by Miguel Martinez
Writing in the right-wing daily, Il
Secolo d'Italia, another Alleanza Cattolica militant, says:
Introvigne, unlike ordinary scholars, is at war and has no intention of losing the battle of words. Defensive, reactionary language is doomed to lose in a society like ours. In the West, the rhetoric of great idealistic causes - whether based on social revolution, nationalism or religion - only inspires tiny groups of powerless "extremists". Modern economy has turned ours into a consumer-centred world, based on isolated individuals; and isolated individuals can only be won over by constantly repeated appeals to their individual "human rights". In other words, political correctness has become the only possible language. But the contents of this political correctness are perfectly interchangeable. Anybody with sufficient means can always present his own cause, whatever it may be, in terms of "defence of freedom" of one kind or another: an obvious example is the crushing victory of "free enterprise" over "workers' rights" or even "the right to work".
"Freedom" causes, if promoted loudly enough, are generally irresistible. What could anybody oppose to "religious freedom"? "Anti-religious oppression?"
However, every slogan has a content. Authentic problems of religious freedom do exist, and basically involve the right of deeply rooted communities to continue leading a lifestyle dictated by a world view: this is the case for example of the right of Tibetans to continue praying in their traditional fashion, or of Muslim girls to wear scarves in French State schools. Actions which involve no limitation of other people's rights or any offence to other value systems.
A different issue again is the freedom to use modern mass publicity methods to change other people's value systems, without physical coercion but with every means of seduction provided by modern technology. This is the issue posed by conflicts in many areas of the world - Greece, Israel, the Islamic world, Russia - for example between cultures which intend to preserve features of their own identity and US-based proselytising organisations which intend to change such identities radically.
A third issue is the freedom to invoke religion as an excuse for obtaining privileges not normally granted either to business or to political groups: tax exemption, a privileged cultural status and of course exoneration from any form of social control. "My belief system" says that people must work in my factories without wages twelve hours a day, and to deny my organization this right means a return to the Inquisition, to the Gulag or to Auschwitz, according to the context which strikes the deepest emotional chord in the audience.
It is hard to escape the impression that Introvigne's idea of religious freedom is basically the last one.
Massimo Introvigne has certainly posed certain interesting questions in his books and articles. Despite being what he calls a "professional enemy", I personally agree with his doubts about the validity of repressive legislation, and in the importance he attributes to the ideologies (he prefers the Catholic term "doctrine") of the various organizations labelled as cults, sects or new religious movements. And of course he does well to warn cult critics not to end up by criticizing man's innate religious feelings in general. He has brought up these points on endless occasions, and they are certainly worth considering.
The tremendous personal suffering behind the birth of most cult monitoring organizations easily leads individuals who deal with this kind of issue to forget how complicated reality actually is, and a more balanced approach which takes into account the variety of issues involved would not be of any harm.
However, there are several things to be said about this. If cults are not to be subjected to repression (of course if they have enough money, they will always find a way out of any new law) - and repression in its way is a "privilege", that of being singled out for extraordinary treatment - they should not be granted positive privileges either. If an ideology-business earns millions of dollars, it should be subjected to the same form of accounting, tax payment and the obligation to pay wages and social security as any other business. Introvigne wants it the other way: he defends the rights of certain groups to be treated "like everybody else", then demands they be granted the extraordinary privileges recognized by governments to the indefinable category of "religions".
Cults affect societies in various ways - they not only appropriate individuals, they also appropriate properties, businesses and political power. In a democracy, aggressive lobbies can either be crushed by aggressive governments (and Introvigne and I agree that this should not be done), or they must be freely exposed to public scrutiny. Practically speaking, this means that the right of critics to freely publish facts about cults should be guaranteed.
In a recent trial in Russia, Introvigne showed that he thinks quite differently, by sending a memorandum (in his role as an "expert") in support of a cartel of cults which was using the courts in an attempt to suppress a book by Russian Orthodox critic Aleksandr Dvorkin. In Introvigne's world, cults should be free both of any government or societal control.
The second point is that ideologies ("doctrines") must also be seen sociologically. When a certain cult says that we are living a few years away from the end of the world, this may have a remote association with apocalyptic trends of the past; however it also has a very practical effect on members' decisions whether to attend the university or become full-time activists of their cult. Cult critics tend to separate the "deed" from the "creed"; however "creeds" are often used to create "deeds".
Finally, it is no help to general sympathy for religion when he claims exactly what the most militant atheists have always held: that aggressive businessmen, ruthless manipulators and people who believe they are born to be the emperors of the world are bona fide religious figures.
I believe that Introvigne's career as a lawyer has a good deal to do with this.
Scholars and lawyers both produce studies where the facts seem to be all straight, and which look true. The difference is not therefore in the apparent result, but in the manner in which each starts his work: the scholar, whatever his personal prejudices may be, makes a valiant effort to adapt to new discoveries, to change his opinions on the basis of facts.
A lawyer's job is the opposite: whatever the facts, he must prove the point he is paid to support. No matter how much research he does or how good his work looks, we know what the result of a lawyer's work is going to be: proof that his client is innocent, or that the other party is guilty.
In law courts, somebody always wins and somebody always loses: so the final result, in the jurors' mind, must be that one side is good and the other is bad.
Some lawyers are excellent scholars in their free time. Introvigne, on the other hand, is a full time lawyer. However much he writes, we already know that it is all for one purpose: to show that cults are "innocent" and that the "anti-cult movement" is guilty. This means "proving" the same points over and over again.
The motives of cults must be good ("religion"); the motives of their critics (who are paid for by the deprogramming business) as bad as their character (they are "psychologically disturbed") and their actions (they "fabricate atrocity stories", are "professional enemies", etc.).
This necessarily leads Introvigne, like any capable but unscrupulous lawyer, to use facts as they suit him: something I believe I have shown in the minor example of his "study" on New Acropolis; and in the major example of his invention of a world-wide "secular humanist anti-cult ideology".
One superficially surprising aspect of Introvigne's work is his tendency to defend the most controversial groups. He does not write in defence, say of Baha'is or Baptists; his writings are largely devoted to whitewashing groups which for different reasons (I express no personal judgement here) are highly criticized: Aum Shinrikyo for gas outrages; the Branch Davidians of Waco; New Acropolis, often accused of being neo-Nazi; Satanists, who pose as the very opposite of Christianity and who are suspected of various shocking crimes; Scientology, with its reputation for ruthless manipulation; Moon's Unification Movement, criticized for its mass weddings and its arms factories. The presence of Introvigne as an "expert" witness for the defence in the Scientology trial in September 1995 in Lyons, in a case involving many civil offences and no religious issues, is hardly of help for bona fide religions which do have problems.
The ultimate purpose of Introvigne's lawyership
was clearly exposed in Sodalitium by a Catholic traditionalist writer
("Alleanza… massonica?", in Sodalitium, Dec. 1997, p. 66):
"Lefebvrian" refers to the followers of Monsignor Lefèbvre, "sedevacantistes" to those Catholic traditionalists who believe that the "seat of Peter" is presently empty. Of course, the last point, while of direct interest to Catholic traditionalists, is only secondary in the general TFP strategy.
However, it deserves mention, since it
is here that Introvigne develops a new extraordinary conspiracy theory,
almost worthy of his "sex priest" theory. Writing against the French parliament
report on cults, in a book ('Sette' e 'diritto di persecuzione')
co-authored with Alleanza Cattolica "Regent" Giovanni Cantoni, Introvigne devotes several
pages to a defence of TFP, included in the report, and complains that the
report included no Catholic traditionalist or Islamic organization. Then
he adds these noteworthy words (p. 106):
In Introvigne's fantastic world, not only does a "secular humanist anti-cult movement" exist; it even uses Catholic traditionalists as part of its devious strategy.