Caught Up in the Cult Wars: Confessions of a New Religious Movement Researcher

Susan J. Palmer | University of Toronto Press | 2001 | 38 minutes (9,328 words)

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It would seem, Dr Palmer, that you have acquired a bit of a reputation for being “soft on the 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 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 connoisseur. For me, NRMs are beautiful life forms, mysterious and pulsating with charisma. Each “cult” is a mini-culture, a protocivilization. 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. Immersed in the Oz books as a malingering schoolgirl, I wanted to “have adventures” when I grew up. My wish came true. Today I find myself in the not-quite respectable, morally problematic, and impecunious field of “cult” studies. Travelling the “yellow brick road” of social scientific research, I encounter oddly coherent worldviews constructed higgledy-piggledy out of the most incongruous elements: songs of Solomon, UFO lore, electric bulbs, biofeedback machines, gnostic creation myths—all welded into one seamless syncretism. I drop in on dreams of Utopia and discover quaint communes like Puritan villages, the brothers and sisters marching to a tasteful percussion of Bible-thumping. I have felt trapped in nightmares—racist compounds, parodies of Paradise, Nietzchean dystopias.

Each new religion I encounter evokes in me a sense of awe not unlike what my art historian mother feels when she beholds Greek ruins, German cathedrals, or Renaissance paintings. I see heretical religions as “totems” or testaments—not necessarily of Ultimate Truth, but rather of the creative power of the collective human imagination. Their prophets I approach cautiously, and with respect, as artists of the most radically experimental sort: unpredictable conceptual artists at best, semi-opaque con artists at worst.

This approach seems to aggravate almost everybody; they find it frivolous, irresponsible. One Sufi lady at the Abode of the Messenger stopped me mid-interview and said accusingly, ”You’re not really interested in the spiritual path. I get the impression you have more of a literary interest in what we’re doing!“

Another time I was effervescing on the sheer fun of researching NRMs when a psychologist at a lunchtime lecture for the psychologists at the Montreal General Hospital interrupted: ”So I suppose you think it’s fun and OK for groups like the Solar Temple to go around killing each other!” I was irritated, since I had just spent ten minutes explaining that each “cult” is different, and statistics showed that only a tiny handful engaged in criminal acts, so I responded: “You must excuse me, I prepared this talk for the doctors; I didn’t realize that the psychiatric patients would be invited here as well.” I don’t expect to be invited back.

When asked to define a cult, I explain that it is a baby religion. Personally, I find cults (and babies) attractive. Babies can be heartbreakingly adorable or intensely annoying, depending on the beholder’s perspective—but also on the baby’s mood and stage of development. So infant religions are not quite toilet-trained, like MOVE, a cult that annoyed neighbours by throwing garbage on the street; toddler NRMs, like the Rajneesh, run around naked in the park and knock over tea trays; and teenage missionary movements, like The Family, mooch off their parent society, refuse to get a job, and flaunt their pimply sexuality.

I have heard mothers excuse their obstreperous infants by saying, “It’s only a phase he’s going through!” (teething, bed-wetting, screaming). NRMs also go through phases, shutting out the surrounding culture to form their own identity. NRM scholars may sound like overindulgent mommies making excuses for their spoiled brats when they protest that communal experiments, sexual innovations, and apocalyptic expectations are merely developmental phases, and that society should grit its teeth and give these budding religions a chance to grow up.

Having confessed to singular tastes, perhaps I should explain how I got into “cult studies.” My formal debut as a researcher of new religious movements commenced in the 1970s, when meditations—like 100 percent cotton wear or silk—were Oriental imports, and most of my cool friends had already left for India to seek the right guru. At that time we were, of course, wary of false gurus who sold useless sadhanas (spiritual guidelines), or leched after American blondes, but the notion of the charismatic cult leader as obligatory pederast, oppressor of women, and designer of mass suicide had not yet been forged in the media.

Professor Fred Bird was my MA adviser at Concordia University when the department received a grant to study new religious movements in Montreal. I was one of four students hired as research assistants, and was actually paid $60 a week to choose a cult, spy on it, and write up field reports. When I look back on this period the word “halcyon” comes to mind; we researchers were light-hearted and naive, fancying ourselves spiritual Pis. We swopped bizarre anecdotes about our chosen groups and boasted of mild vicarious spiritual highs. As young, counter-cultural types we could easily pass as typical spiritual seekers, and, indeed, that’s what we were in our own wishy-washy ways.

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 out hanging around meditation centres 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 with trying to concentrate on my mantra or third eye. Sitting in lotus posture at 4:00 a.m. on a scratchy grey woolen blanket in Swami Vishnu Devananda’s quonset hut in Morin Heights, Quebec, I would peek around at my fellow meditators chanting ‘AUMMMMMM,’ and observe their subtle social interactions. Making beds and washing sheets, understood as karma yoga, I would question my fellow chelas regarding their conversions. At the visiting swamis’ evening lectures, I paid more attention to the jocular rivalry between these shrewd old disciples of Swami Sivanada than I did to Hindu philosophy. Had I been able to make honest progress in my meditation practice, I would perhaps be living happily in the Himalayas—probably in Swami Shyam’s Canadian enclave in Kulu—celibate, sattvic (pure), probably childless, my consciousness percolating up towards my seventh chakra.

Researching NRMs has its pleasures. I meet delightful people. I hear the intimate spiritual confessions of peaceful meditators, unselfish communalists, and disciplined ascetics. But there are disadvantages to taking on the public role of “cult scholar.” Courted by the media as an offbeat academic who represents the “other view,” TV stations have offered me free travel and luxurious sojourns in Canadian Pacific Railway hotels; but then they edit my interview so I come across as a caricature of a misguided civil libertarian. In anticult circles I am dismissed as a naive dupe, or a closet cultist. In France my name has been listed with the other “revisionists” who deny atrocities dans les sectes. As for my Mormon relatives, they urge me to return to the fold lest I end up in the “telestial sphere.”

Many cults also 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 corrupt society. A Rajneesh therapist warned the other “supermoms” not to give me interviews because “she’s coming from her head, not from her heart.” E.J. Gold (the gnostic guru whose declared mission is “the education of the universe, one idiot at a time”), upon reading my MA thesis (about him), reportedly said, “This lady has the consciousness of a rubber duck!” When I asked a barefoot missionary from the Free Daist Communion for an interview, she explained she must first collect all my writings and send them to Fiji to be vetted. “Do you mean Da Free John is going to read my articles?” I asked, thrilled. “Not exactly,” she replied. “He handles them, and whatever wisdom they contain he absorbs through his fingertips.” Da Free John never got back to me.

Excluded from Black Hebrew assemblies as a “leprous pale-eyed Amorite,” shunned by the Asatru (racialist Druids) for looking “slightly jewish,” and dismissed by les séctes Quebecois as a carré tête (square-head or anglophone), I continue the struggle to present myself in such a way that my research attentions will be welcome. But what can be even more disconcerting is when I am beseiged by groups overly eager to be studied, and subjected to that special kind of “love bombing” that is a product of what sociologist Roland Robertson dubbed philomandarinism: “Susan, we just love you! You’re so beautiful—and so objective!” Aside from that sticky feeling of entering a fly-trap, I can foresee the day when they will all turn on me. In fifty years or so, after achieving the status of minority churches with the assistance of the dull ethnographies of academics like myself who function as alkaline neutralizers of the more acid anticult/media reports, these once controversial cults will loose their church historians on me and my peers, and they will condemn our careful writings—all because we tried to include reasonable but unflinching explanations for their bad news, and neglected to indulge in what my Mormon relatives call “faith-promoting incidents.”

Covert Researcher—or Closet Convert?

One obvious solution is to resort to covert research. When I first began to “spy on cults” back in the 1970s, on Professor Fred Bird’s research team, we four graduate students started out as strictly covert. We infiltrated our chosen groups, danced with sufis, hyperventilated with yogis, chanted with devotees. This created delicate dilemmas in etiquette later on. Once we got together and designed our questionnaires and interview schedules, the prospect of unmasking our real selves as ambitious academics in front of our fellow-seekers-on-the-path was daunting, and threatened an embarrassing loss of face. All four students had by now joined their chosen groups and some had “gone native.” Steve was initiated into TM and refused to reveal his mantra to our team. Bill balked at handing out questionnaires to his fellow meditators in Integral Yoga, for he feared it would interfere with his spiritual path. Hugh had completely disappeared into a nine-week Arica training seminar; he was incommunicado and had mumbled something before he left about “how my energy has moved beyond academia.”

Today, covert research is generally considered extremely unethical and methodologically unsound. It is something investigative journalists did to the Moonies in the 1980s to expose their “brainwashing” methods. French reporters still do it to the Raelians, pointing hidden cameras at rows of chubby nudists, so their photos can appear (eyes blacked out), as they did in an article on les sectes dangereuses in Echo Vedettes. Scholars criticize covert research as psychologically unhealthy, morally compromising, potentially dangerous, and methodologically inefficacious, and yet… I often find myself doing it still. There is always that ambiguous stage when I stumble across a new group and am trying to decide whether there is anything there worth studying. It is less bother to simply show up at the meetings, thereby placing oneself in the role of potential recruit rather than to formally introduce oneself as a professor of religion (organized religion often gets a bad reaction), or a teacher of a course titled Cults and Controversy (which sets off the “we are not a cult” speech).

Now, when I decide to unmask my secular identity, I confront quite a different reaction than I did as a sociology student. Since I am now perceived as a professor who is open-minded and charitably inclined towards religious minorities, I am relentlessly hustled to perform dreary tasks: “Can you write us a letter of recommendation?”; “Can you phone the Hindu professor at McGill and tell her to invite us to her class?”; “CNN is making an unflattering documentary about us. They promised they would interview you if we gave them a list of our enemy ex-members. Can you phone up the television station and tell them how harmless and wonderful we are?”; “Can you find out for us at Dawson College how to organize free vegetarian cooking classes for the students?” My position also allows me deeper access to information in some ways. I was able to interview the elusive Eugene Elbert Spriggs, founder of the Twelve Tribes movement, at dawn in the Basin Valley farm. The ex-nun who channels sexy angels let me sit in on her group therapy session for free, and I didn’t even have to do their silly exercises. When I researched the Children of God, I met “King Peter,” the successor of the late David Berg, who is normally selah (hidden), and he played me a tape of the reclusive Queen Maria’s scratchy southern voice.

But in other ways my role as “cult scholar” impedes my research. The wide range of strange groups I have investigated appear in my books, and some straitlaced groups assume I must be immoral to hang out with the Rajneeshees, the Raelians, and The Family, whom they perceive as sinners and sex maniacs. Others feel a little queasy about my overly tolerant attitude towards atheistic or “heretical” groups who claim Jesus was a space alien, and wonder how I can bear to sit down and sup with a mystical pope or a vampire. I received a letter from a Krishna devotee complaining she felt “quite nauseous” that her interview appeared in the same book as a Moonie. Several core-group leaders have expressed jealousy and feelings of abandonment—that since I stopped researching their community I have flitted off to some silly UFO group that even I must realize does not possess the Truth.

When I meet young graduate students researching NRMs today, I envy them their freedom, their naive enthusiasm, their straightforward, unpoliticized curiosity. I recall how effortless it used to be to blend into a following. Even after declaring oneself a researcher, the response was often, “Oh well, you’ll soon get over that!” I miss the intensity of real participant observation, the altered states, the gruelling ordeals I was subjected to!

I recall how, in the late 70s, I was among a group of neo-gnostics who jumped out of a van at 8:15 a.m. in front of a suburban supermarket. We all wore skin-tight grey leotards, transparent plastic gloves, grey bathing caps, bare feet (painted grey)—and shaved-off eyebrows! We formed a huddle around our core group leader, who instructed us that we were all “hungry ghosts” and our mission was to enter the supermarket by following a customer through the revolving door—”Make sure you touch nothing. If any part of your body makes contact with anything or anybody, go back outside immediately and start over.” Having fasted for three days we were hungry, but our exercise was to wander the aisles staring longingly at our favorite food, but to take nothing. After one hour we were meant to leave by shadowing a customer. We didn’t last the hour, for one of the cashiers called the police. (“Who are all those weirdos?” we overheard the staff muttering. “They look like a biker gang … planning a robbery.”) We leaped into the van and squealed off before the· police arrived. We lay on the rusty floor, doubled up, holding onto each other as we lurched around corners, hysterical with laughter. The same group, a month before, had me crawling around a giant playpen wearing diapers, undershirt, and bonnet for an entire day, gurgling incoherently, sucking huge bottles of warm milk and playing with building blocks with my fellow “babies.” Anticultists might be onto something when they claim an important stage of mind control is to “humiliate the victim” by “reinforcing childish behaviour.”

Today I am never invited to humiliate myself. I wear suits and shoulder pads and am taken on decorous tours, like visiting royalty. My eyebrows have grown in again, though they’ve never been quite the same!

Kai Erikson has argued that “it is unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent his identity for the purpose of entering a private domain to which he is not eligible; and second, that It IS unethical for a sociologist to deliberately misrepresent the character of the research in which he is engaged.” I find it difficult not to misrepresent my identity, since most of my informants ignore my staunch protests that I am merely a dreary academic, a boring social scientist doing my job. They insist that, deep down, I am a lost soul desperately struggling towards the light. It is often counterproductive to protest too vigorously, so I just let them think I am on the brink of a conversion—and, indeed, part of me secretly hopes I am still capable of what C.S. Lewis called being ‘surprised by joy.’

Too Close to the Cults?

I have been asked to justify my getting “too close to the cults.” I have been criticized for staying in a commune for a week or two, for travelling on the road with a missionary team, for having private conferences with charismatic leaders, for participating in meditation retreats, and so on. I felt a blast of criticism when I attended a meeting of the American Family Foundation in May 1997, attracted by the theme Cults and Children. The director of the Watchman Fellowship, a Christian counter-cult organization in Alabama, came up and introduced himself to me in the following disconcerting fashion: “Are you the Susan Palmer who wrote that positive chapter on The Family in Sex, Slander and Salvation? Why do you bother to go into these groups and talk to them. Don’t you know they always lie?”

I was astonished. For a researcher to avoid the living community and to rely exclusively on data supplied by ex-members and the group’s literature would be like an anthropologist claiming to be an expert on an Aboriginal tribe, but who only interviews Aborigines once they have migrated to the city; one who has never ventured into the outback let alone visited or lived with the tribe. Suppose Jane Goodall had never ventured into the Kenyan masai mara, but studied chimpanzees in zoos? It seems to me that any serious researcher who has the vocation to learn about new religions must seek them out in their purest form, and be present during their earliest, vital stages of development.

Anticultists have accused scholars of being paid by cults to say nice things about them, or accepting bribes to keep their mouths shut about the supposed atrocities ongoing in cultland. Any information centre on NRMs—CESNUR in Italy, INFORM in London, ISAR in Santa Barbara—that is not specifically set up to warn worried parents or concerned Christians about new religious horrors and heresies, is routinely accused by anticultists of receiving their funding from the cults. This very assumption—that NRMs are capable of networking with each other, or that they have heard and approve of the sociology of religion—reveals a profound ignorance of new religions in all their staggering diversity.

For certain large, international movements like the Unification Church, Scientology, International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), the Family, the word sociologist has an auspicious ring. For most groups, it denotes a boring, depressingly secular, time-wasting, spiritually contaminated nerd. When I told the sannyasis at my neighbourhood Rajneesh Meditation Center in 1985 that I wished to do a sociological study of their commune, they rolled their eyes. “Talk about missing the point!” one remarked. One swami who had an MA in Sociology commented, “It’s a good way to avoid looking inside yourself and get your energy stuck.”

As a Quebec scholar, I have had a great deal of difficulty explaining my academic intentions to the small anglophobic right-wing Catholic sectarian groups as well as to the magical-arcane lodges that make up a significant proportion of our French-Canadian groups. I tend to prefer virgin turf untouched by other researchers, and so I have had to start from square one trying to educate these adepts in the scientific study of religion. I have wasted much time trying in vain to convince them of the innocuous nature of my research plans and have often been ignominiously driven away.

That Elusive Thing Called Objectivity

Objectivity is not a fixed, eschatological state from whence unworthy and corrupt scholars plunge from grace. It is an ongoing balancing act, a kind of gradual sensitivity training. Any experienced scholar knows it is not easy to collect and analyse data on controversial movements, or to navigate the subtle terrain of real research situations. In the course of my own participant-observation studies I have experienced intense moments of aesthetic revulsion, emotional attraction, or cultural bias. My initial impressions of a group have often been erroneous, and my hypotheses and hunches have frequently proven false upon further investigation. Rather than recoil sanctimoniously at external assaults upon one’s objectivity, or castigate oneself for receptivity to unscholarly emotions or unwelcome mystical cognitions, the serious researcher will forge ahead knowing the adventure is just beginning.

Nevertheless, there is clearly a need for constructive suggestions concerning a new code of ethics, or at least some recognized guidelines, for the complex, nuanced situations field researchers encounter inside “world rejecting” NRMs. In 1967, in response to the controversy over the infamous Milgram experiment, the American Psychological Association’s Ad Hoc Committee on Ethical Standards in Psychological Research recommended that “members of the profession themselves should supply ethical problems as the raw material for discussion.” They hoped that through this inductive approach ethical principles would emerge that were relevant to contemporary research. Until recently, the exchange of concrete examples and discussion of these dilemmas among NRM scholars has been largely informal and interpersonal. We need more open forums along the lines of Catherine Wessinger’s sessions at the American Academy of Religion (AAR), where researchers exchange anecdotes that illustrate the unforeseen challenges met in the field.

There has been a mounting concern over the problem of trusting the published research of NRM scholars, whose work may be contaminated by making deals with the cult leaders, or by closet conversion experiences, not unlike the Patty Hearst “Stockholm syndrome,” or—worst of all—through bribes or cult funding to “say nice things.” Irving Horowitz first identified an academic weakness he called “slippage into unabashed support for groups and the quality of publications produced by academics who attended expenses paid Unificationist Church sponsored conferences.” Robert Balch and Stefan Langdon criticized the design of the AWARE group study of the then-controversial CUT, arguing that the scholars were willing victims of the group’s “impression management” (Goffman 1959). Balch’s critique has been cited repeatedly by anticultists as evidence that any research undertaken on NRMs with the knowledge and cooperation of the cult leaders is by nature contaminated. In my conversations with Rob Balch, he has expressed surprise that what he hoped was a constructive criticism to raise research standards within the academy was taken up and brandished by anticultists as evidence that any published research on NRMs that isn’t of the explicitly cult bashing sort is suspect, and the researcher’s objectivity has been corrupted!

Cult research poses its own peculiar set of problems. This was noted in the textbook I use for my course, Research Methods in the Social.Sciences. The authors, Del Balsa and Lewis claim that “certain social groups, such as religious cults or extremist political, groups, require covert observation.” Other textbooks compare cults to motorcycle gangs and quasi-criminal, racist, or anarchist groups that are so difficult and dangerous to study that covert research and snowballing techniques are recommended as the appropriate means to gather data.

Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs (1998) also raise the issue of the ethics appropriate for researchers in NRMs, and proceed to outline the dangers that await scholars in the field, dangers that are seemingly insurmountable and so morally contaminating as to cast doubt upon the personal integrity and efficaciousness of field researchers. They relate a series of anecdotes of how cults gain legitimacy by using, manipulating, or making deals with scholars, then sound the alarm for the future respectability and credibility of the discipline. There are several assumptions in their argument that I find disquieting: assumptions about the character of NRMs, about the brains of researchers, and about research methodology in general.

First, they imply that a new religion’s gradual acquisition of public acceptance is gained through sneaky means—that they somehow “got away with it,” and that it is undeserved. I have heard this argument before, most recently from the director of an anticult organization who spoke to my class, warning them that cults resort to underhand strategies to appear respectable or to gain legitimacy. They set up lectures at McGill University; their leaders are photographed shaking hands with politicians and respectable religious leaders. He was saying NRMs don’t deserve social acceptance and tolerance because we know they are intrinsically evil, or at least socially dysfunctional. The underlying message was, “we know they are quasi- or proto-criminal organizations, so their slimy efforts to suck up to us respectable people must be exposed!”

These authors (Kent and Krebs 1998) actually imply that a religious minority’s newfound freedom from stigma and cult stereotyping in the media or exoneration in court constitutes a kind of litmus test for the objectivity of the scholarly research cited in the affidavits and the news reports. I would agree heartily, as I assume my fellow researchers would, that academics should not be partisans in religious movement’s missionary efforts, charisma-building, millenarian, preparations, or eschatological aspirations. Whether a young religions reputation thrives or dives should be irrelevant to the pursuit of accurate knowledge and should not concern the scholar. But Kent and Krebs’s emphasis seems to imply that if a researcher’s findings just so happen to contribute to the NRM’s struggle for social legitimacy, then the findings themselves are suspect.

History tells us that those new religions that managed to survive the death of their founder, weather persecution, and schisms, and to socialize their second and third generations, inevitably work out a more civil and mutually accommodating relationship with society. The Mormons, the Christian Scientists, the Lutherans, and the Anabaptists all managed to do this without the assistance of “cult-sponsored scholars.”

The third assumption—that researchers are naive and easily duped—could be made only by scholars who occupy a bleak and marginal outpost in this field. Kent and Krebs (1998) warn scholars that they are often the targets of public relations and “impression management” when they begin to study a community that is in dire need of outside support for their legal and media battles. These are realities of which active researchers are already (trust me!) acutely aware. Most NRMs have an outer vestibule where they can check out prospective initiates, where charming host/hostesses speak to the media and provide information to visiting scholars. Surely even an inexperienced undergraduate student would not mistake this vestibule for the group’s innermost sanctuary. Any discerning anthropologist expects to wade through opening courtesies and ceremonial PR before unearthing more interesting data. It is quite understandable that NRMs with a history of conflict with society and of stigmatization in the media are wary of admitting researchers and will try to feed them the “relevant” information, hide discrediting literature, and reinterpret embarrassing events. Often these PR efforts are so poorly organized and transparent that they reveal more than they hide, drawing the inquisitive researcher’s eye to the vulnerable points in the group’s armour.

Kent and Krebs broaden the stigma surrounding cults to include the Cult scholars who embark on first-hand research in the field. In the end they veer away from the thorny task of thrashing out ethical guidelines for researchers going into controversial groups. Instead of grasping the nettle by the thorns, they brandish it. Some might even mistake their message to be “Researchers beware! Avoid challenging research projects entirely, lest your objectivity suffer irremediable erosion!” Thus the scholar’s overriding concern should be to preserve her/his reputation at all costs. This new “ethical” development in the field would be lamentable, as research would come to a screeching halt in areas that badly need elucidation, such as racialist, survivalist, and apocalyptic movements.

Weird Ethical Dilemmas beyond Your Wildest Dreams

But the real ethical dilemmas and challenges to objectivity are encountered after the PR phase, once the researcher has won the trust of the leaders and received permission to engage in research. These actual threats to scholarly objectivity are beyond your wildest dreams! Tenured professors, experts in the microsociology of NRMs who read the latest cult scandal in the news, then knowingly quote Toqueville while gazing out at their lawn sprinklers, have no idea what fascinating adventures they are missing by avoiding the strenuous, time-consuming work of field research. Scholars who rely exclusively on ex-members or on second-hand research for their data understandably lack any sense of the complex political situations and serious ethical decisions that confront the more energetic, less squeamish scholars who are willing to go into controversial communities. Each group poses unforeseen challenges, and every researcher presumably has different chinks in his/her armour. Problematic situations might be encountered in the course of sleeping inside a commune, participating m rituals designed to induce altered states of consciousness, interviewing rival leaders who try to enlist the researcher in their struggle over the succession, or talking to rebellious teens who tell you stuff their parents really should know about. These challenges can be complex and dramatic, requiring the researcher to improvise ethical guidelines as these situations come up.

I will now relate some of my adventures.

Why I Don’t Consider Myself a ‘Kept Scholar’

In 1992 I received two grants to study children in new religions. I approached two different sects in Quebec and was refused permission to interview their members (they suspected I was a spy sent by the Catholic school board to undermine their home schooling). Then two international NRMs heard about me and called me up, offering plane tickets to “come on out and study our kids!” I turned them down. The situation made me nervous, for several reasons. First, I was concerned about preserving my “scholarly virginity”; Second, I feared that if in the future I did not cooperate with their agenda, they might resort to blackmail (no doubt this is pure paranoia). Finally, I like to feel I am unhampered as a writer, free to poke fun at the group delicately if I feel like it or mention stuff that is embarrassing. In short, I don’t like being censored. I was aware that by choosing to study controversial childrearing methods in NRMs, I would be vulnerable to criticism, but I didn’t realize that I was stepping into the front line of a new battleground in the Cult Wars.

April 1994 I was standing in the witness box at the High Court, Family Division, in Lincoln’s Inn to testify during the Turle vs. Turle custody battle over the grandson of a millionairess whose mother joined The Family. The same official solicitor who wanted to know if I were “soft on the cults” asked: “Who paid for your tnp to San Diego to study The Family’s home-school?” Fortunately I was able to respond: “I paid for it out of my SSSR grant”—and could have produced the receipts if necessary.

I have never accepted money from an NRM to study them, but have had to make deals with leaders who have curtailed the areas I was allowed to go into. I have managed to preserve my scholarly virginity, but have engaged in mutual flattery and love-bombing, if not heavy petting (figuratively speaking), with charismatic leaders and their top aides. Personally, I don’t know of any kept scholars in real life, but I am unsuited for the job since I prefer my NRMs wild and virgin. I seek out groups that are almost inaccessible and unselfconscious groups that know they are not a cult, but I naively swallow what the newspapers say about other cults—groups that have never heard of the term NRM, groups that are suspicious of researchers and assume a sociologist is just a pretentious variety of journalist. Once they start sending out PR reps to conferences wearing suits, groomed hair, and name tags, they’re no fun anymore. Well, that’s not true. They can still be interesting, but suddenly they seem tame, almost domesticated. Other scholars horn in and conduct schmaltzy interviews in the hotel breakfast nook and arrange visits.

If NRMs are baby religions, scholarly conferences provide the venues to set up petting zoos.

A Condominium on the Outskirts of Heaven

I have been offered bribes, so I keep all my receipts and correspondence to make it more convenient to sue anyone who suggests my research efforts or opinions can be bought. But I never turn down otherworldly rewards. Three different apocalyptic sects have awarded me a sort of last-minute squeezed-in salvation when the cosmic countdown comes. “We want you to know you will be blessed when Our Saviour returns,” a bearded elder told me. Technically I deserve to be consigned to eternal oblivion or fall into the pit amidst other soulless beer-swilling sinners, but I have been promised a condominium on the outskirts of Heaven, according to “The Chosen People.” I have been assured by another “biblically based” group that I will be beamed up before Armageddon gets too nasty. I was informed that Da Free John (currently known as Adidam) “meditated me” long before I appeared on their scene. An infamous “cult leader” prophesied I was “one of the three wise women sent by. God to assist the Prophet in opening the seventh seal at the end of time.” One Raelian guide suggested I might be eligible for cloning when the extraterrestrials arrive. And if linear time is indeed an illusion, I can look forward to a better rebirth, according to a member of Hare Krishna who suggested that I am a devotee of Swami Prahupada “in my heart.”

Oddly enough, these assurances make me feel more secure on airplanes when I travel to conferences.

I also receive quite a lot of flattery. I am so accustomed to love-bombing that I have stopped blushing and now courteously return the blast: “I love you too! If I were even one tenth as beautiful as you are, I would be so happy!” My own children have accused me of sycophantic behaviour in the presence of charisma: “That’s my mom sucking up to Rael,” I overheard my daughter say as she showed my photo album, Quebec Sect Tours, to a friend. I don’t “suck up!” Prophets are fascinating people—although my excitement in their presence might more closely resemble a manic butterfly collector than a sincere spiritual seeker.

The Sociologist as Hired Gun

To agree to appear in court as a witness to help a NRM (or a member) win or defend their case is not the same as bemg a “cult-sponsored scholar.” Charlotte Allen (1999) lumps kept scholars and court witnesses together, but since we live in a society where even religious minorities actually enjoy the right to a fair trial, expert witnesses are generally considered to be legitimate. Nevertheless, going to court raises a whole new spectrum of problems for the researcher who nurtures objectivity.

Personally, when I first accepted the gig of hired gun, I experienced it as a traumatic loss of innocence. Courts are scary. I felt dragged into an adversarial situation and the anticult newsletters were soon taking potshots at me. I felt uncomfortable when asked to name my fee. Then, later (when I found out what the other witnesses got), I was annoyed at myself for requesting so little.

Just asking about fees was an education in itself. I called one eminent British scholar who replied, “I would never agree to go to court, I would find it compromising to my scholarship.” Another European scholar who had appeared in court on occasion said, “I never accept money as a witness, it looks and feels too much. like a bribe.” One French professor insisted, “in France an expert Witness who accepts money is considered ineligible as a witness by the court.” Then I phoned several American scholars and noticed a very different view. “You must establish a substantial fee, or you will be perceived as a closet member of the cult, and your testimony won’t be taken seriously,” one scholar advised me. Another seasoned expert witness counselled, “Charge as much as you can—$150 an hour just for reading the affidavits—because lawyers talk to each other, and if it becomes known that you charge a low fee, your testimony won’t be valued, and you won’t get asked back.”

The next time I was asked to appear in court by a different NRM, I told their lawyer I wouldn’t charge anything because it would not require extra research, the group was not rich, and I could see the defendant had been unfairly treated. All I asked was that my expenses be covered. Initially I felt comfortable with that, but soon realized that my relationship with the group leaders had begun to take on a ‘covenantal’ as opposed to a ‘contractual’ character (Bromley and Busching 1988). They were now firmly convinced I had been sent by God to aid them in their battle against the Prince of Darkness. That was OK, I told myself, I don’t mind accommodating their worldview, but the real problem was that they now expected me to be constantly on the alert and ready to jump into the fray. I flew out for the pretrial hearing, then they wanted me to fly out again for the last day of the trial, and now expect me to be on call for more upcoming cases. I am currently trying to figure out how lean gracefully bow out of their mythic landscape.

The Sociologist as Undercover Agent

Three months after the Solar Temple perpetrated their shocking mass suicide/homicide ritual “transit” to Sirius, I found myself in an office being grilled by two policemen from the Securité Quebec concerning my belated and rather tentative research efforts into this controversial and criminal order. They wanted me to hand over a list of the Templars or ex-Templars I had met or interviewed. (It was impossible to tell the difference since none of them would admit to a current affiliation.) I refused, saying that to reveal the names of one’s informants contravened ethics inthe social sciences. “Excuse me, Madame,” said one official, “What is that?” It was difficult to explain. Finally the “good cop” in the tweed suit joked, “Be very careful, Madame. But, if you find yourself on Sirius, send us a postcard.”

The Sociologist as Soft Deprogrammer

I have noticed that the visit of a researcher is sometimes welcomed by NRM adherents as an opportunity for hedonism, a chance to gain access to luxuries and indulgences not normally available within the strict regimen of a commune or the work space of even the more secularized religious institutions. This particular ethical problem has never been identified or discussed in anticult circles, because they view cultists as obedient robots incapable of rebelling. In my experience, the brainwashed are quite capable of sneakiness, of pursuing their own individualistic whims or vices.

The kind of situation I am talking about has occurred quite often, where the people assigned to host me and facilitate my research very often suggest we go outside to a local bar or restaurant and order a drink or a meal. Somehow, many NRMs seemed to have gained the impression that most sociologists are borderline alcoholics. After one round of beers (paid for by the cult budget) they have suggested we order another round. The first time this happened I unthinkingly and selfishly said “No thanks,” and then saw the anxious, disappointed looks on their faces. I realized this was perhaps their only opportunity to indulge in alcoholic beverages for the next few years, so I said, “OK, maybe I will,” and paid for the second round. When I left half a glass, I noticed one of them swilled it down quickly as we got up to leave.

Since I privately feel many of the new religions I study are too strict and overly spartan, I am inclined to collude with my interviewees and encourage their secret rebellions—which places me in a morally dubious position, since I genuinely respect their religious principles and realize the rules are based on sound economics or communal ideals of humility and equality—or necessary measures to avoid assimilation. It puts sociologists like me rather in the position of being a “soft deprogrammer,”—by encouraging members to disobey leaders, break out of their conditioning, and place their own selfish desires before the group goals—perhaps the first tentative steps towards eventually leaving?

On one occasion I had arranged to spend a few days living with a rather puritanical, biblically based commune in order to interview members and study communal patterns. Two members in their forties, who had recently been given the exciting task of dealing with the public, picked me up in a car to drive me to the commune four hours away in the countryside. On the way they suggested we stop off at a beautiful hotel by a lake to get some refreshment and so that I could admire the prospect of the mountains. I agreed, still feeling jet-lagged. Upon our arrival at the hotel front desk it became clear they had booked rooms—one for the two women, and the other for the man. Then they turned to me and said, “Susan, you must be really tired with all your teaching and travelling, we thought it would be great for you if we all stayed here for three days. You could interview us, and catch up with your writing projects. We’ll double up and give you the private room so you can work in peace.” It became clear that their real agenda was to indulge a secret passion they had been harbouring for years. It turned out their love affair had started years ago, but had been squelched by the leaders, and they had been encouraged to marry more suitable partners. I was not unsympathetic to their romance, and I could appreciate their need for a little holiday away from the crowded commune.

In this situation we find the sociologist-as-chaperone. The two would no doubt later report to their leaders: “Dr Palmer insisted on stopping at a hotel for three days en route,” and they probably had been instructed to indulge a decadent sociologist. I had no problem personally with facilitating their affair, except that I really did want to conduct as many interviews as possible and realized if the situation became public this would not be good for my rep.: I would very much look like a jet-setting, kept scholar using research trips to enjoy luxurious holidays. So I had to play the priggish spoilsport and say no, although I sat by the lake and reviewed my notes while they went to the room to “rest from the drive.” Thus sociologists can have a corrupting effect upon the morals of members.

The Real Ethical Question: Who Gets Hurt by Whom?

Ever since the Milgram experiment in 1963, the concern has been exclusively for the rights and dignity of the human subjects in experiments. And yet, all the recent discussion on research ethics in the microsociology of NRMs has focused on the potential harm to the discipline (due to sleazy researchers) and to the general public who might mistake a cult for a respectable enterprise. I feel it is time we exhibited some concern for the informants in NRMs, who already have been stripped of dignity through being labelled brainwashed cultists.

Baker notes that “It has more often been the case that social researchers have studied those with lower status than themselves rather than higher. Indigent and poorly educated people do not have the resources or knowledge, the lawyers, or the ‘I’m too busy’ excuses to fend off social researchers.” Many members of NRMs feel so outcast, so marginalized, that they exhibit a pathetic gratitude that here at last is someone who is willing to listen to their side of the story. In some instances they have been told by the leaders to cooperate with sociologists, since scholarly articles on their movements tend to be more balanced and accurate than news reports. Thus they are in a vulnerable position to be exploited and manipulated by the researcher.

Sometimes this happens· in the process of writing. It is only. too easy for sociologists to make their informants sound less educated and articulate than themselves. Obviously there is a difference in the way even PhDs express themselves verbally and on paper. What we find in many scholarly studies of new religions (including my own, I confess) are many indented passages in which the informant spills his or her guts in less than grammatical fashion. The informants’ responses in interviews (often too touchy and impertinent questions concerning intimate conversion experiences, sensations while meditating, the group’s controversial sexual mores, and their own deeply emotional first encounter with their God-in-flesh leader) are often liberally sprinkled with “like,” “um,” “kind of,” “you know.” On concluding the indented quote as a specimen of cultic thinking, the sociologist then lunges into an interpretation of the statement in the industrial Latin of American “sociologese,” leaving the reader stunned by the disparities in the two prose styles.

Often it is quite evident to the reader that the “cultists” statements might be interpreted in several ways and are applicable to more than one hermeneutic context, but the impatient sociologist ignores these subtleties and proceeds to pounce upon the odd sentence that fits the theory presented in the article. References to Durkheim, Levi Strauss, or Eliade unconsciously underscores the portrait of the modem urban “cultist” with the “Savage Mind”—as a sort of naive neo-primitive. In the end, the sociologist comes across as smarter than she/he might actually be, and the cultist as stupider, less self-aware than he or she probably would strike you in a real life situation. By scrupulously including all the “ums” and “well, it’s like, …” the sociologist gets extra points for being a rigorous and accurate recorder of naturalistic data, while at the same time demonstrates his or her intellectual superiority to—and distance from—the informant.

Scholars and researchers play an important role as educators in the global process of the proliferating new religious pluralism. Often they are the only go-betweens, the ones who have traversed that no man’s land between the “cult” and “normal society.” In this situation it is tempting to fancy oneself as a “freedom fighter” or a deus ex machina who advises cult leaders on how to get out of trouble.

I find myself torn between the need to educate and the desire to entertain. By highlighting spiritual weirdnesses I grab my students’ attention and please journalists, but I undermine the groups’ struggle for respect. It is only too easy to forget that cult members are human beings too, and that many have found happiness, learned social graces, received spiritual gifts participating in less than respectable religions.

Recently I invited a Knight of the Golden Lotus to speak to my class, after giving the students a rather unfeeling satirical sketch of the late leader’s eccentricities. Our speaker appeared in the knights’ orange and yellow garments, with mirrors fastened on his headband. His companion wore amulets of swans, rainbows, and mandalas pinned to her ample bosom. I stifled a smirk, and was feeling particularly frazzled—the VCR wasn’t working and the audiovisual man refused to help, and he launched into a tirade on the college cutbacks that robbed him of his assistant. My daughter had refused to brush her hair before leaving for school, and my students were now behaving badly, lurching in late and babbling at the back. My Knight of the Golden Lotus stepped forward: “Please be quiet! We have come to present to you our religion and would appreciate respect.” The students immediately calmed down and he launched into a fascinating lecture.

Afterwards, walking down the hall beside him, I reflected that in spite of his leader’s execrable taste in architecture, here was an admirable human being. His swift social responses had shown considerable insight and intelligence. I suspected that on this particular day his mental health was superior to my own. In fact, he’d put me in a good mood—perhaps an altered state?

Learning How to Navigate the Cult Wars

Over thirty-odd years, the controversial field of what Thomas Robbins (1988) dubbed the “microsociology of new religions” has blossomed, waxed in complexity, and come to resemble a German late-Romantic string quartet in all its dark, foreboding dissonances. In the past five years, since Waco, we have witnessed a heightened awareness of religious liberty issues, the sudden demise of the Cult Awareness Network, and a softening of the boundaries separating NRM scholars from anticultists. Former deprogrammers present papers at the SSSR, and NRM researchers who have debunked the brainwashing theory are finally permitted to attend the American Family Foundation conferences. As the no man’s land that recently separated the anticultists from the “cult scholars” is tamed by footprints, and new, uneasy alliances are formed, each side shows signs of fissiparousness as various schools of thought—and backbiting—threaten the collegiality of cult scholars.

All the evidence at hand points to a future filled with a dizzying abundance of ever-proliferating new religions. This phenomenon begs to be studied and offers stimulating hands-on research opportunities for young scholars. And yet, inexperienced and ambitious aspiring academics are likely to be deterred by a kind of miasma hovering around the field, a miasma arising from rumours and stereotypes as well as occasional errors and poor judgment on the part of NRM researchers. Will the young field researcher who wishes to write about the vampire subculture and its rituals hesitate to embark on this project lest she later find herself branded as a morbid blood-drinker once she becomes a famous sociologist? Young scholars may feel reluctant to embark on the study of NRMs like the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Unification Church and The Family, groups that in the past have been known to exhibit “philomandarin” tendencies—to eagerly court, and even pay, scholars to study them. These groups continue to mature, mutate, and institutionalize charisma in fascinating ways… but by associating with these groups, are young researchers compromising their most precious commodity: objectivity. Or, even more important, are they compromising their reputations as objective social scientists?

Paradoxically, there is pressure in the academy to steer clear of cults, but the news media exerts considerable pressure on scholars to comment on, and hence to study, the more controversial, outrageous, or dangerous groups–and these are precisely the areas of unpredictable pitfalls. What NRM scholar does not feel trepidation upon hearing the following cautionary, but true tales? (1) A Japanese professor who wrote an encyclopedia entry on Aum Shinrikyo, and whose graduate student was recruited into the movement, was fired by the university—the rationale being, if he knew his stuff he should have been able to recognize danger signals and warn the proper authorities; and (2) an Oregon high-school teacher was fired after inviting two sannyasis from Rajneeshpuram to talk to his class.

Like Dorothy on the yellow brick road, young researchers will occasionally lose their barking “Totos” of objectivity. They will rely on their Cowardly Lions (academic caution) and rusty Tin Woodmen (qualitative methods) as they wander off into the yet undreamt-of spiritual landscapes of the future. Perhaps in a few years it will be considered quite as respectable to receive research funding from NRMs as it is from the Vatican. Perhaps “religious minority” will have the same earnest ring to it as “sexual minority” or “women of colour.” The best advice I can offer to my students who aspire to spiritual espionage is this: Be open about what you’re doing, don’t apologize for mistakes, grow a rhinoceros-hide, but cultivate an empathetic ear for spiritual confessions.


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  • DaveLance

    Quaint. Sort of like the young woman who is courting Charles Manson because he is very smart and interesting. Since Ms. Palmer approaches the crime scene as a researcher with the credentials and credibility of a Doctor in Philosophy, she is insulated from the mayhem. It is interesting to note that followers of cult gurus enjoy the power trip, and almost universally portray themselves as duped victims when the cult ultimately implodes.

    I feel a deep stomach churn reading Dr. Palmer’s apologist nonsense. There is epic irresponsibility and callus indifference baked into every word. Like a yellow journalist mythologizing Bonnie and Clyde as they speed away from a blood soaked killing field. That is real carnage. Real destruction. Real blood. Real victims. Real children who have lost their fathers. Steve Hassan has a different take on the adolescent hi jinks “phase” of social isolation coincidentally practiced by ‘New Religions.” His analysis deserves to be read and understood alongside Dr. Palmer’s hedonistic bad boy euphoria power trip essay that is presented here as scientific research. http://www.freedomofmind.com/Info/BITE/bitemodel.php

    The Essenes appear to have settled for a time at the abandoned salt processing plant thirty miles east of Jerusalem at Qumran. Their “Community Rules” Dead Sea Scroll describes them as a classic cult. (We are children of light, everyone not us are children of darkness, blah, blah). It also describes, and in some detail, a system whereby a new recruit places their wealth in a clay jug that gets buried out back for three years. If, after that passage of time, the member decides to remain with the sect, the money comes out of escrow and goes to the group. If they leave before three years, they take their jug of cash with them. If all “New Religions” did that, I would have little to criticize. It is not about religion, God, spirituality or meditation. It is about wealth procurement.