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Difficulties in Defending Religious Minorities PDF Print E-mail

William Taft Stuart
University of Maryland

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

I have been asked to lead in our deliberations as to just what the difficulties are in defending religious minorities. Now, I take this as a charge, not so much to be an apologist for any particular minority religion or new religious movement, but rather to consider the various kinds of difficulties that are encountered by new and minority religions, as well as by a certain range of outsiders to such movements who might seek to defend them.

I will divide my remarks into four parts. First, I want to address some important—I will call them definitional—issues that lay a necessary background for both my remarks and indeed, I trust, the whole session. Secondly, I survey several important, and not entirely obvious, sources of difficulty to defending access to religious freedoms. I refer to the range of outsiders, that is, those people who are not members of new or minority religions. Thirdly, I try to identify some internal sources of obstacles to gaining religious freedom, namely, some typical, or at least reportedly so, features of new religious movements and minority religions themselves, in particular, the size, organization, and location of these new groups. And, in a sense, they bring upon themselves special attention by others who are likely to be alarmed, even outraged, by what they see as the antinomianism, the immoralities, and even, indeed, the treason inherent in new and minority religions. Finally, I discuss the special nature of social science and social history as among the most significant sources, not of difficulties, but rather of the defense of new and minority religions.

Let me start with definitions. In the jargon of my field, anthropology, they are part of the cultural system, that is, the webs of signification, as Girds calls it, of a given culture—in this case ours—that act, both as a reflective model of, as well as a supportive compelling model for a social order. The terms that I focus on are the operative words in the title of my talk: Difficulties in Defending Religious Minorities. To this list I add a fifth, that of freedom, the key concept, I think, that underlies this entire conference and which is, in an important sense, the goal of the defense of religious minorities.

First, let us consider what we might have in mind when we refer to difficulties faced by new and minority religions. These are essentially the obstacles some minority religions face in acquiring or attempting to acquire civil rights and/or the acknowledgment by others that they deserve equal and fair standing. I will note, under this category of difficulties, external obstacles to the new and minority religions. These represent what is seen often as a call for persecution, indeed prosecution, to many alarmed and critical outsiders. Then, there are what I call the internal obstacles. These have their origin in aspects of the new minority religions themselves, and are expressed in varying degrees in many, if not all religions. Indeed, I should say, of course, I am painting with a rather broad brush, and the traits that I will mention are not arguably typical of any particular one. Certainly, in relatively few cases are all of the attributes present in any given movement.

Let us consider what we might mean by the term “defending.” I might initially propose that, when we speak of defending, we do not mean being a protagonist for the substance, the behavior, or the beliefs of any particular religion. Now, while I do not reject the possibility, and perhaps the propriety, of defense as apology, I suggest that at least for scholars, the appropriately normative defense is limited to protecting their rights and existence, not to championing any particular religion, its behaviors, or beliefs. I think this will be a strength I shall comment on a little later, that has to do with the character of social historians and the social sciences.

Next, what do we refer to when we speak of “minority religions,” with an emphasis on the first word of the two, minority. What is it, we might ask, that causes minorities as such to be the target of misunderstandings, prejudice, and indeed, often worse? As a social anthropologist, I see the distinctive aspects of minority religions, like their new religious counterparts, as demographically and politically marginalized. They are not simply few in number, although that is not infrequently an aspect we will come to later, but typically they are also out of the mainstream. The mainstream being dominated—sometimes in a de facto manner, sometimes in a de jure manner—by the majority religion and its social formations.

It is typically the case that while new religions are of necessity minority ones, not all minority religions are new. What is the key ingredient in this word new? Not just temporal recency—though that is often the case—rather it is the composition of membership that distinguishes the new from the traditional. Namely, a membership dominated by converts. This translates into high percentages (and initially obviously 100 percent for a new religious movement). It is of course, the case that what might be a new religion in one instance, for example Soka Gakkai, or Nichiren Sho-shu in the United States, is in Japan already a centuries old minority religion and hardly a new religion.

One aspect of defining a minority religion is their strangeness. They are at least sectarian—we have encountered that word several times today—in the Stark and Bainbridge sense of being in tension with the majority and/or established religions, and the societies with which those are associated. They may be even more different from, and opposed to, the majority norms. They stand in contrast to and, in implicit and sometimes explicit, rejection of the mainstream. Typically, they condemn the status quo, and propose an alternative. Such, indeed, is the attractiveness they hold for potential converts. Theirs is an esoterico-logical message, both identifying, on the one hand, a brokenness and inadequacy of the established order, and championing a contrasting sacred salvational solution.

Minority religions themselves, obviously, can come in a couple of forms. At least there are the relatively demographically stable ones, growing or declining perhaps a bit in membership. Such minority religions may be disenfranchised, as we have recounted several times today, but they often are not and, in fact, usually are not seen by the establishment as especially dangerous. However, there is the second variety, the demographically and/or politically and economically growing religions. Whether new or multigenerational, they are seen as threatening to the established order of things. The more successful and growing, whether through increase and/or through conversion, and the more visible and relatively wealthy and powerful they become, the more dangerous they seem. They are thus liable to persecution and—especially these days in Europe, both in Western and former Soviet nations, as we have been told today—to restrictive legislation and legal prosecution.

The groups that many of us here today study, and of which many others of you here are members, are not just social movements; they are religious movements, a central aspect of which is cosmologically, evaluatively and, indeed, sacredly nuanced. A religious group is one that has a central inherent concern with the extra-natural, often couched in terms of the ultimate. It is in its inherent religious stature that new and minority social movements represent an especial affront to established religions and social formations and their polities.

Let me say something about the term “freedom.” This does not or at least should not connote any sort of special privilege, at least not to me. Rather, it refers to the guarantee of a particular sort of civil liberty, one that extends the right to belong to, to join, to invent, and to recruit to any religious group behavior and belief one wishes. It is very similar to the definitions offered last evening. Why do I say that the notion of freedom presents an obstacle to defending new and minority religions? It is because the term freedom is taken to be the property of citizens, the central dominating populism that underlies the established traditional order. By contrast, ones that are marginal, new and critical of the establishment are likely to be seen as disloyal, as wolves in sheep’s clothing, as it were. Thus, by popular wisdom, new and minority religions lack the credibility to expect, much less to demand, freedom.

Often these terms, when part of the public discourse, are employed by critics to justify, and this is somewhat ironical, the denial of religious freedoms to the new and minority religions. From the perspective of the critics, they are seen to be the appropriate result of a majority’s right to self preservation and the maintenance of the social good. We had that commented on repeatedly. As such, it is thought that difficulties are just what the new and minority groups deserve.

Therefore, to defend is seen as to apologize for, or to promote one or more of the subversive new or minority religions. Thus, defense is seen as a culturally threatening subversion of the common good. A defender, whether he be a journalist, a scholar, or whatever, is seen, not as part of the solution, but as part of the problem.

In the popular wisdom, minorities are, by common definition of the majority, a descriptor of the marginality, lawlessness, and subversion that threatens the very fabric of the imagined majority consensus. One can appreciate, by the way, just as an aside, why religious political movements, often try to grab the coattails of majority society becoming, for instance, hyper-correctly patriotic. This to ward off the illness of the term minority.

Next, the term “religion” is characterized by excess appeal to the extra or supernatural, especially in the case of mainstream monotheisms such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, where God is a jealous God. The champions of the majority—established order are quick to assign sectarian variability, that lies beyond the pale of acceptability, to the category of not simply being different, but malevolently so; not being simply evil, but satanically so.

Finally, the term freedom takes on a special nuance from the perspective of the critics. Here, the establishment sees in the new and minority religions a quality of anti-responsibility. Such subversiveness is thus considered unworthy of protection. By the way, as an aside, gays and lesbians at least-encounter a similar kind of definition or restriction—in the USA. Their goal of achieving freedoms is dismissed as inappropriate for those who would tear the majority value systems down.

I have said enough for the moment on the issue of definitions. Let me turn to the matter of the social sources of difficulty, and aspects of external opposition. Let me first address the social difficulties encountered then by the new and minority religions, as well as some of their defenders. It is a lamentable fact that, among the most aggressive critics of new and minority religions are the already established advantaged majority religions. We have had this reported on several times today. For them, the difficulty in extending recognition to minority religions lies primarily in the threat that the latter are seen to pose for the continued privilege, dominance, and even existence of the majority forms.

However, I do not wish to concentrate on the anti- and counter-cultism generated by majority religions, and their self-serving opposition to new and minority religions. Professor Hexham is going to report on that tomorrow. This is of course, manifestly important, but I think we need to cast our net more widely, toward a broader set of social formations—I might be inclined to use the word estates—that implicitly collude with established religions, and majority political culture to thwart access to religious freedom. I wish instead, to discuss some of the major implicit sources of social difficulties, as distinct from the earlier discussed cultural challenges encountered by new and minority religions.

Let me identify several sorts of outsiders, that is, observers, which are distinct from protagonists of given religions, or their antagonists. I have in mind two major sorts: therapists and exit-counselors on the one hand, and journalists and scholars on the other. I choose to place these more or less on a continuum, ranging from the least—the therapists and the exit counselors—to the most willingness to defend minority religions. I think it is illuminating to note, for instance, that over the last few decades in the US, Europe, and the nations of the former Soviet Union, all but a sub-category of the last (mainly social historians and social scientists) have proven to be among the most important obstacles or difficulties encountered by new religious movements in their seeking to achieve religious freedoms. Let me say something to each of these, or at least some of these categories.

There are the therapists and the exit counselors, and their behavioral and psychological scientific counterparts. The problem here is that such willful psychologizing tends to work with an assumption of pathology. Change, conversion for instance, especially dramatic change in goal or behavior, is diagnosed as pathology. Moreover, the literature typical of this genre of criticism is replete with derogatory characterization of such groups as involved in brainwashing, thought reform, mind control, and such. However, these—as we will all, I think, acknowledge—remain largely anecdotal and largely otherwise unconfirmed through rigorous documentation and testing.

Then, there are the journalists. These traditional non-joiners (that is a good point perhaps) are nonetheless susceptible to the market pressures that encourage alarming disclosures via investigative journalism. It is therefore necessary—and I will use an idiom common in our country—to report on a man’s biting a dog, rather than the more modest, less incendiary stories of the dog biting a man. Clearly, the latter is not newsworthy. My point would be that new religious movements, in terms of their relationship and consequence for the body politic, are almost as “American as apple pie”, at least in my country. They are, in fact, more like the dog biting a man—not all that newsworthy. Journalists have a tendency to be drawn toward the more inflammatory story lines that in fact are the man biting the dog. These are, of course, the state apparatuses. I will not talk about these right now. Many of them have been, I think, elaborated upon: legislative, as well as judicial review, persecution and prosecutions.

Let me turn, if I can, from this to a quick discussion of some of the internal social sources of difficulties. The difficulties lie in the very nature of the behavior-separatist, critical, confrontational—and/or the beliefs—antinomian, hyperbolic, exaggerated, conspiratorial, or demonizing —that are not infrequently seen by the majority culture to be part of the new and minority religions. We have a saying in the United States, to the effect that, “with friends like these we can’t afford any enemies.” So too, there is a complex of several attributes, which commonly, if not invariably, are shared by minority, especially new religions. This attracts an inordinate amount of criticism, albeit often unfair and unfounded, and worse, condemnation by the majority.

Let me talk about some of these features. Consider the very notion of the newness of new religious movements. The stress on novelty, change, reform, and alternative and non-traditional aspects, is seen as threatening, and therefore draws fire. The fact that the minority status brings with it relative, sometimes absolute, exclusion from the central places and power enjoyed by the majority, guarantees that these religions and its members are pushed to the under-served, disadvantaged places in the social and cultural order, thus bringing on themselves more, not less, condemnation for being aliens. New religious movements, and minority religions, tend frequently to be small—to the point that their internal organization seems to critics to be rooted in secret conspiracy. Surely, all such groups by no means share this feature. However, even one case of a discovered conspiracy tends to result in all the other new and minority movements being tarred with this same categorical brush. Also, both new and minority religions are likely to be hyper-critical of the religious and/or political establishment—to the point of proposing religious, social, political, and economic alternatives.

The exaggerated tone of new and minority religious condemnations, even to the point of demonizing these movements, is sometimes rather ironic because, not infrequently, these counter or anti-cult movements are certainly to be described as themselves hyper- and perhaps hyperbolically critical.

One final set of features: cults of personality, authoritarian personalities, and intolerance of ambiguity. These features are commonly reported on, get a great deal of press, and have adhered as a predicate does to a subject, as red does to an apple. In the minds of many people who think of cults or sects, they have those qualities.

Fortunately, there is however, one light at the end of the tunnel. The difficulties do not exhaust the facts. There are some sources of defense. I point to the largely salutary role played by social scientists and social historians, both of whom have provided over the past decades much of the evidential basis for defending new and minority religions, against the mostly scurrilous, often fabricated charges, thus promoting the rights of new and minority religions and their members. The scholars represent some of the last best defenses of minority religions, and new religious movements. This is not because the social scientists and social historians are apologists, but because they are dedicated to providing accurate and relatively unbiased accounts.

Let me conclude by saying that I hope to have identified a variety of cultural and social sources of difficulties in defending religious minorities. They come in different packages. There are definitional issues. There are issues of external sources of resistance, and internal sources that lie at the home of the characterization of the movements themselves. I hope to have, as well, identified an important source of the defense of new and minority religions, namely the methods and the substantive contributions of many, dare I say most, social scientists and social historians.