Debate over use of expert analysis of new religious movements


Academics do not want to be instruments of persecution of believers

by Roman Lunkin

Religiia i Pravo, 20 February 2016


The situation involving the use of religious studies expert analysis as an instrument of persecution in Russia has become critical. In 2009, the academic community and thousands of believers were outraged by the appointment of the radical sect-fighter Alexander Dvorkin as the head of the Expert Council in the Russian Ministry of Justice. After that, expert analysis began to be used ever more often in order to liquidate various church movements or to recognize them as extremist and believers as extremists. Other dangers also appeared. Religious studies began being replaced by theology in departments of higher educational institutions and sect-fighters declared themselves to be religious studies scholars. It turned out that the problem is much deeper than disagreements among secular researchers and Orthodox sect-fighters; it is the problem of preserving pluralism in the religious life of Russia.


How is one to act in conditions of chaos and excess? This question was contemplated by participants in the All-Russian Conference "Problems of religious studies expert analysis," organized by the Center for Religious Studies Research "Religiopolis." The leaders of the discussion were Professor Ekaterina Elbakian, the publicist Mikhail Sitnikov, and attorney Inna Zagrebina. Discussion participants included scholars from the entire country, from Vladivostok to St. Petersburg, and also lawyers of the Slavic Legal Center, Anatoly Pchelintsev and Vladimir Riakhovsky.


The scholars put forward a whole series of recommendations for resolving the situation.


--Strengthening the religious studies community by creating a professional organization, possibly with public licensing of experts. The community should also react effectively to offensive materials in news media and judge unprincipled expert analyses. Such was the expert analysis by Larisa Astakhova from Kazan; she concluded that the Church of Scientology was a nonreligious organization, as had been requested by law enforcement agencies and the Russian Ministry of Justice. Regret was expressed that after the conclusion of her academic career, Astakhova chose sect-fighting.


--Publishing a textbook or scholarly resources for religious studies expert analysis, which would describe all methodological approaches, basic concepts and parameters of expert analysis, and legislation in this sphere. Sociologists and religious studies scholars also emphasized the importance of work on creating regional guides on religious organizations, which will help both the public and officials to use academic material in the event of illegal demands on the part of evangelism departments of the Russian Orthodox Church to limit the activity of one or another church.


In connection with expert analysis, there also arose the urgent question of the personal responsibility of the scholar before the law and before religious communities. Many researchers noted the significance of objectivity and academic detachment from the object of investigation, which however seemed naive against the background of a number of disgraceful expert analyses. For example, the head of the Expert Council in the Russian Ministry of justice is not a religious studies scholar but a specialist in criminal law, T. Burkovskaia, who at the same time signs all expert analyses (for example, several dozen regarding churches and movements in Crimea). The Bible published by Jehovah's Witnesses in St. Petersburg was not recognized as the Bible by N. Kriukova, a mathematician by education. This same Kriukova considered the film "Innocence of Muslims" and a tee-shirt with the motto "Orthodoxy or Death" to be extremist.


In the majority of cases, it turns out that religious studies analysis is used extremely arbitrarily because of the lack of clear rules. But in religious studies there cannot be such strict rules as in linguistic or technical expert analysis. Does this mean that it is necessary to generally reject it within the framework of judicial proceedings?


If it were the case that in Russia the procedure for registration of religious associations were declarative, as in many countries (acquiring tax privileges is a separate issue), then religious studies expert analysis should be eliminated altogether. In the meantime, participation by researchers in judicial proceedings often saves churches from liquidation and believers from punishment. There are fewer and fewer such examples.


Scholars are being made participants in the illegal anti-extremist policy of the authorities. Religious studies scholars have a professional interest in a corrected definition of extremism and extremist activity in law. Any word or assessment by a religious studies scholar may become grounds for crminal prosecution. As is the case of Jehovah's Witnesses, who have been found guilty for proclaiming the truth of their religion, which both the RPTs and Muslims do.


The issue of new religious movements also is rather critical: what right does a scholar have to say that this society is nonreligious if all of its members consider themselves to be believers and pray to some god or prophet? How can one oppose those politicians and sect-fighters who consider any non-Orthodox society to be a "commercial cult," while earning money. That means that sooner or later in Russia there will also be devised ways, as in the countries of the European Union, to grant the status of a religious associaiton to all comers (it is not the government's business to ascertain the sincerity of the feelings of believing citizens). And if an association wishes to gain exemption from taxes, then it is necessary to conduct an expert analysis of doctrine and of the existence of religious activity.


Despite the sharp conflict now, it is necessary to foresee future cooperation of the church and science and of religious studies scholars and theologians.


It should be recognized that there is a space for open discussion between representatives of scholarship and the church, but only in Moscow. That is the church-wide graduate studies of the RPTs and St. Tikhon's Orthodox University. The basic portion of those who are studying religious movements in Orthodox dioceses or educational institutions are xenophobic and advocate against religious liberty and prohibit even those churches and groups that are registered in Russia (especially active in this regard is the Evangelism Department of the RPTs, when it is mission and preaching that this department is essentially not engaged in). Religious studies scholars are diverse people, with their own shortcomings, many of whom also are Orthodox, but now they have become an obstacle for a new anti-religious campaign. Researchers see only too well how close is the lexicon of sect-fighters to that of the soviet atheist Emelian Yaroslavsky. (tr. by PDS, posted 22 February 2016)

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