Our Purpose

As the Western World becomes increasingly secularized, a corresponding concern for the well-being of children in fundamentalist and alternative religions has followed.

Article 54 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) reads: “State Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” But interpretations of this seemingly simple statement tend to vary. In England or Italy this means children’s right to follow their parents’ religion, but in other countries (France and Germany) it is interpreted as the child’s right to be free from religion. The heated debates in the 1980s over voluntary conversion versus brainwashing in the first generation of converts to “cults” has now shifted - to a new debate over children’s indoctrination versus freedom of choice.

While stereotypes of captive, abused children in cults and sects have been widely disseminated by the media, existing research indicates that religious communities vary considerably in their approaches to childrearing, and even in their basic concept of “the child”. They also differ in terms of success or failure in socializing their youth into their parents’ spiritual worldviews – a process that determines their very survival as a faith community. As British sociologist, Linda Morehead, notes: “The importance of children in shaping the future of religion and non-religion has been seriously under-estimated.”

For these reasons, it is vital that we gain accurate and up-to-date information on children’s lives within alternative and minority religions.

Thus, the purpose of this project is to replace the hasty, casual research and “folkways” of journalism with the more reliable findings of social scientific research. Our team is gathering data, using the standard qualitative and quantitative methods (fieldwork, participant observation, interviews and survey questionnaires). Our research process follows the standard steps; from literature review to organizing the research design, to gathering, analyzing and interpreting the data.

We also try to step back, to gain a broader view of the recent historical events, legal developments, and the everyday, embodied “living religion” in these communities. Whether a religious group chooses to shun, embrace, or accommodate the surrounding society, each offers a creative response to the complex dilemmas of modernity. Whether their religious responses be conservative or “radical”, they are all somehow in dialogue with the surrounding secular culture. Fundamentalist religions and “cults” are characterized in the media as primitive reactionaries, as dangerous, or as simply strange. But, in a changing world where even mainline churches are struggling to adapt, we believe that by learning about these religions we may temper our responses to them – and hopefully avert the kind of stigmatizing processes that have often lead to violations of human rights and religious freedom. Possibly, we may even learn something about our own culture and its future possibilities.

SSHRC Insight Grant (2016)

Children in Sectarian Religions and State Control, 1950-2020

The project will have two primary foci. The first focus will be to explore the variety of ways that new religions socialize their second and third generations. The second focus will be to study conflicts in different countries between minority religions and local secular authorities; conflicts that result from religiously-based, alternative childrearing methods.

The goal of the first part of this project will be to achieve an ethnography on alternative  childrearing, covering a wide range of religious communities and utopian movements in North America and Western Europe, from 1950 to 2020. Groups with unique, highly-developed, spiritually-based childrearing practices will be the main focus of this study. Beliefs and practices will include child-centered rites of passage, eugenics theory and practice, the child’s spiritual identity and role in family and community life, education and pedagogy, socialization in gender roles, children in domestic work and industries, children’s participation in missionary activities, children’s place in the group’s eschatology and millennial vision, the child’s relationship with the charismatic prophet or teacher.

The groups chosen for this study demonstrate different orientations to secular society - from the communal, millenarian “world rejecting” groups, to the “world affirming” groups seeking material success and personal empowerment, to the socially neutral “world accommodating” groups (Wallis 1984). Their beliefs are often eclectic and syncretic, deriving from Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist traditions, or “New Age”, ufology, or magical-arcane sources. The “world-rejecting” groups will be our main focus, since they tend to develop the most distinct, radically alternative subcultures.

The project’s second goal will be a sociological analysis of how strategies of state control of new religious family life in international perspective. Those communities with a history of state intervention and child custody battles will be our focus. Case histories of the “public management” of groups deemed as “radical” or “fundamentalist” in different countries (U.S., Canada, France, Germany) will be documented, and the trajectories of their conflicts (police raids, social welfare investigations, custody disputes and court hearings) analysed. The role of “moral authorities”, cultural opponents or “anticult” groups involved in these controversies will be examined.