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Book Review - Cults and New Religious Movements Understanding Cults and New Religions


This article is an electronic version of an article originally published in Cultic Studies Journal, 1990, Volume 7, Number  2, pages 217-218. 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 - Cults and New Religious Movements

Marc Galanter. American Psychiatric Association, Washington, D.C., 1989, 346 pages.

Understanding Cults and New Religions.

Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe. William B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, 1986, 170 pages.

This sixteen-chapter hardcover is a report of the American Psychiatric Association Committee on Psychiatry and Religion. Each chapter is written by one or more different authors and is referenced at the chapter end, except for chapters 5 and 15. This is one of the few available books that is carefully researched, well-referenced, and well-indexed. It contains much valuable information on individual, group, and family dynamics, susceptible personalities, cult leaders, treatment variables in therapy of former cult members, and constitutional, civil, and criminal law pertinent to cults and religions. Sixteen court cases are described.

The book does have weaknesses. Its major emphasis is cults that are largely composed of adults. The Unification Church, for example, is cited 24 times in the index, and Hare Krishna 14 times. Child victims of ritual abuse get far less attention and are not at all indexed, an unfortunate omission in view of the great problems with the McMartin and Pitts cases in California. Teenage involvement in fantasy board games and Satanism is also omitted except for satanic groups "in the U.S. South." Also missing are personality and political cults, the dynamics of which can be similar to those of religious cults. Deprogramming (Chapter 13) is described as "involuntary," even though it may be a voluntary, self-referred, supportive therapy.

Still, the book's strengths outweigh its weaknesses, and it ranks among the highest for its objectivity, scholarship, and overall professional quality. A variety of points of view are presented, e.g., Richard Delgado's writing on options for legal intervention and Ted Bohn and Jeremiah Gutman's writing on the civil liberties of religious minorities. All in all, I highly recommend the book.

I have reservations, however, about Hexham and Poewe's ten-chapter, $8.95 paperback. Irving Hexham is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary; Karla Poewe is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Lethbridge -- both are in Alberta, Canada. The index is brief and incomplete, but the text is well-footnoted.

The book strikes glancing blows, often skipping over the surface. St. Francis of Assisi is included, but other important mystics, such as St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross are not. Gnostic Christians, Sufi Moslems, Hassidic Jews, and Zen Buddhists are omitted. The "Aesculapian" cult of Hippocrates is mentioned, although Aesculapius is the Latinized name used centuries after Hippocrates (c. 460-377 B.C.), who was Greek. Other important cults of the early Christian era are omitted, such as Mithraism and the Isis-Osiris cult. Only cults focusing on adults are described. Teenagers and ritually abused children are ignored.

Hexham and Poewe consider Franz Mesmer to be a cult leader, and his condemnation by the First Paris Commission is noted, although they omit the Second Commission, which cleared him. The authors contend that most cults are "systems of sorcery" or "magical religions" that "our scholarly community is now trying to reclassify as altered states of consciousness in the context of transpersonal psychology." In fact, altered states are researched worldwide in a variety of settings. Transpersonal psychology splintered from humanistic psychology and is a fractional minority within psychology.

The authors charge that current religion is "drifting toward faith in magic," despite sophisticated archaeological digs of ancient religious sites, scientific analyses such as on the Shroud of Turin, and intensive study and more accurate translations of scriptures. When the authors resort to "the psychology of," their opinions are often based on dated, limited, or misleading information. Hebephrenic schizophrenia, hysteria, and neuroses, for example, (p. 142) were deleted from diagnostic standards ten years ago. Multiple personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, which have been in use for ten years or more, are not referred to in this book.

On the positive side, despite omissions, opinion, and religious bias, this book provides interesting social insights, historical background, and a multicultural dimension to the cult experience. The chapters on new mythology (Chapter 3), social aspects (Chapter 8), and shamanism (Chapter 9) are useful. Even with its shortcomings, it is a step toward a more scientific and comprehensive treatment of the subject.

Frank MacHovec, Ph.D., Director

Center for the Study of the Self

Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 7, No. 2, 1990