From the courtroom to the court of public opinion, academic research and conclusions hold considerable sway. This respected position of academia is based upon the assumption that research is objective, rigorously careful, honestly conducted, and accurately reported. Indeed much scientific research meets these standards, so judges and members of the informed public are wise to give credence to research findings and the academic environments in which investigators conducted their research.
As in any human endeavor, however, some people involved in academia deviate-they violate the widely-accepted social and professional norms that keep scholarship in high esteem. Scientific deviance takes many forms, including interference in the peer-review process, lying about one's professional credentials, conducting sloppy research, and adjusting research findings to coincide with the interests of funders or sponsors (see Ben-Yehuda, 1985: 168; Friedrichs, 1995: 109). Regrettably, one current and prolific scholar, James R. Lewis, is guilty of each of these professional deviances, and the scholarly community is well aware of them.
Academic sources already document many of Lewis's professional breaches, and I will take long excerpts from existing publications to illustrate what various academics (including me) have said about him. These excerpts provide necessary background for comments about Lewis's scholarship in his 1998 book on John-Roger, Seeking the Light: Uncovering the Truth About the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness [MSIA] and Its Founder, John-Roger, published by MSIA's own Mandeville Press. I then will conclude by offering additional observations about another aspect of MSIA's relationship with academia and science through Santa Monica University.
Lying About One's Credentials and Interference with the Peer Review Process
In 1993, Lewis interfered in the publication of an article/book chapter of mine on the Children of God (COG), months before his own co-edited volume of the group was to appear in print. I documented the highlights of this interference in a 1998 co-authored article in the magazine, Skeptic, after the academic journal, Nova Religio, refused to let co-author Theresa Krebs and me to name academics (including Lewis) about whose professional behaviour we had concerns (Kent and Krebs, 1998a). Skeptic allowed us to identify the academics who we were discussing, and the following long excerpt about Lewis's unprofessional behavior comes from that article:
Interference with academic publishing
One vital aspect of science is that researchers must publish their results in peer reviewed journals or books. Research dissemination advances knowledge by allowing others in the field to receive, accept, replicate, or challenge the published findings. Interference in the peer review publications process is a serious act that threatens the principles upon which modern science depends, especially because the appropriate scientific response to controversial research is to publish responses to it in the same or other scientific outlets. Recently, an academic article fell victim to publication interference by The Family with the collusion of one scholar (and probably a second) who had never read it.
The Family is an unorthodox Christian group based around the teachings of its founder, the late David Berg. In its early days in the late 1960s, members expected and even encouraged "persecution" from "the System," which consisted of mainstream society, governments, and traditional religions (Wallis, 1981: 120, 126). After increasing criticism of the group during the 1980s and early 1990s over allegations of child sexual abuse (which led to controversial raids against Family homes around the globe), the organization undertook a campaign to represent itself as an orthodox, but persecuted, Christian religion. In doing so it began to protest "state sanctioned religious persecution" initiated by "[e]mbittered apostates and anti-cult organizations." In order to emphasize its victim status, The Family self-description stressed its adherence to God's Word upon which it based its self-described exemplary lifestyle and the socialization of the group's children in a positive environment (World Services, 1993: 3).
Amidst The Family's public relations campaign, one of the authors of this article (Stephen Kent, along with a former student) received publication acceptance of a lengthy study on the psychosexual history of David Berg in the annual, peer-reviewed publication, Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion (RSSSR). Several months before the release of the book, the publisher (JAI Press) mailed announcements of the forthcoming volume to academics and libraries around the world. An unnamed researcher, probably in the United Kingdom, received the notice, and alerted The Family.
As Kent was checking his page proofs, the publication's editors informed him that an attorney representing The Family, a Family spokesperson, and an American researcher all had sent letters objecting to the publication of his article (which the objectors had not read). The lawyer and The Family representative made vague overtures about a lawsuit. The American researcher, Mr. James R. Lewis, alleged "questionable" aspects of Kent's research on Berg, and also accused him of "violat[ing] professional ethics" (in Mobilio, 1994: 17). Remarkably, after alleging ethical problems with Kent's study, Lewis misrepresented his own credentials by identifying himself as "James R. Lewis, Ph. D.," even though he never completed the doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Indeed, at least three controversial religions and a professional colleague thought that Lewis had his doctorate (Church of Scientology International, [1994/1995?], , 67, 68; Church of Scientology International, 1995a : 33, 35; Cult Awareness Network, [1996/1997]; Royal Teton Ranch News, 1994: 8; Scott vs. Ross, et. al. 1995: 134).
The intervention worked. JAI Press did not have liability insurance, and over the objections of the editors and the University of Alberta Vice-President for Research, the publisher (Herbert Johnson) withdrew the Berg article as well as another on Scientology that RSSSR had accepted. Kent's university refused Johnson's peculiar offer to publish both pieces if it "assume[d] all legal costs emanating from [Kent's] writings and the consequences thereof" against JAI Press [in Mobilio, 1994: 18; see Johnson, 1993: 1) The fact that Kent had passed several university ethics reviews involving his research on the Children of God (Bridger, 1995) did not sway the publisher's decision, nor was Johnson moved to change his mind after Lewis withdrew his objection. The article (Kent, 1994), eventually appeared in Cultic Studies Journal without incident (Kent and Krebs, 1998b: 36-37).
In this one incident, Lewis committed two violations within the academic community: he participated in blocking from publication a peer-reviewed book chapter/article, and he lied about his lack of PhD credentials to both the publishing and scholarly communities.
As one study about fraud within education stated, "[t]here is nothing gray about the outright falsification of credentials such as awarding oneself a completely fictitious degree from a university one never attended. This is not uncommon, and it is just plain wrong" (Noah and Eckstein, 2001: 131), and Lewis's deception about claiming to have a PhD after a school had revoked it is equally wrong, too. Rarely does an academic commit one of these normative violations; Lewis managed to commit two at the same time. Because Lewis was an independent scholar at the time of these transgressions, there was no oversight organization to which I could have launched a formal complaint. (One also only can wonder what, if any, professional violations Lewis may have committed for an institution to revoke his PhD-an almost unheard of step in academia.)
Within months of Lewis's participation in blocking my article on the Children of God/The Family, Lewis's co-edited volume (with Gordon Melton) appeared in print. Significant methodological and research problems, however, exist with it, and co-author Krebs and I wrote about some of the problems. We were able to cite the evaluation of this volume by another sociologist of religion, Dr. Rob Balch of the Department of Sociology at the University of Montana in Missoula. Here are our comments:
At the same time that Lewis intervened in Kent's publication process in early March, 1993, he and various academics associated with his organization, the Association for World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE) were engaged in producing a publication to help The Family cultivate a positive public image. In January, 1993, Family representatives had contacted Lewis (as the Executive Director of AWARE) and another unnamed academic "seeking advice on how to combat the negative publicity and other attacks they felt certain would result from the group's bold new public stature" in the United States (Lewis and Melton, 1994b: vi). Already in other countries around the world, The Family had been trying to distance itself from its controversial sexual practices such as "flirty fishing" (religious prostitution), sexual sharing among members, and sexual abuse of children (Ward, 1995). The resultant collection of essays published by Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, entitled Sex, Slander, and Salvation, became a volume that The Family touted as proof of its legitimacy and the group has distributed copies to media in an attempt to gain favorable press. At least one academic, however, who reviewed the book, saw it otherwise.
Robert Balch's book review identified this publication as an opportunity to raise the vital issue of bias among social scientists who publish similarly skewed portrayals of other groups (Balch, 1996: 72). Most importantly, Balch recognized the study's disregard for "[Erving] Goffman's (1959) work on impression management, which describes how group members engage in 'teamwork' to prevent 'leakage' of potentially discrediting information to outsiders (including, presumably, social scientists)" (Balch, 1996: 72).
Former members of The Family, as well as some of The Family's own publications, provide important insights into the group's "backstage" arrangements that went on prior to contact that AWARE researchers had with it. The Family invited academics and other "Systemites" to what it called "Media Homes" (Kent [Interviewer], 1996c: 68). A former member who was familiar with these homes described such a place as "basically a nice, squeaky clean, polished-up home [which was] about as polished as you could get" (Kent, [Interviewer], 1996b: 157-158). Another former member reported that part of making "everything look as perfect as possible" at the Media Homes required "mega-preparation" such as moving out crowded children, removing bunkbeds from overcrowded bedrooms, and placing single mothers elsewhere (Kent [Interviewer], 1996a: 39-40). The same former member claimed that The Family "only kept the best PR people there.... the people who were, you know, prepared to talk and, you know, knew how to talk and wouldn't, you know, slip up or whatever" (Kent, [Interviewer], 1996a: 39). In order to avoid revealing sensitive information, Family spokespersons underwent intensive rehearsals of "questions and answers -- what to say about this, what to say about that" (Kent, [Interviewer] 1996b: 155). The Family even produced several booklets of anticipated questions along with appropriate answers and maintained strict security regarding which among its publications members could provide to "Systemites" for perusal (Family Services, 1989; 1992a; 1992b; Berg, 1983: 432-468).
Another way that The Family controlled information that researchers acquired was by destroying controversial sexual material involving children. In 1991 The Family's World Services department issued a directive entitled "The Pubs Purge," which ordered an "extensive purge of [particular] publications" by burning or blocking out portions "with ink or white-out as well as the specific pages that should be removed from within the remaining books" (World Services, 1991). The documents purge was not motivated by the organization's denunciation of Berg's teachings, but rather by the realization that these publications provided the group's critics with evidence that child/adult sex had been allowed. Consequently, the directive never acknowledged any harm from the sexual practices, but blamed the need for the purge on "them that [sic] are defiled & and unbelieving" (World Services, 1991: 2). Not surprisingly, therefore, when AWARE researchers and others conducted their study of media homes and examined the group's publications in other Family facilities, they found nothing amiss. One researcher contributing to the AWARE study, for example, stated that: "[a] study of a cupboardful of COG to Family literature was undertaken with the assistance of a YA [Young Adult] who pointed out important passages in the Mo Letters, the Book of Remembrance and the children's comic, Life With Grandpa" (Palmer, 1994: 9).
Lewis and his co-editor, therefore, simply had been oblivious to the probability that the COG had "impression managed" key but damning documents away from them and the other observers who published articles in their volume. Alternatively, Lewis may have been intentionally blind to most of controversial material, since he "received Family funds to publish the book" through a publishing company that he owned and ran at the time (Lattin, 2007: 110).
This problem of poor research design also plagued another book that Lewis and Melton edited around the same time-in this instance on Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) in Montana. Once again, Krebs and I summarized the problems with this study, again borrowing insights from Robert Balch:
During the early days of July, 1993, an AWARE-sponsored team, under the direction of Lewis and Melton, conducted a study of another controversial group, Church Universal and Triumphant. CUT needed some positive press, since the armaments that the Branch Davidians used against federal agents drew attention once more to the arsenal that CUT had amassed and on which the press had reported (Wiley, 1990; Washington Post, 1994: A4). Indeed, during the middle of AWARE's CUT study, local Montana newspapers carried articles that outlined the federal government's allegations of "[h]igh-ranking Church Universal and Triumphant staff members involved in stockpiling, moving and guarding weapons since 1973 in violation of its tax exempt status" (Billings Gazette, 1993; Ronnow, 1993b; 1993c). Moreover, the IRS was investigating various financial dealings ([USA] and Philipson v. [CUT] and Francis, 1991: 2). The AWARE scholars, therefore, avowedly approached the study prepared "to believe many of the worst charges leveled against Elizabeth Clare Prophet's Church Universal and Triumphant in the mass media" (Lewis and Melton [eds.], 1994a: viii). Like The Family study, however, the AWARE team produced and published a book of essays that was as much an apology as a social scientific product.
In an analysis of the study, sociologist Robert Balch and student Stephan Langdon recorded in detailed notes their observations of fellow researchers collecting and discussing data. Balch and Langdon reported that the AWARE "study design virtually assured that if malfeasance existed within the Church, it would not be discovered" (1998: 192). Based upon their observations, they concluded that, for the most part, the study "failed to dig into the issues that made [CUT] so controversial in the first place" (1998: 198). The study failed to address such critical issues as the organization's allegedly excessive commercialism, the use of Church funds to pay off a civil penalty against Mrs. Prophet, and IRS charges against the group for arms violations (1998: 198-199; Billings Gazette, 1993: 1, 13A; McMillion, 1994: 9; Ronnow, 1993a: 1). Worth nothing is that less than two weeks after the AWARE study concluded, a CUT lawyer said "in a letter to [the] Justice Department [that] 'the church wants to accept responsibility for weapons through the [IRS] settlement process'" (McMillion, 1995: 10).
Lewis described his published scholarship as "undermin[ing] the notion that nontraditional religions exercised extraordinary forms of influence" over its members and, hence, he categorically rejected the idea that CUT "brainwashed its adherents" (Lewis and Melton, 1994a [eds.]: viii). Challenging, however, to Lewis's rejection of the idea that controversial religious groups exercise extraordinary influence over their members is trial evidence, which revealed aspects of CUT's coercive controls over its members ([CUT] v. Gregory Mull, 1981: 5; [CUT] and Elizabeth Clare Prophet v. Linda Witt, 1998: 23; Balch and Langdon, 1998: 199).
Throughout the investigation, however, both Balch and Langdon "observed and experienced subtle pressures not to raise critical questions about either [CUT] or the study itself" (Balch and Langdon, 1998: 203). After Langdon "continued to raise questions about issues that were not being investigated, some members of the research team (ironically) began to question his objectivity" (Balch and Langdon, 1998: 204)....
As expected, therefore, CUT used the results from Lewis and Melton's superficial study in an attempt to gain legitimacy within the community and among its members. Following publication of Church Universal and Triumphant: In Scholarly Perspective that Lewis and Melton coedited in 1994, CUT's newsletter, Royal Teton Ranch News, carried a front page headline that proclaimed, "Study Debunks Anti-Church Myths." Headlines on following pages sound equally victorious: "Reality Wins Over Perception: Church is Entering Mainstream" (1994: 2); and "Moving Beyond Stereotypes" (1994: 8). In an interview in the same issue, Lewis stated his hope that the AWARE study "will be a paradigm for future studies" (Royal Teton Ranch News, 1994: 8). None of the articles in the newsletter mentioned that Lewis ran the independent publishing firm (Center for Academic Publication) that produced the study -- the same press that published The Family study (Kent and Krebs, 1998b: 38-39).
While scholars who study new religions knew about Lewis's research indiscretions and normative violations, his interventions on behalf of the Japanese terrorist group, Aum Shinri Kyo, had national implications for the reputation of academics around the world.
In our rejoinder to the responses of three authors (including Lewis) to our article, we addressed the issue of Lewis's involvement with Aum:
Returning to the larger question about compromised scholarship, SKEPTIC readers will want to know about another major incident (not involving The Family) in which Lewis' research and/or judgement was seriously flawed. In the introduction to his co-edited volume on Church Universal and Triumphant, Lewis prophetically stated, "[m]any scholars of stigmatized religions, myself included, have a secret fear that they will one day examine a controversial religious group, give it a clean bill of health, and later discover that they had defended the People's Temple, or worse" (in Lewis and Melton, 1994b, viii). His secret fear came true when he defended Aum Shinri Kyo.
Following Aum's March 20, 1995, Tokyo subway sarin gas attack (and another poison gas incident in 1994 that killed seven people), Lewis and three other Americans (including Melton) traveled to Japan on tickets that Aum had purchased for them. After spending three days interviewing Aum leaders and others, Lewis told a gathering of Japanese reporters that "the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both mass murder cases. Lewis said the American group determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum" (Reid, 1995: A8). Subsequently, observers around the world of the events following the Aum subway gassing gasped as investigators revealed information that contradicted the assessments offered by "prominent scholars in the specialty of new religious movements" such as Lewis and Melton.
Japanese Studies expert Ian Reader observed, "Melton had earlier made the comment that, when the media reports scandal stories about religious movements, the substance of such stories normally proves to be less than the extent of the allegations." As, however, information became available about the actions of Aum, "the evidence showed the actions of the movement to be greater than had originally been rumored." Reader concluded, "[a]s a result of all this, not only has the reputation and image of religion in general been damaged, but so has that of its scholars..." (Reader, 1995: 2). Lewis' advocacy on behalf of what he calls "persecuted religious minorities" has contributed to this damage because, in some instances, he has allowed his research to be compromised by the very groups that he is defending (Kent and Krebs, 1999: 25).
At least two of Lewis's public defenses of Aum contributed to the damaged image of academics. First, "he told a hostile and clearly disbelieving roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office.... that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both mass murder cases [in 1995 and 1994]. Lewis said the American group determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum" (Reid, 1995). Of course, he was dead wrong. Second, "Lewis said it was 'outrageous' that some children had been removed by police from an Aum dormitory, where they were housed apart from their parents" (Reid, 1995). Evidence quickly appeared, however, the Aum was placing electrodes on (often malnourished) children's heads in an effort to synchronize their brain waves with the cult's leader (Kaplan and Marshall, 1996: 270).
Aum Shinri Kyo's release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway that killed twelve people and poisoned over five thousand passengers (Hall with Schuyler and Trinh, 2000: 79-80) remains one of the most serious acts of aggression committed by a new religion, and Lewis's apologetic defense of the group turned out to be completely wrong. Despite the group having been involved in terrorism, pervasive forced drug use among its members, attempts at producing chemical and biological weapons, handguns, and explosives, electronic mind control, and assassinations, "Lewis came back to Japan to support Aum members' human rights in 1999 and to work together with Japanese human-rights activists" (Sakurai, 2008: 262).
Lewis's Avoidance of Essential issues When Discussing John-Roger and the Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (MSIA)
As the previous discussion indicates, serious issues exist around Lewis's judgment about, and actual study of, other controversial groups variously called sects, cults, or new religions. His judgment concerning the deadly actions of Aum Shinri Kyo received international attention, and his minimalization or avoidance of controversial groups' practices allowed some of the groups that he studied to either publish his findings through their own presses or buy large numbers of copies directly from Lewis's own printers. We should not be surprised to learn, therefore, that MSIA's publisher, Mandevile Press, sold and distributed Lewis's study of the itself and its leader, although we do not know what (if any) writing commissions or royalty sales arrangements exist between the author and publisher. What is clear, however, is that on certain key issues Lewis avoided investigating allegations that, if true, would have cast the group and its leader in a negative light. This type of academic deviance is similar to what sociologist Nachman Ben-Yehuda referred to as researchers "'do not let the facts interfere with their theories'" (Ben-Yehuda, 1985: 168). In Lewis's case, his theory (perhaps better referred to as a model) seems to be that people in the anti-cult movement use the media to problematize relatively innocuous new religions into dangerous cults.
Lewis "finalized arrangements" to study John-Roger and MSIA in 1994 (Lewis, 1998: 7), almost a decade after numerous media accounts about the group and his leader had appeared in the press around 1985 and continued into the mid-1990s. The most detailed and balanced account was the two-part series by Los Angeles Times reporters Bob Sipchen and David Johnston on August 14 and 15, 1988. While the reporters gave ample space to John-Roger supporters, they also printed allegations that were potentially devastating to the man and his movement. Among them were that John-Roger exhibited a "'mean, cruel, dictatorial' personality" in front of his inner circle (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988a: 12) and had rigged microphones throughout the main MSIA building, subsequently allowing John-Roger to bring-up the information that he gained by claiming clairvoyance (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988b: 2). Perhaps the most serious threats to John-Roger's moral integrity were allegations that he had used "'spiritual seduction'" to manipulate men in his inner circle to have homosexual sex with him (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988a: 12). Lewis was aware of the Los Angeles Times series (Lewis, 1998: 187). Rather than undertake careful examinations of any of these allegations published in that series, Lewis (paraphrasing sociologist Ben-Yehuda) did not let the facts interfere with his model or theory (see Ben-Yehuda, 1985: 168).
Lewis's strategy in defusing these allegations against John-Roger was four-fold. First discredit the media's accounts of controversial groups. Second, dismiss use of the term, 'cult,' when referring to a group like MSIA. Third, dismiss the accuracy and veracity of deprogrammed former members' accounts. Fourth and finally, minimize the importance of possible sexual coercion in light of a person or group's overall spiritual teachings.
Discredit the Media's Accounts of Controversial Groups
Lewis's bases his discrediting efforts against the media by claiming that reporters sensationalize in ways that perpetuate cult stereotypes, but the demands of journalism usually lead to poorly researched pieces. These poorly researched stories, however, become the factual basis for more media articles that repeat the initial inaccurate claims. In Lewis's words:
At least part of the media's attraction for MSIA's particular drama has been the manner in which the group has been drawn into the larger conflict surrounding minority religions-the so-called 'cult' controversy.
We should note, however, that the media themselves, contributed heavily to the emergence of this controversy as a public issue. Specifically, the journalistic penchant for sensationalism has played a decisive role in promoting the stereotype of 'evil cults' to the larger society. The mass media is not, of course, motivated primarily by the quest for truth. Instead, the mainstream media is driven by market forces and by the necessity of competing with other newspapers, other TV news shows, and so forth.
This is not to say that reporters necessarily lie or fabricate their stories. Rather, in the case of minority religions, news people tend to accentuate beliefs, practices, or events that seem to be strange, dangerous, sensational, and the like because such portrayals titillate consumers of news. This kind of reporting contributes to the perpetuation of the cult stereotype (Lewis, 1998: 187-188).
Lewis supported these questionable generalities by quoting sociologist James Beckford, whose view of media reports about 'new religious movements' is equally dismissive and critical (Lewis, 1998: 188-189).
Having brought in Beckford as reinforcement for his generalities about the quality of media reporting, Lewis continued:
Once a dramatic story on a particular group appears in a major periodical, it becomes a point of reference for all subsequent stories on the same movement. This is because-given the deadlines for most stories, plus budget constraints of most news media-few reporters have the time or the resources to collect original information. Instead, 'research' consists of calling up information from previously published stories. And because the data contained in earlier articles remain perpetually uncorrected, the same items of misinformation are repeated again and again, ad nauseam. Given enough time the original misperceptions appear in so many publications that they acquire the weight of indisputable fact (Lewis, 1998: 189).
Without engaging the findings of any of the investigative media accounts about John-Roger and MSIA, Lewis has dismissed all of them as sensationalistic, hastily written, and poorly researched screeds hardly worthy of a reader's attention.
One might get the opinion that all academics are dismissive of media accounts of controversial new religions, but that opinion would be far from true. More moderately, other academics acknowledge that media reporters often uncover significant issues related to these groups far earlier than do scholars. For example, respected scholar of Japanese religions, Ian Reader, observed regarding coverage of Aum Shinri Kyo:
The [Aum] affair also appears to have undermined academic critiques of media and journalistic approaches to new and supposedly 'deviant' religious movements. Scholars have frequently criticized media discussions of new religions in particular because they appear to focus on the sensational, portraying them as deviant movements that threaten social stability and family values, usually focusing as they do on what are called 'atrocity stories' (i.e., reports on things wrong or of people being badly treated by new religions).... In this case, played out as it were in the full glare of the media spotlight, the media's concerns with new religions as dangerous and deviant appeared to be legitimated: here was a religion that had committed atrocities and that had become dangerous and subversive (Reader, 1996: 109-110).
Speaking more broadly, respected psychologist of religion, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi concluded:
Media reporting in general is quite limited, but investigative reporting by major media, when time and effort are put in, and wire-service reports, are worth at least taking seriously. There are sometimes real errors in the media, but this happens in academic works too. Reading the scholarly literature, with a few notable and commendable exceptions, does not result in a better understanding of what the Branch Davidians were all about.... [The media] have proven themselves just as accurate in the cases of Krishna Venta, Benjamin Purnell, Aum Shinrikyo, the People's Temple, the Solar Temple, and Heaven's Gate (Beit-Hallahmi, 2001: 64-65).
Clearly, Lewis's categorical dismissal of media accounts about cults and/or new religions is not a universally held academic position. In the context of his study of John Roger and MSIA, his dismissive position toward the media appears to be a ploy to deflect readers away from some carefully researched media pieces that raised serious moral, ethical, and financial questions about the man and his group.
Dismiss use of the term, 'cult,' when referring to a group like MSIA
Lewis's second ploy to deflect criticism of John-Roger and MSIA involves an attempt to remove the word, cult, from any language used to discuss this group. Lewis's comments on this issue were precise:
Since the mid-seventies, mainstream scholars-especially sociologists of religion-have been steadily churning out studies directly relevant to the cult controversy. (Because of the negative connotations of 'cult,' academics prefer to use the expression 'new religious movement').... The anticult movement.... has chosen to ignore this body of [mainstream] scholarly literature because it refutes negative stereotypes they rely upon to justify their continued existence (Lewis, 1998: 189-190).
Once again, Lewis overstated what he claimed was an accepted academic position. Certainly many scholars do avoid referring to a controversial group as a cult because members likely will feel that the term is pejorative, yet other researchers recognize that calling a group a new religion gives that group a religious master status that likely will cover-over other aspects of it (such as its medical claims, alternative family structures, political involvements, etc.). Religion may be only one aspect of a very complex mix of qualities within a given group. Moreover, the term, cult, has a meaning within ordinary language, outside of academic debates about its use. My 1990 version of the Merriam Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, for example, has one definition of the word as "a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious; also: its body of adherents." If readers were to examine some of the journalistic accounts-especially the Los Angeles Times series about the group, then they would see the bases that critics use to apply the cult label in this instance because of unusual or spurious beliefs.
Lewis takes pains to minimize the unusual but accurate claim that John-Roger sees himself as "the Mystical Traveler, who holds the spiritual keys to Soul Transcendence and can assist students in their quest" (Lewis, 1998: 62). (Since 1988, John-Roger has recognized a second Mystical Traveler in the person of a devout follower named John Morton [Lewis, 1998: 63].) In any case, this Mystical Traveler concept resonated with ideas "found in many metaphysical religions" (Lewis, 1998: 114). It might seem strange at first, but other groups hold similar beliefs, according to Lewis. What Lewis did not mention, however, was another of John-Roger's beliefs: an evil force called the Red Monk. The Red Monk supposedly was "a fearsome and contagious negative force" (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988a: 10) which infected some of his former-members-turned-critics Sipchen and Johnston, 1988b: 1). One of these dissenters, however, realized that the concept "'seemed to me to be a scare tactic to keep people from talking to each other''' (David Welles, quoted in Sipchen and Johnston, 1988b: 2). Combined with the Mystical Traveler concept, the Red Monk concept likely was sufficiently usual to count as spurious in the minds of those who see MSIA as a cult.
Other reasons also existed to considering MSIA to be a cult. As the Los Angeles Times reporters concluded:
With MSIA's levels of initiation, its devotion to a single man and what some see as its secrecy and suspicion of outside information and the way it treats those who attempt to leave, and with [one of its program's] graduated structure and, some would say, fanatical volunteer commitment, John-Roger's organizations seem to fit cult criteria, many former members believe (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988b: 2).
Several of the group's activities, therefore, in addition to John-Roger's own beliefs, easily could lead some people to view the group and its leader as a cult. Lewis never addressed, however, any of these points.
Dismiss the accuracy and veracity of deprogrammed former members' accounts
The debate over the reliability of former members' accounts in controversial groups raged for some time in academic circles. In this study, Lewis took (what appears to be) a reasonable position: the former members who have not received interpretive, anticult frameworks for understanding their previous involvements are the most reliable. He offered:
Ex-members of nontraditional religious movements provide one of the keys to understanding the cult controversy. Groups opposed to religious minorities base much, if not all, of their attack on the testimony of former members who relate tales of manipulation and abuse. Former members who have 'actually been there' and have supposedly witnesses all of the horrors about which outsiders can only fantasize, provide the cult stereotype with its most important source of empirical evidence. These narrative, anti-cultists would have us to believe, gave us insight into the real nature and purpose of cults belying the benefic image minority religions project to the world.
In my research, I discovered that most voluntary defectors were ambivalent or even positive about their former religion.... (Lewis, 1998: 192).
Consequently, Lewis said that he conducted a survey of former members who left voluntarily, and (among other findings) they demonstrated little if any hostility to MSIA, and very few of them felt that the group had brainwashed them (Lewis, 1998: 196-203). Among his conclusions were that, "[w]ith almost three-fourths of the sample willing to assert unambiguously that they feel they are better off for having been participants in MSIA, it is easy to see how so few ex-members feel a need to castigate the Movement, the teachings, or the founder" (Lewis, 1998: 202).
While not wanting to initiate an exhaustive examination of his survey and its weaknesses, it nevertheless is important to point out that it did not specify the level of involvement that subjects had with the group. This level of involvement would have effected significantly the evaluations that former members had about John-Roger and MSIA, since the Los Angeles Times spoke about the dissention within a number of men within the inner circle. They were the ones who claimed to have seen the "'mean, cruel, dictatorial'" aspect of John-Roger's personality; his money-wasting on "'the craziest New Age' gadgets and notions.... ,'" and his alleged use of "'spiritual seduction'" to get devout men to have sex with him (Sipchen and Johnston, 1988a: 11). If he only surveyed people who perhaps took some courses or received the group's Discourses through the mail, then Lewis would have missed getting responses back from people who saw what John-Roger was like when he was out of the public eye.
Among the former members that Lewis's survey almost certainly missed was Peter McWilliams (1949-2000), who alleged that John-Roger coerced him into writing a series of books and audio tapes under the guru's name in return for curing him of falsely diagnosed illnesses (McWilliams, 1994). Consequently, when Mystical Traveler John Morton referred to the "very good practical information" contained in a series of books that McWilliams claimed to have written under the guru's name, Lewis let the comment pass without asking anything about the controversy over the books' authorship (Lewis, 1998: 228; see McWilliams, 1994: 5).
Mimimize the importance of possible sexual coercion in light of a person or group's overall spiritual teachings
Downplaying the allegation that John-Roger used "'spiritual seduction'" may have been one of the purposes of the book, since Lewis makes cursory mention of it in the second-last paragraph of the final analytical chapter in the book (which comes immediately before the "Epilog"). In the paragraph immediately prior to the crucial one, Lewis determined, "it is clear that John-Roger has drawn heavily from the universal storehouse of religious inspiration. Whatever his intentions, his teachings resonate with universal truth" (Lewis, 1998: 218). Lewis's claims to know what "the universal storehouse of religious inspiration" is, along with "universal truth," remove this book from holding any pretense of being either a social sciences study or a religious studies critique. Instead, these claims place it in a category of apologetic writing-writing intended to defend a theological position and reinforce the faith of believers.
Juxtaposed against this supposed universal truth of John-Roger's, any possible sexual impropriety pales in importance. Vaguely, Lewis introduces the issue of "sexual exploitation" (without actually linking it to John-Roger), then immediately shifts the discussion to Catholic child sexual abuse:
As for the allegation of sexual exploitation, there has been revelation after revelation in recent years about Catholic clergymen using their position of authority to sexually exploit boys and young men. In spite of this documented abuse, no one stands up and seriously proposes, on the basis of such incidents, that Catholicism is not an authentic religion which should therefore be abandoned.... Whatever personal 'sins' John-Roger might have committed-and none have been proven-they would not, in themselves, invalidate MSIA (Lewis, 1998: 218).
Rather than contacting the men who made the allegations about having been spiritually seduced to have sex with John-Roger, and then using standard social science techniques of triangulation (i.e., "the combination of multiple methodological practices, empirical materials, perspectives, and observers in a single study" [Denzin and Lincoln, 2005: 5]) to evaluate them, Lewis essentially concluded that their veracity mattered little when compared to the wonder of the teachings themselves. Members, former members, and critics of the group, however, may have seen the importance of the allegation very differently. If it were proven to have been true, then this scandalous sexual behavior likely would have cast doubt on the moral propriety of the leader himself, and raised questions about the extent to which his teachings were a vehicle through which to obtain homosexual sex. The man and his teachings may have taken on a rather diminished light. Rather than others seeing John-Roger as the Mystical Traveler leading his flock to enlightenment, some would have seen him as a fraud who led some of his flock into sexual compromise. This crucial issue could have led to significant trouble for John-Roger, so Lewis dramatically shifted attention away from it. No wonder MSIA's publisher, Mandeville Press, published Lewis's study of the group and its leader.
In conclusion, Lewis's study on John-Roger is an apologetic, rather than a scholarly, piece. As such, it fits many other studies that Lewis has either written or edited over the years. As an independent scholar who frequently had long stretches of time without the regularity of an academic salary from a college or university, Lewis has to write books that have audiences who will buy them. One tactic that he developed was to write (sometimes under commission) studies of groups that the groups themselves like so that they will either encourage their members to buy them and/or use them as legitimation tools. This pseudo-scientific book, however, is not the only legitimation tool that the group uses-another is its school, Santa Monica University.
Pseudo-science and Santa Monica University
The operation and expansion of science has received considerable academic attention, as has its opposite-the development and expansion of pseudo-science. One way to discuss aspects of Santa Monica University is to locate its psychology program within this broad discussion of these polar opposites. Doing so will provide insight into the overall value of the program, and it will help assess some measures of value to both its students and society.
Psychology and Science
Psychology is one of many modern professions and disciplines, involving a wide range of examinations of the cognitive, emotional, neural, and (to a degree) social dimensions of both normal and disordered individuals. (Psychiatrists often examine similar issues, but they are medical doctors who can prescribe medications while most psychologists cannot in the U.S). Psychotherapy is a branch of psychology dealing with the treatment of various psychological impairments and that uses forms of non-medical treatments (counseling and other therapies) in attempts to reduce or eliminate these impairments. Together, psychology and its sub-fields comprise a significant portion of the mental health industry, which also would include psychiatric social workers and nurses, addiction counselors, some biochemists and neurologists, etc. In the 1930s, an intraprofessional split took place in the United States, with the American Association of Applied Psychology taking "the clinicians and testers who worked in schools, industry, and private practice" out of the academically oriented American Psychological Association (APA). The two associations reconnected in 1944, with psychotherapists constituting a substantial membership in the APA (Abbott, 1988: 311-312).
Taken individually or collectively, these mental health practitioners share with all others a commitment to science. "[S]cience stands for logic and rigor in diagnosis as well as a certain caution and conservatism in professional therapeutics. It implies extensive academic research based on the highest standards of rationality" (Abbott, 1988: 189). This emphasis on rationality helps to explain why psychotherapy won its struggle with pastoral psychology as the dominant, normative treatment provider, since the religious/spiritual assumptions of that competing style of mental health treatment put it outside the possibility of scientific testing (see Abbott, 1988: 308-310). This emphasis on rationality also explains the key role that colleges and universities play as training grounds for mental health providers. Educational curricula presumably reflect the latest scientific discoveries that are pertinent to psychology at the same time that it provides a research-encouraging atmosphere for faculty (and even some students) to undertake the research that leads to those discoveries. The curricula frequently provides initial training experiences that, together with learning about the efficacy of various techniques in relation to mental health conditions, contribute to (frequently required) professional certification exams. While professions concentrate in specific discipline-oriented departments (e.g., psychologists in psychology departments), a number of them infuse into other academic departments whose emphasis is in another discipline. Hence, academics with psychological training also may be faculty in departments such as political science, economics, business, religious studies, anthropology, and sociology (to name a few). Associated with some departments and heavily staffed by (often volunteer) professional scholars are academic, peer-reviewed journals through which the discipline publishes research and facilitates a level of communication among the discipline's practitioners (see Gordon, 1982: 154).
Regional or national accrediting bodies examine entire institutions, and discipline-specific accrediting bodies examine particular disciplines, certifying whether these educational institutions or disciplines (as manifested in university departments) are meeting proper scientific, professional, ethical, funding, and educational standards. According to the United States Department of Education:
[t]he goal of accreditation is to ensure that education provided by institutions of higher education meets levels of quality. Accrediting agencies, which are private educational associations of regional or national scope, develop evaluation criteria and conduct peer evaluations to assess whether or not those criteria are met. Institutions and/or programs that request an agency's evaluation and that meet an agency's criteria are then 'accredited' by that agency (United States Department of Education, 2012a).
While the United States Department of Education indicates that it "does not accredit educational institutions and/or programs.... , "the Secretary of Education is required by law to publish a list of nationally recognized accrediting agencies that the Secretary determines to be reliable authorities of higher education and the higher education programs they accredit" (United States Department of Education, 2012a). The website provides a list of accredited institutions that anyone can check.
In contrast to normal sciences, "'deviant sciences'" are "'systems of belief in conflict with orthodox views, but which have some supporters who are sufficiently committed to the ideals of rationality to claim them to be scientific'" (Dolby, 1979: 11; also quoted in Gordon, 1982: 151). One reaction to the failure of a deviant science to receive normative accreditation is for its adherents to involve themselves in "the creation of institutes and organizations that promote and support the sciences in question outside of established and recognized research frameworks" (Ben-Yehuda, 1985: 117). Historian and philosopher R. G. A. Dolby said much the same thing a few years earlier:
... it is common for those who have a high degree of commitment to unusual interests to organize themselves to some extent. The most secretive may form small and exclusive groups which can only be joined by those prepared to go through a process of initiation; in other cases, more open groupings may be formed as those with a high degree of commitment to the unusual interests seek each other out, correspond, distribute written material, and hold meetings. Such groups may be formalized further. For example, if the belief system is directly modeled on orthodox science or scientific medicine, institutions may be founded which offer quasi-educational facilities for training and research (Dolby, 1979: 24).
MSIA's Santa Monica University fits this pattern of a deviant institution created to further deviant science, presumably related to the teachings of John-Roger.
"Deviant science in sects" (Dolby, 1979: 27) is sufficiently commonplace (and has been for some years) that Dolby paid special attention to it:
If we understand sects to be groups sharing a common ideology which have erected some kind of barrier between themselves and the rest of society, it is easy to see how they may defend a deviant belief system. There is considerable sociological evidence that our beliefs and standards are gained primarily by personal interactions.... [M]ost individuals identify with and conform to the standards and attitudes of their immediate contacts. For such 'localites', personal interactions fill their social horizons. Although they may be exposed to the mass media and to casual contacts with people outside their own group, they are primarily affected only by what is in accord with their existing attitudes. The organization of a sect typically 'protects' its members from the most disruptive influences of the rest of society. It can thus maintain a system of beliefs in contact with social orthodoxy (Dolby, 1979: 27).
Later he added:
Most deviant sciences flourish because they produce applications needed and appreciated by a segment of society and, in particular, the seekers in the counter-culture. Deviant sciences thrive which offer guidance for the future, character analysis and advice, methods of retaining health or of curing an ailment which orthodox medicine has done little to help, or solving psychological or social difficulties, or of giving satisfying religious guidance (Dolby, 1979: 35 [italics in orginal]).
With these general comments in mind, we see easily how they apply to Santa Monica University and the deviant science that it teaches.
I note, but cannot verify, critic Peter McWilliams's claim that the University of Santa Monica emerged out of John-Roger's earlier Koh-E-Nor [Mountain of Light] University as a defensive move in preparation for possible criticisms that MSIA leaders feared might appear against the guru's existing organizations in the anticipated 1988 Los Angeles Times series (McWilliams, 1994: 339, 340). Information on the school's website does verify McWilliams's statement that "[t]he University of Santa Monica has classes one weekend a month. A school year is nine weekends over a nine-month period" (McWilliams, 1994: 340), although there does appear to be an additional week in the summer for classes to meet. As of late 1993, John-Roger was the university's chancellor (Santa Barbara News-Press, 1993), and figures posted by the Department of Consumer Affairs, Board of Behavioral Sciences indicates that in 2007 it had 127 enrolled students (see Department of Consumer Affairs, 2012b).
What I also can verify is that Santa Monica University (and its name variant, the University of Santa Monica) does not have accreditation from any accrediting organization that the United States Department of Education recognizes. (A simple search in the database on the Department of Education [2012a] website provides this information). The Department of Education's accrediting body for California is the Western Association of Schools and Colleges, Accrediting Commission for Senior Colleges and Universities (United States Department of Education, 2012b), and neither Santa Monica University nor the University of Santa Monica appear in its list of accredited institutions (Western Association of Schools and Colleges, 2012). The institution's inclusion in a list of "State Approved Institutions" by soon defunct (as of November 18, 2012) California Bureau for Private Postsecondary Education is an administrative and financial designation, not a curriculum-accrediting one (California Postsecondary Education Commission, 2011). The California Postsecondary Education Commission included the University of Santa Monica in its 2010 listings of colleges and universities, but noted that in did not have either regional accreditation or school or program accreditation (California Postsecondary Education Commission, 2010: 124). Finally, the California Board of Behavioral Sciences, which licenses a number of psychological programs, did not include either Santa Monica University or the University of Santa Monica among its list of "schools with programs that may meet the LPCC [Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor] licensure requirements (Department of Consumer Affairs, 2012a).
Moreover, one website that identifies paper-or-diploma-mills (i.e., institutions that provide worthless, academically vacuous degrees) specifically lists the "University of Santa Monica-California" among its many culprits (EmployeeScreenIQ, 2008: 22). The website includes a scathing indictment of the "Impact of Diploma Mills:"
Those with 'degrees' from diploma mills are perpetrating fraud in a variety of ways. Most commonly, these phony degrees are used to obtain employment where the lack of such academic credentials would disqualify them from consideration. Secondly, many employees reimburse their employees for continuing education or offer merit compensation for academic achievement. Therefore [a] diploma mill degree is used to financially defraud employers. Lastly, these fake degrees can be used to misrepresent qualifications to unsuspecting consumers (EmployeeScreenIQ 2008: 1).
According to this website, therefore, a degree from Santa Monica University is highly problematic. Moreover, the website on diploma mills by the United States Department of Education adds, "Remember: In some states, it can be illegal to use a degree from an institution that is not accredited by a nationally recognized accrediting agency unless approved by the state licensing agency" (United States Department of Education, 2012c: 2).
Deviant Science and Santa Monica University
Santa Monica University's lack of accreditation is the result of one of two circumstances. Either school officials have not invited an accreditation organization to visit, or one has visited and rejected it. In either case, however, the reason likely is the same-the school does not teach a form of psychology that professional psychologists recognize as scientific. According to its website, University of Santa Monica "is dedicated to communicating the Principles and Practices of Spiritual Psychology worldwide through a process of Soul-Centered education." Within the context of spiritual psychology, the school offers and M. A. [Master of Arts] in Spiritual Psychology and an M. A. in Consciousness, Health, & Healing. As is apparent from the website, however, the entire area of spiritual psychology premises that a spiritual reality exists and which manifests as the "authentic self" or "soul."
These assumptions are ideological-non-verifiable, non-testable, and non-falsifiable beliefs existing outside the realm of acceptable science. (Note, for example, that the school does not sponsor an academic journal around spiritual psychology, which would be commonplace for an emerging or established academic disciple). These assumptions appear to be aligned, however, with John-Roger's teachings. Nine of Santa Monica University's faculty also have degrees from Peace Theological Seminary in Santa Monica, "which gives classes in the teachings of MSIA" (Santa Barbara News-Press, 1993). Moreover, of the school's twenty-six "teaching faculty," every one of them has a degree from the school itself. While it is common for university departments to have a few professors who have degrees from the institutions at which they now teach, I am unaware of any legitimate university in which every faculty member has one or more degrees from the institution at which they currently hold faculty positions. If James Lewis is correct in indicating that the University of Santa Monica "has since separated itself [from MSIA] as a distinct school catering primarily to non-MSIA members" (Lewis, 1998: 88), then it seems likely that the school is staffed by many (if not all) adherents of John-Roger who are propagating their deviant science of spiritual psychology to a segment of the public whose members define themselves as spiritual seekers. They likely feel uneasiness with their lives and define those feelings as problems within spirituality (as opposed to, for example, problems caused by physical health, economic situations, psychological conditions, etc.).
Normal psychology pays attention to and actually studies people who define themselves as religious or spiritual, but does so in ways that do not necessarily assume that a supernatural realm of some sort exists. One of the American Psychological Association's fifty-four divisions is division 36, which is the "Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality." This division "brings together psychologists who recognize the significance of religion both in the lives of people and in the discipline of psychology. The division is nonsectarian," so membership in it is "open to members of all faiths as well as to those who are not religiously affiliated or do not profess a particular personal faith commitment" (Society for the Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, 2012). Its members use scientific methods and techniques to study people of faith, but do not make theological of spiritual assumptions about the ultimate reality of truthfulness of any particular belief system...