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Letters - Confessions of a "Cult" Watcher: An Alternative Point of View

Cultic Studies Journal, 1989, Volume 6, Number 1, pages 117-121

Letters: Confessions of a "Cult" Watcher: An Alternative Point of View


In 1988, the Cultic Studies Journal (Vol. 5, No. 1, 132-135) reprinted an essay by Ronald Enroth, entitled "Confessions of a Cult Watcher." Enroth is a Christian sociologist at Westmont College. He has been very active in criticizing the beliefs and practices of "cults" or minority religious groups. He calls himself a "cult watcher" who has been criticized for aligning himself with the so-called "anti-cult" movement. The essay states his position that he does not think it possible to achieve a value-free sociology. He concludes that determinations of the truth or falsity of the tenents of these groups are vital for the presentation of orthodoxy. He opines that the Christian scholar has an obligation to affirm the core beliefs of Christian faith. He notes that a number of secular and religious scholars disagree with his approach. He is appalled that they have not joined him in active opposition to these minority religious groups.

I am one of those who disagrees with Enroth. In fact, he mentions me by name two times in his essay. In the spirit of fairness I would like to state why I, a Christian psychologist similar to Enroth in religious commitment, have reached drastically different conclusions about these matters.

First of all, the Christian faith needs no defense. The absolute right of religious belief and practice is a constitutional freedom in our society that both Christian and secular scholars should defend no matter whether these be expressed in Presbyterianism or Moonieism. Although many religious beliefs and practices may be strange and even excessive, being different is no crime -- in fact being different is a protected right.

Thus, the truth of the Christian faith does not need preservation by attacks on other religions which are framed in sociological or psychological terms. This does not mean that I think that violations of civil and criminal law do not occur in religious groups, old or new. The freedom of religion noted above does not protect a religion from the law of the land. However, I am convinced that so called "cults" have a right to exist and that they are innocent until proven guilty. I feel sure that, while the readers of Cultic Studies Journal might disagree with much that I have said, they would agree that where sociologists and psychologists are asked to testify in cases where religions are being accused of transgressions, they should only do so with the widely standardized procedures of their discipline and should not present themselves as experts if they have made prior judgments about the guilt or innocence of the accused group.

Again, taking these positions that there are guaranteed rights of religious beliefs and practices, that religious groups do sometimes violate civil and criminal law, that religious groups, like individuals, are innocent until proven guilty, and that social/behavioral scientists should be unbiased in their expert testimony does not mean that I, as a Christian, do not evaluate the beliefs of other religions. I do. But, I do this as a believer -- not as a psychologist. I do not intentionally or consciously mix these roles.

In my opinion, to combine my evaluation of the beliefs and practices of the newer religions with my psychological evaluation would confuse the issue and would expose me to the judgment that my professional testimony in court was a personal value judgment disguised in scientific jargon. Such opinions have been handed down by judges in more than one case where anti-cult social behavioral scientists have testified. I am sure this was embarrassing to the professionals involved. I am certainly chagrined when this happens. However, such judgments seem inevitable to me where the suggestions of Enroth are practiced.

In conclusion, I have stated an alternative point of view to that of Ronald Enroth in his essay "Confessions of a Cult Watcher." I invite dialogue on my opinions from the readers of the Cultic Studies Journal. It is important for me to be understood as a psychologist who takes his religion seriously, who is committed to protecting the rights of persons to be religious in a manner of their own choosing, yet who would not hesitate to testify against any religion, old or new, whose practices violated civil or criminal law,ÿ… ifÿ• the standardized procedures of my discipline confirmed such violations.

H. Newton Malony, Ph.D

Graduate School of Psychology,

Fuller Theological Seminary

Reply to Dr. Malony

In response to my essay, Professor Malony addresses certain theological as well as behavioral science concerns. Although the Cultic Studies Journal is not intended to be a forum for theological discussion, Malony makes some theological observations which I feel deserve comment. For example, he states his disagreement with my assertion that it may be appropriate for the Christian behavioral scientist to make certain value judgments and to affirm the central beliefs of the Christian faith. It is his view that "the Christian faith needs no defense." In personal correspondence with me he has reiterated this position: "The truth of God as revealed to us in Jesus Christ does not need my defense. . . . I feel that the Christian faith can take care of itself."

I find his position to be a curious one in view of the fact that Malony makes much of his own theological training and the fact that he serves on the faculty of a well-known evangelical seminary. The study of apologetics is an important part of the curriculum in most seminaries. Apologetics has to do with defending the truth of the Christian gospel. The English word "apologetic" is derived from a Greek word meaning "defense." In an often cited passage from the New Testament, the Apostle Peter exhorts Christians to "always be prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls you to account for the hope that is in you, yet do it with gentleness and reverence" (I Peter 3:15, RSV). Following St. Peter's admonition, the well-known Christian writer, C.S. Lewis, passionately asserts that "We are to defend Christianity itself -- the faith preached by the Apostles, attested by the Martyrs, embodied in the Creeds, expounded by the fathers."

Now I suspect that Professor Malony would say that he agrees with both St. Peter and C.S. Lewis. He has told me that he remains "a loyal and committed evangelical Christian." However, his statements about his own role as a defender of the Christian faith (as noted above) are at best indicative of confused and unclear thinking, at worst evidence of a fuzzy and unconventional form of Christianity.

The tendency for Malony to make confusing and sometimes contradictory observations can also be seen in his role as professional psychologist, a role which he claims he does "not intentionally or consciously mix" with his roles as a Christian believer. Ironically, those of us who are a part of Christian higher education are constantly being urged to integrate our faith with our disciplines. It is an on-going focal concern of all faculty at Christian liberal arts colleges and it has been the topic of countless articles and books. Just as he obviously has a view of apologetics that differs from other Christian academicians, Malony also seems to view the integration of faith and learning very differently.

Professor Malony also sends mixed and confusing signals about his interaction with cults and new religions. In a statement appearing in the Fall 1989 newsletter of the Christian Association for Psychological Studies (he is currently president of CAPS), Malony admits that he associates with some "strange bedfellows" because of his concern for religious freedom. In his reply to my CSJ essay he repeats his commitment to freedom of religion: "I am convinced that so-called `cults' have a right to exist and that they are innocent until proven guilty." I am in full agreement with such a statement. What I find difficult to understand is Malony's willingness to accept remuneration as an expert witness or consultant to new religious groups which have repeatedly been found guilty in a court of law. Is it not possible to remain fully committed to the principle of religious freedom and dispassionate analysis while declining to provide professional aid and comfort to organizations that have been proven guilty of breaking the laws of the land?

Many of Professor Malony's colleagues-in-interest have also received monetary and other forms of assistance from these "strange bedfellows." Respected professionals and academicians have questioned whether such alliances do not in fact erode the scientific objectivity and credibility that Malony talks about (see Irving Louis Horowitz, ed., Science, Sin, and Scholarship). He castigates me for aligning with the so-called "anti-cult" movement while he accepts professional fees from a new religious group which regularly deplores the psychiatric profession and whose leaders have been found guilty of serious crimes. He is the "objective" psychologist who "takes his religion seriously" while I am seen as the sociologist who promotes my personal value judgments "disguised in scientific jargon." Let him who is without bias cast the first stone!

While I may (and do) question Professor Malony's judgment both as a psychologist and as a Christian believer with regard to his continuing association with "strange bedfellows," I want to affirm his right to those associations and his right to question the scientific validity of the research and expert testimony of those persons whom he terms "anti-cult social behavioral scientists." But I totally reject his implied, if not stated, conclusions that those of us who differ from him are less than scholarly in our work, or are not supportive of religious liberty, or are somehow anti-religious in our orientation.

In conclusion, I should like to reiterate for Professor Malony and the readers of the Cultic Studies Journal something I stated in my book, The Lure of the Cults & New Religions (p. 35): "A negative evaluation of any given group does not mean a lack of commitment on the part of the author to religious freedom and the right of any group to freely promote its beliefs. . . . The same First amendment which provides freedom of religion for all, however, also protects the right of free speech, including the right to critique and disagree with the religious beliefs and practices of others. Negative evaluation is not a synonym for attack and opposing opinion should not be reinterpreted as `anti-religious' or cited as evidence of intolerance. . ."

Ronald Enroth

Professor of Sociology

Westmont College

Santa Barbara, California