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"When Scholars Know Sin" Forum Debate

Let The Scholar Who Is Without Sin Cast The First Stone

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Index to Forum Debate
Original article   Rejoinder by Krent and Krebs   Credits and Copyright

For the past half-dozen years, I have been aware of the personal assault Steven Kent has mounted against me, both publicly and behind my back. Rather than climbing down into the muck for a round of mudslinging, I have consistently chosen to ignore Prof. Kent's scurrilous attacks. As discussed more fully in Dr. Melton's response, the particular brand of pseudoscience represented by Kent and others of his ilk has been thoroughly demolished by mainstream scholarship. Poor losers, Kent and his cronies--like hollow-earth enthusiasts, big foot believers, and other advocates of the irrational--have responded with ad hominem arguments, convinced that any who would oppose their crackpot theories must be involved in some kind of sinister conspiracy against them.

The publication of Stephen Kent's and Theresa Krebs' "When Scholars Know Sin," however, brings Kent's assault to a new and more insistent level. It seems that my silence has been misinterpreted as a willingness to endure the worst kind of misrepresentation. Thus despite my reluctance to engage in this type of exchange, I have decided that it is time to set the record straight.

In the first place we should note the obvious, which is that the "cult" issue is not a purely academic one. Like the 1970's debate over race and I.Q., the current scholarly controversy over new religions and "cult" mind control has real world consequences, as witnessed by the many new religion specialists who have been called upon to serve as expert witnesses. Thus Kent and Krebs bewail the fact that academics may inadvertently produce sympathetic scholarship that helps minority religions overcome their social stigma. Their complaint is, however, disingenuous. As with other issues, the same sword cuts both ways. In the context of the present issue, Kent and Krebs intentionally fail to mention the obvious counterpoint, namely that unsympathic [sic] scholarship (such as their own) perpetuates prejudice against minority religions. All of us who work in this contentious field are only too aware of these facts.

Based on his restricted interactions with a handful of hostile ex-members, Stephen Kent has concluded that organizations like Scientology, The Family and so forth are terrible groups--like the KKK or the mafia--that merit social censure. Hence any scholar who uncovers favorable aspects of such groups is comparable to a tobacco company scientist who asserts that smoking is not really harmful to one's health. Alternatively, based on our ongoing interactions with a broad spectrum of current as well as former members of such groups, I and my colleagues have concluded that, for the most part, "new" religions are no worse than "old" religions. Thus our scholarship tends to debunk popular stereotypes based upon pseudoscientific notions like "cultic mind control." From our perspective, academics whose scholarship consistently casts minority religions in the worst possible light are not unlike those who argue that Blacks are less intelligent than Whites based on the scores of culturally-biased I.Q. tests.

To put this argument in a larger framework, liberal scholars hold to two distinct systems of value that rarely conflict with one another. On the one hand, we adhere to the ideal of objectivity. On the other, we embrace the liberal ideal that, rather than segregating ourselves into an ivory tower, institutions of higher learning should exert a salutary influence on society. Thus biologists have become involved in the ecology movement, social scientists in the civil rights movements, and so forth, with no sense of thereby abandoning academic objectivity. Furthermore, biologists can accept grants from liberal public interest groups to carry out certain kinds of ecological research and sociologists can accept grants from the NAACP to research racism without thereby invoking the censure of their colleagues. In other words, no one questions the objectivity of a scholar engaged in research impacting a controversial social issue--even when he or she accepts money from a partisan group--as long as the goals of his or her research are in harmony with the liberal consensus on that particular issue.

The situation radically changes, however, when a scholar produces research that supports a position contrary to the liberal consensus. For instance, academics rarely give credence to reports authored by natural scientists who receive grants from big corporations to "prove" that cigarette smoking may not cause cancer or that such-and-such a pollutant may not poison the environment. Instead, they would likely accuse these scientists of having lost their objectivity because of their funding sources. But, and this is the important point, if natural scientists accepted grants from anti-smoking groups or from public interest ecology groups in order to "prove" the opposite position, no one within liberal academia would so much as raise an eyebrow--this despite the fact that, structurally, there is no fundamental difference between these two hypothetical examples.

With respect to this specific point, Prof. Kent accuses me and other scholars of directly or indirectly accepting funds from certain minority religions, as if in doing so we "knew sin," in his quasi-religious turn of phrase. He fails to mention, however, that he has more than once accepted money from a German political party and from the German Lutheran Church to visit the Fatherland--not, it should be noted, for the purpose of attending academic conferences, but instead for the purpose of preaching his pseudoscientific gospel against minority religious groups.

To go back to the larger discussion, the cult controversy does not fit neatly into academia's taken-for-granted ways of dealing with social issues. Because religion has often been a conservative force working against reformist social change, liberals have been slow to defend the rights of religious minorities. Why, after all, expend your energy defending someone on one front who is going to be your opponent on innumerable other fronts? As a consequence, minority religions or new religious movements (commonly referred to as "NRMs" in scholarly literature) have acquired an ambiguous, no-man's land status. It is, therefore, an open question within the larger academy as to whether NRMs are more like persecuted racial and ethnic minorities, or more like sinister tobacco companies. The consensus among NRM scholars is that NRMs are more like persecuted minorities. This is not to say that academics thereby blind themselves to the fact that some NRMs have hurt people or that some have even "gone bad." Where I think scholars are most ready to defend an NRM is on the specific point of how a given NRM's negative actions are explained in public discourse. Let me make this point vividly clear via a few parallels with other viciously pejorative stereotypes:
  • A Black man assaulted a woman? That's because Blacks have uncontrollable sexual appetites.
  • A Jewish proprietor cheated you? That's because all Jews are dishonest and money hungry.
  • A member of a minority religion shot and killed somebody? That's because all minority religions are violent, lawless cults.
What these cases have in common is that they all proffer explanation in terms of biased stereotypes. If I came forward and, in answer to the first item, attacked this statement for relying upon a racial stereotype, that would *not* mean that I was in any way defending either the rapist or the act of rape. Similarly, I would not be defending the act of cheating by criticizing an anti-Semitic assertion. Yet when someone levels the same sort of critique against the cult stereotype, they are accused of being a "cult apologist." In the final analysis, this appears to be the position taken by Kent and Krebs.

The consensus among mainstream NRM scholars is that the cult stereotype must be vigorously opposed. No matter how guilty a member of such a group may be of antisocial actions, it is still illegitimate to explain such negative acts in terms of this stereotype. Rather, one must look concretely at individual actions. If such acts are bad, immoral or illegal, then they should be condemned as bad, immoral or illegal--not as"cultic."

Kent and Krebs misrepresent me and my work so severely that a point-by-point rebuttal would consume a half-dozen pages. Gordon Melton has already addressed the points raised by Kent and Krebs about the integrity of our scholarly work. In the balance of this response, I will, therefore, focus on setting the record straight regarding Kent's paper, "The Lustful Prophet" (a title that aptly reflects the author's "neutral" approach to the subject).

In early 1993, Prof. Charlotte Hardman, who had been doing research on The Family in England, contacted a Family representative there and conveyed an urgent message: She had either heard a presentation by--or been in a conversation with--Prof. Kent at an academic meeting, and was convinced that his forthcoming publication on The Family's founder would be a hatchet job. The sense, if not the exact wording, of Prof. Hardman's message was that Kent was "out to get" The Family. She further suggested that The Family contact the publisher and lodge a protest.

At the time, I was doing field research on The Family. During a visit to a Los Angeles area home (which served as U.S. HQ for The Family), I was asked to examine Prof. Hardman's alarming communication. I was also informed that Prof. Kent had approached The Family a year or two before, representing himself as a scholar researching the 1960's counterculture. He requested copies of some of The Family's early work under the pretext of his "study." In an act of magnanimity (and trust), The Family's leader/founder, David Berg, supplied Kent with a complete set of the group's literature--including early material that was highly controversial and no longer representative of The Family's mature views on certain sensitive issues.

Prof. Kent never composed a paper on the counterculture. He also received information from certain ex-members of The Family who had actually stolen materials from a group home in the Philippines--ex-members who, furthermore, were wanted by the Philippine police. Finally, it turned out that the only Family members he was interested in interviewing were the ones with negative tales to tell--an approach roughly comparable to focusing one's research solely on information gained from ex-spouses experiencing difficult divorces.

I examined this data and concluded that Prof. Kent had, indeed, violated the canons of academic research methodology as well as the ethical standards of mainstream scholarship. Acting on Prof. Hardman's suggestion, I then proceeded to write the editors of the RSSSR a cautiously worded letter in which I suggested that they take a closer look at Prof. Kent's ethics and methodology. I did not, however, send a copy of that letter to the publisher. Instead, it was The Family's lawyer who wrote the publisher, and it was on the basis of the latter communication that the publisher--not the editors--decided to pull "The Lustful Prophet." In other words, I had nothing to do with the non-publication of Kent's paper, and he knows it, although precisely the opposite impression is conveyed by "When Scholars Know Sin."

In point of fact, Prof. Kent fails to mention a great number of things. In addition to my having offered him a full apology "for my letter to the editors of RSSSR " (an apology I made only because certain colleagues urged me to do so), over the past six years I have several times offered to publish any paper he cared to send me as a way of burying the hatchet between us. Again, none of these efforts to mend fences were ever acknowledged by him in the course of his public and private campaign to defame me, certainly not in "When Scholars Know Sin." I can only surmise that Kent self-servingly concluded he could get more mileage out of his artificially inflated tale of woe than from my offer of collegial reconciliation--certainly his touting of himself as a victim of a "cult conspiracy" has brought him more recognition than his otherwise unremarkable scholarship would ever have attracted.

Finally, to give the reader a fuller sense of the way in which Prof. Kent conducts his research, I would like to point that his accusation about my lacking a Ph.D. degree is based solely on the fact that I hold my Master's degree from the institution he mentions. He is either oblivious to the fact that I attended more than one graduate institution, or he purposefully misrepresents my academic background. This means that Kent is thus either a slipshod researcher or that he selectively presents his data so as to serve his personal biases.

While I cannot claim to understand the deeper motives underlying Kent's assault, it is nevertheless a truism that success elicits criticism. In academia in particular, it is an unfortunate fact of life that leaders in any field of study always seem to become points of attack for their less successful colleagues. In the case at hand, Gordon Melton, Anson Shupe and I are prominent scholars in the specialty of new religious movements. This status is reflected in, among other things, our publications: beyond the volumes mentioned by Kent and Krebs, Dr. Melton is the author of "The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America," the monumental "Encyclopedia of American Religions" (now in its 6th edition), and other standard reference books. Prof. Shupe has authored or co-authored numerous influential volumes, including "Strange Gods, The New Vigilantes," and other "classics" in our field. As for myself, I am the author of "Cults in America," the definitive "Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions," and the author/editor of over a half-dozen other scholarly volumes. In sharp contrast, Kent's work in the field of new religions consists of a handful of articles--articles, it should be pointed out, that have been thoroughly trashed by other scholars. I leave it to the reader to draw her or his own conclusions regarding the ultimate source of Kent's animosity.

If Prof. Kent ever decides to abandon his personal polemics and return to the area of academic debate, I will be the first to embrace him as a fellow scholar. I also hope that in the future SKEPTIC will take a less gullible and more "skeptical" approach to material left on their doorstep. When baseless accusations that potentially harm the livelihoods of academics are printed in a respected magazine, it does a great disservice, not only to those who are slandered, but also to the larger cause that SKEPTIC represents.

James R. Lewis

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