Ideology, Demonization, and Scholarship: The Need for Objectivity—A Response to Robbins' Comments on Rosedale, the Chinese Government, and Falun Gong
Herbert L. Rosedale, Esq.
American Family Foundation
In responding to Robbins' comments on the paper I presented to the meeting of the Chinese Anti-Cult Association in Beijing in December, 2001, it is essential to set the record straight and provide the contextual background omitted in Robbins' comments, all of which could have been obtained through direct communication. Providing that background will not only respond to Robbins' asserted alarm and distress, but will also serve to highlight the need for straining away pre-formulated ideology from discussions about cult-related issues and the need to recognize the impact of changes occurring since positions were first formulated more than a generation ago.()
Contacts between AFF and representatives of the Chinese Anti-Cult Association developed over the past few years to enhance dialogue and discussion and not to provide forums for approbation or chastisement.
To those apologist scholars who write about the so-called ACM, I note that AFF has no membership, nor a set of official pronouncements. Conferences are open to all members of the public regardless of their ideological views. Presentations have been made at AFF conferences by members of groups that some regard as destructive cults as well as by scholars that some would regard as cult apologists. Attendees over the years have included numerous members of many groups characterized as destructive cults. AFF believes that it is important to provide audiences and forums on issues of significance such as Falun Gong, facilitated by presentations from scholars from different universities giving information as to the history practices and structure of Falun Gong.()
Presentations have been made at conferences and post-conference AFF advisory board meetings by representatives of the Chinese government explaining the basis of their government's concerns about the Falun Gong movement and actions taken with respect to it. The audience of attendees reflected many different perspectives from many countries with different backgrounds, and ensuing discussions were spirited covering a wide range of issues dealing with the practices of the Chinese government with respect to various religious groups and concerned with various issues relating to the health and welfare of members of Chinese society and the obligations of government with respect thereto, as well as the recognition of freedom, tolerance, and diversity.() I have no idea after reading Robbins' paper what he was told, if anything, by anyone who was present at the exchange of views, since his vague recollections about the views of AFF "members" is not evident from his "comments." Having been there, I could not easily summarize the divergent views expressed in as few words as he gives to this issue.
Perhaps as a result of that dialogue, I received an invitation to present a paper at a meeting of the Chinese Anti-Cult Association in Beijing in December 2001. That paper is the subject of Robbins' comments. The paper was presented to illustrate commonalties and differences in various cultural responses to threats by destructive cults over extended periods and the necessity of evaluation on a case-by-case basis, both with respect to the group and the culture of the responses involved. The paper was perceived as the beginning of an on-going dialogue and, in fact, was just that. Not only did I present the paper at the conference, but I engaged in dialogue supplementing various aspects of the presentation with members of the Chinese Anti-Cult Association, including scholars from various universities in China and religious and political representatives. I also spoke to students at a university in Beijing attended by students from autonomous regions in China, and I specifically addressed issues of diversity, tolerance, and contemporary changes in Chinese society, particularly those occurring in the last generation and those which we are facing in the future. At no time was I muzzled or censored, and the questions and comments of my audiences clearly reflected a range of views far wider than one would expect given current negative stereotypes of Chinese society.
Certainly, Robbins was unaware of this latter presentation or the manner in which it fit into the dialogue which continues to this day. Subsequent to December 2001, AFF was pleased to host a delegation from China at its 2002 annual conference in Orlando, Florida, at which there was a vibrant discussion concerning aspects of the relationship of the Chinese government policies relating to Falun Gong and other religious, political, and ideological groups in China. Our recent June 2003 conference at the Chapman University Conference Center in Orange, California included a session involving two members of Falun Gong and a spirited discussion (that went nearly two hours overtime) involving audience members, at least half-dozen of whom were Falun Gong members. A representative from the Chinese Embassy in Washington was present for most of this fascinating discussion. Those discussions cover some aspects that Robbins believes were ignored or downplayed in the paper, which he could have ascertained through a more thorough inquiry.()
Beyond those meetings, AFF hosted a visit from various Chinese educational and mental health professionals in the fall of 2002, and further dialogues ensued over a period of days among people of divergent views. AFF continues its frank, full discussions of many of the issues involving cults in our current society.
These continuing dialogues have been generally regarded as helpful in addressing concerns about the role of religion and the obligations of the state to provide support for the public health, welfare, and well being of its citizenry as well as respecting diverse values and practices, including religious practices and the tolerance of divergent beliefs. These are not meetings in which the American "ACM" lectures representatives of another culture on how they should conform to our values. The meetings recognize differences as well as commonalties, and discussions cover matters of such universal concern as the rights of women, children, and families and the responsibilities of public health and other professionals. Respect for human rights has always been a matter of utmost concern in our discussions.
It is in this context that I take umbrage at Robbins' carping about specific incidents of alleged abuse that I did not mention in my paper, which dealt with general principles for evaluating specific cases, not specific cases per se. Had he had the information or made the necessary inquiries to place the paper in the context of our continuing dialogue, communications, and need for exchange between diverse cultures as we enter upon the 21st Century, I am sure his views would have been modified. Although Robbins could argue with some justification that my paper should have anticipated objections such as he made, his lack of understanding of the paper's context and his failure to seek additional information from me or my colleagues reflect the stereotype-reinforcing consequences of the lack of dialogue between so-called "pro" and "anti" cultists (although much progress has been made in this area during recent years). Fortunately, he at least took the time to make his views known and thereby created an opportunity to clarify the issue. In the past, even this exchange would probably not have happened, and uninformed and inaccurate negative stereotypes would have been reaffirmed.
Cults and Culture
With the preceding background, it should be evident that there is a substantial area of commonality in Robbins' and Rosedale's approaches when these approaches are applied to comments about the Chinese government and Falun Gong. Robbins' fixation on ideology, however, infects his analysis of Rosedale's paper and his approach to the issues with which it deals.
Cults and indeed all religions, majority or minority, new or old, cannot be viewed outside the context of the cultures in which they function or without regard to the historic perspective or the political realities of the time addressed. Cults are not solely religious in their nature, the essence of the ties that bind the follower and leader being, in some instances, political or psychological or based on other relationships exploiting dependency.()
While there are commonalties in organization and structure and method of control, each cult must be analyzed separately, and within the cult there is no identity of the level of member's commitment, the abandonment of his or her individuality, or the degree of unquestioning fealty.
There are likewise contrasting "macro" and micro" approaches in which one addresses the role of the group and its relationships to other individuals and groups in society as well as the areas of permissible latitude and behavioral autonomy in a pluralistic environment, contrasted with conformity demanded in a totalistic environment where there is no separation of church and state and continuing proof of an ideological totalistic commitment is demanded by the controlling powers.()
Rosedale's paper addressed the need for historical analysis in drawing parallels with respect to cults in an American culture stressing our tradition of the limitation of state power with consequent recognition of residual individual freedoms as opposed to states with a history of broad social control [contrasted with emphases on individual responsibility] and accountability where the state had larger involvement in the lives of its citizens.
Of course, in analyzing responses of the Chinese government to Falun Gong, one should not ignore that aspect of Chinese history in which zealous groups incited political turbulence any more than one should ignore the development of individual liberty and religious freedom in western civilization through conflicts separating the authority of church and state. To recognize this historic view is not to approve or disapprove of secular regulation of religion or to evaluate positively or negatively individual abuses of power in the name of religious or secular goals. Where Robbins and Rosedale may differ is in positing absolutes in the area of freedom, whether in the name of religion or secular idealism. Rosedale believes that there are balances required between state obligations to its citizenry and the ambit of toleration of religiously motivated behavior extended to extremes that may differ from culture to culture. Consensus as to where boundaries should be drawn can benefit from continued dialogue and genuine appreciation of change and continuity in history. Recognition of the sometimes uneven pace of such change does not constitute approbation of the status quo.
In responding to Robbins' comments, I will not engage in a debate about conflicting views with respect to the Chinese government's treatment of members of Falun Gong or their supporters, nor will I discuss interpretations of the historical background enabling us to place such behavior in appropriate cultural context or Robbins' ideological condemnation of the Chinese government from a perspective that ignores and unaccountably downplays recent changes and the current vital significance of present and prospective changes.()
Discussion of some of those issues is foreclosed by the fact that in significant instances, Robbins relies on inaccessible material to support his assertions, so a current reader is unable to evaluate the scholarship and basis upon which conclusions are based. It is not very helpful to footnote or quote an article to be included in a book to be published later this year or next year.
A prime example of this is Professor Scott Lowe's conclusion that "China does not have an independent anti-cult movement because Chinese anti-cult organizations are ultimately government controlled" (Robbins' footnote 2). I have met with and had extensive discussions with members of the Executive Committee of the Chinese Anti-Cult Association. They are university professors, as is Professor Lowe, who is also connected with a state university. Perhaps he includes in his as yet unpublished article factual information that would demonstrate that the directors of the CACA are "government controlled" or that their employers are more controlling than his. From speaking to them, I know that their views are not identical. They are diverse, and they are not a group of ideologues who believe that the Chinese communist party must dominate Chinese society so as to control or destroy all possible rivals or suppress diversity within the Chinese Republic.
I have also spoken to ex members of the Falun Gong and do not believe that their evidence of harm caused them and their families by Falun Gong is based on coached formulaic confessions obtained under torture any more than I believe that all testimony of ex cult members must be rejected as "atrocity tales."() A recent problem which illuminates our discussion is the conflict between public health concerns of the Chinese government with respect to its constituency dealing with treatment of the SARS epidemic contrasted with behavior of Falun Gong members as illustrated in the article by Fisher, "Resistance and Salvation in Falun Gong," in the April 2003 issue of Nova Religio at pages 294-311, which stresses the virtue of Falun Gong members' refusal of medical treatment in order to gain good karma and improve spiritual development. Think of how such health practices impact on a state's obligation to deal with an epidemic of infectious disease and protect its citizens from the spread of infection by those refusing medical treatment and quarantine.
Certainly, there are valid concerns about the scope of religious freedom permitted in many societies, including Chinese society, but those must be balanced with concerns about the harm caused through manipulation and depravation of rights by zealous leaders and followers. A balanced approach to the role of the state would include, as I indicated in my paper, a determination of the appropriate role and limitations in implementing concerns with respect to these harms.
Robbins also expresses concern about the abuse of psychiatry by China, particularly in determining appropriate limitations in its impact upon religiously motivated behavior. Robbins and Rosedale would concur about the need for ethical and professional restraints and the development of appropriate standards, but Rosedale would not confine such concerns to potential abuse in China with respect to Falun Gong members or other religious zealots. Appropriate limitations on professional misconduct and ethics is an important subject in many countries, including the United States, in areas involving the unlawful practice of medicine, practice of harmful therapies by unlicensed and unregulated persons (sometimes using mystical or religious justification), as well as corruption of academic integrity through manipulation of professional standards. Those issues amplify the question asked by Robbins in his commentary, which could be rephrased as follows: Can the problem of cults really be discussed intelligently without reference to the balance between society's responsibility to its citizenry and its responsibility to tolerate diversity of belief and behavior among its members?
Robbins' comments on what he believed to be Rosedale's unwarranted lack of emphasis and condemnation of repressive behavior in Chinese society directed towards Falun Gong and other religious behavior could be explored through further discussion not dominated by ideological political bashing.
Most importantly, there is a distinction between the perspectives of Robbins and Rosedale in that Robbins and the authorities he cites, such as Professor Lowe, seem to be fixated on the "simple continuation of earlier patterns of social control by the current Chinese government without regard to perspectives of change." What Robbins does not recognize is that the common intellectual basis for the anti-cult movement in China is grounded in opposition to the thousands of cultic groups that require members to emphasize non-rational, mystical associations denigrating rational behavior. In the view of the anti-cultic groups the practices of such groups are inimical to the development of a society based on the primacy of individual thought, responsibility, and respect for the views of others. Robbins may not agree with this approach when applied to religious or other mystical behavior, but it does not help to try and analyze it as if it were a debate between Lenin and Trotsky and nothing had happened since the 1920's. Taking that simplistic approach and limiting analysis to alleged abuses by the Chinese government of Falun Gong practitioners ignores related problems that trouble Chinese officials, such as terrorist ideologies of fundamentalist Islamic groups in China, the expansion of public education, the overcoming of public obstacles to health issues based on residual, mystical and/or religious allegiances that stubbornly resist integration into modern society (), and the effects on changing rural/urban society of rapid intellectual and technological growth. Conflicts between religious groups and others raising obstacles to law enforcement differ in different societies and are treated in different ways. Secular and religious authorities are sometimes repressive and sometimes heavy handed dealing with complex issues of public health safety. In times of rapid cultural changes, some with social discontinuity, there are many issues arising out of and relating to that change which ought put the question about Falun Gong and Chinese society into perspective in a larger frame.
Certainly, cultural change does not justify brutal treatment and the abridgement of civil rights. However, a productive outcome is probably more likely if one addresses the existence and scope of those problems through dialogue and discussion (which AFF is seeking) rather than, as Robbins does, simply identify charged malefactors as not worthy of belief or capable of dialogue. It is a powerful and ultimate difference between Robbins and Rosedale that Robbins would simply turn his back upon and become deaf to dialogue with those who will play a decisive role in the future and instead rely upon vilification and unquestioning acceptance of claims of victimization by cult members, rather than deal with the evolving struggle between individual rights and social obligations in a dynamic, emerging society.
I believe that there is significant virtue in communication and that it is necessary to continue the development of a more balanced database that deals not only with Falun Gong in Chinese society but with information relating to the development of appropriate tools to help a society confronting zealots and terrorists of all persuasions. Understanding the role of social restraints requiring obedience to law and respect for rights of others raises questions as to the scope of "freedom" accorded zealots pursuing their idealistic ends. Many groups have chosen to endorse law breaking to achieve publicity to further their ends. Civil disobedience, however, should not be unqualifiedly justified as a legitimate response to persecution any more than terrorist activity should always be classified as martyrdom.() While Rosedale spoke of the change in the view towards zealous activities after September 11th, Robbins has not responded to the widespread recognition that religious behavior is no longer (if it ever was) universally deemed benevolent and reflecting ideals to be encouraged in practice. Rather, we are currently confronting leaders who justify use of weapons of mass destruction to further their ends, mute concerns about denial of human rights to women, and reject notions of respect and tolerance to those whose beliefs differ from theirs. To exculpate destructive behavior by depicting it simply as a result of persecution is to minimize its impact on society, to ignore the need for responsibility for harm, and unacceptably to denigrate the rights of victims. I do not believe Robbins endorses the law breaking behavior of terrorist groups on the ground that they have been driven to it by being persecuted. () An analogous rationale was advanced to support the doctrine of necessity to justify forcible deprogramming a generation ago. This rationale was rejected by Robbins, Rosedale, and others associated with AFF (and nearly all who countenanced it 25 years ago no longer do).
Finally, it seems that Robbins is unable to refrain from going back to stereotypic ideology by his insertion of a "coda" in his commentary seeking to critique Rosedale's distinctions between the legal consequences of beliefs and practice in the area of religious freedom. Unfortunately, Robbins ignores Rosedale's detailed analysis of this issue and its legal aspects presented at the American Psychological Association convention years ago.()
Of course, beliefs matter, but their impact in dealing with issues relating to social regulation depends upon the actions taken based upon the beliefs, just as the analysis of "intent" relates to the legal consequences of actions. Insofar as beliefs are internalized and affect only oneself, they are entitled to a broad degree of toleration, but when they precipitate action affecting others, who may not share these beliefs, they are subject to regulation in a society in which non believers have equal rights to believers.
Characterization and impact of belief in evaluating action and determining the appropriate scope of state regulation of belief was recently highlighted in the decision of the United States Supreme Court upholding the prohibition of cross burning. It was held that the action could only be understood in the light of the motivation and background of the behavior. Use of motive and intent in evaluating conduct is pervasive in the law and it may enhance or exculpate the actor and legitimatize or stigmatize the conduct. To follow this analysis does not try "heresy," if claimed motivation and intent has religious connotations. Many racial bigots claim religious foundation for their conduct in their beliefs. Of course, "beliefs matter" and they are taken into account not based upon whether the person having those beliefs is a good or bad person, but rather through social evaluation of the conduct resulting from them. Strongly held religious opinions do not override protection of human rights. We have seen such determinations recently in connection with issues relating to female genital mutilation, slavery, incest, and familial relational definitions. Keeping the difference between belief and practice is essential in protecting the expression of unpopular ideas and beliefs and in balancing individual freedom and social responsibility.
My view as a lawyer is that law does have an impact in shaping social behavior. We all have seen how laws that embody values can have a deterrent effect on practices sought to be inhibited or eliminated in our society. The impact of socially relevant legislation in areas dealing with child labor and religious and racial discrimination in voting and employment is obvious, yet Robbins seems to view religious beliefs and practices as something entitled to unique and absolute protection. That is a key difference between his views and those of Rosedale, who does not regard religious freedom as entitled to exculpation from responsibility beyond that afforded freedom of speech and assembly. These differences between Rosedale and Robbins are not as absolute as they would appear since when they are addressed through dialogue, it becomes clear that there are large areas of commonality and issues addressed in harsh and slogan-like terms appear gray and fuzzy when subject to discussion.
In order to frame and focus on these issues, it would certainly help if parallel to the background of dialogue between AFF and Chinese representatives, Robbins would address as subjects for dialogue not limited to the context of the Chinese government and Falun Gong the following areas of context involving cults and religious freedom in Western culture:
With respect to polygamy, is it valid for the state to outlaw polygamous conduct or incestuous conduct based upon findings of harm, including proliferation of genetic defects through inbreeding?
What are the appropriate areas of state regulation of education so as to mandate education for both sexes, require education for children up to a certain age, and to monitor its content so as to prevent inculcation of racial, religious, and sexual bigotry?
What is the appropriate level of state intervention in family matters when dealing with issues such as "discipline" of children through physical beating, exploitation of minors through child labor, and imposition of involuntary servitude through denial of compensation for labor in commercial enterprises operated by religious entities?
What is the limit on imposition of secular responsibility and accountability on religious entities and their leaders and representatives for harm done citizens of the polity?
Finally, what are appropriate limitations on state intervention requiring mandatory health care for adults and children and limitations on state conduct under the aegis of furtherance of citizens' health and welfare where they impact on religiously motivated conduct?
Perhaps if Robbins surveyed the literature published by sociologists of religion and examined the emphasis and analysis they give to issues such as those just stated and those with regard to harm caused by allegedly destructive cultic groups to members and non-members, he might find that Rosedale could be rightly concerned about the lack of emphasis and downplaying of issues of harm and abuse and that alleged champions of human rights and religious freedom have been at least as sensitive to their supporters and selective in their presentation as he expresses with respect to Rosedale's paper.
Finally, I would conclude that more rather than less dialogue should be encouraged relating to issues dealing with freedom and human rights; there is no ultimate benefit in excluding from the dialogue those whose views are different.
 The problem historically of commentators writing and speaking about the so-called anti-cult movement in the United States without direct knowledge has been adverted to frequently. I hoped that there was a significant change evidenced by the publication of Misunderstanding Cults, edited by Zablocki and Robbins, but, apparently, the problem persists. The third-hand manner in which Robins went about his inquiry without even thinking of the possibility of direct communication, testifies to the gulf between cult apologists and "ACM" representatives and the factors that inhibit direct dialogue.
 Since September 11th, focus on political entities and movements which combine religious and secular authority and do not recognize separation of church and state and which mobilize religious activity for political ends has provoked new areas of concern about human rights violations as well as terrorist activity. It is naive to ignore Falun Gong's support for law breaking to achieve their ends in this context or to ignore their blending of secular and religious goals as they seek the benefits of separation of church and state by claiming protection against persecution against their minority rights under a pluralist heading. That does not mean that protection of human rights is not an issue. It does mean we cannot ignore cultural changes and the pressures of increased fundamentalist religious zealots for conformity and truncation of rights of those who disagree with them by a strident group claiming violation of their religious freedom. Nor can we ignore the need for vigilance in protection of civil rights during periods of fear and uncertainty.
 Particularly troublesome in responding to Robbins are his citations to material not available for critical examination. For example, he cites an article to be published in a forthcoming collection that may not appear until the year 2004. I have no doubt the material would be helpful and enlightening and look forward to examining it and using it for the basis of continuing dialogue. I wonder, however, whether the compendium of articles edited by Robbins under the tentative heading, "New Religious Movements and State Control Around the Globe," will include discussions of states' activities in protection of religious freedom where such freedoms are sought to be abridged by religions such as Islamic fundamentalists or whether that may not come under the definition of "new" religious movements. I would also hope that the articles about Falun Gong would include material dealing with harm and activities by Falun Gong that impact upon and require regulation by the state to protect the health, safety and welfare of its citizens.
 Papers submitted at AFF conferences are sometimes available as videotapes and/or published in Cultic Studies Review or other journals.
 Included in presentations to the AFF conference audiences were critical comments from Chinese nationals about the practices of the Chinese government.
 Video tape reproductions of AFF conference presentations are available – see footnote 4 above.
 It is a continuing logical flaw in presentations dealing with new or alternative religions to exclude relevant analysis based on majority religions, old religions, or non religious groups. For example, the historical basis of the development of religious freedom cannot be viewed independently of western political history relating to separation of church and state, nor, for example, should views on the impact of religious persecution and the development of religious freedom exclude persecution by established religions leading to secular restraints on religious behavior and readjustment of political secular authority and control.
 Of course, focus on fundamentalist totalistic states and the degree to which they require conformity in ideological areas has been heightened since September 11th and more attention has been addressed to parallels between cults and terrorist fundamentalists or fundamentalist political groups operating within states, as well as the relationship of such groups to the state itself.
 Robbins's helpfully refers to an April 2003 issue of Nova Religio, which contains a symposium and collection of articles on Falun Gong, some of which are quite useful. For example, Ownby's article on popular religions and the Chinese state gives constructive historical background, as do the studies of Rahn and others. The perspectives expressed in the Nova Religio evaluations and information derived from ex members of Falun Gong unsurprisingly omit any analysis of the social harm emanating from its practices inside China.
 This response is a typical ideological one infused by the inconsistency of assuming that all ex-members respond in a manner not worthy of credibility while all information furnished by believers and supporters should be accepted at face value. I vainly hoped that progress had been made towards objective triangulation and skepticism in investigating information relating to cults.
 The inadequacy of Robbins' views with respect to Rosedale's emphasis and omission are highlighted when you recognize that the issues do not relate solely to treatment by the Chinese government of Falun Gong's adherents and supporters inside and outside China. The cult problem in China deals with many different groups, religious and non-religious, and while it is true that there have been and are inappropriate and improper instances of abuses of freedom ignoring permitted diversity of groups in Chinese society, we should discuss limits without the burden of stereotypes of ideology.
 It is instructive to look beyond Falun Gong for this alleged justification of law breaking as a response to persecution. We find such claims frequently made in this country by radical animal protection advocates, environmental terrorists, and militant communal and separatist leaders.
 The explanation of behavior as a response to persecution really leads down the slippery slope of moral equivalence. While it unquestionably helps to explain behavior, it may not be helpful beyond that. Does the use of historical background such as the Crusades justify Islamic Fundamentalist violence? Are we back to the argument of the Sixties that it is justifiable to trash the establishment because it is guilty of some wrongs? Claims of persecution are often subjective and limits on response raise questions of appropriate behavior.
 This paper was published in Cultic Studies Journal under the title, "Legal Analysis of Intent as a Continuum Emphasizing Social Context of Volition," Vol. 6, No. 1, pp. 25-31.