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Misunderstanding Cults

Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field

Benjamin Zablocki
Thomas Robbins
Copyright Date: 2001
Pages: 496
  • Book Info
    Misunderstanding Cults
    Book Description:

    Unique in its breadth, this is the first study of new religious movements to address the main points of controversy within the field while attempting to find a middle ground between opposing camps of scholarship.

    eISBN: 978-1-4426-7730-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Caveat
    (pp. xiii-2)
    Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins
  5. Introduction: Finding a Middle Ground in a Polarized Scholarly Arena
    (pp. 3-32)
    Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins

    Every once in a while, cults make news in a big way.¹ Jonestown, Waco, Aum Shinrikyo, and Heavenʹs Gate are only some of the keywords that remind us of the capacity of religious and other ideological movements to act in ways that leave much of the public thunderstruck. When bewildering events happen, there is a natural tendency to turn to ʹexpertsʹ to explain what at first seems inexplicable. This is a wellestablished role of the academic expert in our society. But the striking thing about cult events is that the experts rarely agree. This is a field with little or...


    • 1. ʹO Truant Museʹ: Collaborationism and Research Integrity
      (pp. 35-70)
      Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

      In early May 1995, as Japanese law-enforcement authorities were collecting evidence linking the Aum Shinrikyo NRM to the 20 March poison gas attack which killed twelve commuters on the Tokyo subway, and preparing what they thought was a strong case, they discovered to their utter surprise that they were under attack from an unexpected direction. Four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were scholars whose names are well known in the NRM research community, thanks to their many scholarly activities. But on this trip they were acting as both super-sleuths...

    • 2. Balance and Fairness in the Study of Alternative Religions
      (pp. 71-98)
      Thomas Robbins

      ʹAlternative religionsʹ have often tended to get a bad press, and indeed have been derided throughout history by outstanding intellectual and literary figures such as Charles Dickens and Mark Twain (1993). There have been those, however, who have defended unconventional and controversial movements – even disinterestedly, in the narrow sense that the defenders may not be true believers themselves. The relatively disinterested defenders of stigmatized ʹcultsʹ such as The Family (formerly the Children of God), the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Unification Church or the Church of Scientology have tended recently to be professional scholars from religious studies and sociology...

    • 3. Caught Up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a Canadian Researcher
      (pp. 99-122)
      Susan J. Palmer

      I was standing nervously in the carved oak witness box in the High Court, Lincolnʹs Inn in London, when the High Solicitor asked this question. It was in 1994, when I became embroiled in what the Children of Godʹs lawyer described as ʹthe longest and second most expensive custody battle in the history of the British Empire.ʹ I protested that I strove to be an objective, value-free social scientist when I studied new religions – but then admitted I also felt a sneaking aesthetic appreciation for ʹthe cults.ʹ This made the judge smile, but it made me wonder – are...

    • 4. Pitfalls in the Sociological Study of Cults
      (pp. 123-156)
      Janja Lalich

      One of the things that cults do well is the construction of inspiring and exciting alternative worldviews. They do this passionately and with great skill, and the most successful of them are also skilled at creating internally consistent social and cultural contexts to make these worldviews visible and attractive both to their members and to their audiences. Consequently, researchers attempting to study cults are confronted with a set of problems beyond those encountered by ethnographers studying other types of social organizations. Researchers of cults are faced with a kind of hall of mirrors in which they must contend with multiple...


    • 5. Towards a Demystified and Disinterested Scientific Theory of Brainwashing
      (pp. 159-214)
      Benjamin Zablocki

      Nobody likes to lose a customer, but religions get more touchy than most when faced with the risk of losing devotees they have come to define as their own. Historically, many religions have gone to great lengths to prevent apostasy, believing virtually any means justified to prevent wavering parishioners from defecting and thus losing hope of eternal salvation. In recent centuries, religion in our society has evolved from a system of territorially based near-monopolies into a vigorous and highly competitive faith marketplace in which many churches, denominations, sects, and cults vie with one another for the allegiance of ʹcustomersʹ who...

    • 6. Tactical Ambiguity and Brainwashing Formulations: Science or Pseudo-Science?
      (pp. 215-317)
      Dick Anthony

      This chapter will evaluate the scientific status of cultic brainwashing formulations, with special focus upon the recent formulations of Benjamin Zablocki (1993, 1997, 1998, 1998b; 1999).² Zablockiʹs recent articles concerning brainwashing do not report concrete research, but rather attempt to clarify the conceptual outline of the brainwashing idea and to defend its authentically scientific character.³ Therefore the scientific status of his attempted clarification and defense of the brainwashing idea crucially depends upon the accuracy of his characterization of the previous empirical research upon which he claims that it is based. Consequently, I will also focus upon older publications by Zablocki...

    • 7. A Tale of Two Theories: Brainwashing and Conversion as Competing Political Narratives
      (pp. 318-348)
      David Bromley

      The controversy over the cohort of movements referred to alternatively as new religious movements and cults has yielded intellectual and political polarization in academe. The movements at issue have been described as unfairly maligned new religious groups on the one hand, and as destructive cults on the other. The countermovements opposing these groups have been depicted as unjustly denigrated self-help movements composed of concerned families and citizens and also as the latest incarnation of anti-religious bigotry. Scholars have divided into two camps, offering what appear to be dramatically different interpretations of the same organizations, actors, and events. Suspicions run deep...

    • (pp. 349-378)
      Stephen A. Kent

      A recent attempt to renew the ʹsociology of religion debateʹ about ʹbrainwashingʹ insisted that earlier academic dismissals of the term were premature, at least regarding its applicability to techniques and programs found within some alternative religions. Leading this attempt at renewal is sociologist Ben Zablocki, who stated that he disagreed with earlier definitional restrictions on the brainwashing concept. These earlier restrictions concluded that forcible confinementhadto be part of a personʹs experience before it could receive the brainwashing label (see Zablocki 1998: 231–2; cf. Scheflin and Opton 1978: 40). In refutation, Zablocki argued that he had observed profound...

    • 9. Raising Lazarus: A Methodological Critique of Stephen Kentʹs Revival of the Brainwashing Model
      (pp. 379-400)
      Lorne L. Dawson

      In recent years two sociologists of some note have published articles and presented papers to academic societies running counter to the dominant current of thought in the sociology of new religious movements. To the surprise of many, Stephen Kent (e.g., 1991, 1994, 1997a, 1997b; Kent and Hall 1997) and Benjamin Zablocki (1996, 1997, 1998) are seeking to reconceptualize and re-establish ʹbrainwashingʹ as a legitimate social scientific concept, reversing the results of twenty years of academic and legal struggle between sociologists of religion (and others) and the anticult movement (e.g., Anthony 1990; Anthony and Robbins 1992, 1994, 1995; Barker 1984; Beckford...

    • 10. Compelling Evidence: A Rejoinder to Lorne Dawsonʹs Chapter
      (pp. 401-412)
      Stephen A. Kent

      At stake in this debate with Lorne Dawson about ʹbrainwashingʹ is a body of social scientific literature that has rejected the applicability of the term in relation to groups often called new religions. My research on brainwashing programs that both Scientology and the Children of God/The Family imposed upon hundreds of their respective members challenges this body of literature, but only in a limited way. I specifically demonstrate that Scientologyʹs Rehabilitation Project Force (RPF) program and The Familyʹs Victor program were efforts that fit the classic definition of brainwashing. Both programs utilized forcible confinement, physical maltreatment, and social degradations, in...


    • 11. Child-Rearing Issues in Totalist Groups
      (pp. 415-451)
      Amy Siskind

      There has been much social scientific misunderstanding of child rearing in those groups commonly referred to as cults, new religious movements, high-demand movements, or totalistic groups. Many social scientists have largely ignored the presence of children in new religious movements, treating these groups as simple voluntary aggregations of consenting adults. Others have recognized the presence of children in these groups but have argued that groups that oppose or retreat from mainstream society are often unfairly persecuted merely because they deviate from the unwritten norms of child rearing in our society. This argument maintains that such persecution violates membersʹ freedom of...

    • 12. Contested Narratives: A Case Study of the Conflict between a New Religious Movement and Its Critics
      (pp. 452-477)
      Julius H. Rubin

      This essay examines the strange and troubling story of how one new religious group, in my opinion, has attempted to suppress freedom of speech for apostates and for social scientists who have published critical analyses or, raised troubling questions, and made serious charges about the institutional practice and individual conduct of members of this religious group. We will consider the masterful public relation efforts where this sect has manipulated the media to produce puff pieces that have supported their protected and idealized image. We will detail the strategies employed to attack and quiet the voices of apostates and academic critics,...

    • 13. The Roots of Religious Violence in America
      (pp. 478-514)
      Jeffrey Kaplan

      In the waning days of the twentieth century, religious violence had all but lost its shock value. In 1978, the mass suicides at Jonestown shocked the nation. By 1997, however, the mass suicide of the Heavenʹs Gate group stirred little more than a brief spasm of news coverage and a weekʹs worth of material for the nationʹs stand-up comedians. Only a few short years ago, the fires of Waco begat the bombing of the Oklahoma City Federal Center, and created a minor cottage industry of pundits and experts who sought to make sense of (or make a buck from) religiously...

  9. Appendix: Further Reading and Web Browsing
    (pp. 515-520)
  10. Contributors
    (pp. 521-524)