Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet Revisited

A Short Review of "Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises", edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (Amsterdam, London and New York: JAI, 2000)


by PierLuigi Zoccatelli
The series "Religion and the Social Order", whose general editor is David Bromley, has acquired a solid reputation for collecting some of the best conference papers and journal articles in the field of the sociology of religion. New developments in theory and research have been regularly covered, with a special attention devoted to new religious movements and the cult wars. Volume 8 of the series, "Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises" is edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan, and collects several papers about religion on the Web. Not all of them deal with new religious movements (an interesting contribution is offered, for instance, by Gary R. Bunt on cyber-Islam). NRMs, however, are a recurring feature in general-theme articles, including Hadden and Cowan’s "Introduction", Hadden’s success story of his own "New Religious Movements Homepage", and Bruce A. Robinson’s tale of how he created and managed to convert it into both one of the most popular religious pages on the Web and an international voice for tolerance. Readers will be both interested and saddened by the story of the rise and fall of NUREL-L, as told from an insider perspective by Douglas Cowan ("Religion, Rhetoric, and Scholarship: Managing Vested Interest in E-Space"). What was started as a discussion list for scholars degenerated into a name-calling arena when non-academic anti-cultists became frequent contributors. Scientologists also reacted, although, as list owner Irving Hexham explained, the latter were much more "respectful and polite" than their opponents (Cowan, op.cit, p. 112). Banning Scientology from the subject discussed in the list and restricting it to scholars did not solve the problem, and NUREL-L, although still existing to this date, "never recovered", as Cowan puts it (ibid., p. 114).

The fourth section of the book, aptly called by the editors "Webs of Deceit", is particularly consecrated to cult wars on the Web. Jean-François Mayer’s paper (originally presented at CESNUR 1999 conference in Bryn Athyn) concludes that anti-cultists have profited from the Internet more than their opponents, some of which (Scientology) have over-reacted while others have simply ignored the Web to their own detriment. Massimo Introvigne publishes another part of his 1999 paper (originally presented at the Chicago ASR meeting) "‘So Many Evil Things’: Anti-Cult Terrorism Via the Internet" (other portions have appeared elsewhere). The paper has benefited from peer review, suggestions and revisions; it is also published at a time when "anti-cult terrorism via the Internet" is less in need of being explained as a category, Introvigne’s model being now frequently quoted by both scholars of NRMs and law enforcement agencies in the wake of his celebrated 1999 paper. Introvigne can thus focus on methodological issues and test some of his hypotheses against Mayer’s and Hadden’s general discussions of NRMs and the Internet in the volume. It is true, as Hadden himself summarizes, that "riding a wave of media conjecture and exaggeration, opponents of NRMs appear to have been more active and more aggressive in cyberspace than many of the movements themselves". The significance of Introvigne’s model of "anti-cult terrorism via the Internet", Hadden suggests, lies however in the fact that it "uses emerging theoretical models of cyberspace to examine issues of violence and terrorism via the Internet. These models Introvigne then applies to the extreme fringe of anti-cultism, which he is clear is not to be confused with the more moderate cult awareness community." "Anti-cult terrorists via the Internet", Hadden goes on commenting, are rather "individuals and groups who use Internet to disseminate religious hate propaganda. The activities of this ‘lunatic fringe’ focus on demonising and dehumanising the ‘cults’ and their alleged supporters; they promote increasingly wild conspiracy theories; and they target legitimate scholars of NRMs whom they have singled out as ‘cult apologists’" (p. 19). Paradoxically, the importance of Introvigne’s study is confirmed by the "terrorists"’s own reaction to it: rather than understanding, let alone discussing, the methodological issues involved, they immediately claimed that Introvigne (and presumably Hadden, and other "cult apologists") were simply labelling their own critics as "terrorists", in continuing furtherance of the same "cult apologists’ conspiracy". (One of the most strange claims is that certain Web sites are not really anti-cult but simply anti-CESNUR, anti-Introvigne, anti-Hadden, etc., and should not be called "anti-cult"; an exceedingly bizarre argument, since these individual scholars and organizations are assaulted precisely because they are regarded as "cult apologists", i.e. the "cults" allegedly benefit from their work). The "terrorists" went on with more of the same, reiterating the ad hominem arguments and name-calling, thus behaving exactly as the model had predicted and confirming the same model’s validity.

"Religion on the Internet" is, of course, about much more than cult wars and anti-cult terrorists. It is also, however, an interesting opportunity to revisit the latter categories in a much broader context. The book is highly recommended to scholars of religion and the Internet in general; and in particular to scholars of new religious movements, the cult wars, hate literature, and to law enforcement agencies and lawyers dealing with the more unpleasant consequences of anti-cult terrorism via the Web.