CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Beginning to Comprehend the Lie of the Land in Researching New Religious Movements

by John Paul Healy (The University of New South Wales, Sydney)

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

Leave your ego with your shoes’

Through some personal experience of affiliation and initial research, this paper presents my own thoughts on developing a PhD in the area of New Religious movements (NRMs). As a new researcher to the area there are some issues that are immediately evident, such as, the fitness of my own discipline of social work to the study of NRMs, and the use of personal experience in assisting my exploration. From my review of the literature, I have begun to realize that social work has had little input into the area, and the use of personal experience can at times be considered ‘suspect’. However, it is hoped that personal experience and aspects of the social work discipline may help to frame and guide the initial questions and methods of this study. To assist the discussion, throughout the paper I have entwined my own experience in attempt to inform the project with the qualitative methods of Personal experience, Life-story and Narrative (Guba & Lincoln, 1994). My ambition in embarking on a PhD is to attempt an open and honest exploration in the area of NRMs. It is therefore important to emphasise that I was once affiliated with Siddha Yoga, an eastern based Guru / disciple tradition, this aspect to my attempting research in this area highlights methodological issues that I will raise in this paper. But first I wish to set the scene with a personal framing of my experience with a NRM 24 years ago to where I am now and to also note this paper discusses the beginning phase of a project.

Personal Framing

My experience of NRMs began as an accidental spiritual searcher. Around 1981 Rajneesh followers (or the Orange People) opened a centre in my area, and each day as I passed Rajneesh’s huge picture outside the centre, I wondered what they were doing in there. The Hare Krishna’s were also quite visible at this time and myself some friends often ate at their free food outlet. As well as gaining an appetite for the unusual food and sweets of the Hare Krishna’s we also began to develop a spiritual appetite. We visited many different movements at this time and Eventually we came across Siddha Yoga, which had a sign above where you left your shoes that stated ‘leave your ego with your shoes’. Siddha Yoga was in some ways more conservative than the others and did not expect you to dress in any particular way or colour. For me, at seventeen, this almost accidental search began a five-year affiliation with Siddha Yoga. I worked and lived with the group helping to build the Ashram in Sydney and visited the Guru in India on two occasions.

Eventually, I naturally drifted from Siddha Yoga as other competing interests took over, a theme common to many with past affiliation (Barker, 1999). I never looked back or truly questioned my own involvement until many years later when I was living in a country that did not have even a small Siddha Yoga centre, (considering there was in nearly every other major city this was unusual). Siddha Yoga was/is reasonably small, not as large or as visible as organizations such as ISKON or Rajneesh/Osho, however it had/has a world wide following, a living Guru and a belief system based in esoteric Indian philosophy and practice. It was not until I bought my first computer in 1997 and connected to the Internet that I began to question or attempt to analyse my own involvement. While looking up the group on the Internet, I came across a site with stories from past members of Siddha Yoga. Like a timid child I read the stories and at first I felt I was doing something wrong. However I read on and although it was uncomfortable it was also enlivening. The stories seemed heart felt and honest and there were many; stories of lost faith, disappointments, hurt. There were also stories of rebuilding and taking from the experience what they felt was good and dismissing the rest. The stories reminded me of my own experience, the good and the bad. I began to question what had I done with my experience? How is my past experience present or absent in my life today?

Where I am at now

‘Leave your ego with your shoes’, may be the antithesis to a research project, as at the end of the project I will be the author and I will get the credit. Without an ego, in the popular use of the word, I would not even have begun. However, to enter into the experience of others, we may have to suspend our worldview long enough to allow the others in. Possibly this was the meaning in the message above the shoes. Although by the end of my project I am sure I will have other possible interpretations.

One thing that comes to my mind when thinking about NRMs, or any religious movement, is the Bob Dylan song, ‘With God on our side’. It seems many groups perceive God to be on their side, and in Australia, we seem to have been tolerant of this perception. Australia is recognised as having an increasingly diverse range of religious affiliation (Bouma, 2003; Ireland & Baker, 2003; Possamai, 2003) and has been tolerant towards NRMs (Possamai, 2003). However, there have been few empirical studies into Australian NRMs. It is hoped that this project will begin to address the dearth of empirical research on NRMs in Australia and add an Australian perspective to the international debate on those who have ‘God on their side’.

To begin research out of personal interest has the attraction that if the project becomes tedious or demanding it is an area that you are committed to, and this maybe helpful in getting through difficult periods. On the down side, although a topic is of personal interest, illuminated by some personal insight, or as in my case, personal experience, exploring the literature highlights that personal experience may not add up to informed knowledge. As I enter the field of New Religious Movements and the sociology of religion, where the objective of the inquiry is ‘…to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behaviour’ (Weber, 1965, p.1) I begin to recognise my own deficits in pursuing my interests.   

Beginning to comprehend the area of NRMs is for me like entering into a conversation at a party that has been going on for some time. At first it seems impolite to ask the people at the party if they could fill me in on what they were talking about earlier so that I may contribute, so I sit and listen (review the literature) and eventually pick up on some main themes. The more I listen, the larger the history the conversation seems to have. Eventually as I begin my own conversation (by writing and presenting this paper), I realize this act has entered me into the history of the conversation’. (Arendt, 1998, p.176-177), on the human condition writes.

 ‘With word and deed we insert ourselves into the human world, and this insertion is like a second birth…it may be stimulated by the presence of others whose company we may wish to join, but it is never conditioned by them; its impulse springs from the beginning which came into the world when we were born and to which we respond by beginning something new on our own initiative.

So with my words I begin something new out of my own initiative, which I hope in some way to be informed by social work.

Social works fit for the study of NRMs

My education in social work although ideal for entering practice and dealing with difference on a day-to-day basis, may not give me all the tools for academic research on NRMs. Nevertheless it appears from the literature that academics from various fields are now doing research or theorizing in the area of religion. Further, the rise of fundamentalism and public debates on religion seems to have reignited interest in the sociology of religion (Sherkat & Ellison, 1999; Willaime, 2004).

Social work for me has emphasised communication skills, skills I find useful for my exploration, including, listening and clarifying (Parton & O'Byrne, 2000; Shulman, 1999). Social work has also for me been an attempt to understand and respect the perspective of the other, (sometimes succeeding and at other times failing). Social work practice values diversity (Devore & Schlesinger, 1996). Although it has to be said that I begin with a deficit of understanding in the field of NRMs and the sociology of religion, I expect to bring to the area those things that I find are important to social work.

As I reflect on what social workers ‘do’, I recognise that social workers predominantly are involved with fieldwork. Working with minority communities social workers attempt to build trust and hopefully repay this trust with respect (Butrym, 1978). They may often know what is ‘going on’ in a community (Whyte, 1973, p.288). Some of the work social workers ‘do’ reflect interpretive methods in sociology or anthropology, in that they attempt to build a picture of the world and social interactions of their clients; these qualitative methods are visible in social work research and practice (Fook, 2002; Gilgun, 1994; Padgett, 1998.).

Social workers while working with or advocating for disadvantaged populations (Coulshed & Orme, 1998) often encounter individuals and communities, wether they are religious or lifestyle, with diferring belief systems than the norm of the general society. Furthermore, social work is recognized for champion individuals rights to self-determination (Jordon, 1990; Payne, 1997; Trainor, 1996), Individuals, in the most part, are considered to be the best judge of their own life choices. Therefore, social work, although not designed for the study of religion, has the advantage of being open and responsive to the other in a respectful way.

Some methodological issues in relation to researching NRMs

To begin my research, I have attempted to become open, I have begun to review past studies and literature on NRMs, email authors, visit academics, and have organised to meet with those who offer counselling services for what they perceive as the harmful affects of ‘cult’ involvement. So far I have been warmly welcomed to the area and have been grateful for the welcome. However, I have also realised that when entering into the study of NRMs it is common for a researcher to take a position on one side or the other of the debate. A debate, that for some, threatens the freedom to choose and for others ignores harm and influence. Even using the term NRMs may place a researcher on one side of the argument. While attempting to give a balanced view of a particular movement, therefore adding some positive attribution to involvement with the negative, a researcher may be seen as a ‘cult lover’ (Barker, 1995, p.10), or ‘cult apologist’ (Apologetics-Index, 2005). Further, if a former member attempts to express that they have not suffered from their affiliation, they may be seen as not having really left the group (Barker, 1995).

From my perspective these seem to be methodological problems, which could be alleviated to some extent by defining the researchers perspective honestly and openly. If a writer presents their work from a particular perspective we can judge that work openly in relation to its perspective.  I have chosen to present my work from the perspective of one who was once native. At least in this case I am not alone, Fennimore (2000) conducted a study of 10 women who had previously been affiliated with the Rajneesh movement, Fennimore clearly defined her previous involvement as a member of the movement, which I consider an appropriate and honest methodological approach that I have chosen to follow. Other authors such as Caldwell (2001), Shaw (2003) and Ito (1998), have adopted this strategy within the study of NRMs. There are also others who while still within a movement, who clearly acknowledge their involvement and present sociological perspectives of their own movements (Barker, 1995).

So why have I opted for the term ‘NRMs’ and not ‘cults’? From a personal perspective the term New Religious Movements places my own experience with Siddha Yoga into a seemingly respectable space rather than framing it as an experience that is at the fringes of our society, or deviant. However, I do acknowledge those, for eg The International Cultic Studies Association (ICSA, 2005), who question the legitimacy of giving these groups a respectable space by framing them as NRMs may have some good arguments. Nevertheless, from my own perspective, to alienate groups within our society alienates those people who belong or have once belonged to these groups. Stigmatising or labelling deviant behaviour may not always be useful. In a general sense, since so called ‘new age’ activities have become more acceptable amongst the general population (Possamai, 2001), choice in spiritual pursuits has also become a more acceptable activity, and not considered as deviant as it once was. This is not to say that some groups may be more open and honest in their approach, whereas others may in fact cause harm, or like many things in life, individuals may experience the same group in different ways.

In attempting to explore the experience of others like myself who no longer have any contact with Siddha Yoga, or other similar movements there are some issues to consider. First, I could be perceived as an apostate by the organizations, one who has abandoned the groups religious and cultural values and may now attack the group (Hadaway & Roof, 1988). Second, if I am to interview current members of Siddha Yoga or other movements there is a possibility I be considered an apologist, one who has hardly moved on from the group’s beliefs (Apologetics-Index, 2005). Or as Cowen (2002, p.7) asserts ‘…one does not actually have to “defend cults” to be labelled a “cult apologist”. Rather, in the manner of “the one who is not for us is against us”…’. These are challenging methodological issues for me as a researcher, who was once, from an outsider’s point of view, a true believer. These issues will continue to be challenging at all stages of the research, right up to the point of publishing the findings. Resolving these issues to the satisfaction of all parties will hopefully come from the recognition that the study by its very qualitative nature will be subjective. However, a discussion of theoretical perspectives and a review of other studies may add weight to any future claims that come out of this study (Alston and Bowles, 1998, p.272). These authors recognise that ‘in qualitative research, generalisability often relies on theoretical argument…’ (Alston & Bowles, 1998, p.272

Finding my own space in researching NRMs

As a result of my researching, an area I wish to consider is the benefits and deficits individuals believe they have derived from their involvement in NRMs and how this benefit or deficit influences their life after involvement. Of particular interest is individuals who have been out of the organization for many years, so as to explore the possible long-term or residual influence of affiliation. Another area of interest is those individuals who have had a continual involvement in the NRM spaning many years. An interesting focus would be to explore the individuals’ experience of the changing nature of the group over time and how they have interpreted this process. Examining long-term affiliation may also help explore the ways in which individuals integrate their experience over time, exploring what may influence some individuals to remain involved while others move away. Of particular interest is children who have grown up in NRMs, a phenomena that has been highlighted recently by authors and documentary filmmakers (Guest, 2004; Hamann & Spellman, 2001; Walker, 2003). Since many movements had their beginnings in the late sixties early seventies, particularly Indian based movements, there is now a unique opportunity to explore the experience of those who have spent the whole or part of their lives growing up in what some might consider a ‘cult’.

Many authors have dismissed the brainwashing thesis as an explanation of why individuals join or continue within movements (Introvigne & Richardson, 2001; Richardson & Introvigne, 2001; Robbins, 2001). From my own experience I never considered myself brainwashed (although how would I know), still, I would like to consider in my research cultural influences such as pre-existing religious beliefs, which could play some role with new affiliation. Also an area that I hope to explore is those aspects to the human condition that bring us together into community as discussed by philosophers such as Levinas and Arendt. These authors could offer some insight into a search for community, which may be what holds NRMs together. An exploration of difference however does not ignore harm, while being open to difference we are also open to those who experience harm and have a responsibility to their concerns. In the area of child protection (Bottoms, Shaver, Goodman, & Jianjian, 1995) recognise that many children have been abused in the name of God. 

Critical to individuals’ experience of new religious movements is the non-involved familial response. An exploration of how individuals navigate the process of communicating their new experience to family members or friends and what happens to these relationships over time is an area I am interested in pursuing.

Some concluding remarks

 Within the area of NRM’s it is important to note families may play an important role in the individuals’ experience. Reflecting on my involvement I managed to keep close contact with my family and also kept long-term friendships with others who were involved and have a fondness for friends I no longer see. Revisiting my own and others experience from a new informed perspective is an exciting opportunity I have to thank my home University for. They have encourage me and challenged me to extend myself, I hope to return their confidence in my work by using the best methodological practice I know, that is, looking for good advice and integrating that good advice into my work.



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