In Good Faith

Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 16, Number 1, 1999, pages 52-63

In Good Faith: Society and The New Religious Movements, Summary Report

Swedish Government Commission


The following is an English summary prepared by a Swedish government commission appointed to study the cult phenomenon in Sweden and other countries and to make recommendations to the government of Sweden. In order to keep the report as close to the original as possible, CSJ only edited it to ensure clarity and to replace English with American spelling for certain words. As always, comments are welcome.

1.1 Deliberations and proposals by the Commission

One of the Commission’s tasks has been to gauge the extent to which people leaving new religious movements need support from the community. To make such an assessment possible, much of the inquiry has been concerned with trying to understand the phenomenon as a whole. To what extent is the community at large affected by the activities of the new religious movements, how widespread are the new beliefs, what problems, if any, does this entail, and for whom?

The inquiry has benefited from the knowledge and experience acquired by care providers, organisations, individual persons, researchers and representatives of various religious movements. International contacts have provided useful objects of comparison.

This being such a strongly polarised area, it has not been easy to strike a balance between the information received by the Commission and to try to understand the strong feelings of the parties, in order to place them in a perspective in which different interests can be reconciled.

1.2 The remit (the charge of the commission)

The Commission’s remit, as expressed in its terms of reference, was to investigate the extent to which people are plunged into states of mental crisis when withdrawing from new religious movements and the extent to which they need help in cases of this kind.

In addition, special attention was to be paid to the situation of the children in these movements, and the state of research was to be inventoried, as well as international experience in a number of specified countries. Lastly, questions of prevention were to be taken into account.

1.3 Some points of departure

In a democratic social system in which freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of information, freedom of association and freedom of assembly are guaranteed and secured, it is not society’s task to query and evaluate various forms of belief. It is important, on the other hand, that there should be an ongoing discussion of society’s attitude to movements aiming to circumscribe democratic liberties within their own ranks. One question arising concerns the way in which society can act without itself resorting to undemocratic methods.

There is international experience of serious criminal behaviour occurring in the name of a new religious movement, such as the spreading of poison on the Tokyo underground. Mass suicides, which have occurred in several countries, have in some cases occurred, not through individual persons deciding to take their own lives but as a result of someone else putting them to death. Nothing comparable has happened in Sweden. These experiences matter, of course, to the general public, politicians, and the media, and are present as a somber background and a disturbing factor whenever new religious movements are talked about.

History shows many instances of new religious movements coming into conflict with the majority community. What may seem odd and deviant at one point in time can be accepted without controversy at a later period. The interaction between society and movement seems, with the passing of time, to smooth the edges of both, so that a dialogue can be established on a basis of mutual respect. Groups which do not follow this pattern but continue to live in isolation have a fairly short survival time.

Arguably, then, all movements should be left to their own devices, moving either towards establishment or extinction. But on the other hand it cannot be overlooked that during this transition there may be phenomena which society finds unacceptable. Adults have every right to believe what they will and to express their belief in a manner of their own choosing, always provided that this does not involve detriment to others or infringement of the rights and liberties of the individual. It is not acceptable that people should be subjected to pressure and manipulation exceeding the bounds of their own free will.

It has not been the Commission’s task to chart or single out particular movements or individuals. But it has been essential, on the other hand, to shed light on certain phenomena and methods within various movements, in order to understand the occurrence of crisis reactions or other problems which people can encounter as members of movements and denominations.

1.4 An international perspective

Government reports on new religious movements have been presented in several European countries during the past few years. The main content of those reports is presented in chapter 3. The main conclusion drawn by the Swedish Commission from several visits to organizations in other countries acting within the sphere of new religious movements is that nothing should be done to augment disagreement between these movements and the rest of the community. On the contrary, society should help to bring about a dialogue between all parties concerned. There are several reasons why a dialogue is needed. The discussion is heavily polarised: one is assumed to be either for or against. Different camps in the debate cast aspersions on each other. Furthermore, some countries can be said, somewhat exaggeratedly, to have declared war on the new religious movements; if anything, this leads to greater isolation, with the attendant risk of destructive development.

Different countries have acted in different ways. Government commissions in France and Belgium have come out in distinct opposition to the new religious movements, seeing in their activities a potential danger to both the state and the individual. In Switzerland, the Canton of Geneva has produced an official report on the phenomenon which is strongly reminiscent of the Belgian and French inquiries. The attitude advocated by these three bodies can be summed up as “getting tough” with the new religious movements. Something of the opposite attitude is advocated in Italy and Denmark and to some extent in the United Kingdom, where the new flora of creeds that has become so widespread is not considered to pose much of a threat to the individual or society. No governmental inquiries have been mounted in these countries. In Germany, on the other hand, the Bundestag recently presented a comprehensive report both on the movements and on the so-called psycho-groups existing within the New Age wave and using therapeutic techniques of similar kinds. In Germany, careful vigilance is being advocated towards the movements and several different proposals are being introduced for tightening up legislation, not least in the field of consumer law, to protect the individual from what are considered unscrupulous quasi-psychologists and naturopaths. The Scientology movement is not regarded as a religion in Germany, where its organization is now the subject of special observation. The liberal religious climate in the USA has given rise to a host of movements whose activities the authorities are unwilling to interfere with. The so-called Anti-Cult Movement in the USA, unlike its European colleagues, has developed a research-oriented profile, but its voice in the debate is a relatively weak one, unlike its French counterpart. In France the state has on the whole made common cause with the anti-cult movement, partly by setting up a permanent committee to keep “the sects” – the accepted term in France – under surveillance. The Austrian government has published information that contains warnings against “sects” – a term also employed in Austria. The European parliament has discussed the new religious movements on several occasions. A resolution passed in February 1996 dismisses the idea of compiling a list of all “sects,” at the same time as it is felt that existing laws are being insufficiently implemented for combating crimes committed in new religious movements. No new laws are needed, it is argued. Instead priority is being given to the protection of the individual and of the individual as a consumer in the spiritual market.

The strategy adopted by the Swedish Commission—that of creating a dialogue for mutual understanding—must not mean society remaining inactive where dubious or criminal acts have been committed in the name of religious liberty. The only reasonable point of departure for a society wishing to act without infringing religious liberty or individual safeguards is knowledge of actual conditions, or actual proportions, and of the conceptual worlds involved. The conclusions we have drawn, partly from international experience, lead to the content outlined for KULT, the Swedish acronym for “Center for the Study of Questions of Belief.”

1.5 The state of research

There is a shortage of coherent research and knowledge on the subject of new religious movements. The lack of systematic knowledge, not least with regard to the situation for children, is a recurrent theme of the Commission’s hearings and of conferences that the Commission has attended. Students of comparative religion are the first to underline this embarrassing fact. Research is characterized as scanty and inchoate. The expression “scattered showers” has been used to describe the situation as regards both volume and theoretical content. There is no systematic review of the field, only individual studies.

Because the general debate on religions and creeds is often founded on errors of fact, preconceived notions, and rumors, the need for critical, academic research is clearly all the greater. New religious movements and the surrounding community react to one another in different ways, according to the information available. Objective knowledge based on critical research would make the situation easier to cope with for all concerned. Both religious liberty and society’s fulfillment of its duty to help people and to stave off abuses in the context of religion would benefit from a commitment to wider research.

The Commission recommends a commitment of this kind, with special emphasis on the situation for children in new religious movements. Research funding should be channeled through the proposed Center for the Study of Questions of Belief.

1.6 The need for support

The Commission has conducted two major surveys (one of the public sector, that is, county councils and social services, and one of organizations and churches) to chart the extent to which and the reasons for which people turn to these bodies for support in connection with their withdrawal from a new religious movement. The intention has been to gauge the magnitude of the problem, the needs of the persons requesting assistance, and what different personnel categories have come to regard as the necessary skills for assisting individual persons in crisis.

In a third survey an inventory was compiled of existing crisis centers in Sweden in order to ascertain: (1) whether competent assistance is available for those who leave new religious movements and (2) if it is not, to investigate what knowledge is lacking and what various experts believe should be done to build up crisis support for former group members.

The great majority of members of the new religious movements derive positive experience from their membership. They have subscribed to an idea or doctrine that corresponds to their personal needs. Membership is of limited duration in most cases. After two years the majority have left the movement. This withdrawal is usually quite undramatic, and the persons withdrawing feel enriched by a predominantly positive experience.

It is not easy to gauge the number of persons affected by new religious movements. On the basis of the Commission’s review, which includes all religious denominations in Sweden, and limiting the term “new religious movements” to those which have become established in Sweden in recent decades, membership nationwide can be estimated at between 50,000 and 60,000. This estimate does not include neighboring groups within the new Age movement, “psycho-groups” and commercial enterprises that apply methods and organizational structures reminiscent of those existing in certain new religious movements. If these latter categories of groups were included, the figure would be several times greater.

Something like a hundred people every year seek help for problems which have arisen in connection with membership of and withdrawal from a new religious movement. There is reason to suppose that more would seek help if the special problems occurring in this context were known to care providers and organizations. It would then be more easily discovered, for example, that “uneasiness” or “insomnia” concealed problems emanating for the underlying causes and that the nature of the problem probably deters people from formulating the problem as group-related. Many are held back by feelings of shame over being “deceived,” while others may have different reasons for not coming forward. The dark figures here are presumably large ones, and many more people, presumably, could do with support of some kind when leaving a new religious movement.

Sometimes the relatives of people who belong to or have left new religious movements are most in need of help. They may need help to understand and accept the fact that a close relative or friend has chose a different way of life and perhaps to change their attitude from the anger or disappointment that is most likely to have been their initial reaction. It may also be important for entire families to receive support when someone leaves a movement, so that the network can help with the process.

The problems are not exclusively psychiatric: they are spiritual, social, medical, economic, and legal as well. Some people may need a new socialization process, e.g., if they have been living entirely within the movement and have had no vocational activity outside it.

A relatively small number of cases every year can require quite considerable resource inputs, due to whole families needing support for the whole of their situation in life.

The Commission does not recommend that special resources be established for the rehabilitation of former members. The cases are too few in numbers and the problem picture too manifold for this: each individual can be expected to need help from several different care providers or facilitators. There is an extensive need for knowledge on the part of many personnel categories (e.g., in psychiatry, social services, and school health care) so that people seeking help can be cared for at regional level.

The Commission recommends that the elevation of competence in this field be made the task of the proposed Center for the Study of Questions of Belief.

1.7 Center for the Study of Questions of Belief

Advanced, specialized crisis centers exist in many places in Sweden. As has already been made clear, the Commission’s assessments do not warrant the development of a special crisis support unit for people leaving new religious movements. On the other hand, those dealing with people who are in crisis in connection with membership of a new religious movement are in great need of knowledge concerning spiritual matters and concerning the complexity of the phenomenon. This knowledge concerns social identity, articles of belief, authority, subordination, and much else besides. Public debate on the new religious movements is dominated by misunderstandings, exaggerations and, sometimes, disinformation by different parties. Contacts with researchers, care workers, members, and others point unambiguously to a need for serious knowledge of the new religious landscape.

The need for greater knowledge among people meeting defectors and others with problems connected with secession or exclusion, or indeed with a relative’s membership in a new religious movement, are more than just psychological. To cope with these human crises, an individual perspective is not enough. Social, legal, and theological knowledge is also needed. The Commission therefore proposes the setting up of a foundation code-named KULT – short in Swedish for “Center for the Study of Questions of Belief.” One of the main tasks of this foundation, in addition to serving as a research center, will be to build bridges between movements and society, between the minorities and the majority. The aims of the foundation will be to create a dialogue, to reduce polarization, to augment knowledge, and to avert crises, at both individual and societal levels. It is further proposed that the foundation should initiate and encourage research by administering special funds for the purpose.

The creation of a dialogue is prompted by the well-founded supposition that movements which have become a danger to the life and health of their members or of the community in general have developed in isolation after society has turned its back on them. Some movements that are out of touch with the rest of the community can develop destructive characteristics. The dialogue, then, is an important means of avoiding destructive developments. Freedom of religion, moreover, stands only to benefit from a growth of society’s aggregate knowledge concerning religious movements. Informing the general public and arranging conferences will be among the foundation’s activities, as well as training personnel whose work may conceivably bring them into contact with people who are in crisis due to their membership in a movement. In addition, the foundation can mediate in situations of conflict between individuals and movements. In the network which it is proposed that the foundation build up, all interests in the field will be represented, e.g. the movements themselves, critical nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), researchers, Swedish Save the Children, and others. The network should also include international contacts.

Lack of true knowledge and lack of research, not least on the subject of children and new religious movements, has been articulated at almost every meeting of the Commission and persons or organizations involved. In view of the rampant rumor-mongering and the flimsy notions of conditions within the movements which are disseminated in the media and other contexts, the Commission proposes that the foundation code-named KULT initiate and observe research in this field and that the foundation be allocated funding for research projects on the subject of new religious movements in the broad sense of the term.

1.8 Responsibility for children and young persons

Special importance has been attached to trying to describe the situation for children in more or less closed movements. Lack of knowledge and research on the subject has been an impediment in this respect. The deficiency is both qualitative and quantitative, national and international.

With this background in mind, the Commission proposes both short-term and long-term research into the situation for children in closed denominations.

The right of parents to bring up their children in accordance with their faith and convictions is above dispute, but it has to be balanced against the knowledge that there are children who suffer harm in new religious movements. Both from its own inquiries and from literature on the subject, the Commission has learned of the occurrence of both mental and physical cruelty to children in a number of cases.

The Commission considers it essential that children living in closed groups should have the same form of support, protection, and rights as other children. At the same time it is important that children growing up in these movements should not be stigmatized. The outside world must be respectful and informed in its attitude to their membership in different denominations. Parallels can be drawn to other minority groups, and an integrative perspective should be applied to these children as well. This could mean children growing up in different denominations should not be plunged into situations of conflict between the norms of the family and those of the community at large.

Lack of knowledge and experience for responding to children from these movements puts many personnel categories in a difficult position. The Commission therefore recommends that guidelines be drawn up for various personnel categories in schools, child care services, social services, and medical care. For the same reason, the training syllabi for teachers, pre-school teachers, and social workers should include questions concerning religious minorities, as well as subsequent training programs, organized by municipal authorities, on the subject of cultural encounters.

Over and above this, it should, in the Commission’s view, be both a duty and a matter of interest on the part of social services to acquire knowledge concerning the movements that, for example, advocate corporal punishment of children or other activities contrary to the laws and regulations existing in the social service sphere.

Society’s responsibilities to all children in Sweden are governed by several branches of the law. One precondition for the implementation of these laws is for society to be in contact with all children. Where certain children growing up in new religious movements are concerned, that contact is lacking, possibly because, instead of attending public sector schools, the children attend independent schools run by movements or receive their compulsory schooling in some other way, e.g. home schooling. Denominational independent schools, i.e., schools based on a religious persuasion, constitute a relatively large proportion of all independent schools (60 out of 298 active independent schools). Most of these schools have a Christian, Protestant emphasis. Inspections show their teaching to be objective and impartial. Democratic values are sustained.

The independent schools are governed by special legislation and attendant statutory instruments. The Commission has found deficiencies in these systems which should be reviewed, such as: the rules governing the management of independent schools; decision-making procedures within them; the qualifications of the persons appointed as head teachers of independent schools. This review is necessary in order to ensure that schools measure up to the standards applying to public sector schools, as well as to empower the national Agency for Education to investigate the suitability of natural or legal persons to operate independent schools and to strengthen its own and local municipal oversight and supervision of these schools.

Responsibility for and supervision of school health care was recently transferred to the national Board of Health and Welfare. It is essential that the quality of health care in independent schools should be on a level with that provided by other schools.

The Commission has observed shortcomings in municipal handling procedures, decision-making, and supervision of alternative completion of compulsory schooling (i.e., home schooling). Implementation of the Education Act in matters of consent varies considerably from one municipality to another.

The Commission therefore recommends that municipalities be suitably provided with an adequate knowledge of the rules and conditions governing home schooling. It is further recommended that municipal social welfare committees make a statement in such matters and that municipalities appoint a personal contact for the pupil concerned and for the person or persons providing the instruction.

These recommendations are prompted by the municipality's responsibility, which transcends quantifiable achievement criteria. It is the duty of a municipality to ensure that the pupil’s social situation conforms to the other goals formulated in the Education Act.

1.9 Legal perspectives

There are phenomena in certain new religious movements that touch on or transgress the bounds of legality in Sweden, e.g., as regards corporal punishment of children, usury, quackery, and tax legislation. The law today affords several instruments for use against actions of these kinds. Implementation problems occur when actions do not come to the knowledge of the authorities but affect individual persons in closed groups. There have also been cases of employees of public authorities refraining from intervention, or hesitating to intervene, because the action has taken place within a religious denomination. This being so, it must be made quite clear that Swedish law applies regardless of religion.

It is of course permissible to believe anything whatsoever and to exercise the belief through rituals of different kinds. It is also permissible to relinquish one’s democratic rights and liberties, and to have a vision of a society with no democratic institutions. But freedom of religion has its limits. One may not infringe on the democratic rights and liberties of others in the name of religion, and one may not break laws in the name of religious commandments. The legal section (Chapter 7) of the Commission’s report describes international declarations and conventions concerning, among other things, rights and liberties. The Swedish constitution is also considered and a number of relevant branches of the law reviewed, for example, fraud, education, testamentary matters, social legislation, and family law, to mention but a few. Statutory safeguards for individuals are relatively comprehensive, but the laws are not applied, because occurrences in this field are seldom made a subject of legal proceedings. The Commission comes to the conclusion that the protective needs of the individual are relatively well provided for in the majority of cases. But legislation affords insufficient protection with regard to what in the Commission’s report is termed “improper influence” or manipulation. Introduction of the term “improper influence” in the legislation would benefit both serious practitioners of religion and personal integrity. If a person is induced, against his will, to renounce his faith (the term “deprogramming” was formerly applied), this, according to the legislation proposed, can be deemed improper influence, just as manipulations of an individual in a religious movement can be regarded as improper influence. The Commission therefore proposes that the Penal Code be modified to include a new penal provision making improper influence a punishable offence. This should be separately investigated.

The complete report, which is summarized above, is I God Tro, Statens offentliga utredningar, 1998:113, Socialdepartementet, Betänkande av Utredningen om samhällets stöd till människor som av särskilda skäl befinner sig I psykiska kristillstånd, Stockholm 1998.

Commission members included professionals and academicians. Members were: Sigrid Bolkéus, Cecilia Carpelan, John Evertsson, Inga Gustafsson, Peter Nobel, Gunilla Oltner, and Thor Leif Pettersson. Margó Ingvardsson was the chairman of the commission, appointed by the government. Sonja Wallbom and Lars Grip were hired to do research, site visits, and report writing