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UCSB research of ‘new religions’ returns surprises

Santa Barbara News-Press, USA
July 30, 2004
Rhonda Parks Manville, News-Press Staff Writer • Sunday August 1, 2004

Six weeks ago, 11 UCSB students set out to map the “new religious movements” in Santa Barbara and Ojai.

To be truthful, they were a little afraid of what they might find.

“I would have thought that they all had shaved heads and chanted, but it wasn’t like that at all,” said Sara Penrod, who will be a senior in the fall. “And now I know these groups can look like you and me, that they are all around and that they aren’t scary at all.”

During five weeks of research, the students visited Theosophy lodges and Buddhist temples, storefronts for Scientology and psychic boutiques. A number of yoga studios are included, because yoga is a way for some Hindu and Buddhist groups to engage in religious practice and raise money.

The students, under UCSB researcher and cult expert J. Gordon Melton, discovered 90 groups in the area (including spirituality hub Ojai) that qualify roughly as “new religions.”

J. Gordon Melton

J. Gordon Melton is not a cult expert, but rather a cult apologist. Some of his writings read like PR publications for the groups he claims to have studied. One report co-authored by Melton has been referred to as a “travesty of research.”

Those are typically small and culturally and socially alienated from mainstream religions — but not necessarily “new,” as the listing of several Buddhist and Hindu sects demonstrates.

With their survey results, the class created a directory of the groups that includes pictures, addresses and contact information. The list includes movements such as Eckankar, the Church of Inner Light, Yogaversity Equilibrium Healing, the Spiritualist Church of the Comforter and legendary Santa Barbara palm reader and psychic Madame Sonia Rosinka.

Some of the groups — such as the Mormons, Christian Scientists, and some Pentecostal and evangelical churches — might be shocked to find themselves on the list, because they place themselves in the Christian tradition. The Islamic Society of Santa Barbara is also on the list, as are the Jehovah’s Witnesses. They all qualify as “new religions” because they remain outside the mainstream in many respects, Mr. Melton said.

“It’s a fluid analysis, and some are moving out of the ‘new religions’ group while others are on the edge,” he said. “Some might be considered more sectarian — offshoots of mainstream religions.”

Most of the students visited at least one group on the list and attended its worship services. They generally found the practitioners friendly, open and willing to share information about their faith.

Only a few of the students said they felt “pressured” by their subjects, one being an evangelical college ministry, the other a Scientology practitioner.

That’s not what most of these young students were expecting.

Several students said they excitedly told their friends and families about their “cult class,” which instantly raised concerns among some parents. But the students soon learned the term “cult,” so often used to describe destructive and violent groups like the People’s Temple and Synanon, is no longer preferred by scholars.

“When someone uses the word ‘cult,’ it usually says more about them than the group,” said Mr. Melton, the founder and director of The Institute for the Study of American Religion, and the author and editor of more than 30 books. He noted that nearly every religious group and denomination in America — save for the Methodists — has been accused of being cultlike at one point, and the evidence lies in the anti-cult literature aimed at each of them.

“In the beginning, everything looked like a cult to me,” said Andrea Holland. “Now I’m thinking of these groups as new religions and making a distinction.”

Read the Santa Barbara News-Press online

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