Apologetics Index
Alternative Religions And Their Academic Supporters
When Scholars Know Sin - Continued
Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters

by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs


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Linkages between some social scientists and the controversial groups they study have interfered with or influenced fundamental aspects of the social scientific enterprise. Interference or influence has occurred with the publication process, the selection of research topics, the acquisition of research information, and the use of that information in contentious social disputes. In the process, social science has suffered, and the reputation of the social science of religion has been placed at risk (Esquire, 1997; Radio 4, 1989; Straits Times, 1997). Peer reviewed research has been blocked, published accounts seem tainted with bias, former members' information has been ignored or summarily dismissed, and both political and public relations agendas have been interwoven with the social scientific study of religion. Some of the most respected scholars involved in the academic study of religion have let down their guards, and groups with agendas have only been too willing to draw them in. A consequence of this is that these scholars provide support for ideologies whose rigidity and intellectual narrowness threaten the necessary climate of openness and exchange in which scholarship thrives.

There are straightforward corrective responses to this regrettable situation. Academics should be exceedingly careful about aligning themselves with researchers who operate outside the boundaries of the academy. The academy, with its ethics reviews of research with human subjects, scrutiny of research funding, rewards for peer review publications, and collegial system to which aggrieved parties can appeal, provides an infrastructure for research that may help curb some of the excesses that have developed among scholars in recent years. Reviewers at all levels of the publication process should insist upon explicit statements about the funding that fueled the research. (For the record, neither author received external funding to carry out this study.) While the complete elimination of biased research may be impossible, its exposure remains a desirable goal.

Finally, social scientists of religion have a special responsibility to raise the stature of their studies among their colleagues. We concur with the conclusion that Buddhist scholar Michael Pye reached, which was that "there are numerous religions all over the world which cannot be studied in detail because of inadequate research funding" (1996, 270). Despite the salience of religion within popular culture, in academic culture few jobs in the social sciences and humanities advertise for applicants with expertise in contemporary religions. Consequently, too few students take up the task of researching what surely must be among society's most interesting fields of study. With few students who have examined various groups and topics moving into academic life, only a handful of established scholars maintain the image of expertise. In reality, they are stretched thin, with too much information to process about too many organizations and their personnel.

Whatever the larger research community of researchers does (individually and collectively) about the issues of academic compromise and co-optation within the sociology of religion, we must do something, because the credibility of an entire social scientific subdiscipline is at risk. Researchers have not heeded the warning that sociologist of religion Thomas Robbins issued in the early 1980s, which was that "the concern over sympathy for cults in the sociology of religion cannot but ramify into a broader concern with the precariousness of objectivity in the study of religion" (1983, 211). Toward the end of increasing researcher objectivity, Religious Studies professor Catherine Wessinger organized a meeting of scholars prior to the Academy of Religion meeting in 1994. The meeting provided a forum for the objective discussion of religious movements. It was so successful that she has continued to organize them in successive years. These forums provide one important opportunity for researchers who are conducting objective and responsible research to speak critically about ethical practices and appropriate methodologies.

Historians and sociologists of knowledge will look back upon this era and use examples of our excesses to illustrate the constricted nature of the supposedly objective dimension of social research. Surely those of us now doing research wish to leave as our legacy something other than examples that future generations will judge to be seriously flawed and compromised.

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