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When Scholars Know Sin
Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters

by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs

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Credits and Copyright   Bibliography   Rebuttals and Rejoinder   

This article was published in Skeptic MagazineOff-site Link (Vol. 6, No. 3, 1998). Posted here by permission.
© Copyright, Skeptic Magazine.

Editor's note: On Saturday afternoon, May 23, 1998, during the Skeptics Society annual conference at Caltech -- whose theme was understanding the role of religion and myths in modern culture -- evangelical Christian author Richard Abanes launched a spirited attack upon an earlier speaker, religion scholar J. Gordon Melton. Abanes accused Melton of endorsing a religious organization known as The Family, whose activities involving sexual exploitation of members and their children made headlines in the 1980s. By immersing himself into numerous groups for years at a time in order to deeply understand their beliefs and customs, Abanes opined, Melton was co-opted by these religions not only to write positive evaluations, but also to come to their defense in their legal struggles. The article addresses the larger problem of scholars being co-opted by alternative religions.

Within the past several years, questionable relationships have developed between social scientists and several controversial new religious groups -- most notably The Family (formerly Children of God [COG]), Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT), and Scientology. These organizations recognize that supportive social scientists are powerful allies in their efforts both to gain societal legitimacy and to silence critics. For their part, some social scientists appear to overlook their own unique position and value as legitimizing resources in the attempts by religious ideological groups and their oppositional organizations to secure social recognition and acceptance. About this situation, Marybeth Ayella warns that "co-optation of the researcher can be a major problem for the unaware researcher, because he or she can become, without intent, a 'counter' in the ongoing stigma contests" between religiously ideological organizations and their countermovements (1990, 574; see also Robbins and Robertson, 1991).

With a critical eye toward recent events, this article examines research issues involving the scholarly study and public representation of some alternative religious. Specifically, it argues that, on crucial social issues, controversial religious groups have courted researchers in order to enhance their public images, and some social scientists have participated in these efforts at the expense both of legitimate endeavors to advance knowledge according to accepted scientific standards of objectivity and of due attention to the use of their scientific expertise.

Interference with academic publishing

One vital aspect of science is that researchers must publish their results in peer reviewed journals or books. Research dissemination advances knowledge by allowing others in the field to receive, accept, replicate, or challenge the published findings. Interference in the peer review publications process is a serious act that threatens the principles upon which modern science depends, especially because the appropriate scientific response to controversial research is to publish responses to it in the same or other scientific outlets. Recently, an academic article fell victim to publication interference by The Family with the collusion of one scholar (and probably a second) who had never read it.

The Family is an unorthodox Christian group based around the teachings of its founder, the late David Berg. In its early days in the late 1960s, members expected and even encouraged "persecution" from "the System," which consisted on mainstream society, governments, and traditional religions (Wallis, 1981, 120, 126). After increasing criticism of the group during the 1980s and early 1990s over allegations of child sexual abuse (which led to controversial raids against Family homes around the globe), the organization undertook a campaign to represent itself as an orthodox, but persecuted, Christian religion. In doing so it began to protest "state sanctioned religious persecution" initiated by "[e]mbittered apostates and anti-cult organizations." In order to emphasize its victim status, The Family self-description stressed its adherence to God's Word upon which it based its self-described exemplary lifestyle and the socialization of the group's children in a positive environment (World Services, 1993, 3)

Amidst The Family's public relations campaign, one of the authors of this article (Stephen Kent, along with a former student) received publication acceptance of a lengthy study on the psychosexual history of David Berg in the annual, peer-reviewed publication, Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion (RSSSR). Several months before the release of the book, the publisher (JAI Press) mailed announcements of the forthcoming volume to academics and libraries around the world. An unnamed researcher, probably in the United Kingdom, received the notice, and alerted The Family.

As Kent was checking his page proofs, the publication's editors informed him that an attorney representing The Family, a Family spokesperson, and an American researcher all had sent letters objecting to the publication of his article (which the objectors had not read). The lawyer and The Family representative made vague overtures about a lawsuit. The American researcher, Mr. James R. Lewis, alleged "questionable" aspects of Kent's research on Berg, and also accused him of "violat[ing] professional ethics" (in Mobilio, 1994, 17). Remarkably, after alleging ethical problems with Kent's study, Lewis misrepresented his own credentials by identifying himself as "James R. Lewis, Ph. D.," even though he never completed the doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Indeed, at least three controversial religions and a professional colleague though that Lewis had his doctorate (Church of Scientology International, [1994/1995?], [3], 67, 68; Church of Scientology International, 1995a [3], 33, 35; Cult Awareness Network, [1996/1997]; Royal Teton Ranch News, 1994, 8; Scott vs. Ross, et. al. 1995a, 134).

The intervention worked. JAI Press did not have liability insurance, and over the objections of the editors and the University of Alberta Vice-President for Research, the publisher (Herbert Johnson) withdrew the Berg article as well as another on Scientology that RSSSR had accepted. Kent's university refused Johnson's peculiar offer to publish both pieces if it "assume[d] all legal costs emanating from [Kent's] writings and the consequences thereof" against JAI Press [in Mobilio, 19994, 18; see Johnson, 1993, 1) The fact that Kent had passed several university ethics reviews involving his research on the Children of God (Bridger, 1995) did not sway the publisher's decision, nor was Johnson moved to change his mind after Lewis withdrew his objection. The article (Kent, 1994), eventually appeared in Cultic Studies Journal without incident.

Correspondence from RSSSR's coeditor, David Moberg, to Lewis in January, 19994, underscores the implications of researcher's alignments with religious groups as they attempt to control (with litigious threats) the dissemination of scientific findings in scholarly publications. It also raises the important issue that some social scientists' co-optation by such organizations results in their diminishing the public image of other academics who conduct critically insightful and revealing research. Moberg's letter to Lewis reads:

If only those materials that shed favorable light on new religious movements (NRMs) are published, then scholarly publications cannot be trusted to give honest reports and appraisals that include their [NRM's] weaknesses and flaws alongside their strenghts and virtues. Before long journalists, politicians, religious leaders, historians, and others would discover this bias, and then all of the pertinent journals, serials, and books with materials on NRMs would be suspected of seriously distorting everything they publish. The integrity of the scientific study of religion is clearly at stake in these issues of censorship. Are we scholars/scientists, or must we become mere propagandists?
(in Editor's introduction to Kent, 1994, 137 [emphasis in original]).

Indeed, sociologist Irving Louis Horowitz expressed similar concerns in 1983 with respect to "slippage into unabashed support for [groups]" and the quality of publications produced by academics who attended expenses-paid Unification Church (Moonie) sponsored conferences (Horowitz, 1983, 180).

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Credits and Copyright

© Copyright, Skeptic Magazine.

This article was published in Skeptic MagazineOff-site Link (Vol. 6, No. 3, 1998). It is made available here by permission from the publisher, Michael Shermer. Print copies of the issue in which this article appeared are still availableOff-site Link.

HTML-ized by Anton WJS Hein, Apologetics Index. All links are provided by Apologetics Index, and may not reflect the opinions of the authors and/or publisher.
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