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"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa! - 2/2


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Original article   Rejoinder by Krent and Krebs   Credits and Copyright

Where's The Payoff?

With the demise of the brainwashing hypothesis during the last decade, attacks upon the scholarship on New Religions have largely been confined to gatherings of anti-cultists and their in-house publications. However, within the past year, suddenly the attack has again gone public. It has found its way into several periodicals and can be found on several prominent websites. It became a matter of discussion at the 1997 American Academy of Religion's session on methodology. And as might be expected, there is a reason for this sudden spurt of tabloid scholarship, that goes far beyond Kent and Krebs' altruistic concern to save the scholarly community from our biased reporting.

While the debate over brainwashing ended in the 1980s in English-speaking countries, it has arisen anew in continental Europe where several governments, most notably Austria, Germany, Belgium, and France, have invoked brainwashing ideas to support a popular campaign of suppression of minority religions. It is here that the general attack upon the credibility of the work done by those academics who have specialized in the study of New Religious Movements has its immediate impact. Following the incident of the Solar Temple, France, Belgium, the canton of Geneva, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, and the European parliament established inquiry committees to assess the threat posed by New Religions in their country. Ignoring scholarship in their own countries, France and Belgium led the way with very negative reports that included a lengthy list of harmful groups ("sectes" being the operative term in Europe). Those lists included not only the more expected groups such as the Moonies, Krishnas, and The Family, but a wide array of groups relatively new to both countries including such generally tolerated groups as the Quakers and the Mormons, and even more mainline Protestant churches. Austria and the Canton of Geneva followed suit. The committees of the German government and the European Parliament both sought the testimony of scholars in the field and in the summer of 1998 concluded that no action was necessary. The German report (written in the face of the wave of anti-cult sentiment in the Kohl government) actually included a denunciation of brainwashing, and following the German election, the anti-cult hysteria has quieted.

While Germany was backing off from its campaign against the "sekten" in the summer of 1998 (largely because of scholarly objections to the brainwashing perspective), France and Belgium have moved ahead to fund efforts to monitor and attack a wide variety of religious minorities. (Germany has not backed off on its anti-Scientology stance, which it views as a special case not tied to the rest of the sect groups).

Kent has been one of the few North American scholars who have staunchly identified himself with the actions of these European countries. So egregious have their actions been that in October 1998, the United States, through the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Commission), moved to condemn their actions as a violation of basic human rights. The American statement was joined by one from the Netherlands. Independently, in September 1998, Sweden criticized the French stance, and the Swiss Canton of Ticino called for an end to "anti-cult terrorism."

Getting Personal

It is the refusal to give credence to the brainwashing hypotheses that forms the connecting thread in Kent and Krebs' charge that the book which James Lewis and I edited on The Family (incorrectly tied to AWARE) and the study we led to the Church Universal and Triumphant, which was conducted under AWARE's auspices, were biased. In the case of the volume on the Family, they bolster their charges with the reports of a few former members of The Family, none of whom were around either to observe the research that I and the other scholars conducted, or to possess any awareness of the extensive research on The Family that I and several other scholars have pursued over the last decade. Kent and Krebs have simply constructed a naive fantasy of media homes and managed information. This fantasy is unfortunately supported by Kent's own lack of direct contact with The Family and a rather limited and spotty access to its massive literature. The Family certainly has a few media homes; it also supports other atypical homes that serve a variety of specialized interests, and scholars would indeed be naive if they did not realize the distinct flavor of these distinct homes.

New Religions scholars generally favor studies anchored in direct observation of a particular group (including the reading of its publications) supplemented with outside sources, including the accounts of former members. Both sets of sources have to be handled in a critical manner. This data then has to be placed in the larger framework of what we know about religious groups in general, and New Religions in particular. In the case of The Family, over the past six years the group has opened its doors to the most intense scrutiny. I personally have visited more than 50 Family homes, including all the homes in Eastern Europe. I possess a complete set of its literature published over the 30 years of its existence. I have an extensive collection of material (much of it quite hostile) produced by former members and have interviewed a host of former members. Additionally, I have had the benefit of the insight of a half dozen other scholars who have also given The Family their serious attention. These studies now stand in stark contrast to Kent's own rather shallow studies based as they are almost entirely on the accounts of a small number of hostile ex-members and a very selective choice of citations from the literature. (Quite apart from any attempts at public relations, given the British court's recent three-year in-depth investigation of The Family, it has become next to impossible for The Family to conceal anything of importance from investigators. Both The Family's lurid past and rather mundane present are wide open).

In contrast to the volume on The Family, the study led by James Lewis and me on the Church Universal and Triumphant was from the beginning an interdisciplinary study project which emerged from conversations between the Church's international leadership and Mr. Lewis, the head of a small organization called AWARE (the Association of Academics for Research and Education) and the Church's desire for some scholarly insights into their community. While the hiring of academic consultants is commonplace for many religious organizations, it was a first for CUT. We involved a variety of scholars, some identified with New Religions studies, and others not. Following standard practice, to help insure that the results of the study were not tied to the funding, the finances for the study were received before the study was launched.

The study of CUT was conducted in a manner similar to that on other religious groups of other churches with each of a variety of scholars selected to look into an important aspect of the church's life. Unfortunately, between the time when the project was initiated and funded in 1992, and the primary phase of research conducted in the summer of 1993, the incident at Waco occurred. Even though the study was set up prior to Waco, many (especially some of the church's critics) saw it as a part of a church campaign of public relations in light of Waco. The study proved quite the opposite. It turned out to be a significant catalyst for change in the church. As we discovered only several years later, the church's board were startled and even upset by the very different image of themselves offered by the report, and, reacting to the critique of the movement, they initiated a series of changes beginning with the phasing out of their parochial school in Montana. Possibly the primary reaction to the report was their hiring of a management consultant to take a further in-depth look at the church's structure and make recommendations for change. That report has resulted in a wholesale transformation of the church's organization, a transformation as startling as those undergone by The Family through the 1990s.

Kent and Krebs reminded us of the 1983 warning of Louis Horowitz who feared that scholars attending the old Moonie conferences would slip into unabashed support for the New Religions. Happily, Horowitz's fears were never realized. Those same scholars who attended some of those conferences, including James Lewis, Anson Shupe, and myself, have gone on to write some of the most damning critiques of various groups (including the Unification Church) when they seemed called for. Thus Lewis and I remain proud of the work we have done on the Family and the Church Universal and Triumphant and have been pleased that the two volumes have been found useful by our fellow scholars as launching pads for further research and insightful introduction to the groups about whom we have written. It is also our hope that our work will help end the current wave of repressive actions by the several European governments.

A Closing Note: The Realm of the Holy

Amidst the personal attacks upon Shupe, Lewis, and myself, Kent and Krebs do raise one valid and important issue under the heading "Academics and Doctrinal Secrets." (Space does not allow me to comment upon the number of factual errors spread throughout this article that at times become crucial to their argument. I bypass these in favor of trying to focus upon what I see are the key issues raised by Kent and Krebs.) They complain that I signed a document supporting Scientology's efforts to keep its upper level teachings confidential. In fact, I have signed several documents in that regard. Very often when scholars research religious groups, especially if they are esoteric in nature, they become privy to confidential inner teachings. In some cases, these inner teachings and the keeping of their content secret have a significant role to play in the group's life. This is an aspect of the larger issue of being invited into the realm of what a group considers the most sacred and holy aspect of their life.

Not just sociologists, but all researchers--whether they be anthropologists, psychologists, or religious scholars--have to make some personal decisions about how they as outside observers and unbelievers will relate to what is considered most holy by the group under scrutiny. This is an issue about which we disagree. In the case of the Church of Scientology, whose life is structured into a series of ascending steps, the teachings of their higher levels (like most esoteric groups) are held to be their most sacred. While I would like to be privy to those teachings, they have not chosen to share them with me, and those who currently possess copies and/or have attempted to publish them abroad, have been working ultimately from copies taken without permission from the church. Although I have no great love for the Church of Scientology, I respect its right to establish a holy realm for its members. Fortunately, as it turns out in the case of Scientology, there is ample non-confidential material (including accounts of their experience of the upper levels by former members) readily available to the researcher, so that little is lost in not having access to the several secret documents.

Although my position on Scientology's right to keep their inner teachings confidential was set from my having to deal with similar issues over the years with a number of other groups, I cannot help but speculate that Kent's choosing to raise this particular issue in relation to Scientology derives from the broad attack upon it by several of the Church's self-designated enemies. They have been attempting to make Scientology's secret material public, not in any desire to further sociological or religious analysis, but simply to embarrass and hopefully destroy the church. One tactic they have employed has been the dumping of stolen copies of the Scientology materials into public records (from which sources copyright laws could be bypassed, a fact that should send a chill through anyone who lives off their writings). Thus in supporting Scientology on this one matter, like the ACLU supporting any controversial group when a matter of principle is at stake, on those occasions where my particular study and expertise is relevant, I have stepped in as an advocate of the principle, not particularly of the group.

As Kent noted, since 1994, at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, scholars concerned about issues of methodology in the study of New Religions, including issues of bias and objectivity, gather for a length and frank discussion of our work. It is a pity that Kent has, until this past year, not been a part of those discussions. He would have a much better hand on the directions being taken by this growing field.

- J. Gordon Melton, Institute for the Study of American Religion, Santa Barbara, CA

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