms students of mind control might recognise.4

For this reason, these academics prefer what they consider the more neutral expression, New Religious Movement, or NRM.5 This, broadly, is the position taken by INFORM and Professor Barker.

Other organisations however, most notably the International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), take a different line.

These scholars, while acknowledging the problems with a loaded term such as “cult”, argue that if the cap fits, wear it – and Scientology, for one, fits most definitions of a cult.

Try this one on for size, from Michael Langone and the late Louis J. West, both veterans of the ICSA (or American Family Foundation as was):

Cult (totalist type): A group or movement exhibiting a great or excessive devotion or dedication to some person, idea, or thing and employing unethically manipulative techniques of persuasion and control (e.g. isolation from former friends and family, debilitation, use of special methods to heighten suggestibility and subservience, powerful group pressures, information management, suspension of individuality or critical judgment, promotion of total dependency on the group and fear of leaving it, etc.), designed to advance the goals of the group's leaders, to the actual or possible detriment of members, their families, or the community.6

At the ICSA website, an article by Langone and the late Herbert Rosedale acknowledges the problems with the term.

Even though we have each studied cults and educated people about this subject for more than 20 years, neither of us has ever felt completely comfortable with the term “cult”.

No other term, however, serves more effectively the linked educational and research aims of ICSA...”7

And if the cap fits...

One reason he C-word remains problematic is because most definitions incorporate some description of psychological manipulation or “mind control”. And the issue of “brainwashing” is another of the main fronts in the cult wars.

Many scholars were extremely sceptical of the cruder versions of brainwashing that were circulating in the 1970s: they argued that it was too easy to use it as an excuse to justify forced deprogramming. It is hard to disagree.

In the early years of what some observers considered was the moral scare over cults, some anti-cult activists did use the mind control argument very much as a blunt instrument.

These people considered the members of such groups to be little more than preprogrammed zombies – and that, for them, was enough to justify extreme measures to force people to snap out of the "cult mindset": measures such as deprogramming by force.

Coercive deprogramming is when you hold someone against their will until you can convince them they have been victims of cult mind control (or until they can convince you that you have convinced them).

Thinking has moved on a fair bit since then: advocates on both sides of the argument have more sophisticated models of the control mechanisms used inside Scientology and other movements. And most people acknowledge that old-style coercive deprogramming cannot be justified.

While there are still some scholars who question that there is any such thing as mind control, most observers appear to accept that – even if the idea needs to be treated with caution – it is not meaningless to talk in terms of undue influence.

Today, the real debate appears to be over how far it can be used to explain people's behaviour – how much heavy lifting it can do in the debate over cults.8

But if we acknowledge that there is such a thing as mind control/undue influence/coercive persuasion, there can be little doubt that it exists inside Scientology. At the very least, the movement inculcates an intolerance for – a resistance to – any information challenging its beliefs.

Consider how determined Scientologists are to avoid contact with entheta – material critical of Scientology – to avoid hampering spiritual development. (How's that for a thought-stopping cliché?)9

And consider the overwhelming pressure members come under to shun or disconnect from loved ones declared suppressive: enemies of the movement. Arguably this is Scientology's most effective – and most destructive – mechanism of control.

Despite this there are still some academics who have long been willing to take too much that Scientology and other controversial movements say about themselves at face value.

They have reserved their scepticism for disillusioned former members who have gone public to denounce the movement.

These scholars often dismiss the horror stories of “apostates” on the grounds that disenchanted former members excluded from such movements clearly have their own agenda, their own axe to grind – never considering that this is equally true of both sides.

This is not unlike the line taken by staunch communists in the 1930s and beyond, who dismissed the horror stories told by former communists turned dissidents as the lies of class traitors.

These loyalists – including many intellectuals and academics – were too naïve or too ideologically blinkered to consider the possibility that life in the Soviet bloc was anything other than double-plus good.

So one can’t help wondering: is it bad form at SOCGEN to contradict the guests?

Don't worry: just in case it is, we've invited Jon Atack to correct Eric Roux's copy.

1   See here for the first part of his testimony and here for the second part. He was not himself a defendant in the case.
2   You can find a bio in this document relating to the INFORM conference earlier this year.
3   Hubbard, Technique 88: “On Control and Lying”.
4   The “thought-stopping cliché” of course is one of the elements set down by Robert Jay Lifton as a key component of thought reform in his classic study Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism.
5   More recently I've also seen the term NARMS: New Religious and Alternative Religous Movement.
Regular readers of Tony Ortega's site, The Underground Bunker, will know that he too has reservations about using the word “cult”, though for entirely different reasons. For Ortega, the whole “cult-church” debate is distraction from the real issues. See his dialogue with Jon Atack on this point from earlier this year – and note Jon Atack's reasons of taking a very different position on the question: “Jon Atack: Why I call Scientology a Cult and not a Church”.
6   FWest, L. J., & Langone, M. D. (1986). “Cultism: A conference for scholars and policy makers.” Cultic Studies Journal, 3, 117-134 – and quoted in the cited Rosedale-Langone article.
7   Here are the concluding lines of the same piece: Even though the term “cult” has limited utility, it is so embedded in popular culture that those of us concerned about helping people harmed by group involvements or preventing people from being so harmed cannot avoid using it. Whatever the term's limitations, it points us in a meaningful direction. And no other term relevant to group psychological manipulation (e.g., sociopsychological influence, coercive persuasion, undue influence, exploitative manipulation) has ever been able to capture and sustain public interest, which is the sine qua non of public education. If, however, we cannot realistically avoid the term, let us at least strive to use it judiciously. From the ICSA article “On using the term 'cult'”, by Herbert Rosedale and Michael Langone.
8   For more on the debate over mind control, see Misunderstanding Cults: searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (University of Toronto Press, 2001): in particular Part Two of the book.
9   For a more detailed treatment of influence techniques used inside Scientology, see Jon Atack's “Never Believe a Hypnotist”.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent article, Jonny, hope people pay attention.

    Rent-an-opinion "academics" will pop up in attempts to confuse whenever the criminal organisation known as the "church" of $cientology is pursued by legal means. (The respect for the legal process was ambly demonstrated by the Co$ walking out of an appeal hearing they had requested themselves.) Of course, the hired opinions of these "academics" will be quoted by the Co$ as proof that everything the organisation says is true, while the due process of the law with three consecutive trials can be written off as somehow fundamentally unfair (if the law can indeed be admitted to apply at all).

    I was in a TV debate ("Should Scientology be banned?" - France 24, 27 May 2009
    ) where an "academic" phoned in and loudly proclaimed that the poor old $cientologists were being unfairly persecuted. Mind you, he had not actually studied the case in question, but... Happily my fellow panelist Jacques MYARD was able to tell him where to get off.