JRC vol. 23 is published!

The Journal of Religion and Culture has released its 23rd volume.

The Journal of Religion and Culture (JRC) is a well-respected and long-standing institution within the Religion Department at Concordia University. As a peer-reviewed publication administered by the graduate students of that department in collaboration with the faculty of both Concordia and other local area universities, the JRC is dedicated to its tradition of academic excellence and innovation within the field of religious studies.

Please click the poster below to be directed to the JRC site.

Salvation and Suicide, by David Chidester

Davide Chidester’s, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown examines the event of the 914 murder/suicides of the Guyanese Jonestown community in 1978 in terms of a “religiohistorical” approach. His goal is to present these events within its context, almost as a natural evolution (although the author does not use these words), and not as a bizarre anomaly of religious conviction. Indeed, the foreward states, “After an era of interpretation marked mostly by sensationalized journalism, facile psychologism, and relatively limited social science analysis, Chidester has shown […] that it is possible to understand Jonestown in religious terms” (ix). Chidester’s thesis is that it was religious suicide, an act of divine fulfillment of the Peoples Temples’ soteriological and socialist worldview.

The author describes his methodology as being a “religiohistorical interpretation, worldview analysis, or the phenomenology of religion,” and admits that this is akin to “structured empathy” (xiv). This theoretical approach is helpful to understanding Jonestown events, as it enables the reader to analyze Chidester’s claims objectively. The author never states it explicitly, but implied in his study is a critique of other scholarly work that passes a moral judgment on these events, even ostensibly neutral social scientific studies. He is not engaged in apologetics; he never denounces the acts, nor does he ever state that they are reprehensible or unfortunate. He instead applies various theories on death, pollution, time and space, and personhood. Language suggesting any notion that these events were an aberration is omitted entirely, something that I have come across in other studies on violence in NRMs. Even if the reader does consider these murder-suicides as an act of involuntary violence, the book itself allows a distance from the visceral reaction to death under these circumstances.

Chidester spends much time discussing the deaths themselves in physical terms: the look, transportation, handling, disposing, disinfecting, interring, and cremating of deceased bodies. This novel approach underlines part of Chidester thesis; that these events are very much a human phenomena: human bodies, human emotions, human decomposition. Since this very corporal material is introduced in the first chapter, it is evident that Chidester is signaling his future arguments.

For example, when the evening of the mass suicide arrived, only a few members backed out, and the author argues that the majority “willingly, even enthusiastically, embraced death as a way of sealing their witness to the worldview that had animated the Peoples Temple and Jonestown. Collective suicide focused that worldview into a single act” (155). Scholars, even while attempting neutrality and objectivity, tend to introduce, however subtly, this type of event as wrong, as immoral or unethical, even as they then attempt to explain why it happened without hyperbolic or sensationalized commentary. This is possibly so as not to be understood as condoning the behaviour. Chidester’s book had its first printing in 1988, and was perhaps considered radical at the time. The 2003 reprint, as a post 9/11 publication, now has a larger collective knowledge base from which to draw upon that focuses on the idea of otherness; such as suicide bombings as martyred heroes. The message is clear; there are comparisons between the two events, as they are religiously significant acts. Chidester’s claim is then that these events are not aberrations, but a fulfillment of religious/cosmic destiny in their respective worldviews.

In Chapter 1, Chidester makes interesting commentary on the significance of the deaths at Jonestown by invoking Mary Douglas theories, “Any death may involve a certain sense of defilement in the disruption of the order of the world of the living, but some deaths are experienced as particularly and intensely disruptive of that organic, living order” (13-14). He provides medieval witch burnings and mass executions as examples; they are outside of the realm of normal events. These abnormalities in the social order are then dissected. They are treated as such a pollutant to the normal way of things that current contemporary discourse scrutinizes them. Ostensibly to gain further understanding, but Chidester argues that the whole phenomenon of aggressive inquiry is a purifying ritual in and of itself; we must explain it, find answers, in order to re-establish normalcy.

This does not happen only in the theoretical realm, but on the corporal side as well. Officials dealing with the remains of the 913 bodies in Dover, Delaware, went through a lengthy process to make decisions for disposal. Chidester notes the difficulty in identifying the decomposed bodies that did not indicate race, sex, or age, ironically achieving the social equality so desired by the Peoples Temple; death erased class systems. The author states that ten times the normal amount of chemical treatments were used to disinfect. The danger of bodies contaminating the ground – the physical symbol for the more visceral fear of contaminating the mind, of being susceptible to the kind of “cultish” thought that could potentially lead to such acts – draws a parallel that, “The deceased immediately came to represent a more fundamental, and dangerous, defilement of American territory” (16).

Chidester’s delineation of sexual activity at Jonestown provides further insight into his thesis. Much like death, sex is also a physical act and a political statement in that worldview. “Natural bonds of kinship had to be sacrificed in the interests of the new family, which Jones, holding in counterpoint the Christian and Marxist resources he appropriated, variously called the Christ Revolution, Apostolic Socialism, or the socialist kingdom of heaven” (101). Failing a no sex experiment for a brief time, Jim Jones reinterprets sexual activity to mean, “a revolutionary act to be utilized in the interests of the cause represented by the Peoples Temple as a whole” (103). Sex was used to avert sedition, enable development, and provide physical pleasure (103). Despite the spiritual motivations of the worldview at Jonestown, Chidester continuously reminds readers that physical acts are the means to achieve these ends. What one does with the body has more impact than what one says or thinks. Action is proof of conviction. Corporality affirms ideals. While much of the Jonestown worldview considered the outside world a perversion of ideals, they did not reject physical actions completely (becoming ascetics or monastics). Jim Jones’ own sermons take a gnostic view of theology; Sky God as a mad, jealous, vain, and immoral God (i.e. a more material God), and Jones’ notion of love as a socialist ideal, “That is love, that is God, Socialism” (57). The outside materiality is certainly corrupted, but Jones proposes a corrective and affirmative materiality through actions.

Chidester’s final thesis is that Jonestown is a religious and revolutionary suicide. That it is a test of loyalty, a means to avoid subhuman death, and a statement of inviolable principle to the outside world. Having read other commentary and reviews of this particular book, many opined that Chidester’s conclusions are controversial or simply incorrect. I imagine that this is because popular discourse is reluctant to consider these acts as a fulfillment of religious destiny, or divine blessing. It is somewhat ironic, considering that the embedded inherited Christian notions in Western societies – such as martyrdom – are rejected when practiced by a subversive group that takes this Christian ideal of martyrdom to its logical conclusion.

Topics for discussion:

1)   Death/sex as revolutionary and religious acts in NRMs. (The body as a metaphor for larger territory, and how this idea extends to other groups.)

2)    By avoiding a moral judgment, even subtly, are there larger implications?

3)   Why such disagreement with Chidester’s approach? What does that mean within academia?

Scientology and the “Culture War”

Scientology, edited by James R. Lewis

This is not an official or fully detailed review, but simply a brief commentary on this edited volume as it relates to my master’s thesis. My thesis explores how New Religious Movements that reject the duality of Judeo-Christian morality develop and construct a moral/ethical framework. It will focus on two NRMS: Scientologists and Raeliens. Primary literature and select internet sources, along with academic studies on these groups will be analyzed in terms of how these NRMs address and define evil – that is, the problematic, imperfect, and heinous. What do these groups delineate as causality for the problems, issues, and distress in their worldview? Delineating their notion of causality of “evil” reveals fundamental presuppositions about their worldview, and how those premises inform their understanding of their place on the world. This project begins with a lengthy discussion on the term “evil”; how it is framed, constructed, and the inherited philosophical history of the Judeo-Christian worldview embedded in all Western society. Even if evil as it is historically understood is ultimately rejected by the groups studied, they are products of Western history and civilization, and thus respond to their philosophical precendents.

This post will fit into a series of posts on books related to my thesis.

The Lewis anthology on Scientology was extremely informative, and contained some excellent articles containing much information and detail that was previously unknown to me, such as the Xenu narratives and the extent of their legal battles with the Anti-Cult Movement. Comprised of twenty-two scholarly articles on the Church of Scientology, the book is divided in five sections. The first provides foundational information and discusses methodological issues. The second contains sociological studies. The third offers a “contrast and compare” with other religious worldviews. Part four examines controversies. Section five looks at Scientology overseas. And part six details some distinctive practices of this NRM.

In Lewis’ introductory note, he writes, “This volume will…likely end up pleasing no one engaged in the Scientology/anti-Scientology conflict….” (5). This becomes more relevant throughout the text, as well as reading reactions to this anthology, post-publication. Much like David Chidester’s, Salvation and Suicide (another post regarding this book coming soon), Lewis’ volume received criticism from popular and academic sources alike for being an apologetic volume, prompting Lewis to write an “An Open Letter to: Scientologists, Ex-Scientologists, and Critics of the Church of Scientology.” It was reprinted on various Internet blogs. In it, he addresses the so-called “cult controversy”, and makes a somewhat clear statement about his personal views on the Church. I address this here because it is relevant to my reading of this volume.

Lewis states in the “Open Letter” that:

Neither I nor the great majority of new religions specialists view ourselves as defenders of groups like Scientology. Rather, we are interested in understanding social-psychological processes and the dynamics of social conflict.

He continues to affirm that if NRM scholars are defending anything it is good science versus bad science. This is a provocative claim not in its content, but because it is apparently necessary to address publicly. I wonder if scholars of other areas are forced into clarifying their personal position with such regularity or firmness? It is perhaps relegated to areas of controversy; queer, race, feminist, and Islamic studies all fall under popular and academic scrutiny because they involve contentious issues.

Moving on to the content of the actual anthology, I will focus on two articles. Régis Déricquebourg’s article, “How Should We Regard the Religious Ceremonies of the Church of Scientology?” (165-182), where he examines the rituals of the Church of Scientology, and includes a detailed list of their rites of passage: marriage, naming ceremony, ordination, funerals, etc.  The author concludes that, while much of the organization of the church is bureaucratic in nature – indeed, that the prime participation for members it to be involved in its structure – that the rituals are designed to provide a greater sociability and a better civilization. Déricquebourg considers scientology a social movement aimed at improving the lives of individual members and society at large. He argues that because the ceremonial rituals are not particularly well attended it reveals tensions between the individual spiritual path and the organizational and bureaucratic aspects of Scientology. Rituals are an imposed mandate by the founder in order to boost Scientology’s status as a “religion”; that is, rituals surrounding rites of passage lend legitimacy to the “Is Scientology a real religion?” debate. Déricquebourge offers that regardless of the ostensible status of it as a religion, “Scientology is a social movement that exists and that needs to be studied as any other ‘social actor’” (165). He essentially sidesteps the whole debate, and chooses not to answer questions of “real religion” instead focusing on Scientology as social movement, and as such, deserving of social scientific study.

This section brings into question the larger environment of academia and how it frames and approaches religion. It reveals the broader issue of defining religion itself, a topic that every scholar engages. Perhaps it is my naiveté, but this question – while I understand its importance – is almost tedious. By that I mean that when academia focuses so much on quantifying and categorizing religion, they are not engaged in the study of human behaviour. I favour the anthropological/ethnographical approach, and would stress that analysis through participant observations should have precedence over theoretical work in the initial stages. Data could then be examined to support or debunk theories. Many of the authors in the anthology begin with a statement about how Scientology is generally perceived, and either accept, reject, or alter that perception through their arguments and claims. This means that they are in dialog with a pre-existing framework, either explicitly or implicitly, in popular and academic forums alike. This tension is current throughout every article.

The tension is not without some legitimate concerns. The litigious nature of Scientology is well known, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the criminal cases it was involved with regarding CAN (Cult Awareness Network) and AFF (American Family Foundation). Anson Shupe’s article, “The Nature of the New Religious Movements – Anticult ‘Culture War’ in Microcosm: The Church of Scientology versus the Cult Awareness Network” (269-281), provides information on the pressured environment surrounding NRMs. CAN and other such groups (labeled as part of the ACM or Anti-Cult Network) were organizations intent on raising awareness of the destructive nature of NRMs, and promoted “extraction” by means of kidnapping and “deprogramming.” These groups, mostly Christian based, polarized the general public.

Shupe has an impressive list of sources; he cites 35 years of data collection and 400 boxes of legal transcripts among them. His article is a basic telling of events that eventually led to the dissolution of CAN and even the ACM movement, primarily due to financial woes. Because CAN and other groups engaged in alleged criminal activity (i.e. kidnapping, restraining, starving, and generally causing distress to their captives), they were most often convicted (in either criminal or civil lawsuits) and ordered to pay restitution in the millions. The Church of Scientology was but one of the NRMs involved in such lawsuits.

The broader issue here is the nature of the “Culture War” itself. ACM provided journalist and editors polarizing and damaging sound bites regarding NRMs. Shupe claims that ACM used the “naïve media” to their advantage, pushing the fear that America and American values were being subverted and destroyed. There was a war on the frontiers of society. It is interesting to note that the language and rhetoric used regarding contentious topics is almost always the same; gays/Muslims/cults are destroying America/morality/society. These groups and ideas are held up against a polished and idealized version of a perfect society. As much as the construction of these groups as evil/destructive/subversive is a narrow and polarizing view, so is the ideal of a perfect society. American society is romanticized just as much as NRMs are demonized. They exist en tandem with each other.

Questions for discussion:

1)   Are scholars on contentious issues forced into a defensive stance, and if so, what is the best approach to such critique?

2)   Does the debate regarding ritual as a defining factor in religion inherit the historical tension between Protestant and Catholic rituals?

3)   Why are scholars focused on deconstructing the demonization (of NRMs) but not the romanticization (of the ideal society)?