top of page

Notes on the geopolitics of cults. Appendix: Face/Off

Luigi Corvaglia

Sometimes things are not as they appear. Sometimes they are just the opposite of what they appear to be. The seven-part excursus on the geopolitics of cults proposed here, for example, has shown how long a narrative has been prevalent that sees the defenders of those non-territorial totalitarianisms that are the 'cults' as champions of civil rights and advocates of religious freedom. Instead, scholars and associations that denounce the work of abusive cults are labelled as enemies of religious freedom and individual self-determination. Those who have read the report know how paradoxical this last accusation is, knowing the political and cultural background it emanates from (parts three, four, five and seven). As in the movie Face/Off, the 'good' has taken on the face of the 'evil' and vice versa. That a work of influence can lead to this result by misleading the unwary audience is easy to understand. Nevertheless, the reader is probably left with the unsatisfying question of how some apologists for cults professing non-ecumenical versions of their own faith can defend other faiths, or how CESNUR, an organisation that emerged from a traditionalist Catholic group such as Alleanza Cattolica (Fourth Part), can become the steering committee for the coordinated action of the international network in defence of cults most distant from Catholicism. I believe that I can contribute, at least in part, to the resolution of this paradox by referring to three concepts - namely, a doctrine, a theory, and a political idea - that constitute the cultural references of the leadership of the Turin Study Centre. The three pairs of concepts are briefly described below.

1. The Theory of Religious Economy

Rodney Stark is an American know-it-all scientist who vehemently advocates Darwinism in all fields except the one that is its own, biology (in his opinion, evolution is an invention to discredit religion)

This is how blogger Miguel Martinez sums up this character. An effective and keen synthesis that's enriched in the following lines:

Rodney Stark's main concern is to justify neoliberalism theologically, as is evident from the triumphant title of one of his books, The Victory of Reason. How Christianity Led to Freedom, Capitalism, and Western Success. A concept we might translate as, "If they foreclose on your house, it's because Jesus wanted it that way".

The author is witty and shows very well the conditions under which the "American know-it-all" works. However, to say that Stark merely "justifies neoliberalism theologically" falls short; in fact, his main concern is to justify theology on "neoliberal" grounds. We should proceed in order. We can say it better. Rodney Stark can be considered the founder of the Theory of Religious Economy. This is the notion that the religious is a "market' equal in all respects to the commodity market. As in all markets, different consumers buy goods, which in this case are the "religious goods" (the various creeds) of competing religious enterprises (the more or less organized religions) . Consistent with this paradigm, the theory states that.

[...] as in any other market for material or symbolic goods, and contrary to what some theorists of secularization think - also in (institutional) religion competition is good for the market and within certain limits supply feeds demand.

As evidence of this, authors working in the wake of this mercantilist conception point out that:

The countries with the greatest religious pluralism - that's, with the greatest competition among religious enterprises - such as the United States [...], are also the countries where the total number of religious practitioners remains stable or increases .


Where, on the other hand, the state obstructs religious pluralism and, in particular, opposes the entry into the market of new entities branded as "cults" or enemies of national identity, there-as in France and Russia-the number of religious practitioners generally declines spectacularly.

In other words, the conclusion is "more market and less state," according to the classic Lassiz-Faire paradigm. This position is based on two premises and an implicit assumption. The first presupposition is that the increase in the number of people practicing religions is a positive and desirable fact; the second presupposition is that the "consumer," the actor who makes his choice in the market of religions, is "rational" and knows what he's buying, in short, that this person is the "homo oeconomicus" imagined by neoclassical economics, who tends to maximize his own utility; the implicit assumption of the theory is that the various religious "firms" compete with each other and try to satisfy the buyers they compete for better than the others.

The consequences are manifold. If the basic assumptions are accepted, it follows that there's a need for strong "deregulation" of the religious market. Stark and Iannaccone write:

To the extent that a religious economy is competitive and pluralistic, overall levels of religious participation will tend to be high. On the contrary, to the extent that the religious economy is monopolized by one or two state-supported enterprises, participation tends to be low.

In short, it appears that the enemy of the religious market, as with any other market, is the state; for it's natural for state institutions to favor monopolies to the detriment of free competition and to brand new potential competitors as "sects" or destructive cults. The attraction that the Theory of Religious Economy has for some cult apologists is obviously due to this ideological notion, which relabels criticism of abusive cults as an attempt to suppress the free market in favor of monopolistic religions protected by a planning state that seeks to protect them from competition. The implication, then, is that anti-cult activism is interested work carried out by people who are somehow connected to the state and/or the religious apparatus. In other words, the conspiratorial idea that Is already part of relativist and postmodern apologetics reappears in a discrete form. Of course, only the large organized religions can claim a monopoly, certainly not the secular states of the West, whose founding value is precisely secularism. Nevertheless, the anti-cult movement has no relation to institutional religions, to the point of being accused of "secularism"...

The profane reader of the religious economics, however, the curiosity remains unsatisfied as to how different religions can compete to satisfy consumers better than their competitors. The answer is simple: the religions that satisfy customers the most are the most demanding and restrictive. One of the propagators of this mercantile concept is Massimo Introvigne, the president of CESNUR. He strongly emphasises this aspect of competitors improving the quality of their offer. He writes, for example:

... there is a kind of Darwinian struggle even in the religious field. The most demanding religious proposals tend to prevail: among Jews, the Orthodox, in Islam the fundamentalists, and among Catholics, the most rigid movements and congregations.

Competition would select the faiths that are more rigid and strict in demanding adherence, in short, the more integralist and fundamentalist versions. Competition, then, selects the fundamentalisms. This selection of extremist versions can be explained by the phenomenon of free riders, those who literally "travel cheap." Those who want to enjoy the benefits of a collective enterprise, but don't want to bear the costs, travel without a ticket. In the religious realm, the collective enterprise is a church or faith community. An organization can tolerate a few free riders, i.e., uncommitted members, but not too many. Introvigne writes:

In the realm of religions, the less strict and rigorous organizations, which charge low admission fees and unobtrusively check that members have paid their admission ticket, i.e., that they're sufficiently committed, take on board such a high number of free riders that they offer their faithful a diluted and unsatisfying religious experience, [...] The more rigorous organizations charge a more expensive admission ticket and check that everyone pays for it: In this way, they allow fewer free riders, and the symbolic goods of a group where there are no free riders are usually perceived as more satisfying by consumers.

One concludes that the outcome of this beneficial competition between religions is an increase in religious zeal and commitment, i.e., an increase in what's most hostile to competition (in this case, other commitments and zeal). This competition feeds the monopolistic claims of fundamentalisms, which are by definition incompatible. A free market that generates hostility to the free market! This is an incompatibility that cannot be reconciled and cannot harmonize in an ecumenism precisely because of the rigidity chosen by the market.

In conclusion, any representative of a conservative spiritual vision who wanted to strengthen it would have to work to ensure the continued existence of all other faiths on the market and to defend even the most controversial spiritual groups (e.g. Scientology) with all their might. This would have the double effect of strengthening his own incontrovertible "truth" and at the same time - paradoxically - becoming a defender of religious freedom.


The first reason why religious people with little inclination towards ecumenism may pursue the liberalisation of the market of faiths is that they believe that competition allows not only the non-interference of the state in their faith, but even the increase and radicalisation of that faith itself.

2. The doctrine of double truth

A second reason why traditionalist Catholics advocate 'religious freedom' depends on a very simple concept, and that is lying. It seems elementary and even naïve to claim that CESNUR and the organisations in which the various personalities who are the expression of this study centre are pretending to care about ecumenical concern for religious freedom and worry for human rights. The idea that the profit from services to Scientology or other sects is sufficient to justify the hypocrisy of religious apologists, as some imply, is trite. Indeed, the preceding discussion on the theory of religious economics shows that the logic behind paradoxical behaviour can be much more subtle.

Let us proceed with order. As Introvigne himself writes in an article in "Cristianità", Alleanza Cattolica's cultural reference points were the Frenchman Jan Ousset and the Brazilian Plinio Correa de Oliveira. The descent of CESNUR from Alleanza Cattolica, in turn, is an incontrovertible fact, since founder Introvigne himself admitted that CESNUR came into being at the urging of Alleanza Cattolica as an apologetic response in the context of the struggle "between revolution and counterrevolution". In other words, CESNUR's pedigree sees its closest ancestors in the traditionalist Catholic authors mentioned above.

Ousset was the founder of La Cité catholique, a counter-revolutionary Catholic association whose aim was not active politics but pre-politics. The organisation relied on the infiltration of elites who were the only ones capable of leading the reconquest of a society in difficulty. The group identified 'subversion' as the root of all evil and the enemy of civilisation. Subversion (of the Christian order, natural law and the Creator's plan) had its origins in the French Revolution.

The elaborations of the Cité catholique inspired an association that had emerged a few months earlier in Madrid under the protection of Franco's fascist government, the OAS (Organisation armée secrète). The OAS was a French clandestine paramilitary organisation active during the Algerian war with the slogan 'French Algeria or death'. It caused about 1,500 deaths in fifteen months through terrorist attacks of unprecedented cruelty.

The proximity of Catholic traditionalism to murders and terrorist attacks may seem strange, but herein lies the most interesting aspect. In Catholic circles linked to the military hierarchies, for example, the practise of torture in Algeria was considered worthy of absolution based on the basis of the thought of Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and Augustine of Hippo. Louis Delarue, chaplain of a unit deployed in Algeria, said that one had to choose between two evils, and making a bandit who deserved the death penalty suffer temporarily was the lesser one.

Probably the best justification is provided by St Thomas Aquinas' doctrine of double effect: 'The evil caused by an action directed towards the good does not invalidate the morality of the action itself'.

So we are dealing with the following key elements: elitism, pre-politics (the operation of cultural influences on the elite), counter-revolution and justification of reprehensible actions by philosophical lucubrations (especially St Thomas). We will return to these elements.

The other Catholic Alliance reference is Plinio Correa de Oliveira with his organization Tradition, Family and Property. His book 'Revolution and Counter-Revolution' is the training manual for the followers of AC. It is well known that the TFP is waging the same struggle as Ousset against modernity, which de Oliveira defines not as 'subversion' but as 'revolution'.

According to historian Orlando Fedeli, who has been a member for thirty years, Tradition, Family and Property would be a millenaristic gnostic cult. In fact, there would be an external doctrine and a secret doctrine reserved for the highest levels of knowledge.

De Oliveira's 'esoteric' teachings, which can also be read in the journal 'Dr Plinio' directed by Monsignor João Scognamiglio Clá Dias, focused on the 'metaphysical superiority' of the nobility, especially the South American landed gentry. One can see how this faithfully traces both the Platonic hierarchy and the Gnostic idea of salvation reserved for the 'spiritual' alone (and damnation partly for the 'psychic' and entirely for the 'ilical'). The anti-egalitarianism of the TFP generates in activists a contempt for class, a taste for luxury and idleness.

In the Joyeux report on the TFP school in Saint Benoit, we read that hardness of heart and undisguised hatred of ordinary people characterise the daily behaviour of most TFP activists. Everything to do with luxury, glamour and idleness is seen as counter-revolutionary and triggers a sense of pride stemming from the feeling of belonging to a destined elite. Since the revolutionary mentality is characterised by a virulent glorification of pauperism, the TFP acts by systematically asserting the opposite.

To understand De Oliveira's elitism, it is enough to know that he never supported 'integrism', the Brazilian version of fascism, because he considered it too 'interclass' and 'socialist' and not open to the demands of the metaphysical superiority of the landed aristocracy.

We know that at one point it was useful for the TFP to work with representatives and associations of American conservatism such as Paul Weyrich and the Council for National Policy (CNP). This is a secret organisation, described by the New York Times as 'a little-known club of a few hundred of the country's most influential conservatives, which meets three times a year behind closed doors at undisclosed locations for a confidential conference.

At a time when the Brazilian Bishops' Conference was accusing the TFP of not being in communion with the Church of Rome, de Oliveira and his followers developed a vision that saw Christian America as the only counter-revolutionary force capable of responding to European secularism, the fruit of the French Revolution, and the 'Marxisation' of the Latin Church, which had gone so far as to criticise Tradition.

Its European sisters, such as the Alleanza Cattolica, also took the same position, combining their efforts in the fight against secularism with the world of American neo-conservatism and taking up the defence of religious freedom.

The goals set by this 'counter-revolutionary apostolate' refer above all to the struggle against secularism, the rewriting of historical memory and the control of the ideological production of the Italian right through the creation of a narrow intellectual elite from which the future ruling class would then emerge. The 'establishment of Christ's kingship also over human societies' would be expressed in the restoration of traditional hierarchies within the framework of a society of order in which religion would once again assume a predominant role in social control and the legitimisation of political and economic power [...] The underlying project is not so much to raise the flag of Catholic traditionalism, but to establish a hyper-conservative neoliberal right modelled on the United States. To advance its politics of entrism, the group makes use of a number of organisations, in addition to the magazine 'Cristianità' and its eponymous publishing house, which seem to have nothing to do with each other but are run by its men. One example is Cesnur (Centre for Studies on New Religions) headed by Massimo Introvigne, one of the five 'advisors' to the Synod of Alleanza Cattolica.

Bold mine. Ultimately, AC and CESNUR pursue the neoconservative project by approaching it from an elitist standpoint and by pursuing a policy of cultural influence.

It is therefore interesting to look at the roots of the idea that Introvigne and his team pursued so passionately, namely the American neoconservative movement. Leo Strauss is, rightly or wrongly, considered their inspiration. He was convinced that all great authors write in a form disguised for the common people, an 'exoteric' form, and that it was necessary to find the clues to the 'esoteric' truth between the lines. This truth, reserved for those who could bear it, like the disciples chosen by the Master (whom he renamed 'hoplites'), consisted in the nihilistic realisation that the only truth is nothingness and that all moral principles are empty and meaningless. The 'essoteric', external message, on the other hand, consisted precisely in these 'natural moral values'. The authentic philosopher must despise the beliefs of the people, but in public he must pretend to believe in the myths and illusions concocted for the use of the masses, he must conceal this contempt, and in fact make himself a vociferous advocate of the moral values suitable for the masses: religion, democracy, justice.

Once again lessons reserved for the elect, elitism, counter-revolution. We have left the field of political influence for real politics.

Strauss, who adopts an anti-egalitarian and aristocratic perspective similar to de Oliveira, goes into polemic with modernity and democratic concepts by explicitly revisiting the Platonic 'noble lie' and affirming the necessity of using religion as a rhetorical tool to manipulate and control the masses.

It is the doctrine of 'double truth' whose first legitimation is the Platonic notion of the 'noble lie'. In Plato's 'ideal city', the aristocracy of spirit and thought is legitimised to use deception for moral, educational and political purposes. In the book III of the Republic he writes:

[...] God, when he formed you, mixed gold in the generation of those among you who are able to exercise power, so that they are the most precious; in that of the guards, silver; iron and bronze in that of the peasants and craftsmen.[...] the city will perish when it is protected by a defender of iron or bronze.

The members of the TFP feel golden, probably also those of the CA. So when we point out the duplicity of CESNUR, since it is a cover office of a traditionalist Catholic organisation and at the same time a centre that carries out actions in favour of the sects most distant from Catholicism, we are not only talking about the banal lie of the mercenary hired by the cults, but also that of the elected, who are legitimised to the noble lie and the double truth.

It is not surprising that one finds it morally practicable to resort to the noble lie 'ad usum populi' and profess the values of the democratic and liberal society that they inwardly despise. That they despise these values is clear from the oft-quoted genealogy of CESNUR. That it is a legitimate imposture to pose as defenders of religious freedom can be understood by considering the Platonism inherent in this genealogy.

Unconventional warfare expert Jeffrey M. Bale, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, highlights the duplicity of CESNUR, calling it the most prominent case of an organisation that outwardly promotes political and religious agendas in the name of religious and democratic freedoms, but which in reality, "aim to defend extremist, totalitarian, and anti-democratic groups from investigation, criticism, and possible state repression, and more generally, to resist or even push back secular humanism, liberalism, and modernism in the West" (see part seven of the report).

For the Italians, an excellent example of this double truth can be seen along the AC-CESNUR line: In 1994, the founder of Alleanza Cattolica, Cantoni, wrote an appeal entitled 'Let's stop the mass Radical Party'. He was referring to a well-known Italian political movement, the Radical Party founded by Marco Pannella. This party was characterised by the promotion of a strong liberalism both in the economic field and in the field of civil rights (divorce, abortion, homosexuality, liberalisation of drug trade, etc.) According to Cantoni, all progressive and secular parties formed a 'mass Radical Party' to which Catholics had to respond. The Radical Party thus became the embodiment of the enemy. Years later, Cantoni's heirs joined forces with Radical Party members to defend religious freedom. In 2012, for example, the president of CESNUR, Luigi Berzano, published a book against the proposed law on the crime of mental manipulation, the most notable contribution to which Mauro Mellini, one of the leading figures of the Radical Party, was the main contributor.

Other contributions came from Massimo Introvigne, then leader of Alleanza Cattolica, as well as of CESNUR, and Fabrizio d'Agostini, a leading exponent of Scientology and founder of the European Federation for Freedom of Belief (FOB). This is the same organisation whose scientific committee includes Introvigne's wife and whose founders include a member of the Radical Party, a certain Camillo Maffia.

If the observation 'the end justifies the means' seems trivial and disrespectful of the subtlety of Introvigne's thought, the logic of these traditionalists, who wage a war against secularism in the company of the paladins of secularism, is perhaps best described by the aforementioned doctrine of the double effect of St. Thomas Aquinas: 'The evil produced by an action directed towards the good does not invalidate the morality of the action itself'.

It can be concluded that the reason why traditionalist Catholics, who are anti-ecumenical by nature, pursue the liberalisation of the religious market is based on an elitist view that legitimises the use of lying to the people as a rhetorical means of manipulation in the name of a good that is considered superior. False benevolence even towards abusive cults (St Thomas takes care of that anyway) is a means of combating Jacobinism, i.e. French-style laicism, in other words 'revolution' (or 'subversion' if you prefer Ousset).


The second reason why religious people seek the liberalisation of the faith market is an elitist notion that legitimises the use of lies as a rhetorical means of manipulation for the greater good.

3. the differentialist perspective

Some advocates of what they call New Religious Movements seem to be entirely like the advocates of cultural differentialism, the political conception that is the proudest and bitterest enemy of liberalism and universal rights. The interesting thing is that the differentialist can appear to an inattentive eye to be a democrat and a liberal. Just like a cult apologist. In reality, the differentialist defends the 'right to difference' of all cultures, i.e. he wants the preservation of peoples' identities. Although this may seem like an affirmation of universalism and ecumenism, the differentialist is an enemy of the open society. That is, he or her believes that 'strangers' must be preserved as such, living 'among themselves' and retaining their own cultural references and values because they are 'different' and must remain so. They defend their 'right to be different' in order to prevent other cultures from mixing or merging with their. This is called differentialist racism. This differentialism, which is a defence of one's own closed group, defends other closed groups against the claims of the open society so that it does not interfere with one's own group as well. Behind the libertarian and respectful proclamations of allogeneic cultures, this conception aims at restoring and defending individual cultures so that they become a counterweight to globalist ideology; that is, precisely to the universalism of human rights.

Just as it is not surprising that the advocates of differentialism are representatives of the extreme political right who coin their own incongruent version of 'multiculturalism', so too it is not surprising that the defenders of the 'right to difference' of the 'cults' are often representatives of visions that are anything but ecumenical and propose their own incongruent version of 'ecumenism'. These, in fact, propose a 'multi-cultism' that is the mignon version of the multiculturalism of the Nouvelle Droite, but more akin to the "Pax Mafiosa".

Thus, representatives of the most closed, illiberal and incompatible cults find themselves in the same associations defending religious freedom. High-ranking members of destructive cults known to the Chronicle, traditionalist Catholics, Satanists, Tantric sex gurus, believers in religions who believe that those who do not follow their faith are eternally damned, closed and intransigent micro-communities, all acting together (passionately) against those who denounce exploitation in cults. In the name of open society. Face/Off.


The defence of the right to difference by religious apologists is absolutely analogous to the defence of allogeneic cultures by proponents of differentialist racism. These do not at all believe that all ideas, beliefs and cultures are equal, but propose a 'multiculturalism' that allows the identities of each individual 'culture' to be protected, provided that this general law includes the protection of their own particular culture.

The author of the report

bottom of page