Sunday, September 29, 2019

Proposed Religious Freedoms legislation must grapple with the problem of cults

The opening question from host James Carleton on a recent episode of the ABC Radio National program "God Forbid" is a perennial one: "What is the difference between a religion and a cult?"

I was immediately reminded of the old and pithy observation:
"In a cult, there's a person at the top who knows it's all a scam. In a religion, that person is dead."

Sadly, the program, titled "Don't call it a Cult" disappointed and concerned me to the degree that the social harms of Cults... sorry, "New Religious Movements", were glossed over.

This question has new currency since Australia is debating the necessity of new Religious Freedom legislation. If Religions are about to secure new and legislated freedoms to practise, discriminate and operate tax-free, just how should we distinguish between benign or socially beneficial groups, and bad apples?

We live paradoxically in an age where new religious groups continue to arise, usually with taxation concessions, in Australian society. Unfortunately, the evidence is in: Courts and multiple regulatory bodies have determined that some of these groups abuse both Australian law and outrage moral norms in the way they are rapacious, abusive, or extremist.

So, I listened keenly for the views presented by Professor Susan Jean Palmer from McGill University in Canada, and Professor Carole Cusack, an expert in religious studies at the University of Sydney.

I was underwhelmed.

I should make it clear that I'm making allowances for the way academics approach their subject matter. Criminal psychologists, for example, seek to understand the motives of people who commit sometimes shocking and heinous acts. They leave the prosecution and collective social judgement of those acts to others, because academic study should be "dispassionate".

However, perfect objectivity is a fiction -- Any sociological study of religion, old or new, is itself (in the words frequently invoked by much post-modern cultural and social analysis), "Socially Constructed". This means it is a human enterprise, and one that cannot be divorced from real-world costs and consequences. There are value judgements that should be made, a-priori (or at least consequent to) study of cult groups.
Cults, like crimes, are frequently stories of tragedies, and tragedies have human victims.
If that truth extends to a belief that victims deserve to have some justice, they wouldn't have found much in this ABC program.

I took a role for some years as a member of the national committee of the Australian Cult Information and Family Support network (CIFS), after such a tragedy struck my own family. At CIFS, I lost count of the heart-breaking stories I heard of broken families, dignity lost, greed, abusive emotional domination, and sometimes examples of sexual and physical abuse perpetrated by cults.

While listening to the episode, my heart sank when I heard:
"Professor Palmer says it's not right to call all new religious leaders crazed.
'We don't really know what goes on in the brains of these talented people. I see them rather like creative artists who inspire other people,' she says.
'It's sort of like saying, 'All concert pianists are crazy. They have very different personalities. And they create these little cultures, and some of them take root and grow up to be major civilisations.'"
Professor Cusack added,
"There is nothing inherently crazier in believing in an alien messiah, than in believing in the virgin birth, which is a core doctrine of Christianity." 
Palmer even finds the word "cults" distasteful, referring to it as a derogatory word, saying
 "I like to call them baby religions", 
and claiming
"Most of them are entirely harmless."
This is naive, lazy thinking.

I understand if both these academic researchers feel some need to tread lightly when examining their subjects, lest they cease co-operating as objects for study. But James Carleton could have done more to contrast their academic approach with illustrations of the human wreckage that is frequently the real-world outcome of fringe religious belief.

Some forms of religious practice confer a deep sense of meaning, are conducive to human flourishing, encourage social engagement, provide practical charity and promote ethical norms. However, some beliefs cause people to become isolated, fearful, paranoid, deluded, physically ill and even suicidal.

These differences are not arguable in the sense that they are merely points of view that allow people to conclude either way based on their cultural conditioning, or the "mainstreamed" nature of the faith in question -- these are objective and repeatable consequences.

Similarly, focus is overdue on the way in which some people gain protection for predatory behaviours by claiming the protection of religious freedom.

One good point made in the story is that because religious belief is so diverse, one focus for imposing limits on acceptable practice is Australian Law -- where practice transgresses the law, people or organisations should be brought to book.

However, the observation of CIFS is that Australian Law, and various regulatory agencies which include the ACNC (Charities regulator) and various Health regulators (such as the HCCC) are profoundly ill-equipped to deal with bad apples in our midst. The Introduction of new Religious Freedoms legislation will be deeply problematic unless these distinctions can be made more clearly.
This is an element of the national debate where I have been active for many years both before and since I have taken a public role as an elected politician.

The program repeated the saw that "a religion is just a cult, plus time".
This a gross oversimplification, and one that this program should have avoided.

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