Thoughts on Studies in New Religious Movements

The great majority of research on New Religious Movements involves a discussion on the public perception of the NRM studied. Academic authors commonly begin with a statement about how the group is generally perceived, and either accept, reject, or alter that perception through their arguments and claims. NRM scholars are in dialog with a pre-existing framework, either explicitly or implicitly, in popular and academic forums alike. There is an apprehension that must be addressed, a social tension in which scholars become unwilling factors, as a triangle is created between NRM, the NRM scholar, and popular opinion.

There is a tension between NRMs and the population at large, as NRMs are often perceived as evil, destructive, and subversive. David Chidester, in his book, Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples’ Temple, and Jonestown (2003), discusses how officials dealing with the remains of the 913 bodies in Dover, Delaware, went through a lengthy process to make decisions for disposal. Chidester states that ten times the normal amount of chemical treatments were used to disinfect the remains. 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 as those at Jonestown – draws a parallel that, “The deceased immediately came to represent a more fundamental, and dangerous, defilement of American territory” (16).

This reflects the broader issue of the “Culture War” itself. Anti-cult groups provide journalists and editors polarizing and damaging sound bites regarding NRMs fueling the idea that there is a war on the frontiers of society. The language and rhetoric used regarding this contentious topic is almost always the same; cults are evil and destroying morality/society. These groups and ideas are held up against a polished and idealized version of a perfect society, and consequently demonized.

James R. Lewis and Susan J. Palmer Palmer both also address these particular concerns. In Lewis’ introductory note to his edited anthology on Scientology, he writes, “This volume will…likely end up pleasing no one engaged in the Scientology/anti-Scientology conflict….” (2009, 5). This becomes more relevant throughout his text, as well as reading reactions to this anthology, post-publication. 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. 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. Scholars in other areas are not as often forced into clarifying their personal position with such regularity or firmness. It is perhaps relegated to areas of controversial study; queer, race, feminist, and Islamic research all fall under popular and academic scrutiny because they involve contentious issues.

Palmer describes an event wherein a journalist that signed-up for a Sensual Meditation Camp hosted by the International Raelien Movement recorded the sound of couples making love in their tents (2004, 70). This tape was played on a radio broadcast and described as, “an unbridled sex orgy where brainwashing was perpetuated and sexual perversions encouraged” (70). She further recounts that many members lost jobs and custody of their children as a result of these types of ambush journalism. Instead of journalists approaching an NRM from the position of curiosity and professional courtesy, they disingenuously portray NRMs negatively. She claims these depictions are the direct result of anti-cult movements, which encourages and promotes the notion of NRMs as threats. She writes:

The media is generally unsympathetic towards “cults” and churns out stigmatizing news reports and hostile deviance labeling, using words like “cult,” “sect,” “brainwashed,” and “mind-control” – terms that indicate the journalists’ heavy reliance on the anti-cult movement. (2004, 79)

Palmer also recounts a humorous/tragic incidents in “Caught Up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a Canadian Researcher” and accusations of being a “cult lover” by the High Solicitor (2001). Social scientists on new religious learn to negotiate charges of being cult apologists and, even more offensive, poor scholars. I am hard pressed to imagine scholars on areas of study involving peoples and cultures long extinct facing the same type of skepticism of their work. In this sense, scholars are viewed as defending those subversively evil cults that are destroying society. We may or may not be considered evil ourselves, but we certainly are not helping.

Despite my comments in this section, they are not meant as a lament, nor as a call for pity of the NRM scholar. Instead, I posit that perhaps this triangle between NRM scholars, the NRMs themselves, and the popular perception be more closely examined. As Lewis states, scholars are not particularly well adept at the sound bite; our training necessitates a reasoned, well supported, and logical presentation of our points of views. My claim, however, is that the fact that results of our research can directly influence public perception, and even perhaps can directly influence the ever-developing groups themselves, means that NRM scholars are social actors reluctantly involved in the creation of these groups. We are embroiled in their history-making. I cannot, at this time, offer much to answer the types of ethical questions my claim raises for the study of NRMS. Instead, I encourage future research related to the role of the NRM scholar enmeshed in the NRM struggle for legitimacy in order to gain further insight and discussion into this delicate balance.

Chidester, David. 2003. Salvation and Suicide: Jim Jones, the Peoples Temple, and Jonestown. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Lewis, James R. 2009. Scientology. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press.

—. 2003. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

Palmer, Susan J. 2004. Aliens Adored: Rael’s UFO Religion. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press.

—. 2001. “Caught Up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a Canadian Researcher.” In Misunderstanding Cults, Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field, eds. Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, 99-122. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Palmer, Susan J., and Charlotte Hardman. 1999. Children in New Religions. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.



Children in New Religions

Mini-Review of Children in New Religions, edited by Susan Palmer and Charlotte Hardman.

This edited book discusses the various issues and concerns surrounding children in New Religious Movements. The book is divided into four parts; the impact of children on NRMs; how children are socialized within the movements; legal concerns; and how children themselves understand their world and surroundings. The introduction nicely summarizes the environment of the articles by emphasizing the tension between popular understandings of NRMs as dangerous cults, the polarizing role of the media and anti-cult movements, and tension between notions of religious freedom versus cult “indoctrination” of children. This quasi-review focuses on solely three articles.

In the first chapter, the article, “Witches,” details the impact of a second generation within Wicca/Neo-Paganism. Helen Berger provides thoughtful insights into the concerns of Wiccan/Neo-Pagan communities as children spark the need for more routinization, sexual conservatism, and legitimization of their religion. As there is no central authority (they are firmly anti-authority), there is no official stance or mandate on procreation or child rearing. The author notes, however, that a growing amount of literature is being produced that reflect the concerns of Wiccan parents.

Berger focuses her article on the initial debate about whether or not to raise children as Wiccan considering that Neo-Paganism is considered to be a spiritual path, freely chosen. Since personal choice is emphasized, parents wish to avoid indoctrination or pressure on their children to participate in magical rituals. Parents attempt a balance between introducing offspring to magic and understanding that certain structures (such as routinization and legitimation) are helpful for children. Routines create organization and a sense of security, while efforts to legitimize Neo-Paganism in the popular arena minimizes discrimination.

Of note is the issue of bifurcation; that Wiccan adults and children lead somewhat double lives at work and school, especially in culturally sensitive areas such as the Bible Belt. Adults compartmentalize their lives successfully, while children cannot as easily lead duplicitous lives. For these reasons, the initial counterculture movement is shifting to discussions on the benefits of routinization.  The strong resistance to routinization comes from the Neo-Pagan aversion to hierarchical systems – routines are psychologically arresting, they discourage personal growth, and inhibit transformation. Routinization is a symbol of hierarchical systems, which goes counter to their notion of an ideal society. This tension between ideals and practicality is unresolved.

Another article in this section focuses on a group of psychotherapists in New York, the Sullivan Institute/Fourth Wall Community. The author, Amy Siskind, a researcher sociologist and ex-member of this group, approaches her study in a socio-historical fashion. A Freudian and psychoanalytic influenced philosophy, this group identified mothers as the source of all anxieties and neuroses in children. The act of parenting can not help but transmit the mother’s jealousies onto the child. The solution is to cease contact from their families, and when children were born, remove children from their mothers as early as possible. Boarding schools, day camps, and living in groups of other children, encouraging sexual promiscuity and denouncing pair-bonding were preferred methods to apply their model. Ultimately this group disbanded because of its unusual, and even borderline criminal practices.

In chapter five, Elizabeth Puttick’s article, “Osho Ko Hsuan School: Educating the ‘New Child’”, discusses the founder of the Rajneesh movements communal schools. Osho understood adults as too firmly set, but that children offered more malleability in terms of molding behaviour. A new commune set up as “a great experiment in Buddhahood” was a practical application of the philosophical theory (91). Its intent was to jar members from their prescribed traditional roles. Gender reversals, where fathers attend to typically more feminine professions, women engage in manual labour, and children are removed from their parents and raised communally are some examples of theory in praxis. As children belonged to the community itself, they were raised communally without the strong bonding between parents and offspring. The ideal is to “release” the children to discover their own natures. They should be free to make their own mistakes, and trust their own intelligence. Because society at large has instilled in humans behaviours deemed harmful, the schools philosophy was to apply their ideal notion of nurturing children’s natural tendencies – no mandatory testing or attendance – in order to foster notions of personal choice.

What most of the chapters have in common is the motivation for the approach to childrearing within these groups; they seek to correct perceived wrongs of the world at large. Adult members identify an issue with the world, a source for social problems. Wicca names patriarchy/hierarchy as the source of the world problems, and instead focuses in matriarchy and the feminine ideals for the betterment of all. The Sullivanian group stands almost in direct contrast, naming the bond of mother/child itself as the source of all mental suffering, and focuses on de-emphasizing that bond in order to create ideal emotionally healthy and politically radical individuals. The Osho group identifies rigid tradition without consciousness, and sets out to instill a sense of freedom and community in the children. Identifying the source of problems in society reveals important premises of their respective worldviews. When such a source is known, it can be corrected. Children, then, are viewed as a practical application of the theoretical because they are seen as blank slates. Raising children according to the new ideal acts as curative and balancing. While the efficacy of such approaches can be argued between groups and the various people that study them, the commonality of social betterment through the second generation is the linkage. Adult members of NRMs choose their mode of religious expression, but the children are somewhat of an experiment to gage success of rejecting the “harmful” status quo in favour of new ideals.

Topics for discussion:

1)  Several of the articles mention the Western obsession with idealizing children as pure and innocent, which contributes to the notion that NRMs are engaged in brainwashing. Are their causes for legitimate concerns in some of these groups?

2) Related to the above, if NRM scholars have a mandate to not harm our informants, how are we defining harm?

3) What would be our responsibility towards the children if harm was proven/suspected? Are there different considerations between adults and children?