Thoughts on Children in New Religions

By David G. Robertson

As Susan Palmer argued in her opening keynote at the CenSAMM conference on Millenarianism and Violence in Bedford last week, children are often the focus of particular attention within millenarian groups. As Mary Douglas argued, this is because the child is conceived of as the embodiment of the group’s ideals. The child is conceived of as both (simultaneously) perfect, and a blank slate, onto which the group may write their values.

Millennial ideas – and prophecy more generally – do not entirely concern the future, but rather the potentialities contained in the present. Concerns over the present order are critiqued using an idealised past, and projected into the future. Thus the prophetic present represents the potential of a better world, through the work of the group in question. The child therefore literally embodies that potentiality.

But we could invert the argument: if children represent the possibility of the community, is this the reason that children are so often at the centre of public and governmental concerns about New Religious Movements? Indeed , can we see the child as at the site of competition between the state and the NRM – who will inscribe their values more successfully?

As Palmer herself argued in her 2010 book The Nuwaubian Nation, charges of child abuse are a recurrent feature of accusations against minority religions. This can be seen in the histories of the The Children of God, Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, Branch Davidians, Lord Our Righteousness Church, MOVE among many, many others. We can also see it perhaps in the contemporary resurgence of media interest in Scientology, following the release of Going Clear, with contemporary concerns including the welfare of children (and Hubbard’s own children) increasingly at the centre of criticisms. Indeed, as I argued in my own paper at the conference, there is a millennial (and/or apocalyptic) subtext to paedophilia scares from the Satanic Ritual Abuse scare of the early 1990s to the very recent PizzaGate conspiracy narrative.

For each side, allowing the other side to instil their values into the child is tantamount to doing violence to them. Therefore, it can in some cases become permissible, even necessary, to commit violence to prevent this. This might well illustrate the claim by Stuart Wright later in the conference that violence is by no means an inevitable outcome of millenarianism, nor the result of some essential quality or attribute. Rather it is one possible result of the relationship between the groups and other groups, particularly legal or military, which represent the official state. Until the 1980s, the anti-cult movement relied predominantly on charges of brainwashing to encourage state intervention in NRMs. A brainwashed individual was essentially one stripped of agency and free will. The concept derived from the USA’s Asian wars of the 1950s to ‘70s, to explain why some GIs would defect to the other side. Few psychologists accept the existence of brainwashing today, however, so perhaps this is why the charges against NRMs increasing concern children.

We might also note how often children are used by the state to legitimise violence against others. Only last week, Donald Trump justified missile strikes on Syria by stating that “Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.” As ever, contemporary religions offer a microcosm of broader concerns and trajectories in culture – one more reason why Religious Studies is so vital today.

A full report on the conference will be published in the BASR Bulletin in May.