Tuesday 13th may 2008

By Raffaella Di Marzio


With this fragment I want to remember a fact I consider “historical” because it’s the first attempt of “distance dialogue” between opposite “fences”.

It was the year 2000, when I was still associated to the GRIS, a catholic association whose acronym “Group for Research and Information on Cults” has changed since few years in “Group for Socio-Religious Research and Information”: not a casual change which makes thinking on the sense and the implication of the word “cult”.

On 27 March 2000, ten days after the Uganda massacre, I’ve been interviewed by the journalist of the “Corriere del Ticino” Carlo Silini together with Massimo Introvigne, director of CESNUR, Research Centre “independent from any religious or confessional organization”. Carlo Silini is one of the very few serious and professional journalists I ever met. I remember with pleasure such person with which I talked by phone and whom immediately I felt trustworthy and sincerely interested in informing correctly on a controversy difficult to understand for those not initiated.

I must say that my experience with the journalists has been, in the vast majority of the cases, very upsetting. Most of them is used to write articles which attract and impress an uninformed audience, uses old and inconsistent metaphors, induces fear towards dangerous cults which practice the brainwash and spreads an harmful alarmism so far from reality to become exhilarating.

One recent example of such trash information is the article published last 16 May on La Repubblica entitled “Italy of psycho-cults” which has been signalled to me and which I found hard to read because, after the first two rows, I’ve been tempted not to go further: a jumble of commonplaces and colourful expressions which I’d rather not comment for Christian charity towards those who wrote it and those who approved its publication. It would be like “shooting on the Red Cross”. Such “information” fills the pages on the web, on prestigious journals, on transmissions of the public TV financed by honest citizens paying the fee.

I immediately close such unpleasant parenthesis on the present to come back to the good memories of the past.

When I read once again the old interview with Carlo Silini, I realized it was not “old” at all and that today, eight years later, if someone asked me the same questions, overall I would answer in the same way, even if my answers would have a different perspective.

The difference of perspective stems from my cultural and personal path in these last eight years. While my interests were then mainly “pastoral”, along the years they moved to deepen also the ways in which the world of the laic culture (history, sociology and psychology of religion) face the issue of the cult deviations and of how the human beings live their religious experience, independently from the religion or spirituality they declare.

Once made such due clarification, the pieces of the interview I report contribute to add another fragment to that mosaic which is slowly shaping.

That interview, indeed, has been the first attempt of dialogue with a member of the world of the sociologists considered “cult defenders”, that kind of dialogue which Michael Langone since few years tries to suggest and realize and of which I already talked in this blog.

It was a “distance dialogue” aiming to highlight the two different positions on some issues of great relevance. It was an occasion to show clearly the difference of views between two worlds which can, in my opinion, coexist and confront to study and deepen the same phenomenon.

Here there are the most relevant parts of the interview, closing this third fragment which I hope can be a further stimulus for reflection and a contribution to the spreading of a correct and affordable information.



Page of Carlo Silini

The experts divided: who does approach the phenomenon more scientifically?


Is it possible an objective approach to the world of alternative religiousness? Sociologists, sceptic groups, research centres linked to religions suggest vary different interpretations one from the other.

On last 17 march, few hundreds of people died in the burning of a church in Uganda, in what has been presented as a collective suicide or massacre. And, as always in these cases, a question has been strongly asked: cults are dangerous? Reading some newspapers you would say: yes. Listening the experts’ opinion you would say: maybe. Because the experts, or those we define so, don’t agree that much one with the other.

There are organizations linked to the Catholic Church like the GRIS (Group for Research and Information on Cults) who think there are different kind of cults, many harmless, some using techniques to manipulate their adepts – for example brainwashing – and violating the fundamental human rights.

There are others, like the CESNUR (Research Centre on New Religions) – considered a reference point not only in Italy for the knowledge of the filed – which question the use of the word “cult” itself because it has a negative connotation, they consider overcome concepts like the brainwashing and show careful in accepting the witnesses of former adepts of religious groups.

Who’s right? Who does treat the alternative religiousness more correctly and scientifically? To answer this question means to enter necessarily in a sea of controversies, sometimes poisonous, between academics. We prefer to lower the tones talking calmly with Dr.ssa Raffaella Di Marzio of the GRIS and with the CESNUR’s director Massimo Introvigne.



“Me – a catholic – I’m not against cults. But it’s right to monitor their abuses”

Dr.ssa Di Marzio, the Swiss expert Jean Francois Mayer wrote that you don’t study cults for years without consequences, that you come out of it hardly unhurt and with many less certainties that at the beginning. Do you agree?

“Yes. When you approach the study of these movements, in the beginning you think you understand everything. But as these movements are made of people and people are complex, you also realize that your point of view is not always necessarily right. The study of these forms of religiousness includes philosophical, psychological, religious and social aspects so vast that it’s difficult to judge them objectively, meaning by objective anything which is scientific, that is appraisable and measurable. The researcher risks to be both too much involved and to try to be so objective that he does not involve at all and so does not know the reality of the movement”.

From which premises do you start your research on alternative religiousness?

“Since my activity is mainly to listen to people searching for help, my premise is to verify together with them which psychological or social problems stem to the strict social group of the family from the affiliation of one of its members”.

And from the doctrinal point of view, instead, which are your premises?

“I’m catholic and I’m involved in a research team whose statute was approved from the Italian Episcopal Conference. But this does not mean that, as a catholic, I necessarily look at new movements with suspicion. The teaching of the Catholic Church is very strong on the issue of religious freedom and maintains continuously the right of any man to be free in his religious choices. So I respect any new form of religiousness. Only when I realize that, with the excuse of the religion, abuses can be exerted on people I feel involved, not as a catholic but as a person, in trying to solve such problems, if possible”.

In your study of new religions do you count more on the experience of “participating observation” (consisting in the researcher’s participation to the life of the movement) or on the witnesses of former adepts? And do you take into account those denouncing brainwashing inside a cult?

“To study the new religiousness, you must use several methods. The participating observation can be vary useful if done for a long time and if not used as the only source, because many movements show to the researchers participating to their activities only in a positive way. So it’s necessary to listen also those people who belonged to these groups and who can proof that there are other things that the movements hide to the researchers because it wouldn’t be pleasant that they wrote such things in their books. You must listen to both of them. Concerning the brainwashing: inside any social group there are ways to act the control of the members by the group and by the leader. This happens also inside the religious movements. The entity of the social control can be variable. In some cases it’s very mild and leaves people free, in others it’s very strong and heavily conditions people”.


What must be taken into account in the study of the cults and then in the legal measures against them?

“Our society should learn to mediate between the fundamental human freedoms: the religious freedom but also the self-determination freedom, so that the religion won’t become an instrument to violate the consciousnesses in human freedom. If the researchers succeeded in starting a fruitful dialogue on this general end, all the environment would benefit from that. Also the new religious movements which don’t exert a negative control on their members. While the abuse committed, even if in limited numbers, by some group on their member would become evident”.



“But the religious or ideological approaches fall outside the science”

Introvigne, from which premises does your research on alternative religiousness start?

“In the case of a social sciences researcher, you talk of an approach disregarding his personal values and trying to describe a situation without moving neither from a personal doctrinal position (for example Catholicism) nor from ideological positions (for example laicism). These two approaches of “religious” and “ideological” kind have their legitimate field of application in the work of polemists, but fall outside the science. The rule always promoted by the international associations of sociology of religion is that of a laic research and of a methodological agnosticism”.

And which role should play in the research the “participating observation”, the witnesses of former adepts and the considerations on brainwashing?

“The participating observation is one main technique, but it does not exempt from the examination of the documents and the interviews both to members and ex members. But beware: usually by ex members the public opinion means those who has become opponents of the movements, “apostates” in technical terms. But among the “ex” the apostates are a minority, between 10 and 15 percent. The remaining 85% does not go to the journalists or the anti-cult organizations, but the research must find them because they have more milder reactions. They will reveal that inside the movement there were good and bad aspects. It’s one of the most serious methodological mistakes that of confusing one ex member spontaneously proposing himself to the journalists or the researchers with someone representative of the majority of the ex-members”.

And about the brainwashing?

“It’s a concept shared by a small but fighting minority of academics and declared not corresponding to any empirical fact by the vast majority of those studying the new religious movements”.

Is not there the risk that, with such an approach to the problem, groups like the CESNUR give an incomplete, unnatural, innocent image of this reality?

“The scientific and methodological standards of the CESNUR are the same of the majority of the great international organizations of history and sociology of religions”.

And which value do you give to the contribution of “anti-cults” groups?

“I believe they are potentially interesting, both as object of study because the researcher must consider the religious and laic criticisms to religious movements and because you can’t exclude that they comprise valuable people able to make interesting reflections”.

But the dialogue between researchers remains difficult…

“Yes because the anti-cult movements have realized that an obstacle to their projects, mainly on the ground of translating their ideas in laws, is represented by the researchers and usually they attack them as cult apologists”.



The contents of this article are unprofessional translations of those included in the italian website www.dimarzio.it.

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