Human Rights and Cults


Resources pertinent to a special track at the 2013 ICSA Annual Conference, Trieste, Italy.


Authoritarianism (“Obey!”) is the default social position in human history.

Democracy, especially in its modern pluralist form (“Choose!”), is the historical aberration, not the norm.

We often forget this fact because we feel secure in our liberty, especially those of us born into democratic societies after World War II. We take for granted the struggles that produced the documents which safeguard our liberty.

Because our modern democracies are strong, we are able to tolerate extremist and cultic groups that would gladly return our societies to authoritarianism. We should be thankful that these “mini-tyrannies” have rarely posed a threat to the contemporary political order. Quite a few, however, have devastated the lives of some of their members.

On the other hand, some innovative groups, which pose little or no social threat, have been unfairly persecuted. Moreover, groups that deserve to be criticized for certain activities may also be unfairly treated when democratic principles are overlooked in attempts to correct wrongs these groups may have perpetrated.

How does a pluralist democracy protect itself and its citizens against the dangers posed by authoritarian groups without itself becoming authoritarian?

This is the central question for cultic studies experts who consider the public policy implications of their work.

The question is not easy to answer, in part because groups that have generated controversy vary greatly, even within themselves, and because our strong desire to "fix" a problem can sometimes tempt us to take actions inconsistent with our democratic principles.

The challenge is to identify a balanced public policy approach that respects freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and other basic rights.

That is why ICSA constructed a special track for its 2013 annual conference in Trieste, Italy. The track was entitled, “Human rights, the law, and new religious movements: finding a balance.”

The track included sessions that looked at
  • the philosophical context of the topic
  • human rights violations perpetrated by and against cultic groups, or “sects” as they are known in Europe
  • dialogue and the promotion of changes supportive of human rights
  • extremism
  • how the social context (e.g., press reports and popular prejudices) can violate individuals’ human rights
  • proposals seeking a balanced public policy 
The track closed with a two-hour discussion of the issues. A list of individual sessions and abstracts can be found here.

In constructing this human rights track, ICSA pursued its usual goal of promoting dialogue and discussion so that those who continue to disagree do so with mutual respect and understanding. ICSA seeks to “make us think,” not “tell us what to think.”

This special website collection includes readings and other resources to help people interested in this subject improve their understanding of the relevant issues. Please explore the links to the left.