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Book Review - Misunderstanding Cults


Book Review - Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field

Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.

Trenton, Maine

Edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001, 524 pages.


Twenty years ago, most sociologists and other academics who specialized in the study of religion ignored or dismissed the handful of scholars and helping professionals who called attention to the harmfulness of some cults. These cult sympathizers disregarded or disparaged without proper examination evidence that certain new religions applied “brainwashing,” or mind control, to recruit and retain converts. For years sympathizers and had little to do with cult critics. At last, however, sociologists Zablocki and Robbins, together with eight other contributors divided among cult sympathizers and critics, have presented diverse views in a search for “objectivity in a controversial field.”

Despite some serious shortcomings, the book does reflect increased understanding from a variety of scholarly perspectives. Before I consider some of the specific strengths and flaws of Misunderstanding Cults, here is my summary evaluation of its major characteristics on a scale from A to F: Objectivity -- B+; Readability -- C+; Editing -- C-; and References -- A-.

Psychologist Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi’s excellent chapter on recent failures by distinguished scholars to maintain integrity is followed by Robbins’ defense of those who say they advocate balance and fairness toward controversial new religions.

Sociologist Susan J. Palmer confesses that her ethnographic studies of the Rajneeshes, the Family, and other groups were fueled by a passion to learn about them in depth. In contrast, sociologist and former cultist Janja Lalich highlights clearly and comprehensively some of the difficulties in studying “charisma, power, …secrets, and obfuscation.”

Zablocki, after 35 years observing communes, makes an eloquent case for a scientific theory of brainwashing. Forensic and clinical psychologist Dick Anthony responds at length (42 footnotes!), redundantly, and as if in court by dubbing Zablocki’s testable hypotheses “pseudoscience.” (I wished for a rejoinder by Margaret Singer or Robert Lifton.) In a clearly written, concise examination of the two theories, brainwashing and conversion, sociologist David Bromley shows how research on new religions can serve political objectives that distort objectivity.

After years of observing the Family/Children of God and Scientology, sociologist Stephen Kent summarizes documented instances of severe physical harm to the adolescent children of cult members accompanied by “brainwashing programs.” In response, sociologist Lorne L. Dawson alleges that Kent and Zablocki misrepresented information obtained from biased “apostates.” Sociologist and former therapy cult member Amy Siskind describes graphically the abuse of children raised in five totalist groups.

Sociologist Julius H. Rubin is persuasive in his presentation of a case study: the conflict between the Bruderhof (a pacifist Christian group) and its critics. Author and educator Jeffrey Kaplan’s chapter on religious violence in America concludes the volume. In his view, the incidents of murder or/and suicide at Waco, Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate, and in Christian far-right groups were basically defensive rather than expansionary.

These chapters vary in readability. Readers unversed in sociological jargon might find some chapters tedious. When no supportive data accompanied theory or interpretation, my interest drooped.

Misunderstanding Cults enhanced my appreciation for ethnography, observation, and narrative as methods for uncovering the complexities of the new religions. If, however, there is a second edition, I recommend further editing: Add an index; proofread for sloppy errors (e.g., “Anson Schupe” instead of “Shupe,” p. 513); encourage contributors to respond directly to one another rather than solely to previous publications that the reader may not have at hand. And make sure all the authors specify possible sources of bias. Use this reviewer as an example. That I am the father of a former “missionary” for the Unification Church, a secular Christian, and a psychologist influence my perspectives. Finally, a less technical and more reader-friendly approach might extend the book’s value.

The book’s references and appendix are invaluable to serious scholars. These elements include some of the best work from the various perspectives, and they are balanced. For instance, cult critics cited the early research of Eileen Barker and John Lofland. And the cult sympathizers frequently mentioned the Cultic Studies Journal and Robert Lifton. Such examples represent a step toward understanding.