Lorne L. Dawson. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Toronto: Oxford University Press. 1998. 231 pp. $22.95.

Following the mass suicides of the Solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate groups, Dawson was inspired to write this book to address two issues: why some cults become violent and whether the consequent hostility, suspicion, and polemical stance taken towards cults is fully justified. In an all too slim volume for the task he has set himself, Dawson gives the reader a cogent and coherent overview of the major topics in the sociology of New Religious Movements (NRMs), and shows how this substantive focus integrates into sociology more generally.

Chapter one gives a definition of ‘new religious movements’ which is intended to include ‘cults’. It also sets the stage for a contrast between sociological and journalistic approaches to this topic. Dawson’s major theoretical pivot is to contrast the psychological/intellectual analytic approach to religion (religion as a set of beliefs and ideals) to the social-structural analytic approach (religion as a response to structural changes). To do this he draws primarily from the work of both Berger and Stark and Bainbridge as representative of the two main analytic options. He frames much of the remainder of the book in terms of these two approaches as he deals with matters of secularisation and the genesis and transformation of NRMs. Readers looking for extensive treatments of classical writers must go elsewhere. Weber, for example, is largely discussed indirectly and Durkheim is not mentioned at all.

Chapter two discusses the emergence of NRMs in terms of the secularisation hypothesis of Berger and the modernisation hypothesis of Stark and Bainbridge. Specific factors such as personal distress, structural dislocation, value shifts, and contact with new cultures appear prominently, while the role of NRMs in providing consolation for loss or validation for change, whether they are causes or effects of other factors, and their role in facilitating the introduction of new formal and informal social roles are brought in more briefly but clearly. Historical evidence is provided to show NRMs are not new phenomena.

Chapter three asks what kind of person actually joins NRMs, and deals mainly with relative deprivation and peer pressure (presented as a form of network theory and cast in the Lofland-Stark model more familiarly associated with studies of juvenile delinquency and deviance). The findings of a wide array of empirical research are summarised as seven empirical generalities. In this chapter he also provides a cogent if abbreviated critique of the methodological approaches used in other sociological studies, thus making this book interesting as an augmentation to advanced research methods courses. The fourth chapter of this book deals with brainwashing and mind control. Dawson returns here to show how sociology and journalism (as he uses these terms) are truly distinct. The journalistic ‘analysis’ of cults probably goes something like this: anecdotes from members who are committed to it; anecdotes from former members who see it as a mind-controlling and pernicious enterprise; expert opinions from lawyers whose clients are opponents of the group, and who discuss the group in terms of civil rights and constitutional problems; expert opinions from lawyers who have represented the group in court or elsewhere and who construe the constitutional and civil rights issues differently; and (less often) an academic or two (specialising in either theology or social science) who puts the group into historical, scriptural, or demographic context. This is all integrated by a host-narrator who has selected the previous content, determines how it will be presented, and concludes by instructing the audience to ‘make up your own mind’. While Dawson does not explicitly tell us what the journalistic paradigm is, it must be something close to this. He also shows there is no clear definition of ‘brainwashing’ in the social-science literature and raises serious methodological challenges to most of the work which purports to reveal the mind-controlling nature of cults. One of the most potentially controversial aspects of this chapter may prove to be his sympathetic (or, perhaps, balanced) appraisal of NRMs.

The fifth chapter finally brings us to Dawson's main topic: ‘why do some cults become violent?’ He specifically examines the roles of apocalyptic beliefs as well as types of charismatic leaders and how they change through time. Here as elsewhere he draws our attention to problems in the current empirical work, the weaknesses in the present state of theoretical development, and the need for more research. The sixth and final chapter asks the question: ‘are NRMs significant?’ and in so doing asks whether religion itself is still relevant, how pluralism and the loss of community, post modernism, modernisation and demodernisation, and related factors influence both the social structure and the psychological factors of daily life. (Like ‘journalism’, these terms are not fully defined and so a somewhat expanded second edition might be in order.)

Two major limitations are present in Comprehending Cults. The bibliography is largely contemporary, making the book less than ideal for a first course in the sociology of religion. Also, while the book provides a very complete summary of the central empirical and theoretical sources from which it draws, it still may be too cryptic to be fully instructive to the uninitiated. The major strengths of this book are: it attempts to be comprehensive of the current state of sociological approaches to NRMs, it provides a paradigm of discussion and analysis which can easily be applied to other marginal groups (gangs, political partisans, social activists, etc), and it presents both psychological and the structural elements for consideration. It raises far more questions than sociology has yet been able to answer but it raises these questions in such a fashion as to serve as a source of inspiration for future work. While substantively focussed on the question of cults and cult violence this book can be profitably read by any sociologist and can quite realistically be used as a supplement to courses in social psychology, juvenile delinquency, and social change.

David Smith

January 1999
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