In 2018, two Italian journalists, Flavia Piccinni and Carmine Gazzanni, published a mediocre book called Nella setta (In the Cult). It included the usual laundry list of vituperations against the “cults.” The language was carefully chosen to de-humanise the members of religions the authors did not like. For instance, in one of the first chapters, the journalists described their visit to the Church of Scientology in Milan. The female Scientologist who welcomed them was described as having “alligator-like” eyes coupled with “horse-like” teeth.
Nothing is more similar to an anti-cult book than another anti-cult book. The journalists cut and pasted from previous similar books the fantastic number of four million Italians involved in “dangerous cults.” There is only one problem with this often quoted statistic, it doesn’t make sense.
I am the editor of CESNUR (the Center for Studies on New Religion)’s Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy, which is periodically published as a book and updated monthly online. Our statistics are usually quoted as highly reliable by both academics and quality media.
As of 2019, we estimate that there are slightly more than two million Italians (Italian citizens, not including immigrants) belonging to any religion other than Roman Catholicism. These are by no means all members of “cults,” as they include Protestants, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, and Jews.
The aim of the book seems to be to re-introduce in Italy a law against brainwashing, something very difficult after in 1981 the Constitutional Court declared similar provisions punishing plagio (undue influence), which dated back to the Fascist era, as incompatible with a democratic constitution. The authors mention, but do not understand, the 1981 decision. The discussion on plagio started in Italy when the rarely applied provision was used to send to jail the Communist homosexual author Aldo Braibanti (1922-2014), accused of having brainwashed into homosexual relations with him, several young men.
The book implies that the Constitutional Court intervened on the Braibanti case. This is a mistake I often encountered in conversations with fellow Italians of my generation. They remember that Braibanti was sentenced for plagio and they remember that in 1981 the Constitutional Court declared the corresponding legal provision unconstitutional, and they connect the two incidents. However, the truth is that the Constitutional Court refused to review the conviction of Braibanti.
The Court intervened in the later case of Father Emilio Grasso, a Catholic priest accused of “brainwashing” young people into abandoning their bourgeois life to serve the poor and the destitute.
This is accompanied by another frequent mistake, this one legal. The book argues that, by striking out the plagio provision, the Constitutional Court was conscious of creating a “legal void,” and suggested that a different law is enacted to cover real instances of brainwashing. In fact, the Court stated that plagio was an imaginary crime, and no laws are needed for crimes of the imagination. These are not minor points. By mentioning Father Grasso, the book should admit that accusations of practising brainwashing or being a “cult” can target also mainline religions.
Father Grasso, by the way, is not a marginal priest and has been honoured by several popes, including the present one. And this leads us back to the main point. What is a “cult”? Besides “a group anti-cultists do not like,” answers appear to be very much unclear.
The book is not where to look for a serious discussion of the issue, and may easily be dismissed as yet another sensationalist account. Attempts to re-introduce plagio or brainwashing legislation in Italy have consistently failed in the last twenty-five years. Yet, as bizarre as it may seem, in the present populist political climate, the book has been taken seriously by some politicians.
Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini participated in a presentation and was photographed holding the book. An MP from the opposition party Forza Italia, Iole Santelli, presented a law proposal introducing the crime of “mental manipulation.” Others proposed French-style commissions of investigation or anti-cult official bodies. Santelli claimed that every three days in Italy one person “disappears,” kidnapped or lured by “cults,” some or most of them “Satanic.”
Folk statistics about Satanism are a speciality of anti-cultists and populist politicians, not only in Italy. They have the burden of proving these figures. They never even tried.
Claiming that Italians vanish into a “cult” at the rhythm of one every three days is even more senseless than estimating Italian “cultists” at four million. The truth is that fake news and bizarre pseudo-statistics are mobilised to propose a general crackdown on religious minorities anti-cultists happen not to like. In normal times, such tall tales should be dismissed as merely preposterous. In the present political climate, even absurd theories may generate illiberal measures.