The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1

The ACLU has often fought for the rights of minority adherents, including Eastern spiritual seekers. BRAVO ACLU!

I might not be able to avoid criticising some attorneys for harassing minority faith groups. But my purpose here today is to praise the American Civil Liberties Union for often coming to the rescue of minority adherents.

aclu_logoThe backdrop for understanding these issues is this: America was built on noble ideals of religious freedom which are part of its very soul. Yet, religious freedom is not a given; it must often be won and re-won by successive generations of immigrant groups or new faith groups which spring up indigenously. Counterbalancing the ideals of religious freedom, we sometimes find that conformism, populism, and authoritarianism lead America in a quite different, less flattering direction.

In the mid-nineteenth century, conformism meant that Catholics were harassed for worshipping differently than Protestants. Populism meant that the public’s imagination was inflamed by hate material vilifying Catholics, such as The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk. This genre has sometimes been called Protestant pornography, since under the guise of reading about the allegedly depraved life led by Catholic nuns, a good deal of material appealing to prurient interest might be shoehorned in. (See The Oxford Companion To United States History, which states that the wave of Catholic immigration after 1820 “provided a large, visible enemy and intensified fears for American institutions and values. These anxieties inspired vicious anti-Catholic propaganda with pornographic overtones[.]”)

The same technique is used today by anti-cultists. The press isn’t usually too interested in the ideological quibbles anti-cultists have with minority faith groups; but if anti-cultists can manage to work in a sex angle, they may get the press to bite. This technique has been used by cynical opportunists like Elizabeth Kracht, who got “her” author Edwin Lyngar to plant a fake story with a sex angle in Salon. (Do journalists, literary agents, and editors know no shame? Apparently not. Kimberley Cameron & Associates, your conscience is calling!)

While conformism and populism deal to some extent with attitudes, authoritarianism typically includes a strong element of social control, here meaning some sort of heavy-handed attack on spiritual minorities which physically prevents them from practising their faith — church-burning being a prime example. Although we like to think of church-burning as belonging to the bad old days, at least one modern day attorney — Joe Kracht of the Lawton law firm of San Diego — has suggested that his former church “might as well be burned to the ground.”

Interestingly, he’s the brother of Elizabeth Kracht, leading me to wonder if there’s a dominant gene for intolerance, demagoguery, and hooliganism. ūüėČ It’s certainly odd that the Krachts (whose early upbringing was Catholic) resort to the same techniques used to harass Catholics in the nineteenth century. But from my general purpose I digress…

In the 1970s, as many people began exploring new religious movements (some of which were actually very old religious movements rooted in Hinduism or Buddhism), the familiar pattern from America’s darker side once again emerged: There was a strong nativist reaction to the new freedom in religious choice being expressed especially by young people. As John E. LeMoult recounts in his seminal “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects,” published in the Fordham Law Review in 1978:

Pot-smoking, motorcycle-riding kids become serene quoters of Scripture or oriental tracts. Young people doff sweaters, sneakers, and blue jeans for ties, jackets, long skirts, or flowing saffron robes. Parents assume their once normal offspring have lost their minds, been “brainwashed.” But what has clearly happened is that the young people have undergone a thing called conversion.

To most Christian groups, conversion is a sudden infusion of grace into the soul, a new birth, accepting Jesus as one’s personal Savior. To eastern religions, it is a slower opening to the awareness of God within oneself, or the universal Self or Soul or Consciousness underlying all Being. It is achieved through chanting, yoga, or some form of meditation, and through the abandonment of the lower self (the ego with its base desires). By means of detachment, one attains a higher state of enlightenment and oneness with the essence of the world around him.

The conversion experience has been well described by [psychologist] William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience. He considers it a crystallizing of unconscious aims and wishes, previously “incubated” in “cold” centers of the mind, and suddenly becoming “hot” — brought to the surface by some crisis or experience and occupying the center of one’s thoughts and activities. James says this happens particularly to people in their teens, and that certain psychological and emotional changes are characteristic of all conversions. The fact that a dramatic change takes place in a converted youth is neither new nor sinister. It may simply be a case of arriving at a new identity, perhaps a “negative identity” with respect to the role offered as proper and desirable in one’s family.

One possible explanation for parents’ opposition to new religious sects may be the rejection of materialistic values by some of these sects. In this success and status oriented society, the true religion is often the acquisition of money, material goods, and power. Religions that eschew such goals attack the most dearly held values of the depression era generation and hit a raw nerve of hostility.

No one has proved that any religious sect which has been the target of deprogramming engages in physical restraint, abduction, or any other such practice. What is probably true of most such groups is that they offer warmth, friendship, authority, and a prescribed course of conduct laced with plenty of dogma. No doubt there are serious efforts to influence the thinking of the new adherent, but these are clearly not “brainwashing,” since the adherent is free to depart if he chooses.

The new, and I believe dangerous, element in this conflict between parents and children is “deprogramming.” Deprogrammers are people who, at the request of a parent or other close relative, will have a member of a religious sect seized, then hold him against his will and subject him to mental, emotional, and even physical pressures until he renounces his religious beliefs. Deprogrammers usually work for a fee, which may easily run as high as $25,000.

The deprogramming process begins with abduction. Often strong men muscle the subject into a car and take him to a place where he is cut off from everyone but his captors. He may be held against his will for upwards of three weeks. Frequently, however, the initial deprogramming only lasts a few days. The subject’s sleep is limited, and he is told that he will not be released until his beliefs meet his captors’ approval. Members of the deprogramming group, as well as members of the family, come into the room where the victim is being held and barrage him with questions and denunciations until he has recanted his newly found religious beliefs.

One would ask where deprogrammers get the authority to make these cosmic judgments about religious sects. What qualifications do they have to adjudge persons “brainwashed” or to apply dangerous methods of enforced behavior modification? Is this a group of psychiatrists, theologians, and social scientists? No. [Deprogrammer] Ted Patrick, for example, says he is a high school dropout. His only training appears to be a working knowledge of the Christian Bible. There is no evidence that he knows anything about eastern religions. Nor are there indications that other deprogrammers are qualified to make judgements about the mind, the soul, God, or the Unborn, Unoriginated, Unformed One.

Parents’ real concern is not with any allegedly illegal action on the part of various sects, but with the process by which new members are proselytized and then confirmed in their beliefs by leaders of the groups. That process is speech. Preaching, praying, chanting, teaching, and meditating all constitute practices heavily protected by the Constitution.

— John E. LeMoult, from “Deprogramming Members of Religious Sects” [footnotes omitted]

An article in The Guardian on religious conversion takes the help of both William James and Carl Jung:

[People who experience conversion] can show a sense of regeneration, or a reception of grace, or a gift of assurance. What distinguishes religious conversion from more humdrum experiences of change is depth. Human beings quite normally undergo alterations of character: we are one person at home, another at work, another again when we awake at four in the morning. But religious conversion, be it sudden or slow, results in a transformation that is stable and that causes a revolution in those other parts of our personality.

Jung thought that the unconscious could play a redemptive role in life. Hence, conversion can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious and is, generally, for the good. It reorientates the individual around a new centre of previously submerged energy.

Conversion matters to James for reasons other than that it is a common religious experience. He recognises that the strongest evidence for the existence of God is found in such personal, inner experience.

James examines what he takes to be the most valuable material: the best articulated and most profound records of conversion. For him, to do otherwise would be like declaring you were going to study music by excluding the work of Bach in favour of nursery rhymes, on the grounds that more people sing Three blind mice than the St Matthew Passion.

— Mark Vernon, “William James, part 4: The psychology of conversion”

The latter jibes with a cardinal point made by the late sociologist of religion Dr. Bryan R. Wilson:

The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.

— Dr. Bryan R. Wilson, from this published letter

The common thread here is the admonition to go to the source, to consult people who actually practice and live a particular faith, rather than basing one’s conclusions on secondary sources which may be compromised by various forms of self-interest, including the apostate’s need for self-justification, or the deprogrammer’s need to ply his or her trade. (See this earlier post on finding reliable spiritual sources.)

Like John E. LeMoult, the American Civil Liberties Union made a study of deprogramming and concluded that it is an unwarranted violation of the civil rights of minority adherents. In trying to communicate my feelings on these issues, I often fear that if I’m too emotional that will discount the value of what I have to say, while if I’m too analytical the emotional flavour of what it’s like to be harassed may be lost. Below is one of the case histories considered by the ACLU in 1978 in formulating its position opposing deprogramming. I find it helpful because it presents a tableau which includes both emotional and analytical elements:

Donna Seidenberg Bavis, a 24-years-old Hare Krishna devotee, filed a complaint in federal court in Baltimore last May. Her complaint alleged that eleven defendants, including the Maryland judge who granted a conservatorship order, conspired against her “as a member of a hated class” to deprive her of equal protection of the law.

The complaint states that a thirty-three-day-long deprogramming attempt against her began in February 1977. Donna was taken to a Baltimore motel room after being lured home by her mother on the pretext that she was giving a bridal shower in Donna’s honor. When Donna hesitated at the door, according to her complaint, she was pulled into the room and the door was locked behind her. Four days of typical deprogramming followed, and Donna began to feign acceptance. She passed a telephone test by an unknown man who said he was analysing her voice to determine whether she was telling the truth.

Donna was then taken to the summer residence of George and Winifred Swope, two of the defendants in the suit brought by Donna Bavis, for four weeks of “rehabilitation,” during which time, her complaint says, all doors were locked and Donna was kept under constant surveillance. Her complaint says that she was forced to write a letter to Montgomery County Circuit Judge Richard Latham thanking him for rescuing her by granting the conservatorship and renouncing her religion and her fianc√©, a Hare Krishna devotee. In March, Donna was driven to Boston for a conference with Jean Merritt, a psychiatric social worker and another defendant, who questioned her about her religious beliefs and congratulated her on her “successful deprogramming.”

After she was taken home, she appeared before Judge Latham and said she was not being detained against her will. He dissolved the conservatorship. The following day, she returned to the Hare Krishna temple in Potomac where she was reunited with her religion and her fiancé, whom she recently married.

The complaint contends that the entire conservatorship proceeding was a breach of the Maryland law governing conservatorships. The law, says the complaint, requires a mental examination, right to counsel, an adversary hearing before a jury, and prior notice to the subject before a conservatorship because of incompetency may be granted. Donna alleges that Judge Latham allowed none of these.

Her suit seeks an injunction against the deprogrammers and asks $250,000 in compensatory damages and $250,000 in punitive damages from the defendants.

— Excerpt from the 1978 ACLU report on Deprogramming and the Law, penned by Anne Pritchard

It’s not difficult to see why many young people with genuine faith in one spiritual group or another nonetheless give in to the demands of deprogrammers or exit counselors when the full might of society’s social control apparatus is brought to bear upon them. It must indeed be frightening to stand alone against a perceived monolithic empire of deprogrammers, psychiatric social workers, judges and family members who all oppose one’s spiritual choice. The implicit reward for cooperation is not only that all the negative pressures would be removed, but also that in renouncing one’s faith one would then be able to enjoy all the pleasures of the world in unbridled fashion.

FOLLOW-UP: An entry in the Jan. 1981 BULLETIN of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland states:

We have obtained a settlement of the “deprogramming” case which we brought three years ago in Federal District Court on behalf of Donna Seidenberg Bavis … Among the defen¬≠dants was a Montgomery County attorney who helped obtain secret court-ordered guardianships and declarations of incom¬≠petence in Maryland and elsewhere to enable professional deprogrammers to take custody of members of unpopular religious and political groups. The deprogrammers, whom we also sued, operated private detention centers, where their victims were held incommunicado and bullied until they recanted their former faiths.

… This group held Donna captive for more than a month, in Maryland, New Hampshire and Connecticut. During that period they deprived her of sleep and subjected her to physical and verbal abuse and incessant haranguing and Bible reading. They attacked her religious principles and practices, and repeatedly assured her that she would regain her liberty if she renounced her affiliation with Hare Krishna. Only after she had been taken prisoner did Donna learn that a court had declared her incompetent and placed her under her mother’s guardianship.

Our suit alleged that Donna had been deprived of freedom of religion, speech and association, and that her right to due process — to a public adversarial hearing with rep¬≠resentation by counsel — had been obliterated by a secret custodial proceeding which she did not attend and in fact did not even know about.

The settlement provided compensatory damages for Donna Bavis. Further, the attorney whom we sued agreed that in the future he will not take part in similar depro­gramming activities: i.e. he will not attempt to interfere with the religious beliefs, associations or practices of any person, nor will he seek any guardianship without prior notice and full procedural protections.

The Bavis case appears to have chilled such deprogramming activities. Complaints about the practice have dropped off dramatically since our suit was filed.

BRAVO ACLU! This is hardly the only example of the ACLU standing up for religious freedom, but I find it a particularly significant one.

Today in the U.S., there is less physical coercion of minority adherents by anti-cult groups and individuals, but much more psychological coercion, which can be equally painful or even more so. The same underlying principle is still applied: If you can make it sufficiently painful for someone to remain involved with a minority faith group, they may recant simply to avoid further pain. If you can make them feel like a “member of a hated class,” they may recant in order to avoid being hated and discriminated against.

This is the context in which we should understand the contemporary use of hate material vilifying religious minorities and their spiritual leaders. As with the targeting of Catholics in the mid-nineteenth century, the purpose is to make anyone considering conversion afraid of being socially ostracised — at least by that portion of the population which remains in thrall to conformism and populism.

However, as I discuss here, sociologist Evelyn Kallen believes that freedom from group vilification is a human right. According to her, “Freedom of speech, from [the egalitarian] view, does not mean the right to vilify.”

As we move toward a multi-faith society in which religious tolerance plays an increasingly important role in social cohesion, I hope to see test cases where the courts begin to stick up for the rights of minority adherents to lead lives free from vilification. People who harass minority adherents by circulating vilification material intended to cause them emotional pain and bar their participation in public life should be subject to legal sanctions. To understand why this is fair and appropriate, see law professor Mary Anne Franks:

There have been many solemn declarations that abuse is the “price we pay” for free speech, or even more grandly, for a free society. Free speech elitism is the pretense that “everyone” shares equally in the costs and benefits of unfettered expression, when in reality the powerful receive the benefits while the marginalized bear the costs. Free speech elitists urge “tolerance” for toxic expression because they know the burden of this tolerance will not fall on them.

— Mary Anne Franks, “Free Speech Elitism: Harassment Is Not the Price ‘We’ Pay for Free Speech”

What Franks and a number of other law professors associated with the cyber civil rights movement are saying is that free speech is only maximized when speakers from marginalized groups aren’t driven from the public square by shaming and harassing speech delivered by aggressive majoritarians. As Danielle Keats Citron notes in this oft-quoted passage:

Cyber attacks marginalize individuals belonging to traditionally subordinated groups, causing them deep psychological harm. Victims feel helpless to avoid future attacks because they are unable to change the characteristic that made them victims. They experience feelings of inferiority, shame, and a profound sense of isolation. … Such attacks also harm the community that shares the victim’s race, gender, religion, or ethnicity — community members experience attacks as if the attacks happened to them. Moreover, society suffers when victims and community members isolate themselves to avoid future attacks and when cyber mobs violate our shared values of equality and pluralism.

— Danielle Keats Citron, from “Cyber Civil Rights”

It’s encouraging to see that in the Bavis case, the ACLU was able to bring a rogue attorney into line. One likewise hopes that as anti-vilification measures gain legal acceptance, attorneys circulating hate material would also face ACLU action.

Moving Forward

From our initial discussion of religious conversion, deprogramming, and civil rights for minority adherents, this series will expand to encompass broader topics of contemporary relevance.

In Part 2 we‚Äôll talk more about the impact that psychologically coercive faith-breaking techniques have on religious freedom. We’ll take a critical look at so-called “cult recovery” groups and at the practice of generating atrocity stories as a means of legitimating claims of victimhood.

In Part 3 we’ll examine tactics like cloaked hate and use of fictional narratives by hate groups, with an emphasis on the anti-cult activities of attorney Joseph C. Kracht. We’ll discuss how some sites put up a spiritual veneer in order to “pull in” people with positive interest who would not knowingly visit an anti-cult site or read hate material.

In Part 4 we’ll begin exploring faith versus reason and discuss how civil rights may be abridged through rule-swallowing exceptions. We’ll ponder the ethics of making spiritual choices and the significance of mystical experiences.

In Part 5 we’ll expand the faith versus reason debate by contrasting “freedom of heart” with “freedom of mind.” We’ll take a look at an interesting Scientific American article, listen to Chyi Yu sing the “Heart Sutra,” and recall what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas wrote about freedom of thought. I feel confident to say that we shall go out humming a tune. What tune will it be? I myself feel an inner mounting flame of curiosity to know…

I’ll close with a couple of thoughts on the earlier quotes. John E. LeMoult wrote that in Eastern religions, higher awareness is achieved in part through “abandonment of the lower self (the ego with its base desires).” It might be more accurate to say that there’s a gradual effort to transform the lower self. To merely “abandon” it would not be practical, and might indeed be problematic.

Marc Vernon noted that in Carl Jung’s view, religious conversion can play a “redemptive role,” and that it “can be thought of as a precipitation from the unconscious.” However, in Eastern philosophy a distinction is often made between what lies below our normal consciousness and what lies above — thus one finds terms like “higher mind,” “overmind,” and “superconscious.” Spiritual experiences tend to be experiences of great clarity which elevate our consciousness, not something dim or vague. (But for an alternative view, see Miranda Hart Sings Agnostic Hymns.)

Michael Howard

The views expressed are my own, and do not represent any other person or organization.

Sidebar: On Apostate Accounts

The term “apostate” is likely to come up repeatedly in any discussion of religious movements and their detractors. The term has a generally accepted meaning among religious scholars. That meaning is not, in itself, derogatory. An apostate is someone who, after leaving a religious or spiritual group, actively opposes that group, often by speaking publicly against it. Thus, an apostate differs from an ordinary “leave-taker.” There are thousands of religious or spiritual groups, and people come and go from them every day (usually in non-dramatic fashion). Most leave-takers either quietly rejoin the secular majority, or perhaps join a different spiritual group. Most don’t publicly apostatize.

However, media stories defining how the general public views religious movements are often based on apostate accounts, which can be inaccurate and may reflect certain motives or biases which have become familiar to scholars of religion. Anti-cult material describing religious movements tends to be constructed almost exclusively from apostate accounts, pointedly omitting accounts by the current faithful describing their own beliefs, practices, and lifestyle. For these reasons, apostate accounts (and questions about their accuracy) have become a major focus in the study of religious movements, even though apostates make up a relatively small percentage of ex-members.

As noted above, the term “apostate” is not by definition derogatory. For example, if we were to define the group Al-Qaeda as a “religious cult” (rather than a paramilitary organization which uses Islam as an excuse to commit terrorist acts), then an apostate from Al-Qaeda who speaks publicly and accurately about Al-Qaeda’s known terrorist activities would presumably be doing something positive and beneficial, warning the public about a genuine danger. But if an ex-Jehovah’s Witness or ex-Hare Krishna devotee claimed those groups are terrorists, we would call that foolish alarmism.

The biblical story of Jesus and Judas Iscariot presents an (obvious) example of apostasy viewed negatively. Jesus was a man of peace who tried to usher in a new era in which ideals of compassion might triumph over greed. When Judas lost faith in Jesus and his teachings, he did not quietly fade away, but targeted Jesus for persecution, taking “thirty pieces of silver” to identify him to the chief priests, leading ultimately to Jesus’s crucifixion by the Romans.

Thus, while the term “apostate” is not necessarily negative, the Judas archetype in Western culture signifies one who betrays a benevolent teacher or teaching due to some self-serving motive. How one views any particular apostate depends on how one views the spiritual teacher or group from which the apostate is a defector, and what precise form his/her apostasy takes. If apostates are sometimes viewed negatively, it may be due to instances in which they’ve cast false slurs on teachers or movements which are essentially benign.

These are not binary concepts. A religious movement may be open to legitimate criticism on some grounds, but apostates may engage in extreme tactics similar to yellow journalism. In a familiar pattern, the [now defunct] site turns out to be an anti Jehovah’s Witness site, and asks such illuminating questions as “Would it be fair to compare Jehovah‚Äôs Witnesses to Terrorist Organisations?” (This is accompanied by a graphic of a bearded, turbaned Middle Eastern man holding a bomb with a lit fuse.) “Many say that the Jehovah‚Äôs Witness religion is a cult. Do you think it‚Äôs a cult? In this section, we‚Äôve housed all the blog posts that show you if it is a cult or not. You might be shocked at what you find.” (Not really.)

Scholars of religion tend to visit a huge number of sites, and the above is more or less the boilerplate approach found on many anti-cult sites started by apostates from a wide variety of faiths. It’s this type of crude demagoguery which can lead to the view that apostates are something less than accurate, unbiased sources of information.

The scientific study of religion is (at least in theory) ethically neutral; but much of the public discussion about spiritual groups is not scholarly in nature, and often entails making subjective ethical judgements about particular teachers and faiths, and about those who actively apostatize against them.

The problem of making such judgements fair is in turn complicated by the problem of locating accurate resources, the problem of media bias, the problem of moral relativism, the problem of majority versus minority beliefs and values, and the postmodern problem of settling on objective truth even when accurate resources are available. John Leo, who is often a stickler for facts over emotions, points to

… the postmodern notion that there is no literal truth, only voices and narratives. If so, who can object if you make up a narrative that expresses the truth you feel?

— John Leo, “Lying Isn’t So Bad If It Makes You Feel Good”

Among those scholars who approach religious movements with an attitude of tolerance, there’s an awareness that apostates sometimes circulate narratives or “testimonials” which are designed to communicate an “emotional” truth (how they feel about past involvement in a religious movement), rather than a “factual” truth. Where so-called “atrocity stories” told by apostates turn out not to be factual, this contributes greatly to the credibility problem with apostates as a class.

Notwithstanding the high degree of freedom and mobility shown by the populations of most Western nations to try out different spiritual groups (joining and leaving more or less at will), the accounts circulated by apostates often take the form of “captivity narratives.” Such narratives stress the powerlessness of the individual in both matters of joining and leaving a spiritual group. They joined because they were “brainwashed,” stayed because they were “brainwashed,” and only left when someone such as an anti-cult activist or new romantic interest rode in on a white horse and forcibly “rescued” them from their imprisoned and debilitated state. Scholars of religion tend to question such accounts, and have largely dismissed the brainwashing thesis as a serious explanation.

In Western nations, it’s extremely rare that a spiritual group would hold anyone captive. When interviewed, most spiritual adherents can give a reasonable accounting of why they joined a spiritual group, what they hope to achieve, and what they perceive to be the benefits. One can disagree with particular choices that they make, yet recognize that these are choices.

Many spiritual groups have a probationary period where new members can get their feet wet, learn more about the group, and decide if it suits them before making a stronger commitment. Few spiritual groups want members who join on a whim today, and leave on a whim tomorrow. This phenomenon was satirized on the TV sitcom Seinfeld. In an episode titled “The Conversion,” George Costanza wants to become Latvian Orthodox merely to pursue a romantic interest. But before he’s accepted as a convert, he has to demonstrate his sincerity, study a thick stack of religious texts, and pass a conversion test (which he cheats on by writing the answers on his hand). He quickly loses interest when he learns that his paramour is leaving New York to live in Latvia for a year.

In many cases, people write extremely detailed accounts of their lives while with a spiritual group, and these accounts reflect a thinking, feeling individual who is living out their spiritual choices, consciously reaffirming those choices day after day. But later, after exiting the spiritual group, the same individual may supply a “captivity narrative” in connection with participation in an ex-cult support group. The captivity narrative often seems contrived, formulaic, and scripted in comparison to the same person’s prior narrative describing spiritual experiences.

Captivity narratives are retrospective accounts delivered to a new audience which has radically different expectations than the old one. When speaking to a new secular peer group, the apostate may ratify his/her affiliation with that peer group through exaggerated criticism of the spiritual group left behind. This may take the form of a “confession” to friends, family, or an Internet audience that the speaker was once a “cult victim” who experienced horrible abuses, but has now seen the light of critical thinking, and become a true believer in baseball, apple pie, and motherhood. This then symbolically purges the former “cult” member’s reputation in the secular world. Such public purgative activities involving confessions or anti-cult testimonials are known collectively to scholars as rituals of denunciation. The accounts produced are not viewed as highly credible owing to the underlying pressures. Quoting from The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion:

Conversion and disengagement both represent significant shifts in personal identity and situated meanings. As such, biographies are defined and redefined in light of ongoing experience and narrative in an effort to make sense of past decisions and provide legitimacy for current ones. Retrospective accounts must be understood in this context and interpreted accordingly. For example, ex-members may need to justify their departures by finding fault with, or attributing blame to, their former groups. Presentation of the emergent self after NRM disengagement often requires a defense against a “spoiled identity” in the face of stigmatizing efforts by significant others. To save face, the ex-member is compelled to negotiate a new identity (apostate, whistle-blower, penitent ex-member) that plays to a new audience and is calculated to defend the self. The new associates in an external or oppositional group may be slow to fully accept the defector until he/she participates in appropriate rituals of denunciation (testimonials, confessions). After all, the newly exited person has a lot to live down from his or her “unsavory” past involvements.

The Oxford Handbook of Religious Conversion [footnotes omitted]

The apostate is eager (perhaps even desperate) to “prove” that she is no longer a member of a stigmatized group (i.e. no longer a “cult” member), and therefore may act much like a cooperating witness in a government trial, ready to accuse former friends and colleagues in order to escape conviction herself.

The secular majority is not always kindly disposed toward minority adherents, even those now trying to rejoin the secular majority. Hence the need to rehabilitate one’s reputation by talking trash about a group one had previously extolled. This may be done in preparation for marriage or a secular career, or simply to enhance one’s social standing.

In this way, pretending to be a ‚Äúcult victim‚ÄĚ becomes a social lubricant or business lie told without regard for ethics or consequences. In many cases people begin by deceiving themselves, then come to deceive others. Their desperation to rejoin the secular world and gain worldly advantage leads them to project a stereotyped view of themselves which they feel will help them fit in and not be blamed for their spiritual past. Former seekers are often counseled to follow this approach. Pretending to be a cult victim becomes their cover story for returning to the world.

Owing to wretched excess in the anti-cult movement, it’s nearly impossible to be too over-the-top in one’s denunciation of a purported “cult.” The situation is analogous to that described by singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie in his 1967 signature piece “Alice’s Restaurant.” At one point in the monologue, Guthrie is trying to avoid being drafted and sent to Vietnam. His strategy is to appear so gung-ho that he would be viewed as undesirable:

I went up there, I said, “Shrink, I want to kill. I want to kill! I want to see blood and gore and guts and veins in my teeth! Eat dead, burnt bodies! I mean: Kill. Kill!”

And I started jumpin’ up and down, yellin’ “KILL! KILL!” and he started jumpin’ up and down with me, and we was both jumpin’ up and down, yellin’, “KILL! KILL! KILL! KILL!” and the sergeant came over, pinned a medal on me, sent me down the hall, said “You’re our boy.” Didn’t feel too good about it.

— Arlo Guthrie, “Alice’s Restaurant Massacre”

As I discuss in Part 2 and Part 3 of this series, those members of anti-cult groups willing to tell over-the-top atrocity stories may receive status elevation within the group (similar to having medals pinned on them). If they can supply bodice-ripping drug store fare, this has the potential to be used in anti-cult publicity campaigns, and may even find its way into a courtroom. The writers know this, and so tend to compete in a “race to the bottom.” It’s therefore difficult to escape the conclusion that these stories are being told for self-serving motives, especially where they diverge significantly from the known facts about a spiritual teacher or group, and are not supported by objective evidence.

These are some of the issues surrounding apostates and their accounts. These issues in turn point to functional problems concerning descriptions of spiritual groups which appear in the popular press, and which tend to be disproportionately shaped by apostate accounts. (See also James A. Beckford, ‚ÄúThe Mass Media and New Religious Movements.‚ÄĚ)

When I say “functional problems,” I mean something different than a simple question of “whom do you believe.” Apostates act in certain fairly predictable ways; the mass media act in certain fairly predictable ways. The end result is a skewing of data leading to false depictions. (For one example, see “Can Salon Learn From Rolling Stone‚Äôs Mistakes? Part 1.”)

In most Western nations, there is a secular sphere and a religious sphere. These two spheres ideally work in harmony, but in our present period there is often war between them. Apostates are typically people who’ve crossed over from the religious sphere to the secular sphere, and now seek to mobilize the secular sphere against the religious sphere. There’s a broad sense in which their reports constitute reports about the enemy during wartime, or characterizations by the secular sphere about what goes on in the religious sphere.

These factors underscore the late Dr. Wilson’s imperative that “The first duty of those who wish to present a fair picture of a religious fellowship is to seek the views of those who are faithfully committed to it and to undertake a first-hand study of their lifestyle.”

Also related:
“Understanding Media: The Smear Campaign”
“Better Reporting on Religious and Ethnic¬†Minorities”

As a courtesy, now that the series is complete here are quick links to all 5 parts:

The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 3
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 4
The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 5

12 comments on “The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 1

  1. Pingback: The ACLU and Religious Freedom, Part 2 | Ethics and Spirituality

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