New Religious Studies: Then, Now and Tomorrow – a guest blog post by Benjamin Zeller

Today we are very honoured to have a guest blog from Benjamin Zeller, co-editor of the The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements with George Chryssides.  This blog post was first presented as a conference paper at the 25th Anniversary Inform Conference in London at the beginning of February.  When I listened to Ben’s paper I was struck by how clearly and succinctly he got into some of the issues in New Religious Studies as it is now.  But I was also struck by how well he highlighted some of the trends that will impact New Religious Studies, and of course academics wanting to work in this field (like me…), in coming years.  I hope you find it as interesting and stimulating as I did (feel free to thank Professor Zeller in the comments section and I’ll pass it on):


“When I first decided to focus my academic research on new religious movements (NRMs) I was a graduate masters student at Harvard Divinity School. I crafted a list of the major scholars working in the field with whom I might consider studying for my Ph.D. I wanted to both stay in the United States for funding reasons as well as within the discipline of religious studies where I was most comfortable, as opposed to politics, sociology, or legal studies. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that almost none of the American religious studies scholars with whom I shared common research interests in the study of NRMs worked in departments with viable doctoral program. (Thankfully, there were a few.) I contrasted this with friends and colleagues in the study of the Buddhism, Christian Patristics, or Hebrew Bible, all of whom seemed to have an embarrassment of riches in their choices of doctoral programmes to which to apply. I will briefly return to my own experience later in this paper, but it serves as a frame, showing the way in which the study of NRMs in the American academy is both peripheral and in some ways unique.

The academic study of new religious movements in the U.S. context has undergone a remarkable transition over the past three decades. With origins in the sociological study of religion, the main researchers are now institutionally located within religious studies departments. Yet at the same time, several forces have resulted in the study of NRMs becoming diffuse throughout religious studies, rather than solidifying as a mature subfield. This results in both a concentration of scholars within religious studies departments as well as a diffusion of such NRM scholars across different subfields of religious studies.

Here I consider the reasons for this transition, the underlying economic and social factors, and the ramifications for how scholars research and write on NRMs. Effects have been both positive and negative, with a plurality of approaches and methodologies now characterizing the study of NRMs, but simultaneously a centrifugal effect. The impact of these various developments for how scholars write about NRMs is profound, as these authors’ location shapes their approaches, topics, and perspectives.

The Origins of the Field

            The origin of the field of the study of new religious movement is beyond the scope of this paper, though as George D. Chryssides and I have noted in the introduction to our Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, the study of NRMs in the Anglophone world emerged primarily from the sociological models of Weber and Troeltsch, and ethnographic work in the 1970s.[i] A rising numbers of American sociologists of religion in the 1970s came to focus on the study of NRMs, including David G. Bromley, Anson D. Shupe, Jeffrey K. Hadden, Thomas Robbins, Robert W. Balch, and James T. Richardson, among others. Certainly non-sociologists, such as historian Robert Ellwood, psychologist Dick Anthony, and archivist J. Stillson Judah were involved in the early days of the study of NRMs in the United States, but overall the field originated and remained housed within departments of sociology.


                                                                                   The 1960s and 1970s…

This had obvious effects on the research agendas and written studies of NRMs. By the mid- to late-1970s, American sociologists of religion with interest in NRMs produced a flurry of ground-breaking articles published in the most important social scientific journals, including American Sociological Review, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociological Analysis, and American Behavioural Scientist. The majority of these first publications focused on sociological typologies, theories of social or religious deviance, models of sectarianism, and the study of social processes such as conversion, socialization, and apostasy. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, one could safely speak of the study of NRMs as no longer an emergent field, but one quickly establishing itself as a subfield within the heart of American sociology.  

The authors of the majority of these studies based their work on either ethnography or surveys. Obviously such choices emerged from their training in departments of sociology, and in emphasizing these qualitative and quantitative methods, they followed academic norms appropriate to the sociology of religion. This clearly had an impact on how they wrote, resulting in tightly focused studies delving into one or several social dynamics of new religions. This research broke new ground particularly in the study of conversion and socialization, and today—nearly forty years later in some cases—we still cite these studies as formative. (For example, John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s “Becoming a World Saver” article, a study of the Unificationist Church published in 1965, is still one of the most frequently cited studies on religious conversion.[ii]) Yet their tight focus on matters sociological had other results too. As my friend and colleague Robert W. Balch wrote of his research into the new UFO religion that would come to be called Heaven’s Gate:

‘When I lived with the group in 1975, I was so absorbed by the minutia of everyday life that I didn’t think much about its beliefs. They were simply a given. Although I recognized that the belief system shaped and constrained members’ actions, I, like other sociologists, was more concerned with the actions themselves than with the beliefs on which they were based.’[iii]

That is to say, the focus of sociologists of religion on social forces resulted in studies with obvious lacunae, such the study of groups’ theologies, rituals, mythological structures, and historical contexts.

One cannot ignore the social milieu of the researchers themselves, namely the infamous “cult wars” of 1970s America, featuring deprogrammers, concerned parents, anti-cult organizations, and Evangelical Christian missionaries on one side; and the proponents of individual new religious movements, civil liberties, and youth culture on the other. Sociologists of religion found themselves in the middle. Researchers soon found themselves co-opted and relabelled as “anti-cultists” on the one hand, or “cult apologists” on the other. Because sociologists of religion came to dismiss the various models of brainwashing as invalid on empirical grounds, many found themselves accused of supporting the NRMs they were studying. This story has been told before and told well, but I raise it to emphasize that this context affected how these sociologists wrote about NRMs.[iv] With new religions accused of abusive recruitment and socialization techniques, scholars focused on such issues. Such topics therefore became the mainstays of research on NRMs.

The Shift to Religious Studies

The decade after this—the mid 1980s into the 1990s—witnessed an academic shift as increasing numbers of researchers trained in the interdisciplinary field called religious studies took an interest in the study of new religions, while simultaneously interests among American sociologists shifted in new directions. The effects of this transformation led to new topics, methodologies, and approaches represented in the academic writing about new religious movements.

Religious studies draws from multiple disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, history, theology, ritual studies, area studies, gender studies, and media studies. The field came of age in the United States during the 1960s from a confluence of factors: increasing student interest; the growth of the secular academic interest in religion rather than theology; legal recognition by the Supreme Court in 1963 that the First Amendment’s prohibition against religious establishment permitted the academic study of religion in state-sponsored universities (Abington v. Schempp); and increased funding from both private and public educational institutions for the study and teaching in this new field.

The 1960s religious counterculture, but even more so the 1978 Jonestown deaths, drew increased attention from scholars in the inchoate religious studies field to the topic of NRMs. The 1984 founding of a program unit focusing on NRMs within the American Academy of Religion, the national professional association and guild for religious studies, represented the at least begrudging acceptance of the study of new religions as a subfield, though those involved recall that not all scholars were convinced of the legitimacy of this new endeavour.[v] Subsequently an increasing number of American religious studies scholars began to look to the phenomenon as an area of research.


The AAR Conference

The AAR’s institutionalization of NRM studies into the New Religious Movements Group represented a sea change in the field of the study of new religions. As a standing program unit, the NRM group could include calls for papers alongside those of other program units such as those focused on study of major world religions, systematic theology, or comparative religion. The subfield coalesced within this program unit, and the success of the program unit led directly to the creation of the field’s new journal, Nova Religio: Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, in 1997.

In terms of effects on writing the scholarship of NRMs, the creation of the program unit and journal cannot be overstated. Previously, religious studies scholars interested in the topic published under more general interest journals, such as the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Journal of Religious Ethics, or Church History. Yet these journals had no particular interest in the study of NRMs, and few such studies appeared on their pages. Most of the other journals in religious studies focused on denominational groups or theological movements well outside the realm of NRM studies. Despite this, the AAR group created an academic community in the United States wherein scholars of NRMs in the religious studies field—including historians, theologians, comparativists, and anthropologists as well as sociologists and social psychologists—could cohere. Nova Religio subsequently created a written forum wherein such scholars could write for each other as well as a general audience, and develop more cohesion as a subfield within religious studies.

Simultaneous to the rise of religious studies, sociologists of religion began to turn to other topics during the late 1980s and 1990s. The rise of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right, increasing religious tensions within the political sphere, and immigration captured increasing interest among American sociologists of religion. Between 1970 and 1975, the leading American journal for the sociology of religion, the JSSR published 12 articles on NRMs. From 1975 to 1980, it published 19 articles, and from 1980 to 1985, 22 articles. Yet from 1985 to 1990, it published only 13, from 1990 to 1995 only 9, and from 1995 to 2000, only 8 articles.[vi]

The shift of interest from sociologists to religious studies scholars resulted in obvious changes in how NRMs are studied, with an increase of focus on cultural, theological, and historical issues. One can look to the articles published in the first five years of Nova Religio for evidence of this transformation. The journal published a mix of articles using historical, textual, and gender studies approaches as well as sociological ones. Importantly, Nova Religio moved away from quantitative studies, and the social scientific research it publishes far more often is qualitative in nature. While JSSR and similar social scientific journals continued to publish quantitative studies on NRMs, albeit in lesser numbers, Nova Religio’s focus on qualitative social scientific and humanistic research resulted in two developments: a proliferation of diversity of approaches to the study of NRMs, but also a decline in the number of quantitative studies of the topic. This first effect has been a boon. From my perspective, the second has become a problem.

Economic and Institutional Factors

One direct effect of the increasing shift to a religious studies perspective among scholars working on NRMs has been the bifurcated existence of many of these scholars. While NRM studies has become a bona fide and accepted subfield within religious studies, it is nevertheless not one of the major subfields within the field. Such major subfields are generally limited to Biblical Studies, Ancient Mediterranean religion, Islamic Studies, South or East Asian Religions, North American Religions, and Medieval Religions. More recently Religion & Culture (i.e. critical theory) has been added to this list of usual subfields, at least in some quarters.

The lack of inclusion of NRM Studies within the list of the major subfields has a very real effect: graduate departments organize faculty and students within these subfields, and institutions hiring scholars and researchers look to fill positions in accordance with these subfields. Of the major graduate institutions producing scholars in religious studies, none has “New Religious Movement Studies” as an organized subfield. As a result, graduate students seeking to study NRMs or faculty wishing to train graduate students fit themselves within one of the existing subfields, generally either North American Religions, Asian Religions, or Religion & Culture. As a result, the current generation of scholars focusing on NRMs lives a bifurcated academic existence, defining themselves always as two things: scholars of NRMs as well as scholars within another subfield.


Wearing more than one hat at a time can be tricky… [ed.]

This of course has repercussions. On the positive side, NRM studies is not ghettoized and becomes integrated within broader academic conversations. Researchers writing on NRMs write for broader audiences, and engage in conversations with scholars well outside the subfield of NRM studies. This increases academic diversity and breadth of research topics and approaches. One finds articles on NRMs published in journals focusing on Asian religions, North American religions, and cultural studies, for example. Yet at the same time, this acts as a centrifugal force on the study of NRMs themselves, with colleagues spending half or more of their time engaged in the professional obligations, networking, and research of their “other” subfield.

The exclusion of NRM studies from the list of major subfields in religious studies has had another direct effect. Though some graduate programs have in recent years transitioned to interdisciplinary approaches, eschewing official subfields altogether, this is not the case in terms of the way that most colleges and universities hire their faculty. The life of the mind may be lovely, but scholars of NRMs need to eat, and they need jobs. There are no jobs in the study of NRMs in religious studies departments in the American academy, or at least there are none that are defined as such. American scholars studying NRMs hold chairs in Christian studies, Asian religious studies, comparative religion, theology, history of religions, and numerous other subfields. Because tenure-track lines are few and academic administrations seldom willing to create new ones—in fact, recent years has witnessed such lines decreasing in number—there is little possibility of this changing. As a result, junior scholars interested in new religions must market themselves as working in other subfields in order to secure funding and jobs.

An examination of the job announcements advertised through the American Academy of Religion—the major “job board” on which employers in religious studies advertise—from recent years illuminates precisely this problem.[vii] In the 2012-2013 year, only 3 of 160 available fulltime positions in religious studies innumerated NRMs as the among the desired possible fields of study. These three jobs—one in church history, on in North American religions, and one in Chinese religions—all listed NRMs among possible areas of focus, alongside numerous other possibilities. None gave priority to the study of new religions as particularly desirable.[viii] Looking to the previous academic year, 2011-2012, the same pattern is evident. Of the 163 advertised jobs, only 1 job, in Chinese religions, included “popular folk sects and new religious movements” among the desirable areas of research expertise.[ix] Because of the difficulty in accessing archived job advertisements, it is quite difficult to look earlier than this, but anecdotal evidence suggests that from as early as 2006 the same pattern was evident.[x]

None of this is to say that specialists in NRMs did not receive new jobs during these years. Many—including myself—did. Yet these American scholars of NRMs must by the nature of their positions define themselves as something other than specialists in new religious movements. They must teach classes outside the subfield of NRM studies, and must advise and work with students in far different subfields. This has real effects on how they (we) research and write about NRMs.

Predictions for the Future

            All this being said, what predictions might one offer for the future of the study and writing of NRMs in the American academy? First, one must recognize field-wide and industry-wide transformations. The overall trajectory in American higher education has been toward contingent faculty, a euphemism for part-time adjuncts. The plight of adjuncts was recently highlighted in a New York Times article, “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty,” one that focused on the economic plight of highly-trained individuals working without benefits, health insurance, or promise of future employment for the equivalent of two-thousand pounds a course.[xi] This problem affects every academic field, though humanities and social science departments face special burdens. The increasing number of NRM scholars who must work as contingent faculty rather than fulltime results in such scholars having less time to engage in traditional academic research. They are ineligible to apply for many grants and fellowships, and they are disadvantaged in those for which they are able to apply. The paucity of funding means such scholars are less likely to engage in immersive ethnography, quantitative studies, and longitudinal work. While the AAR and related scholarly organizations have made efforts to develop models of non-traditional scholarship, the basic fact is that the professional study of religion in the United States assumes a tenure-track model, and those positions are becoming fewer and fewer. NRM scholars will continue to face that hurdle. The longterm effects are—to be honest—unclear.

[i] George D. Chryssides and Benjamin E. Zeller, Introduction to The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, Chryssides and Zeller, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 4-5.

[ii] John Lofland and Rodney Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” in American Sociological Review 30, no. 6 (1965): 862-75.

[iii] Robert W. Balch, Foreword to Benjamin E. Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, (Forthcoming from New York University Press).

[iv] For details on the positions of scholars in the “cult wars,” see Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, eds., Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[v] I am thankful to Timothy Miller, who spoke to me about this history.

[vi] In my assessment of whether journal articles considered the topic of NRMs, I defined NRMs quite liberally.

[vii] My data on advertised jobs derives from an archive I have kept of advertisements on the American Academy of Religion’s job board. Since the AAR removes advertisements after the institution’s paid advertisement period ends, no proper archive exists, though most of these positions are also archived on the Academic Job Wiki, available at;; and

[viii] In addition to looking for any mention of the terms NRM, new religion, or new religious movements, I also looked for references to emergent or alternative religions. Of note, during this period there were no job advertisements that indicated interest in sub-specialities within NRM studies, such as the study of contemporary paganism, esotericism, or Pentecostalism, though four additional advertisements included Afro-Caribbean religions as among possible areas of interest.

[ix] None listed Afro-Caribbean, Pentecostal, Pagan, Esoteric, or other subspecialties within NRM studies.

[x] I base this latter statement on my own archive, which is incomplete from 2006-2011.

[xi] Rachel L. Swarns, “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty,” New York Times, January 20, 2014, A11.

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 🙂


The Return of the “Curious Cult”

One of my (many) interests when it comes to the study of contemporary religion is how these new groups are perceived by wider society.  I’ve just recently taught my first class on changes in attitudes to what are now generally called ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs) in Academia, or Cults in the wider popular vernacular. The transition from the sociological term cult to the  academic neutrality expressed by NRM is quite an interesting case of a community (religious studies scholars) being reflexive about their assumptions and presumptions. My teaching paper is here if you are interested.

charles-barsotti-we-re-a-pack-not-a-cult-new-yorker-cartoon                                                                                  “We’re a pack, not a cult”

However in the conference paper I presented at BASR in September I also argued that there is still an underlying rhetoric of narcissism when it comes to discussions about NRMs, both within and outside of academia. The case I drew on primarily is that of the Jedi and the UK Census, and in particular I noted how responses in the media where often of the “and finally” kind – humorous final comments about the decline of the Jedi between the two censuses (2001 and 2011) and jokes about Yoda giving the Thought for the Day on Radio 4 (these examples are also in my teaching paper above). The transition from moral panics to moral parodies is fascinating… and gives me the chance to riff off on The Simpsons, South Park and Memes.

So I was very interested to hear an interview on Radio 4 on Tuesday morning in which the ‘curious cults’ were mentioned again, resurrecting the moral panic view of NRMs.  This was with reference to the horrifying story of the three women kept as slaves in a house in Lambeth, London by a older couple. Now, in discussing the terminology used in this interview and other newspapers reports I don’t want to lessen or detract from their terrible experiences, and I hope that justice will be swift for them and that they can form new lives away from their captors.

But what interested me was the interview that John Humphries did with Professor Steve Rayner and how it expresses some current views of NRMs and that the line between moral panics and moral parodies is not a one way street.

Professor Rayner is better known now for his work on climate change as the James Martin Professor of Science and Civilization at Oxford. But when he did his PhD thesis in the late 1970s he focused on political anthropology and wrote on extreme left wing or Marxist groups, including one in Brixton that the couple belonged to. I can link to the interview, but it is only available for the next 5 days, so I will summarise the points that interested me.

John Humphries starts his introduction to the interview by referring to the left wing groups as a “curious cult” based at the Mao Zedong Memorial Centre in Brixton in the 1970s.  This group, the ‘Workers’ Institute of Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’, is then described by Professor Rayner as a sect in which the members were under the spell of their leader, insulated from outside influences, hostile to the state, and mostly made up of foreign students who had had a difficult time adjusting to their new roles in the UK.  He also notes that they were one of 90 far left organizations at the time. And that he identified the groups as a millennarian sect in his thesis, millenarianism being a “traditional religous phenomena”, in his words in the interview.  Their brand of millennarianism involved the belief that very soon (in the late 1970s) the Chinese People’s Liberation Army would invade, effecting a revolution leading to a new world order. When this did not ‘apparently’ occur, they revised their beliefs, saying that the Chinese HAD achieved their goals and that society was now being controlled by eight Chinese computer satellites. Professor Rayner then states that this gives some sense of the far-outness of the kind of belief system they were maintaining.

In terms of the risk that this group presented in the 1970s (and rightly John Humphries points out that Prof. Rayner cant say anything about the couple now and the crime currently under investigation) Prof. Rayner characterises them as mostly harmless producers of bellicose propoganda or,”all talk and no trousers”. When John Humphries asks if this (the enslavement of the women) might be something he would expect to happen in this group, Professor Rayner talks again about Sects and Cults (lumping them together), defining them as having a flat internal organisation with a single powerful leader, who has an extreme grip on the membership.  He also explains that people join to gain social acceptance and then live under the threat of expulsion.  This then, he argues, creates a situation where the membership is beholden to the leader who they cannot criticise.

Finally, John Humphries asks whether such groups will always exist, and whether people will always be driven to join them. Prof. Rayner doesnt directly answer the question but re-iterates that such groups are often mostly harmless and that there is a minority of cases in which these kinds of things occur.

There’s quite a bit to unpick in this interview, and from the press coverage generally.

I’ve put in bold some of the terms being used in the interview, and we can see how easily the two men are moving between them. Starting with cult, a term with a strongly negative connotation now, the parallel is drawn between this far left group and a religion. Certainly, many have commented on the cult of personality surrounding some Communist leaders and political thinkers. But this was a Far Left group, not a religious group. Prof. Rayner also uses the term Sect, which in the sociological typologies more often describes a schism from a more mainstream religion.  Though, in France, the term Sect is more often used than Cult and refers to abusive religious groups, such as in the Guyard Commission’s Les sectes en France. Rapport fait au nom de la commission d’enquête sur les sectes, a blacklist of NRMs written in the late 1990s.

Prof Rayner’s account in the interview of the group he encountered in the 1970s reads like a stereotypical account of what a cult was thought to be then: a charismatic leader with enthralled followers who cannot criticize the leadership for fear of expulsion. The press has also described the Mao Zedong Memorial Ccentre in Brixton as a ‘library-come commune’ (The Guardian, 26.11.2013).  In his PhD thesis Prof. Rayner explains that: “the challenge I seek to take up is to devise a single typology for the study of sectarian behaviour in both secular and religious contexts.”

My problem with typologies is that they tend to have an essentialist approach, they attempt to fit the variety of human organization and experience into neat boxes –  a point that Prof. Rayner made in his PhD thesis with regards to sociological categories for religious groups.  And this is of course one argument against the use of the term NRM as we have different meanings for ‘New’ ‘ Religious’ and ‘Movement’.  But in this case I wonder whether the comparison with a religious group is that helpful for the consideration of the current crime. Until we have testimony from the women we wont know whether the methods used were couched in religious terms, or whether the political narratives were treated religiously or not.

Prof. Rayner’s reference to his characterization of the group as a millenarian sect is also interesting.  He calls millenarianism a traditional religious phenomena, and to a certain extent he is correct.  Eschatological claims based on a particular understanding of the shape of time and its finitude is indeed a recurring trope within religious traditions.  But it is more commonly attributed to fringe groups whose ecstatic behaviour and hurried completion of their mundane tasks and lives prior to the ‘End of Days’ is more readily apparent. In  the case of the Workers Institute, it sounds as if they made a much more ordinary prediction, not actually that disimiliar to those made by many political parties – the good times they are coming… rather than the end times.  Admitedly their good times were reliant on an outside force invading, and their belief in a more hidden revolution in the form of Chinese Super Computer Satellites parallels the shift in Harold Camping’s more religious pronouncements about Jesus’ return from a physical event, to a spiritual Rapture.  Prof Rayner in his thesis says: “I prefer to reserve the term millenarian to describe movements which organise their activity around the belief that the world will be turned upside down by the imminent intervention of an external agency which will exalt the weak and humble the powerful”. I would be very interested to read accounts of the Workers’ Institute prepping for their good times.

This almost deification of the Chinese is particularly interesting for my own research into the Indigo Children, as accounts of supporting scientific discoveries often come from the other side of a long gone but still effective ‘Iron Curtain’: Russia and China are described as delving into psychical research with children.  They are made the exotic forerunners of the blinkered West.

Returning to this story and its reporting.  Some of the Press accounts have described what they see as the  group’s ‘cult-like’ attributes, including the charismatic leadership  mentioned by Prof. Rayner, but also ‘brainwashing’. In particular the Daily Mail had a large front page headline with the word brainwashing in it:


As I mention in my teaching paper above, amongst religious studies scholars the technique of brainwashing as a means of ensuring conversion has been widely debunked.  Eileen Barker’s influential book, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984), started with the question, ‘Why does someone become a Moonie’ (member of the Unification Church led by Rev. Sun Myung Moon) which as she investigated the claims of brainwashing became ‘How could someone NOT become a Moonie’.  If brainwashing was occurring, or even existed, then surely anyone who came into contact with the group would join, but recruitment was not actually all that successful: fewer than 25% of people who had visited Moonie groups joined. Brainwashing is a part of anri-Communist rhetoric emerging out the Korean War: After the Korean War ended in 1953 a few American servicemen recounted the techniques of Chinese ‘thought reform’ that they had been subjected to.  “Brainwashing”, a mis-translation of the Chinese term meaning “to cleanse thoughts” (ie to correct incorrect political philosophy) appeared in Edward Hunter’s 1953 book, “Brainwashing in Red China: The Calculated Destruction of Men’s Minds” and Joost Meerloo’s “The Rape of the Mind” (1956).  In fact, back in 1978 Scheflin and Opton had examined the origins of brainwashing in The Mind Manipulators, and found that out of 3,500 servicemen captured during the Korean War only about 50 made pro-Communist or anti-American statements and only 25 prisoners of war refused repatriation.

It is particularly interesting that the Daily Mail uses the term, as in 1978 The Daily Mail published a story about the Unification Church’s use of “brainwashing” methods titled “They took away my son and raped his mind”. When the church sued for libel, the paper relied upon testimony from clinical psychologist Dr Margaret Singer, author of “Cults In Our Midst”, who explained that brainwashing was an established term and technique.  The Church lost, but I wonder if the term brainwashing would be used so freely if they were again describing a large movement and not the evil machinations of two individuals whose motivations and current allegiances are unknown.

I’m going to continue to follow this story and see whether the language used about the crime changes at all if/when the facts really emerge and the broad summaries of a far left group drawn from research done in the 1970s are replaced by details of the motivations of the couple.

Inspired by Social Media Knowledge Exchange

After attending a two day conference held at CRASSH by the Social Media Knowledge Exchange  on issues and themes around the use of social media by institutions and individual academics, I’ve been inspired to use a blog to write up my PhD diary and to plan out some of things I am working on.  Partly backward looking, partly forward looking, this blog will be of interest (hopefully!) to:

  • Anyone doing a humanities PhD and using digital humanities methods
  • Anyone using social-anthropology/religious studies methods in their research project
  • And anyone who is interested in New Religious Movements, especially those online and using social media to form communities.

For the forward looking parts of the blog, I intend to write at least a post a day with my goals for that day, and another once a week covering what I hope to get done that week.  For the backward looking, I want to write up some of my fieldwork and research notes as I go in order to pull together a PhD diary that might help me when it comes to writing up my thesis.  Fingers Crossed!