Divergent European Cult Policies

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 5, No. 1, 2006

Divergent European Cult Policies: A Reply to Henri de Cordes

Richard Singelenberg

In his plea for a common European policy on ‘sectarian deviations’, Henri de Cordes, chairman of IACSSO/CIASSO (the Belgian governmental information and advice centre on harmful sectarian organizations) sketches the development of the European supra-national procedures and includes examples from national administrations. His aim is the establishment of a European observatory on sects, the very institution that was recommended by the Council of Europe in 1999 but failed to be implemented. Unfortunately, de Cordes’ discussion suffers from several shortcomings. Basic errors, crucial omissions, and invalid argumentation have resulted in a treatise that is substandard from a professional point of view.

Some basic errors can be found in the part where the author discusses the European governmental institutions. The aim of the Council of Europe extends beyond “exclusively (…) human-rights protection,” as asserted by the author. It also addresses standardization of legal practices among member states as well as promoting the awareness of a shared identity that cuts across European cultures. Since 1989, the CoE has been particularly active in providing democratic know-how in former Soviet controlled areas in Eastern-Europe. Next, according to de Cordes, the “(European) Court (of Human Rights) cannot reform a decision of a national jurisdiction.” It certainly can, since a judgment of the ECHR is binding and member states are under an obligation to comply with them, which may result in the amendment of national legislation. Finally, though it appears that this discussion is not meant as an academic paper, it might have been helpful to the reader if the author would have added proper references to the several quotes from ECHR sources.

The Netherlands

Concerning The Netherlands, de Cordes attributes the non-existence of a national policy on cult-related activities to the so-called “poldermodel”: “According to this principle, when a problem arises, a dialogue, in a spirit of tolerance, must be established. Eventually, the problem disappears.”

If all problems could be settled this easily! Clearly, this impression is simplistic. It is also erroneous. The Dutch term “poldermodel” relates to the economic realm. It points to corperative economy where unions, employers, and government attempt to reach a consensus on important socio-economic issues, such as social security, employment, reduction of financing deficit, etc. As such, the concept has no bearing on the cult issue.

Rather, in addition to the allegedly traditional Dutch tolerance towards deviant beliefs and practices, the historical phenomenon of “pillarization”—the co-existence of multiple socio-political blocks which can be distinguished by a specific ideological/religious worldview—has prevented a sharp polarization between conventional ideas and novel religions. (For an extensive discussion, see Kranenborg 1994, Singelenberg 2004). These structural phenomena notwithstanding, the increase of new religious movements in Dutch society, in conjunction with controversial practices, not only elicited widespread alarming media reports, it also resulted in the emergence of SOS, a cult-awareness group. This organization contributed to convincing the government to initiate an investigation on the possible dangers of new religious movements. The outcome was the study of Tobias Witteveen (1984), who made clear that “new religious movements are no real threat to public mental health.” This conclusion flatly contradicted public opinion which was convinced that cults were a danger to individual and society.

De Cordes quotes extensively from this study, adding that “it (…) guided the Dutch authorities in their attitude toward sectarian organizations—namely, the policy of having no policy.” It certainly influenced national cult policy, but de Cordes fails to mention the preceding and influential study from 1982 by renowned sociologist Paul Schnabel (the present director of the Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis). Basically, Schnabel’s conclusions, albeit from a different perspective, were similar to Witteveen’s: “In general, new religious movements in The Netherlands cannot be considered a danger to public mental health.” Also, in the early 1980s, psychologists from Nijmegen University had published several case studies on new religious movements (See, for example, van der Lans 1981). They did not point to any dangers that could emanate from being associated with these groups.

Therefore, de Cordes’ suggestion that Witteveen’s study was the result of the “poldermodel” or conformity “to the social consensus on new religious movements to receive his PhD” is unfounded and insinuating. As sketched above, this “social consensus on new religious movements” was far from obvious in view of SOS’s activities and negative media accounts. Witteveen’s study not only included new data but also elaborated on previous research. De Cordes implies that somehow scores of investigators were governed by political motivations rather than by sound research. Though this would be an interesting line of inquiry, the author fails to substantiate this suggestive claim. As it stands now, de Cordes’ analysis of the historical situation in The Netherlands is nothing short of an ill-founded caricature. SOS’s failed attempts to establish a rehabilitation centre, since no clientele was ever presented, led to its disbandment in 1991 because of dwindling membership figures. This development may indicate the appropriateness of the Dutch “policy of having no policy.”

The Pan-European Scenery

In addition to The Netherlands, de Cordes presents examples from policies by the governments of Vatican City, United Kingdom, France, Switzerland, and Belgium. On Vatican City, he notes “(it) is not a significant example of a member state of the E(uropean) U(nion).” Apparently, de Cordes fails to realize that Vatican City is not a EU member state. Further, the paragraph “Central and Eastern European Countries” (or former Soviet controlled areas) includes the remark that “several (of these) countries) adopted very, even too, generous legislation in the field of religious freedom.” It is unclear what de Cordes means by “very” or “too generous legislation” and which countries he has in mind. In contrast, the author ignores the multiple accounts on violations of human rights, specifically directed at members of minority religions, in former communist countries as reported by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights (UNHCHR), and the International Helsinki Federation for Human Rights. For example, the latter noted that many countries in that region have failed to adopt adequate legislation on the right to conscientious objection on religious grounds. It is amazing that de Cordes ignores the recent gruesome persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the Caucasian republic of Georgia and the inertia of the state that has permitted this reign of terror (Ochs 2002). This, and other information is easily accessible through the internet websites of these and other organizations. Moreover, several edited volumes from academic sources pay attention to the, at times, detrimental position of cult members and adherents of minority religions in the former Soviet controlled regions (e.g., Lucas & Robbins 2004; Davis & Besier 2002; Richardson 2004). Either de Cordes is unaware of these publications—which is hardly imaginable in view of his professional position—or he prefers to ignore their existence.

On the supra-national level, de Cordes briefly sketches the development of legislation on sectarian movements in the Council of Europe. On the European Parliament, however, he neglects to refer to the so-called Berger-report from 1997, which concluded that “nothing imposes or justifies the creation of a European policy against cults or the creation of a specialized European institution” (Luca 2004:64). Besides the temporary surveillance of the Church of Scientology by German state security services in the 1990s, France, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, Switzerland are the only countries who institutionalized some form of governmental policy on cult observance. De Cordes has also included the United Kingdom. However, the British charity organization, INFORM, does not function as a governmental watchdog like Belgian IACSSO/CIASSO and French MIVILUDES. His remark of commonalities between these institutions is therefore somewhat misleading, since, even a superficial glance at the aims and policy of INFORM reveals basic differences in terms of research methods and methodological perspectives when compared to IACSSO/CIASSO and MIVILUDES (Barker 1993, 1995: 141-143). Basically—as the author himself notes—“Great Britain has no specific policy in the field of sectarian deviations.” Neither have the overwhelming majority of European countries, convinced as they are that existing legislation will suffice to deal with violations of the law, including those that involve religious movements and their membership. It appears that de Cordes’ plea for a common European policy is devoid of historical, social, and political realism. As Luca notes on France:

Most European countries seem to adapt themselves more rapidly than France to the new circumstances of the developing religious market. Is it because their religious traditions prepare them better then French traditions, or because they resist better than French the development of the market? (…) Cults seem perceived as strongly threatening to France’s own identity, perhaps because this identity is already in a crisis situation. (Luca 2004: 70)

De Cordes may wonder if he finds it appropriate to include Belgium in this consideration.


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Barker, E. (1993) “Will the Real Cult Please Stand Up? A Comparative Analysis of Social Constructions of New Religious Movements”, pp. 193-211 in D.G. Bromley & J.K Hadden (eds) Religion and the Social Order. The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America Vol 3, Part B. Greenwich CT: JAI Press

Davis, D.H. & G. Besier (eds) (2002) International Perspectives on Freedom and Equality of Religious Belief Waco: J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies

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Luca, N. (2004) “Is There a Unique French Policy of Cults?”, pp. 53-72 in Richardson J.T.

Lucas, P.C & T. Robbins (eds) (2004) New Religious Movements in the 21st Century. Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective New York: Routledge.

Ochs, M. (2002) “Persecution of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Georgia Today”, in Religion, State & Society 30(3) pp 239-276

Richardson, J.T. (ed) (2004) Regulating Religion. Case Studies from Around the Globe New York: Kluwer Academic

Schnabel, P. (1982) Tussen stigma en charisma. Nieuwe religieuze bewegingen en geestelijke volksgezondheid. Deventer: Van Loghum Slaterus.

Singelenberg, R. (2004) “Foredoomed to Failure. The Anti-Cult Movement in the Netherlands”, pp. 213-219 in Richardson J.T.

Witteveen, T. (1984) Overheid en nieuwe religieuze bewegingen. The Hague: Staatsdrukkerij

Richard Singelenberg, M.A., is a social anthropologist from The Netherlands. A specialist on minority religions, he is a former professor at the University of Utrecht and an independent researcher and consultant. Email: richard.singelenberg@gmail.com.