25 May 2010

The irony of anti-cult laws

Amid the political grandstanding, media sensationalism, indignant protests and nervous murmurs surrounding Independent Senator Nick Xenophon’s call for anti-cult laws comme les Fran├žais, it seems that people forget one crucial point: all religions were once cults. The big players are simply the lucky few who, thanks to various factors, eventually grew into the global behemoths they are today, mega-corporations of the soul whose products aren’t material consumables but rather intangible ministrations to the psychological need for teleological narrative and ontological meaning endemic to our species.

But with the brouhaha over the Church of Scientology’s fraudulent exploits in France and the shamefully unoriginal doomsday propaganda of South Australia-based Agape Ministries (which predictably, er, predicts the end of the world in 2012), Senator Xenophon’s throwing down of the gauntlet before the federal and South Australian attorneys-general is timely. Assuming that the good senator hews to the French anti-cult laws (translated here with commentary) that inspired him in the first place, the proposed laws would seek to punish “the fraudulent abuse of... a person in a state of psychological or physical subjection resulting from serious pressures exercised or repeated or from techniques likely to alter his judgment, leading... this person to an act or an abstention which is seriously harmful to him.”

With this wording, what reasonable person would object to a law that prevents harm from being inflicted on the vulnerable? Yet religious leaders are squirming at the implications of such a law. Perhaps they realise that their actual day job involves plenty of fraud, if we define fraud as any form of deception (and yes, passing off flagrant lies about biology, geology, physics, history and sexuality as infallible ‘truths’ is deception) with the implicit aim for gain, whether in money, materials or status. Perhaps these holy men (and women) are aware that they ‘exercise or repeat pressures’ and ‘techniques likely to alter the judgment’ of their credulous flock. Especially if they’re kids.

As prominent atheist, scientist and anti-religion activist Richard Dawkins pointed out in his provocative book The God Delusion (2006), “There is no such thing as a Christian child or a Muslim child, as children have about as much capacity to make the decision to become Christians or Muslims as they do to become Marxists.” Dawkins attacks the idea that children adopt their parents’ ideological choices by default. So, this raises the question: are the religious activities carried out in Sunday schools, madrasahs, synagogues, temples and homes a form of child indoctrination? Are the instructors exercising ‘serious pressures’ or ‘techniques’ that ‘alters the judgment’ of the children, leading them to ‘an act or abstention which is seriously harmful’ to them?

Children tend to unquestioningly absorb the wild ideas of adults whom they trust and view as authority figures. This being the case, what does it say about the adults’ culpability in undermining a child’s capacity to engage in critical, reflective thinking when she grows older? Sure, lots of kids outgrow their Sunday school fables, madrasah recitals and temple rituals. But alot don’t. Connect this with the darker aspects of religious fervour, the sinister and often tragic manifestations that don’t require elaborating here for their existence declares itself each time you read the news, listen to the radio, watch the TV or surf the Net.

And so the irony mentioned in this essay’s title is evident. If well-meaning senators and lawmakers are to be consistent in their efforts to attenuate the harm caused by cults, they would have to apply any new anti-cult law to all cults, including the long-established ones that prefer to call themselves ‘religions’. Since this is impossible, for practical, ethical, political and psychological reasons, any anti-cult law that does get enacted in Australia will necessarily be arbitrary, incomplete and incongruous. Just like the French laws.


Thanks to Grant Joslin for planting the seed for this essay in the rich manure constituting this writer's brain.

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