Integrity and suspicion in New Religious Movement research

Apologia Report, Volume 2, number 5 - August 7, 1998.
A research journal edited by Rich Poll

In April of 1998 we received a remarkable paper by Dr. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi entitled Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research. This paper is a revised and abridged version of his Advocacy and Research on New Religious Movements, presented at the November 7-9, 1997 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in San Diego, California. It is with his consent that we offer our overview.

Beit-Hallahmi opens by reviewing the violent history of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo, now notorious for its March 20, 1995 poison gas attack on innocent Tokyo subway commuters. Shortly after this tragedy, four American scholars (including the unnamed J. Gordon Melton of the Institute for the Study of American Religion [one of the CESNUR's director, August, 1998 - ndr]) traveled to Japan "to defend Aum... against charges of mass terrorism" and urge Japanese authorities not to "crush a religion and deny freedom." In contrast, Beit-Hallahmi offers evidence that that "reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM." Further, "it is safe to conclude that religious freedom was not the issue in this case. Nor is it likely, as some Aum apologists among NRM scholars have claimed, that this lethal record... and other non-lethal criminal activities were the deeds of a few rogue leaders."

Beit-Hallahmi asks: "Are we shocked by the alleged involvement of NRM researchers in this tragic story? Given the climate and culture of the NRM research community, and earlier demonstrations of support for NRMs in trouble, we are not completely surprised."

Worldwide, a highly visible segment of the academic community has earned a growing reputation for uncritically defending the questionable behavior of NRMs. Beit-Hallahmi reflects that "our conflicting biases [as NRM scholars] should naturally lead to debates and controversy. It is indeed baffling when we experience in a particular research network the strange, deafening, silence of conformity.... Scholars in perfect agreement around a thorny issue are like the dog that didn't bark. They should make us curious, if not outright suspicious."

Beit-Hallahmi then gives his perspective on the origins of the scholarly "party line" regarding how NRMs are to be described and analyzed. He observes that this trend has resulted in putting "strict limits on researchers' curiosity. This has also led to advocacy, as in the cases of Aum Shinrikyo and David Koresh... NRM researchers engaged in advocacy are expressing a feeling and a reality of partnership and collaboration with NRMs in a common cultural struggle."

Beit-Hallahmi offers the specific historical example of Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church. "There [is] a red thread that connects the cozy relationship with the Unification Church in the 1970s and the events of the 1990s. This thread does not express itself in the willingness to receive NRM money, but in the clear ideological commitment to defending NRMs regardless of the circumstances and the consequences."

Moving to the meat of his argument, Beit-Hallahmi describes the academics' "operative consensus" with increasing detail. "Leading scholars in the field decided to take a stand in the propaganda war over the legitimacy and reputation of certain NRMs (or groups claiming to be NRMs, such as Scientology), and to work together with them in order to give them much needed public support. It was felt that in the struggle for legitimacy, anything perceived as harming the NRMs' public image should be avoided. A defensive discourse has grown to protect any seeming indiscretion or transgression." From this discourse has sprung an activism among academics that he calls "the consensus in action."

Beit-Hallahmi then pulls out the strongest evidence for his case by referring to "a confidential memorandum, dated December 20, 1989, and authored by an [unnamed] NRM researcher who states that he is writing on behalf of two other leading researchers, all of them sociologists."

"This document reports on a series of meetings and activities involving NRM scholars, NRM attorneys, NRM leaders, and some other scholars.... The memo proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, not only behind-the-scenes contacts between scholars and NRMs, but the coordinated effort on the part of leading NRM scholars to work with NRMs." Beit-Hallahmi concludes that "leading members of the NRM research network regarded NRMs as allies, not subjects of study" and that "the scholars were more eager than the NRMs to lead the fight for NRM legitimacy."

Organized efforts between NRM scholars and NRMs are then linked to groups such as the American Conference on Religious Freedom, Eileen Barker's INFORM (United Kingdom) [one of the CESNUR's director, August, 1998 - ndr], and the Association of World Academics for Religious Freedom (AWARE) in particular.

Voicing frustration over the consequences of this covertly organized NRM advocacy, Beit-Hallahmi alleges that "recent and less recent NRM catastrophes help us realize that in every single case allegations by hostile outsiders and detractors have been closer to reality than any other accounts. Ever since the Jonestown tragedy, statements by ex-members turned out to be more accurate than those of apologists and NRM researchers." He cites the Peoples Temple, Nation of Yahweh, Branch Davidians, Faith Assembly, Vajradhatu, and other recent examples as evidence.

Beit-Hallahmi concludes: "The solution to our integrity problem lies only in a painfully open discussion and full disclosure; open discussion of our collective deficiencies and failings, and a full disclosure of all financial ties with all organizations. In legitimate academic work, financial support is gratefully acknowledged. If you have reasons to keep your benefactors unnamed, you've got something to hide... Being a little more suspicious will keep us all not only a little more honest, but probably better scholars."

Beit-Hallahmi is professor of psychology at the University of Haifa in Israel. He is also the author of (among others) The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Active New Religions (Rosen, revised and enlarged in 1998, ISBN 0-8239-2586-2) and The Annotated Dictionary of Modern Religious Movements (Grolier, 1993, ISBN 0-7172-7273-7).

To request a copy of the paper "Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research," contact:

Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi

University of Haifa
Haifa 31905 ISRAEL
fax: 972-4-8240966
email: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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