On a recent research trip to France, I visited communes and meditation centres, interviewing people who define themselves as being on the spiritual path.
All the groups I visited are on a government list of 172 "sectes," presumed dangerous. They are regarded with jaded suspicion, much like biker gangs or terrorist cells would be here. In May, France passed the About/Picard law that criminalizes missionary activity and makes it easy to dissolve voluntary associations.
As a religion teacher and researcher of new religious movements (NRMs we scholars like to call them), I can invite Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Moonies to speak in my Cults and Religious Controversy class at Concordia University. I take my Dawson College students on field trips to the Hare Krishna temple and to Raelian UFO baptisms to observe the rituals.
I never realized this before, but we are spoiled. Canadians enjoy a level of academic freedom and religious liberty unheard of in most countries, even in France, with its brilliant intellectual tradition. If I were a French sociologist and behaved this way, I would be out of a job. I would be called a "cult-lover," a closet Scientologist or a "revisionist" downplaying the atrocities perpetrated by the sects.
Social scientists are not supposed to make value judgments, but I was shocked by what I observed in France. Shocked at the intolerance and prejudice toward minority religions, the assaults on individual rights and, most of all, by the sheer stupidity and willful ignorance of France's government, which created MILS (Inter-ministerial Mission for the Fight against Sects).
I teach a course on research methods at Dawson College in which social-science students learn not to trust popular opinion but to read, collect data using various sampling methods and analyze the data systematically before presenting findings. If MILS had handed in its report on sects in my class, I would have had to flunk it. In France, the cult experts are actually proud to proclaim they make a point of "having nothing to do with the groups we are fighting against."
In March, I was in the Pau courthouse listening to Michel Moreau, a psychologist who writes about "manipulation mentale" (France's watered-down version of the CIA-developed brainwashing/mind control theory). We were both expert witnesses in the trial of parents from the Twelve Tribes who were charged with criminal negligence leading to the death of their baby, born with a heart defect.
When the judge asked Moreau if he had ever visited the Tribes' community, he replied "no" and proceeded to make sweeping generalizations, comparing the group to the Solar Temple. It was quite clear he had not read up about the Tribes, which are unique among NRMs. When I testified I had been conducting field research on the group since 1989 in Vermont and published six articles, two book chapters and two encyclopedia entries on them, it became apparent that in France real hands-on research disqualifies one as an expert. I was contaminated, for I had consorted with the enemy. I was asked if I were a member of the community. My research was dismissed by the judge because it was only in the United States and because my stay in the French community of the Twelve Tribes was only for five days.
The parents were sentenced to six years in prison, and the judge ruled that unless the Tribes children were sent to public school and given vaccinations, they would be taken away and the fathers sent to jail. It was clear to me that had these parents been secular parents, they would have had a better case. Had they been Catholics, the tragic death of their child would not have been used to control and stigmatize the Catholic church. I felt frustrated. I had taken a week off teaching, flown to France, planned my testimony and been told to shut up, presumably because I was a ghastly American with misguided notions of religious liberty who actually had the bad taste to consort with the sects.
The 1995 Guyard report on sects, commissioned for the National Assembly compiled a report of 172 sects presumed dangerous. I was astonished that the report had distorted Rael's philosophy and made false allegations of criminal conduct. It even got the dates of Raelian history wrong. Some groups have succeeded in having their names taken off the infamous list.
The Mormons (whose Latter-day Saints number over 10 million) were removed, but other Christian minority churches - Christian Science, the Seventh-day Adventists and the Jehovah's Witnesses - are still on it and have all been disestablished and hit with back taxes. A feminist who organized an international self-help crafts industry for women in Third World countries, was shocked to find she was on the list.
To her relief, the misunderstanding was cleared, her name was dropped. In interviews, the secretary-treasurers of Mahakari and Human Yoga both complained that they hardly recognize themselves in the government reports.
Their real problem, however, is the media. The major newspapers in France rely on ADFI, France's anti-cult organization, and government reports for their sensationalistic stories. Journalists tend to adopt a cavalier "seen one sect, seen them all" approach.
A recent magazine article on sects grossly inflated memberships and almost routinely accused leaders of pedophile tendencies or planning mass suicides. Almost every group was classified as apocalyptic. There were four groups described that I had written books on, but I could hardly recognize them. But perhaps they were lucky, for I next visited a group that had been "researched" - Horus, a now defunct new-age farming commune in the Vaucluse countryside.
"I am considered the most dangerous woman in France," said Marie-Therese Castano, a Basque grandmother whose mystical ecology and horticultural skills led to a collective experiment in self-sufficient farming. She recently spent a year in prison.
She described how Alain Gest of MILS had made an appointment to see her in 1996. He arrived with the local mayor, stayed for a few minutes and refused to listen to her account of the group's daily life. Instead, Gest demanded to have a private talk with a child, determined to find evidence of "mental manipulation." "He acted like a bailiff, come to inform us we were a dangerous sect,"said Castano.
In my research-methods course at Dawson College, we talk about low-impact participant observation, on not disturbing the research field. We worry about how to compensate for cultural biases in interpreting data.
I don't know what is going to happen in France's anti-sect war now the About/Picard law is in place. But at least I have collected some excellent examples of how not to conduct research that I can use in my classes. Susan Palmer teaches religion at Dawson College and Concordia University, where she is an adjunct professor.