The British Association for the Study of Religion

                                                         BACRA and the Media:
                                  Defending the Cult in the Politics of Representation

                                                                   Michael York
                                   The Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs
                                                     Bath College HE, Newton Park

                                                               15 September 1996


By way of introduction, the Bath Archive for Contemporary Religious Affairs or BACRA is a venture which was initiated earlier this year under the auspices of the Bath College of Higher Education. The vision behind the archive has been born out of the need within the contemporary study of religions for a centre which can coordinate information relating to the subject for use by academics, theologians, religious adherents and journalists. The BACRA centre is a recognition of the changing yet viable and dynamic role of religion for modern-day society and community. It is focused upon the way we as community members allocate value and assign meaning in today's complex and increasingly uncertain world.

It is in assessing and evaluating the different understandings of the relationship between humanity, the world and the supernatural in whatever way it is conceived that cultural interaction occurs, and BACRA endeavours to be at the lynchpin pulse of this exchange through its vigilant cultivation of awareness, data storage and information retrieval. In the first nine months since its initial conception, BACRA has already developed a high profile both internationally and locally. It maintains an on-going dialogue with academics throughout both Britain and the world globally. At the same time, local response in the Bath/Bristol area has been enthusiastic, and many regional churches and religious institutions are now directing archival material to the centre.

The storage of documents and relevant information is only the more obvious aspect of an archive. Beyond the physical accumulation of data, however, an archive as an information exchange centre is an important nexus in network linking. It functions to put the right people in contact with one another, and it knows where to turn for material when and as it is required. The BACRA vision encompasses this broader function as well as becoming the venue for researchers at all levels to access stored material. Its scope of attention endeavours to maintain a broad focus which includes both mainstream traditional religions and marginal or new religious movements. It draws on the advantageous expertise diversity of the Study of Religions Department of the Bath College of Higher Education in Newton Park. The Department has publications and established reputations in Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Japanese and East Asian Religions, Native American Religions, Neo-paganism, New Age, New Religious Movements, and Religion and Human Rights Issues amongst other areas. The goal of BACRA is to amass information and the reputation for information on all religions and all areas concerned with religious developments.

As an example of the approach and kinds of issues with which BACRA seeks to engage, I wish now to address the question of the cult construct and the current arena of academic debate concerning it. This particular issue draws on the difficult relationship between the educational community and the mass media. This complex relationship in addition is placed into the context of the politics of representation.

In 1978, James Richardson of the University of Nevada's Department of Sociology, could say, "The notion of cult is at present acquiring a more secure place in sociology of religion and in sociology as a whole" (1978:30). In understanding the application of the term, Richardson (1978:32) felt "When the ideological position of a group is at odds with that of the culture or subculture that `contains' the group, (and if certain other more `organizational' attributes are present), then one might designate such a group as a cult." In other words, "A cult is a group that has beliefs and/or practices that are counter to those of the dominant culture" (Richardson, 1978:33), but "Cults also are characterized by loosely defined ideological and behavioural boundaries making for easy egress and ingress of participants, for more tolerance of different groups and different beliefs and behaviours, and for an approach to truth that is ... `epistemologically individualistic', as contrasted to the lack of tolerance, more well-defined beliefs, behaviour and ... the `epistemological authoritarian' nature of the sect" (Richardson, 1978:35; see also York, 1995:249-261; Richardson, 1979).

In general, Richardson (1978:41) could conclude that "To be strongly committed to anything is generally in opposition to Western culture, and groups fostering such intensity we regard as cults." Consequently, in 1978, Richardson recognised not only cultic response to churches, sects, denominations and even other cults or the `cultic milieu' but also cultic response in art, music, politics, medicine, education and many other areas of life - including even sociology itself. However, by 1995, Richardson warns against efforts to use the term `cult' beyond the area of religion - especially with regard to deviant therapeutic and political groups: "Those discussing such phenomena should be forced to use more descriptive and accurate terminology, instead of being allowed to apply such dismissive `4-letter' terms as `cult'" (Dillon & Richardson, 1995:23f). How do we account for this change in Richardson's attitude between 1978 and 1995? Whereas originally he saw and presented the term `cult' as one which had gained general credence within sociology, by 1995 he has come to recognise the same term as "derogatory, ambiguous, inflammatory and damaging" (Dillon & Richardson, 1995:3).

Within the field of the sociology of religion, Richardson is by no means alone and is simply representative of the current consensus. Gordon Melton, Thomas Robbins, James Beckford and many others have adopted a similar stance. During an address at the American Academy of Religion 1993 meeting, for instance, Melton proclaimed that to label a group as a `cult' now carries the same pejorative quality as calling an individual a `kike', `nigger', `chink', `wop' and so forth. Melton and others have urged that the term be eliminated in academic usage altogether.

The transformation in the understanding of the designation `cult' over the past two decades has been strongly influenced by the tendency for journalists to sensationalize NRMs or new religious movements. But unless there is outrageous behaviour, scandal, atrocity or large-scale controversy, an NRM is not considered newsworthy and tends then not to be mentioned in the press.

The broader question concerning the development of the term `cult' and its popular understanding is to be found in the `politics of representation' which argues that words have power as our world is constructed through language. `Cult' has now become a label which demonizes whatever comes under its application. The Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas is the perhaps the most recent and tragic instance of the sanctioned behaviour which is allowed against a group once the derogatory label is successfully attached.

The `Politics of Representation' (Holquist, 1983; Shapiro, 1983; Mehan and Wills, 1987) describes the competition, contest or conflict which is waged over which mode of representation will prevail in a particular social circumstance. In other words, people construct a social context through their successfully dominating speech acts (Lakoff & Johnson, 1980; Labov & Fanshel, 1977; Mehan and Wills, 1987). Speech choice is determined through one's available knowledge, beliefs, interests, resources and social circumstances. As Dillon and Richardson (1995:8) put it, "The terms people use will reflect their own interests and create a version of the world which furthers their own interests." Depending on one's position or aim, a new religious group might be labelled as a `religious group', a `church' or a `new (or alternative) religion' on the one hand, or as a `cult' or `sect' on the other. This last is particularly the case with "those who are threatened by, hostile to, or have something to gain by sensationalizing the public image of the particular religious (or political) groups" (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:9). Dillon and Richardson (ibid.) add to this analysis that those who are unaware of the present context would simply follow what they have heard through conventions of their particular social group and from mass media, which serve as mediating structures for those without personal experience with the particular phenomenon.

In the contest over the meaning of an ambiguous object, the agents who win have successfully demonstrated "their authority to define the situation, and thereby influence thought and action" (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:9). Dillon and Richardson identify the dominant institutions which have the authority and legitimacy to establish linguistic conventions as the media, educators, publishers and members of the government. It is these institutions which have or control what is termed `ideological or hegemonic power'.

In their analysis of the various connotations involved with the cult construct, Dillon and Richardson draw on Steven Lukes' description of the dimensions of power (Lukes, 1974). The first dimension is what is to be expected in a pluralistic society: the "contest takes place in an open arena with those having the most resources winning the battle." In the second dimension of power, however, the arena has become closed by a `power elite' - those with the power to prevent certain parties from entering the contest in the first place. But, as Dillon and Richardson (1995:10) state, "The third dimension of power, the hegemonic or ideological, is [the] most insidious because it precludes individuals and groups from even thinking of questioning a given situation of disproportionate power."

Hegemony is the ideological rule of an elite with the consent of the ruled. It is a Gramscian concept which fuses legitimacy and ideology to the notion of power (Gramsci apud Hoare & Smith, 1971). According to Gitlin (1980:10f), it is schools and the mass media which, in modern complex societies, specialise in formulating and conveying national ideology. The social world becomes defined and delineated by these dominant institutions for the whole population. Simply in the course of performing their jobs, journalists, teachers, scholars, researchers and publishers reinforce the dominant representations of reality through reproducing representations consonant with the current political and economic elite definitions of reality (Gitlin, 1980:12; Dillon and Richardson, 1995:12).

In a paper presented to the INFORM conference (28 March 1993), James Beckford compared the different agendas and research methods employed by journalists on the one hand and academics on the other concerning NRMs or cults. These differences relate to time, objectivity and interests both practical and theoretical. For the journalist, the time constraint is dependent upon the duration of newsworthiness of an individual `cult controversy'. "... the unspectacular, non-sensational NRMs are permamently invisible in journalists' accounts" (Beckford, 1993:3). By contrast, for academic researchers there is a greater continuity and continuation of interest.

With regard to objectivity, Beckford contends that while the conventional strategies among academics include "filtering out personal values and emotive language; basing findings on representative samples; comparing NRM members with matched samples of non-members; conducting research over relatively long periods of time; taking account of all available publications on a topic; and ... participating in both mutual criticism and self-criticism," the journalist's `objectivity' is satisfied merely if the story or programme `balances' the vox populi of a few passers-by with an adversarial opinion. This two-sided argument is considered to be representative of the range of opinion: anything more than two sides is rejected as too complicated for `good' journalism. However, on occasion, "The inclusion of a non-committal contribution by an academic frequently serves as another journalistic device for constructing a kind of objectivity." But, Beckford (1993:4) adds, "It can be very uncomfortable being the filling in the sandwich!"

Concerning practical and theoretical interests, Beckford (ibid) argues that NRMs which are considered `deviant, threatening or simply weird' are of interest to the media on the basis of their newsworthiness alone. "`Cult' is therefore a self-contained and self-standing category which is of interest to the mass media for its own sake." NRMs which do not conform to the category of the cult are overlooked. In their role as `moral gatekeepers', journalists "do not need to concern themselves with people whose right to pass through their gates is not in moral question" (Beckford, 1993:5). By contrast, however, academic researchers find NRMs of interest because they represent part of a broader, theoretically interesting topic. "In short, NRMs are interesting just as much for what they reveal about other aspects of society and culture as they are for what they reveal about themselves" (ibid).

Drawing on observations first made by Alexis de Tocqueville who recognised the essential role of the communication media to the proper and successful functioning of democracy, Beckford is stressing the countervailing play of different interest groups and voluntary associations - in this case, those of journalists and academic researchers. He recognises the dangers inherent in the mass media's tendency to

“serve the interests of dominant groups by stifling new ideas and change. This is why portrayals of NRMs in the mass media tend to favour conservative, majoritarian distrust of novelty, dissidence and rebellion.” (Beckford, 1993:5)

In Beckford's opinion, a contribution toward a better society is possible through "the progressive growth of dispassionate, but compassionate, understanding of NRMs as social and cultural phenomena which are related in complicated ways to other phenomena..." He concludes that "democratic, open societies require critical and self-critical scholarship as a counterbalance to the commercial and political forces which drive even the best journalists to limit the scope of their work on NRMs" (Beckford, 1993:6).

But if the scope of journalism is limited, it is also coloured by the `politics of representation'. In a paper read at the 1986 annual meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion, Barend van Driel and James Richardson pointed out that "After an initial preference for `sect', as a descriptive term for NRMs, the [American] print media later chose to embrace the more pejorative term `cult'" (van Driel and Richardson, 1988:177). Moreover, "It is perhaps more striking that in discussions of NRMs as an umbrella category, the press consistently favored the term `cult' instead of `sect'" (van Driel and Richardson, 1988:179). While conceptualisations of `sect', `cult' and `NRM' in the accounts of social scientists are usually devoid of value judgments, during the period between November 1973 and April 1984 in which van Driel and Richardson conducted their empirical research, in the American media "anti-cultist definitions were much more prevalent than social-scientific insights.

“Furthermore, merely by adopting the concept "cult" as a descriptive category, NRMs were, willingly or not, condemned to occupy a position in the same category of groups that includes the People's Temple, the Manson Family, and other marginal movements which evoke public fear and horror.” (van Driel and Richardson, 1988:181).

In a similar study of the Australian media and new religions which focused on the `anti-cult' book Dangerous Persuaders (1994) written by a Melbourne therapist, reports concerning the Unification Church, Scientology, Hare Krishna, The Family, Ananda Marga and the Hilton Hotel bombing, Lindy Chamberlain and the dingo affair, and a journalist ethics courtcase charge filed by a self-help therapy organisation known as Kenja, Richardson (1995:13) concludes that the "Australian media are at a stage in their relationship to NRMs that American media were a decade or so ago."

It is doubtless that the British media conforms in principle to the kind of allegations that sociologists make against both the American and Australian journalistic establishments with regard to their not being generally neutral institutions in the dissemination of information about societal events and trends.

“Media representatives and organizations seem deeply involved in the actual construction of information and opinion about events in a society, thus playing a major role in the process of defining deviant religious groups.” (Richardson, 1995:3)

Richardson argues that the scholarly consensus is solidly behind the contention that the media often "promote an ideologically dominant status quo, hegemonic approach to issues" (ibid). Since news and political editors often have strong feelings about deviant groups in society so that the media frequently appears to function as `moral entrepreneurs' (Becker, 1963) and, moreover, according to Kielbowicz and Scherer (1986:91), media coverage bias "... derives not so much from the personal ideology of reporters, as often suggested, but prinicpally from impersonal organizational forces and professional norms," "the competitive way media is organized in America contribute[s] to its being susceptible to management by dominant economic forces in that society" (Herman & Chomsky [1988] apud Richardson, 1995:5).

Dillon and Richardson (1995:12) argue that

“if someone or some group is contesting the meaning of some object, event or person with the media, the academic community, the courts or some other established institution, that person's or group's probability of winning the contest is relatively slight, not only due to their relative lack of physical resources (generally understood as Lukes' first dimension of power), or lack of effective social networks (Lukes' second dimension), but also because of a lack of ideological resources (Lukes' third dimension of hegemonic power). Winning a "politics of representation" contest over meaning establishes linguistic conventions and reflects the hegemonic power of those persons or groups who have enough authority and legitimacy to win these kinds of contests.”

By the virtue alone that the word `cult' has become so politicised, it has become hegemonic. And because the term carries with it a notion of legitimacy, it is freely used by the media, by scholars and by the general public. Otherwise, Dillon and Richardson contend, employment of the label `cult' would occasion the same kind of response and outrage as if one were to employ a 4-letter word.

However, unlike the kinds of persecutions directed against Jews, Christians, Moslems and virtually all known religious groups at some time in the past, by employing the term `cult', discrimination is built into the conventional definition itself rather than into the phenomenon per se. Dillon and Richardson make the following conclusion, and it is at this point that BACRA parts company with their argument. They say,

“We are not arguing that social scientists should avoid developing definitions which guide research on new groups, including religious ones. Obviously, such research is needed, if for no other reason than to satisfy intellectual curiosity about behavior or groups on the normative fringes of society. Thus, there have been some ostensibly neutral applications of the term "cult," as a descriptive term ... However, scholars should now recognize that the situation concerning use of the term "cult" has been removed from the control of scholars motivated by scientific curiosity. The use of the term in everyday parlance and especially in the mass media represents an objective fact which cannot be wished away by scholars. The situation should not be ignored, and scholars should avoid promoting the misuse of a term developed from a scholarly effort to describe.” (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:13-14n2; italics mine).

In the `politics of representation' contest, Dillon and Richardson have capitulated, and while it is true that a major irony of hegemonic power is that even those who stand to lose often accept hegemonically established meanings (the example given is the opposition by the Assemblies of God in the 1950s to such `cults' as the Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses while themselves being labelled as a `cult' by mainline Catholics, Protestants and Jews), it is no less true that traditional typologising places `cults' at the `bottom' of an assumed hierarchical order of religious forms - whether implicitly or explicitly, and

“Politicization of the term "cult" has resulted over the last two decades in what have been called "cult wars," the "cult scare," or "cult menace," and the "anti-cult movement” (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:14),

Dillon and Richardson are abandoning a key role - if not the key role - of the teaching establishment.

While Dillon and Richardson identify the dominant institutions which have the authority and legitimacy to establish linguistic conventions as the media, educators, publishers and governmental institutions, they argue that with regard to the once legitimate usage of the term `cult' by social scientists, we have lost the battle. Social science research supports the contention that people who use the term `cult' tend to be those who fear new religious groups. Kilbourne and Richardson (1986:263) term such people as `cultphobes'. They surmise that cultphobia could be a stress reaction of people who feel their way of life, set of values, beliefs and/or aspirations are under attack by "the very presence of another social category or people, the cults." The use of stereotypes and inflamed rhetoric is typical of collectivities engaged in all-out conflict.

Dillon and Richardson (1995:16), referring to Richardson (1992), mention a 1989 Gallup Poll in the United States which revealed that hatred toward `cults' (and sects) was twice as high as that directed toward fundamentalists, the next highest group, and "considerably" higher than any other religious, racial or ethnic group mentioned. They also refer to laboratory research conducted by Pfeiffer (1992) showing that

“79% of his subjects offered a negative view of "cult," and 82% described the average "cult" member in negative terms. Also, supportive of the role of media in this contest were the findings that 92% said their perceptions were based on media accounts, and 78% said they have had no personal contact with "cult" members.” (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:16)

For Dillon and Richardson "the battle appears to have been won in the minds of many ordinary people by those opposing the new religions" (ibid).

The `politics of representation' argument contends that the transformation of selection from a horizontal range of terms to one from a vertical ranking means in the case of the term `cult' (which is placed over or made more `legitimate' than that of `new religions') that "those who have won the contest over meaning have exercised the power necessary to define a situation and thereby create linguistic conventions with consequences for thought and action" (Dillon and Richardson, 1995:17f). Now while this is patently true, and undoubtedly the use of the term `cult' has come to be largely negative in the public eye - frequently with disastrous consequences (viz. Waco), Dillon and Richardson have cited the media, the educational institutions, the academic and popular presses, and the legal system as constituting the very dominant institutions which are responsible for deciding the political issues of representation. BACRA therfore asks what is to be gained by abandoning the educator's role as one of the major players among these `important institutional structures'? What has been learned if the academic faction merely acquiesces in the established misuse of a term?

Beckford (1993:6) claims that while

“It might be tempting to conclude that journalists and academic researchers should work together in the best of all possible worlds, ... [we] should not pin our hopes on the search for common ground between journalists and academic researchers. Instead, we should concentrate on improving our objective understanding of NRMs. The challenge is to counterpose information based on careful, critical scholarship to the rash generalizations and stereotypical images which all too often pass for `in depth' journalism.”

While I agree totally with what Beckford has here said, I fear he too has nonetheless missed an essential feature concerning the mission, task or responsibility of academic research, namely, education. Part of the very counterposing of unbiased information must involve the academic's non-abandonment of the legitimate position to define words which he or she frequently shares with the general media. If we do otherwise, we merely perpetuate a dangerous and incorrect understanding.

As an educational enterprise, BACRA is dedicated to the essential understanding of education as a `leading out' (Latin êducâre from ex- `out' + dûcere `to lead'). It is incumbent upon academics to be leaders - not, of course, in the sense of a Mussolini, who, as il Duce, was a dictatorial leader. In fact, as educators, the onus rests with resisting any monopoly of church or state which resorts to making totalitarian `dictations'. So while BACRA is committed to leadership, it argues that the best kind of leader is the teacher - the one who leads out.

The role of BACRA like that of most if not all educators is perhaps always at odds with government. This is further complicated by the traditional academic dependence on government for funding. But inasmuch as government represents an outside/inside reflection of the status quo - at least in a democratic society if not ultimately in any society, there is a natural resistance from education in its primary duty to `lead out' from ignorance and any established norm which has become obsolete or counter-productive. The teacher is unlike an il Duce-type leader who simply leads and/or dictates and merely keeps the organism or state under control through efficient functioning. An il Duce-type leader only commands but does not take his public or body politic in any viable direction. His leadership represents a stagnant situation. The teacher, by contrast, is not one who just leads or dictates but the one who leads out and into newer dimensions of knowledge and understanding. BACRA remains dedicated first and foremost to this obligation as an educator and educating centre. So while BACRA's ostensible purpose is the storage and accessibility of data relating to contemporary religious affairs, its motivating purpose is educational.

In the generally established church-sect typology employed by sociologists of religion, there has emerged no successful replacement for the term `cult'. Among the various suggestions we have are `new religions', `alternative religions', `minority religious group', `emergent religion' or `religious movement organisations' (RMOs), but none of these retain the parsimony of such terms like `church', `sect' and `cult'. To date, the question of finding a suitable replacement for the `cult' designation remains an open one. So while BACRA agrees with the following:

“Using the word "cult" to label certain religious groups denigrates the religious freedom of a diverse population which belongs to many different religious groups. When the term is used as a social weapon in political battles it limits freedoms other than religious ones, as well. The growing use of this powerful term limits the social experimentation carried out by new groups and movements in society, thereby limiting possible social change.” (Dillon & Richardson, 1995:19 paraphrasing Bromley and Robbins, 1992; and Robbins and Bromley, 1993)

BACRA is committed to retention of the term `cult' as an educational tool aiming to foster an expansion of public understanding in recognising that the term does not a priori mean brainwashing, propaganda, subversion, deceit, imprisonment, bizarre conduct, aberrant behaviour, harm, psychopathic trance, evil and the undermining of social values. Instead, like the sect, the cult is merely an indicator of deviant, non-traditional or non-mainstream behavior, and unlike the more fixed institutional boundaries of conformity belonging to both the church and the sect, like the denomination, the cult is an open community affording relatively easy ingress and egress.

Consequently, among the several roles BACRA sees for itself, the development of a working and hopefully educational relationship with the media is of paramount importance. While the archive seeks to collect ephemera, documentation and as much relevant data on all aspects of religion today as possible, at the same time it shall work to disseminate unbiased information or at least make clear the biased nature of certain materials it may have collected which pertains to any particular movement or group and endeavour to present such materials in an informative context. As an educational institution, BACRA recognises the co-role with the media which academic study shares within the shifting politics of representation. I have in this paper focussed on the `cult' construct as an illustration of the approach to which the BACRA organisation is committed viv-à-vis the media as well as the public-at-large, governmental institutions and the academic community. Seeking to become an important link in the growing network of information exchange, BACRA welcomes in particular dealings with the media both as an educational opportunity and as a chance to disseminate clearer understandings and accurate information. And while we recognise that it indeed can be very uncomfortable being the filling in the journalistic sandwich, it is a discomfort which BACRA is willing to endure.



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James A. Beckford, `The Media and New Religious Movements', paper presented at the INFORM conference (London: 28 March 1993).

David Bromley and Thomas Robbins, `The Role of Government in Regulating New and Nonconventional Religions', in J. Wood and D. David (eds.), The Role of Government in Monitoring and Regulating Religion in Public Life (Waco, Texas: Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies, Baylor University, 1992.

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James T. Richardson, `Public Opinion and the Tax Evasion Trial of Reverend Moon', Behavioral Sciences and Law 10.1 (1992:53-64).

James T. Richardson `Media Bias Toward New Religious Movements in Australia' unpublished paper (November 1995 - to appear in The Journal of Contemporary Religions, October 1996).

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Michael York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995).