The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la République, and the Government-Sponsored "War on Sects"

By Susan J. Palmer | Go to book overview

Introduction
Why “New Heretics”?

This book is a history of the “French Sect Wars”—or (to put it more politely) a case study of the “public management” of new religions in France since the 1994 Solar Temple mass suicides and homicides. Based on firsthand field research, this work is an exploration of the controversy and conflict surrounding some of France’s most radical and visible religious minorities. These groups range from the well-known, international new religious movements (NRMs) such as Scientology and the Unification Church, to small, local spiritual groups native to France like Horus, Néo-Phare, Mandarom, and Les Pèlerins d’Arès, to missionary outposts or new branches of mainstream “oriental-import” or Asian spiritual traditions such as Ogyen Chogyam Rinpoche, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), and Soka Gakkai. These have been grouped together and labeled as sectes.

I have chosen to translate the French term secte into the word “sect” in English. There are two objections to this choice. First, secte is a derogatory term, a stigmatizing label in French, and a more correct translation would be “cult,” which since the mid-1970s has had negative connotations. “Sect” in English would denote a sectarian movement from a mainstream religion that is based on the same sacred texts and firmly rooted in orthodoxy, but which refuses to compromise with secular and irreligious trends in society. Church/cult/sect typologies have been developed by sociologists Ernst Troeltsch1 and Robert S. Ellwood,2 who use this term as a neutral descriptive term. Bryan R. Wilson, who has contributed a detailed study of the characteristics of sects and their relationship to society in three of his books,3 sums up the main features of a religious sect as follows:

A religious sect is a separated, voluntary association following a distinc-
tive pattern of worship, morality and organization … The members of a
sect tend to see themselves as a gathered remnant, a specially chosen
people, a community emerging at the culmination of a long historical

-2-

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