Not surprisingly, the methodology of the MIVILUDES leads to systematic mistakes
By Massimo Introvigne
Bitter Winter (11.08.2021) – https://bit.ly/3ACIFCS – In a previous article reviewing the recently published report for the years 2018–2020 of the French MIVILUDES, the French Inter-ministerial mission for monitoring and combating cultic deviances (dérives sectaires), I noted how it suffers from a fundamental methodological problem.
The report is a building built using as bricks the saisines, i.e., the complaints against a religious movement that everybody can send to the MIVILUDES by letter or by using an online form. For pages and pages, the report summarizes and quotes the saisines. There is no indication that the saisines have been verified by confronting them with the existing scholarly literature on the accused religious movements, or by interviewing members in good standing of the religious organizations, who may have a totally different point of view.
Today, I examine a massive example of the use, or misuse, of the saisines, i.e., the part of the report concerning the Jehovah’s Witnesses, which is based on 62 saisines the MIVILUDES received in 2020, in addition to those received in the previous years. They do not seem to be many, considering that there are currently 136,000 Jehovah’s Witnesses in France. I also discussed in my previous article how the system of the saisines may be easily manipulated by the concerted efforts of organized opponents, who may all send saisines to the MIVILUDES, giving the false impression that a widespread popular protest exists against a certain religion.
First, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are classified among the “closed religious movements of Christian inspiration.” The main feature of a “closed religious movement,” the report says, is the “indoctrination and control [embrigadement] of children.” That this is the main feature of these groups, once again, is a conclusion the MIVILUDES derives from the saisines it has received. This notion of a “closed religious movement,” however, does not correspond to any scholarly definition, and does not apply to the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They send their children to public schools, which is hardly compatible with the idea of a strict control conveyed by the French word “embrigadement.”
More generally, most Jehovah’s Witnesses have a job outside of the congregation and regularly interact with non-members. Jehovah’s Witnesses are conservative believers who live quietly but are very much part of the “outside world,” unlike the real, typical “closed” religious communities who live communally in isolated farms. That the Jehovah’s Witnesses are a “closed religious community” was argued by a study by scholars from the University of Utrecht for the Dutch government. Also in that case, which however did not focus on the “regimentation” of children, I and my colleagues J. Gordon Melton and Holly Folk objected that the notion of “closed religious community” applied to the Witnesses did not correspond to the more common use of the world in social scientific literature.
The MIVILUDES objects that “participation in the life of the city (elections, representation) is forbidden, which can contravene the right to education in democratic values.” The Jehovah’s Witnesses do not vote or offers themselves as candidates in political elections for theological reasons. This is part of their religious liberty, and a form of “conscientious objection” most democratic countries in the world have recognized as legitimate, just as they have recognized the rights of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to conscientious objection with respect to military service.
From the theory of the “closed religious movement” comes the strange comment that Jehovah’s Witnesses practice a “‘brutal’ isolation” of certain members of their community, including “people with disabilities” and “the elderly.” This may have been reported in some malicious saisine, but those who are familiar with the Jehovah’s Witnesses know it is both untrue and offensive. I can personally testify that the elderly and those with disabilities are taken care of with love and patience by the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who regard this as part of their Christian duties.
Governments have even given awards to the Jehovah’s Witnesses for their care of the persons with disabilities, noting that the congregation “takes into consideration not just the physical access to their buildings, through facilities for those with special assistance needs; it also facilitates communication and access to technology by holding meetings for worship and other activities in sign language (American Sign Language) and by providing Braille publications and sign-language videos.” Perhaps even more importantly, the Jehovah’s Witnesses give hope to the elderly and persons with disabilities by telling them that disabilities and the problems connected with old age are not forever. They will disappear in the Kingdom of God announced by Jesus Christ in which the Jehovah’s Witnesses firmly believe.
Second, Jehovah’s Witnesses are blamed for their “very active proselytizing,” which during the COVID-19 crisis was mostly through letters and phone calls. It is not specifically alleged that the Jehovah’s Witnesses breached any French law about unwanted phone calls. In one of the saisines, somebody complained that a letter was sent to him by the Jehovah’s Witnesses 15 days after he (or she, the gender of the complainant not having been specified) returned home after a short period of hospitalization. The MIVILUDES believes that, since the letter mentioned illness and healing, it is evidence that the Jehovah’s Witnesses have “precise… objective for evangelization, especially during the health crisis.” Again, of what the Jehovah’s Witnesses are precisely accused is unclear. The implication seems to be that the Jehovah’s Witnesses fraudulently obtained lists of people who had been hospitalized, and wrote to them when they returned home. What likely happened is that the complainant received a general letter, and it is not strange that in a time of pandemic the letter would mention health problems. There are no laws against sending letters, and presumably the complainant receives in the family mailbox publicity of all kind. Regarding only a letter sent by the Jehovah’s Witnesses as objectionable comes dangerously close to judging the content of the letter, and singling out a religious group for its doctrines. It seems that France has problems in accepting that not all religions engage in “very active proselytizing,” but some do, and proselytizing is part of the religious liberty protected by both the Universal and European Declarations of Human Rights.
Read the full article in Bitter Winter
Photo : Permanent exhibition « Le nom divin et la Bible en français » (The Divine Name and the Bible in French) at the French Jehovah’s Witnesses’ headquarters in Louviers. Source: jw.org.
Massimo Introvigne (born June 14, 1955 in Rome) is an Italian sociologist of religions. He is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR), an international network of scholars who study new religious movements. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. He was the main author of the Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia (Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy). He is a member of the editorial board for the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion and of the executive board of University of California Press’ Nova Religio. From January 5 to December 31, 2011, he has served as the “Representative on combating racism, xenophobia and discrimination, with a special focus on discrimination against Christians and members of other religions” of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). From 2012 to 2015 he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.