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About Irving Hexham

About Irving Hexham

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First posted: Aug. 1, 1998
Last Updated: Feb. 11, 2001
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Irving Hexham is the author of over 60 academic articles, more than 100 book reviews, and several books, among which Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1986), and A Concise Dictionary of Religion (Carol Stream, InterVarsity, 1994.) The latter is also posted at the site of cult apologist Jeffrey K. Hadden, once a board member of what was then Hexham's Nurel mailing list.

Hexham is professor of religious studies at the University of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada.

Cult Apologist?

Hexham describes himself as

...a Christian. To be more exact I am an evangelical Anglican who believes in the truth of historic Christianity.

Admirably, he goes to great lengths to "represent various religions as accurately as possible" but also states that "unlike many secular colleagues, I do not believe that all religions are necessarily good." Yet he also says

"Many of the groups that get labelled as cults are new religious organizations. But that doesn't necessarily make them dangerous," said Hexham.
"Cult Figures," CNews, May 2, 1999

Thus, while he acknowledges that not all religions are necessarily good, he also believes not all cults are dangerous. According to him, some of them should be considered "religious organizations" instead of cults.

A number of people in the anticult- and countercult movements take issue with this approach. They note that many cults dismiss legitimate criticism by claiming they are merely "new religious movements" being "persecuted" for their beliefs.

One such organization is the Church of Scientology, which has been using Hexham's original paper on The Religious Status of Scientology to try and convince people it is not a business venture masquerading as a religion.

It is encouraging that on his web site, Irving Hexham has posted a revised version of that 1978 statement, adding

As a Christian I do not believe that Scientology, as a belief system, is compatible with traditional Christian teachings. But then, in my view, neither are the unique teachings of the Mormons (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), Buddhism or many other religions despite the fact that many people, including some eminent scholars, will regard my views as narrow and dogmatic. Nevertheless, I recognize that all of these traditions, including Scientology, are religious and that they deserve equitable treatment under the law.
Is Scientology A Religion? Statement by Irving Hexham, 1997

Anticult activists, who for the most part battle cults for reasons other than theology, do not take such statements into account. Rather, they consider any attempt to call cults "religons" a serious mistake. They hold that while not all religions are cults, not all cults are religions either. At the very least, they would like to see scholars like Hexham acknowledge the dangers and problems associated with cults.

In the absence of such acknowledgements, some anticult activists consider Hexham to be a cult apologist. While most evangelical Christian countercult authorities would not go that far, the feeling is that Hexham appears to minimize the dangers of cults.

The Nurel Mailing List

Irving Hexham in 1992 founded the NUREL-L Mailing List. The following information pertains to events before it was taken over, in the summer of 2000, by Steven Hayes.

Described as a discussion list on cults, sects, and new religous movements, the NUREL list tends to be a forum for cultists and cult apologists. Until recently, the list was open to anyone, but anti- or countercult postings were tolerated up to a point, and several people's messages were heavily moderated.

Academics, cultists and cult apologists on the list often showed their intolerance of people with opposing viewpoints. Incredibly, instead of simply ignoring or deleting messages they did not agree with, some complained that they were "forced" to read them (mind you, many of the same people deny "brainwashing" - the use of unethical persuasion tactics and techniques - exists... :)

The upshot was that many considered the list to be a place where cultists, cult apologists, and academics unwilling to criticize them, could discuss their views without having to put up with the criticism of anti- and countercult activists.

In general, those criticizing cults from a sociological point of view were not taken seriously. There was, of course, the whole issue of whether one should even be allowed to use the word "cult".

There were a number of interesting exchanges involving those criticizing cults from a theological point of view (usually evangelical Christian countercult authorities), but on the whole, Christian apologetics - the logical defense of the Christian faith - were not welcome. As often is the case in such forums, religious pluralism was preferred.

When Al Buttnor claimed that the Church of Scientology promotes free speech, I asked how it does so - pointing out that the way it harasses and attacks critics (and censors web sites) would lead people to think otherwise.

Buttnor did not want to answer that question. Instead he skirted the issue, and eventually went into attack mode. However, I can be rather tenacious, and thus kept asking him for an answer. I even suggested that if he does not know the answer, or is not allowed to give it, he should check with those above him.

However, once again the poor folks who were forced (hah!) to read my messages complained loudly, and in time Hexham made the subject of Scientology off-topic.

I believe this was inspired as well by the fact that several alt.religion.scientology regulars had signed up and started to participate. Rather than moderate the discussion in such a way that a useful debate could take place, Hexham decided (helped by the private whining of some list members), to take a head-in-the-sand approach.

Though now off-topic, subsequently the subject of Scientology was raised from time to time. Scientologist Matt Bratschi, especially, kept pushing it, usually under the guise of forwarding someone else's messages, say about some "Freedom Run" - Church of Scientology PR activity - or by posting his perculiar views with regard to freedom of religion in Germany, a subject addressed by the Scientology front organization Freedom for Religions in Germany, which Bratschi heads.

In the end, Hexham let everyone know that the University at which he teaches demanded that only academics are allowed to participate on the lists running on its servers.

I suggested several alternative mailing list services to Hexham (e.g egroups.com, xc.org, onelist.com). He turned them down because running the list is seen as part of his job, and is evaluated as such. He says that those teaching at the University of Calgary much submit annual reports listing all of their activities. These are then given a numerical rating. Two "0" in succession can lead to being fired. Running a list off-campus is considered a "hobby", and would therefore not count in the evaluation...

Currently, the list has very low traffic and is, according to one observer, a less interesting place than it used to be. (For an alternative, Apologetics Index suggests the AR-talk and AR-vent lists)

NUREL-L Editorial Board

In an attempt to qualify for membership in H-Net, the NUREL list needed an editorial board. To that end, Hexham has invited a number of people. At the end of September '99, the following have agreed to serve on the board:

  1. Jeffery Hadden, University of Virginia
  2. Gordon Melton, University of Santa Barbara
  3. Massimo Introvigne, CESNUR
  4. Steven Hayes, University of South Africa
  5. Joan Townsend, University of Manitoba
  6. Karla Poewe, University of Calgary (Hexham's wife)

Clearly, the inclusion of three prominent cult apologists is not a good sign, and will contribute to further isolate Hexham from those he considers to be his evangelical peers.


- Mailing List -
AcademicChristian NUREL-L An interdisciplinary forum for scholarly and academic discussion of new religious movements established since 1800, currently operated by Steven Hayes. (See comments)

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(May 2, 1999) Cult figures


AcademicChristian Christian Travel Guides Irving Hexham's newest project, a Christian travel website "that describes and interprets the significance of religious places, people, leaders, and events throughout the world from the believer's perspective." Hexham has authored and/or edited some of the volumes in Zondervan's Christian Traveler's Guide series.
AcademicChristian Irving Hexham's Home Page
AcademicChristian Nurelweb Extensive site providing sources for the study of religion, including cults, sects, new and historic religions


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First posted: Aug. 1, 1998
Last Updated: Sep. 12, 2003
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