Across Europe, societies are struggling to decide what to make of the proliferation of religious cults and sects that are flowering, while many people's connections to traditional churches are weakening.
Some of these are simply minority religions whose "outsider" status is particularly apparent in societies where religious pluralism is more of an abstraction than a lived reality. Others are dangerous groups who have led members, in some cases, to mass suicide.
One of these "new religions," as experts call them, is Scientology. Present throughout Europe, the Church of Scientology has been having particular trouble in Germany.
"Germany has gone further than any other Western European country in restricting the civil rights of Scientologists," says Eileen Barker, professor of sociology at the London School of Economics and an expert on new religions.
And Scientology will be among the groups investigated by a Commission of Inquiry on So-Called Sects and Psycho-Cults, established by the Bundestag, the lower house of parliament.
Some critics have suggested that public concern over Scientology in particular is being used as a pretext to investigate nonconforming religious groups of all kinds with a view toward restricting their legal rights and perhaps even amending the constitutional provision for freedom of religion.
"The Scientologists tend to be their own worst enemy," Professor Barker says. "They use very aggressive tactics," she adds, which have led the German authorities to act against them. The Scientologists "use [this treatment] as an excuse to be even more aggressive." This "makes it difficult for either side to back down. Both sides need to have their heads knocked together," she concludes.
Scientology is ruled not a religion
The German court system has ruled that the Church of Scientology is not a religion but a commercial enterprise - in contrast with the situation in the United States, where Scientology is based and where the organization enjoys tax-free status as a church.
And several of Germany's federal states have gone further: As of this month, Bavaria has introduced a ban on Scientologists entering public-service employment. And the interior minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, Franz-Josef Kniola, has called for a ban on the organization.
Scientology teaches a system of "purification" involving a therapy it calls "auditing" and its critics call "brainwashing." Founded in the 1950s by science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, it is arguably in the American tradition of "self-improvement religion." Its critics charge that the organization practices "psychoterrorism," hounding members into paying for ever-more expensive spiritual-education courses.
Some observers wonder why Scientology has such trouble in Germany, where, with an estimated 30,000 members, it is the 13th-largest "community of faith." Richard Singelenberg, a social anthropologist affiliated with the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, suggests that the problem lies in Germans' sensitivity to any ideology seen presenting an ideal of "strong man." "Since the '30s, German society has been very sensitive on this," he says.
Responding to parents' petitions
But the sword of history cuts both ways. The same Nazi past that makes Germans instinctively leery of Scientology makes critics pause when they see German officialdom take actions that can be seen as restricting freedom of religion and conscience.
Meanwhile, in the Bundestag, the commission of inquiry has begun its work. It was launched, according to its chairman, Ortrun Schtzle, in response to tens of thousands of letters to the Bundestag's Petition Committee from parents of young adults involved in sects and cults - young adults who were also breaking off courses of study, giving up friendships and even family relationships. "And so the call from the parents: 'The state must act,' " Ms. Schtzle says.
The commission is to deliver a report by spring 1998, including recommendations for action. The commission consists of 11 members of the Bundestag and 11 professional experts. The latter include the point man on sects of the two "big churches," Lutheran and Roman Catholic, for whom the state collects church taxes.
Gabriele Yonan, an academic expert on religion in Berlin, questions the constitutionality of having an "expert panel" on religious minorities include the two church officials but no representatives of the minority groups. "Some of these groups are growing, especially in the east. They are potential competitors for the big churches," Ms. Yonan says.
Schtzle sees inclusion of the two point men as quite natural. "These people have the experience," she says. "We're gathering all the people that have experience in this field."
No "sect" representatives are included on the panel. Schtzle explains that to invite someone to represent a "sect" would define his or her group as a sect, an admittedly less than ideal designation. "We will invite these groups for discussion," she insists.
The results of the commission may include proposals for new laws. As for possible restrictions on Article IV, a constitutional provision which guarantees religious freedom, Schtzle answers a question with a question: "The limits of Article IV have not been settled. Does Article IV mean unlimited freedom?"
Some critics suggest that concern over Scientology is being used as a pretext to investigate religious groups of all kinds.