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Recommendations to the Australian Government

by Stephen Mutch PhD LLB 

Dr Stephen Mutch is a retired lawyer, policy adviser and former member of the NSW Legislative Council (State Senate) and the Australian House of Representatives. He is a retired Honorary Fellow at Macquarie Unviersity, where he taught 'Australian Governments and Public Policy' and 'Australian Foreign Policy'. Along with public policy generally, his research interests have included cults, sects, New Religious Movements and the relationship between religion, secularism and the state, viewed from a comparative public policy perspective. He is a member of the Editorial Board of both the International Journal of Cultic Studies and the Polish Journal Family and Society.


by Stephen Mutch PhD


(Permission to re-publish this article has been granted by International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA).



I argue in this paper, situated in the field of comparative public policy, that a focus on freedom of religion in fundamental laws, at the expense of the notion of freedom from religion, marginalizes the secular perspective in favor of the religious lobby, thus helping to empower cults, sects, and new religious movements (NRMs) alongside mainstream religion. I note that the United States’ First-Amendment religious clauses, taken together, constitute a secular approach that was intended to guard against religious and state-sponsored sectarianism. It is therefore a mistake to conflate the free-exercise and nonestablishment clauses with the popular expression “freedom of religion” per se, an erroneous interpretation generally promoted by the religious lobby, and one that holds some sway in US policy decisions. Because of the influence of US thinking and jurisprudence on international-rights regimes, it is important to guard against globalizing a multifaith expansion of the old “Christian commonwealth” argument in favor of special religious privilege, as opposed to the genuinely secular approach encapsulated in an interpretation of the US First Amendment embodied in the phrase “separation of church and state.”

Preamble: Rights As Weapons

We usually think of rights as protections, or shields, but sometimes shields can be used as weapons against critics or claimants for competing rights. This use can upset the balance that rights regimes mean to achieve and sometimes undermines the noble purpose of human rights. Freedom of religion is a long-recognized right that is capable of misuse in this way, and such misuse can be particularly problematic in the field of cultic studies.

One of the special tracks for the 2013 International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA) conference in Trieste was “Human Rights, the Law, and New Religious Movements: Finding a Balance.” The organizers noted that “the challenge is to identify a balanced public-policy approach that respects freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of thought, and other basic rights.”[1] I too believe the real challenge is to find the correct public-policy approach, but sometimes this also means balancing freedom of religion with freedom from religion. To do this, we need to challenge the laissez-faire-inspired rationale behind reverentially recited but hard-to-define notions such as freedom of religion. That phrase can be misused, especially when entrenched in fundamental laws. It can provide a shield for little tyrannies and an excuse, particularly for governments of so-called liberal democracies, to sit on their hands and do little to protect the victims of cultic abuse.

If governments can defend their neglect by relying on superficially noble expressions such as freedom of religion, then so much the better for them to avoid accountability.[2] Government neglect can sometimes serve to turn the tables on oppressed victims in favor of the more politically savvy and financially secure oppressors. The irony of odious groups being able to claim victim status by using the trump card of religious freedom can be devastating to their victims and critics. Yet this is one of the dangers we face when we entrench in fundamental laws a notion that can readily be interpreted as guaranteeing a privileged position for a particular individual, the religious observer; for religious organizations[1]; and by extension, for a particular interest grouping, the religious lobby. Indeed, unintended consequences of well-meaning rights regimes may present an existential threat to cult critics generally.

Those who exercise religion and the groups that facilitate religious exercise are deemed to be deserving of special protection and often privileges. Despite some attempts to exclude cults by definition, cults, sects, and new religious movements (NRMs) can easily claim religious status in order to access these protections and privileges.[2] However, benefits granted to an ever-widening spectrum of religious groups are not so readily granted to competing interest or ideological groups, under either fundamental laws or ordinary laws that reflect government policy.

Competing groups might include those that promote equivalent or opposing belief systems, such as humanism or atheism. They also can include groups that represent victims of religion, including those that focus on problematic NRMs (often labelled cults). To rebalance the power equation, these groups might try to play catch-up in the human-rights roulette. They may find ways to gain or discover equivalent rights (perhaps encapsulated in the words religion or belief),[3] or to utilize existing rights found in provisions that protect the rights of children, free speech, and so on. However, in this endeavor, victims of cultic abuse, cult critics, and politically secular atheists can be very much behind the eight ball.[4]

Freedom of Religion: A Basic Human Right?

One can take issue with the idea that there is such a thing as a basic human right or a natural law, which Jeremy Bentham called “nonsense on stilts.”[1] These things are artificial human constructs. Rights invented to date have usually been qualified in some way, either by sensible exception or by the invention of another competing right.

Yet it is common for liberals of various styles, many social democrats, and a great many religious observers to claim that freedom of religion is a basic human right. Indeed, the International Bill of Rights (the popular term for the Covenants on Civil and Political Rights and Economic, Social and Cultural Rights) is said to be “anchored in the Western liberal tradition,” which proclaims “classic liberal freedoms of religion, expression, peaceful assembly, association and movement within a country” and is focused particularly on civil and political rights.[1] It seems that only some politically committed secular atheists, old-time socialists, neo-Marxists, and iconoclastic religious observers are prepared to openly challenge the prevailing ideological assumptions inherent in the politically correct expression freedom of religion.

A leading light of the “Western liberal tradition” after the Great War (Woodrow Wilson and his 14 points) and again after World War II (the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) has been the United States. The United States has ratified the first convention (on civil and political rights) but not the second (on economic, social, and cultural rights), in part because it is a nation with a strong liberal but weak social-democratic tradition.[2] Such cherry picking is also an implicit recognition that there is nothing universal or natural about human rights. Nations pick and choose between those rights they wish to promote, reject, or downplay. I suspect that interpretation of the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights is also influenced somewhat by a US laissez-faire interpretation of liberalism generally, which in the field of cultic studies informs a caveat emptor response rather than a regulatory approach aimed at protecting victims.


[1] Stewart Firth, Australia in International Politics: An Introduction to Australian Foreign Policy, 3rd. ed., p. 313 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2011) [2] Firth, Australia in International Politics, p. 313. In general, the term liberal is used in this paper to indicate classic eighteenth-century liberalism or contemporary neoliberalism. There is a tendency in the United States for Republican neoliberals to use the phrase “tax and spend liberal” against Democrats, who generally embrace a fusion of social democratic and liberal principles, but who often share with Republicans a penchant for neoliberalism in both its economic and social dimensions. It should also be noted that the National Liberal League, founded in the United States in 1876 to campaign for a constitutional amendment to ensure the separation of church and state, was in fact a politically secularist grouping “insisting upon a purely secular version of separation that would segregate government not only from any one church but also, more broadly, from all distinct religions” [Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State, pp. 296; 287–288 (Harvard University Press, 2001)].


by Stephen Mutch PhD


(Permission to re-publish this article has been granted by International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA)

International Journal of Cultic Studies, Vol. 9, 2018, pages 31-42)

From Deprogramming to Deradicalization: How Cultic Studies Offers Insights for Subject-Diversion Programs and Suggests Pathways for Complaint About Religious and Ideologically Motivated Abuse in Australia


Based on a United Kingdom precedent, terrorism law in Australia defines terrorist acts as certain actions and threats against the government or a section of the community with the intention of advancing a political, religious, or ideological cause (Security Legislation Amendment (Terrorism) Act, 2002). In addition, Australia has proscribed mainly Islamic-styled groups deemed to be terrorist, authorized preventative detention and control orders, and legislated for the cancellation of Australian passports for dual citizens fighting abroad; it also can extend prison sentences beyond term for those deemed a continuing risk to the community. Australia has also pursued policies aimed at both community engagement and education, with some minimally funded support for a few embryonic programs aimed at diverting individuals from extremist Islamist ideologies that promote violence.

Acknowledging that Islamist extremism poses the greatest contemporary problem in the sector of religion and belief, targeting programs toward the violent extreme of one faith group can lead to some resentment and resistance. Although pushback to any government regulatory program can be anticipated, there is scope for government to more effectively regulate (in a nondiscriminatory manner) the broader sector that encompasses religion and belief. The major obstacle to effective regulation of this sector seems to be the general reluctance of liberal democracies to regulate religion as a sector at all, unless it is for the purpose of conferring benefits. I argue that this laissez faire diffidence to regulatory control is no longer tenable.

Drawing on insights gleaned from the study of cults, sects, and new religious movements, and from policy responses in other countries, I propose the establishment of a central repository specifically tasked to receive and competently assess complaints arising from the practice of religion and belief, with a particular focus on apostate research. A properly supported agency that accesses multidisciplinary advice and serves as a central repository for complaints, with powers to obtain information yet one step removed from law enforcement, would research best practice and make ongoing recommendations on sector policy. The remit of the agency (essentially a complaints commission for religious and ideological abuse) would include examination of behavior that potentially leads to violence, but would also examine other harmful conduct identified from complaints received.

Religious Motive in Antiterrorism Laws

A large proportion of contemporary terrorist incidents and plots involve actors sincerely (albeit misguidedly) motivated by religious ideology and acting under the direction of religious authority.[1] Many of these religiously motivated attacks and plots emerge from organizations and individuals who find theological justification for public acts of violence from extremist interpretations of Wahhabist and Salafist Sunni ideology, theological streams that emanate from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have a longstanding pedigree in Islamic thought.

In Australia, where the government has legislated to enable the Commonwealth Attorney-General to proscribe terrorist organizations, it is noticeable that most groups thus far listed as banned terrorist organizations are underpinned by extremist religious ideology commonly or popularly described as Islamic fundamentalism, radical Islam, Islamism, or Islamic extremism. Robert Manne has argued that a better term to employ, particularly for those who have pledged adherence to the Islamic State, but also to groups such as Al Quaeda (which does not share the same sectarian animosity to Shi’a Islam),[2] is Salafi jihadism, “believers in the revolutionary transformation of the world through violent means” (Manne, 2016, p. 159). 

The below articles by Stephen Mutch PhD, are re-published with permission from
International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA), USA.

Cults and Religious Privileges in England and Australia Can the Wheat be Separated from the Chaff

Cultic Studies Review, Vol 3, No. 2/3, 2004, pages 135-151.

Cultism, Terrorism, and Homeland Security

Cultic Studies Review, Vol 5, No. 2, 2006, pages 171-199.

Cultish Religious Sects and Politics: The Brethren v. Greens Contest and Other Controversies Involving Minor Religious Sects Down Under

Cultic Studies Review, Vol 6, No. 3, 2007, pages 298-312.

cults, religion, and china: policy frameworks for the regulation of religious and quasireligious groups 

International Journal of Cultic Studies Review, Vol 3, 2012, pages 1-14.

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