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Combat against totalitarian and destructive cults or anti-sectarian hysteria?

25.01.2007, 12:33
Volodymyr KHMIL, psychologist, master of Christian service, head of the civic association Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Religions and Religious Studies

Volodymyr KHMIL, psychologist, master of Christian service, head of the civic association Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Religions and Religious Studies

On 21 January, Channel 5 broadcast Kateryna Filippenko’s program “Especially dangerous.” As society did not remain indifferent to the program, which is indicated by the open letter of the coordinator of the Ukrainian Interchurch Council, Bishop Volodymyr Harbar, the leadership of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Religions and Religious Studies decided to present their view on this and similar programs.

The fact that television is beginning to openly talk about such problems in our society is, undoubtedly, a positive thing. However, if such things are spoken about in a not quite professional way and anonymously with regard to certain religious trends, such programs may have negative consequences, like a kind of “witch-hunt.”

For instance, the use of the term “sect” with semi-anonymous implications casts a shadow on Christian denominations which arose after the divide of the church into Orthodoxy and Catholicism. That is exactly why Volodymyr Harbar reacted so negatively to the program. However, the program dealt not only with representatives of the Evangelical Charismatic movement: the author also gave negative examples associated with the activity of the Church of Scientology and, judging from the features, the Jehovah’s Witnesses religious organization , which is not a part either of Protestantism or the Evangelical movement, in particular. One should note that this program contained more episodes associated, in our opinion, with the activity of other religious trends, than episodes associated with the activity of Charismatic movements, a number of which contain destructive and totalitarian features (this can be vividly illustrated by the Charismatic movement led by Alexei Ledaev, who was declared persona non grata in Russia.) However, in all cases in which, as we believe, Jehovah’s Witnesses were meant (indications in the program: leaders of communities are called elders, the religious community is called “organization,” prohibition from communicating with the excommunicated, and so on), the author concealed the name of the organization. Therefore, people who are not sufficiently educated in this regard might get the impression that representatives of the Charismatic movement were also meant.

The elucidation by the author of the general methods used by destructive cults is, undoubtedly, a positive thing. However, when it comes to specific examples, one must understand that every religious organization has its specificities. Having seen the program, an insufficiently educated viewer may come to the conclusion that all destructive cults exercise financial control over the charitable contributions and donations of their adherents. In reality, this is true only of some of them. Other destructive cults may use various psychological methods and drive a person to the condition in which he/she is ready to give away his/her last and there is no need to control him/her.

Neither should one forget that psychological methods used by destructive cults have a different influence on different people. Persons with a strong mentality remain quite normal on the outside after being subjected to the use of such methods. However, the application of the same technique to persons with heightened mental sensibility and lowered criticism can lead to more tragic cases, described in the program.

In future, the authors of such programs should consider the following:

First, one should clearly realize that by no means are all modern cults and sects destructive in their essence. If a program is not made by request of some traditional denomination and has pretensions to objectivity, its authors usually do not use the term “sect” in the general (anonymous) sense. One should not forget that, since the time of the schism of the church, representatives of Catholicism and Orthodoxy have historically called each other sectarians. This is exactly why we believe that, in dealing with destructive cults, it is expedient to give concrete information accompanied with proofs of the destructiveness of the cult, its negative effect on the physical and mental health of the personality, institution of the family, society, and violation of current legislation, instead of using the generalizing notion “sect” without a clear definition of whom the film is about.

Second, the non-professional level (from the religious viewpoint) of the production of films and programs and of their presenters may put in question the credibility of the information presented. This can be illustrated by one of the programs broadcast by one of the Russian channels. Describing intimidation by Jehovah’s Witnesses of their adherents with the horrors of the future Armageddon, the authors repeated several times in the film that the adherents are also intimidated by the eternal torment of their souls in a fiery hell. Such statements bring to nothing all the previous conclusions about that organization, which conclusions are quite significant, in our opinion, for the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not believe in hell or the existence of an eternal soul.

Third, one has to be aware of the ability of the word to influence the world view of the person, and society, in general. Talking about methods of manipulating consciousness used by cults to attract and hold adherents, one should remember that different approaches to people and methods of manipulation thereof are used in different cults. It would be most trustworthy to talk about them separately, even though they include characteristics of manipulations commonly accepted by most cults. One should also remember that manipulative practices are very widely used both around the world and in our society. They are used by politicians, advertisers, the mass media, TV, marketing, and so on. Even children try to manipulate their parents as they demand sweets and attention. However, speaking of destructive cults, one must clearly show the difference between innocent, everyday manipulation and one that can drive a person to psychological slavery. One should also pay attention to the consequences of such manipulative practices of a cult, and its influence on the psychological and physical health of the person and the legal aspects of its existence.

Fourth, talking about Ukraine’s goal to move towards Europe and considering the question of freedom of worship and religious expression in Ukraine, the mass media would be right to point out differences between American and European standards in this legislative sphere. The thing is that there are significant differences in the area of “freedom of worship and religious expression” between European and American legislation; different approaches and principles are used. For instance, in Europe, the subject of freedom of worship is the person, whereas in the USA it is a religious organization. Therefore, in the USA various religious organizations whose activity is prohibited or restricted in other countries, especially Europe, can act legally.

Fifth, the mass media, producers and directors of anti-sectarian films, would be right to remind the state and its authorities from time to time that its tasks include control over the observance of the law of freedom of worship and religious expression, particularly in order to prevent stirring of inter-denominational and interreligious hatred, and harming the religious sensibilities of believers of other religions and denominations. In addition, it would be good if the mass media took on itself the responsibility to monitor the facts of breach by religious organizations of the principles of diligent conduct of religious competition and directed the state’s attention to the inadmissibility of antagonistic missionary activity.

Sixth, talking about the destructive activity of cults, one should give more specific examples of injuries to health and deaths in the cults. It would be useful to urge state authorities to make medical institutions keep such statistics and submit it to the Department of Statistics. It would also be useful for such statistics to be obligatorily kept by registry offices to allow one to see what percentage of divorces and other anti-social phenomena in the state are due to religious motives. As always, in these matters, the mass media and representatives of documentary cinematography can take a socially active position and serve society.

Our society faces an urgent question: “Will our country experience just a witch-hunt in the form of anti-sectarian hysteria of anonymous character, or will, on the contrary, real combat against destructive and totalitarian sects and cults be implemented? Solving these issues depends not only on legislators who are to pass respective alterations and addenda to the existing legislation and scholars who are to substantiate these alterations and addenda, but also on the activity of the mass media, authors of “anti-sectarian films,” that is, on covering the realities of the activity, destructive teachings, and conceptions of each such cults, by name, at the public, state and social levels.

The objective of religious studies experts is to study such issues, but unless this work is presented to the public, it may remain unnoticed. Therefore, “anti-sectarian films” are, to a certain degree, necessary as films which direct attention to the existence of a problem, but without an anonymous character. It would be best for such films and programs to assume an “anti-totalitarian and anti-destructive character” instead of an anti-sectarian one.