Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare.
Editor's Introduction: The following book review was originally published
in Cultic Studies Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1, 1983. The book
reviewed articulated many of the views of the so-called "pro-cultists" of the
day. The review by Professor Schuller analyzes the deficiencies in these
views. The review is reprinted to provide some historical context for ICSA's
online collection, "Academic Disputes and Dialogue."
By this time, everyone in some way has encountered pop psychology: the
trendy, profitable paths to self-improvement. In Strange Gods,
sociologists Bromley and Shupe (B&S) present a "scientific" study of new
religious movements and their critics that achieves the same watery consistency.
In the preface, they claim to "offer and independent assessment" that "will not
please either side in the debate." Frankly, I am curious to learn what a
cult would object to here. The book argues that the cult menace is largely
fabricated while the real menace comes from the critics whose proposals pose a
threat to civil liberties and personal liberty. For a book that claims to
be "suspicious of zealots in any camp," the authors manage to sprinkle the text
with emotional pleas, judgments and dire prophecies that would do credit to a
preacher or a lawyer, but hardly to social scientists. In my judgment, the
concept of objectivity has been dealt another blow by those who claim value
neutrality and, under cover of this judiciousness, smuggle in enough weak
analogies, folk wisdom, and assumptions about human behavior to make Solomon
Despite their pretensions to disinterested observation, scientists must
invariably make value judgments in the course of investigation. These
decisions are an inherent part of intellectual activity, and it would be foolish
to imagine an explanation that is immune from normative statements.
Consequently, I am not criticizing B & S for introducing value judgments into
their analysis, but rather I fault them, first, for their obliviousness to the
ideology that fuels their argument, and second, for the crudeness of this
ideology. They rely wholeheartedly on psychological stereotypes that only
satisfied the nineteenth century thinkers who adopted them in full force.
In Strange Gods, we are in a world where it is assumed that all
individuals naturally seek to maximize self-interest; these concepts of
happiness are radically subjective, thus are not open to judgment from others;
the individual is considered the expert on his/her internal state; persons are
"free" insofar as other parties do not physically interfere with their pursuit
of pleasure. Since individuals are the best judge of their own interests, the
government (B & S add family, friends and society) should adopt a "hands-off"
policy. This psychological profile of human behavior is one which Jeremy
Bentham or David Ricardo would feel comfortable with, but it hardly serves as an
adequate framework for social science in the post-Freudian era.
Unfortunately, we have learned that coercion assumes more devious forms than the
proverbial "offer you can't refuse."
Since there is little statistical data in the study and the conclusions are
reached mainly with the help of interviews and news quotes, I will reduce their
argument to a series of inferences which are followed by my criticism.
- B & S: Because history shows that religions have been unjustly
persecuted in the past, there are prima facie grounds for suspecting
that the reactions to cults is based on similarly fictitious horror stories.
Fictitious? One does not have to make sweeping generalizationns about
history and past religious practices in order to deplore the presence of
religious bigotry and persecutions. A reading of history shows that
churches (e.g., the Catholic Church that B & S find so respectable today)
were frequently guilty of deception, coercion, political subversion, and
even sexual "perversions" - among the charges leveled at today's cults.
Undoubtedly, the public scrutiny and anti-clericalism that periodically
swept through society were a source for religious reform. The point is that
in order to oppose discrimination, we don't have to blindly assert the
innocence of traditional or new religious movements.
- B & S: Since all human beings naturally seek to maximize power and
authority over others, families, government, and traditional churches will
be threatened by the success of the rival power and teachings of the cults.
This reaction is natural but unjustified.
B & S interpret all human interaction on a conflict model, with the
exception of the relationship between cult members and the cult itself.
These various groups are competing for the allegiance of youth. When cults
threaten to win the struggle, then the others are primarily embarrassed by
the loss of power. Since parents' main interest lied in maintaining power
over their children, then the greatest pain they suffer is loss of power and
concern for their public image - what will the world think of me as a
parent? B & S focus on embarrassment because of the external method they
employ here. Playing with such one-dimensional stereotypes, their analysis
of human relationships is extremely shallow.
- B & S: Induction of members into cults involves forceful persuasion
similar to that used by a car salesman but no coercion or thought reform.
The only unjustified coercion is that used by the deprogrammers who are
"self-serving, illegal and fundamentally immoral."
B & S's favorite defense of the cult goes like this: "Sure, they use high
pressure tactics to win recruits and cultivate loyalty, but they're not
alone. Look at the Marines or the training in a monastery." I would
hope that a sociological study of the Carmelites would produce more insight
into cloistered life than the conclusion that their life is essentially
similar to the Marines. B & S's notion of coercion doesn't go much
furthere than the use of torture and threats of violence, so it is rare that
anyone ever is guilty of unjustified manipulation of human behavior.
They construct a straw man argument which they attribute to the critics of
the cults that is easily refuted. For unwarranted coercion to exist,
one would seem to need to develop a metallic sheen, walk with a gimp, smile
on cue, and not exhibit fear of death. Under their subtle touch,
brainwashing appears literally as a washed-out cranium with wind whistling
through the brain cavity. Short of physical violence, they presume
that "free will" is operating intact. Working with such absolutist
notions leads them to ignore obvious distinctions (e.g., when a Moonie
recruiter or a car salesman has introduced guilt, deceit or forced
dilemmas into their sales pitches) and to construct highly exotic puzzles.
For example, B & S speculate about a revolutionary massacre at Jonestown
where Jones persuades his adult followeres to swallow cyanide without the
use of guns. Presumably, they would then be acting freely. Get rid of gunds,
and you're left with free will!
- B U&S: Scientific respect for the facts is satisfied in the pages
detailing the theologies, organizational structure, histories, and leaders
of the cults.
The sound of pages turning does not necessarily indicate the
communication of knowledge. Since B & S seek to exonerate the cults from
false charges, they are not successful in determining the distinctive
features of cults. After all, it is their conviction that cults are "nothing
new." From their catalogue of facts, they conclude that the various cults
share few common features so that the stereotypes about them are necessarily
false. On the other hand, they successfully lump the anti-cult groups
together in the space of a few paragraphs, and attribute one set of
misguided motives to the assorted lot. (For example, Ted Patrick represents
all deprogramming goals and techniques.) One stereotype is exchanged for
another. It is unfortunate that the zeal for establishing differences
among cults doesn't extend to making discriminations among the anti-cult
groups (beyond the identification of government, church, and family
interests). The critics are fundamentally "all the same" while the cults are
Since this is a sociological study, we expect to learn something of the group
interaction, the bonding process, the relationships of authority, conformity,
cult values, and their inculcation. On two pages (80-81) in small print, B & S
list the cult qualities that have provoked controversy, such as "total loyalty"
or "personal transformation." The controversial is packaged into lists or neatly
sidestepped by the ruse that "these characteristics aren't unique, everybody
does it." Since we've barely scratched the sruface of these intra-group
dynamics, it would be difficult to question these National-Inquirer-type
allegations. Sure, lots of groups demand loyalty. B & S assume
that the loyalty enforced within the cults is no different than that os, say a
baseball team. But, B & S, this is precisely the claim that you're
supposed to justify and not simply assert.
Overall, their method is most dubious because of the double standard of
interpretation. Throughout the book, they systematically doubt the
assertions made by parents and ex-cult members about their experience (unless
the statements are sufficiently outrageous and then they are allowed to stand)
since these parties have a vested interest in re-writing history. This
scrupulous caution doesn't extend to the current cult members' statements about
the camaraderie, idealism, moral vision, and purpose of their lives. These
statements are accepted at face value and even underscored as one of the
positive contributions of the cults. In short, cult members mean
what they say, while ex-cult members do not. More than anything else, this
double standard gives the book its sleazy cast. B & S predictably turn
non-critical when it sereves their interest. Appearances to the contrary,
Rev. Moon probably is not interested in the money and power of guru life,
while deprogrammers are obviously on power and profit trips. Under the
magic wand of this so-called objectivity, we are in a fairyland where new
religious movements are teaching young persons about independence and
self-realization, and where parents are self-interested and power hungry.
In conclusion, the work is flawed from the start by confusion in the authors'
minds: they seek both to argue against the passage of laws that discriminate
against cults and also to present an objective picture of the cults. In
pursuit of these goals, they concoct a highly prejudicial picture of the cults
that is more defensive than enlightening. It is too bad that the writers allow
one goal to ruin the other, as if they feared that a more balanced view of the
cults would simply stir up the controversy further. If we look more
closely at the traditional liberal values which influence this book, we find
that John Stewart Mill never suggests that the protection of individual liberty
entails the loss of our critical faculties. We can oppose the legalization
of deprogramming without needing to believe that cults are as benign as depicted
here. A case for the civil liberties of new religious movements does not
need to entail this flight from objectivity.