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Book Review - Strange Gods - Schuller

Strange Gods: The Great American Cult Scare

David G. Bromley & Anson D. Shupe, Jr.

Boston: Beacon Press, 1981

Reviewed by Jeanne Schuller

Professor of Philosophy, Creighton University

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 blush.

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 generalizations 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 further 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 followers to swallow cyanide without the use of guns. Presumably, they would then be acting freely. Get rid of guns, and you're left with free will!

B & 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 "essentially different."

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 surface 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 of, 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 serves 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.