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.



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