Book Review - The Divine Archetype

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1992, Volume 09, Number 1, pages 122-124. Please keep in mind that the pagination of this electronic reprint differs from that of the bound volume. This fact could affect how you enter bibliographic information in papers that you may write.

Book Review - The Divine Archetype: The Sociobiology and Psychology of Religion. 

Brant Wenegrat. Lexington Books, Lexington, MA, 1990.

When I first became convinced that cults were a social and spiritual menace, I discussed my concerns with my psychiatric colleagues and was confounded by a frequent response of bemused disinterest. Even worse, I found that the preponderance of articles on cults published by the American Journal of Psychiatry showed a pro-cult tilt.

What is the problem? There is a blur in people's minds between cults and religions, and many psychiatrists are not interested in religion -- their families' or anyone else's. There are societies of Catholic, Jewish, and Evangelically oriented psychiatrists, but they are tiny. The "Christian psychiatry" treatment programs that exist around the country have more to do with grass-roots interest of patient populations (and hospitals looking for a marketing niche) than leadership from the psychiatric profession. The traditional convocation of the APA's (American Psychiatric Association) annual meeting by a clergyman was discontinued several years ago.

As for the psychiatrists who are interested in religion, some come by virtue of their own active religious feelings; some are simply curious. The APA has had an ongoing Committee on Religion and Psychiatry. Several years ago this committee published a report on cults, with contributions from American Family Foundation professionals.

Since psychiatrists write little on cults, The Divine Archetype is of interest. The author, a member of the psychiatric faculty at Stanford University, is identified as having "written extensively" about religious cults and as having been a consultant to the APA's Committee on Religion and Psychiatry. My interest was further sparked by Dr. Mark Galanter's endorsement of the book. Dr. Galanter is an esteemed addictionologist who deemed cults worthy of careful study because the drug addicts who join them stop abusing drugs. (Dr. Galanter's research on the Moonies, though overly apologetic in my opinion, led him to be viewed as an expert on cults by the psychiatric establishment, resulting in his editing the APA's report on cults.)

Dr. Wenegrat came to an interest in cults and religions not through studying drug abuse but rather from studying sociobiology and evolution. Sociobiologists study social behaviors of animals, on the assumption that human behaviors have evolved from lower forms of life by means of evolution over the millennia. This book arranges a marriage of psychoanalytic and neo-Darwinian theories to explain the origins of mankind's religions. The author concludes that just as species-specific animal behaviors have evolved to enhance adaptation of the species, so has mankind evolved religious beliefs to help members of our species sort out sexual conflicts, promote cooperation, and encourage altruism.

While the author does praise religious people for opening soup kitchens and hospitals, he takes a wary view of religion. He affirms that some well-known religions foster psychological hang-ups, perpetuate social injustice, and demean women. He suggests we come to terms with the failure of Freud's prophecy that religion will disappear; rather we should hope that religions will be modified so that they can keep up the good work with "less personal cost to religious believers."

The author cites published writings on cults to support his theories, but he does not add anything new to our understanding of cults per se. While Dr. Wenegrat does not offer definitions distinguishing cults from religions, he does portray cults as having some of the same advantages as religion with added disadvantages of exploitation of their followers.

The author misstates the conclusions of one of his citations in order to bolster his contention that certain yeshivas (Jewish seminaries) are "ultraorthodox cults," like the Moonies and Scientology. The actual citation concluded that there are crucial differences distinguishing cults from yeshivas (citation from "Alienated Jewish Youth and Religious Seminaries: An Alternative to Cults?" by S. Levine, in D.A. Halperin, M.D., Ed., Psychodynamic Perspectives on Religion, Sect, and Cult. Boston: John Wright PSG, 1983.). Aside from being a lapse in scholarship, this perpetuates the stereotype that yeshivas that expose nonorthodox Jews to orthodox Judaism (resulting in some seminarians embracing orthodoxy to the distress of their nonorthodox parents) are simply one more cult that is menacing society.

This book has given me insight into why some psychiatrists and other secular gurus refrain from denouncing cultic abuse. If one takes the position that all religions are "made up" (even though they do good things) and adds the fact that more and more the values of secular society are diverging from Judeo-Christian values, then, from a secular perspective, traditional Christian and Jewish activity becomes increasingly "deviant." In this environment, why should a secular person pick on cults?

John Hochman, M.D.

Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry

UCLA School of Medicine

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 9, No. 1, 1992