Book Review - The Rhetoric of Religious “Cults” Terms of Use and Abuse

Cultic Studies Review, 6, (3), 2007, 323-326

The Rhetoric of Religious “Cults”: Terms of Use and Abuse

Anabelle Mooney

New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN-10: 1403942854; ISBN-13: 978-1403942852 (hardcover), $74.95. 224 pages.

Reviewed by Matthew Forester

The Rhetoric of Religious Cults serves as a cult apologia. Annabelle Mooney’s central thesis is that the persuasive techniques used by cults are no different than those used by groups accepted by the dominant culture, including anti-cult organizations and corporations. She makes this case by performing careful rhetorical analyses of recruitment texts from the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Family and comparing them to literature from anti-cult organizations and from McKinsey & Company, a business consulting corporation.  For all these organizations except anti-cult organizations, she chooses specific texts, but she fails to do so with anti-cult groups. During her rhetorical analysis of anti-cult literature, she speaks very generally. On occasion, she does specifically mention aspects of the website of Info-Cult, a cult information organization in Canada.

In the introduction, Mooney explains that her message is important in light of recent legislation in parts of the world regulating the activities of certain groups labeled as cults. She then focuses on recent French legislation in an attempt to dismantle the understanding of the nature of cults that led to this legislation. She takes issue with the problematic identification of groups as cults and the equally problematic determination of “mental manipulation,” the controversial wording on which the French law hinges. She believes that laws should focus on individuals and their behaviors irrespective of their involvement with any particular organization. She sees her efforts as an argument for the human rights of cult members.

The book reads very much like a dissertation, with the obligatory first chapter outlining the theoretical approach and placing it in context with the work of other scholars. She draws heavily on Aristotle and some twentieth century rhetorical theorists as well as speech-act theorists, J. L. Austin and John Searle. Speech-act theory maintains that to say something is to do something. Austin and Searle identify three kinds of speech acts: locutionary, illocutionary, and perlocutionary. Locutionary acts are the words and sentences in and of themselves apart from any social context. Illocutionary acts are the intentions of the speaker to accomplish something with the words. Perlocutionary acts are the actual effects of the speech act, i.e. what really happens as a result of the statement.

From Aristotle, she invokes his rhetorical canons—memory, invention, arrangement, style, and delivery—and his persuasive appeals—ethos, logos, and pathos. She uses a number of contemporary rhetorical theorists and language philosophers to show how Aristotle’s canons have been updated and their relevance preserved. She draws on speech-act theory because of its contention that words have “perlocutionary” effects. That is to say they do things.

The following three chapters then analyze one recruitment text from each of the following groups: the Church of Scientology, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Family. She claims to have chosen these groups because they in particular have received bad press and been targets of unfair lawsuits. She analyzes these three texts in terms of memory, invention, arrangement, style, and delivery. The text she chooses from the Church of Scientology is L. Ron Hubbard’s speech, “The Story of Dianetics and Scientology.” From the Jehovah’s Witnesses, she chooses the pamphlet, A Book for All People. And from The Family, she analyzes their Love Charter, a sort of constitution that outlines their beliefs, structure, membership types, and other central organizing principles.

Her rhetorical analyses are indeed careful, astute, and insightful on the surface. She is careful to underpin her explanation of meanings and assumptions of these texts with well established theory. Her interpretations seem straightforward, fair, and unbiased. In the final chapters, her comparisons of the recruitment texts to the literature from anti-cult organizations and McKinsey & Company seem equally straightforward, fair, and unbiased. What strikes me as very odd, however, is the departure from the parallel structure when she analyzes the anti-cult organization recruitment texts. She doesn’t focus specifically on any one organization nor on any one text as she does with the other organizations. She specifically mentions the website of Info-Cult on occasion to illustrate certain points, but she speaks very generally for the most part in this section. Nonetheless, her conclusion clearly expresses that cult language is, indeed, not distinctive, and if the label “cult” is to be used at all, it should be used evenly to apply to other organizations who use similar recruitment strategies.

In spite of her excellent surface analyses of the texts, I take issue with certain conclusions drawn from them. First of all, in one of the final chapters, she takes on the challenging work of defining a cult. Most scholars who study cults have agreed that the definition is problematic, and as many who write about cults have acknowledged, the best we can do is come up with some general characteristics. But in my estimation, Mooney leaves some very important general characteristics out. To quote directly from the book, she establishes these characteristics:

If we use only these general characteristics to establish what cults are, it is clear that many organizations that don’t share the label could be identified as such. In my estimation, however, the characteristics she has chosen are incomplete, and in fact, self-serving. Many social scientists have ascribed other important characteristics such as withholding important information about the central beliefs and expectations in initial recruitment efforts. That is, deliberately obscuring important information that the recruits would more likely reject initially. For instance, the text analyzed from the Church of Scientology says nothing about the fact that the member will eventually be expected to accept that he or she is in fact a “thetan” who has lived in other bodies at other times and will have to be “cleared” of any “engrams” they might have accrued along the way, and that they will have to pay for each “clearing” session. Not surprisingly, Mooney never mentions this either. She also eschews the characteristic that cults are totalizing; they not only “distinguish between us and them,” but they, in fact, demonize everyone outside the group. I teach at the University of Florida, and I am a proud Gator fan. That does not mean, however, that I believe every Florida State fan is a satanic pawn who wants to lead me astray. In short, Mooney minimizes the characteristics she lists in order to force them to apply to other acceptable, benign groups. The differences are, in these cases, ones of degree and not of kind.

Still another very sad implication of Mooney’s take on cults is that she ignores the fact that these people raise children. To grow up thinking you are specially chosen by God and anyone outside the group is a satanic pawn who wants to lead you astray, as many children of Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have been taught, creates psychological discord and pain for those children who come to believe later that those claims are hogwash and that their entire identity and worldview were lies foisted upon their parents by clever religious entrepreneurs. I doubt seriously that the children of employees of McKinsey and Company feel so betrayed. This is, of course, speculation on my part.

In spite of these shortcomings in her analyses, I have to say that I think there is an important message that Anabelle Mooney makes, a reminder that might serve us all well who champion human rights and freedom. That message is that we have to be very careful that we don’t villainize people or groups of people who share beliefs different from our own, just because they are different from our own. This admonition is the strength of her argument and one that I think deserves careful attention.