Worshipping at the Altar of Eileen Barker… ;)

At the end of Inform’s 25th Anniversary conference in London this past weekend, a member of the Church of Scientology stood up during the very last Q&A and told the audience that he’d been watching us sociologists of NRMs for a while now.  And he’d come to the conclusion that we were a cult.  We have rituals, meetings, doctrines, and a charismatic leader in Eileen Barker, founder of Inform and a guiding light in NRM studies (see, I’ve drunk the Koolaid too, according to him).

I’m not actually going to disagree with him all that much… But that’s because I want to flip what he’s saying on its head.  He wanted to point out all the things about Inform that make it an NRM. In my work I want to point out all the things that make NRMs pretty ordinary social organisational focuses of pretty ordinary human beings (sorry Inform, you do a very good job, but you are ordinary too!).


“The vogue for wearing fancy dress threatens to invade ordinary social life.” Punch Magazine, July 8, 1914

There was also much debate during the conference about the future of NRM studies and admittedly some were more pessimistic about this than others.  In part because NRM is an artificial term and as these ‘normal social organisations’ (not to create yet another term) progress they seem to become more mainstream.  We’ve lost a lot of Hindu NRMs to Hindu Studies because in terms of their founders and texts they weren’t really new, but only new to the West.  Pagan Studies is a flourishing field on its own.  Ditto Esoteric Studies.  Likewise I write about aspects of the New Age Movement, which according to some is long over, or not really included in the term NRM (both of which are debates for another time).  

The tendency of speakers to avoid the word religion was also commented upon.  Instead the words faith or belief were used instead, sometimes with metaphorical scare quotes around them as the speakers seemed hesitant to commit to them.  We can also point out that the term NRM, new religious movement, itself avoids mentioning religion but perhaps can give a sense of something being religion-y.  As one person put it to me, this emphasis on belief, or faith, is an aspect of a lingering Western, Christian, Protestant, attitude to defining religion.  Instead of focusing on the lived experiences of religion we talk about what believers believe.  In part perhaps because once we move onto the field of belief as sociologists we can leave that to one side and not get enmeshed in the troublesome definition of what religion is.  This emphasis is however changing, and my informant also mentioned the work of BASR president, Graham Harvey, amongst others, as an example of this move.

The title for the conference was “Minority Religions: Contemplating the Past and Anticipating the Future”.  Prognostication in sociology is a difficult affair, but many of the speakers made attempts at logical predictions of various religious group’s futures based on their pasts and more recent events (including myself as I discussed the move of particular NRMs to an online presence, and for some, a solely online existence).  But what of the future of organizations like Inform which provide information about NRMs? Inform speakers pointed out the change in emphasis in the conference title itself as it refers to Minority religions… Which at least uses the R word in full meaning even if it throws up the question of what happens if a minority becomes a majority, or where we draw the line between NRMs/Minority religions and mainstream religions that are in the minority in the UK such as Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism etc.  

This is not to be too picky about their choice of term – any term would come with its limitations (see also: cults, emergent religions, invented religions, hyper-real religions etc etc).  Inform’s future will be certainly dependent on still carving out a niche by citing a focus and providing a service.  Their requests for information now come in the main from legal and governmental organisations rather than from concerned parents as in the 70s and 80s, prior to and during the Cult Wars.  They have very detailed information on these changes and are very aware of needing to remain a relevant source of legitimate information, especially in the age of the Internet where Wikipedia is a behemoth of information of varying quality but easy access.

So, where I do disagree with the gentleman from the Church of Scientology is that if the sociological study of religion is a cult (his term and not mine), it is not one that is happily skipping into what is presumed to be a utopian future.  Nor is it a doomsday cult awaiting the sound of trumpets and the opening of the first seal on the day of judgement (although such voices of doom are present).  Instead, sociologists of religion are involved in an ongoing, self-reflexive discussion about their discipline, and not merely kowtowing at the altar of the High Priestess Eileen.  She’d probably give them a right telling off if they tried to…

Vote Beth: A Nice Change from Richard Dawkins

There was a really good piece on Inform that appeared in the Daily Telegraph the other day, written by Damien Thompson (@holysmoke).  It mentions their 25th Anniversary conference at which I will be giving a paper: “No Leader, No Followers: The Internet and the End of Charisma?” (plug, plug, plug)

So far it has received around 270 comments…. some of which are along the dismissive lines of ‘new religious movements are silly/dangerous/irrational… but no more silly/dangerous/irrational than established religions’:

“All religions are equally valid” (Fred Scuttle)

“All religions are equally invalid” (Tohellwithit)

“Religion or cults, sorry I do not want to know. Boring!” (applepicker)

“All religions are cults – some are just bigger than others. There are no gods. It there were, they’d be evidence… proof of some sort. Maybe even a sighting. After all, if god loves us he come down and tell us all to stop messing around. But he hasn’t – so much for your loving god!” (King Womble)

“It seems to me that there are very few of these wretched things that won’t bring out the worst from one or more of the others.
Show me one cult/religion that does not attract violence to itself or give violence to at least one other, somewhere on the planet.

Scoundrels the lot of them.” (sosraboc)

I often get asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge when I study NRMs. The first time I was asked this I had a moment of surprise, because I had never actually considered NOT being based in the Faculty of Divinity – that’s where religions are studied isnt it? Well… yes and no.  The undergraduate course we offer is in Theology and Religious Studies but for a very long time it was just in Theology (argh, Wikipedia link!), and before that it was just Theology for those (men) who were going into the ministry/Church. The move to calling our degree TRS is as much about shifts in pedagogical trends and the evolving desires of incoming students as (or perhaps more so) than changes in the facultys’ attitudes towards developing subject areas like mine (Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism etc took a while to bed down but are well established now…). An interesting paper here hosted by the Religious Studies Project goes into these naming trends a little further than I can.  

To return me (its all about me, me, me, me…), I am a social anthropologist studying New Religious Movements.  I write about New Agers, Jedi, Scientologists, Wiccans, pagans, and online subcultures online that look like religions and that call themselves religious (whatever anyone else might think about them…). I am asked why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity because I take these groups seriously but very often the people asking the question just…. don’t.  By keeping myself in the Faculty of Divinity I am, in my very small way, maintaining the presence of NRMs amidst the ‘serious’ academic conversation.  If I was in the Social Anthropology department I’m really not sure my work would have the same impact.

So when people ask me why I am based in the Faculty of Divinity I generally say something like the posters on the Damien Thompson piece, but with a twist. All religions, including NRMs, ARE equally valid (n.b. Fred Scuttle’s other posts are a lot more cynical e.g.: “Hilarious, if a little tragic. Dr Who is as real as Jesus.”, so I’ve included his comment in the dismissive list).  In my view the rational mind we are so pleased with in the ‘West’ that we think was born during the Enlightenment is just as active in the human narratives formation that we might call ‘beliefs’ and has been way back into the beginnings of the established religions and all the way through time till now… and tomorrow.  Some people, especially those with more mainstream beliefs, don’t like that answer. Please don’t be upset, I’m calling you rational…

Which must make a nice change from hearing Richard Dawkins at least 🙂