Cults Freedom of Belief Freedom of Religion

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 18, 2001, pages 32-35

Cults, Freedom of Belief, and Freedom of Religion

Denis Barthelemy

Appeals Court of Versailles


Definitional confusion surrounding the term "cult" is examined in order to better understand the religious freedom controversy over public and private responses to cultic groups. It is argued that democratic societies distinguish between freedom of belief, an individual freedom, and freedom of religion, a collective freedom. When they overemphasize the latter, governments undermine democracy by subordinating individual citizens to groups.

This paper seeks to advance understanding of the cult phenomenon by examining definitional issues and the relationship of the cult phenomenon to two important and distinct freedoms, that of conscience and of religion.

Definitional Issues

When talking with someone who doesn’t give the same meaning to the words used, you can’t agree with him, because both of you use the same words in a different meaning. So you both don’t mean the same things. Hence, when you are talking with someone, first of all, you both have to agree on the meaning of the words you are going to use. The first question should be: "What are we talking about?"

With the many languages in Europe, we are well aware of this problem. For example, the word “cult” in English and the word “culte” in French have not the same meaning. “Culte” in French means mainly “religion.” But there are some “cultes” that are not exactly religious. Appropriate translation of the English word, “cult,” into French is mostly “secte.” But in English the word “sect” has another meaning.

To take another example, in personal conversations at least one sociologist of religion acknowledged to me that murder is an illegal practice, even if perpetrated by what he calls a "new religion." But he maintains that ritual crimes may not be “illegal practices” because they are religious crimes. How, then, do we classify sexual abuse, child abuse, disabled person abuse, corruption, economic and financial offences? Do practices normally considered to be crimes cease to be crimes because a religious group is the perpetrator? It hardly seems sensible to answer this question affirmatively, yet that is precisely what some seem to advocate.

Such defenses of cultic groups sometimes seem like psychological manipulations designed to advance a hidden agenda, namely to protect the capacity of cult leaders to pursue their agendas unhindered. On this subject I recommend a book written by the Frenchman Paul Aries: La Scientologie, laboratoire du futur (Ed. Golias, Lyon, France). If one is not clear on the definitions that competing parties use in this dispute, then one will be less prepared to recognize and respond to the linguistic and psychological manipulations of some cult sympathizers.

Freedom of Belief and Freedom of Religion

I often say to my younger colleagues: “Before talking about a law, read it, again and again, each time you need to apply that law, for you may think you know it, but the true and exact meaning may be forgotten or mistakenly remembered, especially when somebody else (e.g., a lawyer) argues on the subject." In this cult arena it is important to reexamine, in the light of international conventions, precisely what we mean by "freedom of belief" and "freedom of religion."

Freedom of belief is an application of freedom of conscience. We may also say it is an application of freedom of thought. These freedoms are individual freedoms.

Freedom of religion is a freedom that allows you to practice your belief with other people. It is an application of the freedom of association. It is, then, a collective freedom.

But, of course, there may be conflicts between individual freedoms and collective freedoms.

Problems also may occur between these freedoms and the laws of a country and international conventions one has to apply like laws. In Europe, for example, we sometimes have to apply European laws instead of our own home laws.

So what are the most important freedoms we have to respect? The individual ones, or the collective ones? What are the limits? The laws of one's own country or the international laws?

These laws are supposed to protect each of us against abuse. Each country, even in Europe, may have its own answer. This answer should respect the rights the people have in the context of national and international laws applied in each country. If the laws do not protect the rights of people, or if these laws exist but are not applied, such a country cannot be considered a democracy.

In a democracy, groups are allowed to form, and these groups may have rights. However, if “groups” become primary to the country's laws, then it ceases to be a country with citizens, and instead becomes a country with clans.

So the “freedom of religion” that some sociologists of religion talk about is a kind of "clanic" freedom, and the political system they want may be a political "clanic" system. In that case the group becomes more important than the citizen, and later on the group may be the only consideration. This is a political system without citizens! Yet this is the kind of political system that some cult sympathizers seem to advocate.

We know that many cultic groups are totalitarian. Their members are not permitted to criticize the group or its leader and may suffer greatly if they dissent or disobey. If a political system deems the freedom of religion of such totalitarian groups to be more vital than their members' freedom of belief, how may we call such a political system democratic? How can a country call itself democratic if it values the rights of groups over the rights of individual citizens?

For example, one may say, “The Mafia is a religious group because it has rituals of initiation, pledges of loyalty, and a solemn secretiveness that seems sacred to its members.” Should we then ask the Italian government and the Italian justice system to stop prosecuting the members of the Mafia? The same reasoning would hold for the many terrorist groups that claim a religious lineage. If, for example, one told an immigration officer of the United States that one belongs to a religious terrorist group, would that officer have to make an exemption to the laws that restrict immigration of terrorists?

Obviously, such interpretations would be silly. Yet these are the kinds of interpretations that some cult sympathizers urge upon us when they neglect to consider the distinction between freedom of belief and freedom of religion and forget that democracies, if they are to function as democracies, need citizens with free minds, with freedom of belief, conscience, and thought.

You may with that freedom join and leave groups and alter your religious and other beliefs as you see fit and as it is written in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. But for this freedom to be meaningful, it must take precedence of the freedom of totalitarian groups to pursue their anti-democratic agendas.

If a political system denies its citizens access to the judicial system when a group has abused them, that system grants the abusing group an unacceptable immunity and violates human rights and fundamental liberties. To deny citizens such rights in the name of "religious freedom" for groups ignores, misrepresents, or even violates the individual freedom of belief, conscience, and thought that is at the heart of political democracy.

Denis Barthelemy was Secrétaire Général de la Mission Interministérielle de Lutte Contre les Sectes (General Secretary of the Interministerial Commission for Combating Cults), a French governmental agency under the Prime Minister, until September 2001. He is currently Président de Chambre à la Cour d’Appel de Versailles (roughly translated, “second judge on the appeals court of Versailles”). This paper is based on a presentation given to AFF’s 1999 Annual Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota.