A response to Susan Palmer on “Children in New Religious Movements”
by Patricia ‘Iolana
Considering the title of her podcast, I was hoping that Dr Susan Palmer would speak about children in all New Religious Movements (NRM). Instead, I found myself immersed in a discussion about children in more problematic groups such as Hari Krishna, the New Unification Church, Children of God, 12 Tribes, Mormon Polygamists, and Scientology.
There are a myriad of New Religious Movements (NRM) from Jedi’s to Scientology, but not all NRMs are created equal or treated equally in today’s secular culture. There are many in theology and religious studies who (accepting the falsehood of Margaret Murray’s Witch-Cult theory) include various forms of Witchcraft, Goddess Spirituality, and Paganism in the bulk identifier of “New Religious Movement”, but Palmer does not address any of these “unproblematic” movements and uses the NRM label wholly to discuss “problematic” movements both in America and abroad.
When one thinks of “cults”, Scientology often comes to mind. While I would not defend the actions of Scientology, Dr Palmer raises a significant alarm that affects all NRMs or any faith tradition—“problematic” or “unproblematic”—that stand outside of the recognised conventional ‘World Religions’—assimilation of their children. My response focuses on this tactic and the dangers therein.
I am gravely concerned about Dr Palmer’s statement that ‘social forces are putting pressure on alternative religions to raise their children in the same way as secular children.’ In a time where, as Dr Palmer states, ‘our mainstream secular culture is [perceived] as the highest type of culture’ who, then, stands in judgement of NRM? Who has given social workers the power to rip children from families because of their religious beliefs? Who decides which children are truly at risk and which children are merely the victims of ‘perceived danger’?
My apprehension relates to the judgement and condemnation of others that stand outside of traditional organised religions. Dr Palmer tells the horrifying tale of a bombing conducted by the State of Pennsylvania on 13 May 1985 where two bombs were dropped on the houses of an apocalyptic religion called MOVE in an attempt to destroy an armed bunker belonging to these political anarchists. Six adults and five children were killed in the bombing; those who tried to flee where shot as they left the building, and the fire department was kept from responding which resulted in 61 homes burning to the ground. Prior to the bombing of these houses in Philadelphia (yes, the US bombed its own citizens in America) the children of these MOVE members where characterised as ‘wild animals’ and potential ‘gorilla warriors’. This dehumanizing condemnation (mirroring a war-time tactic) was required so that the government felt justified in bombing its own citizens.
However, in much more sinister and less visible actions, children in NRM are often taken from their parents by ‘concerned’ social workers and by judges in custody battles. These social forces and tactics are also being used against others in the NRM—especially with parents who claim to be Witches or Pagans. Removing a child from their family ‘violates the rights of the parents to raise their children in their own faith’ according to Dr Palmer. The removal of children from their family units for religious grounds is a dangerous precedent that could eek its way further and further away from NRMs towards other faith traditions seen as outside the acceptable realm of the World Religions. How long will it be before children are removed from other families with faith traditions that aren’t necessarily part of the World Religions label? Would conservative Christians start targeting children in Islamic or Sikh families, or considering the liturgical battle within Christianity, perhaps move against Protestant or Catholic Charismatic movements and families simply because they don’t agree with their religious beliefs?
I don’t deny the danger of some such groups both in America and abroad, but the First Amendment to the US Constitution guarantees American citizens the right to practice their religion without fear of retribution by the government. Under the guise of protection, children are stripped from their parents, brothers and sisters, cultural heritage, and placed into orphanages and foster homes often separated from their own siblings, widely scattered in various geographic locations, making it difficult to find and reclaim them. It is a moral imperative on our part if these children have asked for assistance in escaping their family or their cult, or have been either physically or emotionally abused, but for outsiders to make an unsubstantiated decision ‘for the good of the child’ is an unbelievable destruction of the family unit. Who decides which children are to be removed and assimilated to a secular society?
Have we not seen this horrific abuse among the indigenous populations of North American (with the First Nation Tribes), in New Zealand with the Maori population as depicted in the 2002 film Rabbit-Proof Fence, or in Hawaii with the ancient Hawaiian people? These cultures were nearly decimated in an attempt by others to assimilate their children into a Western (and ironically considered decidedly more civilized) colonialized culture because those who stood in judgement felt their religious and cultural beliefs to be inconsistent with their own thinking and thus lesser than or even evil? This is a dangerous precedent indeed.
While each of us holds the obligation to help anyone (child or adult) who wishes to leave, escape, or flee a cult, it is not the place of the social services or the courts to randomly remove children from their family unit because someone in a position of power is threatened by beliefs or religious traditions that may not align with their own.
For More information:
The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978: http://www.nicwa.org/Indian_Child_Welfare_Act/
Native American Children Taken from their Families:
Hawaiian Culture still at odds with Christianity:
Dame Susan Devoy says Maori children more likely to be taken from their families: