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Book Review - Understanding NRM by Saliba-Szimhart

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1998, Volume 15, Number 2, pages 230-233. 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 - Understanding New Religious Movements.

Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. 240 pages. Paperback, $18.00

ISBN 0-8028-4226-7

Review by Joe Szimhart: April, 1997


This is a book for students of the new religions that have sprung up amid the controversy surrounding “cults” since the early 1970s. The author, John A. Saliba, a Jesuit priest, is professor of religious studies at the University of Detroit Mercy. He took part in a study of new religious movements conducted for the Vatican, and he has written two major bibliographies on new religious movements, Psychiatry and the Cults and Social Science and the Cults. Saliba begins by giving the reader an overview of the cults in contemporary Western culture followed by a history of new religious movements in the West. In separate chapters he covers new religions in four perspectives: psychological, sociological, legal, and theological. He finishes with a chapter on counseling as it pertains to the new religions. The book has extensive footnotes and a useful index. The lower portion of the elegant front cover shows a photo of the Branch Davidian Compound at Waco going up in flames.

Saliba is careful to define his terms. Cult proves especially problematical as he prefers “new religious movement.” Nevertheless, he uses cult throughout in its popular function to indicate strange, extremist or non-orthodox Christian sects. In his overview Saliba relies heavily on J. Gordon Melton’s typology but recognizes that different scholars categorize the same group in different ways. Although he attempts a balanced approach-and succeeds remarkably in most of his presentation-Saliba tends to denigrate the “anti-cult” camp. History shows, he says, that the new religions repeat old patterns as he briefs us on Gnostics, Cathars, Flagellants, Ranters, Mormons and the ever fascinating Shabbatean movement of the seventeenth century. The modern anti-cult movement seems to him to be a reactionary, clumsy if not unethical effort to suppress religious experimentation. This is not to say that he is an “apologist” for new religions.

Saliba offers studied overviews of the psychological, sociological and theological approaches to new religions. He contends that the mental health “experts” offer “an overall negative psychiatric assessment of new religions” (p. 83), but does a fair comparison of the “brainwashing” verses the “drift” models of conversion to cults.

Saliba is most comfortable with the sociological approach that attempts an evenhanded, non-judgmental observation of facts surrounding new religions. He complains that anti-cultists, the media, and sometimes the courts ignore the sociological research. “The sociological approach to the new religions is based on well-established academic principles and, in spite of some weaknesses, has many advantages” (p. 129). In his chapter on the law and cults, he tackles the thorny issues surrounding what constitutes a religion in the United States. He cites the lengthy Scientology vs. IRS litigation as one example. He also cites the lawsuit brought by the Local Church of Witness Lee vs. the “anti-cult” group, the Spiritual Counterfeits Project.

The final chapter, “Counseling and the new religious movements” covers several forms of therapeutic interaction with members of the cults, including deprogramming, exit counseling and psychotherapy. Saliba points out that counseling professions assume that fringe groups are dangerous institutions. Most counseling, he says, tends to be a strategy to attack the new religion and persuade the cultist to leave it because it is a form of “religious pathology” (p. 199). Again he decries the ignorance about sociological literature by anti-cultists: “...sociology has provided a method for getting reliable information on the practices and ideologies of these movements” (p. 201). He states that the first responsibility of counselors should be “to sift through the information on new religious movements and to present their clients with a balanced picture...” (IBID.). He suggest that the client be alerted of any dangerous situations “without exaggerating or sensationalizing those relatively few occurrences that are a cause for concern” (IBID.).

His advice follows sound counseling strategies that respect the client in every way.

Saliba’s considerable effort to remain “balanced” in his approach to new religions is commendable but not without a serious flaw. He speaks of “perception” many times and how that can mislead people about the harmful nature of new and marginal groups. In this we cannot disagree as rumors and panics about what a group may or may not do, or even if it exists, are well-known in our recent history. Consider the “satanic panics” of a decade ago that have nearly faded away. But perception, not scholarly accounting, seems to guide his reactionary stand against the “moral crusaders” of the anti-cult ranks.

In a few patronizing passages he quotes from that camp to show that they too recognize that some good can come from a cult experience, and that a calm, objective approach is most useful in counseling.

Saliba takes issue with advice given by Madeleine Tobias (co-author of Captive Hearts, Captive Minds) who suggests screaming in a car and fantasizing “revenge” might help relieve post cult-anxieties. “The first suggestion is rather ridiculous, the second is conducive to violence,” says Saliba (p.223). The perception he gives of Tobias’s text is just as cranky as the worst of anti-cult perceptions about new religions. Here Saliba echoes only what has been previously written in a review (his) about Captive Hearts in the Journal for Scientific Study of Religion (December, 1995). Saliba also states that exit counseling is only deprogramming without coercion (p. 233), that it aims to persuade a cultist away from a group while not examining objectively the facts of conversion and social issues surrounding the conversion. He implies that exit counselors and deprogrammers attempt and succeed at “brainwashing” their clients while turning them into “moral crusaders” against all new religions.

Two serious problems come to mind with this view: 1. While arguing that brainwashing is hardly a fact-the vast majority of seekers leave their cults voluntarily, so where’s the brainwashing (p. 87)-he implies that the exit counselor is an effective

brainwasher because the majority of interventions work. 2. Saliba omits mention that a paucity of objective research about deprogramming or exit counseling exists. To come to the conclusions he does is merely a bias based on reactionary literature produced by scholars horrified by deprogramming. One should agree with Saliba that coercive interventions cannot be condoned as a general policy by any organization, but there is no reliable “science” that has analyzed the negative and perhaps positive effects of interventions of any kind. Non-coercive exit counseling might be more than a mere deprogramming without security guards, and the very anti-cultists he derides might be more sympathetic with his recommendations for intervention counseling than he realizes.

One insight Saliba makes about “rites-of-passage” (p. 93) as a conversion motif might be an avenue for research about the intervention process that helps cultists reevaluate their devotion to a controversial group. He ignores the possibility, attested to by hundreds of case histories, that social or familial intervention with a cultist might well be a “completion” of a rite of passage, if we define that rite (as he does citing Gennep and Turner) as the third stage of reintegration back into the community from which they separated. Traditionally, rites-of-passage have not been comfortable transitions.

In conclusion, I liked most of this book and it is an excellent reference for the sociological model that the author favors.

Joe Szimhart is an exit counselor and consultant about cults and new religions.

Cultic Studies Journal Volume 15 Number 2 1998