A man who gave his family name as Taniguchi prepares his memorial to the slain prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Photo: Scott Foster

On June 6, 2014, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Pope Francis in the Vatican. Abe offered the pontiff a replica of a Japanese 17th-century “secret mirror.” It looks like a normal mirror but, when inclined to intercept a ray from the sun, it reveals an image of Jesus Christ.

Christians in Japan had to use secret mirrors back in that era since, if they were caught with a Christian image or symbol, they were executed. Many of them were crucified.

As late as 1829, three women and three men were paraded through the streets of Osaka and crucified for being members of the “evil cult” of Christianity (perhaps they weren’t) and for recruiting followers through the use of black magic.

Abe apologized to the Catholic Church for the more than 5,000 Catholics who had been killed in Japan during the persecutions of the 16th and 17th centuries and beyond.

Abe’s apology was commendable, but it would seem to have referred to atrocities of a remote past. Or perhaps not. Scholars such as James T Richardson and Wu Junqing have noted that not much has changed from the times when witches were burned in the West and “evil cults” were bloodily persecuted in Imperial China and Japan.

The only difference is that black magic has been secularized into “brainwashing,” a pseudo-scientific concept implying that “cults” now bewitch their followers through mysterious psychological techniques.

Christians crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. Engraving by Wolfgang Kilian (1581–1663)

Ironically, although Abe apologized for the persecution of Christianity in Japan as an “evil cult” that used black magic, his assassination is now being used to label the Unification Church/Family Federation as a “cult” that obtains donations through brainwashing, the modern version of black magic, and to call for a crackdown on “cults” in general.

The twisted logic supporting these claims is based on the fact that Abe’s assassin hated the Unification Church because his mother made heavy donations to it 20 years ago. He killed Abe to punish him for attending via videos events of an organization connected with that Church.

Rather than blaming the assassin, and the hate campaigns against the Unification Church that may have excited him, the victims are put on trial in a spectacular reversal of both logic and fairness.

But what is a “cult”? A large majority of scholars of religions agree that there are no cults. “Cult” is just a label used to discriminate against groups that powerful lobbies, for whatever reasons, do not like. It was not always so.

“Cult” and its functional equivalents in other languages derived from the Latin word “secta” such as the French “secte” (to be translated “cult” rather than “sect”) had a precise meaning in early-20th-century sociology. They indicated young religions, in which most or all members had converted as adults rather than being born into the faith.

The example used by the early sociologists was that Jesus and the apostles were part of a “cult” as none of them was born as Christians; they were all converted Jews. After some centuries, those who’d been born Christians became the majority and Christianity evolved from “cult” (or “secte” in French) to church.

Most of the scholars who used this terminology were themselves Christians, and clearly for them the word “cult” had no negative implications.

However, during the course of the 20th century and with some older precedents, the new science of criminology started using the word “cult” with a very different meaning. A “cult” was a religious group that systematically committed crimes or would likely commit crimes in the future. This meaning of “cult” was similar to the expression “evil cult” used to persecute and crucify Christians in Imperial Japan. It also created confusion.

A sociologist in the 1960s, when asked whether Jesus and the apostles were part of a “cult,” should have answered yes based on traditional sociological categories. However, since the criminological use of the term was conquering the media as well, the sociologist would have risked being misunderstood and accused of having labeled the first Christians as criminals.

For this reason, from around the 1980s, international scholars of religion led by British sociologist Eileen Barker abandoned the word “cult” and adopted “new religious movements” as the term for the newly established groups whose members were mostly first-generation converts.

Those scholars were aware of the use of “cult” by criminologists and did not deny the existence of groups that routinely commit crimes in the name of religion, among “new” but also among “old” religious traditions – such as networks of pedophile Catholic priests or terrorists who use or misuse the name of Islam.

Since the word “cult” would only create confusion, they adopted other expressions, which later included “criminal religious movements,” which was my suggestion. Criminal religious movements are groups that systematically commit or at least incite to commit common crimes such as physical violence, rape, child abuse, or murder.

Since the late 1960s, activist “anti-cult” groups appeared that called for limiting the activities of “cults.” They defined them not as movements committing common crimes such as homicide or sexual abuse but as groups guilty of an imaginary crime, brainwashing.

With her 1984 book on conversions to the Unification Church, Eileen Barker debunked the theory that ‘cults’ were different from ‘religions’ because they used ‘brainwashing’ to convert their followers. Image: Bitter Winter

The word “brainwashing” was coined during the Cold War by the CIA to designate mysterious techniques allegedly used by the Chinese Maoists and the Soviets to turn otherwise “normal” citizens almost instantly into Communists.

It was later applied to “cults.” By 1990, it had been debunked by religious scholars as pseudo-science, used simply to discriminate against certain groups, and it had been rejected by courts of law at least in the United States.

The Abe assassination is now used for reviving the dead horse of “brainwashing” and of theories claiming that bad “cults,” unlike good “religions,” recruit members and donors through mental manipulation.

Accusations of black magic, of which brainwashing is only the secularized version, and of operating an “evil cult” always lead to dehumanization and persecution of and discrimination against those who are accused – as happened during the European witch hunts and the same Japanese persecution of Christians for which Abe apologized.

Today, they come for the Unification Church. Tomorrow, they may come for any religion that has among its enemies lobbies that are powerful enough to persuade the media it is a “cult.”

While donations to religions are tax-exempt in democratic countries of the world, it is argued that donations to the Unification Church are not given to a “real” religion but to a fraudulent “cult,” and thus the gifts should be regarded as the consideration paid for sales and taxed as such.

The Japanese are not inventing anything. France, which has a bizarre official policy against “cults” that’s now hailed as a model by some in Japan, once argued that donations to the Jehovah’s Witnesses and other groups it included in a list of “cults” were not gifts but payments for goods or services and should be taxed.

The European Court of Human Rights didn’t buy it. The court ruled that the redefinition of donations as payments for sales was just a tool used to discriminate against religious groups the French authorities did not like and labeled as “cults.” France had to give back the taxes the Jehovah’s Witnesses and two other religious movements had already paid, plus legal fees and damages.

Japan is not part of the European Convention on Human Rights but has signed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which has parallel provisions in Article 18. In an official interpretation called General Comment no. 22, issued in 1993, the United Nations stated that “Article 18 is not limited, in its application, to traditional religions.”

The United Nations warned against “any tendency to discriminate against any religion or belief for any reason, including the fact that they are newly established, or represent religious minorities that may be the subject of hostility on the part of a predominant religious community.”

Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is displayed on a makeshift memorial near the scene where he was fatally shot while delivering his speech to support a Liberal Democratic Party candidate, July 9, 2022. Image: Twitter

The way to prevent further media intolerance and administrative discrimination against members of the Unification Church in Japan is to build a large coalition.

It should be obvious to everybody that giving the authorities the power to decide which religions are good and which are bad or “cults” – and the power to tax the donations to the bad ones by declaring they are not real donations – threatens all religious groups. It converts the institutions of allegedly secular states into new inquisitions.

Some Japanese media object that the Unification Church is not a religion with “normal” beliefs but makes bizarre claims for its founder, Reverend Sun Myung Moon.

It is thus time for me to come out. I also believe in a religion making grandiose claims for its founder. Its name is Christianity. As a Christian, I believe that a Jew executed two thousand years ago as a criminal is still alive today.

I also believe that he was born of a virgin mother and resurrected from the dead. Surely, this is more than any claim members of the Unification Church may make for Reverend Moon.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. The author of some 70 books, he is the founder and managing director of the Center for Studies on New Religion (CESNUR), an international network of scholars.

This article is the third to be excerpted, with permission, from a series previously published by Bitter Winter: A Magazine on Religious Liberty and Human Rights. Read part one here and part two here.