Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, eds.
Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field.
University of Toronto Press, 2001, 524 pp.
$35.00 paper (0-8020-8188-6), $85.00 cloth (0-8020-4373-9)
This book is a debate among twelve authors in thirteen chapters over whether cults are harmful and often "brainwash" members. Today this would seem a very important topic, when world leaders and the general public want to understand groups like the Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hamas and Hezbollah. It would also seem to be an intellectually important topic, because it logically relates to fundamental questions of social control over individual behavior and cultural differentiation. Thus, this book could be an important contribution to the welfare of humanity, but it also is a severe test for social science.
The sociology of religion has had a century to prove that it is truly scientific. There are several preconditions for a science. Perhaps the most important, frequently overlooked, is that the empirical domain of the science actually contains distinct, natural phenomena that are subject to measurable laws. For a century, sociologists have claimed that religion is in fact a set of lawful phenomena, and several fairly well developed theories of cult formation and recruitment exist. Other prerequisites of science include the development of rigorous (usually quantitative) research methods, agreement on a clear set of concepts and definitions of terms, training of a community of expert scientists, and financial support of research based on evaluation by peer review. Unfortunately, the evidence of this book suggests the sociology of religion fails to meet a number of these tests.
In many respects this is an excellent book, containing insightful essays written from a variety of perspectives. It is motivated by Benjamin Zablocki's provocative essay arguing that a "big lie" in social science has falsely debunked the concept of "brainwashing." Zablocki asserts that his model of brainwashing is based on traditional literature on the topic, reexamined in terms of such factors as the costs an individual would have to sustain in order to defy the will of a charismatically structured collectivity to which he or she belonged. On the other side of the debate, Dick Anthony reviews the history of the brainwashing concept, demonstrating that it was a pseudoscientific notion cooked up by the CIA but refuted by the CIA's own research. Of all the essays in the volume, Anthony's appears the most solidly based in published literature, but nowhere in the book do we find citations to rigorous, recent scientific research that could settle the debate with any confidence.
David Bromley suggests that the debate may not be not amenable to empirical resolution, because reality is too complex, key aspects of social influence on the individual are unobservable, religious movements are too varied, and the theories employed by scholars are too diverse. Of course the natural sciences often deal with phenomena that are complex and difficult to observe, but Bromley's analysis comes close to saying that objectively determinable patterns of regularity may in fact not exist in the world of radical religion. However, he prefers to stress the political nature of the competing positions in the debate over religious conversion and brainwashing, which is associated with intellectual polarization and the failure of a scientific community to emerge, based on shared concepts and methods.
Several of the contributors note the ambiguity in the terms "cult" and "brainwashing," and while some offer definitions there is no consensus about what the words mean. Not a single paper in the collection makes use of quantitative data or conducts any other kind of formal theory testing, and there are few connections to findings about group influence from wider sociology or from social psychology. Some contributors use very harsh language in describing writers who disagree with them, each faction accusing the other of selling out and forsaking intellectual integrity for material gain either from the families who turn in desperation to the anti-cult movement for help with lost relatives, or from the cults themselves. It is a telling fact that several of the more polite writers refer to their colleagues as scholars rather than scientists, the implication being that they all operate outside any framework of precise measurement and hypothesis testing.
The most refreshingly honest chapter in the book was contributed by Canadian sociologist, Susan Palmer, who writes about her personal experiences studying a number of small, radical religious movements. She notes that she has been called "a cultlover," but she considers herself a connoisseur, who appreciates cults as a beautiful life form worthy of study for what they really are, rather than for what ideologically-oriented outsiders can make of them. Palmer sensitively examines the various roles and statuses an ethnographer of cults can find herself in, and she addresses the issue of whether someone can study a cult closely without being influenced by it, becoming perhaps a closet convert. In contrast, several of the authors who consider cults evil seem never to have conducted research inside one, at best talking with a few defectors who may have their own reasons for exaggerating the wrongs that have been done to them.
If the authors were less intelligent, and if the essays contained fewer compelling ideas, we could simply dismiss Misunderstanding Cults as a bad book. But because it contains much of value and includes contributions from several leading scholars in the field, we have to come to a very different judgment. This rather good book demonstrates the very bad condition of the social science of religion.
William Sims Bainbridge
National Science Foundation
Note: The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.
William Sims Bainbridge is the author of The Endtime Family: Children of God (State University of New York Press, 2002), which will be reviewed in a future issue of CJS Online.