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French Publications On Cultic Phenomena

ICSA e-Newsletter, Vol. 3, No. 2, 2004

French Publications on Cultic Phenomena and Related Subjects: English Summary

Marie Andrée Pelland

During 2003, 26 published French documents dealt with cultic phenomena and related subjects. For this report, I examined nine books, nine articles, four chapters from books, and three master's theses.

Some documents present basic information on cultic phenomena; others analyse cults' functioning; some researchers explore victimization within cultic groups; some analyze the existing bond between religious groups and violent behaviors; some discuss different ways to define the term cult.

All the items are reviewed in a detailed report in French (Pelland, 2004).  This English summary highlights interesting findings from the French report.

Six books have a primary objective of informing parents or citizens about cults and related subjects.

Because of the popularity among teenagers of films such as Harry Potter and The Lord of The Ring and TV shows such as  Buffy the Vampire Slayer, two books give an informative account of themes such as Satanism, Gothicism, spirituality, persuasive techniques, and effects of a cultic experience are described in two books.

Biton (2003), a French writer, published a book called Cult and guru.  Her objective is to give parents access to coherent and correct information about cultic groups, their attractions, and their dynamics. She hopes to give parents enough information so they will be able to prevent their teenagers from affiliating with and being victimized by a cult.

The second book, written by Colombe (2003) from Quebec, has a different view.  The goal of this book is to explain in simple terms to parents why their adolescents tend to be attracted to paranormal phenomena and fantastic subjects or groups. The author concludes that teenagers' attraction must not be described as problematic by parents. Teenagers like such themes mainly because they respond to their need for extreme sensations and their need to escape reality.

It should be noted that these two books were written in different social contexts. In France, cults are often described as an important social problem.  Many TV programs, Magazines, and politicians have discussed the cult phenomenon. A law was even passed in 2001 in order to reinforce prevention and repression of destructive cultic groups. In this context, parents like the rest of the population, demand to be informed about this subject.  That can explain why Biton places such an important emphasis on the danger that cultic groups represent for French youth.  In Quebec, on the other hand, the cult phenomenon isn’t described as a social problem of importance.  Colombe, consequently, doesn’t speak about the possible danger of cultic groups.  He only tries to define an ensemble of different concepts and beliefs that teenagers are attracted to.  He also doesn’t define this attraction as a problem, but as an interest to understand.

Four other books have a primary objective of transmitting information. These texts are written by information centers on cultic groups, such as Info-Cult or by members of militant group against cults (UNADFI, MILS).

Three of the four books (Vivian, 2003, Tavernier, 2003, Fillaire & Tavernier, 2003) try to describe the cult phenomenon and the effects of cultic experience. The authors rely on their life experiences and knowledge of cultic groups to explain their functioning and recruitment tactics. Although the authors' experiences are relevant, the absence of scientific references gave this reader the impression that the authors of these books see cults as homogeneous groups, which they most definitely are not.

Because of the writers' overgeneralization and because they most often use extreme examples, the reader is almost compelled to conclude that "cults" are everywhere and are all dangerous. These books do not leave any place for doubt. I believe, however, that as researchers or counsellors, we should in our writings on this subject present diverse points of view and objective information so that readers can form their own opinions.  A book I co-authored with Mike Kropveld, Le phénomène des sectes: L’étude du fonctionnement des groupes (Kropveld & Pelland, 2003), attempts to provide a balanced and nuanced perspective on the problems cultic groups pose.

Other books analyze the history and functioning of specific groups: the Raëliens (Bisaillon, 2003; Renard, 2003), the Church of Scientology (Palisson, 2003), and the Jehovah's Witnesses (UNADFI, 2003a, 2003b).

2003 can be described as the Raëliens' year. In January 2003, the group made the front page of every important newspaper in the world when they announced the birth of the first cloned baby (which has not been confirmed). The founder of the group, Raël, was even interviewed by CNN, Larry King, and the BBC. One book in particular gave a good overview of this particular group.  Bisaillon (2003) without a sensationalist point of view presents in a descriptive way the group's history, philosophy, and practices.  In this book we learn that even if Raël pretends to have met extraterrestrial humanoids, he said at one point in his books that it may be ironic that so many people believe in him if in fact he didn’t really meet extraterrestrials.  Some of his friends, who knew him before he said that he met extraterrestrials, say that Claude Vorilhon, alias Raël, created his first story about meeting extraterrestrial in a bar with his friends.  Bisaillon also claims that Rael's first book passed as his own a number of ideas presented by Jean Sendy.

Nathan and Swertvaegher (2003) study ex-member experiences within a cult as a means of developing an effective therapy for former group members.  Theses researchers describe a cultic experience as a process of "soul capture."  They explain that initially a cult promises to transform members in ways that appeal and motivate prospects to join. Once integrated into the group, followers participate in activities that organize their everyday life. The researchers observed that over time members become more and more dependent on the group. When members decide to quit, it is often because they realize that they pass their time in ways that benefit the leader, rather than ways that bring about the transformation that the group promised.

Based on a number of interview with ex-member, these researchers created a therapeutic process that is supposed to help ex-members regain their lives. In this therapeutic process, professionals first listen to the life story of an ex-member in order to break the person's isolation.  After a couple of meetings, the therapist identifies the group processes, techniques of persuasion, and beliefs learned during the group experience.  The researchers explain that they try to identify the main habits or beliefs in the every day life of their client.  They try through therapy to eliminate the cultic "parasite" that still affects the life of the ex-member.  At the end of the process, they try to help their clients reconnect with friends and family, who may have been left behind when the person joined the group. I recommend that you consult this book if you read French; it is well documented and the researchers present a number of ex-member histories that illuminate the therapeutic process.

Allanic (2003) proposes a conceptualization of cultic experience. He explains how cultic groups charm people to join their group.  He compares this process with the story of the mythical meeting of Ulysses with the Sirens, as told in Greek mythology.

Casoni (2003), Mayer (2003) – I can find no reference to Mayer, and Pelland & Casoni (2003) describe how religious groups can arrive at a point where members use extreme violence, such as terrorism, to destroy their enemies.  The relationship between leaders and followers is identified as a key element that influences the adoption of violent behaviors.  In this context, the leader-follower relationship is defined as an interdependent relationship in which the leader feels the need to be idealized by the members, to be perceived as an emissary of supernatural forces, while followers desire to be associated with a person described as powerful and perceived to be imposing. The meeting of these two actors fills their respective needs. However, over time the reciprocal dependence between leader and followers comes to place these persons in a problematic relationship. The leader continuously asks for proof of members' honesty and devotion; because members don’t want to lose their bond to their leader, they agree to give him the requested proofs. In extreme cases, the followers may use violence to prove their devotion to the leader.

Social identity, group cohesion, and a separated vision of the world are also described as elements that influence group violence. When individuals become a members of a group, they acquire a specific status, a personality that defines them as members of a particular group.  As members they are also part of the group project.  Members get a sense of self, of values because of their association with a particular group.  If another group or political authorities try to question or destroy the group identity and project, some members may resort to violence in order to protect the group's integrity. An act of terrorism in extreme cases may be perceived as a solution to a seemingly unstoppable threat.

References Consulted

Allanic, C. (2003). Aux abords des rives sectaires. Bulle 79 : Discerner les dérives sectaires. Need complete bibliographic data.

Allanic, C. (2003) Le syndrome d'Ulysse, Bulle 78. Need complete bibliographic data.

Bisaillon, Martin. (2003). Enquête sur le mouvement raélien. Montreal: Éditions Les Intouchables.

Biton, Dominique (2003).  Sectes et gourous, etc.  Albin Michel.  Need complete bibliographic data.

Bobin, Alice. (2003). Victimes des sectes: des manipulations mentales aux soins.  Mémoire de Maîtrisede, l’Universitaire de Victimologie de l’Université Réné Descartes, Paris 5???

Boissard, Marianne. (2003). L’Étau Sectaire. Mémoire de Maîtrisede de l’Universitaire de Victimologie de l’Université Réné Descartes, Paris 5???

Casoni, D, & Brunet, L. (2003). Philosophie groupale et action terrorisme.  In Dianne Casoni & Louis Brunet (Eds.),  Comprendre l’acte terroriste. Montréal: Les presses de l’Université du Québec à Montréal, pp.78-92.

Columbe, D. (1993 – 2003??).  Le fantastique religieux et l'adolescence: paranormal, magie, satanisme, gothique. Montréal: Fides.

Deconchy, J. P., & Bauduin, B. (2003). Expliquer tout de même l'inexplicable. Appel aux "croyances": mise en veille et activation d'un schéma cognitif de type "sectaire." Psychologie et Société. Logique sociale des phénomènes sectaires. 3, 2. 23-57. Need complete bibliographic data. Is this a journal article or a chapter in a book?  If the latter, who are the editors?

De Piccoli, N., Beggio, V., & Tartaglia, S. (2003). Nouveaux mouvements religieux et groupes politiques: L'abstraction linguistique dans la présentation de l'in-group et du contexte. Psychologie et société. Logique sociale des phénomènes sectaires.3, 2. 93-115. Same question as in prior reference.  "Logique social …" doesn't sound like a journal.

Dilhaire, Catherine. (2003). Le processus de victimisation dans la trajectoire de vie d'anciens adeptes de groupes sectaires. Mémoire de maîtrise, École de Criminologie, Université de Montréal, 158 pp.

Fillaire, Bernard, & Tavernier, Janine. (2003). Les sectes.  Paris: Le Cavalier Bleu, 123 pp.

Kropveld, M., & Pelland, M-A. (2003). Le phénomène des sectes: L’étude du fonctionnement des groupes. Montréal: Info-Secte, 161 pp.

Masse, L., Richardot, S., & Stewart, I. (2003). Comparaison des représentations de trois formes de groupement idéologiques: la secte, la religion et le parti politique. 3, Psychologie et société. Logique sociale des phénomènes sectaires. 2. 58-92.  Need complete bibliographic data.

Palisson, Arnaud. (2003). Grande enquête sur la scientologie: Une secte hors la loi. Lausanne: Editions Favre SA, 263 pp.

Pelland, M-A, & Casoni, D (2003). Le recours au terrorisme par les sectes religieuses.  In Dianne Casoni et Louis Brunet (Eds.), Comprendre l’acte terroriste. Montréal: Les presses de l’Université du Québec à Montréal, pp.51-69.

Renard, J.-B. (2003). Le mouvement raëlien: Les raisons d'un succès. Psychologie et société. Logique sociale des phénomènes sectaires. 3, 2. 116-131.  Was this and the other references perhaps a special issue of Psychologie et Societe, entitled "Lorique etc.???

Rouquette, M.-L. (2003). Éléments pour une théorie minimale des sectes. Psychologie et société. Logique sociale des phénomènes sectaires. Vol 3, 2. 9-22.

Nathan, T., & Swertvaegher, J.C. (2003). Sortir d'une secte. Paris: Les empêcheurs de penser en rond/Seuil. – this doesn't sound like a publisher's name.

Tavernier, Janine. (2003). 20 ans de lutte contre les sectes. Paris: Éditions Michel Lafond, 238 pp.

Vivian, A. (2003). Les sectes. Paris: Éditions Odile Jacob, pp. xxx.

UNADFI. (2003). Qui sont vos ancêtres? Adam ou Cro-Magnon? Lucy ou Eve? Les Témoins de Jéhovah et la théorie de l'évolution. La cage des sectes. Bulle n.80.  Reference not clear.  What is title.  What is journal. Volume.  Pages.

UNADFI (2003). Le grignotage jehoviste. Bulle 79 : Discerner les dérives sectaires. Reference not clear.  What is title.  What is journal. Volume.  Pages.