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Book Review - Cult Controversies

This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1987, Volume 4, Number 1, pages 85-87. 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 - Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements. 

By James A. Beckford. Tavistock. London and New York. 1985.

Reviewed by Richard Ofshe, Ph.D. University of California, Berkeley

James Beckford writes in " book about the controversies created by or related to cults in America and Europe in recent decades. To a reader ignorant of the subject, the book might be perceived as comprehensive, even-handed, and perhaps scholarly. Any of these conclusions would be a mistake.

A reader familiar with the subject matter might well regard the volume as limited in scope, distressingly naive, and excessively biased. It is an academic work in the very worst sense of the term, a treatise in which form takes precedence over substance and scoring points with peers matters more than solving problems, the sort of pointless and otherworldly enterprise typified by debates involving angels, standing room, and heads of pins.

Beckford's book discusses only a small number of what he calls NRMs (New Religious Movements or cults), and the treatment of these groups is superficial. The groups are ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), the Children of God, the Unification Church, and Scientology. As far as I can tell the reason that these organizations were chosen was convenience. They are organizations about which properly scholarly books and articles have been written. Although these works are often mediocre and not particularly relevant to Beckford's task, they provide him with essentially all the information with which he works. His choice to limit himself in this way was wrong and his book is mortally wounded because of iL

Since Beckford attempts to write about cult controversies, it is vital that he gain command of the facts underlying the disputes that give rise to the controversies. Only by doing this, can he judge allegation and response, assess outcomes, and hope to explain the phenomenon. Without knowing the facts of the disputes he considers, Beckford is left with his own values and preferences to fill in gaps in his knowledge. As is typical under these circumstances, the result reveals more about the writer than the subject of the work.

It is somewhat surprising to discover that in a book claiming to treat cult controversies comprehensively so little attention is given to the People's Temple. Although it is mentioned at several points, Beckford quite obviously doesn't want to deal with the problem it presents and prefers to separate it from what he considers the real NRMS. Beckford admits (p. 234) that the Jonestown murders were an atrocity, but quickly points out that NRMs have never been accused of this sort of action (atrocity). He gets fully quit of Jim Jones by sending the reader (via a footnote) to a comment stating that many scholars deny that the People's Temple was an NRM. (Only one citation is given for this sort of classification of the People's Temple). Beckford’s method is neither neat nor convincing, but it does solve the difficult problem of having to clean up after Jim Jones.

Although Beckford claims to address the causes of cult controversies, his work suggests little appreciation of the complexity of the phenomenon and its underlying issues. This is probably largely due to the narrowness and superficiality of his research. He addresses a limited set of issues, comments on a few groups, and relies on an abbreviated list of secondary sources. While apparently willing to accept the most bald-faced, self-serving justifications for activities such as obliging devotees to prostitute themselves, Beckford cannot seem to understand why judges and juries express outrage after hearing months of testimony about the doings of certain NRMS. Perhaps if Beckford had acquainted himself with the information presented in the courts he might have been affected.

Despite Beckford’s claims to have reviewed the non-academic literature about his subject, he treats it with the sort of disdain with which insecure or pretentious academics treat research done by those lacking the sacred PhD. He often doesn't cite it even when he is obviously relying upon it, and doesn't often admit to having learned anything from it. Beckford limits himself to respectable books and articles published by respectable PhD.s even when the books are out of date and new information has shown much of what was previously reported is erroneous or inadequate.

Far worse than Beckford's disdain of nonacademic writings is his failure to take the trouble to locate and include relevant information even when it is of a quality that would satisfy a discriminating historian. For example, he relies on Roy Wallis's book on Scientology (The Road to Total Freedom, 1976), which was a valuable contribution when it was published over a decade ago. Since the publication of Wallis's book much has come to light about Scientology which changes or significantly adds to what Wallis reported. The available documentary evidence and sworn testimony about Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard's biography and private world, the internal organization of Scientology society, its financial structure, and the "Guardian's Office' secret criminal operations and programs to harass critics would certainly have helped to inform someone interested in understanding why there is controversy about this cult. Beckford’s work reveals no effort to utilize these new and revealing materials. About a decade ago Beckford interviewed twenty-six former Moonies, thirteen of their relatives, and thirty-five parents of current members. This work form the basis for his treatment of the issues of thought reform and psychological casualties as well as of recruitment and departure. Beckford relies on his own interviews, and presumably diagnostic expertise, to reach the 'major implication' from his research that one should question (i.e., reject) the prevailing view of the possibly psychologically damaging effects of indoctrination and intense influence in cult organizations. Beckford enumerates symptoms which he believes to have been erroneously linked to the thought- reform experience. These include depression, altered states of consciousness, slippage into dissociated states, and severe incapacity to make decisions (p. 183).

Although rejecting the possibility that the stress and manipulations of thought- reforming tactics n-tight cause psychological problems, Beckford reports that those he interviewed were "troubled after leaving U.C. [Unification Church] by recurrent nightmares and psychic phenomena' (p. 165). Their dreams were interpreted by them as symptoms of guilt about defecting. Beckford's respondents also reported visions, hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences. Beckford is intrigued by the fact that his respondents reported 'psychic experiences... related to frightening or threatening themes. Yet some of the experiences that occurred during membership were described as pleasant and inspiring" (p. 166). Apparently, in Beckfords world, recurrent nightmares and .psychic experiences' including hallucinations does not suggest psychological problems. Beckford's treatment of these materials suggests two comments: first, his skills as a psychological diagnostician need improvement; and second, he doesn't understand the tactics through which thought-reform is accomplished.

Cult Controversies is disappointing and verges on the pathetic. Beckford chooses to write about a subject that requires command of facts before positions can be reasonably reached. It appears that he lacks the essential information on which judgments and explanations might be based. There is no excuse for Beckford's failure to obtain the information which would have put him in a position to understand cult controversies or at least to have competently reported on the issues. The resulting book is Beckford's punishment.
Richard Ofshe, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley. His recent work includes Attacks on Peripheral versus Central Elements of Self and the Impact of Thought Reforming Techniques (with Margaret Thaler Singer), Cultic Studies Journal, 3 (1986), 3-24.

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 4, No. 1, 1987