Recurring cycles in the history of intollerance

Silvio Calzolari

In the 17th century Neapolitan philosopher Giambattista Vico illustrated how we have witnessed a turn over of moments of civilisation and moments of barbarism. France, evidently in the grip of a moment of barbarism, is once again proposing a law to strike down the so-called "sectarian drifts", to stifle any thought not aligned with the single thought so much in vogue today. We had already reported on this in November 2023 in the article France and religious freedom: from bad to worse. Despite the outcry from scholars, academics and fundamental rights advocates, the bill against 'sectarian deviance' will be debated in the National Assembly on 7 February 2024 and in the Senate on 13 and 14 February. If converted into law, it would seriously undermine the fundamental principles of freedom of conscience, religion and belief. Among the intentions of the liberticidal bill is that (attempted cyclically several times) of strengthening the role and power of the MIVILUDES, the "mental police" foreseen by George Orwell in his work 1984.

The following is the Open Letter addressed to the French National Assembly by Professor Silvio Calzolari, Secretary of FOB.

To the members of the National Assembly

February 3, 2023 — Amid a more or less general indifference, a bill against the so-called “sectarian drifts” is about to be debated before the French National Assembly. The new law is supposed to "try to protect people from harmful behaviors" that they might suffer by adhering to beliefs and religions deemed incompatible with the religious and normative principles officially professed by the vast majority of the population. In my opinion, such a proposal represents a serious violation of freedom of religion and belief.

Since their inception, the so-called "new religious movements" often referred to by the derogatory term "cults", have appeared threatening and strange. The various theologians and legislators (who sometimes consider themselves to be the true guardians of "values" and tradition) have always wondered how it is possible that some people belonging to shared and historically well-rooted religions can convert to different faiths. This question has been answered by making reference to an unspecified manipulation of the will caused by the deliberate influence of particularly charismatic people on others.

Later, in the 1800s, first with 'mesmerism' and then with hypnotism, the false idea took ground that it was possible to make people subservient to the will of others, either temporarily or permanently. That idea seemed to be confirmed when a former CIA agent, a certain Edward Hunter (1902-1978), in a book entitled "Brainwashing in Red China" (1951) made known in the West the Chinese term "xi nao" ("purification of the mind"; translated as: "brainwashing") used, according to him, in the re-education camps of Chairman Mao Dzedong (1893-1976), to describe a series of techniques that would completely empty the minds and wills of prisoners and dissidents to fill them with new principles and ideologies. The false anti-cult theories of brainwashing, propagated between 1970 and 1980, have been completely discredited in the studies of the vast majority of academics and researchers from the world's leading universities and research centers. Perhaps because of those contributions, since 1990 (with the Californian Fishman ruling) almost all US courts have rejected the theories of brainwashing and related brainwashing. However, the diehard anti-cult movements, with their false ideas concerning the possibility of plagiarizing people through techniques more or less definable as brainwashing, continue to be influential in Europe, particularly in France and Belgium. In Italy, however, a Constitutional Court ruling in 1981, with the elimination of the crime of plagiarism, made their action more difficult.

Of course, if the perpetrators of certain religious movements commit crimes or call for acts of terrorism, they must be prosecuted and sentenced, but under the existing rules of common criminal law. But this must not lead to the creation of new rules aimed at incriminating people in the name of a phantom and non-existent “mental manipulation”. In the same way, “mental manipulation” can in no way be associated with the so-called 'neuroassociative conditioning' sometimes used by doctors and educators (even sports coaches) to make people lose weight, stop smoking or try to achieve a goal they have been working towards for a long time. Neuroassociative behaviors have always been of great importance in our lives and can determine the moods on which our behavior often depends. But these “conditionings” have nothing to do with plagiarism as advocated by anti-cult movements.

Well, in the bill now submitted to the French National Assembly, it is repeatedly stated that some religious movements (defined by the derogatory term "cults") continue to perpetrate psychological abuses using techniques of “mental manipulation”. Thus it is stated that "the definition of a new crime (that of "psychological subjection") appears necessary so that situations of psychological or physical subjection causing a serious alteration of the physical or mental health of the victims can finally be punished. But what is "psychological subjection"? That exercised by a sports coach? By a university lecturer? By a priest during a homily? Or by a Buddhist meditation teacher? All of us, during our lives, are influenced in some way by different ideas, principles and beliefs. It is up to us to discern and evaluate. What is "psychological subjection"? A feeling, a bewitchment, a fascination? A falling in love? Or what else? Certainly not something based on a scientific basis and foundation.

Among other things, in the same bill, it was claimed that during the Covid period, with the rise of new religious movements (i.e. "cults"), anti-vaccination movements also spread (at a time when people would have been in a state of "psychological subjection" due to the spread of the virus). Another idea that is absolutely without scientific basis, improvable and the expression of an intolerant and coercive ideology. Freedom of religion, as well as freedom of expression and belief, are extremely valuable achievements for our democracy. No new law must be introduced and used as an alibi to cover up much less noble designs and purposes.

Silvio Calzolari

Professor of History of Religions of China and Japan, Higher Institute of Religious Studies in Florence, associated with the Theological Faculty of Central Italy (Florence)