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The Role of the Anti-Cult Movement PDF Print E-mail

Irving Hexham
University of Calgary, Canada

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

In the first part of my paper, I deal with the formation of the anticult movement in the English-speaking world, and the way in which it is supported by private organizations and institutions, which attempt to influence the media in creating pressure on the public, and in turn create pressure on legislatures for action against cults or new religions. The way that this pressure is created, is largely through the use of atrocity stories about the dangers of cults and things like Jonestown, and through claims that members of new religious movements are in fact brainwashed.

This has been well recorded by people like David Bromley and Anson Schupe, in their books on new religious movements, and particularly in their book The New Vigilantes. What is not understood very well in the English-speaking world, is the difference between the German situation and the situation in the English-speaking world.

In Germany, there are really a number of anticult groups. The main anticult movement is strongly supported by the Protestant Church. Within the Protestant Church grouping, there is the Archiev für Religion und Weltanschaungsfragen and the Evangelische Zentrostowar für Weltanschaungsfragen, two different groups, which are now both based in Berlin. One was formerly in Stuttgart, but it has moved to Berlin recently. The other has been in Berlin all along.

In addition, there are over 190 Sektenbeauftragter, or cult experts, scattered throughout the various federal states of Germany. These are Catholic and Protestant, but I think it is significant to note that, on the whole, Catholic cult experts deal with theology, and simply point out the dangers, or the differences between Catholic Theology and Protestant Theology, whereas the Protestants point out the dangers of the cults. The Catholics talk about the theological differences, the Protestants talk about the dangers of the cults in terms of their being thessassiansfindlik. This term is a key one, that comes up again and again in the German situation, and I will discuss its meaning in a few moments.

In addition to the church cult experts, there is a whole network of people working in various government organizations, from the local council right up to the federal government, and the sogenannte or the Enquette Kommission über sogenannte Sekten, which is the inquiry into cults at the federal government level. Most of these deal with family issues: questions of family law, and questions of divorce. When there is a divorce case on, of course, the accusation is made that one of the parents is involved in a dangerous cult. Therefore, the other parent ought to get custody of that child. This type of argument goes on, and it works itself through the system.

So, while you have official church cult experts, they work very closely with people who are supposed to be civil servants, but in actual fact are involved with religious issues all the time, and draw their information from the religious cult experts.

All of these groups produce publications. In fact, many of the federal states, plus the federal government itself, produce booklets on new religious movements, or Sektentum, in Germany, and these booklets are distributed for free. If you go to the Berlin Senate, you can get a fairly substantial book about the dangerous cults which are in existence in Berlin, including Scientology, the Unification Church, and various charismatic churches and other groups. All of these are given away freely by the government, but when you look through the bibliographies of these publications, the experts that they rely on are almost exclusively theologians.

So, there is this very close interweaving between the church and the state, which is very hard to describe, because the German churches are not state churches in the sense that the Church of England is a state church. Yet, they have a far closer working relationship with various levels of government than the English state church does, so it is tricky. Also, church taxes and such come into this.

At the center of the storm about church and sect, or cult, in Germany, is the Church of Scientology. Scientology has been put under considerable pressure by different agencies of government at different levels. This is important to emphasize because very often people outside of Germany do not recognize the decentralized nature of German society.

As a result of the Second World War, the allies imposed various constitutional constraints on Germany, which were supposed to prevent the rise of a fascist-type movement that could take over the country again. They did this through decentralization. Therefore, you have level upon level of government that can do all sorts of things, which somehow work together, and yet are all somehow separate. Even in areas other than religious freedom, it becomes very difficult to take action.

To give an example, the University of Heidelberg discovered a number of years ago, that they had a lot of perpetual students, who signed up for courses each year without any intention of taking them. People signed up because you can get cheap travel passes, and various other benefits by being a student. One particular student had been there for 32 years, and they couldn’t get rid of the guy. As a result of this dilemma, the university senate passed a law saying that you’ve got to take your exam, and cease to be a student within so many years. A group of students took them to court and the case went up to the highest court in Germany, which found in favor of the students. The university couldn’t get rid of all their perpetual students. Because they have these perpetual students, there are places in lecture halls that are empty, which other people would like to take, but they can’t solve the problem. It is quite a mess in many respects. This decentralization influences the whole dealings of the state with the churches, or the sects and the cults in Germany, confusing the situation very considerably.

In response to much of what goes on in Germany, people, particularly the Church of Scientology, have responded by saying that it is a deep-seated fascist ideology in government leaders—people like Helmut Kohl and Norbert Blum—which causes all of their problems. In support of this, they have produced some very interesting booklets, such as one which compares cartoons from “Der Sturm,” a Nazi magazine that had cartoons about Jews, with cartoons about Scientologists.

These are very telling images, and there is no doubt that the German press does draw upon this historic usage of symbolism—which the Nazis also used—to characterize Scientology. However, when ordinary Germans see this sort of thing, they become outraged. Chancellor Kohl and Norbert Blum are not Nazis, and they have put in a lot of effort into opposing anything that appears to be Nazi. Therefore, Germans see these attacks upon them as very tasteless attacks upon respected politicians, who have proven their worth over the years.

Even members of other minority religious groups dislike this sort of approach taken by Scientology, because they see this as simply a slur upon the German character. They look back on the last 50 years of democracy and say, “Has it been for nothing? Everyone jumps on us and pulls out this image of the Nazi. We don’t like it!” They object to it.

This comes about, I think, in the Scientologist’s point of view, from an inability to really understand the inner dynamics of German society, and an imposition of American views on a foreign society. So, they get into all sorts of confusion.

There is no doubt that there are a few politicians, like Renate Rennebach, who do make a career out of attacking new religious movements, but the majority of German politicians, like politicians everywhere, simply respond to pressure from the media, and try to keep their constituents happy. Most of them are not out to get new religions, and aren’t particularly bothered with new religions.

There are, however, a few vocal ones and, from time to time attacks on new religions occur, as for example when the German academic journal, Spiriter, published an article about Scientology which was extremely critical, but nevertheless said that Scientology was a religion. Some politicians in Hessen tried to get the journal banned, or at least to get the state funding to it withdrawn.

The other thing which one sees—this has been very noticeable over the last seven years—is an incredible growth of books in bookstores saying how bad the cults are. There are lots of anticult books appearing. Seven years ago, it was hard to find a single book on new religions or cults in German. Nevertheless, today, if you go into a bookstore—a major academic bookstore say—you will find a couple of shelves of books, all dealing with cults. Some are written by ex-members and others by the Sektenbeauftragte.

When you turn to the academics, and talk to them about what is going on in Germany, one would expect there would be a great deal of academic research into new religions. In fact, there is virtually no empirical research being done in Germany, and many academics that I’ve talked to openly admit that they wouldn’t touch the sekten issue with a barge pole, because they fear the response of people within the established churches. At the same time, having said this, they rely in a very uncritical way on things written by theologians.

People, who in North America would be given no credence because they are clearly playing a theological tune and have vested interests in attacking new religions, are seen as good academics by German academics, even though they are clergymen. These people take an approach which mixes—or which confuses—theology and theological attacks upon new religions, which in some ways may be legitimate, with sociological comment. This is where a lot of the problem comes in.

Another problem, which makes the situation in Germany particular difficult, is the problem of the Nazis. German politicians react to many things in light of the German past. In fact, I think it is true to say that all Germans react to history, and to the history of Germany, and to the present situation, because of the Nazis and through the Nazis. I want us to realize that, beginning in the late 19th century, one had a number of new religious movements which prepared the way for the Nazi dictatorship.

These were precursors of the Nazis; some of them were even persecuted by the Nazis; but what they did was play a key role in destroying the Weimar Republic. I am thinking of things like the Ludendorf Bowedon, the Bowedon der Frei Religiosen and the Deutch Christian. Now, some of these were very small, and some of them were very large. Their numbers ranged from about 600 to 600,000 members. They were very active in the 1920s and 1930s in tearing down democracy in Germany. Therefore, since the new federal government—West Germany originally, but now incorporated into the greater Germany, new Germany—was established, the preservation of the constitution has been a key issue.

As we have seen from the recent elections in Saxony-Anhalt, there is a real danger from a new right. What one has to recognize in the German situation is that some of these new right political parties have close ties with new religious movements. If you go to the web pages of these parties, you will find that there are articles about the Neues Heidentum, the New Heathendom or New Pagans. These parties and these groups merge with—or some of the people associated with them are associated with—some religious groups.

The churches try to act as a watchdog against these dangerous groups. The government listens to the churches, because there are dangerous groups that are playing to the political right, attempting to revive fascism, and using religion to revive fascism quite explicitly. They say this in their own literature. They say that they are using religion, and the rebirth of paganism, to revive a political system that has been discredited for 50 years. This is there. The government sees this, and then applies it to all new religious movements in Germany.

What I would like to say is that, in pointing out that the Germans are very heavy-handed in their treatment of groups like the Unification Church, Scientology and many other groups, one has also to be very careful, because, if the German government were not interested at all in new religions, we would also be blaming them for not looking at these fascist groups. Therefore, they tread a thin line.

They are far too reactive; they see all new religions as bad; but, there is good reason, in Germany, for seeing some new religions as bad. This needs to be remembered, and taken into account, when we try to assess what is happening in Germany. Anyone who wants to persuade the Germans that they ought to treat Scientology, the Unification Church, or any other group better than they do, has got to remember the past. In pleading for tolerance, it is important to make very clear that the groups for which one is pleading are not genuine enemies of the constitution, who are trying to destroy the constitution, because these people do exist.