Freedom of belief and its opposers

Massimo Introvigne

Interview with professor Massimo Introvigne

This interview stems from a meeting between professor Massimo Introvigne, Sociologist of Religions, and the FOB Secretary, professor Silvio Calzolari, happened during the recent scientific conference on Anatheism, held in Turin at the Lascaris Palace on 1 and 2 December, where they were both speakers.

FOB: Professor, reading your recent article “The Fear of the Occults and Politics” one would understand that the fear of the occults, often brought about by incorrect information, sometimes originates nonsense campaigns, such as the one against Halloween for instance. According to you, is this more due to ignorance or deceit?

I would rather not give a moral-type judgement, because it would be inappropriate as far as social sciences are concerned. The “moral panics” like the one about Halloween, spread around exploiting dreads that are diffused in society. Of course they do not spread around on their own, there are “moral tradesmen” who feed them for their own aims. In the case of Halloween, everything comes from a historical militant of protestant fundamentalism, the Californian Jack Chick (1924-2016), whom I was one of the few to interview in person. Although Chick considered the Catholic Church, too, as satanic, in Italy his wild theses about Halloween – a celebration that has in fact a catholic origin – were resumed particularly by catholic exorcist ministers.

FOB: The fear of the occults does not much diverge from the fear of what is different, uncommon, such as non-traditional spiritual or esoteric experiences. The fear of “cults” or “gurus”, whom certain “experts” expose as a social emergency – does this fear get created by misinformation, too?

The fear of the occults – which exactly, sometimes, views the occults even where they are not – is certainly part of a more general fear of everything appearing “different” or “foreign”. The same is for the fear of “cults”, which by the way in its modern version has a story starting in the 1960s with the forming of the first anti-cult movements in the United States. Let us be clear: moral panics do not invent problems, they amplify them. Of course some so-called “cults” have been the culprits of severe crimes. But the anti-cult movements generalised proper considerations, that applied to a very little percentage of new religious movements, to hundreds or thousands of groups that in their highest majority may seem “strange” in the eyes of public opinion and of the media, but at the same time commit no crime at all.

FOB: In your article, you talked about the Anti-Cult Squad or “Squadra Anti Sette” (S.A.S.) of the Italian Ministry of Interiors, and of its anomalous privileged spokesman, father Aldo Buonaiuto, also the manager of a service named “Anti-Occult Cults Toll-Free Number”. What do you think about the Ministry of Interiors choosing a catholic priest as their spokesman, which obviously brings about a conflict of interests?

I would not see anything wrong in it being a catholic priest, or a Buddhist monk, if it were a person with an actual competence in the area of new religious movements, and someone capable to put brackets on their own role as a confessional minister when speaking up as a scholar or expert. The history of sociology of religions in Italy until nowadays includes several priests who studied and taught this subject matter in an objective, unbiased fashion. This does not seem to be the case of father Aldo Buonaiuto, who in his writings does not even attempt to introduce himself as a neutral academic, nor he avoids judgements of values, but expresses himself as a militant critic of “cults”. Such activity of course, is protected as well by the constitutional guarantees of freedom of thought and expression. But the fact that, such a type of character, is employed as a counsel for the police, is certainly anomalous.

FOB: How reliable is this S.A.S. spokesman, who acting even as an auxiliary member of the Judicial Police in the inquiry on the non-existent “Sodoma’s Angels”, had eventually written about “acts of cannibalism on children,” “girls laying down on burial boxes during an initiation rite,” “girls inflicting incisions on themselves and sucking blood from the Reverend,” facts which were later revealed to be completely fake and come from fantasies?

As you see, all this does not have to do with the fact that father Buonaiuto is a priest or a laic, a catholic or an atheist, but it relates to his professional competence. Not just the story of the alleged “Sodoma’s Angels” but also his books according to me, allow to draw the conclusion that we are in front of a militant, not an academic. Certainly father Buonaiuto could hold that I – and many colleagues of mine – are “militants”, in our case for the religious freedom of the so-called “cults”. However the difference is that I, alike other academics or scholars, am the author of hundreds of publications on international magazines or with academic publishers, all which are subject to the rigorous examination of a “peer review”, i.e. the anonymous critique on the part of university colleagues. With all my respect, I seem to notice that such proof is completely missing in father Buonaiuto’s curriculum.

FOB: According to you is there any contrast between the existence of an Anti-Cult-Squad (a sort of police of religions), regardless of the reliability of its spokesman, and the rights ratified by the Constitution concerning freedom of religion and belief?

I could read the directive whereby the Anti-Cult Squad was established. It is a very peculiar document. At a first glance, it seems that the Squad only has to deal with satanism, or – to quote it – with “magic, witchcraft, spiritism, cannibalism, vampirism” that would be guilty of “very severe crimes such as murder, carnage, sexual violence”. Besides the bizarre mention of “cannibalism and vampirism”, I would be interested to know how many and which groups of “magic, witchcraft and spiritism” became guilty of “murders, carnage and sexual violence”. Within satanism itself, beyond the tragedy of Satan’s Beasts in Italy, the cases of murder are infrequent. But from these very particular cases, the directive broadens its range until presenting a new category, unknown to the criminal code, of “esoteric-religious crimes”, prompted to justify investigations of the Anti-Cult Squad on groups that have nothing to do with satanism or witchcraft. In 2015, in response to criticisms versus the existence of the Anti-Cult Squad, the Italian representation to the OSCE (the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe) stated that the Squad was established to fight “satanic cults”, which would not be covered by religious freedom. Now, besides the fact that in the case of the Children of Satan, Italian magistrates decided that even a satanist group as long as they don’t commit any common crimes, is protected by the principle of religious freedom, in the cases openly come up, the Anti-Cult Squad dealt with, the groups investigated had nothing to do with satanism.

FOB: Concerning this – how do you consider the all-Italian anomaly that has seen since the beginning the “cult affairs” as a matter for the Ministry of Interiors rather than a subject for the Ministry of Culture or Law & Justice?

This are the remains of an old-fashioned mentality that considered religious minorities a police problem first of all. But fortunately the police executives who in the last years dealt with non-catholic minorities at the Ministry of Interiors, always showed to be competent, impartial and really dedicated to the cause of religious freedom.

FOB: In addition to the already mentioned “Anti-Occult Cults Toll-Free Number”, other so-called “anti-cult” organisations exist in Italy, that cooperate with the S.A.S. and spread the “alert on cults”. For instance, from Bari the CeSAP (Center for Studies on Psychological Abuses, founded by the psychologist Lorita Tinelli and now chaired by the psychotherapist Luigi Corvaglia), from Rimini the FAVIS (Family Members Victims of Cults, founded by the former accountant Maurizio Alessandrini, the catholic GRIS (Group for Social-Religious Research and Information, with its headquarters in Bologna) and ARIS Tuscany (chaired by the town policeman Mario Pierotti). How reliable are the news deployed by these self-proclaimed experts?

A systematic study of these groups would be interesting, as they are not all at the same level. According to me though, the issue is more general. The anti-cult movements, as I mentioned above, have a militant purpose, not just a study or information purpose. The media and – even more – public agencies should reckon with this, and not consider them as sources of impartial information. Of course it is also possible that the academics who study new religious movements, as it happens in many other fields, have some favourable prejudice towards groups that are subject of their study. However, when their works are issued, they passed the examination of a complex system of controls, which certainly doesn’t make them unerring, but with equal certainty, makes them more reliable than the polemic literature produced by the anti-cult militants.

FOB: The representatives of these organisations are the main supporters of the need to reinstate the crime of mental manipulation [“plagio” in the Italian text, Translator’s note] in our law system. For years they have amplified every single piece of news, even the most improbable, to convince public opinion and politicians. Often, such as in the Arkeon case you mentioned, they contributed to media pillories that have developed into serious judicial persecutions. How do you evaluate their operation and what shape do you think this scenery will assume in the next future?

About mental manipulation I wrote much, exposing a curious case of cross wires. The anti-cult militants talk about a “vacuum in law” left by the 1981 Constitutional Court decision which eliminated the crime of mental manipulation from our law system. This would have been true if the Court had stated that in fact mental manipulation exists but the rule making it a crime was to be reformed as unconstitutional. As a matter of fact, if one read the 1981 appropriately, it states on the contrary that mental manipulation does not exist. It is an imaginary type of crime, the existence of which does not find any proof in scientific literature. That decision is an Italian excellence. It anticipates conclusions to which the United States would reach only in 1990 with the Fishman decision, where in their turn they state that the brainwashing is an ideological, not scientific category. The verdict of social sciences has not changed. One could study in a serious way how the influence or propaganda operate in the religious field – be it in great religions or in smaller ones – but the “brainwashing” or “mental manipulation” do not exist, they are nowadays slogans to discriminate who thinks differently from the majority.

The Arkeon case is very interesting. Those who examine it fall in doubt whether the major target of the Anti-Cult Squad and the anti-cult movements involved in it, was not even to hit a little religious movement but to disturb and possibly to indict an excellent scholar, Raffaella Di Marzio, guilty of not believing in the alarmist materials on Arkeon spread by their militant opposers. In actual fact, the aim was another one. Raffaella Di Marzio had passed from an active partaking with anti-cult movements, to a more open – though still to some degree critical – versus the new religious movements, and much critical towards the Italian anti-cult environment. She was so an “apostate” who was to be hit to set an example. In the end, from a mountain a little mouse was born and the charges against Di Marzio fell, but the story demonstrates how the anti-cult movement considers those “apostates” who abandoned “cults” as heroes, while does not tolerate any apostasy from their own organisations.

FOB: Most of the “anti-cult” organisations mentioned above, are correspondent of the French FECRIS (Fédération Européenne des Centres de Recherche et d’Information sur les Sectes). It is now documented that this federation is funded by the French government. Considering all this as well as the fact that the main activities of such network of “anti-cult” is to argue about the application of freedom of belief to groups they hate and consider “cults”, how do you deem the fact that FECRIS was granted the participatory status from the Council of Europe?

If this is the theme, well, also the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) granted in 2009 the special consultative status to FECRIS. These statuses are acquired through a good management of applications, upheld by expert consultants, and with the support of some government. This is how the system works. Rather than addressing the Council of Europe or the ECOSOC, the NGOs friends of religious freedom should try to attain the same status. Concerning FECRIS, it seems to me that this European coordinating body of the anti-cult militancy is moving the center of its business and its public support from France to Russia, a country in which religious freedom is strongly limited. The FECRIS certainly has its convenience in establishing relations with the Russian government as well as with other Eastern countries, but in that way had to include and to appoint to executive positions, too, anti-cult representatives of Eastern Europe who were involved in absurd excesses. Just to say one, the Russian Alexander Dvorkin, who became vice-president of FECRIS: a figure with whom I had to do a very long time ago, whose statements on several new religious movements are so shockingly misinformed that they would make one smile, if his connections to areas being strongly empowered in Russia would not put him in a position from which he can cause serious sufferings to innocent people. I believe that this will in the end mine badly the credibility of FECRIS, if it ever had one.