Birthday

I turned thirty-eight on March 2nd. Birthdays do not upset me, overall, but I am now just that much closer to forty. Forty seems huge. And mature. Not sure where the years went.

Actually, that’s bullshit. It’s just something people say; I know exactly where the years went. In my early twenties I learned how to think long-term, not paycheck to paycheck. The learning curve on that one was pretty tough. The entire concept of a “future” was alien, much less planning one out, or even just beginning to aspire to one. You may have heard of “imposter syndrome,” wherein one is never fully convinced of one’s own skills. But there is also something I like to call “don’t dare to hope” syndrome. That’s where you know that in life Things Usually Don’t Work Out, and to protect yourself from disappointment you squash dreams of a better future. People assume it is laziness on your part, or a lack of drive, or—sacrilege—a lack of imagination. But they are incorrect. It is self-preservation. Do be a lofty dreamer means that you are Not Addressing Reality. And an acute understanding of harsh reality is the only advantage you have when you have nothing.

So in my twenties I learned to Dare to Hope for something besides working to pay the bills. It starts with a simple dream, a fantasy, wherein you imagine your ideal scenario without feeling like you are betraying your keen observation of human behaviour (your sharpest and most useful skill). You have seen those who walk through life living within a fantasy that has little relationship to their reality. You want nothing of that.

The trick, then, is to allow yourself to fantasize about what you want in life in a controlled way, without jeopardizing your armour. For those of you who have never faced this kind of challenge, who can dream endless possibilities without ever questioning whether or not it is possible because, by virtue of a fluke of being born into a pre-existing infrastructure of support (economically or emotionally), I envy you. Things Just Happen for you because Things Have Always Been That Way. You should thank the indifferent universe.

In my late twenties and into my early thirties, I learned to fantasize. Those scenarios (ever-shifting and sometimes fanciful) were small kernels of possibility beyond my immediate circumstances. Here is the most important thing about those fantasies: I indulged them without guilt or depression. That’s another thing others fail to understand: when your dreams never come true, when all you have ever experienced in life is that you have little to no means to achieve success (however defined), it becomes depressing to even dream. So you shut it down. I became determined to reframe fantasizing about my future as a tool to accomplish my goals.

It was slow, with many setbacks, as there was not a plan in place. It was part luck, part hard work, and part investment in psychotherapy—that wonderful Western practice of paying someone to listen to you, no strings attached. Friendships require reciprocity. Therapy requires only that you work on yourself.

By now, after fifteen years as an academic, methodically working through my degrees, one text, essay, class, and year at a time, I finally see a reward for my considerable investment of time, money, effort, and imagination.

Ever hear of the marshmallow test? It’s where they ask children to hold off on eating a marshmallow that is right in front of them with the promise of two marshmallows later on. Some gobble it up right away, some have the patience to wait it out. The test is designed to evaluate how children strategize the cost-benefit analysis: short-term pain for long-term gain. When I first heard of the test I thought with my childhood’s mind: but if I don’t eat it now someone else will come along and take it from me. A marshmallow now is way better than the mere promise of a marshmallow later, by some strange adult who I cannot trust to follow through on their promise. Prove to me that you, scientist, will follow through on your claim first, then I’ll pass your damned marshmallow test.

Poverty breeds such suspicion.

As I near forty, I feel pretty damn good about the future—a feeling that I can honestly say is wholly novel and damned wonderful. Despite dismal job prospects for PhDs and even dimmer avenues for religious studies scholars in bizarre and fringe areas of research, I am not worried. I am not worried because I have never lost my grip on Harsh Reality, and have learned to balance it with Fanciful Dreams. That balance is a tool like any other. Learn to use it.

_______________________________

If you want to get me a birthday present why not click the icon below to help fund my research?

Concordia’s Graduate Conference Call For Papers

Brave New World: Traditions and Transitions

CALL   FOR   PAPERS

Submissions are welcomed for the

18th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference

To be held Thursday, February 14th, 2013, Concordia University

Faculty Lounge, Hall Building H-765, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Montreal.

We invite papers from graduate students from all areas of the humanities, social sciences and fine arts that will inspire, challenge, and stretch personal assumptions, academic categories, and pedagogical approaches, including but not limited to historicity, ethics, doctrine, art, psychology, case studies, social practices and values, etc. This conference provides an excellent opportunity to share and publicize research as well as to meet other like-minded up-and-coming academics and researchers.

This year’s theme focuses broadly on how identities, boundaries and traditions within cultures change and shift; the transition between the old and the new, and how customs, ethos, social norms and philosophies are defined throughout history, asking how these concepts are found in religions, societies and civilizations. This theme invites and encourages discussion on history, ethics, philosophy, art, anthropology, politics, sociology, case studies, doctrine and practices and how traditions and transitions present across time and places, and how they impact individuals and communities. We invite submissions that offer a critical, in-depth analysis of the issues or questions that challenge cultural, religious, historical and societal ideals.

Please note: AGIC is putting together a Special Interest Section, Order and Chaos: The More Things Change… Please see attached call for more details.

Presentations in either French or English are encouraged. Abstracts must include a publication-ready, titled abstract of 200-300 words. The name, e-mail address, university affiliation and level of study of the presenter(s) must also be included, along with any special needs. Proposals are to be submitted no later than December 15th, 2012. All received submissions will be acknowledged, with notification of acceptance, by mid December. Please note that authors will have the option of submitting their papers for online publication as part of the Journal of Religion and Culture‘s Conference Proceedings series, a non-peer reviewed division of the academic journal produced by the graduate students of Concordia University. Send proposals and requests for information to:

Email : agic.concordia@gmail.com

Website: http://agicconcordia.wordpress.com/


Brave New World: Traditions and Transitions

18e colloque annuel interdisciplinaire des étudiants et étudiantes

des cycles supérieurs du Département de religion

le jeudi 14 février 2013,

Faculty Lounge, Hall Building, H-765, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. O, Montreal.

L’association des étudiants des cycles supérieurs du département de religion de l’Université Concordia sollicite des propositions de communications, issues de toutes les disciplines des sciences humaines et sociales, pour son 18e colloque interdisciplinaire annuel. Ce colloque est une excellente occasion de partager vos travaux avec d’autres chercheurs et toutes les propositions pouvant remettre en question nos catégories académiques sont les bienvenues.

Cette année nous nous engangeons la notion du changement: de la façon que l’identité changent, les frontières et les traditions dans les cultures à différents moments de l’histoire; comment les coutumes, l’éthos, les normes sociales et les philosophies sont affectés et définis par l’histoire; et la relation entre la temporalité et l’éternité, en explorant sous quelles formes se retrouvent ces concepts à des endroits et moments différents dans le temps et leurs impacts sur les individus et les communautés.

Nous sollicitons des propositions qui mettent de l’avant une analyse critique et approfondie de problématiques mettant en question les idéaux religieux, culturels et sociaux et la façon dont ils s’incarnent (ou non) en réalité. Les participants sont invités à appliquer ce thème à leur propre sujet de recherche, du plus concret au plus abstrait, par exemple l’éthique, la théologie, les arts, la psychologie, les études de cas, les pratiques sociales et les valeurs, etc.

Les propositions et les communications peuvent être en français ou en anglais. Vous êtes prié(e) de nous faire parvenir, par courriel, le titre de votre communication, de même qu’un résumé de 150 à 200 mots de celle-ci aux fins de publication. Chaque proposition doit aussi contenir les renseignements suivant : nom, adresse, numéros de téléphone, adresse électronique, l’institution à laquelle l’auteur est affilié, le niveau d’étude et matériel audiovisuel nécessaire à la présentation.

Vous devez nous faire parvenir vos propositions avant le 15 décembre 2012, le cachet de la Poste en faisant foi. Les conférenciers retenus seront contactés le fin de décembre 2012. Toutes les communications pourront ultérieurement être publiées dans leJournal of Religion and Culture.

Veuillez adresser les propositions, ainsi toute demande de renseignements, aux adresses suivantes :

Courriel : agic.concordia@gmail.com
Site Web : http://agicconcordia.wordpress.com/


SPECIAL INTEREST SECTION:

ORDER AND CHAOS: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

Submissions are welcomed for the

18th Annual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference

To be held Thursday, February 14th, 2013, Concordia University

Faculty Lounge, Hall Building, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Montreal

From time immemorial, the struggle to define order and chaos has left its indelible mark on the human psyche: can true change ever occur or is it all really just the same? The dichotomy is virtually universal and presents itself in art, myth, literature, philosophy and religious beliefs. The idea of change as a means to maintain order or as a proponent of chaos is one that affects us all and is more of a prevalent theme than ever. The 18thAnnual Graduate Interdisciplinary Conference is putting together a Special Interest Section dedicated solely to the concept of how things change as seen throughout history and cultures within the larger context of traditions and transition. We invite papers from areas of the humanities, art and social sciences to form a special interest section that discusses the various aspects of order and chaos and its implication within cultures, societies and religion.

Presentations in either French or English are encouraged. Proposals may be submitted by e-mail. Proposals are to be no more than one page and must include a publication-ready, titled abstract of 150-200 words. The name, e-mail address, university affiliation and level of study of the presenter(s) must also be included. Any special requests or needs for audio-visual equipment must also be indicated. Proposals should be submitted no later than December 15th, 2012. All received submissions will be acknowledged, with notification of acceptance, by mid December. Please note that authors will have the option of submitting their papers for online publication as part of theJournal of Religion and Culture‘s Conference Proceedings series, a non-peer reviewed division of the academic journal produced by the graduate students of Concordia University. Send proposals and requests for information to:

Email : agic.concordia@gmail.com

Website: http://agicconcordia.wordpress.com/


SPECIAL INTEREST SECTION:

ORDER AND CHAOS: THE MORE THINGS CHANGE…

Appel de propositions pour un colloque spécial

dans le cadre du 18e colloque annuel interdisciplinaire des étudiants et étudiantes des cycles supérieurs du Département de religion

le jeudi 14 février 2013, Université Concordia

Faculty Lounge, Hall Building H 765, 1455 de Maisonneuve Blvd. West, Montreal

Depuis des temps immémoriaux, les difficultés à determiner l’ordre et le chaos a laissé des signes indélébiles sur le psychisme humain: peut un vrais changement se produire ou bien est-il réellement le meme? La dichotomie est pratiquement universelle et se présente en art, mythe, literature, philosophie et en croyances religieuses. L’idée de changement comme moyen pour garder l’ordre ou comme un partisan de chaous est plus que jamais un thème répandu. Le 18e colloque annuel interdisciplinaire invite les contributions de toutes les disciplines des sciences humaines et sociales, de même que des arts, à participer à ce colloque spécial qui explorera les notion de fin d’ordre et de chaos dans différents contextes sociaux, culturels et historiques.

Les propositions et les communications peuvent être en français ou en anglais. Vous êtes prié de nous faire parvenir, par courriel, le titre de votre communication, de même qu’un résumé de 150 à 200 mots de celle-ci aux fins de publications. Chaque proposition doit aussi contenir les renseignements suivant : nom, adresse, numéros de téléphone, adresse électronique, l’institution à laquelle l’auteur est affilié, le niveau d’étude et matériel audiovisuel nécessaire à la présentation. Vous devez nous faire parvenir vos propositions avant le 15 décembre 2012, le cachet de la Poste en faisant foi. Les conférenciers retenus seront contactés au début du mois de janvier 2012. Toutes les communications pourront ultérieurement être publiées dans le Journal of Religion and Culture.

Veuillez adresser les propositions, ainsi toute demande de renseignement, aux adresses suivantes :

Courriel : agic.concordia@gmail.com

Site Web: http://agicconcordia.wordpress.com/

 

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?

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)?

Hawaii Conference

I will present my paper, “Death and Dying in the Satanic Worldview” at the Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities this week. Click on the photo to view full program details.

On the itinerary are watching lectures, blowing off other lectures, lounging on the beach, snorkeling, hiking a volcano, sleeping in, lounging by the pool, attending a luau, drinking at Tiki bars, mailing postcards to make people jealous (jealous, oh so jealous!), and finally, applying sunscreen, thickly and often. How do you say “academia score!” in Hawaiian?