Religious liberty and the dangerous snake of moral panic

I will devote my short remarks to alert you about an enemy that may hit you lethally and without warning. It is called the “moral panic” and it has been studied by sociologists for several decades. It can be compared to a snake hidden in the grass. It remains there waiting for victims. When you see it, it may be too late.

Moral panics about minority religions are created by generalising a single incident. The incident is real. It is not invented. What is invented is the claim that the incident is typical of a whole category of events or organisations.

In the field of religion, as studied by Philip Jenkins and other social scientists, including the undersigned, the model of the moral panic passes through three stages.


First, an incident occurs, sometimes claiming human lives, that mightily impresses the public opinion. It can be the bad moral behaviour of one or more religious leaders or more tragic incidents of terrorism or mass suicide of homicide. Examples include scandals of pedophilia within the Catholic Church, terrorist attacks perpetrated using or abusing the name of Islam, mass suicides and homicides such as those of the Order of the Solar Temple in France, Switzerland and Canada between 1994 and 1996, or the recent deaths by extreme fasting in an Evangelical church in Kenya.

Second, it is alleged that those responsible for these incidents are not exceptions or anomalies but are typical representatives of larger categories. It is argued that pedophile priests are typical representatives of priests in general, who are all sexually frustrated and thus inclined to commit sexual crimes.

That Muslim terrorists are just typical examples of Muslims, as all Muslims reject the values of modern Western societies and tend to live in a situation of “separatism” from them, which naturally leads to confrontation and violence. That so-called “suicide cults” are typical of “cults” in general because in all “cults” leaders who are malignant narcissists “brainwash” their followers and induce them to self-destructive behaviour.

All these statements are false. Although numerous enough and a dramatic problem for the Catholic Church, pedophile priests represent a small percentage of the some 400,000 Catholic priests active throughout the world. Pedophilia is equally or more prevalent among married family men and religious ministers than among celibate Catholic priests. Most Muslims in the world do not support terrorism. The vast majority of groups their opponents label as “cults” are peaceful and law-abiding and certainly do not support suicide or homicide.


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However, spread by the media, these generalisations lead to the third stage of the moral panic. Politicians, who are only too happy to extend their control on religion, intervene and pass laws or create institutions to limit the religious liberty of broader groups that have nothing to do with the crimes some have perpetrated.

Unjust laws

In Australia and Ireland, the cases of pedophile priests led to laws eliminating the confessional privilege and limiting the protection of confidentiality in communications between parishioners and religious ministers, not only in the Catholic Church but in all religions. In France, terrorist attacks by radical Muslims generated laws limiting the rights of all Muslims to display their religious symbols and freely organise their communal life, separated from the mainstream non-Muslim society.

In France and elsewhere, the case of the Order of the Solar Temple offered the opportunity to pass laws instituting governmental agencies whose mandate is to watch and spread propaganda against “cults” in general and incriminating vaguely defined “cultic deviances.”

And in Kenya, after the deaths by extreme fasting in Shakahola, a Senate Committee released a report this year hailing the French model and proposing to put all churches and religions, and their finances, under governmental supervision. The report in Kenya mentions similar proposals in South Africa, where moral panics were created by following the self-same scheme. If a pastor or prophet behaves strangely or asks his followers to eat grass, it is proposed to create a mechanism of state supervision for all pastors and prophets — and their bank accounts.

Two concluding observations. Let me repeat once again that the incidents and crimes leading to the generalisations creating the moral panic are real. Their perpetrators should be punished and cannot invoke freedom of religion as an excuse. But they should be punished individually on a case-by-case basis without cracking down on entire categories and lumping together both the guilty and the innocent.

Second, coming back to the example of the snake, not all the snakes of moral panics are wild. Some come from snake farms, where they are carefully nurtured and unleashed against religious minorities when needed. The scholars of moral panics emphasise the figure of the “moral entrepreneurs” who organise them. In our field, they include groups such as FECRIS, the European umbrella organisation of anti-cult movements.

When they exploit an incident to target a variety of groups and limit religious liberty, it may be too late to oppose them. We should create structures preventing moral entrepreneurs from creating moral panics now.

Massimo Introvigne is an Italian sociologist of religions. Introvigne is the author of some 70 books and more than 100 articles in the field of sociology of religion. From 2012 to 2015, he served as chairperson of the Observatory of Religious Liberty, instituted by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to monitor problems of religious liberty on a worldwide scale.

This article has been republished with permission from Bitter Winter. It is a paper presented at the founding meeting of the African Forum for Religious and Spirituality Liberty (AFRSL), in cooperation with FOREF, Cape Town, South Africa, on December 8, 2023.

Image: Pexels


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  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-25 14:21:04 +1100
    See post below re people being forced to choose sides.

    The Druze are a classic example:
  • Steven Meyer
    commented 2024-01-25 14:17:49 +1100
    Well, yes and no.

    At what point does the behaviour of the adherents of any belief system – not necessarily something considered a religion – reach a point where it becomes a danger?


    The Lord’s Resistance Army in Kenya

    Boko Haram in Nigeria


    These example do NOT mean that every Christian or Muslim is a dangerous terrorist. But their activities can create situations where individuals find themselves forced to choose sides.

    In South Africa I met Lebanese Christians who hated the Phalange. But, as they explained, once the war started you had to choose sides for your own safety.

    And then again some belief systems – often disguising themselves as religions – are just plain bad.
  • Massimo Introvigne
    published this page in The Latest 2024-01-25 08:27:58 +1100