Minors in minority religions: The delicate balance between religious freedom and the well-being of the child

Professor Susan J Palmer

Event details


Date & time

Monday 23 September 2019


Lecture Theatre 2 (HB2), Hedley Bull Building 130, corner of Garran Road adn Liversidge Street, ANU
ANU Canberra


Professor Susan J Palmer, Concordia University


Yanhong Ouyang

What is happening to children born into the so-called ‘cults’? Are they captive, abused or free? And what should be done about this situation? Ever since the spiritual seekers of the 1960s and 70s settled down in new religious communities to raise alternative families, these concerns have been expressed by journalists, social workers and government deputies. While ‘hippy’ parents voluntarily embraced radical social experiments, their children today are gazing with curiosity at the surrounding world they never chose to reject. Many leave, a few write their memoirs.

The very presence of children in new, ‘sectarian’ religions challenges some of our most basic assumptions about religious freedom. How to apply this concept to a child? For some, ‘religious freedom’ means ‘freedom from religion’. For others, children have the right to practice their parents’ faith. Do we want ‘gelded religions’ at the margins of our secular society?

Palmer shares the preliminary findings of her Children in Sectarian Religions project through ‘oriental import’ religions in the west and addresses these issues: a) the conflicting evidence concerning children’s secret lives in sectarian religions. b) the complex role of the ‘objective’ researcher in the emotionally-charged micro-sociology of New Religious Movements (NRMs). c) cases of state intervention in the family life of minority religions. d) obstacles to research posed by ethics boards, ‘anticultism’ - and the unpredictability of NRMs.

Susan J Palmer is a researcher and writer in the field of new religious studies. She is an Affiliate Professor at Concordia University in Montreal and is currently a Principal Investigator at McGill University, directing the four-year research project, Children in Sectarian Religions and State Control (supported by the Social Sciences and the Humanities Research Council). She teaches courses on New Religious Movements at both universities. She is the author/editor of twelve books, sociological studies of new religions, notably: Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women’s Roles in New Religions (Syracuse, 1994); Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion (Rutgers, 2004); The New Heretics of France (Oxford University Press, 2011); The Nuwaubian Nation: Black Spirituality and State Control (Ashgate 2010), and (co-authored with Stuart Wright) Storming Zion: Government Raids on Religions (Oxford University Press, 2015). Her forthcoming (co-edited) volume with Palgrave Macmillan is The Mystical Geography of Quebec.

Organised by ANU Religious Studies Committee: David W Kim, McComas Taylor, Peter Friedlander, Barbara Nelson, and Yuri Takahashi.

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