Book Review - Religion and the Social Order

Cultic Studies Journal, 15, (2), 1998

Book Review - Religion and the Social Order 

D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (Eds.) THE HANDBOOK ON CULTS AND SECTS IN AMERICA. JAI Press, Inc., Greenwich, Conn.. 1993 Part A 292 pages, Part B 229 pages.

“To caricature somewhat: ‘John was an innocent victim who was brainwashed into an exploitative cult which promoted ideas that no one in their right mind could believe. He was forced to lead an unnatural life, renouncing his childhood sweetheart. His anguished parents had to pay an undisclosed sum, said to involve the mortgage of their family home, for John to be rescued and given the opportunity to see for himself how he had been deceived and manipulated.” (E. Barker, p. 208)

So British sociologist Eileen Barker illustrated some of the ways in which the media, influenced by the anti-cult movement (ACM), employ language to promote “loaded images.” In my opinion, Barker and the 30 other contributors to this two volume handbook provide both a critical, distorted, and peculiar perspective on the ACM and yet a valuable, sociological approach to cults. Their treatment of cult critics—CAN and AFF—tends to be irritatingly one-sided. On the other hand they provide much scholarly materials about the new religious movements which is valuable in understanding trends and issues.

In this official publication of the Association for the Study of Religion, editors Bromley and Hadden assembled chapters designed to assess the state of knowledge about new religious movements. Part A purports to explore issues relating to the organization and development of sects and cults and their sociocultural environments. Part B concentrates on epistemological and methodological issues. Oddly, the first chapter of Part A by Bromley and Hadden, which is an overview of perspectives and issues, is repeated in Part B. A waste of paper! I was pleased to learn that among a large group of experts who were consulted were AFF'’ Herbert Rosedale and James Rudin but disappointed by the absence of an index.

Among the contributors, 15 are associated with sociology departments and 7 with religious studies; only 4 were women. The specialized approach to cults is suggested b y the fact that the topic, sociology of new religious movements, is a subdivision of the sociology of religion which in turn is but one of 38 sections (special fields) of the American Sociological Association. In consequence, many of these contributors tend to slight the relevant literatures in law, psychiatry, clinical and social psychology, anthropology, social work, political science, and investigative journalism. As is typical of handbooks, the writing is long on theory, interpretation, and generalization and short on first hand observation and data. Chapters often repeat one another and are uneven in quality and objectivity.

As illustrated by the quotation above from Barker, another serious flaw is the handbooks’ handling of the long standing and bitter controversies with ACM (their term). First, there is almost no mention of the disagreements in court and in professional meetings (e.g. Singer, Offshe, Rosedale, Langone et al vs. Richardson, Melton, Robbins, Malony and others. See, for instance, various issues of The Cult Observer since 1984.) If an objective and informed writer could be found, he or she might have prepared a fascinating chapter about this controversy. Second, the handbook fails to spell out the personal positions of the contributors. The American Psychological Association, for example, is considering conflicts of interest when authors have a financial relationship or affiliation with their subject. APA recommends disclosure. Specifically, which of these contributors, if any, accepted a free trip from Rev. Moon or appeared as an expert witness paid by Scientology?

On the positive side, there is valuable material on the changing characteristics of new religions and their members, a host of qualitative and quantitative studies are cited which may be unfamiliar to non-sociologists, and many contributors apparently read the Journal of Cultic Studies and Singer, Langone, Offshe, Clark, Lifton, West, Hassan, etc. Their criticisms of ‘ACM’ demand responsible rebuttal. Contributor James Richardson, for one, acknowledges, if only in a qualified footnote, that leaders and members of new religions have indeed violated laws. (vol. 3A, p. 93) But, no contributor addresses in any depth the relationship of some new religions to the far right or the manipulation of movie stars, politicians, and academics. I recommend to scholars and researchers in all relevant disciplines the chapter by Richardson, Balch, and Melton (vol. 3B, pp263-276) on problems of research and data in the study of new religions. They make clear that it is exceptionally difficult to collect a representative sample of cultists and ex-cultists and to obtain valid and reliable data from them. Finally, many chapters are rich in thought provoking perspectives. Biases and couched in sociological jargon though they may be at times, they still merit careful consideration. Space prohibits full analysis here of the host of ideas, conjectures, assertions, and speculation with which these volumes abound. However, I will consider briefly selected chapters which address conversion and family, brainwashing, and mental health.

Wright and D’Antonio (vol. 3A, pp 222-227) summarize four perspectives that attempt to link youth conversion to familial factors: identity formation theory, functional analysis, family deprivation thesis, and the pathological model. The possibility that manipulative group practices, intensive social influence, or psychological abuse (“If you can’t persuade your biological family to accept your true Father, they are doomed to hell!”) might interfere with family relationships is dismissed. Nor do any of the theorists presented here speculate about the families who accept their children’s conversion or about the children born of cult parents.

Stark and Iannaccone (vol. 3A, pp 241-261) “hope to demonstrate that the economic rational choice approach to religion is possibly the most powerful and comprehensive social scientific approach that scholars have at their disposal.” They liken religions to “firms supplying a commodity;” they “assume that individuals choose their actions rationally.” After presenting a set of propositions in respect to conversion, sacrifice and stigma, they assert that without resorting to brainwashing, psychopathology, or cognitive dissonance, such propositions explain how people are attracted to religions. It is evident to me that psychiatrists or psychologists could easily construct a more convincing contrary theory – a theory of irrationality.

Many of these contributors attempt to demolish the straw concept of brainwashing. For example, Machalek and Snow (Vol. 3, pp 53-74) in their chapter “Conversion to New Religious Movements.” Assert that the “simplistic, monocausal” brainwashing model is declining in popularity. They call for a more fully developed “macrosociological approach to the study of conversion to new religious movements.” Brainwashing is indeed a controversial term; but, as I see it, intensive social persuasion and hypnotic suggestion are preferable explanatory concepts, which are more acceptable to social scientists. Furthermore, drawing from law and criminology, deceptions, swindles, scams, and confidence schemes should be included within a multidisciplinary approach to conversion.

“In general, studies on active members of NRM’s tend to find membership beneficial, while those on deprogrammed members conclude that cultic lifestyle has devastating effects on personality. Adoption of better theoretical frameworks and methodological procedures is necessary before any definite conclusions are reached on the effect of cult membership.” Thus Saliba summarizes his chapter, “The New Religions and Mental Health” (Vol. 3B, pp 99-113). No studies published after 1990, are cited, and therefore the important recent contributions of Singer, Lalich, West, Langone, Martin and others are not considered. Nevertheless, those who plan to study this controversial and very difficult topic will find Saliba’s chapter valuable.

What audience should buy this handbook? Probably university libraries. Serious scholars, who are not acquainted with the sociology of religion, are advised instead to skim recent issued of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, American Sociological Review, and Sociological Analysis. Others can safely rely on this journal, the Observer, and Singer and Lalich to keep up with research on cults. In sum, the contributors, even though frequently one-sided, raise many issues which deserve careful consideration by social scientists.

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., ABPP, is Emeritus Professor, Psychology in Education Division, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania. He is a director of the American Family Foundation.