In my comparative religion courses, I love engaging students on controversial questions that one usually can not ask others outside of the classroom. Over the past several weeks we have been discussing unconventional religions and groups, and new religious movements (NRMs) in particular in both Asian and Western contexts. I found these discussions insightful, especially since I have been writing on NRMs for a few years now.
This is why I was particularly shocked when I came across an evangelical “Professor of Christian Apologetics” who spoke about an unconventional group that he deemed a “cult”, which I will demonstrate is problematic.
In class, we have discussed and probed this allegation of calling unconventional religious movements and groups “cults” from an academic perspective and why just about every scholar of religion in this field no longer uses this term today.
Perhaps a peripheral point, there is something very questionable about there being “Professors of Christian Apologetics”, particularly because being an apologist in academia is about as partisan and factional as one could possibly be. This is why “Professors of Christian Apologetics” do not teach or work at mainstream universities but at theological seminaries committed to affirming, defending, and promulgating cherished religious beliefs. There is nothing professional about being a “Professor of Christian Apologetics”. It is merely confessional religion masquerading as scholarship.
It is regarding this apologist about whom we are speaking that leads me to suggest that one should not trust, if not seriously question, “scholarship” produced and ideas presented by religious apologists, even if they call themselves professors. Religious apologetics must be kept as far away from mainstream secular institutions of learning as possible. I am willing to defend the view that secular study, which keeps religious biases at bay, is superior to religiously motivated study grounded upon religious confessionalism.
In the case of this particular apologist, the logic he promulgates when talking about unconventional groups is simple: Not Christianity, therefore “cult”. But such a position is awe-inspiring from an academic perspective.
I took several years in my thesis examining these allegations against NRMs and unconventional groups. In almost all cases (minus the exceptions of Jonestown and the Branch Davidians, and a few others), I found these allegations to be wanting based on the latest academic research. This view was also bolstered by my own research, the visiting of temples, many interviews with unconventional religious persons, and much else. Worth noting is that we know of roughly 5400 NRMs globally, of which only a handful have engaged in violence and perpetuated abuses.
This apologist in question, as I will briefly show, lacks knowledge of more than three decades of academic scholarship on NRMs since the 1970s to have emerged by credible scholars in North America. I would therefore suggest this apologist inform himself by accessing the latest research produced on NRMs in Europe, notably Germany and Russia, as well as in the United Kingdom.
The problem that needs to be highlighted is this: this apologist continues a harmful tradition of deviance labeling and “othering” of unconventional groups that are not his own. Historically in the twentieth century, anti-cultist groups (often connected to, although also sometimes independent of, the Church) verbally and categorically attacked unconventional religious groups in North America by making various false accusations of brainwashing, violence, sexual abuse, fraud, and so on. These accusations were leveled at these groups although the overwhelming majority of them posed no threat to society. Many of them were pacifists.
But according to this apologist, the crime of these unconventional groups is being different. In particular, it is the crime of not being Christian. They are therefore “cults”. Such allegations caused significant harm to minority religious individuals and groups whose experiences were of alienation (especially by unconventional groups that were not isolationist), bullying, and hostility. A major force behind this anti-cultism was evangelical Christians who felt threatened and questioned the legitimacy of NRMs as authentic religions. Thus, this apologist in question is stuck in the 1930s around the time of the Canadian minister Jan Karel van Baalen who famously brandished unconventional religions and groups “cults”, which became popular among many Canadians.
As scholar John Melton explains, “cults” became an “appropriate label for the despised new religions”. To define unconventional, marginal, and NRMs “cults” is a source of hostility that can lead to harmful consequences. Scholars have observed how this term can not only offset important inter-faith cooperation and understanding, but also give rise to deviance labeling, misrepresentation, and even persecution. As just noted, scholars studying NRMs and unconventional groups mostly found such accusations and concerns unfounded. It is for these reasons that scholars no longer call unconventional religions or groups “cults” because they realize that it is prejudicial and a nasty way to spread fear about groups that often exist beneath the public radar.
Informed scholars have spoken about this. Specialist Eileen Barker explains that scholars distance themselves from deviance labeling because it is not helpful “for a sociologist who, rather than aiming merely to label or condemn, is trying to find out about particular movements”.
This leads me to wonder about the motive of this apologist in question. Is he aware of these informed views and yet still deliberately decides to continue an outdated tradition of deviance labeling by throwing the term “cult” at unconventional groups in his crosshairs? If so, he is prejudicial, even immoral. As specialist Thomas Robbins noticed, “cult” was used to refer to groups considered “unstable cancer cells” that should “be surgically” removed from society. Or is this apologist simply oblivious to the latest academic research on unconventional groups and NRMs? If so, we should question how he occupies the position of being a professor. We should at the very least encourage him to read up on the latest research.
Truly, if this apologist was a student in my tutorials and classes on new religious movements (NRMs), I would have asked him to rewrite his paper or failed him. His uninformed views simply lead me to have little confidence in the work produced by religious apologists. Such work is prejudicial, warped, distorted, and twisted because it is committed to religious confessionalism that, either deliberately or ignorantly, continues on a tradition of deviance labeling and religious bullying.
There is so much else I wish to write in response to this apologist. I would like to demonstrate to him that scholars have noticed that the accusations Christians have labeled against so-called “cults” could essentially be thrown back at them and their tradition. In reality, there is very little to distinguish so-called “cults” from the mainstream, world religions. They all have charismatic founders, uncompromising disciples, missionaries, followers who are willing to do violence and perpetuate abuses, and so on. Upon realizing this, one can begin to see the prejudice at play on behalf of individuals like this apologist and so many others in his tradition, both contemporary and historically, who promulgate these views.