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Doug Cowan vs. Christian countercult ministries

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Douglas E. Cowan vs. Christian countercult ministries

Douglas E. Cowan

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Overview
Note: This entry is being updated to deal with an error of attribution (Cowan vs. Melton). Stay tuned.


Douglas Edward Cowan is assistant professor of religious studies and sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (UMKC).

He sympathizes and co-operates with cult apologists, and spends much time and energy studying and criticizing Christian countercult ministries, many of which he believes misrepresent cults and sects ('new religious movements').

Cowan has written a book on the subject, titled, "Bearing False Witness? : An Introduction to the Christian Countercult." The title is ironic, given the fact that Cowan frequently misrepresents those whom he criticizes.

Cowan's Phd dissertation on what he erroneously refers to as "the evangelical Christian countercult," "the Christian countercult," or simply, "the countercult" (1)  was supervised by Prof. Irving Hexham (University of Calgary).

In its heyday, Cowan regularly filled in as moderator of Hexham's NUREL-L list. Currently, he is the Director and Editor-in-Chief of the Religious Movements Homepage Project, which was set up by the lateJeffrey K. Hadden (who during his lifetime was one of the more notorious cult apologists).
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Misrepresentation

Dr. Cowan initially called his web site, "Christian Countercult.com". (Later, it was changed to "Christian Countercult.org", and then to "Ports of Entry." See this info) The title does not reflect the usual meaning of the term countercult. Rather, it appears to be a reference to his interest in evaluating Christian countercult ministries.

Thus far, his efforts have demonstrated a lack of understanding of the purpose, scope and diversity of countercult ministries.

In addition, Mr. Cowan - who claims to be a Christian (he is an ordained minister in the United Church of Canada but, ironically, also says he is an agnostic - a view that is incompatible with the Christian faith) - has an annoying habit of misrepresenting some of the people and/or ministries he researches, and of turning gnats into elephants; the very behavior he chides others for. (Example). Among the ministries and individuals criticized, misrepresented and/or attacked by Cowan is Apologetics Index and its publisher, Anton Hein.
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Trojan Horse

Nevertheless, Douglas Cowan has the support of a handful of Christians - primarily those associated with Sacred Tribes Journal.

Notably, John Morehead - a researcher with Watchman Fellowship, current president of EMNR (Evangelical Ministries to New Religions),  (2)  and co-contributor to the Journal - has been especially supportive in promoting cult apologist J. Gordon Melton and Douglas Cowan. For example, at Morehead's invitation, Melton and Cowan spoke at the February, 2002 EMNR conference. For some reason Morehead believes that Christians can learn from Melton's alleged "missiological" approach, or distill something of value from Cowan's unbalanced criticisms.

His move is seen as controversial by a fair number of EMNR's members and other interested parties, who - to varying degrees - decry the participation of cult apologists in a conference meant for Christians involved in countercult outreach and ministry. (See Trojan Horse)

Cowan himself notes:

In the aftermath of our participation in the Louisville conference, a number of things happened–all of which speak to the insular nature of the Christian countercult as it is currently constituted, and the conflict that obtains within the countercult over efforts to mitigate that provincial mindset. A number of circumstances specifically speak to this.

First, prior to the conference, John Morehead had contracted with a conservative, evangelical press to edit a collection of essays on the current state of the countercult. He specifically asked that a chapter drawn from my presentation at the EMNR be included, and I provided a detailed abstract, which was accepted by the publisher. Shortly after the conference, the publisher informed John that my chapter was not to be included, and that the publication contract hung in the balance of his decision. The publisher also insisted that all contributing authors sign an evangelical statement of faith as a condition of their contract–something I, obviously, couldn't do. While no other chapter was to be excluded, and mine was the only one specifically critical of countercult apologetics as a religious enterprise, the publishers made it clear they were not going to be party to promulgating the views of a "self-proclaimed agnostic."

Which is interesting since that’s exactly the phrase that was used to critique at least my presence after the conference was over. A number of people, including EMNR board members, argued that there is nothing that can be learned from a "self-proclaimed agnostic." Whether there is a connection between this, and the demand from the publishers that my chapter be dropped, I leave to be pondered by Mel Gibson driving his taxi cab in Conspiracy Theory.

One of the ways in which John Morehead has tried to disseminate the proceedings of the EMNR is through the publication of conference papers on their website. Shortly after the conference, when I contacted him about this, I learned that John had been refused permission to include either my paper or Gordon's in those proceedings. Regardless of any disclaimer that might precede our papers, "cult apologists" were simply not going to be given another forum.

Which raises interesting possibilities for the EMNR conference in 2004, which is scheduled to be held in Kansas City. John wants to make Bearing False Witness? the subject of an "Author meets Critics" roundtable. It remains to be seen whether, at that conference, "cult apologists" are on the program, or on the menu.
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Cult Apologists

Not surprisingly, Cowan now attempts to addressoffsite the meaning of the phrase, "cult apologist", and manages to again misrepresent people's viewpoints, ignore or misunderstand the issues, and turn mole hills into mountains.

An example of Cowan's apparent inability to understand the real issues is seen in his following comment (made in another paper):

The utter inability of apologists like Hein to distinguish between scholarly support for particular beliefs, and scholarly support for the right of individuals and groups to hold those beliefs is an important point, but a paper topic for another time.
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The 'Hein' referred to is Anton Hein, the editor of this entry, and the publisher of Apologetics Index. Those who are familiar with Hein's views regarding cult apologists realize that in the above-quoted statement Mr. Cowan either
  1. engages in academic dishonesty,
  2. is not familiar with the material he attempts to criticize, or
  3. is 'utterly unable' to understand (and therefore accurately describe and interact with) the views of those he criticizes.
For the record, Anton Hein's views on cult apologists are found here, and his views on religious freedom are posted here. It doesn't take an academic degree to discover that I a) support religious freedom, and b) have no beef with scholars who - in a scholarly, academically-sound, manner - support the right of individuals and groups to hold their beliefs.

It also doesn't take much research to know what specific issues cause me to describe certain scholars as "cult apologists." But thus far, Mr. Cowan, has somehow managed to miss these points:

Some cult apologists and their supporters [...] spend much time and energy attacking the very term "cult apologist." It is telling that, for the most part, they refuse to deal with the very serious issues surrounding cult apologists. These issues include (but are not limited to):
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Incidentally, note that Cowan's paper, Cult Apology: A Modest (Typological) Proposal, is posted - along with some of his other offerings - at the Cornerstone Magazine web site. Jon Trott, Cornerstone's senior editor, is a co-contributor to the Sacred Tribes Journal. Like Morehead, he uncritically accepts the views of cult apologists - and actively promotes their work.

Though challenged to do so, Trott and Morehead - just like Douglas Cowan - fail to address the specific issues associated with cult apologists. Rather, they object to the terminology and methodoly of those who do address these issues.
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Cowan's Approach

A sample of Cowan's approach (more will be included as time permits):

Douglas Cowan of the Department of Religious Studies recently became the first scholar to complete the U of C's new Religious Studies PhD program, the only program of its kind in Western Canada.

Cowan's PhD thesis, entitled Bearing False Witness: Propaganda, Reality-Maintenance, and Christian Anti-cult Apologetics, explores the body of Christian literature which examines so-called cults. He is the first scholar to examine this subject in detail.
(...)

Cowan concluded, however, that the authors of these works do indeed systematically manipulate information in order to reinforce their points of view. However, it is done for a target audience that is often looking to merely validate their own preconceptions of other religious traditions.

"It is a common belief among fundamentalist Christian groups that if they can invalidate another's worldview they have somehow validated their own worldview."
Source: PhD graduate weighs tracts on 'cults', University of Calgary Gazette, Apr. 19, 1999
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One wonders which "fundamentalist Christian groups" Cowan is familiar with to come up with that conclusion. For comparison, study the various Christian resources listed under the worldview listing.

That said, the above referenced article also quotes Cowan as saying:

I was newly settled in a predominantly Mormon community, and I became intrigued by the utter dissimilarity between the Mormons I encountered on the streets every day and the description of Mormons and their religion in Christian anti-Mormon publications, notably The God Makers, by Dave Hunt and Ed Decker. (3)  I began to collect Christian anti-cult materials, hoping that, someday, the chance would come to do exactly the kind of research I have now done.

While Cowan's observation does give pause for thought, it should be noted that Dave Hunt's and Ed Decker's controversial approach to Mormonism can not be seen as representative of that of the countercult community (or, for that matter, of the countercult community itself)

At the same time, Cowan could and should have noted that there are many high-quality resources addressing the problems with Mormonism as seen from a Christian perspective.

In addition, cult researchers such as the Tanners have addressed problems with contra-Mormon publication such as the Godmakers videosoffsite.

It is, of course, quite likely that Cowan - who, perhaps, does not understand nor accept orthodoxy Christian theology - is not qualified to evaluate these resources. Regardless, Cowan's careless approach to these and other issues make his criticism of countercult professionals seem like a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

As for his personal attacks on, among others, the publisher of Apologetics Index, an old Chinese saying may provide some insight: "When you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one that yelps got hit."

We invite Mr. Cowan to address real issues instead of attacking the messengers.
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• Footnotes
  1. There is no such thing as a countercult. There is a countercult movement. Details.  (Back to text) 
  2. It should be noted that in this position Morehead does not speak for everyone involved with Watchman Fellowship, or everyone on the Board of EMNR. Nor do EMNR's members necessarily agree with his views and approach.  (Back to text) 
  3. It would be a mistake to view the writings of Dave Hunt and Ed Decker as representative of the material produced - or the views held - by the mainstream Christian countercult movement.  (Back to text) 
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• Articles
Christian CARM on Cowanoffsite Matt Slick, who operates CARM, reacts to Dr. Cowan's paper, "From Parchment to Pixels."
Christian CARM's Matt Paulson comments on Cowan's "From Parchment to Pixels."
Christian Cowan on Hein... Hein on Cowan Anton Hein, publisher of Apologetics Index, corrects Cowan's misrepresentations in "From Parchment to Pixels."
AcademicSecular Cult Apology: A Modest (Typological) Proposal Paper presented by Douglas E. Cowan to the 2002 Society for the Scientific Study of Religion Conference "Boundaries and Commitments in NRM Research" November 1-3, 2002, Salt Lake City, Utah. An attempt to understand the meaning and use of the term "cult apologist".
AcademicSecular From Parchment to Pixels: The Christian Countercult on the Internetoffsite Cowan's indictment of the countercult movement
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• See Also
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• Sites
Academic Ports of Entry - The Web Office of Douglas E. Cowan, Ph.D.offsite Dr. Cowan's own site.
Note: Originally, Mr. Cowan's site was titled, ''Christian Countercult.com.'' That was later changed to ''Christian Countercult.org,'' and then to ''Ports of Entry.'' However, some pages at his site long continued to be titled ''Countercult.com.'' That title, like the others, does not reflect the domain name (rather, Cowan's pages are part of the faculty section of the University of Missouri-Kansas City website: <http://c.faculty.umkc.edu/cowande/>). 

Apologetics Index owns the domain name, countercult.com, which points to the Apologetics Index site. Apologetics Index has no connection whatsoever to Douglas Cowan and/or his website, and Mr. Cowan is not authorized to use the ''Countercult.com'' name.
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About this page:
Douglas E. Cowan vs. Christian countercult ministries
First posted: Apr. 29, 1999
Last Updated: Apr. 15, 2004
Editor: Anton Hein
Copyright: Apologetics Index
Link to: http://www.apologeticsindex.org/c57.html
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