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Self-consciousness in the Study of New Religions
by J. Gordon Melton ("cornerstonemag.com," February 22, 2002)

[A talk given at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Ministries to New Religions held at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky February 22-23, 2002 - cornerstonemag.com all rights reserved by Gordon Melton.]

Contents:

i. Introductory ruminations on scholarship and the "counter-cult" movement
I. Awareness of the Cult Wars
II. New Perspective on New Religions
III. More Awareness of the Global Context
IV. Need for Fruitful Interaction with the World of New Religions Scholarship
V. Be Realistic about the Changes in the Religious Situation


It is with some trepidation that I have approached this presentation, knowing full well that I am entering into an arena where many have dismissed the work of those of us engaged in the scholarly study of new religions as "cult apologists." I must also admit some ambiguous feelings over the term. On the one hand, it is annoying because it is a barrier to conversation. On the other hand, it was an acknowledgment of the end of the 1980s debate on brainwashing and deprogramming and that we could largely place that concept and the practices associated with it aside. The term actually appeared at the beginning of the 1990s in the wake of ruling in the 1990 Fishman case in which the major exponents of brainwashing had been tossed out of court. During the 1980s, the major scholarly organizations had been unanimous in their condemnation of the brainwashing hypothesis as related to new religions, and the Fishman case brought court recognition of that fact.[1]

However, over time the term "cult apologist" has assumed additional connotations. Its formal meaning was simply one who defends the civil rights of less popular and minority religions, very much like the term "nigger lover" was thrown at people in the civil rights movement in the 1960s. As such, I think any number of us might own to it. After all, Evangelical Christians are included on the lists of cults published in many countries by both governments and dominant religions groups. To speak up for the right of Evangelicals to simply exist in Greece or France or much of South America is all it takes to be labeled a "cult apologist" in some quarters.

However, the term, among those who enjoy polemics, has been stretched to suggest that we have not just spoken about the civil rights of unpopular groups but have become theological apologists, actually trying to argue for the truth of their theology. This expansion of the term, while an understandable misunderstanding due to the use of the term "apologetics" in Christian circles, is simply incorrect. Scholars might try to comprehend and correctly report on the thought-world of a particular group, but any shift into theological apologetics is quickly noted and called into question. When you work on a spectrum of groups, doing apologetics for all becomes an impossible self-contradictory task.

While it usually simply demonstrates their ignorance, a few have stretched it even further, to suggest that those who have defended the civil rights of new religions have gone so far as to attempt to justify some of the evil that they have perpetuated, even child abuse and mass murder. This more than annoying use of the term, while again understandable given the anger of secular anti-cultists over their marginalization, in the end is simply a personal attack on one's intellectual opponents which attempts to obscure the issues that led to the demise of the anti-cult perspective. My mind is made up, don't confuse me with facts. Such personal attacks simply further marginalizes the speaker.

However, I have also been somewhat annoyed with another label that has been put on me personally—sociologist. While I know a number of sociologists, and have just finished my second book with a sociologist co-author, [2] I must protest that I am not one. During my college career, I took a sum total of two courses in sociology. I believe that the misunderstanding came from the fact that in the 1970s many of the scholars who studied new religions are sociologists and several of them—James Richardson, Eileen Barker, Jeffrey Hadden—became quite visible during the cult wars of the 1980s. It was also widely believed that sociologists as a group were cult apologists as opposed to psychologists who like Margaret Singer generally supported the critics of New Religions.

Such is a misperception. The cult wars were largely brought to an end by two psychological scientists—psychiatrist Perry London (of Rutgers University) and clinical psychologist Dick Anthony [3] who were joined by the likes of Marc Galanter, a professor of psychiatry at the New York School of Medicine. In fact, the study of New Religions is a rather unique sub-discipline consisting as it does of several hundred people from a variety of scholarly disciplines. The largest group, though by no means the majority, like myself, come from the discipline of religious studies. There are a number of sociologists—but there are also anthropologists, political scientists, historians, psychologists, and a lesser number from a spectrum of additional disciplines from communications to law.

The label aside, the accusation is that we "sociologists" are opposed to the Evangelical ministries directed toward New Religions. That again is simply not the case. Most scholars, even of New Religions, are only vaguely aware of the ministries, even those involved in the cult wars. I can remember back in the 1980s of helping develop language so that Christian ministries were clearly distinguished from the Cult Awareness Network. [4] With the exception of one article by Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne and one just published by Eileen Barker, [5] neither of which offers any negative words about Christian counter cultists, there is almost no mention of the Evangelical ministries in the scholarly literature. [The one exception to that general rule is the material generated about the Spiritual Counterfeits Movement and the trial for libel/slander it faced for its rather crude attack on the Local Church.]

I offered some critique in the 1980s—namely that the movement had strayed from its missional task into irrelevance as an "apologetics" movement, but even in making that critique, I saw myself more of a concerned ally rather than an enemy. And that critique was offered rather quietly, in correspondence to Walter Martin, but the major concern I voiced was, I later learned, picked up initially by Gordon Lewis and then others within the movement and, I understand is getting a significant hearing at this conference. [6] It was in response to Lewis, Morehead and others that I published my paper several years ago highlighting what I saw as the major weaknesses in the movement. [7] That paper grew out of my concern that Christian writing on the New Religions was not significant in shaping the attitude of the press, the government, the intelligentsia, and most importantly, the courts toward the new religion. Evangelical writers on the cults have not been informed enough on public policy issues, and frequently on their own theological heritage, to serve as a public spokesperson on issues as they came and went. Evangelicals knowledgeable about New Religions have been noticeably absent from Congressional hearings at which the fate of Christian missionaries were being decided, and their testimony has not met the qualifications to be offered in court cases.

However, I speak this hour not so much to rehash old issues or to present further critique but to offer some observation on the foundation upon which the new phase of the counter-cult movement should build if the missiological aspect is to mature and if it is to move from beyond the fringes of the Evangelical movement. The hallmark of that foundation is self-consciousness—an awareness of the history out of which we come, the world in which we operate, and the global context in which we are acting.

I take it as a common agreement that we should not trivialize our work. The major way we trivialize our work is to trivialize the subject of our concern. In so far as we dismiss New Religions as of no ultimate importance, in so far as we push them to the fringe of religion, we confess that we are concerned with a trivial matter. Overcoming the marginalization of the field of New Religions has been a constant battle for New Religions scholars, which only came to an end after the debacle of Waco when law enforcement agencies realized the problem that had been caused by their dismissal of the Branch Davidians as simply a cult. If New Religions are merely cults, then those who monitor them are merely hobbyists whose work has nothing of real importance to tell the Church.

If cults are merely a few small groups on the fringe of the religious community, groups whose religious credentials are even in question, then anything we have to say about them has little relevance to the future thrusts of ecclesiastical programming.

Thus the need of the hour for ministries related to New Religions is the self-conscious reconstruction of the foundation upon which it is built, a foundation that no longer trivializes the subject matter and hence no longer segregates New Religions as fringe phenomena. A reconstructed foundation will include both an honest assessment of the phenomena and a rational consideration of the needs for ministry. While the laying of such a new foundation is far beyond the scope of this paper, I would suggest several building blocks.

I. Awareness of the Cult Wars

A generation ago very few people were interested in the New Religions, and there was a paucity of literature suggesting how many there were or where they were generated. At best, they were seen as part of the California silliness; journalists were suggesting that California was becoming a land of fruits and nuts. Then in 1965, the immigration laws changed. The countries of Asia were put in the same immigration quota as Western Europe. The legal change has brought to the United States (and to Canada) hundreds of thousands of Asians and Middle Easterners as permanent residents and new citizens. Among the thousands of immigrants were hundreds of missionaries—exponents of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam, and to a lesser extent Sikhism, Jainism, Shinto and the Asian new religions.

These new religious communities immediately encountered the coming of age of the post-World War II baby boomers. The baby boomer generation began with a job market unable to absorb them. Many took the opportunity provided by new religions for a career in religious leadership—from the Jesus People to the Hare Krishna. It was peculiar moment in American religious history. (At the same time, Europe was experiencing the same growth of new religions, but it did not have the same kind of sudden impact that occurred in the America.)

By the middle of the 1970s, we had become aware that new religions were burgeoning and that many young adults were joining groups about which the average person had never heard. To join these groups meant for many people a change of trajectory in their career aspirations, meaning for parents that their children would not be doctors, lawyers, and businessmen, but swamis, yogis, and religious bureaucrats. The cult wars began—not as a matter of theology, but of economics and social status. Parents resented their offspring joining a low status group whether it was the Unification Church or the Divine Light Mission or a Christian Commune or the Jews for Jesus. To them, all were cults that had captured the minds and hearts of their children.

It appeared that we were headed for a classic battle between the generations that would die out as the baby boom generation aged and the population curve died out. Such would have happened had it not been for two unexpected events. The first was Jonestown. While the Peoples Temple had nothing to do with New Religions, within hours of the deaths in Guyana, it had been labeled a cult, and those small groups later to come together as the Cult Awareness Network seized upon it in their quest to gain government support for their cause. The second event was the Patty Hearst trial. In an attempt to defend Hearst from charges of aiding the Symbionese Liberation Army, a UCLA psychiatrist introduced the idea of "brainwashing" into the case. The idea was initially rejected, but its potential was seen and was immediately picked up and by the end of the 1970s introduced into several court cases involving the New Religions.

Since the mid 1970s, parents had been hiring individuals to do what we now known as deprogramming. It was an affront, but until 1980 not a major issue. With the injection of the brainwashing hypothesis, however, a pseudoscientific explanation for people joining a new unpopular religion was offered. It answered the question of why anyone would join such a weird religion with a warning. People join because these groups from Asia had psychologically manipulated recruits in such a way as to override their ability to make a free choice. Obviously, no one in their right mind would join the Moonies or the Krishnas or Jesus People U.S.A., they had had their mind stolen and remained in because of practices that kept their mind suppressed.

In essence, the cult war was not about cults, it was about brainwashing. It was not about defending New Religions, it was about the attempt to advocate pseudoscience in the halls of academia and the courts.

And from the beginning the argument smacked of pseudoscience—it fit all the criteria. It ran counter to all the major trends in psychological theory as well as the classical literature on brainwashing from the 1950s. It offered no scientific evidence, only anecdotal stories. However, people with credentials as psychologists and sociologists were going into court and arguing that brainwashing was a real phenomena. And they were saying that its existence could be substantiated from vague general characteristics of a group without any need to actually study the group under question.

It was the action of several social and psychological scientists going into court and arguing for brainwashing that in the early 1980s brought a variety of scholars across the spectrum into the cult wars. It was not a general defense of new religions, nor even a broad attack on those who opposed "cults," is was a rather focused critique upon the advocacy of psychological brainwashing. [8] In the midst of the debates in the scholarly organizations, a second pseudoscientific claim arose, that membership in the New Religions and that the practice of such things as meditation, chanting, and prayer cause permanent brain damage. This claim was presented by two journalists in a book called Snapping. While the book became popular among the supporters of the Cult Awareness Network, it was so obviously flawed, it never made it to the courts.

Understanding the problem created by the debate within the scholarly community, the advocates of brainwashing sought the support of their psychological colleagues by forming a task force within the American Psychological Association. The approval of the task force's report would blunt the attacks of critics. That report, presented in 1987, was not just rejected, but was rejected unanimously in the harshest language. Following the rejection by the APA, the American Sociological Association and the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion passed resolutions concurring.

The action by the APA, ASA, and SSSR had immediate results. First, those people who had been testifying in courts were no longer welcomed to argue for brainwashing. Those who did deprogramming no longer had a defense for their criminal-like action, and the single group that had been the major proponent of deprogramming, the Cult Awareness Network, became legally responsible for its actions in this regard. A series of court decisions led to the bankruptcy of CAN and the selling of its assets—its name, logo, 800-telephone number, and files—to a coalition of new religions that had been put together by the Church of Scientology.

The several actions of the court in the mid 1990s largely ended the cult wars. A new dialogue has begun among scholars over authoritarian practices in some New Religions, the unique beliefs and practices of those few groups that have become involved in violent incidents, and the way that social influence operates in new religions for good or ill. A variety of scholars have regularly appeared on the programs of the American Family Foundation and several representatives from the Foundation, whose scholars are also trying to reconstruct in the wake of the demise of brainwashing, have appeared at the CESNUR gatherings. The major scholarly chat room on New Religions now includes some of the "anti-cult" social scientists.

I suggest at this point that the gap between scholars of new religions and those involved in ministries to new religions is largely a mental construct that has little substance. Scholars of new religions have a very distinct goal, to try to understand life in first generation religions and to gain a handle upon particular practical problems such as preventing violence and comprehending the larger social changes they represent. While that assumes a certain neutrality toward groups in particular, it is also leading to the production of valuable information that can be used by those engaged in ministries and provide a path amid the morass of claims and counter-claims. That data will be a valuable asset as we construct a fresh on the world of New Religions with a generation of observation behind us.

II. New Perspective on New Religions

The idea of "New Religions" emerged in the 1970s as we in the United States were suddenly confronted with a whole spectrum of different and unfamiliar religions. Such new religions had been appearing since the mid-1940s, but in the 1970s they suddenly began to have an impact that was quite different. Rather than isolated movements such as the Beat Zen of the 1950s, they represented what at first seemed to be a host of new faiths with no grounding in traditional religion and they were suddenly growing among young adults. Because of the early association with contemporary social phenomena—flower children, the baby boomers, street people—it was social scientists, not religious scholars nor historians, who began the concentrated research. They emphasized the "newness" of the phenomena, and that emphasis led some to conclude that new religions were not only a new social phenomena, but that there was something inherently distinctive about these groups unlike "new religions" in earlier generations. There were significant differences between the Unification Church and the Way International and for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Church of Christ, Scientist. For some these differences were good—that is, they were purveyors of a new religious consciousness, and for others bad, they were practicing a form of brainwashing.

A generation later, now that religious studies and history have added their insights, we have a somewhat different view. We have been able to place the "new religions" into the larger religious context. We can see the new religions not so much as "new" religious phenomena, but as new expressions of old religions. The emergence of the new religions in the 1970s represents a flowering of the old religious traditions from the rest of the world within the historically Christian West. We see that Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam are not monolithic but, like Christianity and Judaism, are divided into numerous sectarian expressions. We also understand that there are not just five big world religious communities but also a number of smaller ones—Shinto, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Daoism, and Sant Mat, to name a few.

Not only are they diverse, they are also dynamic through time. Each generation produces a range of variant religious expressions. In the twentieth century, increasingly, new religious expressions have led to the formation of distinct new religious movements. Some of these die out, some coalesce into new groups. Some of the new groups are absorbed into the center, some remain on the fringe of their community. Think about Christianity, the twentieth century has seen the formation of more than a hundred Pentecostal churches and a range of Evangelical churches. We certainly treated the "Holy Rollers' as "cult-like" phenomena when it arose.

Consider the Hare Krishna. They became a phenomenon in the 1970s. We knew they came from India but they were so different from the forms of Hinduism with which we were most familiar. Their newness, however, turned out to be a product of our ignorance. We are now aware of Chaitanya, a Hindu reformer who was contemporary of Luther who set his stamp on Bengali Hinduism and we can see how the Krishna movement is a modern expression of Chaitanya's faith. For those who were observing the Krishnas, in the 1980s, we saw the influx of Indian Americans into their temples and the acceptance that Bengali's gave them in the 1990s, as they have spread around the world, we have seen the way that they have been quickly integrated into world Hinduism.

Among the least understood phenomena in the West has been the Western Esoteric tradition, the name we now give to the surviving Gnostic tradition. We have been unaware that a second minority religious tradition, going under different names, has survived in the Christian West through the centuries, that it was revived at a little German University called Wittenburg in the sixteenth century by the Old Testament scholar John Rauchlin, and has since the eighteenth century become an increasingly important part of Western society. The problem with Esotericism is twofold. First, it tends to be ahistorical, and very few esotericists have devoted themselves to developing the story of the tradition through all its permutations. Second, to protect themselves from the persecution of the Christian establishment, especially in Europe, many esotericists have defined themselves as nonreligious. While such self-definitions have taken them outside the umbrella provided by religious freedom laws, it has provided protection and allowed growth in places like France and Italy where Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism have become large social phenomena.

In coming to grips with Esotericism, and encountering the writings of their learned exponents, we can understand the appeal of the Esoteric alternative, and move beyond our simplistic and ineffective dismissals of the "occult." For those of us in the West, the understanding of the Esoteric tradition would appear to be essential. It is the single alternative religious phenomena that has grown the most. All surveys indicate that simply because of its homegrown Western base, that the Esoteric subculture is larger than American Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam combined.

To date, criticism has concentrated on ridicule of some popular practices—crystals, channeling—the equivalence of prayer cloths and speaking in tongues in Christianity. However, the esoteric community has proceeded along without anyone taking it upon them to build a critique of the thought that under girds the movement. Critique has been focused on a few ideas on the edge of the esoteric world, rather than the rather popular perennial philosophy that binds it together. The critique of New Age Esotericism is possibly the most neglected task before Western Christianity. [9]

III. More Awareness of the Global Context

It has become almost a truism to note that we live in a globalized plugged-in world. It is also the case that the great majority of anti-cult literature is published in the United States and that the majority of that literature is written by Evangelical Christians. It is also the case, that for reasons that have nothing to do with relative quality, particular items of that literature are picked up and translated into other languages. Simultaneously, several Christian ministries have developed extensive Internet sites, which, with the exception of a few countries such as China, may be picked up and read at any Internet terminal.

It is also the case that as the cult wars ended in the English-speaking world, through the 1990s it has come alive elsewhere. In the wake of the demonstration by Falun Gong members on Tienenman Square, the Chinese government has incorporated brainwashing language into its polemic against unapproved religious groups.

Following the Aum Shinrikyo incident it was brought into Japan and used to justify the spread of deprogramming. The process only waned when quite by accident the majority political party needed the small party loosely aligned to the Soka Gakkai to retain power. Suddenly, the major "cult" group under attack in Japan became part of the ruling elite.

Of possibly greater concern is the situation in South America. Here, the great majority of anti-cult literature is the product of the Church. Half is material translated from American Evangelical books and circulated by different Protestant and Free Church ministries. The other half is produced by representatives of the Roman Catholic Church. The difference in the two sets of literature, is the addition of anti-Protestant/Evangelical material in the Catholic literature. While half the titles are Protestant, the Catholic Church has a much larger system for dissemination and more influence with government officials. Evangelicalism has the greatest potential for loss by the spread of anti-cult images to Latin America. Just now, Chile, and its new anti-cult law, is the flash point.

The cult war has now shifted to Europe where the problems raised by a few Evangelicals to the brainwashing hypothesis in the 1980s have manifested. Brainwashing is not a scientific hypothesis, but a political argument to be used against unpopular religion. It can be used against anyone, since it does not rely upon any actual information about the group toward whom it is projected. While deprogramming was never really used in Europe, government regulation is.

In Europe brainwashing is called mental manipulation. While reaction to new religions was relatively mild through the mid-1990s (it was seen as an American problem) in the wake of the Solar Temple incident, France took the lead in developing a crusade against the cults. Belgium, the canton of French-speaking Geneva, Germany, Austria, and Russia were most responsive.

And it was not surprising that the major "cults" toward which action was taken were the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Scientologists, and Evangelical Christians. In France, while rhetoric was being directed at the Mandarom, a small French group, and Scientologists, when new laws were put in place, the French moved initially against the Evangelical Church of Bascon. The Germans acted against the Pentecostal churches in Berlin, and the Russians disincorporated the affiliate of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod and more recently the Salvation Army (a brainwashing group with militant tendencies).

During the last seven years, the French have taken the lead in trying to spread what are now the harshest laws against minority religions in the West, laws based on the brainwashing/mental manipulation hypothesis. [10] At the same time, those who have been interested in religious rights have been most active in blunting the attempt to implement the French laws and see them spread. The greatest success has been in Germany, were a lengthy report was issued saying that Germany did not have a cult problem and that brainwashing was scientifically unsupported. That report essentially quieted the controversy on Germany. Spain is the other major country with an anti-brainwashing law, which it has been willing to use against religious groups.

Europe in a great struggle to create the European Union. The cult issue has been injected into the debate and threatens the elimination of guarantees of religious freedom in the new European constitution. Given the secularization of much of Europe, the guarantees of religious freedom in the new constitution is essential if Evangelicalism is to have a chance to effect life in the next century.

The point of becoming aware of the global situation is to become self-conscious of the manner in which our words and actions in this country affect the plight of Christians in other countries. It is one thing to offer Christian responses to other religions, new and old. However, we should also be aware of ways in which our taking up the "anti-cult rhetoric" undercuts efforts in other countries to stop discrimination and even persecution of Christians and others who are under scrutiny simply for their attachment to an unpopular religion. In so far as we move beyond our theological critique into a general denigration of new religions—a questioning of the sincerity of their leaders, suggesting that they engage in brainwashing, accusing them of heightened levels of immorality—we must be aware that our words are being used to discriminate and persecute our Christian brothers and sisters in other lands.

IV. Need for Fruitful Interaction with the World of New Religions Scholarship

It has been my hope for many years that those who engage in ministries to New Religions could develop a familiarity with the scholarly literature on New Religions, and become familiar with the scholarly disciplines under which it operates. I am not arguing that the ministries should become the slave to the scholarly community, but I am suggesting that if counter-cult ministries are to move from the fringe of Evangelicalism and take their place in the Christian intellectual community, the leadership and spokespersons will have to at least be familiar with the academic work in the field. The work done by scholars in the past generation can, in many cases, be immediately helpful. [11]

Quite apart from the findings about individual groups, it would, be helpful if the ministries' leadership incorporated some of the scholarly methodologies into their approach to groups. For example, ministry leaders need to develop first hand knowledge of those groups toward which we direct ministry and about which we write. It would mean that along with reading what others say about groups that we actually read the literature produced by the groups that we critique and that we make an effort to understand it. If we were going to critique Scientology, for example, we would actually read the writings of L. Ron Hubbard. Of course, if we do that, we also need to have some background in esoteric studies so we can understand the writings. It is also essential to have some background in systematic thinking. Very few founders of new religions, be they a Martin Luther or a Sun Myung Moon, are systematic thinkers. Very few new groups have the luxury of producing anything approaching a systematic theology, and in some cases the thought world that informs a group has to be understood on the spot out of the older materials representing the general religious tradition in which they operate. That is, to understand Scientology, you have to know Theosophy and the Western Esoteric tradition.

In this process, it also become important to visit the centers of activity, participate in worship and other activities, and interview leaders.

While gaining some first-hand knowledge of a group, it is equally important to keep a critical eye--not to simply knit pick, but to comprehend and understand, to place the group in the larger context. What is so attractive about this group that these people would choose to participate? Why has this group separated from the group that gave it birth?

The more disciplined approach to understanding a group will eventually lead us to an encounter with those bits of rhetoric that on first appearance seem to be damning. Taken out of context, they can become media bites that effect the pubic image of a group. For example there are several quotes one encounters in the early speeches of the channeled entity Ramtha which suggest that there is not moral law. Taken out of context, such statements can become the basis of outrageous charges directed against individual groups and in a few cases such charges can become generalized to new religions as a whole. In the case of Ramtha, the charge was that he had no concern for immoral acts—murder, theft, rape, etc. We all remember the unfortunate "heavenly deception" term that appeared in the American translation of the Korean in Unification literature. And, of course, the media loves such quotations.

However, the very things that can make one a darling of the media, the ability to spout such media bites, is what destroys one's credibility in those more thoughtful circles of real influence.

We have seen this over and over again in court cases where outrageous charges will bring a group into court but when the charges are shown to lack substance, the group wins. There is a lesson to be learned when we compare the media coverage with the court record of, for example, the Scientologists, the Family, the International Church of Christ, and the Krishnas. The Family's cases are most illuminating. It faced seven major cases in seven countries in which horrendous charges of child abuse were alleged. This was a group in which child abuse did occur in the early and mid 1980s, and each of the seven cases began with raids during which protective services assumed custody of the minors in a Family home. However, by the 1990s, when these cases came to court, the Family had already moved to clean up its act and force the pedophiles from its midst. When the cases went to court, the charges proved to have no relationship to the people in court. In the end, the cases actually benefited The Family and have made them all but judgment proof against any future court action. Examination of all the children in The Family in the seven countries (in some cases by hostile psychiatrists and physicians aligned to the secular anti-cult movement) produced no evidence of child abuse. That is in itself a startling finding; with so large a sample, one would expect to find some level of abuse, at the same rate that it appears in society at large. The finding in Spain, Argentina and France, where the Family lacked any assistance from the so called "cult apologists" led to the decision in the UK in 1995. Judge Ward issued a 350-page decision which one the one hand was highly critical of the Family in the 1980s, but in the case before him ruled in its favor—the Family of 1995 was not the same group that the Family of 1985 was.

Common to almost all scholarly disciplines that engage in New Religions research is the principle of triangulation. As we study the group, we attempt to come at it from different directions and to find independent verifications of what we observe. We come looking for broad comprehension, not to simply discover artifacts that will supply evidence to support a predetermined opinion. We look at primary sources and we compare our findings with those of colleagues. We test our perceptions with questions—Is what we were reading and understanding, that which is active in the group? Is there a gap between written documents and actual teachings? Or actual practice? From our knowledge of Christianity, we know how differently groups can move from documents to practice. Think of the hundreds of groups that profess to follow the Bible in a literal way and how very different they are.

We interview present members about what they believe and do. How is belief appropriated? What behavior is demanded and what is optional? It is almost self-evident that their testimony has to be handled critically. Members do not try to deceive, but they like to present that to which they have committed their lives in the best possible light. They are the least likely to believe the worst about a flawed or corrupt leader. Religious groups, old and new, tend to operate like families and to be very protective of other family members. We see this problem very clearly in the slowness with which the Roman Catholic Church has reacted to the sexual abuse structures that developed within the priesthood.

Most important to the study of new religions is the critical material, especially that produced by former members. There are three types of former members. First there are the friendly ex-members, those who had a good-to-ok experience in the group, but came to feel for a variety of reasons that it was time to move on. Some have followed a seeker syndrome, searching in several groups before finding the one that was right for them. Then there are the hostile ex-members, those who had a bad experience in the group and who left with a degree of anger. These can be particularly good resources in highlighting problems in the group, thought it may merely call attention to the actions of an atypical questionable leader. We are aware of how many members of new religions are hostile to Christianity because of bad experiences with a particular pastor.

Finally, there is a final set of ex-members, the career apostates, that is, those who have left the group and chosen to spent their life subsequently as long-term critics of the groups. In so far as these persons tell their story, they can also be valuable resources. However, it is among the career apostates that the most questionable accounts of groups have appeared. Most ex-members are usually not authorities on the group of which they were apart; they often find themselves unable to answer questions about the group that are put to them; and as the time lengthens since they were apart of the group, the more they loose contact with the ongoing changes in the group. If they feel grieved, and there is little response to their story, they are tempted to embellish it—to repeat things that they have read in the literature as if they had first hand knowledge of it. Again, this tendency to embellish was encountered most clearly in The Family cases, where the testimony of the ex-members could not stand up to cross-examination.

The problem of former members is particularly acute for those of us are in a Christian ministry. We hope that the result of our ministry will not be a person leaving a particular group—the goal is their becoming a Christian. We value stories of people who have found Christ and we have a key place in our church life for the testimonies of those who have come to what we believe to be the Truth. However, when the topic before us is understanding a particular religion, we have to treat those former members who have become a Christian with the same critical sense that we do every other aspect of our research.

V. Be Realistic about the Changes in the Religious Situation

Finally, we must be realistic in our ministry about the religious situation n America. We live in a secular country where even the few privileges that Christianity enjoyed in the past are disappearing as the religious community becomes pluralistic. All the demographic projections suggest that America will become more, not less pluralistic. The percentage of the population in religions other than Christian will continue to grow ahead of the population curve for the foreseeable future. Growth will be by conversion and by immigration, and the increased immigration quotas passed during the closing months of the first Bush administration in the early 1990s do not appear to be on the chopping block, even in the wake of recent national tragedies. It is also noteworthy that almost a third of the Muslim community in the United States is African American.

Part of the implication of the new religious situation, a generation after the jump in religious pluralism in the 1970s, is that those who joined the new religions in the 1960s and 1970s and stuck with them, have now reached their 40s and 50s and as lay people assumed responsible roles in all levels of the secular culture. They are parents, schoolteachers, business executives, and professionals. We have watched as Buddhists, Christian Scientists, and Mormons have assumed positions of power in Washington. That is to say, the new religions no longer operate just on the streets of Berkeley—they now permeate all of the culture. They are bureaucrats, corporate managers, government officials, and university professors. Our children go to school not only in a multi-cultural context but a religiously pluralistic setting. Our boss might chant at an ECKANKAR center and our next-door neighbor attend a Hindu temple. The counselor our child sees at school may be a Wiccan while the principal practices TM.

This new reality, in which Evangelicalism has no privileged position should, even if no other reason compels us, encourage us to raise the standards by which we operate and to be self-conscious of the language that we use as we develop our ministry to those about which we have particular concern.


[1] Cf. "U.S. v. Fishman," 743F.Supp. 713 (N.D.Cal. 1990): 713-722.

[2] David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Cults, Religion and Violence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.)

[3] See particularly Dick Anthiny's important essay "Religious Movements and 'Brainwashing' Litigation: Evaluating Key Testimony," in Thomas Robhins and Dick Anthony, eds, In In Gods We trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1989): 295-346.

[4] See the chapter on "Evangelcial chrisytian and the Cults" in J. Gordon Melton, An Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York: Garland Publishing, 1986): 221-227.

[5] Eileen Barker, "Watching for Violence: A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five types of Cult-Watching Groups," in David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Cults, Religion and Violence. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.): 123-147.

[6] See the articles in the July/September 1998 issue of the International Journal of Frontier Missions, especially Gordon R. Lewis, "Our Mission Responsibility to New Religious Moveemnts," International Journla of Frontier Missions 15, 3 (July-September 1998): 115-23.

[7] J. Gordon Melton, "Emerging Religious Movements in North America: Some Missiological Reflections," Missiology: An International Review 28, 1 (January 2000): 85-98.

[8] On the brainwashing controversy see James A. Beckford, Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements (London: Tavistock Publications, 1985); James T. Richardson, "A Social-Psychological Critique of "Brainwashing" Claims about Recruitment to New Religions," In David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds., The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1993); and J. Gordon Melton, “Anti-cultists in the United States,” In Bryan Wilson and Jamie Cresswell, eds., New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response. London: Routledge, 1999, pp. 213-233.

[9] Two excellent books on the New Age have recently appeared: Paul Helas, The New Age Movement Oxford: Blackwell, 1996) and Woulter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture (Leiden: Brill, 1996).

[10] Cf. "Testimony of Joseph K. Grieboski,  President, Institute on Religion and Public Policy  Hearing on Religious Discrimination in Western Europe  Before the House International Relations Subcommittee on International Operations and Human Rights, July 11, 2001." Posted at http://www.house.gov/international_relations/grie0711.htm. Ongoing coverage of the European debate on brainwashing is found at http://www.cesnur.org.

[11] Among the easily obtainable books which would assist those engaged in ministries to New Religions would be Lorne Dawson, Comprehending Cults: the Sociology of New Religious Movements (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 191998); Philip Jenkins, Mystics and Messiahs: Cult and New Religions in American history (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); and John A. Saliba, Perspectives on New Religious Movements (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995).


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