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Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research

Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research


Note: A greatly expanded version of this article is published in the book, Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001), edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins.

In early May 1995, as Japanese law-enforcement authorities were collecting evidence linking the Aum Shinrikyo NRM to the March 20 poison gas attack which killed 13 commuters, and preparing what they thought was a strong case, they discovered, to their utter surprise, that they were under attack from an unexpected direction. According to media reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to ''crush a religion and deny freedom'' (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995).

Reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM. ''Some observers wonder what took the Japanese authorities so long to take decisive action. It seems apparent that enough serious concerns had been raised about various Aum activities to warrant a more serious police inquiry prior to the subway gas attack'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 321). The group can only be described as extremely violent and murderous. ''Thirty-three Aum followers are believed to have been killed between ...1988 and ...1995...Another twenty-one followers have been reported missing [and presumed dead]'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 320). Among non-members, there have been 24 murder victims. One triple murder case in 1989 and another poison gas attack in 1994 which killed seven have been committed by the group, as well as less serious crimes which the police was not too eager to investigate (Beit-Hallahmi, 1998; Haworth, 1995; Mullins, 1997). So it is safe to conclude that religious freedom was not the issue in this case. Nor is it likely, as some Aum apologists among NRM scholars have claimed, that this lethal record (77 deaths on numerous occasions over seven years) and other non-lethal criminal activities were the deeds of a few rogue leaders. Numerous individuals must have been involved in, and numerous others aware of, these activities.

Some NRM scholars have suggested that the trip to Japan, as reported in the media, caused the field an image problem (Reader, 1995). Let me make clear right away that my concern here is not with images, but with the reality of scholarship. I am afraid that in this case, as in many others, the reality may be actually worse than the image. How do we react to the Aum episode? Do we raise our eyebrows? Do we shrug our shoulders? Is it just an isolated case of bad judgment? Are we shocked by the alleged involvement of NRM researchers in this tragic story? Given the climate and culture of the NRM research community, and earlier demonstrations of support for NRMs in trouble, we are not completely surprised. Much of the discourse in NRM research over the past 20 years has been marked by a happy consensus on the question of the relations between NRMs and their social environment.

What should be the proper and desirable relationship between scholars and the groups they study? Naturally, this relationship must be problematic, marked by tension on both sides. No one likes to be under scrutiny of any kind, and we are all sensitive to the self-serving ways in which humans, scholars included, present themselves to others. A critical attitude and an interpretive bent are the marks of the scholar, who is unlikely to take messages from the subjects of his study at face value. Credibility must be negotiated and earned by both informants and scholars, and what is at issue here is the credibility of NRM research.

All of us, as religion scholars and members of the academic community, have our biases (Beit-Hallahmi, 1989; Robbins, 1983). Our differing ideological commitments do not prevent us from communicating and collaborating as colleagues. Scholars are expected to be sophisticated consumers of their colleagues' work. They detect error, bias, and oversight, and separate valuable gold nuggets from slag. In the study of religion, bias and religious commitments should not necessarily undermine scholarship; they may only set its limits (Beit-Hallahmi, 1989, 1996). Our conflicting biases should naturally lead to debates and controversy. It is indeed baffling when we experience in a particular research network the strange, deafening, silence of conformity. The level of conformity to the reigning consensus has been remarkable. Scholars in perfect agreement around a thorny issue are like the dog that didn't bark. They should make us curious, if not outright suspicious.

Origins of the Party Line

Something like a party line has developed among NRM scholars about the way NRMs are described and analyzed. This consensus is responsible for a new conformity which seems to put strict limits on researchers' curiosity. This it has also led to advocacy, as in the cases of Aum Shinrikyo and David Koresh, public expressions of support for an NRM in conflict with its environment. NRM researchers engaged in advocacy are expressing a feeling and a reality of partnership and collaboration with NRMs in a common cultural struggle.

Over the past 20 years, the NRM research community displayed a general agreement on a hierarchy of credibility (Becker, 1967), according to which self presentation by NRMs was epistemologically and logically superior to all outside accounts and observations. The party line has been that ''...defectors are involved in either conscious or unconscious self-serving behavior'' (Richardson, 1980, p. 247). (This is presumably unlike the behavior of NRM members and leaders, who are totally and utterly selfless). The NRM research community will give more credence to the claims of NRM members and leaders than to claims by former members, outside observers (e.g. the media), and government officials (especially law-enforcement officials). This has led to a pattern of collaboration with NRMs, reaching its culmination, and logical conclusion, in the Aum episode reported above.

The essence of the consensus has been described in a most elegant way by two leading sociologists of religion: ''The pattern of various debates and positions adopted appear to represent something of a consensus that where there is a significant erosion of traditional religious liberties and/or litigation is likely to turn on evidence which conflicts with the prevailing corpus of knowledge represented by the professional societies, individual and collective activism is potentially appropriate'' (Robbins & Bromley, 1991, p. 199). This article does not touch on the litigation issue, but only deals briefly with the ''religious liberties'' advocacy, or ''activism''.

''Activism'': The Consensus in Action

Looking at the history of collaboration with NRMs over the past thirty years takes us from the curious to the bizarre. The consensus started developing back in the 1970s, when some NRMs were fighting for recognition and legitimacy. The mere fact of being defined as a religion, and recognized as a movement worthy of study, seemed like an achievement for some groups. For other groups, the ''religion'' label was crucial. As Greil (1996, p. 49) suggested, being considered a religious movement is ''a cultural resource over which competing interest groups may vie...'' giving ''privileges associated in a given society with the religious label''. Moreover, ''the right to the religious label is a valuable commodity'' (Greil, 1996, p. 52). Similarly, Barker (1991, p. 11) noted the ''considerable economic advantages to be gained from being defined as a religion''. By applying the religion label consistently and generously, NRM scholars provided support that was not forthcoming from any other quarters.

The Unificationists were among the first to appreciate the value of having professors on their side. Since the 1970s, they organized a variety of front organizations and held numerous conferences, best known among them were the Unity of Science conferences. At such conferences, academics from all over the world met to discuss what united them, most obviously the readiness to accept a free vacation, all expenses paid, from the Unification Church. Most academics attending the conferences were not religion scholars. Those who were became aware of their worth in the coin of legitimacy and respectability to the group. There was criticism of academics who were ready to provide recognition to the Unification Church by attending the conferences (Horowitz, 1978), but these critical voices were decisively ignored by NRM scholars. There is red thread that connects the cozy relationship with the Unification Church in the 1970s and the events of the 1990s. This thread does not express itself in the willingness to receive NRM money, but in the clear ideological commitment to defending NRMs regardless of the circumstances and the consequences. It seems that the operative consensus that started forming in the late 1970s was well in place by the early 1980s. Leading scholars in the field decided to take a stand in the propaganda war over the legitimacy and reputation of certain NRMs (or groups claiming to be NRMs, such as Scientology), and to work together with them in order to give them much needed public support. It was felt that in the struggle for legitimacy, anything perceived as harming the NRMs' public image should be avoided. A defensive discourse has grown to protect any seeming indiscretion or transgression.

Fifty years from now, when the archives are opened up and private letters read, future historians will be able to answer better the questions raised here and explain the development of the late 20 century consensus among NRM scholars. In the meantime we can work only on the basis of public documents, but from time to time confidential documents see the light of day and provide additional insights. I have before me a piece of evidence which reveals significant collusion between researchers and NRMs. This is a confidential memorandum, dated December 20, 1989, and authored by an NRM researcher, [Beit-Hallahmi later identied Hadden by name] who stated that he was writing on behalf of two other leading researchers, all of them sociologists. Copies of this document have been circulated by an anti-NRM group, and its authenticity is beyond any doubt. It is significant that this document has been sent to a long list of sociologists by email, and has been cited before. It is embarrassing to refer to a confidential memo written by a dear colleague, but no less embarrassing has been the experience of witnessing dear colleagues act as collaborators and shills for a variety of masquarading organizations.

This document reports on a series of meetings and activities involving several NRM scholars, NRM attorneys, NRM leaders, and some other scholars. Many future plans are discussed, most of which never materialized. The agenda and the commitments expressed are very clear. The memo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, not only behind-the-scenes contacts between scholars and NRMs, but the coordinated effort on the part of leading NRM scholars to work with NRMs. What is striking is the clear sense in which the leading members of the NRM research network regarded NRMs as allies, not subjects of study. It seems that the scholars were more eager than the NRMs to lead the fight for NRM legitimacy.

''Our meetings with the members of the Unification Church confirmed our earlier impressions that ... their response is very substantially confined to ad hoc responses to crises. I pressed them on the question of whether it might be possible for the UC in collaboration with several other NRMs to raise a significant amount of money-no strings attached-to an independent group, which in turn, would entertain proposals and fund research on NRMs''. NRMS were less than enthusiastic, the writer thought, and ''The cooperative funding of the American Conference on Religious Freedom would appear to be about as far as they are prepared to go at this time'' (Confidential, 1989, p. 4).

In addition to the idea of creating an NRM-funded research organization, ''...we spent a good deal of time considering whether the time might be right to import ... INFORM or create a US organization that would perform a similar function...INFORM has taken a very significant step in neutralizing anti-cult movements in the UK'' (Confidential, 1989, p. 5).

In 1992, The Association of World Academics for Religious Freedom (AWARE) which described itself (Lewis, 1994, p. 94) as ''...an information center set up to propagate objective information about non-traditional religions'', came on the scene. Each and every NRM scholar undoubtedly considers himself or herself an information center propagating objective information about non-traditional religions, so there must be some really good reasons for the creation of another such center. ''The primary goal of AWARE is to promote intellectual and religious freedom by educating the general public about existing religions and cultures, including, but not limited to, alternative religious groups...AWARE also educates the scholarly community and the general public about the severe persecution that religious and cultural minorities experience ... and to support the United States government in its efforts to heal the prejudice that exists in our country and in the world'' (Lewis, 1994, p. 214). This public agenda goes far beyond scholarship.

AWARE was the sponsor for three volumes which in themselves have been the source of controversy (Lewis, 1994; Lewis & Melton, 1994a; Lewis & Melton, 1994a). Balch & Langdon (1996) provide a sobering inside view of the fieldwork which led to the AWARE 1994 volume on CUT (Lewis & Melton, 1994). The most significant and symptomatic fact here is the participation by so many recognized scholars in this effort (cf. Balch, 1996). Similar acts of support have been noted in research conference ostensibly devoted to NRMs, where leaders and representatives of NRMs (or groups claiming such a label) were being treated not only as colleagues, but as partners in a common enterprise.

It is not a question of some loose cannons on the margins of the research community. What we have is not an ''activist'' minority and a silent majority, but a supportive, collaborating majority. Our colleagues are entitled to many presumptions of innocence, but not just doubts but pieces of evidence are piling up. I personally feel embarrassed, ashamed, and betrayed. In light of what we have witnessed we are forced to re-read, our eyes fresh with suspicion, the whole corpus of NRM literature.

We may have to reconstruct our hierarchy of credibility (Becker, 1967). Recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers. The reality revealed in the cases of People's Temple, Rajneesh International, Vajradhatu, the Nation of Yahweh, the Branch Davidians, the Faith Assembly, Aum Shinrykio, the Solar Temple, or Heaven's Gate is much more than unattractive; it is positively horrifying. In every case of NRM disasters over the past 50 years, starting with Krishna Venta (Beit-Hallahmi, 1993), we encounter a hidden world of madness and exploitation in a totalitarian, psychotic, group, whose reality is actually even worse than detractors' allegations.

The happy consensus, shared by colleagues I admire and to whom I will always be in debt, turns out to be, on closer examination, a rhetoric of advocacy, apologetics and propaganda. The advocacy and apologetics agenda creates an impoverished discourse, denying the madness, passion, and exploitation involved in NRMs, and leads to an intellectual dead end. The real issue is how a community of brilliant scholars committed itself to this kind of NRM advocacy.

The solution to our integrity problem lies only in a painfully open discussion and full disclosure; open discussion of our collective deficiencies and failings, and a full disclosure of all financial ties with all organizations. In legitimate academic work, financial support is gratefully acknowledged. If you have reasons to keep your benefactors unnamed, some may suspect that you've got something to hide. As scholars, we have not taken vows of chastity, poverty, or silence. Our only vow is to criticism, suspicion, and unfettered questioning. Being a little more suspicious will keep us all not only a little more honest, but probably better scholars.


  • Balch, R.W. (1996). Review of Lewis, J.R. & Melton, J.G. (eds.) (1995). Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Children of God/ The Family. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 72.
  • Balch, R.W. & Langdon, S. (1996). How not to discover malfeasance in new religions: An examination of the AWARE study of the Church Universal and Triumphant. University of Montana, unpublished.
  • Barker, E. (1991). But is it a genuine religion? Report from the Capital, April, 10-11, 14.
  • Becker, H. S. (1967). Whose side are we on? Social Problems, 14, 239-247.
  • Beit-Hallahmi, B. (1989). Prolegomena to the Psychological Study of Religion. Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press
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  • Beit-Hallahmi, B. (1996). Psychoanalytic Studies of Religion: Critical Assessment and Annotated Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
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  • Greil, A.L. (1996). Sacred claims: The ''cult controversy'' as a struggle over the right to the religious label. Religion and the Social Order, 6, 47-63.
  • Haworth, A. (1995). Cults: Aum Shinrikyo. The Guardian. May 14, 1995.
  • Horowitz, I.L. (ed.) (1978). Science, Sin, and Scholarship: The Politics of Reverend Moon and the Unification Church. Cambridge, MA; MIT Press.
  • Lewis, J.R. (ed.) (1994). From the Ashes: Making Sense of Waco. Lanham, MD; Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Lewis, J.R. & Melton, J.G. (eds.) (1994a). Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective. Stanford, CA: Center for Academic Publication.
  • Lewis, J.R. & Melton, J.G. (eds.) (1994b). Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Children of God/ The Family. Stanford, CA: Center for Academic Publication.
  • Mullins, M.R. (1997). Aum Shinrikyo as an apocalyptic movement. In T. Robbins & S.J. Palmer (eds.) Millennium, Messiahs, and Mayhem. New York: Routledge.
  • Reid, T.R. (1995) U.S. visitors boost cause of Japanese cult. The Washington Post, May 9.
  • Reader, I. (1995). Aum affair intensifies Japan's religious crisis: An analysis. Religion Watch, July/August, pp. 1-2.
  • Richardson, J.T. (1980). People's Temple and Jonestown: A corrective comparison and critique. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 19, 239-255.
  • Robbins, T. (1983). The beach is washing away. Sociological Analysis, 44, 207-213.
  • Robbins, T. & Bromley D.G. (1991). New religious movements and the sociology of religion. In Religion and the Social Order, 1, 183-205.


This is a revised and abridged version of a paper presented at the 1997 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. An unabridged version is also available.

The author wishes to thank Avner Falk, Mark Finn, Maxine Gold, Roslyn Lacks, Michael Langone, Dan Nesher, Tom Robbins, and Benjamin Zablocki for generous help and advice.

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi
University of Haifa
Haifa 31905 ISRAEL
fax 972-4-8240966

Note: A greatly expanded version of this article is published in the book, Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001), edited by Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins.

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