Odd Gods: New Religions & the Cult Controversy

Sociology of Religion, Spring 2003
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Odd Gods: New Religions & the Cult Controversy, JAMES R. LEWIS (ED.), Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2001, 435 pp., $33.00 (cloth).

This book is an encyclopedic review, not unlike Lewis’s earlier The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects, and New Religions, published in 1999 by the same press. One major difference with this volume is that it contains two narrative chapters and categorizes the groups according to religious tradition rather than simply putting them in alphabetical order.

Lewis’s purpose, stated clearly at the outset, is to counter the general public’s negative perception of cults and new religious movements (NRMs), which he maintains is fueled by press exposes and periodic scandals. His intention is to “supply some of the pieces missing from this skewed image” (9). The book begins with an overview chapter and another summarizing legal actions in relation to NRMs. To highlight the roles played by “anticultists” and “religious libertarians,” Lewis begins Chapter 1 with a brief recounting of two groups that have been involved in controversy – Heaven’s Gate and the Twelve Tribes (also known as the Northeast Kingdom Community Church).

Then Lewis winds back to a summary of 19th century religious persecution in America; the “deprogramming and anticult movement” of the early 1970s and 80s; stereotyping, self– fulfilling stereotypes, the media; and the appeal of new religions. The chapter ends with a typology for distinguishing healthy from unhealthy religions. All of this is done in less than 50 pages, giving short shrift to issues and controversies that have plagued scholars and other cult-watchers for more than three decades now. Unfortunately his overview is riddled with inflammatory language, generalizations, and simplistic explanations. For example, he lumps together everyone who criticizes a cult or NRM and accuses them of “unreflectively applying the cult stereotype to every religious group that strikes one as strange or different” (19). Meanwhile their opponents are described as genuine “defenders of the rights of minority religions” (24). Oddly enough, after downplaying controversial incidents and deriding the wrong– headedness of those who raise criticism, Lewis states that these unreflective stereotypes of which he is so critical “are appropriate for some minority religions” (51). But then he goes on to assure readers that “the founders of new groups are – despite whatever personal flaws some might have – almost always sincerely religious” (51). This section, as well as the entire book, contains no citations or references to source material.

Most of the book is devoted to entries of varying lengths, many of which have been vetted by the groups themselves, although the reader does not know which ones. Lewis covers some 87 groups, sorting them according to 12 traditions: Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Hindu, Sikhism, Buddhist, Theosophy, Neopaganism, New Thought, Spiritualism, UFO Religions, and a catchall Other. Each section is prefaced with a brief review of the tradition.

Certainly it is a challenge to pull together information on dozens of groups and try to represent them accurately. I commend Lewis for his perseverance in that regard. About two dozen entries are authored by other scholars with specialties in a particular area. Perhaps my biggest reservation about this book is that it contains practically no new information. In the Preface we learn that all 19 chapters are taken from two of Lewis’s other works. The narrative chapters, 1 and 2, are adapted from Cults in America, published in 1998. The remaining chapters 3 to 19 are drawn from his Encyclopedia, mentioned earlier. My hope was that the entries would have been brought up to date, but I teamed otherwise upon checking them against the original. What we are left with are entries that for the most part end with events from the early 1990s and sometimes even the 1980s or earlier. There are three entirely new entries and ten that are slightly revised or updated with one or two short paragraphs.

But it is disconcerting to read, for example, in relation to The Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA) that Ariana Huffington is the wife of Michael Huffington (256), when they have been divorced since 1997. Or to read nothing about the fact that Yahweh ben Yahweh, leader of the Nation of Yahweh, was convicted in 1993 of telling his followers to commit 14 murders in south Florida. Or to have no mention of the 1997 death of Synanon leader, Charles Dederich. With major developments in recent years in such groups as the Unification Church, Ananda Village, AUM Shinrikyo, the Church Universal and Triumphant, the Hare Krishna, and others, the reader is left feeling as though she has fallen into a time warp.

Janja Lalich
California State University, Chico


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Religion News Blog posted this on Sunday April 27, 2003.
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