A Historical Introduction to the Study of New Religious Movements

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W. Michael Ashcraft
Routledge New Religions
  • New York, NY : 
    , February
     260 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


W. Michael Ashcraft’s new book is an introduction to the history of the study of New Religious Movements (NRMs)—the preferred scholarly term for what popular discourse often terms “cults.” Ashcraft defines NRM studies as a “specialization” that “constantly breaks apart and recombines elements of disciplines to form its own structure” (8). After an introductory chapter that lays out his methodology (he impressively interviewed over one hundred people for this text), W. Michael Ashcraft give us a series of brief chapters that work both chronologically and thematically.

Chapter 2 traces the origins of NRM studies to liberal Protestant writers who could “find room in their Christian perspective” to write sympathetically about various alternative religions from the 1930s to the 1960s (9). Methodist minister Charles Braden is probably the most important of this group. Ashcraft also takes into account polemical books written by evangelicals against “cults.” This chapter also lucidly summarizes the development of church/sect theory by scholars such as Max Weber, Ernst Troeltsch, and H. Richard Niebuhr, and of critiques of this theory by sociologists such as Thomas O’Dea and Peter Berger. Church/sect theory problematically undergirds much of the early scholarship on NRMs.

Chapter 3 looks at the NRM scholarship of the 1960s and 1970s. Scholars worked hard during this period to keep up with cultural changes that seem to have caused an exponential growth in NRMs in America, including an increase in Asian spiritual leaders coming to the US because of a 1965 change in immigration law, a revival of older occult movements, and the rise of modern therapeutic culture. The story goes that these changes fed into a general growth of the counterculture, which led to this NRM explosion. The scholarly consensus was that “NRMs gave to a disaffected generation a deep sense of purpose and freedom to explore spiritual realms” (56). Ashcraft bores down into the scholarship by looking at macro-level studies (most notably by Robert Bellah), micro-level studies (Lofland and Stark’s surveys of “joiners”), and the continued influence of liberal Protestant theology (think Harvey Cox). Important here too is the 1978 publication of the first edition of J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions which refuted both church/sect theory (classifying religions into families based on “religious doctrine, lifestyle, and history” [56] rather than fixed sociological functions) and the “NRMs as product of 1960s counterculture” cliché (by showing NRMs were present in all periods of American history). Chapter 4 continues the analysis of NRM studies in the 1960s and 1970s and is most notable for its discussion of scholarly conferences bankrolled by the Unification Church (UC, often known as the “Moonies”).

Chapter 5, on the growth of cultic studies, is one of the book’s most fascinating. Unlike most subfields in religious studies, NRM studies has an “evil twin” (my term)— a branch of scholarship with its own journals and conferences, but one dedicated to the premise that cults are dangerous. Cultic studies is most notable for basing its research on the controversial concept of “brainwashing.” Ashcraft provides a careful look at the controversy, interestingly and ably showing that belief in brainwashing arose out of two different fears—fear of the social conformity and ubiquity of advertising in the 1950s, and of techniques used by the communist Chinese. Further, Ashcraft unpacks the rhetorical premises of cultic studies: cults are not real religions, cults use sophisticated recruitment techniques not available to social groups in the past, and cults are a form a slavery. Chapter 6 deals with NRM studies in the 1980s and 1990s, much of which Ashcraft sees as a response to cultic studies gaining the upper hand in popular media. This chapter also covers how NRMs served as data for Stark and Bainbridge’s “rational choice” theory of religion. Finally, this chapter recounts the “satanic panic” of the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the scholarly response to it.

Chapter 7 treats the study of violence in NRMs. It mostly consists of a review of literature about Jonestown and the Branch Davidians. It ends with Ashcraft’s appeal for a wider definition of violence within NRM studies, going beyond catastrophic mass death to include abuse and institutional violence. Chapter 8 looks at the importance of gender in NRM studies (while noting that race and class are not [yet?] as important). Ashcraft focuses on the important scholarship of Janet Jacobs, Cynthia Eller, and Susan J. Palmer. He mentions some work on children in NRMs, and how queer studies contributes to NRM studies, including the pioneering work of Melissa M. Wilcox. Chapter 9, about NRM fieldwork, is rather short but includes a list of important terms in ethnography and a discussion on the insider/outsider issue, with pagan studies as the exemplar. The book’s conclusion lists journals and associations connected with NRM studies, and notes a decline in the relationship between NRM studies and the sociology of religion. It then points to the future by noting a rise in cultural studies/ material studies approaches to NRMs. This is a most welcome development from my perspective and I wish Ashcraft had spent more than a single page on it. I also wish Ashcraft had spent more time discussing the ethics of NRM scholarship—what are the implications of UC-sponsorship of NRM research (or other groups that fund scholars, such as Soka Gakkai)? I would also have liked to see more attention paid to non-US scholarship. Yes, figures such as the UK’s Eileen Barker and Italy’s Massimo Introvigne are given their due, but Asian NRMs and scholars are invisible.

This is an unapologetically “insider” book, exemplified by the long section (90-96) on the growth of NRM studies at the annual meetings of professional associations—a topic interesting to perhaps a dozen people (myself included!). But really, how fun for NRM scholars to read a book whose heroes are us: each chapter begins with a vignette about how major NRM scholars (e.g., James T. Richardson, Sarah Pike) got started in their research. So clearly this book is not intended as essential reading for undergraduates or for the general public. But it is an absolute must-read for any graduate student preparing for a field exam in NRMs, or sociology of religion more generally, as well as for anyone preparing to teach a course on NRMs. Individual chapters could be productively assigned in an undergraduate classroom.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elijah Siegler is Professor of Religious Studies at the College of Charleston.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

W. Michael Ashcraft is Professor of Religion in the Philosophy and Religion Department at Truman State University, USA. He has published a monograph entitled The Dawn of the New Cycle (2002) and serves as an Editorial Consultant for Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. He has also been part of the New Religious Movements Group of the American Academy of Religion for many years, spending six of those years as the chair.


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