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Book Review - Americas Alternative Religions

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1996, Volume 13, Number 1, pages 116-118. 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 - America's Alternative Religions. 

Edited by Timothy Miller. State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, 1995, 474 pages.

America's Alternative Religions is edited by Timothy Miller, associate professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas. A brief, separate chapter covers the history, major branches, beliefs, practices, and future prospects of each of the 42 "alternative" religions, ranging from Adventism, including Branch Davidianism, to Zen Buddhism, including Soka Gakkai. Most chapters were written by scholars associated with university departments of religious studies or sociology. And, in the concluding chapter, longtime cult apologists Anson Shupe and David G. Bromley consider "The Evolution of Modern American Anticult Ideology: A Case Study in Frame Extension."

I asked a Unitarian minister, writer, and editor, who, like most church-men, knows much more about theology than cults, to evaluate this book as if he were skimming it for possible purchase. "Interesting, informative, and scholarly" was his first impression. And, he asked, "What does the editor mean by 'alternative'?" In his introduction, Miller, rejecting the terms cult and sect as pejorative, defines alternative as nonmainstream and as Anot inherently inferior to" its mainstream counterparts. Miller then proposes seven categories: Established Christian Alternatives (Jehovah's Witnesses, Quakers, Mormons, and Unitarians, among others); Contemporary Christian and Jewish Movements (e.g., Children of God, Boston Church of Christ, Branch Davidians); Religions from Asia (Hare Krishna and Unification Church); Religions from the Middle East (Baha'i, Islam); African-American Freedom Movements (Father Divine, Peoples Temple); Ancient Wisdom and New Age Movements (Theosophy, Spiritualism, Eckankar); and Many More (American Indian Religion, Scientology, and Satanism).

The inclusion of the Established Christian Alternatives section serves, in my opinion, to provide a false respectability to the destructive groups that follow. (I must admit my own biases here as a longtime supporter of Unitarian-Universalism and Quakerism, as well as the father of a former Unification Church member.) What especially infuriates me (as a cult critic), and what my minister friend did not catch in a quick sampling, is that contrary to Miller's claims of objectivity, the book is subtly biased. Consider Miller's own words:

Finally, it [this volume] seeks to convey objective sketches of the religions covered, free from the taint of either adulation or vituperation. A great deal of the available literature on alternative religions--in this case they are usually called "cults"--comes from those determined to eradicate them, often in the name of another religion held to be the One True Faith. This volume, written by scholars with detailed knowledge of the groups they discuss, seeks a balance that much anticult literature lacks.

Alas, such balance is not always evident. In his introduction Miller resurrects some old charges against the "Anti-Cult Movement" (which in his view is composed predominantly of born-again Protestant evangelicals): overestimating the size and menace of cults, scaring the public by false claims of brainwashing, and so on. True, some chapters are indeed objective, balanced, informative, and fair. For instance, the chapters on Quakerism, Unitarianism-Universalism, Spiritualism and Channeling, Scientology, and Eckankar are concise and factual. In contrast, treatments of the Unification Church and Hare Krishna are slanted. (Terms associated with these latter alternative religions were rated by various panels of experts in our research. See, especially, Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1990.[1]* ) In her report on the Unification Church, Eileen Barker, who cites few sources after 1988 and ignores critical research (e.g., Horowitz, 1979**), minimizes published evidence of mind control, brainwashing, Moon's federal conviction, and intensive proselytizing. In his chapter on Hare Krishna, E. Burke Rocheford, Jr. writes: Asocial science evidence provides little or no support for brainwashing explanations of conversion to new religions," and "Anticult propaganda, widely disseminated by the media, helped reshape the public's definition of Hare Krishna from a peculiar, but essentially harmless movement. ISKCON came to be identified as threatening and dangerous." Although later Rocheford mentions guru controversies, defections, allegations of drug use, weapons violations, sexual misconduct, and murder, he does not attribute ISKCON's declining position to such well-known scandals.

Shupe and Bromley's concluding chapter so distorts the "Anti-Cult Movement" as to come very close to humor. Their framework theory floats in a soup of jargon, unsupported by any data. They conclude, AThe ACM (Anti-Cult Movement) is, despite all its claims to being scientific and its denials of antireligious bias, a religiously oriented group operating in a dynamic religious economy." This statement is, of course, largely nonsense. Although it is true that a new professional leadership of ACM [sic] has emerged, Rehling, Kisser, Langone, Rudin, and Rosedale are hardly zealots. And Shupe and Bromley scarcely mention ACM [sic] followers--distraught and angry parents and disillusioned former cult members.

If Timothy Miller is sincere in his aspirations for fairness and objectivity, I suggest that in a second edition (if there is one), for balance he include among contributors some sociologists (e.g., Horowitz, Ofshe) and religious studies specialists (e.g., Enroth, LeBar, Raschke) who have published critical analyses of certain alternative religions. A second recommendation: in describing the qualifications of each contributor, indicate his or her connection to the alternative religion under discussion. Miller and contributors should cite evidence that they have read the recent publications of major cult critics. I am sure that AFF research specialists would be glad to share current data on cult membership and on ACM [sic] characteristics. Finally, I agree with the evaluation of my minister friend, but with the caution that in spots America's Alternative Religions is biased.

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

Emeritus Professor, Psychology in Education

Graduate School of Education

University of Pennsylvania

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 1, 1996

[1]* Dole, A.A., Langone, M.D., & Dubrow-Eichel, S.D. (1990). The new age movement: Fad or menace? Cultic Studies Journal, 7, 1, 69B91.

[2]** Horowitz, I.L. (1979). Science, sin, and scholarship: The politics of Reverend Moon and the Unification Church. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.