Susan Jean Palmer is a professor of Religious Studies at Dawson College, Quebec, Canada, and an adjunct professor at Concordia University. She has written a book on the Raelians
, Aliens Adored: Rael's UFO Religion
Seen by many as a cult defender
, Ms. Palmer considers herself to be a connnoisseur
'It would seem, Dr Palmer, that you have acquired a bit of a reputation for being "soft on cults". Are you indeed ... a cultlover?'
- High Solicitor
I was standing nervously in the carved oak witness box in the High Court, Lincoln's Inn in London, when the High Solicitor asked this question. It was in 1994, when I became embroiled in what the Children of God
's lawyer described as 'the longest and second most expensive custody battle in the history of the British Empire.' I protested that I strove to be an objective, value-free
social scientist when I studied new religions
- but then admitted that I also felt a sneaking aesthetic appreciation for 'the cults
.' This made the judge smile, but it made me wonder - are the two approaches really incompatible?
As a mature researcher, somewhat scarred from my forays into that embattled terrain known as the cult wars, I am now ready to make a confession. I do see myself as a connnoisseur
. For me, NRMs
are beautiful life forms, mysterious and pulsating with charisma. Each 'cult' is a mini-culture, a protocivilication. Prophets and heretics generate fantasy worlds that rival those of Philip K. Dick or L. Frank Baum. When I venture into the thickets of wild home-grown spirituality, and explore the rich undergrowth of what society rejects as its 'weed' religions, I sometimes think of Dorothy's adventures in The Emerald City of Oz
. Dorothy follows the yellow brick road that leads her through Utensia, a city whose inhabitants are kitchen utensils. Managing to escape King Kleaver (who threatens to chop her), she wanders into Bunbury where houses are made of crackers with bread-stick porches and wafer-shingles and are inhabited by living buns with currant eyes. She ventures on to meet the evil headless Scoodles, then continues on down the yellow brick road.
New religions are no less phantasmagorical.
When asked to define a cult, I explain that it is a baby religion. Personally, I find cults (and babies) attractive.
Like many of my fellow scholars, I have been called a closet cultist. Perhaps there is
a grain of truth to this allegation, for although I have never joined a group I've researched, I did start hanging around meditation centers as a spiritual seeker, and only ended up in the microsociology of NRMs by default - as a failed meditator. I tried many systems, but never got the hang of it. I realize, of course, that the whole point is not to try to be 'good' at meditating ... but I kept trying.
So I began doing
sociology of religion inadvertently, simply because I was bored trying to concentrate on my mantra or third eye.
Many cults look askance at me. Grossed out by the social-scientific method and sick of a sociologist's depressingly secular scrutiny, leaders have denounced me to their disciples as a hireling of a corrup society.
Source: Caught Up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a Canadian Researcher, Misunderstanding Cults
(University of Toronto Press, 2001), Part 1, Chapter 3. pp. 99-101; 102
Susan J. Palmer is a professor
of Religious Studies at Dawson College in Quebec and an adjunct professor at Concordia University. She has written or edited six books on new religions, notably Moon Sisters, Krisha Mothers, Rajneesh Sisters
(Syracuse University Press) and Millenium, Messiahs, and Mayhem
(edited with Tom Robbins, Routledge). She is current researching apocalyptic new religious movements in Quebec, and their ties to the sovereignty movement and to Old France, supported by SSHRC. She is also involved in a membership survey of Falun Gong with Professor David Owenby, at the Université de Montréal.
AWARE, led by James R. Lewis
, has become a contractor for operations that can no longer claim any semblance or resemblance to research. One symptomatic product of the post-Waco NRM consensus is the Lewis volume titled From The Ashes: Making Sense of Waco
(1994a). It seems like a typical apologetic pamphlet, a collection of 47 statements, authored by 46 individuals and 3 groups. Of the 46 individuals, 34 are holders of a PhD degree, and 19 are recognized NRM scholars. One cannot claim that this collection of opinion-pieces is unrepresentative of the NRM research network; quite the contrary. Most of the top scholars are here. The most significant fact is the participation by so many recognized scholars in this propaganda effort. In addition to From The Ashes
we now have Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective
(Lewis and Melton 1994a), and Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Children of God / The Family
(Lewis and Melton 1994b). The last two are clearly made-to-order PR efforts (with a few scholarly papers which got in by honest mistakes on the part of both authors and editors). The Family
and Church Universal and Triumphant
were interested in academic character witnesses, and many NRM scholars were happy to oblige. Balch and Langdon (1996) provide an inside view of how AWARE operates by offering a report on the fieldwork, if such a term can be used, which led to the AWARE 1994 volume on CUT (Lewis and Melton 1994a). What is described is a travesty of research. It is much worse than anybody could imagine, a real sellout by recognized NRM scholars. Among the contributors to the Family volume we find Susan J. Palmer
, James T. Richardson, David G. Bromley
, Charlotte Hardman, Massimo Introvigne
, Stuart A. Wright, and John A. Saliba
. The whole NRM research network is involved, the names we have known over the past thirty years, individuals with well-deserved reputations lend their support to this propaganda effort. There must be some very good reasons (or explanations, at least) for this behavior. The PR documents produced for groups such as Church Universal and Triumphant or The Family are but extreme examples of the literature of apologetics which has dominated NRM research for many years.
Another aspect of these cases is that the reporting of financial arrangements is less than truthful. The fact that CUT financed the whole research expedition to Wyoming is not directly reported. We learn that CUT provided only room and board, while AWARE covered all other costs (Lewis, 1994). The fact that The Family volume was financed by the group itself is never reported anywhere, although it is clear to the reader that the whole project was initiated by Family leaders (Lewis 1994c). The Family volume has been recognized for what it is: a propaganda effort, pure and simple, paid for by the group (Balch 1996).
No sects, please - we're French
An opion piece by Susan Palmer, published in the Montreal Gazette (Canada), Sep. 4, 2001.
Although the book contains
some interesting details about the groups studied and some rather revelatory insights into the thinking and rationale of the members, the author herself focuses almost exclusively on her positive reframing and apologetic interpretations.
Palmer provides a nutshell history of each group, and then examines each according to one of three model typologies: sex polarity, sex complementarity, and sex unity.
Palmer's three types are meant to be labels defining the concepts governing the woman/man and body/soul relationships in these groups. For example, the author puts ISKCON
into the sex polarity category, where the reigning idea is that men and women are not spiritually equal, and in most cases men are viewed as superior and women need men to protect them. Sex complementarity as a category includes groups that emphasize marriage to unite two souls to form one and as the means to salvation. Here differences between the two sexes are acknowledged, along with the concept of equality. Such groups often have a dual or androgynous godhead. Sex unity entails the notion of letting go of sex identification to release power and reach infinite potential. In this category are groups that often devalue the body and believe in a sort of rebirthing or even gender change. These three categories at times seemed overlapping, but are perhaps a useful means of trying to make sense out of some unusual practices. As a woman and former cult member, I couldn't help but wonder about a fourth category: that is, sexual exploitation and abuse. But in reading this book it became evident that what many of us (women, feminists, former cult members, or cult-watchers) might regard as a sexist and exploitative milieu kept in place by social and psychosexual control mechanisms, Palmer regards as exciting new concepts of gender and sexuality that allow women to redefine their traditional social roles through "playful and gratifying" reinterpretations of their sexual roles. As far as I'm concerned, no, thank you.
Palmer proposes that some women's involvement in NRMs and spiritual groups is merely a creative approach to "facilitate the difficult metamorphosis from girlhood to womanhood." While in these groups, women can experiment, find empowerment and clear-cut roles, and get away from either the confines or mixed messages of the dominant culture. Eventually, most members reject the authority of the group, Palmer tells us, and they interpret the experience as one of intensive self-reconstruction. She reassures us that these former devotees are not "cult escapees" who "warrant the pity and attentions of 'exit counselors
.'" Yet, apparently without realizing it, throughout the book, Palmer describes group requirements, rituals, and patterns of learned behavior that some might consider quite startling in their suppression and repression of the individual female member. Ultimately, I suppose we can thank Palmer for giving us more ammunition in the academic (and sociocultural) battle between those of us who believe that such groups are potentially harmful (both to women and to men) and those who line up with the cult apologists. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers is a fast-paced, well-written, and nerve-wracking book with a wealth of information and a particular point of view — I recommend it.
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