Eileen Barker, PhD, PhD h.c., OBE, FBA, is Professor Emeritus of Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion at the London School of Economics. Her main research interest is ‘cults’, ‘sects’ and new religious movements, and the social reactions to which they give rise; but since 1989 she has also been investigating changes in the religious situation in post-communist countries. She has over 250 publications (translated into 27 different languages), which include the award-winning The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? and New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. Her most recent publications include, among recent chapters in edited books:“Types of Sacred Space and European Responses to New Religious Movements” in Clashes of Knowledge: Orthodoxies and Heterodoxies in Science and Religion, edited by Peter Meusburger, Michael Welker, and Edgar Wunder. Heidelberg: KTS & Springer, 2008: “In God’s Name: Practicing Unconditional Love to the Death” in Dying for Faith: Religious Motivated Violence in the Contemporary World, Madawi Al-Rasheed and Marat Shterin (eds.), London: I.B. Tauris 2008; and “The Church Without or the God Within? Conceptions of Religion and Spirituality” in Eileen Barker (ed.) The Centrality of Religion in Social Life: Essays in Honour of James A. Beckford. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008. In the late 1980s, with the support of the British Government and mainstream Churches, she founded INFORM, a charity based at the LSE which provides information about new religions that is as accurate, objective and up-to-date as possible. She is a frequent advisor to governments, other official bodies and law-enforcement agencies around the world; and is the only non-American to have been elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. In 2000 she was the recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s Martin E. Marty Award for the Public Understanding of Religion.
1. Could you please tell us what made you first become interested in studying New Religious Movements?
I’ve always been interested in how people could believe things that seemed to me incredible and choose a life style that I would never want to choose. At the same time, I believe that we ought to be able to understand other humans for the simple reason that we too are human beings. We share a range of emotions in different proportions – some of us are more introverted and others more extroverted, some of us are more ‘feminine’ and others more ‘masculine’, but all of us can find aspects of such characteristics in ourselves; and in different circumstances we respond in different ways. For me, understanding why someone joins a new religion presents a particularly cogent challenge: to see if we can look at their conversion and subsequent life style in a way that changes the question ‘How could they?’ to one that is nearer ‘How could they not?’, without actually going that far.
2. Your book on the Moonies has been widely influential. Could you give us a few sentences about its theoretical approach and main arguments?
It was an attempt to go beyond the rather sterile argument where people were saying that the only explanation why intelligent people from good homes would give up promising careers, work long hours collecting money in the streets, and allow a Korean Messiah to choose a marriage partner who might not even speak the same language must be that they had been ‘brainwashed’ or subjected to some sort of irresistible and irreversible mind control techniques. The debate at that time (the early 1970s) tended to start from an assumption that the convert/victim had made a free choice or that s/he had no real say in the matter. The data were then presented in such a way that the starting assumption was confirmed. The approach I took was to phrase my main research question in the form: Is the social environment in which a potential convert finds him or herself the only variable that would affect the outcome –that is, whether or not the person became a Unificationist (today the term ‘Moonie’ is considered offensive)? If the answer were yes, then we could perhaps have some reason to use the (possibly obfuscating) metaphor of brainwashing.
I followed the ‘Unification careers’ of over a thousand persons who were interested enough in the movement to agree to attend a residential weekend workshop. Somewhat to my surprise I found that 90 per cent of the workshop participants rejected the Unification Church’s overtures or joined for less than a week before moving on. The clear conclusion was there must have been something about the individual that was an important variable in deciding the outcome as the ‘techniques’ used by the members were far from irresistible. Furthermore, I found that the majority of those who did join had left the movement within two years – indicating that even if it had appeared to be irresistible for some, Unification pressure was certainly not irreversible.
Further research was conducted using the comparative method. I compared (a) a selection of people with nothing to do with the Unification Church, but of roughly the same age and social background, with (b) those who attended the workshop yet did not join, and (c) those who had joined the movement. Here the hypothesis that I was testing was that those who agreed to attend the workshop would be slightly more suggestible than the ‘normal’ population, but that those who joined the movement would be even more suggestible. In fact, according to a number of criteria that had frequently been claimed by the media to characterize the vulnerability of those who became Unificationists, it turned out that a small group of those who attended the workshop and did not join – or joined only for a few days and then left – scored highest on the suggestibility/vulnerability scale. I then proceeded to explore some more positive reasons why certain people might be attracted to the movement, using such techniques as participant observation, interview and questionnaire (with control groups).
3. In your view, what are the chief criteria to decide whether a group is “religion” or “cult”?
There are many different definitions of concepts such as ‘cult’ and ‘religion’. If one uses a certain definition of religion it might include Buddhism, while another definition will exclude it. It is sometimes said that one man’s cult is another’s religion. This is why, if one is using such terms we have to be very clear what we mean by them – but even if we are clear, others might assume a different meaning is being used. There are several technical definitions that sociologists of religion have used to differentiate ‘cult’ from ‘sect’ and ‘church’ and ‘denomination’, but such definitions are not always applicable – especially in non-Christian settings. In popular parlance, however, ‘cult’ has become a term of abuse, with a whole bundle of negative evaluations attached to it. For this reason, sociologists of religion started to use the term ‘new religious movement’ (NRM) in preference to ‘cult’, but this too has several problems related to it. What to me is important is to describe the specifics of each group at any particular place and time, rather than to insinuate characteristics through a label. That does not mean, however, that we cannot find some characteristics that tend to be associated with new religions – just that we have to define the movement and the characteristics so that they are logically independent of each other. According to Popper, a scientific statement is one that is falsifiable.
However, that said, obviously, as a sociologist of religion, I must have some idea of what I mean by religion and other concepts that I use. Unless I specify otherwise, I find it useful to describe an NRM as one which has a first-generation membership, and I tend to define religion very widely as systems of beliefs that address questions of ultimate concern (Is there a God? What is the meaning of life? What happens after we die?). I would, however, want to stress that, while there are occasions when it is not necessary to define concepts too precisely and common-sense definitions are adequate, there are other times when very precise definitions are needed. To take one example, several people in the West now describe themselves as spiritual but not religious, yet there is no unambiguous way of knowing what is meant by such a claim.
4. You have established INFORM. What distinguished it from other similar organizations and what contributions has it made?
INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) was founded because I found myself observing what seemed to me to be a lot of unnecessary suffering because people were reacting to minority religions in inappropriate ways through ignorance and/or misinformation. INFORM’s aim is to help people by providing information that is as objective, balanced, reliable and up-to-date as possible, while drawing on the methodology of the social sciences.
There are several different types of what are sometimes called ‘cult-watching groups’. Some of these are known generically as ‘anti-cult groups’ and their main concern is to publicize the harm that the movements do. They typically lobby official bodies in the hope that these will control or ban the movements, and the images that they construct of the movements tend to emphasize negative aspects and ignore the more positive or normal aspects. Another type of organization is the counter-cult group; the members may overlap with the anti-cultists, but they are more concerned with what they perceive as falsity of beliefs than with actions. A third type is the so-called ‘cult apologist group’, which, as the name suggests, is concerned to describe the good features of the movements while ignoring the more questionable or harmful features. INFORM differs from all these groups. Although its descriptions of the movements may include several of the features that they include, and INFORM will describe a movement’s beliefs and practices, it does not offer moral or theological judgments. (It does, however, inform the proper authorities if it learns of serious crimes such as suspicious deaths, child abuse or trafficking in heavy drugs.)
INFORM’s work can be divided into three stages: the gathering, assessment and dissemination of information. It is the means of assessment that follow the methodology of social science – that is, it tries to gather data from a wide range of perspectives (including from members of the movements and their opponents), but it tries to go beyond merely reporting the different perspectives about which it learns. To take but one example, one might learn from the media the perfectly true fact that several ‘cult members’ have committed suicide, and start to wonder what it is about the movements that leads their members to kill themselves. One might not, however, consider the fact that if a member of a traditional religion (or no religion) commits suicide this is very unlikely to be reported – it just is not very interesting news. What the social scientist has to do is look at the rate of suicide in the movement and compare it with that in the population as a whole, which might turn out to have twice the rate of the movements, possibly leading one to then ask what it is about the movement that stops people from committing suicide. Of course, it could be that those with a propensity to commit suicide are less likely to join the movements, but at least the question will have been raised, rather than assuming, without sufficient thought, that visibility is the same as typicality.
5. The concept of the “religious market” has become a commonly used term in the sociology of religion. What are the advantages and challenges in using it as an analytical concept?
Like all metaphors, that of the religious market can offer some insights but can be confusing if taken too literally. I believe it is useful in so far as it sensitizes us to the religious diversity that exists in contemporary societies, and some of the concepts associated with the market, such as competition, supply and demand, can be suggestive and alert us to look at certain facets of the religious scene. However, religious behavior is not always rational behavior and religious beliefs in so far as they are concerned with concepts such as salvation and other worlds cannot be judged as though they were concerned with maximization of profit – unless such terminology becomes purely tautological.
6. In recent years you have been studying changes in the religious situation in post-Soviet countries. What are the most important characteristics of religious change in post-Soviet societies?
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, the ideal of freedom, and significantly of religious freedom, was celebrated throughout Eastern Europe. New religions from the West (including Eastern religions) flooded into the erstwhile Soviet countries and indigenous new religions joined those who were offering their wares in what has been called the newly opened religious supermarket. Soon, however, the honeymoon was over. The traditional ‘Mother Churches’, which had been suppressed for decades, felt that they were at an unfair disadvantage and many started to claim that to belong to any other religion was not so much heresy as treason. Several countries introduced legislation which made it difficult if not impossible for minority religions to register, which could mean that they could no longer freely practice their faith. It is, however, important to stress that the situation differs from country to country and it is important to recognize that any generalizations taken from the situation in one or two countries are bound to be disproved by other societies.
7. What is your advice and hopes for the social scientific study of religion in China?
My hope for the social scientific study of religion in China is that it will flourish! This is a very exciting time of rapid social, cultural, economic and political change, and China is an enormous and very diverse society. It provides some wonderful opportunities for the study of the development of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices in changing social conditions, and can teach those of us in the West an enormous amount about the potentialities and tensions that can exist with religious processes.
Already, there has been an impressive amount of work on many of the regional variations by anthropologists, and historians are also revealing much in the way of Chinese culture throughout its long civilization. I am not sure that it is my place to give advice, but I would certainly like to encourage! Those of us who have been studying religion in the West have learned quite a lot over the past decades and it is possible that we can pass on some of our techniques and share some of the lessons that we have learned from our mistakes. I hope, however, that; while exchanging information and ideas with those from other countries, China will develop its own social scientific study of religion and not attempt to follow too slavishly the theories and methods that Westerners have developed, as they could be inappropriate in a Chinese setting.
(Interview conducted by LU Jun and Fenggang Yang)