Freedom of Belief as a Human Right

Journal of Unification Studies Vol. 4, 2001-2002 - Pages 101-110

This address was delivered in Berlin on September 2, 2000 and published in Religion, Staat, Gesellschaft: Journal for the Study of Beliefs and Worldviews 1 (Berlin: Besier and Seiwert, 2001).

My topic is the fight for freedom of religion in Europe. As a sociologist, it should be of no surprise that I am bringing you bad tidings, which is what sociologists usually do. I begin by first looking at the relevant legal statutes.


1. Legal Statues on Freedom of Religion

If we look at international accords there should be no problem in this area. Already in 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 18 that everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right includes freedom to change one's religious belief and to pursue one's religious teaching in daily worship and observance, be it alone or in community with others, either in public or private. The European Convention on Human Rights, the German Constitution in Article 4, and the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe) all confirm these lofty principles. What, then, is the problem?

These lofty principles, when brought down to earth, are often modified, not always with the outright intention of violating them, but in part also because of varying interpretations according to the conditions. To a small extent, this variance is also due to conflicts between written laws and common laws and customs. I shall begin with the last mentioned reason, because it is unavoidable that certain conflicts will arise from differences between the two. I thought we can do something about this, as customary laws are often in clear contradiction to declared principles.

Let us cite the example of polygamy. Of course, in Germany this is not permitted according to law. However, as you know, it is a custom and even law in other countries, such as in some Muslim states. Here there is no compromise in sight. It is simply not allowed in Germany. But what about a Muslim immigrant with four wives, claiming welfare support for children from his multiple wives? In this case he will be asked to name one wife and her children. The others are irrelevant by law.

Let us move on to an example where it is more difficult to draw a clear borderline. I refer to the slaughtering according to Jewish or Muslim religious rules versus animal protection. Animal protection groups tend to be the most violent advocates of special interests to be found on our continent. According to religious rules, animals should be slaughtered by draining the blood from the living animal. This violates animal protection laws, and German authorities demand that the animal at least be numbed. In practice not all subgroups comply with this compromise. The conflict refers to only a relatively small number of people, but is conducted with a great degree of passion. The majority of Germans deal with the conflict by simply looking the other way. That is, things occur which shouldn't occur, but if nobody blows the whistle there is a way of living with it.

Thirdly, there is the call of the muezzin and the ringing of church bells in the morning despite the notable increase in sensitivity toward noise in Western Europe. What used to be most annoying in earlier times is dirt and waste, but somehow we greatly reduced this. So now the topic is noise. Two rights are in conflict over a normal call to worship: the right to a quiet Sunday and the need of churches to tell the believers that the service is about to begin.

Conscription is a further issue, especially in France. It is not easy to successfully claim one's conscientious objections there, but for Jehovah’s Witnesses, conscription is unacceptable. What about the crucifix at secular schools and the obligation to attend classes? This is not only an issue in the United States but on the European continent as well. In Bavaria, which is very Catholic, conflicting views arise among parents. Some parents removed the crucifix and others hung it up again. I am not aware of the current state of hanging it up or putting it down. But the issue is of a highly symbolic meaning in parts of Germany.

Oath-taking in Germany has been debated. The socialists of course do not refer to God in their oaths, while others do so explicitly. Today, both forms have the same legal status.

Muslim girls wearing scarves is another issue. It has a highly symbolic meaning in France and, by the way, in Turkey, too. In Germany it may become a source of conflict on a local level. In some communities it is an issue, in others not. However, girls taking swimming lessons as part of school instruction are definitely an issue for Muslim communities. Because we have mixed classes the Muslim community objects to boys and girls mixing freely in swimming. Some school boards make this part of school instruction elective, because it does not really touch the main objective of school education.

The way one can handle these cases has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, depending on what the issue is about. Some are negotiable; some are not. Many can be handled on a community level. Fortunately, so far it has been possible to contain the volume of conflicts originating from these clashes.


2. Discrimination by Governments

It becomes more difficult when the government itself becomes involved in the issue. Here in Germany, France, Belgium and Austria, the four countries which I have analysed, we find all kinds of problems. They were voiced on June 14th of this year in the US Congressional Hearing on European Intolerance. A hearing took place in Washington, and in the end a resolution was sent to the European countries after it received more than 160 affirmative votes from American congressmen. America takes an increasing interest in the way Europe is dealing with religious freedom.

First of all, there are various levels of discrimination against those religious groups that are not recognized as a church by the state. This puzzles Americans, because, if the separation of church and state were complete as is the case in the United States, the issue would not even arise. The degree of separation is different from country to country. In the case of Germany and Austria, the separation between church and state is least developed. Here we have a number of officially recognized government-supported religions, namely Roman Catholicism, the Lutheran Church, some Protestant churches and, to a lesser degree, Jews and Muslims—and that is all. All other religious groups are not considered churches. That leads to the denial of privileges which official churches receive, such as tax exemptions, income from dues collected by the state from all registered church members, and the qualifications for public contracts.

Second, persecution against religious sects and human potential groups can be observed, originating from committees that receive state support. The core of the problem lies in the incomplete separation between religion and state. These Committees claim they fight against "dangerous sects," and the claim is translated into a persecution of religious groups and individuals.

In order to illustrate the aforementioned point, I read from the hearing that I just referred to, beginning with the testimony of Phillip Brumley of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. France is listing the Jehovah’s Witnesses as a dangerous sect because, first, it denies blood transfusion. By the way, if you take this as a definition of a dangerous sect you would have to outlaw Christian Science, too. But for some reason, France focuses only on Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jehovah’s Witnesses also annoy the French feeling of duty towards the state by voicing conscientious objection against military service. Here is the concrete result of social denial of a privileged status: If you want to have child custody in France, it is denied you if the government can prove you are a Jehovah’s Witness. In Sweden, the non‑recognition of churches other than the Lutherans resulted until recently in the voluntary work of the Jehovah’s Witnesses being taxed ten times the compensation paid to the volunteer. This is a sort of near death penalty to this organisation, as this group requires voluntary work as part of religious commitment.

Jazz artist Chick Corea, representing Scientology, reported on his discrimination as a musician. His concerts were called off because they are subsidized with tax money. Most "serious" concerts in Germany receive some tax money, but Corea was considered a Scientologist first and a musician only second. Craig Jenson, another Scientologist, founded and leads a company for executive software that is located in California. Its products are included in Windows 2000. In Germany there is now an executive order to boycott any company that uses software in which a Scientologist had a hand in manufacturing; this executive order is enforced in Bavaria and Hamburg. In order to enforce this boycott, government computers are fed lists of companies that allegedly employ Scientologists. Such companies receive an "S" as a designation. Whenever in bids in response to tenders the computer shows an "S" company applying, a contract is rejected or later annulled. Also, in Germany the state secret service is ordered to keep Scientologists under observation as a subversive organization. There are in addition attempts to outlaw the entire organization.

I might add that there are sorts of fashions in persecuting religious minorities. The fashion in the early 70s was "smash the Moonies!" That has subsided as the Unification Church was badly weakened by this persecution. And now, for one reason or another, two other groups are being persecuted, namely the VPM (a few words about this later) and the Scientologists.

The situation in France is even less acceptable, according to the testimony of Dr. Jeremy Gunn before the U.S. House International Relations Committee on June 14, 2000. A former foreign minister, Alain Vivien, was instrumental in a government commission called "Mission-Interministerielle de Lutte contre les Sects" (MILS). Demonstrating how close are its political connections are to the very top of the Socialist Party, MILS was instrumental in calling the French Minister of Justice to issue a circular to all public prosecutors in France encouraging them to press charges against Scientology. Laws are pending which aim at outlawing "sects". 1993 marked the beginning of the campaign with a raid on the Children of God by 200 heavily armed police. The group was charged with child abuse. Subsequent litigation took time, as it usually does, and finally in February this year, seven years later, the Children of God were cleared of all charges of child abuse. But for seven years they had to live with this accusation and under the constant observation of criminal investigators.

In 1996 a report in the name of the Assemblée Nationale by Jacques Guyard, "Les sects en France" identified 172 groups in need of state observation. One year later in Belgium, the Enquète Parlamentaire of the Belgian parliament identified 189 groups as sects. Included in this Belgian definition of dangerous sects are Southern Baptists, of course Jehovah’s Witnesses, and interestingly enough, Opus Dei, which enjoys the open support of the Catholic Church. Another group listed as a dangerous sect are the Anthroposophists. Just for the record, a person of the stature of Theodor Adorno was an Anthroposophist and thus a member of a "dangerous sect." Even the current German Minister of the Interior is an Anthroposophist. Consequently, of course, in Germany Anthroposophy is not on the list of "dangerous sects."

Another definition of what is a dangerous cult lists that some members practice illegal financial transactions, mind control, brainwashing and display criminal behaviour. Now it so happens that in France Jacques Guyard himself had just received a one‑year sentence for influence peddling (trafic d'influence) plus a fine of 100,000 FF. By using the definition of "dangerous sect" just cited you could put the entire MILS itself on the list of dangerous sects.

The sources of accusations such as the ones mentioned are mostly defectors of religious groups. Usually there is no attempt to collect counterevidence. These accusations are accepted literally without any critical analysis.

One report summarizes the situation in France as follows: In France the State shares a common interest with the anti‑cult movement. The French parliament recently amended French law to give anti‑sect groups legal status for undertaking the prosecution or legal action against so‑called sects, thereby providing common ground for private anti‑sect groups and official government policy. Before becoming the president of MILS, Mr. Vivien was the president of one of the two prominent anti‑sect groups. This is the difference between Germany and France, as I will elaborate later. In Germany, too, politicians are part of anti‑sect groups. But they are third-rate politicians; while in France they are top-ranking politicians.

In Austria one can observe the same sorts of problems as in Germany. Jehovah’s Witnesses are denied religious status and one of the highest-ranking politicians, Dr. Högel, calls them a dangerous sect. In 1979, a definition was formulated on who can claim to be a church. These are the criteria: long existence, a large number of adherents, a positive relationship with the state, and a proper handling of finances. If you put all these criteria together it translates into the following conclusion: only the Catholic Church qualifies to be called a church.

Subsequent to my presentation, my colleague here will tell you a somewhat mind‑baffling case, namely that of Reverend Moon. In 1995 he was not only denied entry into Germany, but his name was put on the "Schengen List" and now nearly all countries of Western Europe are closed to him. The Federal Minister of Interior Manfred Kanther issued the ban at the request of the Federal Ministry for Family, Senior Citizens, Women and Youth. The latter ministry claimed that the entry of Reverend Moon would endanger public security and order. From a sociological standpoint it is highly interesting to note that it was apparently only a single person who caused this request for an entry ban. Once such a ban is issued, the authorities try to defend this action even to the point of purposely protracting the legal processes. The case has been pending in various courts of law for over five years.


3. The Picard Law

Finally, in France, the so‑called Picard Law (taking its name from the young French parliamentarian Catherine Picard) is before the Assemblée National. The objections against this text can be summarized as follows:

There is first of all no attempt to define what is a sect. This, by the way, is true for the respective commission in Germany as well. This provides room for arbitrary decisions.

Article 1 of the Picard Law provides for the dissolution of a congregation, if:

(1) It has "the goal or effect to create or exploit the state of mental or physical dependency of people who are participating in its activities" (which really needs more elaboration).

(2) The congregation is to be dissolved if it infringes on "human rights and fundamental liberties" (something to which we can all agree).

(3) The dissolution can be brought about "when this association or its managers, or de facto managers have been convicted on more than one occasion for offences such as fraud, illegal practice of medicine and several other criminal offences".

According to the Picard Law, if a court finds two of the three criteria applicable, the association can be outlawed.

As a matter of fact, based on these premises, one could outlaw the Catholic Church. In every organization there is always someone who goes astray some time. This is simply the way human organizations work. And what about exorcism, as a technique still practiced in the Catholic Church that creates a state of mental dependency?

Article 8 forbids the establishment of any offices, seat, church, advertisement or advertising activity by "sects" within a perimeter of 100 metres from a hospital, a home for the elderly, a public or private institution of prevention, curing or caring, or any school for students eighteen years or younger. France seems to be the land of bureaucratic detail, where bureaucrats even measure the distance to other establishments, to be observed by religious groups in their activities.

Articles 10 and 11 create the new crime of "mental manipulation". The "new religious groups" are presumably dangerous because they practice brainwashing. I don't know of any academic association that ever defined what brainwashing is, but I do know what the American Sociological Association and the Psychological Association said: “We do not know what it is.” The notion of brainwashing first arose during the Korean War, where it was used by journalists to explain why some American soldiers identified with their captors. But since that time there is the belief that people can be turned around miraculously by using secret techniques, which nobody has been able to identify. Of course, there are many people who would like to practice brainwashing: If you could do it, you would be in business.

It is probably the same story with ‘subliminal perception’. Subliminal perception was claimed in the late 60’s to be a technique for turning people into objects with no will of their own. Cinema films or television films would send very short projections of commands, working subliminally, or being just beneath the threshold of perception. There were messages flashed onto screens like: Drink X! or: Buy peanuts! Subliminal perception was at that time a hotly debated topic. In Canada it was demanded that the practice be outlawed and the United States called for strict regulations. The good news I can give you here is that it doesn't work. If messages are subliminal, they won't work.

Until scientists come along and prove that brainwashing indeed exists and is effective, a court's decision on whether a religious group should be outlawed because of mental manipulation will always be an arbitrary one. I do know who tries brainwashing, using every technique available for influencing people who do not realize that they are being influenced: the political parties. Political parties spend a tremendous amount of money on specialists who tell them exactly how to behave, how to speak, what kind of tie to wear and what kind of music to play, in order to make people vote A instead of B. But I can assure you: in democracies brainwashing doesn't work! It is, of course, very, very disturbing that despite the rejection of these theories by all professional bodies, alleged technologies of brainwashing continue to be portrayed in a certain type of literature solely for the purpose of providing a base to discredit new religious groups.


4. Anti-Sect Commissions

Thirdly, the most disturbing development in Germany is the establishment of bodies with governmental blessing, whose purpose is to observe and combat religious groups. The Catholic Church, the Protestant Church - they all have their anti‑sect experts. And these so‑called sect experts have managed to persuade the government, the Christian Democratic government, to establish an ‘Enquete Commission’ to investigate so‑called sects and psycho groups. This was all set up by the so‑called sect experts, who never tire of publishing their own kind of "educational and information literature" paid for in part by the state. All of this is well summarized in a new publication by Felix Flückinger: "Sektenjagd—die neue Intoleranz".

In 1996, the German Federal Parliament, against the wish and advice of the former minister of justice, Mrs. Leuthäuser‑Schnarrenberger, set up a parliamentary commission with the purpose of specifically dealing with so‑called sects and "psycho groups". In June 1998, the commission, which cost the taxpayer three million DM, submitted its final report. In view of limits of time I will not repeat all of the results but only give a brief summary.

In its final conclusion, the report states that 7% of Germans are possibly receptive to the propaganda of psycho groups and religious minorities. It did not say 7% are members, but 7% could potentially be receptive to their messages. There are less than 0.5% adherents now. Another conclusion was that these groups constitute no danger to public life at all. Nevertheless, the work of this commission continues.

As part of the national budget for the year 2000, parliament approved 2.5 million DM for a "model project for prevention in the area of so‑called sects and psycho groups". The two main churches, the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church, have prepared an entire staff, mostly from among their own sect experts, which is waiting for the moment when a definition of qualifications for becoming an officially recognised sect expert will be announced.

The Enquete Commission on so‑called sects and psycho groups came to the conclusion that it is impossible to define what a sect actually is. And now, the label for potentially dangerous groups has changed to "psycho groups" —the substitution of one meaningless term by another of equal meaninglessness. When one looks deeper into the report and asks how a psycho group is defined, one gets the answer that these groups employ "techniques aiming at the manipulation of other people". I assure you that there is no single technique mentioned that is not used by industries in selling goods, political parties in gaining votes, or the two main churches in keeping their flocks intact. If this is the definition for non‑permissible behaviour, we should stop selling consumer goods, close all the churches and outlaw campaigning for political elections.

Recently, together with a colleague of mine, I created a forum for academics to voice their opinions against these developments by publishing a two-volume work "The New Inquisitors". The book was first published in German and has now been translated into English. It features reports by academics who have experienced degrees of persecution and harassment themselves. The reason given why critics of sect hunters are being harassed is a new one. The sect experts argue that they are trying to merely educate the consumer in order to make him more resistant to influences that aim at taking away their money. They try to suggest that theirs is the noble task of alerting the public to dangerous groupings which are only after their money. We are now countering the arguments of the “sect experts" with the question, “Why should we practice consumer protection only in terms of religious teachings and not in all other areas of life?” After all, free societies are based on the assumption that adults are able to make choices. And if a choice is wrong, well that's part of what you pay for being an adult.

The parliament of Hamburg appropriated another million Deutsch marks for the work of "experts" in combating sects; Berlin appropriated 2.2 million, the federal government 2.5 million. These days, you can make an interesting career out of persecuting new religious movements, in the name of consumer protection.


5. Causes of Religious Intolerance

I have asked myself why we are tolerant towards intolerance? Why do we permit sect‑like behaviour against the so‑called sects? The sect hunters fulfil all the criteria of the proper definition of a sect. Yes, indeed, there are some dangerous cults. There is no question that mass suicides and using poisonous gas in the subways of Japan are indeed dangerous and criminal acts. These groups are not dangerous as religious cults but because of their behaviour. But I do not know of even one such attack in France and Germany, which are the countries that are most active in fighting sects.

The first reason why the public is somewhat disinterested in what is happening to new religious groups is due to our long tradition of persecuting religious dissidents, which goes right back to the beginning of Christianity. It is not restricted, of course, to Christianity, but if you want to get a feeling of what religious persecution is all about, then look at the first 400 years of Christianity in Rome, and later at medieval and post medieval times where you will find relentless and cruel persecution of the Huguenots, the Baptists, the Karthaeuser and other religious movements in France and in Germany as well.

Here is a second reason why one finds objections towards religious groups like the Unification Church, or the Swiss based VPM organization: all of those groups are against the use of drugs and advocate a high standard of morality, which seems to be offensive to a significant minority within political life that wants to legalize them. You take a stand against obscenity in public, but a significant part of the cultural intelligentsia wants it that way. You stand for family values—but this stand is highly offensive to a mainly leftist culture. I think you offend these people by mentioning something like sacrifice and service at a time when you are encouraged to think of yourself only and when narrow self‑actualisation is thought of as being the highest form of human development. If you dare to scratch the legitimacy of such claims, their proponents will react violently. I think that a defence of traditional values explains the intensity with which this sect of sect hunters pursue and harass religious groups.

A third reason for the toleration of intolerant sect hunters lies in the ability of these sect hunters to mobilize respected organizations for their own cult, thus enjoying the backing of the social democrats, the socialists, the Protestant Church and to a significant degree also of the Catholic Church. I believe only very few top politicians would dare to object to those sect hunters at a time when a highly overloaded political agenda forces the political leadership at the very top to concentrate on only a few issues. In the case of Rev. Moon, it apparently was just one woman who was able to tell the Ministry of the Interior to impose the entry ban. Anyway, it was Mrs. Rennebach, the spokeswoman for the Social Democrats on sect-related issues, who in a press release claimed full credit for having minister Kanther (CDU) banning Reverend Moon and his wife from entering Germany. "Manfred Kanther has followed my (!) request... in a quick and non-bureaucratic manner". In the case of the aborted population census in Germany when all of Europe participates as well, it was only one politician who, in a fit of anger, said: we won't participate.

Concerning the Enquete Commission on so‑called sects and psycho groups, there were seven members of the Social Democratic Party and a few from other parties who were able to obtain legitimacy for their project in the name of the entire parliament. How could this be possible? It is because the top leadership can concentrate on a few issues only, and they do not want to bother with what they perceive as minor issues. The strategies for countering such an attitude would be to draw attention to it and force the leadership to make something into an issue of top priority. One of our strategies is to tell the Americans how different from their own standards the issues of religious liberty and civil rights are being handled in Europe. At least in the case of Germany it works. It will probably not have that much of an effect in France. But here in Germany, when the American government says something, the top leadership take notice.