Today we increasingly encounter various shapes and forms of totalitarian and destructive cults. Naturally, there appear more and more specialists, professionally studying this phenomenon and there arise more and more discussions among them as to how these new cults must be researched, what are the goals of these studies, how they should be treated and even what is the proper name for them (and what they must not be called)?
A disinterested observer might conclude that a confrontation exists between two sides: one of them takes a more or less pro-cult position (the other side calls it “cult-defenders” or “the cult lobby”) while another – anti-cult (the other side calls it “the anti-cult movement” and its partisans – “anti-cultists”).
In spite of oversimplification, there is a certain amount of truth in this observation. However, in fact, the situation is much more complex and the range of opinions is much more varied. I would say that if there is a real watershed, it is drawn between those who receive some kind of support (be it in monetary or some other form) from the cults and those who would never dream of doing so. Another important point to raise is that while there are a lot of hard facts supporting the existence of the cult lobby, the scarecrow of the “Anti-cult movement” (ACM) was invented by the cults themselves and by the groups that provide PR support for them. We must state with all possible clarity that a united, coordinated, rich and powerful ACM exists only in the imagination of cultists, their PR workers, and the professionals that provide intellectual support for them. I should add that for this last group the image of two fighting fronts: New religious movements (NRM) and an “Anti-cult movement” (ACM) is very handy. This way the so-called “neutral” and “independent” experts turn out to be in the middle, as the impartial side not directly involved in the confrontation, and thus having a moral right to dismiss the “extremists’” views and arguments.
In reality, people and groups opposing cult activity in the society are very far from united with coordinated modes of action, but rather they take quite diverse positions. One can even say that there are as many opinions about this problem as there are specialists working in the field or groups involved in it. For example, in most of the countries there are concerned parents committees. However, even they hold very diverse positions. Not only are these committees different in every land, some of them are different within one country. Some are expressly religious, others are strictly secular, some have government connections, others cherish their totally independent status, some are involved in the work of FECRIS, others prefer to be associated with ICSO (formerly AFF), while still others chose to work entirely by themselves.
No less diverse opinions are among psychiatrists, lawyers, and journalists. The widely spread opinion that the sociologists of religion take a pro-cult position while the theologians are anti-cult, is not very accurate as well. Indeed, a number of sociologists of religion familiar with this topic are doing PR work for the cults. However, there are quite a few of their colleagues who consider totalitarian cults a serious danger for both the individual and society. On the other hand there are a number of very liberal and not very liberal theologians who claim the need for dialogue and cooperation with NRM’s and proclaim that everything must be guided by tolerance and love.
In my country, the cults have been actively working, developing and spreading for over fifteen years, and the debates on the topic within Russia are very close to those elsewhere. Nonetheless, we have our own specific characteristics. The concerned parents committees, which have appeared spontaneously, are much disorganized and still for the most part have not been able to develop beyond the stage of formation, though there are some very valuable individuals in them who do some very good work.
The role of pro-cult sociologists of religion is taken in Russia by former communist professional anti-religion propagandists. After the fall of communism, they lost their well-paid sinecures. After looking for new jobs a lot of them realized that the newly arriving cults would pay well and offered their services to them. Now they call themselves “experts-religious scholars”. During the last few years though, there have begun to appear some young and newly made sociologists of religion actively propagating their “progressive” methodology. Many former professional dissidents human rights activists having also lost their raison d’être in the post Soviet period, have now decided that they must defend the rights of small and defenseless “religious minorities” suffering terrible persecution and discrimination at the hands of an aggressive majority. Perhaps, the most well known of them, the Moscow Helsinki group, as it was proven several times, has been subsidized by Scientology.
There are very few journalists who professionally explore the field. There is a small but very noisy group of “professional revealers of truth” and “fighters against retrogrades” which is close to dissident-human rights defenders circles and an equally small group of journalists who at some point have tried to honestly investigate the situation with this or that cult and objectively report it in their papers or programs.
As for the lawyers specializing in the area of cults, there are very few of them and in fact, the most well known of them are those who represent the cults in various proceedings. Some of them are tightly connected to Scientology, while others are at least partially funded by the State Department of the USA (the best known of these is the Slavic Center of Law and Justice). Of course, both groups do receive income from many sources, both cultic, and pro-cultic.
The majority of psychiatrists still know next to nothing about this problem while those who are knowledgeable are divided into two groups: one that studies the phenomenon of mind control and tries to help its victims, and the other that has incorporated itself into the Independent Psychiatric Association closely connected with the very same former dissidents-human rights activists and being at least partially subsidized by the cults.
As for the theologians, they are divided as well – the liberals tend to defend the cults while conservatives tend to fight against them.
But one unifying factor is that all sections of not very numerous but very vocal, Russian cult-defending lobby cites Eileen Barker, now retired Professor of the London School of Economics, while many of its members consider her their teacher. One of these people once wrote that there is only one truly scholarly book on cults published in Russia – that is New Religious Movements by Eileen Barker, while another, who even happens to be an Orthodox priest, not only writes that she is the greatest specialist in the world in the field but even that “though she is a lay specialist her book is very Christian in its approach and essence”.
Professor Barker is no stranger to Russia. I have seen her at least three times in my country. The first time I encountered her was in 1994 in the Moscow Parliamentary Center at the State Duma hearings dedicated to proposed amendments to the law on religious freedom. She was brought to the gathering by the Moonies, and in fact, as I’ve learned later, they paid for her trip to Moscow, though answering the direct question of Rev. Thomas Gandow, she blatantly lied, saying that her expenses were met by the Duma.
Her second trip (1996) was most likely paid for by Scientologists, Moonies and Hare Krishnas, which together with several other cults were then in the process of suing me in Moscow under the auspices of a former dissidents' human rights group Barker has offered a testimony in court on their behalf. That court performance of the greatest NRM specialist in the world became rather famous. When asked directly whether one person can belong at the same time to Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, Scientologist, Moonies, Hare Krishnas, Boston Church of Christ, the Family, as well as dozen other cults (that was a claim of one of the human rights dissidents who tried by claiming his belonging to all the cults to remain part of the process) she answered affirmatively.
My third Russian encounter with Barker also happened in a courtroom. This time she was brought to Russia by the Jehovah’s Witnesses to offer her testimony in the case of The Moscow office of the Attorney General vs. the Moscow Jehovah’s Witnesses organization. I should add that her testimonies in both cases were not taken into consideration by the courts.
We see that the history of Barker trips to Russia is rather questionable, to say the least, and warrants some answers on her part. Unfortunately, we never were able to get those plain and direct answers. Moreover, what she writes about the situation in my country, grossly distorts the situation, playing rather on a bunch of negative popular stereotypes. Yet her books are still being read in Russia, and frequently quoted by our cult lobby group and its sympathizers. Perhaps the methodological ideas expressed in her books are much more helpful and honest than the behavior of their author? Therefore, I propose to examine this “very Christian approach” offered by “the most scholarly and learned” lay specialist in the field. It is especially important, because she constantly complains that her anticult adversaries while viciously attacking her rarely question what she actually says.
Unfortunately, her articles are not an example of clearly defined scholarly argument as they are overloaded with special newly made terms and barely comprehensible graphs. “However, [as she says] putting the elegance of language aside”, it all boils down to the following:
Eileen Barker claims that only the sociology of religion (as a department of social science) is a truly scientific method of studying “new religious movements” and that only the sociology of religion can guarantee the maximum precision and objectivity in understanding this phenomenon: “ [The Sociology of Religion] is unquestionably more scientific than its competitors” and it provides “a more balanced, objective, and accurate – or, at very least, a less biased, subjective, and wrong – understanding of the movements”.
In order to prove this obviously very debatable point of view Professor Barker likes to draw a lot of graphs and drawings, depicting something which she terms the “primary construction” of a NRM in the shape of a cloud-like body. By this term, she means a sort of subjectively objective reality collectively produced by members of each NRM. Though it is a created reality, which has no existence outside of the imagination of cult members, it becomes their raison d’être, shaping their lives accordingly. Barker goes on to draw a number of other cloud-like bodies, which she names “secondary constructions”. These are produced by groups and individuals who are trying to understand and explain the NRM primary construction. And – here is the trick which is supposed to convince even the most stubborn skeptic – only the cloud of secondary construction created by “correct” sociologists of religion almost completely coincides with the cloud of primary construction. The others are widely off the mark.
This closest possible proximity in understanding of the primary construction is achieved according to Barker through a special method, which she calls “methodological agnosticism”. I will not comment on the rather freehanded use of the philosophical terms by the Professor of the London School of Economics but will just explain what she seems to mean by that. Barker tells us that in order to understand the problem objectively one has to exclude ALL theological, philosophical, and moral judgments. This approach she calls “value-free social scientific research”. Any attempt at a moral judgment or any theological comparison of one system with another destroys objectivity and makes the work biased. Thus, the “anti-cult movement” whether it is based on traditional religious values or even on general human moral values, is no more than a mirror reflection of the NRM’s while “the logic of [the sociology of religion’s] approach is infinitely superior for producing balanced and accurate accounts of NRMs than that of any of its competitors”.
Sociologists of religion and their secondary constructions bring peace and harmony to society, while the anticultists’ activity just increases the violence from which even they themselves suffer. The lawyer killed by Aum Shinrikyo or the population of Antelope, Oregon, who were subjected to salmonella poisoning by the Rajneesh cultists, themselves bear the responsibility for the cult violence: if they would have left the NRM alone, they would not have suffered.
Later on Barker has further developed, adjusted, and modified her scheme of all the groups studying the NRM’s. The new graph looks like this:
(Cult awareness groups)
Counter Cult Movement
Research oriented groups
(Sociologists of religion)
Human rights watch-dog groups
Cult defender groups
Now the “Anti-cult movement” (or “Cult awareness groups”) is proclaimed different from a “Counter-cult movement”. Again, we encounter a strange word usage. “Anti-“ and “counter-“ mean very much the same. Barker and her colleagues arbitrarily put in the first category mostly parents initiative groups and psychiatrists, while comprise the second one of the caricature image of boring and fanatical theologians, concerned mostly with religious truths. Sociologists of religion are, of course placed in the middle. Then, towards the other end of the spectrum are Human rights watchdog groups, which, suggests Barker, being carried away by their quest for human rights violators, might be slightly off strict objectivity. Still less objective, according to Barker, are the groups created by NRM’s, and financed by them to do PR work for them.
So again, we see the same intention: Barker on one hand tries to divide the anti-cult forces between themselves (and thus to conquer). On the other hand, she is ready to admit that some pro-NRM groups might be unobjective (she calls them cult-defenders), and by doing it, separates them from herself and her colleagues whom she places in the middle, thus once again stressing their impeccable objectivity and impartiality.
Describing her methodology Barker readily admits that in order to create a full and balanced picture of the researched phenomenon, one must exclude a number of details, which are “not important” and “not characteristic”. She even cites the experience from her far off youth when she tried to make her living as an actress. Then she learned that to act a character who is, for example, a bore, the actor does not have to act boringly – or all the spectators will be bored to death. The professional actor has to chose and depict just a few characteristic details of a boring person so that everyone would recognize the main traits of the character. The rest of the real life behavior of the real bore must be excluded.
What does Barker propose to exclude for a scientific study on “NRM-s”?
It is something, which she calls “atrocity tales”, i. e. data about crimes committed by the cults and their members, and, in fact, any negative information about cults. Moreover, the scholar must not use former cult members as a source of information about cults because their information is clearly not objective. To ask an “apostate” about the organization he has left is the same as to ask a divorced spouse about the institution of marriage, – claims Barker. In fact, saying this she acts like a con artist swapping one card with another. One does not usually ask the divorcee about the institution of marriage in general, but nobody except him or her can provide the necessary information as to why his or her marriage came to ruin. Just the same, we ask former cult members first of all not about their opinion on religion in general but about their own unique experience.
She goes on and on, and the list of what has do be excluded in order to paint a truly objective picture gets rather terribly long. Only the sociologists of religion, according to Professor Barker can do this difficult but necessary task.
The professor of London School of Economics does not economize on exalted words about her and her colleagues sharing her ideas. In spite of her “methodological agnosticism” she is sure that “we ourselves must be the best placed to know the truth” , and that those sociologists of religion, who realize their special calling, abiding in the highest realms in sad but proud solitude, criticized by many and understood by a few, must carry their lofty duty according to the meta-values which are grasped by them alone.
Professor Barker likes this idea so much that she has described this pompous image several times at the Aarhus conference on Dec. 3. 1999. Unfortunately she was not able even once to answer a simple question of Professor Aagaard and to explain what these meta-values are and how they are different from regular human values and moral norms.
Being carried away by her lofty thoughts and exalted spirit, Barker, following her own scheme, excludes, as not very important, data that she and her “objective” colleagues often receive subsidies from the cults which they are supposed to study. She also chooses not to mention that the “field studies” (a. k. a. participant observation – i. e. the observation of NRM from within) is no more that visiting of the artificial show communities specially created by the cults. For this reason, one cannot help but wonder: to what degree can those benign and laudatory expert opinions on this or that cult be objective if they are ordered and paid for by the same very cult. Classic in its sancta simplicitas was the answer to this question that was given by late Oxford professor Bryan Wilson who explaining why he has accepted payment from Scientology for writing an expert opinion on the cult. He said that he did it, so nobody would think that he was on friendly terms with Scientology, because one cannot charge anything to friends. I would think that Professor Wilson was so deeply submerged in his scholarly thoughts that he did not notice that his argument almost verbatim repeats a defense of her professional activity by one of the street ladies: I do it for money and it is professional, while if I would do it for free it would be immoral fornication.
We also should mention that a number of cults have constructed special “media homes”, i. e. communities with specially selected members which are used for reception of journalists and scholars, who live there for several days in the most comfortable settings, being wined and dined abundantly, and watch the good and happy life of intelligent and obliging members of the NRM. Then they return home and write their books and articles in which they indignantly refute the false and biased inventions of unscientific, intolerant, fanatical and at the same time avaricious and mercantile, anticultists.
Answering this we can draw a certain historical analogy. In the worst time of Stalin’s purges there were certain Western liberals (both individuals and delegations) visiting the USSR. Some of them were even taken to visit the GULAG, or, rather some specially created islands of this deadly archipelago. They saw the wonderful life of a small contingent of prisoners, all of whom readily confessed to having committed some atrocious crimes, receiving amazingly lenient sentences and who now were firmly on the way to redemption and re-entry to society. These western liberals came home and wrote articles indignantly denouncing the lies and falsehoods of anti-Soviet retrogrades who slandered good “Uncle Joe” and willingly refused to see the amazing achievements of the truly people’s government of the USSR. These people also held the very firm opinion that one must not take into any account the testimonies of those few people who, risking their lives, managed to escape from the “Workers Paradise”, because, obviously, these embittered apostates could not possible be objective.
The modern cults also like to produce video films about “world renowned specialists” staying with them. These films feature kind answers (usually in after-good-dinner mood) of these specialists to cult interviewer’s questions, describing wonderful time they had while communicating with intelligent believers, who freely chose to live in the commune and who are laughing at the suggestion that anyone at this commune could possibly be mind controlled. Obviously, the cults later use these films as their propaganda tools. Barker is present in at least one of these cultic films, produced by “The Family” (formerly, “The Children of God”) saying highly favorable things about the cult. Allegedly, she is also present in a Moonie one where she is shown doing fundraising for the cult.
We cannot but mention a glaring inconsistency in Barker’s position, who simultaneously presents two completely different views of the current situation. On the one hand, she writes about the powerful anticult movement backed by huge amounts of money and poor and vulnerable sociologists of religion reviled and persecuted by all, ignored by hostile sensationalist media, disregarded by courts, and frowned upon by governments. In other words, there is a powerful world conspiracy against those impeccably honest and crystal-clearly objective sociologists of religion who, though suffering from loneliness and general misunderstandings, continue to fulfill their lofty calling, remaining faithful to their meta-values. On the other hand, she cannot abstain from bragging that her INFORM receives Government grants (and anticultists do not!), that anticultists’ witness has not been taken into consideration by various courts, unlike witness offered by her and her colleagues, and that (according to her) the ACM has been increasingly marginalized while the sociologists of religion are on the rise. Then again, she reverts to the former version and complains about government support of ACM and its huge subsidies (naturally without getting too specific) and tactfully keeps silence about the really powerful support offered to the cults and to cult lobby by the State Department of the USA. The representatives of the cult lobby – friends and colleagues of Professor Barker can often be found at US Congress hearings, while I do not remember any person, holding anticult positions who has been invited to such hearings during let’s say the last 15 years.
We must also note that the position of Eileen Barker and her followers suffer from a blatant double standard. Her loud and pathetic proclamations (presented by her as indisputable) that her method is scientific and the methods of her opponents are not, are not supported by anything except for the emotional tone and primitive scribbling on the black board. But even the terms “scientific” and “unscientific”, “scholarly” and “unscholarly” themselves are emotionally charged in the extreme and a number of people and groups use them as powerful social weapons. Who would take seriously “unscientific inventions” of “subjective and biased” people? Moreover, when talking about the “counter-cult movement”, Barker compares it with the inquisition (is not that an emotionally loaded comparison?). It is beyond the point to ask her, how many people have been burned at the stake by so-called “counter-cultists”? When writing about the hateful “ACM”, she places it in the context of such words as Auschwitz and Dr. Mengele. Is that what she calls a “Neutral evaluation based on objective information”?
Or, for example, one must not use the word “cult” while “anticult movement” is considered not only a permissible but a desirable term. How can an anticult movement exist if there are no cults, one wonders? It is also permissible and desirable to call former cult members “apostates”, not paying any attention to the obvious emotional charge of this term, not to mention the comparison of the anticult movement with Nazism. Very revealing is the admission by Barker that an important tool of her research is the exclusion of the part of the information, which she considers “not important” and “not characteristic”, such as, for example, the just mentioned testimonies of former cult members. However, the right of choosing what information to exclude and what to include, what information is to be pronounced as not characteristic and what, on the contrary, as characteristic and typical, she leaves to herself. If the same is done by the people she calls “our competitors” she cites it as an example of their blatant unobjectivity.
So, what sources of information are permissible according to Professor Barker and her colleagues? It is the publicity materials of the cult, “participant observation” of the researchers, naturally done with the knowledge and permission of cult leadership, and the data provided by the same cult leadership. What will be the picture, painted by these “independent researchers”, who use only and exclusively the paints given to them by the cult, or using their language, what will be their secondary construction, seems obvious.
So a question naturally arises: why Eileen Barker and her colleagues need to so loudly proclaim over and over their “objectivity”? Maybe this is done in order to cover up the facts; some of which were cited above which obviously suggest the engagement by the cults of these sociologists of religion?
One thing can be said for sure: in research of this kind, real objectivity and impartiality can never be achieved by anybody. In fact, no honest scholar would ever claim that his approach and methodology are impeccably objective. Every researcher bases himself upon certain presuppositions from which he/she views the object of his/her study. Even if a person tries very hard not to express his opinion and only to describe the group he examined, he still has to select the information, singling out characteristics, phenomena, and events, which he deems seminal and significant. Out of them, a scholar creates his description, analyzing them he comes to his conclusions. In this way his subjectivity will be revealed in the criteria of this selection – another researcher might chose as representative and important quite other events and facts.
However, “subjective” does not mean, “biased”: an honest researcher would necessarily describe his worldview and his criteria in the opening of his study, so every reader might take it into consideration and make necessary mental corrections while forming his own opinion.
On the contrary, the propagandist who wishes to manipulate his/her readers would keep repeating one after another the incantations of his/her “scientific objectivity”. This way the conclusions are forced upon the reader and he is not given a chance to think for himself.
Just as Eileen Barker’s “objectivity”, equally nonsensical are her “methodological agnosticism” and “value-free approach”. Every person willingly or unwillingly refers to certain criteria according to which he/she estimates the events described. Otherwise, it would not be possible to describe anything at all. The presence of these criteria is proved by the fact that Barker and her colleagues, in spite of all their “methodological agnosticism” always appeal to their own higher values (which for them ironically take almost religious significance) and always demand recognition of their scientific objectivity.
It is obvious that for an honest researcher this non-existing “methodological agnosticism” is unacceptable. The agnosticism of Barker operates by conspiracy theory, trying to frighten everybody with the mythical sinister “anticult movement”, which by definition cannot be right, and cynically lays the blame for cultic violence on the victims of this very violence. She, together with her colleagues, develops and disseminates cultic “atrocity tales” (using her own term) about anti-cultic forceful deprogramming. Under the cover of loud incantations about their alone scientific and objective methodology, the group of sociologists of religion and their accomplices create a “secondary construction” of the cults which is as far from reality as Stalinist socialist realism propaganda posters are removed from the factual grim reality of the GULAG. This group, of which Professor Barker is one of the most prominent spokespersons, refuse and try to forbid others to use the term “cult”, let alone “totalitarian or destructive cult”, deny the phenomenon of mind control, refuse to consider information coming from the former cult members, categorically refuse to speak about the criminal activity of many cults or about any unfavorable episodes in the biographies of their leaders. They cynically refuse to recognize the tragedy, which the cults bring into the life of enticed and recruited members and their loved ones and blame the death toll of cults to those whom they call “anticultsts”.
Building their “secondary constructions”, they see their task in copying as closely as possible the illusionary “primary constructions” created by the cults, i. e. in reality their glossy advertisement image. What the position of Barker and her associates boils down to is that the only groups that have the right to study the cults and to write about them are the cults themselves and those whom the cults have hired and whose writings the cults approve of. Naturally, this is as far from objectivity and true scholarship as can be. The position voiced out by Professor Barker cannot be called anything but a deceptive and biased cults PR project and it should be treated as such.
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