Cult Busters

How governments decide whether a religion is real or not.

The Church of Scientology logo

A French court fined the Church of Scientology $888,000 on Tuesday after a couple claimed they’d been manipulated into buying between $30,000 and $73,000 worth of church products. The verdict is “a historical turning point for the fight against cult abuses,” said the leader of France’s “government cult-fighting unit.” How does this special cult-busting unit distinguish between cults and bona fide religions?

Vaguely. French law doesn’t define the term “cult.” Rather, it uses the expression “cultlike movements” to describe groups that demand unreasonable financial contributions, encourage nonparticipation in elections, promote anti-social behavior, or cut members off from their families. It’s easier to target bad behavior, the thinking goes, than to get into a semantic debate over what is and isn’t a cult. The French government has, however, tried to define the term in the past. In 1995, a special parliamentary commission compiled a list of 10 cultish characteristics, including the indoctrination of children, a mentally unstable membership, and the attempt to infiltrate public institutions. The commission also released a list of 173 groups that qualify as cults—that is, they meet at least one of the 10 criteria—including the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Church of Scientology. (At least one group—the followers of Anthroposophy—sued the report’s main author for defamation and won.) *

France has a long history of going after cults. The rise of groups like the Hare Krishna movement and the Unification Church in the 1970s led the prime minister of France to request a special report on cults in 1983. After the famous mass suicide by members of the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland in 1995, the French National Assembly created the Parliamentary Commission on Cults in France, which drew up the now-infamous cult list. In 1998, the government created an agency that eventually became Miviludes—an acronym for Mission interministérielle de vigilance et de lutte contre les dérives sectaires, which translates to “Interministerial Mission for Monitoring and Combatting Cultic Deviances”—dedicated to identifying and monitoring what the government considers dangerous religious sects. The ministry issues regular reports on topics like the financing of cults and children who grow up in cults. In 2001, the assembly passed a law that has been used to hold cult leaders responsible for the deaths of their followers. The French government also funds a group called the Association for the Defense of the Family and Individual with the mission of helping cult victims and filing lawsuits on their behalf.

France isn’t the only country with strict anti-cult policies. China bans at least a dozen religious minorities it considers cults, including Falun Gong. Like France, Germany does not recognize Scientology as a religion and treats it instead as a business. Belgium commissioned a report on cults similar to France’s in 1997 and created a Center for Information and Advice on Harmful Cults. None of those countries, however, shows up on the watch list of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, which singles out Afghanistan, Cuba, Russia, Turkey, and eight other countries as especially intolerant of religious minorities.

The United States doesn’t distinguish between religions and cults, a philosophy that traces back to the establishment clause of the First Amendment. For example, unlike in France, the Church of Scientology receives tax exemptions intended for religious organizations. Government documents do occasionally use the termcult to describe small religious organizations, but the word doesn’t have any legal meaning.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Susan Palmer of Dawson College and Rick Ross of the Rick Ross Institute.

Correction, Oct. 29, 2009: This article originally misspelled “Anthroposophy.” (Return  to the corrected sentence.)