Book Review - The A to Z of New Religious Movements

Cultic Studies Review, 6, 3, 2007, 313-316

The A to Z of New Religious Movements

Chryssides, George D.

Lanham, MD: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2006. ISBN-10: 0810855887; ISBN-13: 978-0810855885 (paperback), $40. 420 pages.

Reviewed by Richard L. Dowhower, D.D.

Like J. Gordon Melton, Wolverhampton University religious scholar George D. Chryssides has compiled an impressive and concise listing of new religious movements (NRMs). The issue facing discerning readers is twofold. Is the presentation fair in articulating the criticisms of a group and the harm experienced by its participants, their families, and their communities? Is the account balanced, including a history of legal difficulties and scandals attributed to the group and its leaders? A response of “Yes” to both questions is necessary to support the author’s claims of scholarly objectivity.

The author, who completed a doctorate at Oriel College, Oxford, is senior lecturer in religious studies at Wolverhampton University in England. He has served as a consultant on new religious movements to the United Reformed Church in England and chaired the board of the Centre for the Study of New Religious Movements at Selly Oak Colleges, Birmingham, England. Since 1988 he has written four books on the subjects of Buddhism, Sun Myung Moon, Unitarianism, and the exploration of new religious movements.

This publication is a revised paperback edition of Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements published in 2001. It is the twentieth publication in The A to Z Guides published by Scarecrow Press, seven of which focus upon particular traditions of world religions. The publisher, headquartered in suburban Washington, D.C., and indicating offices in Toronto and Oxford, is part of the Rowan and Littlefield Publishing Group that focuses upon “...scholarly books that were intellectually important, yet economically marginal,” according to its Web site.

Dr. Chryssides cites as editorial considerations he included in compiling this historical dictionary of groups the factors of numerical strength, media, and anti-cult publicity. He is critical of the media for its coverage of NRMs and generally reports anything critical of NRMs by attributing it to anti-cult and counter-cult sources, usually with some suspicious reference to the critics. (I could not find how he defined the difference between anti- and counter- groups; they seem synonymous to me.)  He focuses upon groups’ origins, beliefs, practices, and internal coherence, with attention to conflicting evidence. He pays more attention to “client cults” than to “audience cults.” The author cites W. S. Bainbridge (whom he does not cite in his Bibliography) as the source of that distinction, with which I have been familiar for many years, and which he does not fully define or illustrate. I noted that he made exceptions and included some entries that did not satisfy each of the above criteria.

“I have avoided scurrilous scandalmongering,” the author states in the Preface, “although at times it has been necessary to mention atrocity tales when these have affected an organization’s development, for example by causing schism, reappraisal of beliefs and practices, or dissolution.” But, sir, what about the effects of the atrocities upon the victims? Aren’t such crimes and civil-rights violations worthy of your mention, as well?

Impressive Factors

A 10-page Chronology puts the current crop of new religious movements in a 266-year context, dating back to Emanuel Swedenborg’s first vision. Chryssides works effectively at connecting themes from one group to others that pick up on the same belief or practice, especially those for whom the link is historically verifiable.

The book includes 466 definitions with cross-referencing. A single new religious movement might include, I found, from one entry to as many as seven. The length of each entry ranges from one concise paragraph to as much as two pages.

Dr. Chryssides’ knowledge about religious movements is three times more extensive than this reviewer’s. By my own count, I recognized only slightly more than 180 of his 466 entries, most of the difference being Eastern and Asian religions. Therefore, I have evaluated his total efforts by my critical review of those entries about which I have accumulated knowledge over the past 50 years through study, conferences of counter-cult and cultic studies groups, and personal experiences of the group and its members, ex-members, and families.

Notable in my review of the book’s historical dictionary was the author’s inconsistency in citing sources of his encyclopedic body of information. He sometimes cites published sources when they help to establish his point, but he often left me wondering, “Where did he get that?” “How does he know that?” His Bibliography lists 59 works, most of which are by founders and students of new religious movements. He cites three publications of his own, three by Melton, three by Eileen Barker, and one by Margaret Thaler Singer. I believe he should have included writings by Michael Langone, John Clarke, Richard Ofshe, Robert J. Lifton, Steve Hassan, and Louis Jolyon West, some of whom he mentions in brief references to the AFF and CAN without citing their writings.

Categories for Consideration Involving 112 Entries

I found 112 entries I felt qualified to evaluate. The categories and my assessments of those entries follow.

5) Chryssides’ predisposition toward the New Age Movement. This is a major theme that emerged early in the Introduction and one by which I chose to evaluate his publication.

1) Christianity (the reviewer’s point of origin) and its current trends and issues (16 entries). Christianity serves Dr. Chryssides’ purposes as the launching pad for the new religious movements, particularly from Protestantism, and specifically the heyday of missionary efforts, the rise of fundamentalism and Pentecostalism, as well as those NRMs from Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He identifies the significance of Gnosticism, millennialism, and reincarnation as themes among new movements. He is totally nonjudgmental regarding the intellectual fallacies of fundamentalism and Gnosticism. (The author is generally nonjudgmental in his reporting of belief systems and their practitioners, although there are some exceptions, as I note elsewhere.)

2) References (17) to the anti-cult or counter-cult movement, identifying persons, concepts, and groups. The author’s treatment of counter-cult or anti-cult groups seems spotty, inconsistent, and lacking in completeness, even in summary form. He does broad-brush movement generalizations, identifies specific groups such as the American Family Foundation—AFF (updated to International Cultic Studies Association—ICSA), the Cult Awareness Network (CAN), and others both American and international, but leaves out what I would consider basic information and the identification of key leaders. He names ten personalities from CAN but cites only John Clarke in describing the AFF. He writes respectfully of the AFF/ICSA but never mentions Dr. Michael Langone anywhere in the publication.

Chryssides has entries for brainwashing, cult, deprogramming, exit counseling, floating, heavenly deception, love bombing, and snapping. But there is always a criticism or disclaimer that leaves the reader doubting the credibility of such concepts and suspecting the author of being an apologist for groups practicing such abuses or needing such remedies. Little or no mention was made of charges of economic exploitation, polygamy, and the abuse of women and children by new religious movements. References to mind control by Margaret Thaler Singer and Louis Jolyon West are countered by sources to discredit them and their concepts.

3) Definitions of four older religious movements (12 entries). I then turned to twelve entries about older groups, four nineteenth-century cults that I have known well to be theological deviants from mainstream Judeo-Christian theology but not systematically abusive of civil rights. They are Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons).

The author connects Mary Baker Eddy’s focus upon healing, while the group may currently be in decline, with the revival of healing interest to New Age thinking, a clue to his predisposition to come. The Witnesses’ past four failed end-times prophecies are never mentioned, although some criticisms of Joseph Rutherford are expressed. It becomes difficult to determine why some entries are spared critical review and reports of controversies while others are not. The Adventists are clean as reported. Although there are three references to the Mormons with an indication of an official entry, none can be found. Nor is there any report of the conflicts or splits, let alone any attention to the polygamy and child-abuse issues recently in the news around the arrest and trial of Warren Jeffs.

4) Entries (67) definitive of 27 groups with whom I have knowledge and experience. Chryssides quickly got me into the 27 groups familiar to my study and experience early in his Preface with his reference to “the five killer cults“—i.e., the Peoples Temple, the Branch Davidians, Solar Temple, Heaven’s Gate, and the Movement for Restoration of the Ten Commandments. Why not Aum Shinrikyo (it was included later)? These discredited groups all received the author’s critical appraisal, as well.

The author showed his preferential treatment to the remainder of this category by acknowledging that exponents of the new religious movements themselves had been sent copies of the entries for their organizations for review and editing prior to publication: persons such as Graeme Wilson for Scientology and Bill and June Thompstone for Jehovah’s Witnesses. Is it any wonder that Scientology’s three entries are nonjudgmentally sanitized, with no reference to the ruthlessness of its law suits against its critics and the counter suits by its victims? Nor is there any reference to Scientology’s very public conflicts with several European governments. The Unification Church looks so good no one would ever know its founder is a convicted felon who served prison time for tax evasion in the United States and has been denied admission into certain nations of the European Common Market.

Chryssides is certainly innocent of charges of “scurrilous scandalmongering,” but this book lacks scholarly objectivity, fairness, and balance. In Satanism and ritual abuse, for example, one has to look hard to find any negatives, and then one watches as they are dismissed out of hand as unfounded “Satanist scares.” My own pastoral counseling case histories testify to the opposite.

A pattern of selective omissions continues to emerge as one discerns neither mention of the murders and child-abuse scandals within Hare Krishna (ISKON) nor of the surviving group’s highly acclaimed reform movement in recent years. Equally incomplete is the author’s history of the Human Potential Movement, omitting its origins in Carl Rogers and the National Education Association’s sensitivity training. Other historical omissions have been cited earlier in this review.

While Dr. Chryssides knows a great deal about many different new religions, his fascination at the time of writing belongs to the New Age movement, as he indicates in his 23-page introduction, which he admits is taken from an essay “The New Age: A Survey and Critique” he had previously written for the journal Global Dialogue. Announcing his intent to write a forthcoming historical dictionary on New Age movements, he relates almost every new movement since Swedenborg to New Age and twice articulates that we are in

…the Age of Aquarius, which supersedes the previous 2,000-year zodiacal Age of Pisces. Pisces, the fish, is the symbol of Christianity, which has lasted for a 2,000-year period that is now at an end. Consequently, the New Age can be viewed as a post-Christian movement, which challenges the authority of the Christian Church and its concept of the male warrior god whose will must be unquestionably obeyed… (pages 15-16, 234-235)

I believe some readers might come away from reading The A to Z of New Religious Movements with some sense of fairness and balance, for they will have encountered numerous objective, factual, and scholarly entries. But fairness and balance are missing when the author intentionally presents his information in a way that fails to unambiguously inform readers about the adverse effects others have reported from their personal experiences in some groups. A Consumer Reports on cults it is not. And obviously this Christian reviewer does not interpret history in the same way as does George D. Chryssides. This book represents an effort that is more a selective expression of apologetics for, and an advocacy of, certain new religious movements than it is a consistent series of discerningly fair and balanced historical definitions.