September 15, 1999

Freedom of religion requires
accurate use of 'cult' label

___By Andrew Black
___Associated Baptist Press
___LONDON (ABP)--Members of new religious movements, sects or cults deserve the same freedom to choose, practice and promote their faith as citizens of any other faith, sociologist Eileen Barker told an international group of Baptist religious-freedom activists in England.
___The conference, "Beyond Mere Toleration: Religious Liberty as a Basic Human Right," was sponsored at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church in London by the Baptist Joint Committee and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.
___Barker and other speakers said denying religious freedom to new or strange groups is not only wrong in principle but could open the door for later removal of those rights from older, more established religions.
___Groups such as Baptists, Assemblies of God and even Russian Catholics have been singled out in various countries for persecution and restrictive legislation, speakers noted.
___Barker acknowledged many people feel "apprehension and repulsion" toward newer religious movements like Hare Krishna, Scientology and the Unification Church. When she accepted the invitation to speak about cults at a conference titled "Beyond Mere Toleration," a friend responded: "Yes. Some of them are beyond toleration."
___"My friend may have a small point," said Barker, a professor at the London School of Economics and internationally recognized expert on new religious movements. Some activities are "absolutely beyond toleration."
___She cited Aum Shinri Kyo followers leaving lethal gas on the Tokyo subway, sexual child abuse by Children of God members and "horrible murders" by Charles Manson's followers.
___"Some behavior is intolerable," Barker reiterated, "but we must not tolerate intolerance" in principle and application.
___"What do these paradoxes mean?" she asked. "Well, I suppose it means that things just 'ain't' that simple," answered Barker, who consults with law-enforcement officials faced with responding to crises with cults.
___However terrible the actions of particular groups, it's essential not to generalize about new religious movements and to label them a danger to society, Barker said.
___New religious movements differ in many ways, but they do have certain characteristics in common, Barker noted. Early Christians shared many of those traits, she added.
___"It's possible the sets of beliefs most of us hold originated in a group that had sect-like characteristics," Barker said. This idea is a stark contrast to popular images of cults as "brainwashers" who prey on the defenseless. The brainwashing concept is only a metaphor, Barker said, adding that the idea of group members becoming mindless zombies is contrary to all evidence.
___"The older established religions are better at 'brainwashing,'" Barker joked. "They get to work on children from birth."
___People join small and strange religious groups for many reasons, including some positive ones, such as gaining an opportunity to sacrifice for their beliefs, she said.
___Their newfound faith also gives them a chance to develop self-confidence and to discover greater meaning in life. For many cult members, the group is often an escape from a society that doesn't meet their needs, Barker explained.
___"People join because they choose to," said Barker. "We have to remember that members of these groups are human beings."


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