By Pierre Barrucand – The phenomenon of religious persecution has been known through the ages, as witness the Bacchanals affair in Rome in 187 BC or even, if we may believe Aristophanes, the process against Socrates, accused of having wanted to introduce a new religion. These persecutions were particularly intense against monotheistic religions, even though they tolerated the practice of several ancient cults with which they felt ties. In the 19th century, the French revolution hailed the end of persecution of protestants and marked the integration of Jews in the nation, even if refractory priests were treated extremely harshly. With the law of 1905 on the separation of church and state in France, discrimination appeared to have become impossible and yet only a few decades ago, France and other western countries saw the emergence of campaigns against « sects ». The word sect has two origins: a minority group that has separated (from the Latin secare) or a group that has followed a leader (from the Latin sequi).
In this definition Christianity is a Jewish sect and the history of Protestantism is an endless chain of dissidences.
Sects are sometimes broadly defined as very small religious movements. For instance, the Jews were called a Judaic sect and today people talk about neo-pagan sects. Fighting sects therefore seems comprehensible for a country with a state religion and little or no acceptance of the principle of freedom of conscience. But fighting sects is absurd in a lay country like France. The word sectarian has a slightly different meaning, referring to a dogmatic and intolerant state of mind. Strangely, most members of organizations qualified as sects in France seem less sectarian than average.
While anti-sect campaigns have emerged in many countries, first and foremost the United States, they never received official support and are currently beginning to fade. Unfortunately, this is not the case in France, even if it calls itself wrongly the country of human rights. Among the European countries, France appears to be among those with the least respect for human rights in all areas, and it is therefore not astonishing that it is regularly sentenced for various reasons by the European court of justice. Nevertheless, it is surprising that a government has created an « inter-ministerial task force to fight sects ». Why not an inter-ministerial task force to fight Judaism? Protestantism or even Catholicism? Why not socialism? Radicalism? Free masonry? Granted, an anti-freemasonry campaign is currently building up slowly but surely. What is even more surprising is the fact that the government which created this odd « task force » was socialist, a party which previously had maintained a relatively liberal attitude in terms of beliefs and customs and had attracted quite a bit of sympathy from Jews and protestants. So why did it make official powers supporting private organizations? And why didn’t the opposition fight these harmful initiatives vigorously?
Organizations qualified as sects by anti-sect movements actually form a disparate set of people without common beliefs, some of which cannot be considered religious at all, such as Ecovie, an extremist environmental association which seems to have disappeared. Nevertheless, they have two points in common. First, they have attracted the hatred of certain pressure groups for reasons that are hard to understand and secondly, their members belong mainly to the middle classes, more or less influenced by Christianity or indifferentism.
But what have the sects done to attract so much hatred? True, a tragedy such as that of the Order of the Solar Temple (OTS) seems to justify prudence but oddly this was an isolated case which did not appear to have caught the attention of those who oppose sects. If we formed an artificial group of entities whose members include the OTS and associations without any tie, such as political parties, sports clubs, etc., could the latter be considered dangerous and suicidal contrary to appearances ? True, certain religious movements can be extremely dangerous, such as the
Islamic movement made up of the friends and admirers of Ben Laden. However, associations more or less close to this movement never appear to have attracted the attention of anti-sect organizations. Caution may be wiser than foolhardiness but even so. It is the fashion to stress that Islam must not be confused with radical fundamentalism and this is obviously true. All the same, radical Islam is a deviated, perverted branch of the tree of Islam, whereas sects are not all branches of the same tree but rather independent plants.
Two parliamentary enquiry commissions have devoted their efforts to this alleged sect phenomenon as though they had nothing more important to do. Why hammer mills to crush a few very distinct insects ? Let us examine the results of the work accomplished by the first commission. This commission held its meetings confidential, without reason, for its subject had nothing to do with national defense or even delicate judicial enquiries. The commission did not listen to those who could have enlightened it, i.e. sociologists and religious historians who are not part of any sect but are objective and without passion. According to the anti-sect extremists, they are accomplices of sects. But which crimes are we looking at ? The crime of existing, that is all.
The commission prepared a list of nearly 200 sects based on a report supplied by the secret police, which, in contrast with the scientists referred to above, is not supposed to occupy itself with allegedly religious movements, some of which do not even seem to exist or consist of only a few persons. By contrast, no allusion is made to radical Islamic groups. It is obvious that the secret police, inherently incompetent, has worked on the basis of information received from outside. But received from whom? The commission also listed to leading anti-sect organizations, one or two representatives from so-called sectarian organizations and a few former sect members with personal agendas to settle. It does not appear to have heard former members who kept good memories of their time in the sect even if their beliefs have changed. To sum up, this commission did a bad job and any scientific inquirer would consider its work without value. The abusive secrecy surrounding its work allowed it to hide its extreme mediocrity and allowed some to refer to it without immediately triggering objections. It is clear that the vast majority of politicians has allowed itself to be hypnotized by an extremely lobby whose reasons are unclear. It has used time and money (the taxpayer’s, of course) for things which, in the worst case, should merely have been pointed out. After all, however real, how many victims of the OTC were there compared with traffic casualties, for example? And why should we accept this totally unjustifiable mixture, inspired by the worst Stalinist methods? This scapegoat has allowed politicians to avoid looking at very concrete problems whose solution they do not or cannot see. But there is another very responsible party, the majority of the press and especially its leaders. All too often sensational subjects are looked for in the silly season. While this may be normal, a serious and objective inquiry is the least prerequisite, which is only rarely done. Generally, journalist, like certain police officers and politicians, consider they have done their job when they have asked information from anti-sect organizations. How will this absurd situation end? France is not alone in the world. The United States has already expressed concern. Another EU Member State, Sweden, has just granted the church of Scientology the same status of religion as the Lutheran church. Thus, France is likely to drop into an impossible situation, when people will stop talking about sects and attention will focus on other wild fantasies.
Honorary Researcher, CNRS (National Center for Scientific Research)
Honorary President of CAP