Apologetics Index
American Academy of Religions

Academic American Academy of Religions


Professional association that includes many cult apologists.

... the major learned society and professional association for scholars whose object of study is religion. Its mission, in a world where religion plays so central a role in social, political and economic events, as well as in the lives of communities and individuals, is to meet a critical need for ongoing reflection upon and understanding of religious traditions, issues, questions and values. An overview statement by the Academy is based on the premise that to understand ourselves and the world around us we must come to terms with religion in all its complexities, contradictions and satisfactions.

They came to Opryland wearing tweed sports coats and soft-soled shoes. For four days, they walked through the junglelike maze of plants and kitschy shops to lecture halls. There they sat in 2-hour shifts listening to academicians read long, technical research papers.

This is what the top theologians and religion scholars in the country do for fun every year the weekend before Thanksgiving. The annual gathering of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature is to this crowd what the Sundance Film Festival is to independent filmmakers.

In short, everybody who's anybody comes, and then some. Up-and-coming scholars cut their theological teeth presenting papers critiqued by the best of the Ivory Tower. Professors from Podunk U. banter theologically with those from Harvard, Princeton and Yale universities. Job candidates circulate polished resumes and schmooze with department heads.

This year, nearly 8,000 scholars were on hand for more than 400 presentations on so-called weighty academic issues such as ''Problems in Categorization of Hebrew Particles.'' (One participant described that talk as more mentally taxing than an episode of Survivor, but every bit the thriller.)

Newcomers quickly learn there's an etiquette at play in this crowd. Pure scholars of religion don't want to be confused with theologians, whom they see as muddying academics with faith. The theologians, on the other hand, aren't of one mind as to the purpose of their scholarship, or even their audience.

Jews, Muslims and Buddhists debate about whether "theologian" is strictly a Christian term. The Christians haggle over whether the academic study of theology is an end unto itself, or whether it should be grounded in a faith community.

While almost all the Christian theologians identify with a denomination, many gulp and swallow hard when asked whether they regularly attend a church. ''Not for a long time,'' said Dr. Petri Luomanen, a Lutheran pastor who's a biblical studies scholar from the University of Helsinki, Finland. ''I have nothing against it; I've just been too busy.''

Other theologians echoed that response, though none wanted his or her name in print. A few said they consider church nothing more than folk religion. The Jesus in churches cannot be reconciled with the Jesus of theological scholarship, they added.
Degrees of divinity: Just what do theologians do?, Dallas Morning News, Dec. 2, 2000

A growing number of scholars have begun to fill in the gap, however, working in an unconventional academic specialty they call new religious movements. This emerging field has not only attracted traditional religion experts but also psychologists, anthropologists and literary critics. It has even brought forth a separate study group within the American Academy of Religion called the New Religious Movements Group, for scholars interested in the topic.

It is ''a growth industry in the academy,'' said Phillip C. Lucas, an associate professor of religious studies at Stetson University in De Land, Fla.

Although new faiths are often summarily dismissed, yesterday's new religion may be today's powerhouse. Consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, which began with a handful of people in an upstate New York village in 1830 and now counts more than 10 million members worldwide.

William Ashcraft, a professor of religious studies at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., said that most new-faith adherents see themselves as set apart from the surrounding culture. ''Scholars have come to think of these groups as anybody who is alternative to the mainstream,'' he said.

Mr. Ashcraft and Ms. Basher are coordinators of the New Religious Movements Group, which has held sessions on Christian Science, New Age beliefs, goddess worship, the Hare Krishnas, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, new Hasidic groups, conversion, women's roles and attitudes toward violence.

Like most experts, however, they don't use the word cult. ''Practically every religion we know of is labeled a cult in some country,'' Ms. Brasher said.

More recently, the cultural upheavals of the 1960's helped diminish the social taboos against religious experimentation. As Mr. Lucas explained, ''There is far less stigma attached to searching outside the mainstream when it comes to one's own religion.'' And today, new technologies are once again causing upheavals in American life. ''I do think it's easier to be involved in a new religious movement now because of the Internet,'' Ms. Brasher said. ''Geography is no longer destiny. It's easier for small religious groups to form. They've got a medium through which they can encourage each other.''

Scholars whose research puts them in contact with new faiths can share their work in a new journal, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, which is edited by Mr. Lucas.

Although experts point out that new religions vary widely, they do concede that those bitterly hostile to society have a potential for violence, like Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese group that used poison gas in the Tokyo subway, or Jim Jones's People's Temple, which engaged in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. They argue that a better understanding of these groups' beliefs may help government agencies deal peacefully with them, avoiding encounters that can lead to loss of life.

But containing violence isn't the only motive for the fascination with new religious movements. Many scholars argue that these groups are often the purveyors of more widely accepted ideas.

''In the alternative religions of today,'' Ms. Brasher said, ''could be our habits and cultures of tomorrow. Some of those are very exciting and some of those are quite scary.''
Alternative Religions as a Growth Industry, New York Times, Dec. 25, 1999


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