CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Factors influencing social perception of new religious movements

by Tadeusz Doktór (Warsaw University)
Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the author. A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London


Religious minorities are often perceived as a controversial phenomenon and social problem. Some of their activities are seen as problematic, as in the case of two movements which are the object of this study: Jehovah's Witnesses and Scientologists, which are often involved in court cases related to their attitude to blood transfusion (Jehovah's Witnesses) or charging high fees for their courses promising extraordinary results in optimizing psychological functioning (Scientologists). Very often, it leads to negative stereotypization, prejudice and discriminatory attitude as, which were often observed in the history of religion. Theoretical interpretations of this phenomenon, which is a specific form of more common phenomenon of prejudice, stress various psychological and social factors: from general cognitive and emotional mechanisms of its formation (frustration-aggression, social identification, ultimate attribution error, illusory correlation, cognitive availability) to more specific mechanisms regulating their transmission and activation in a particular sociocultural and psychological context (pressures of conformity, social conflicts, personality traits). These factors may interact in various ways in emergence and activation of prejudice and discrimination.

Some of these factors, especially those which procesual and situational factors are most often studied experimentally: ultimate attribution error manifesting in interpreting negative actions of 'outgroup' members as the consequence of their dispositions and positive actions as the consequence of the situation, illusory correlation manifesting in overvaluation of correlation with extreme phenomena and the effect of cognitive availability manifesting in overvaluation of exceptional than ordinary factors in the interpretation of a given phenomenon and social identification, which involves subordination of information processing about other groups to tendencies maintaining the positive image of one's own social identity (Tajfel 1981).

Among correlational studies of prejudice and discriminatory attitudes, the most common are those, which look for traits related to this phenomena such as personality traits especially authoritarianism, dogmatism and moral development prejudice. Authoritarianism or authoritarian-conservatism is a personality trait conceptualized originally by Adorno et al. (1950) in psychoanalytical terms. The concept is meant to capture uncritical submission to authority, strict adherence to conventional norms, and ethnocentrism.

Milton Rokeach (1954;1960) has modified the theory of authoritarianism by introducing the concept of dogmatism or closed mindedness, for which general cognitive factors were more central, although were treated as a reaction to anxiety. New cognitive approach was intended to be more 'culture free' and independent of ideological content, stressing less content of beliefs and more general style or manner in which these beliefs are held according to three basic dimensions: belief-disbelief, central-peripheral and time perspective. Dogmatism in his view is related to: 1) relatively closed cognitive organizations of beliefs and disbeliefs about reality, 2) organized around a central set of beliefs about absolute authority, 3) which provides a framework for intolerance toward others (Rokeach 1954:195).

Lee A. Kirkpatrick, Ralph W. Hood, Jr., And Gary Hartz (1991) interpret fundamentalism in terms of Rokeach's theory stressing mainly central-peripheral dimensions of the belief system. 'Given the attributes of centralized or dogmatic belief systems as articulated in Rokeach's theory, it is not difficult to see some conceptual overlaps with religious fundamentalism. Indeed, fundamentalist religion seems to be essentially prototypical of the centralized belief system as conceptualized here. Theologically, fundamentalists tend to oppose "modernist" interpretation of scripture in favor of some variety of literalism, inerrancy, infallibility or authoritativeness of scripture. From a purely psychological perspective, using Rokeach theory, such a belief system entails a strong commitment to authoritative sources and as such is "centralized." The "authority beliefs" around which the centralized system is organized represent belief in the ultimate authoritativeness of Scripture, and the peripheral beliefs concern specific tenets of the belief system that "emanate from" (Rokeach's term) or derive from this belief' (Kirkpatrick et al. 1991:170).

Fundamentalism has been shown to correlate with right-wing authoritarianism (Altemeyer 1988; Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1992), intolerance, prejudice and discriminatory attitudes (Altemeyer and Hunsberger 1992; Hunsberger 1995, 1996). In case of controversial religious groups, fundamentalism is also a significant predictor of discriminatory attitudes although weaker than education (O'Donnell 1993).

Cognitive aspects are also stressed in the theory of moral development formulated by Lawrence Kohlberg (1984). According to this author, higher levels of moral development are related to evaluation of moral conflicts not from the conventional and particularistic perspective of their own social group but are able to imagine which ethical principles make social life possible and to evaluate them from the more universalistic perspective. Moral development could be also seen as a necessary condition for the communicative competence leading to a rational political discourse (Habermas 1976, 1984) which was empirically confirmed by van IJinzendorn (1989) in relation to antidemocratic attitudes toward minority groups. Therefore we could expect its influence also in the case of discriminatory attitudes toward controversial religious groups.

The strength of state regulation of religion is an important factor influencing religious activity according to market model of religion (Chaves and Cann 1992). Its lower level is conducive to higher level of religious vitality by stimulating greater mobilization similar to its influence in economy. It may also be conducive to see other religious groups as a positive challenge to ones own religious identity instead of seeing it as possible object for elimination by the regulatory function of the state.

On the basis of social categorization, authoritarianism and dogmatism theory we could predict that when religion is the main factor contributing to differentiation between ingroup and outgroup, we may expect greater devalorization of the religious outgroup among more religious persons. Negative attitude toward these groups should be greater among persons which are religious in a fundamentalistic way, which is more authoritarian and dogmatic and in which the boundaries between ingroup and outgroup are more pronounced and. We could also expect stronger negative discriminatory attitudes among Catholics, because of more authoritarian/dogmatic type of authority structure and religiosity of the Catholic Church.

On the basis of dogmatism theory we could also expect that threat and anxiety as conducive to dogmatism will be also significant predictors of negative attitude towards religious minorities. In our study, it will be ethnocentric threat (which was also emphasized by Adorno as important element of authoritarianism and the F-scale was in fact constructed to discover ethnocentric views on minority groups such as the Jews in the USA ) and threat resulting from aggravated perception of moral decay, which may be related to discriminatory attitudes.

Elements of sociodemografic characteristics, may be also related to discriminatory attitudes towards controversial religious minorities. Among them female sex, older age and lower level of education may foster prejudice as the compensation of less favorable social position. This is one of the possible theoretical mechanisms, which, however predict similar direction of this relationships. Older age and lower education may be also related to cognitive factors as more narrow knowledge, possibility of cognitive evaluation of this phenomenon and understanding principles of democracy and higher authoritarianism/dogmatism often observed in these groups. Females, which are usually more prone to social conformity and less risk avoiding (Miller and Hoffman 1995), may discriminate controversial groups on this basis.

We could therefore formulate the following hypotheses:

H1 Tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups is positively related to younger age, male sex and higher level of education.

H2 Tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups is positively related to general religiosity and protestant denomination and negatively to fundamentalist religiosity and catholic religious identification

H3 Tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups is negatively related to perceived ethnic and moral threat

H4 Tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups is positively related to higher level of moral development

H5 Tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups is positively related to lower level of state regulation of religion


The research is based on the data from RAMP (Religious and Moral Pluralism) including representative samples of 11 countries studied in the year 1998. The total sample include 12342 respondents.




Measurement include variables, which usually were constructed from the items of the RAMP questionnaire by summing up the scores of each item after standardization.

1. Attitudes toward religious 'outgroups'.

The degree of discriminatory attitude will be measured by two items will be used (seven points Likert scale: 1- strongly disagree, 7 - strongly agree): 'How strongly do you agree or disagree that, as long as they keep within the law of the land, A) Jehovah's Witnesses should be allowed to practice their religion in [ OWN COUNTRY], B) Scientologists should be allowed to practice in [ OWN COUNTRY]'. They will be used as a scale (Cronbach Alpha - .77).

2. Religiosity

Measurement of religiosity includes four variables: fundamentalism, general religiosity and to dummy variables related to catholic and protestant denomination.

A fundamentalism scale (Cronbach's alpha =.60) consists of four items:

a) biblical literalism (consisting of three forced choice items: 'The Bible records the actual word of God, so everything it says should be taken literally, word for word' (1), 'The Bible was written by humans who were inspired by God, but not everything in it should be taken literally' (2), 'The Bible is simply an ancient book of religious stories, historical events and moral teachings' (3) (answers 'I don't know' were excluded from the analysis)),

b) religious particularism (consisting of four forced choice items: 'There is only one true religion' (1), 'There is only one true religion, but important truths can be found in some other religions as well' (2), 'There are important truths to be found in some religions' (3), 'There are important truths to be found in all religions' (4) (the last answer possibility: 'There aren't any important truths to be found in any religion' was excluded from the analysis)),

c) religious exclusivism (consisting of single item 'Even if people belong to a particular religion, they should still feel free to draw on teachings from other religious traditions'),

d) punishing God image ('Most human suffering in this world is because of God punishing us for our sins').

General religiosity scale (Cronbach's alpha =.85) is composed of three items:

a) Religiosity-self assessment: 'Whether or not you go to a church or place of worship, to what extent would you say that you are a religious person ?' measured on the seven-point scales: ( 1 - not at all religious to 7 - very religious),

b) frequency of attendance: 'Apart from ceremonies for birth, marriage or death, roughly how often do you attend religious services these days?' measured on the eight-point scales: 'every day' (0), 'more than once a week'(1), 'once a week' (2), 'at least once a month'(3), 'a few times a year' (4), 'once a year'(5), 'less than once a year' (6), 'never'(7).

c) frequency of prayer: 'About how often do you pray?' measured on the eight-point scales: 'every day' (0), 'more than once a week'(1), 'once a week' (2), 'at least once a month'(3), 'a few times a year' (4), 'once a year'(5), 'less than once a year' (6), 'never'(7). Both general religiosity and fundamentalism scales are inversely coded (higher scores represent lower fundamentalism and general religiosity).

Religious denomination will be a dummy variable distinguishing between Catholics (against all others) and mainline Protestants (against all others).

3. As a measure of ethnocentrism three seven-point items will be used: 'The arrival of immigrants in [OWN COUNTRY] poses a threat to our own way of life', 'Immigrants are getting jobs at the expense of the [NATIONALS]', and, 'On the whole [OWN COUNTRY] has suffered from the arrival of immigrants' (Cronbach's alpha is .77).

4. As a measure of moral decay (DECAY) will be used a scale consisting of four statements with five-point items: 'Is there more or less (1) violence on the streets, (2) bribery, (3) adultery, and, (4) tax evasion today than there was in [OWN COUNTRY] 10 years ago?' (Cronbach's alpha is .64).

5. As a measure of higher level of moral development as interpreted by Kohlberg a following two items will be used: 'Imagine that a big private enterprise has advertised a job, for which the nephew of the employer has applied. The nephew is not as well qualified as another applicant, Mr. Miller. Whatever actually happens: Do you think that the following reasons, which might be given for employing or not employing the nephew, are bad or good reasons? A. The nephew is not employed because fairness demands that the applicant with the best qualification is recruited.

B. The nephew is not employed because it is in the economic interest of the company to recruit the best candidate' with answer possibilities from 1 (absolutely wrong ) to 7 (absolutely right) (Cronbach's Alpha .77).

6. Sociodemographic characteristics:

a) sex: (0=male 1=female),

b) age: (year of birth),

c) education: (1) incomplete primary, (2) primary completed, (3) incomplete secondary, (4) secondary completed, (5) university incomplete, to (6) university degree completed'.

7. Contextual characteristics related to the degree of state regulation of religion will be measured by a six- point scale proposed by Chaves and Cann (1992): '(a) there is a single, officially designated state church, (b) there is official state recognition of some denominations but not others, (c) the state appoints or approves the appointment of church leaders, (d) the state directly pays church personnel salaries, (e) there is a system of ecclesiastical tax collection, and (f) the state directly subsidizes, beyond mere tax breaks, the operating, maintenance, or capital expenses for churches. Each item is coded 1 if answered in the affirmative and 0 if answered in the negative'. The scale was extended to Portugal, Poland and Hungary. (Netherlands - 0; Poland - 1; Portugal and Hungary -2; Belgium, Great Britain and Italy - 3, Norway and Denmark - 5, Finland and Sweden - 6).



Tab.1. Means of analyzed variables by countries

procult fund rel cath prot decay threat moral
Belgium -.05 .42 .20 .56 .01 -.13 -.03 -.04
Denmark .06 .35 .45 .01 .92 -.42 -.33 .20
Finland -.10 .00 .10 .00 .83 .10 -.28 .01
Great Britain .07 .34 .21 .09 .06 -.03 .23 -.02
Hungary -.52 -.21 .23 .54 .19 .57 .49 .02
Italy -.17 -.57 -.49 .79 .00 .02 .05 -.12
Netherlands .32 .54 .28 .23 .19 -.33 -.29 .24
Norway -.12 .00 .45 .01 .88 -.01 -.41 03
Poland -.16 -.83 -.86 .94 .00 .12 .30 -.09
Portugal .37 -.49 -.22 .71 .00 .15 .20 -.01
Sweden .32 .73 -.58 .01 .88 -.09 -.47 .04

Nondiscriminatory attitude towards controversial religious groups is significantly diversified among respondent in different countries (the less tolerant in Hungary and most tolerant in Portugal).


Tab.2. Bivariate correlation of analyzed variables

procult sex age educ. fund. rel. cath. prot. decay threat
Procult 1.00
sex -.08 1.00
age .14 .01 1.00
educ. .22 -.03 .21 1.00
fund. .32 -.07 .12 .38 1.00
rel. .14 -.18 .20 .22 .52 1.00
cath. -12 .04 -.03 -.27 -.33 -.48 1.00
prot. .05 -.01 -.04 .24 .12 17 -.55 1.00
decay -.15 .12 -.08 -.24 -.22 -.15 .10 -.06 1.00
threat -.19 .03 -.09 -.34 -.28 -.14 .19 -.18 .25 1.00
moral .15 .02 .02 06 .13 .03 -.04 .05 .02 .02

Bivariate correlations support our hypotheses (all correlation coefficient are significant).

Tab. 3. Regression with tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups as dependent variable (method enter).

Variable Beta Significance
sex -0,66 ,000
age ,092 ,000
education ,081 ,000
general religiosity -0,60 ,000
fundamentalism ,248 ,000
Protestant ,029 ,047
Catholic -,038 ,006
moral decay -,048 ,000
ethnocentrism -,085 ,000
moral development ,112 ,000
state regulation of religion -,098 ,000

In regression analysis all hypotheses were confirmed except the relationship between general religiosity and non discriminatory attitude towards controversial religious groups. Contrary to our expectations general religiosity is related to more tolerant attitude towards these groups.

Tab. 4. Regression with tolerant attitude towards controversial religious groups as dependent variable in particular countries 

Variab. Belg. Denm. Fin. GB Hung. Italy Neth. Norw. Pol. Port. Sweden
sex -,09* -,02 -,12* -,05 -,14* -,02 -,10* -,09 -,03 -,04 -,06
age ,09* ,11* ,06 ,14* ,16* ,07* ,08* ,05 -,03 ,02 ,03
educ. -,01 ,12* ,09* ,05 -,04 ,10* ,16* ,17* ,01 -,03 ,12*
rel. -,09* ,02 -,10* -,11* -,14* -,04 -,11* -,01 ,09* ,07 -,06
fund. ,16* ,17* ,37* ,21* ,08 ,29* ,16* ,15* ,28* ,32* ,13*
prot. -,02 ,04 -,01 ,02 -,03 -,01 -,07 -,11 -,02 ,00 ,03
cath. -,01 ,10* ,04 -,02 -,05* -,02 ,02 -,03 ,02 -,06
decay -,05 -,14* -,09* -,13* ,02 -,03 -,03 -,02 -,01 ,06 -,05
etn. -,13* -,12* -,15* -,15* -,05 ,01 -,11* -,12* -,11* -,10* -,20*
moral. ,12* -,01 ,02 ,02 ,05 ,24* -,01 -,04 ,00 ,08* ,01
,08 ,14 ,23 ,15 ,03 ,23 ,11 ,11 ,13 ,15 ,10

* - p <,05

Results of regression analysis perform separately for each country are not significant for all variables and show interesting differences between countries.

The influence of sex is significant only in Belgium, Finland, Hungary and Netherlands, where females are, as we expected, less tolerant towards controversial religious groups.

The influence of age (year of birth) is significant in all countries except Finland, Norway, Portugal, Poland and Sweden. Younger respondent are less discriminatory which confirms our hypothesis in these countries.

The influence of education is significant only in Denmark, Finland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway and Sweden (in all cases in the predicted direction).

The influence of general religiosity on tolerance is positive in Belgium, Finland, Great Britain, Hungary, Netherlands, Norway and negative in Poland. Therefore only Poland confirms our hypothesis, and other countries falsify it.

The influence of fundamentalism on discriminatory attitude is usually the greatest from all variables and is significant in all countries except Hungary.

The influence of Protestant denomination is not significant in any country (approaching significance only in Norway p=.062).

The influence of Catholic denomination is significant only in Denmark (where it inclines to a greater tolerance and therefore falsifies our expectations) and in Italy (where it confirms our expectations concerning its influence on discrimination).

The influence of perception of moral decay is significant in Denmark, Finland and Great Britain, which confirms our hypothesis in relation to this samples.

The influence of ethnocentric threat is significant in all countries except Hungary and Italy. It therefore confirms our expectations as the second predictor of intolerance after fundamentalism.

The influence of moral development is significant in Belgium, Italy and Portugal.


The results of this study confirm the predictions based on the authoritarianism/dogmatism theories. Discriminatory attitudes are most significantly related to fundamentalism and ethnocentrism, which may be interpreted as manifestations of authoritarian/dogmatic orientation in religion and attitudes towards ethnic outgroups. The only country where these variables are not influential is Hungary, in which some other factors seems to be relevant, not included in our set of explanatory variables.

Additional support, however less directly related to the theory of dogmatic and authoritarian personality, is given by the influence of moral threat and catholic affiliation, which is significant for the total sample and in some national samples. According to Milton Rokeach, dogmatism is a response to anxiety (in this case it is a moral threat related to a heightened perception of moral decline, especially in Denmark, Finland and Great Britain). Catholic affiliation may be also interpreted as leading to more dogmatic attitude mainly because of the its authority structure. Negative attitude towards 'sects' is also relatively more visible in statements of the representatives of the Catholic Church than in Protestant Churches. This is , however, rather weakly supported in our data (only in total sample as one of the weakest predictors and in Italian national sample). In Denmark the direction of relationship is reversed. The Catholics, which are only a tiny minority in this country are more tolerant contrary to Italy, where they constitute the majority. The results observed here may be therefore related also to the fact of religious affiliation in religious minority or majority.

The influence of age and education may be also interpreted in terms of authoritarianism/dogmatism theory and especially its cognitive aspects as a more narrow, simplified and rigid cognitive perspective. Education, however, may also influence discriminatory attitude due to its content. In some countries, elements of antidiscriminatory programs are included in educational curricula and may influence attitudes towards discriminated groups in a specific way.

The discriminatory tendencies towards sects observed among women are not so easily interpretable in terms of authoritarianism/dogmatism theory. They are, however, less risk prone than man, which is manifested in many areas including religiosity (Miller and Hoffman 1995) and may perceive controversial religious groups as a source of possible threat for society (especially for the family, which is often stressed by the anticult rhetoric present in the media) and this may lead to their discriminatory attitude towards these groups.

The higher levels of moral reasoning incline to greater tolerance. According to Kohlberg they manifest in upholding the basic rights, values, and legal contracts of a society, even when they conflict with the concrete values of the individual. Reasons for right decisions are based on a social contract to make and abide by laws for the good of all and to protect their own rights and the rights of others and related to the rational calculation of overall utility: "the greatest good for the greatest number". Controversial religious groups do not constitute any exception in this universalistic perspective. It would be, however, interesting to replicate such study in a countries like France and Germany, where some laws related to religious minorities may be considered as discriminatory. Unfortunately, although scholars from these countries were involved in the preparation of RAMP project, they were not been able to gather appropriate funding if this research in their own countries.

The level of state regulation of religion in a country is also a significant predictor of discriminatory attitude. It may be, however, noted that the scale proposed by Chaves and Cann (1992) is designed for measuring the general state regulation of religion and is not specific for the judicial regulation of religious minorities. Although the results obtained indicate that it is also relevant for the discriminatory attitudes, we can suppose that with a more specific measurement, the results will be more significant indicating more strongly the expectations concerning the regulatory role of the state towards religious minorities in the individual attitudes.

Contrary to the expectations based on the social identification theory, the discriminatory attitude is not related to general religiosity in an expected way. In the total sample and in the majority of countries general religiosity 'unmakes prejudice' to paraphrase famous statement of Gordon Allport. Strength of religious identification and the frequency of attendance and prayer, which constitute the scale of general religiosity are positively related to tolerant attitude in almost all countries, except Poland where the relationship is reversed. It may be interpreted as due to the fundamentalistic character of Polish religiosity. But the correlation of fundamentalism and general religiosity is not higher in Poland than in other countries so this is probably not adequate explanation. The other factor, which could be also influential here is the content of the church teachings on the controversial religious groups. Although they are rarely the subject of official statements of bishops, they appear more often in the teachings of local priests and in the catholic press, as the dangerous phenomenon. There are no comparative data on the style and content of the Catholic Church teachings in this matter, but perhaps symptomatic is the fact that Poland is probably the only country with well organized Catholic countercult movement in the form of a network of Dominican information centers on sects and new religious movements.

Such specific contextual factors may be present in each country influencing the attitudes towards controversial religious groups. One of them may be the media coverage of this phenomenon, which may explain existing differences such as in Hungary, where the percent of explained variance in this attitude by the proposed variables is the smallest and where the discriminatory attitude is the most pronounced. It suggests that other important factors may be here relevant and more detailed study using other explanatory variables and more sophisticated measurement of prejudices will be helpful.


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The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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