Sociology of Religion 1993, 54:4 337-352
The Paul Hanly Furfey Lecture 1992
Behold the New Jerusalems! Catch 22s in the Kingdom-Building Endeavors of New Religious Movements*
London School of Economics
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea.
And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.
And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain, for the former things are passed away. (Revelation 21: 1, 2, 4)
And once again the scene was chang'd,
New Earth there seemed to be,
I saw the Holy City
Beside the tideless sea;
The light of God was on its streets,
The gates were opened wide,
And all who would might enter,
And no one was denied.
No need of moon or stars by night,
Or sun to shine by day,
It was the new Jerusalem
That would not pass away. (Weatherly, 1892: stanza 3)
I was so flattered when Ed Lehman asked me to deliver the Paul Hanly Furfey Lecture that I found myself accepting before I had really taken on board a sentence in his letter of invitation which read "You were also selected because your work is consonant with the theme of the 1992 meeting, 'Religion and the Reconstruction of Society'."
I would like to thank the Nuffield Foundation of Great Britain for a grant to help with the research from which this article is drawn. Material is also taken from my work with INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements), a charity supported by the British government, the Nuffield and Wates Foundations, and the mainstream Churches.
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Is it? Is it really? How? I wondered, when later I returned to the letter for direction and inspiration. Then Wesley Perkins, as Program Chair, telephoned to ask, very politely, why the heck hadn't I sent him a title. I was given a generous eight hours to get back to him. He helpfully suggested: "Something to do with NRMs and the restructuring of society?"
That's all very well, I pondered, but despite the grandiose promises made by the movements about their millenarian, utopian, and/or radical establishment of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, despite the sensationalist reports in the media about the movements' threat to the very fabric of our society, and despite the hysterical Cassandras of the anticult movement who are to be heard warning us of impending doom, the plain truth is that new religious movements do not have a particularly impressive track record when it comes to restructuring society.
Then it struck me — that was it! That was the question that had to be addressed. Where were the new Jerusalems? Why did they fade away? Or, rather, for most, if not all, seem unlikely to achieve even the temporary temporalities of an Ozymandias, why did they never get that far?
It is true that some religions have gone some of the way toward making the changes they espoused; but few, if any, movements have managed to produce a social blueprint for the establishment of a new Jerusalem — or a Kingdom of Heaven on earth — and then seen it through. I certainly do not want to suggest that new religious movements (NRMs) have never contributed to a reconstruction of society; religions that were once new have certainly been a force for change. Christianity and Islam were, after all, NRMs in their time, and the Adventist, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, did introduce breakfast cereals. But how many NRMs have been a force for change in the direction in which their leaders or early members envisaged? Cornflakes is poor compensation for the Great Disappointment of October 1844. And, what would Jesus of Nazareth think if (as some believe he has) he were to come back and survey the world insofar as it has been restructured in his name? What, one wonders, would he think of the new Jerusalem — Intifada and all?
Of course, not all new religions want to restructure society (Wilson, 1987:3031). Roy Wallis (1984:35) suggests that for new religions that he typifies as "world accommodating" movements (such as the Aetherius Society, Subud, or western versions of the Soka Gakkai) "religion is not construed as a primarily social matter; rather, it provides solace or stimulation to personal, interior life."
One might be forgiven for assuming that new religions that fall into Wallis's category of "world-affirming" movements would also be uninterested in restructuring society. These are the movements that are sometimes labeled pars-religions or self-religions (Heelas, 1982); examples would be est (now transmogrified into The Forum), Transcendental Meditation, the Church of Scientology, and the various constituents of the Human Potential movements. "The beliefs of these movements are essentially individualistic. The source of suffering, of disability, of unhappiness, lies within oneself rather than in the social structure" (Wallis, 1984:24).
But while such movements certainly encourage their followers or clients to look within themselves for a new Jerusalem, many of them also teach that it is the way in which society has socialized its individual members that is responsible
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for their inability to reach their full potential; and although Wallis argues that, within this category, "producing social change is dependent upon producing individual change" (1984:24), several of these movements have in fact declared an interest in, and have undertaken actions intended to bring about, at least some restructuring of society — the Scientology-related Narconon and the est-related Hunger Project provide but two examples.
Wallis's third type of new religion, the "world-rejecting" movement, includes the Unification Church, the Children of God (now called The Family), Jim Jones's People's Temple and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly for a bhakti religion, ISKCON (the International Society for Krishna Consciousness). These movements are more recognizably religious than those of the world-affirming type:
The world-rejecting movement expects that the millennium will shortly commence or that the movement will sweep the world, and, when all have become members or when they are in a majority, or when they have become guides and counsellors to kings and presidents, then a new world-order will begin, a simpler, more loving, more human and more spiritual order in which the old evils and mistakes will be eradicated, and Utopia will have begun. (Wallis, 1984:9).
These, then, are clearly the new religions that one might expect to be most robust in their attempts to restructure society and establish the new Jerusalem. This article focuses on some of the more paradoxical factors that contribute to the movements' lack of success.
A point that always has to be stressed when talking about new religions is that just about the only generalization that can be made about them is that one cannot generalize about them. They may share the label "cult," alternative religion, new religious movement or NRM, but there is no guarantee that any two movements, drawn at random from the category, will share anything beyond the label: beliefs, practices, life-style, leadership, organization, membership — you name it, and any generalization about new religions is bound to be challenged or refuted by some of their number.
Thus it is with the question of restructuring of society. Elsewhere I have described: (a) some of the ways in which the movements differ in their perceptions of what is wrong with the present society, (b) how they differ in their theodicies or explanations for the mess that the world is in at the present time, (c) how they differ in their visions of what the restructured society should look like, (d) how they differ in their prescriptions for bringing about the new society, (e) some of the ways in which individual members adapt to a diminishing expectation that their movement will in fact achieve all that it promised in the way of restructuring society (Barker, 1988).
Why might sociologists of religion be skeptical about the ability of the NRMs to be successful in their restructuring endeavors? In suggesting some responses to this question, I shall be concentrating on answers that might seem radically to contradict the answers that the members of the new religious movements themselves would offer. Where the NRMs might consider there is too much activity in one direction, I shall suggest that there is too little — and vice versa. In other words, I shall suggest there are sociological processes — socio-
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logics — that have unintended and frequently unrecognized or even denied consequences that militate against the movements' achieving their stated goals.
Let me start by making a distinction between three types of obstacles that an NRM might face in its attempt to restructure society. First, there are obstacles initiated by the external environment — what one might call outsiders'-view-of-the-inside obstacles. Here, I shall suggest that it is not so much how the movements are treated by modern western society as how they are not treated that presents obstacles to the building of new Jerusalems. Second, there are obstacles that, while arising as a consequence of the existence of the outside, are not so much because of how outsiders react to the NRM as because of how the outsiders are seen from the inside — these might be termed insiders'-view-of-the-outside obstacles. Here, I shall suggest that all-too-fervent attempts to impose the new Jerusalem on the host society can hinder or actually prevent its realization within the movement and, consequently, in the host society. And, third, there are internal obstacles; and here I shall again be pointing to ways in which the best-laid schemes of mice and men may go a-gley because of some curious twist of socio-logic that can result in too singleminded a pursuit of a single end —achieving less, rather than more, of that very end.
Obstacles emanating from outside an NRM may seem obvious enough. Throughout history, new religions, especially those that aspire to restructure society, have typically been viewed with the deepest suspicion by the rest of society. Ways in which modern western society has interfered with kingdom-building efforts range from sensationalist and inaccurate stories in the media and virulent attacks and lobbying from anticult groups, to forcible hospitalization and illegal deprogramming; from refusal to grant peddlers' licenses or permission to hold meetings in church halls, to litigation resulting in financially crippling judgments ordering movements to pay millions of dollars in compensation for "brainwashing," false imprisonment, or deceptive malpractice — quite apart from the imprisonment of leaders or members for such mundane criminal offenses as tax evasion, gun-running, drug-pushing, and murder.
This lack of appreciation by society, which results in inconvenience, interference, and/or persecution is well-documented (Barker, 19896; Beckford, 1985; Ogloff and Pfeifer, 1992; Richardson, 1992: Robbins, 1988; Shupe and Bromley, 1980; van Driel and Richardson, 1988). There is no need for me to pursue it beyond acknowledging that it can impede the smooth progress of kingdom building. But while some persecution is to be found in the West today, this is minimal compared to that which has existed in other times and other places. Moonies are not thrown to the lions; no Scientologist has been burnt at the stake; and although Krishna devotees did languish in Soviet jails, they were released with the first signs of glasnost and the advent of democracy.
I would like to suggest, furthermore, that the very pluralism that allows a thousand or so religions to exist, if not to flourish, in a western democracy can, in itself, present the movements with obstacles that are just as sociologically pernicious, if not as individually lethal, as those to be found in totalitarian
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regimes. There is a sense in which it is far more difficult to inspire the uninterested, or those who have many options from which to choose, than it is to attract the attention, let alone the allegiance or sympathy, of those who have only limited choices available to them. Other things being equal (which, of course, they never are), the fewer the alternatives, the greater the chances of those movements that do exist being able to attract scarce resources — membership and money — and attention. In the mid-1980s, I was able, without any difficulty, to visit three different Buddhist groups in the environs of Warsaw, where I was told that the socialist regime not only permitted, but even encouraged, such small groups to exist and enjoy certain privileges in order, my Catholic informant said, to provide an alternative to the monolithic opposition of Catholicism to the socialist state — an attempt (albeit rather a feeble one in this instance) to institute the classic tactic of "divide and rule." To make a telling example, a Unification leader in Copenhagen recently complained to me with a flash of insight that, now that they were no longer persecuted, the members of her Church were rather apathetic — they had lost their enthusiasm and sense of mission.
In modern western society, the experiences and, thus, expectations, hopes, values, and interests of the population become increasingly diversified with increasing division of labor and both social and geographical mobility. What might appeal to one person may have no appeal whatsoever to a sibling, and even less to a cousin, born only a street or so away. When I asked people who went to a Unificationist workshop to describe their experiences, there was little disagreement about what happened in a purely objective sense; but at the level of subjective experience there was immense variation. For some people, the lectures were exciting new truths that answered the questions that had been worrying them for years; for others, the lectures were interesting, but could not be accepted as the truth; yet others experienced the lectures as boring rubbish. For some people, Unification beliefs offered too simple an answer to the mysteries of the universe; for others they were too complicated. Some saw the Unificationists as providing a beautiful, loving community; others found them pleasant enough, but rather intense and unrealistic; yet others found them oppressive. For some people, the Unification Church offered a warm, cozy sense of community; for others, the general atmosphere was claustrophobic. Yet all had "heard" the same lectures and had "seen" the same group of people.
Similarly, while the media have, in some senses, an homogenizing effect, they also offer an unprecedented variety of choices. Almost all individuals in contemporary western society now have access to ideologies, philosophies, and all manner of creeds and practices (ancient and modern), which, before the invention of the mass media, were available to only the very few.
In other words, unfair and irritating as the persecution meted out to NRMs may be, modern, democratic societies tend to celebrate pluralism and to offer, even encourage, a vast array of alternatives in the supermarkets of religious and secular options. But the very ease with which the variety can be expanded presents aspiring Kingdom builders wishing to promote any particular option with the potentially insidious obstacles of competition and indifference — or both.
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Moving to my second category of obstructions to the restructuring of society, we shall now consider some impediments that arise out of the logic of a movement's assessment of society, rather than from the wider society's assessment of the movements.
I have already suggested that there are numerous ways in which an NRM might go about trying to change society, but for present purposes I would like to make a distinction between just two types of methods: the first type involves actually going out and encountering the inhabitants of the wider society; the second type relies on nonempirical intervention: an act of God, the power of the Holy Spirit, prayer, meditation, chanting, or some other kind of ritual or practice.
So far as the first types of method (and some of the third category of "internal" obstacles) are concerned, my argument is that the more a movement attempts to implement a radical restructuring of society, the nearer it may come to finding itself faced with a paradoxical situation in which it succeeds less than it would if it were not trying so hard.
Internal goals may be in direct competition with external goals. The means employed to restructure the outside society may prevent the restructuring of the inside society. Not only may means, thought to be justified by the end, contradict the end, but the very employment of the means may make a restructuring goal less obtainable than it would have been had attempts not been made to achieve it.
Perhaps an example from my study of the Unification Church will clarify the point I am trying to make. Unificationists believe that love is the most powerful force on earth. If only society were restructured so that people could "do" their loving in the correct way, then the Kingdom of Heaven would be restored on earth (Barker, 1984b). The basic unit of society is the family, and the restoration of the world depends upon establishing the Ideal, God-centered Family — and a crucial part of this process of restoration is the role and example of the Messiah. Members of the movement who are judged to have reached a sufficiently high level of spiritual maturity will have a partner chosen for them and will be "Blessed" in marriage by Moon. The Blessing is the most important and sacred rite in the movement. It is not merely a wedding ceremony; it incorporates a rebirth and a purification sacrament, and it is believed the children of the union are born without Fallen nature. But, just as Adam and Eve Fell in the Garden of Eden, children can Fall before reaching a stage in which they, themselves, are ready to be Blessed and to set up their own Ideal Family. It is, therefore, crucially important that these children should be brought up in an environment in which they are protected and have the example of loving parents who have a loving give-and-take relationship with each other, with God and with their children. Once the world is populated by such children, crimes of violence, the misuse of love, and all the evils of society will disappear.
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But, first of all, there is the problem of the relationship between Unifi-cationists and their families of origin. And here there is nothing unique about the Unification Church. The Buddha abandoned his wife and son so that he could escape from a social environment which was too all-encompassing for him to be able to see what he believed was to be seen beyond its boundaries. And while the Gospel according to St. Mark reports that Jesus affirmed the commandment "Honor thy father and mother," Luke (14:26) tells us that Jesus also declared: "If any man come to me, and hate not his father and mother, and wife and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple."
The point is that, if an individual is to follow a set of beliefs and a way of life that is at variance with the rest of society, then he or she will (except in a few rare cases) need some sort of support from other individuals. It is not just the sort of psychological support we all get from being among like-minded people that is needed, but the deeper support of a social context within which the new language, new concepts, and a new vision of reality can be lived through everyday interactions. To use the jargon: When separating themselves from the conventional wisdom, first-generation believers need to build up and protect their vulnerable "plausibility structure."
In other words, if a first-generation movement is to work through its "social policy," it needs an environment that can both reinforce and keep alive its way of looking at the world, and protect it from the continual questioning and disbelief of those who still hold to the picture of reality from which the movement's converts have defected. And, of course, if those who wish to question the new beliefs are parents — the very people who socialized the converts into their original beliefs, then the separation may (sociologically speaking) have to be all that more complete.
But, even if it is necessary to sacrifice, perhaps even to sever, one's relationship with one's family of origin, can Unificationists philosophically shrug their shoulders and say, "this is an unfortunate necessity for one generation, but we must now get on and work at establishing our own Ideal Family for the next generation"? That is, indeed, what many have said. But it is not as simple as that, for if Unificationists are busy trying to produce their own Ideal Family, who is going to restructure the rest of society?
The dilemma is that the rest of the society must still be made to see the error of its ways: pretty well the whole world is required to cooperate in the Kingdom-building endeavor. According to Unification theology, Jesus's mission failed because he was not accepted as the Messiah by his contemporaries. Unificationists cannot restore the Kingdom of Heaven on earth merely by establishing an inward-looking, closed community, such as the Amish or the Hutterites have done; they have to convince other men and women to be Blessed and to bring up their children in the ideal, God-centered environment. The Ideal Family cannot function in a Lucifer-centered environment. A God-centered theocracy needs to be built on the basic building block of the Ideal Family.
How can this be achieved? One answer is through the example of the Messiah in the person of the Reverend Sun Myung Moon. But, despite the fact that he is meant to present the example of a perfect husband and a perfect
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father, Moon himself has had at least two wives, both of whom have suffered because of the messianic role that he claims to have been called upon to play in restoring the world. There is also plenty of evidence that at least some of his children, who saw little of him while they were young, had an unhappy childhood and, in certain instances, have subsequently behaved in ways that unequivocally violate the Divine Principles according to which they were meant to lead their lives.
The fact that Moon has not been able to be the sort of husband or father that the ideal standards of the theology which he himself has revealed to the world would seem to demand is attributed to the terrible personal sacrifice that he has had to make because of the satanic social environment which he is here to save. In the words of one of his closest disciples, the "Reverend Moon has literally had to sacrifice his family for the world" (Kwak, 1982:8). In short, it might seem that his sacrifice has meant that, rather than offering any practical example for his followers, his message has been more of a "do as I say, not as I do" nature.
But even this sacrifice has not been sufficient in itself to restructure society, and the "do-as-I-say" has itself been decidedly ambiguous. While it has always been made clear in the movement's formal theology that the establishment of the Ideal Family is central to the restoration of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth, Moon has, when it comes to the crunch, also given clear instructions for contrary practical behavior: fathers may be sent away on a mission that takes them thousands of miles from their families for periods of months or even years, and mothers have been asked to leave their children in a nursery, or to send them to a school in Korea, while the mothers themselves got on with the task of saving the world. Parents have had to harden themselves against becoming too involved in their children's development; they have been unable to nourish the sort of intimate, loving relationship that the Ideal Family requires. Many of the couples have either left or drifted to the periphery of the movement for this very reason. That is, they have decided to settle for a slightly more ideal family than they were able to enjoy while they were pursuing The Ideal Family as the basis for restructuring society.
Of course, it is not only in NRMs that one can observe that people who are overly involved in loving "Humanity" frequently find themselves having no time or energy to love human beings. The point that I am making here, however, is that a first-generation movement that wants to bring about a radical restructuring of society needs to protect itself from the society that it seeks to change; and insofar as it does not protect its members, it may risk not living up to its own ideals or losing its members or both. In short, this particular Catch 22 is that if Unificationists concentrate on fostering their Ideal Family, the rest of the world goes on as before (except that their relationship with their own parents may suffer varying degrees of strain), but if they spend their energies and resources in trying to restructure society, their Ideal Family suffers and the crucially important foundation stones for the new Jerusalem remain unlaid.1
1 For several excellent examples of ways in which a movement can find itself pursuing goals that would seem to be at odds with its messianic vision, see Mickler, 1992.
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N onempirical Intervention
So far as the second, nonempirical, type of method employed by movements for the restructuring of society is concerned, sociologists, with one or two exceptions (e.g., Miller, 1991; Stark, 1987; Wilson, 1987), have tended to fight shy of pointing out how extraordinarily ineffective such methods seem to be, despite the fact that millions of people have believed, and still believe, in their efficacy.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me insist that I am one of those sociologists of religion who upholds the value that social science must be methodologically agnostic — not methodologically atheistic, but methodologically agnostic. The supernatural cannot be invoked as an independent variable; we can neither affirm nor deny that there is a God or that the Holy Spirit is responsible for a particular person's conversion; we can neither confirm nor deny that there was a divine connection between the fact that the Church of England's highly controversial Bishop of Durham was installed one day and that York Minster, where the ceremony had taken place, was struck by lightning the next. There are a great many things that the sociologist, qua sociologist, cannot know about — and, indeed, I consider it a strength, not a weakness, when sociology recognizes its limitations.
But there is an asymmetry in what a science can say: while it has no competence to pronounce that any particular happening is because of the intervention of a supernatural Being acting as an independent variable, it can report that the supernatural would appear to be an extraordinarily unreliable independent variable — at least in bringing about the kinds of restructuring of society that people expect or for which they pray, chant, or meditate.
It is not outside the realm of empirical investigation to claim that the available evidence suggests that it is not the case that "if people pray that society will change (that people will get kinder, that war will stop — or what have you), then society will change in the required manner (people will get kinder, war will stop — or what have you)." Not to say that, despite the fact that certain people believe in a revelation that the world will come to an end (or that Jesus will descend on a cloud or that a space ship will arrive from Venus on a certain date) if they pray, chant, meditate, or trust in the required manner, such occurrences are actually unlikely to happen, would be not outside the competence of sociology but, I would suggest, an example of incompetent sociology.
We are, of course, familiar with the arguments that something would have happened if only enough people had believed or followed the instructions accompanying the revelation — or that something did really happen, but that that something is unrecognized by ordinary souls such as sociologists (Festinger, 1956; Palmer and Finn, 1992). Something may happen to the individuals concerned, and that something may affect the wider society in some way or another; but rarely, if ever, will the something be what was predicted or prayed for.
It is true that the Science of Creative Intelligence can point to learned papers that purport to demonstrate that enough people engaged in Transcendental Meditation in a particular geographical area will lower the crime rate or bring about some measurable change in society (Dillbeck, 1981; Orme-Johnson, 1988); and it has been claimed that irrigation experiments in India showed that fields irrigated by water that had been subjected to Chaitanya vibrations by
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Sahaja Yogis gave higher yields than those irrigated by "non-vibrated water" (de Kalbermatten, 1979:186-87). There is, however, very little in the way of independent evidence that any statistically significant or long-lasting change in society has resulted from such practices.
Rather, such claims and expectations have been clearly refuted in far too many cases for sociologists of religion to ignore this fact out of a false modesty dubiously derived from methodological agnosticism, or from a fear of offending the believers' sensitivities. Let us be honest: we do not really expect that a new religious movement is going to bring about any significant restructuring of society by "type 2" methods alone — and if we were to expect it, we would be flying in the face of overwhelming empirical evidence to the contrary — for where are the new Jerusalems?
Now let me turn to my third and final category of obstacles — those that may arise within the movements and that hinder the movements' attempts to restructure society — even on their own turf: that is, ways in which building a new Jerusalem, even within a city wall, may be thwarted by the very attempt of kingdom building. In doing this, I do not intend to rehearse some of the admirable work which has been done on communes and communities (e.g., Kanter, 1972; Lockley, 1976; Nordquist, 1978; Whitworth, 1975; van Zandt, 1991); I shall, rather, select illustrations of some further ways in which the aims of a movement may be blocked by methods that militate against success when a particular goal is pursued beyond a certain point.
Once one starts looking, it is easy enough to recognize instances of apparently paradoxical actions. I first became fascinated by this genre of behavior when, several years ago, I noticed that one of my daughters was wearing only one earring. "You've lost an earring," I told her.
"I haven't lost it," she replied. "I'm asserting my individuality."
Not to be outdone, I took off one of my earrings. "Look, Darling," I said, "Mummy's an individual too!"
Patiently she explained to her aged parent, "Oh no, Mummy — it has to be the left one!"
This example of conforming individualism can be matched by other examples demonstrating organized spontaneity, synthetic authenticity, innovative tradition, achieved failure, material spirituality — and so on. The point is, of course, that the more my daughter wanted to be authentically individualistic, the more conformist she became; the more a group arranges for spontaneous happenings to occur, the less spontaneous the happenings become — and so on.
Were we economists, we might be talking of how, beyond a certain point, further steps in the pursuit of a goal can have an increasingly negative marginal utility: more leads to less. Or, to give the concept of negative marginal utility slightly more sociological credentials, Durkheim, it will be remembered, explained suicide as a consequence of either too much or too little integration or regulation in a society. Too little integration resulted in egoistic, too much in al-
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truistic, suicide. Too little regulation resulted in anomic, too much in fatalistic, suicide (Durkheim, 1952).
Similar patterns of obstacles that inhere in "too much" or "too little" extremes may be found in NRMs for, in so far as these are first-generation movements, one is likely to observe a greater intensity of commitment to the movement's beliefs and practices than one normally observes in an "old religious movement" in which the majority of the membership has been born and reared. Typically, converts will be enthusiastic; even when complicated, the Truth or Vision tends to be painted in clear, primary colors rather than in blending shades of grey as a result of years of accommodation to the world and passing generations of believers. The NRM will be more likely to view the world in black-and-white terms, with boundaries being sharply drawn between good and bad, godly and satanic; commitment is conceived as an all-or-nothing situation — you are with us or you are against us (Barker, 1989a). The tendency to espouse clear, simple, uncomplicated truths that point in one direction rather than in many may be found even when a movement insists that it is breaking down boundaries and offering freedom and openness to new ideas and practices that are not bounded by the straitlaced mores of society.
I do not want to defend the details of Durkheim's thesis — plenty of others have pointed to a number of valid criticisms.2 I would, however, like to suggest that, just as Durkheim argued that the suicide rate of a society or subculture had, in part at least, to be understood by recognizing that it was, positively or negatively, exhibiting certain properties in more extreme forms than societies or subcultures with lower rates of suicide, so might we recognize that the more extreme beliefs and practices that may characterize a new religious movement can give rise to a situation which, while not necessarily leading to suicide, may severely impede the construction of new Jerusalems. I would like, furthermore, to suggest that the traits of too much or too little integration or regulation are themselves useful for understanding some of the counterproductive processes at work in some NRMs; that is, one can see some parallels in the kinds of social structures and cultures present in NRMs with those in which Durkheim claimed there would be disproportionately high rates of suicide.
An argument that is sometimes made by a movement bent on restructuring society is that, even if individuals believe that their leader is not going about it in the best way, they should still do what they are told and so preserve the strength of a strongly integrated group, rather than each person doing his or her own thing. If, the argument goes, the leader does happen to be mistaken, God will show him (or, perhaps, her) the error of his (her) ways and, still united, the movement can then proceed in the right direction. One can, however, observe new religions in which the group demands integration to the extent that members see themselves only as part of the group, with little or no personal identity. The collective proclivity can determine the personal proclivity to the extent
2 I do accept the very basic sociological point made in the book: the fact that rates (of many phenomena) remain remarkably stable within a society (or subculture) even when there are changes in the individuals composing it, yet vary significantly between societies (or subcultures), does forcefully indicate that the societies (or subcultures) exhibit properties that more or less systematically affect individual actions.
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that individuals become so completely engulfed in, or identified with, the movement that they may even kill themselves — or allow themselves to die for the group. It is possible that some of the followers of Jim Jones, or the members of Ananda Marga who set fire to themselves in protest against their guru's imprisonment, provide examples of this kind of "altruistic" or self-sacrificial situation. Less dramatically, an extreme identity with the group may lead some people to become "burnouts"; this is a situation in which, as in the case of overregulation discussed below, individual initiative and questioning of procedures are likely to be stifled, thus wasting potentially valuable resources for the movement's Kingdom-building endeavors.
Conversely, an "egoistic" obstacle to Kingdom building may arise when the ideological promotion of spiritual individualism gives rise to organizational difficulties in, for example, the manner that has been described by Richard Wayne Lee with reference to Unitarian Universalism (1992).
Turning from too much or too little integration into a group to extremes of regulation or lack of regulation by a group, it might appear prima fade that Wallis's world-affirming (Human Potential) types of religion offer individuals a greater freedom — more control over their lives — than they had before, while the more world-rejecting groups curtail individual freedom. The former would seem to be offering a means of transcending the constraints of society, while the latter appear to be offering the chance to submit to the transcendent. It can, however, be argued that, up to a point, an apparent abrogation of freedom can lead to greater freedom for certain individuals while, conversely, the overly intense pursuit of more freedom can lead to less freedom. The former may provide the freedom of the cage, the latter, the cage of freedom..
As many have testified, a prevalent ethos within contemporary western societies affirms in its rhetoric that individuals, qua individuals, are important, and that they have not only a right, but even a duty to be responsible for and to determine their own lives. But freedom and determinism are not polar opposites. People have to "sort themselves out" within a social context. Free will, curiously but obviously enough, needs to take place within a context in which some determinism exists, rather than in one of utter chaos or randomness. If the degree of determinism is such that the individual is pretty well bound to follow a certain line of action, then individual choice is clearly diminished; but if the degrees of freedom are themselves too great, then, again, individual choice may be curtailed.
Complete formlessness or lack of regulation is, almost by definition, an impossibility for any social group; it is all a question of degree. But insofar as a social group is "anomic," little or nothing can be achieved by the individual: "one does not advance when one walks toward no goal, or — which is the same thing — when [one's] goal is infinity" (Durkheim, 1952:248). If norms have been broken down or are no longer considered relevant to the "needs" of a movement, expectations may increase, but they are unlikely to be matched by a parallel increase in means to achieve new, more ambitious goals — particularly those of creating a "liberated" society in which everyone is free to develop his or her full potential in his or her own particular way.
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Movements, such as those Heelas (1982) has termed "self-religions," which are in danger of promoting such a potentially anomic culture, depict the traditionally socialized individual as clogged up with the accretions of society. If only, the message goes, you can scrape off the social barnacles, release yourself from rubbish that has been pumped into you since — perhaps even before — your birth; if only, by one technique or another, you can free yourself from the constraints of society, then your real, true self will emerge; the pristine individual is recreated: Ecce Homo! Free at last!
To take two familiar metaphors: If you see a human being as a nut, then all you have to do is remove the outer shell and you are left with the kernel — the true, unadulterated individual. Sociologists are, however, more likely to prefer the metaphor of human beings as onions: as one goes on peeling off layer after social layer, one is liable to find oneself left with nothing more than a lachryma-tory whiff. It will, in fact, be the individual, himself or herself, who has been peeled away in the quest for the authentic self. There will be nothing left to do the transcending.
As far as sociological assumptions are concerned, the "kernel" view of human beings is almost as ridiculous as knocking the hydrogen atoms off a molecule of water and then claiming that the puff of oxygen with which one is left is "pure" water. One is reminded of the story of the student who was doing his dissertation on Zen Buddhism. After six years of intense study, he went to see his supervisor and told him "I have captured the very essence of Zen in my thesis." He passed to his supervisor a sheaf of pages on which was written nothing. The dissertation was duly submitted, and at the viva the examiners and the candidate sat in sacred silence for an hour. Then the senior examiner, with great solemnity, tore out one of the blank pages and handed it to the candidate. "This," they told him, "encapsulates the essence of your Ph.D."
Now let me try to make it quite clear, I certainly know of rases where a mild dose of exposure to what might be termed "liberating ideology" (which is nothing like Liberation Theology) has released individuals from social accretions, burdens, guilts, fears, pressures, or what-have-you that were preventing them from functioning (coping with life and relationships) as freely and effectively as they genuinely could, and subsequently did. Such people will report that they have, at last, been released, become free to relate to other humans and, they believe, to a transcendent reality. But I also know of cases where social supports have been removed, ridiculed and destroyed by what for others turns out to be an overdose of such ideologies and processes, with the result that the people concerned have reverted to pathetic, infantile states of dependency. Their pursuit of liberation from the constraints of society has led to their having to be looked after rather as one would look after a baby.
More frequently, regulative forces are replaced rather than removed; the individual, far from gaining the key to a world of total freedom, finds himself or herself increasingly dependent on the movement itself or on its omniscient, omnipotent guru. The new Jerusalem is quite likely to become more restrictive than the host society — if only because such dependencies are, by fiat, even less negotiable.
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Turning finally to "fatalistic" cultures of overregulation, I would like to draw heavily on an excellent article by Ted Mills (1982), in which he analyses some of the ways in which excessive normative control operated with such disastrous results in the new Jerusalem that Jim Jones attempted to build in the Guyanan jungle. Mills's argument (which might be extended to other relatively socially and geographically isolated communities such as Rajneeshpuram in Oregon and, perhaps, the Branch Davidians in Waco), is that the value system of the movement had become too logical, too internally consistent, and that when there is a single, simple, unambiguous moral authority (especially if it is believed that God is that authority, and there is but one leader who claims to be or to have the hotline to God), then there is little room for checks and balances.
"Ordinary" morality in a pluralist democracy is sustained by competing loyalties to inconsistent standards that result in a constant necessity to keep correcting behavior when allegiance to one value or norm threatens to violate another. In the pluralistic democracy in which there are legitimated inconsistencies and where competing values and norms are tolerated, there is a constraint upon extremism, and, up to a point, moral autonomy for the individual is increased insofar as it is possible to resist pressures by invoking contrary norms without loss of status or role. There exists an opportunity to choose between commitments and values that are mutually limiting, for both are recognized as legitimate.
While too much inconsistency in values or norms results in chaos or destructive conflict, near-total rationality and adherence to one goal limits inconsistency and competing demands for loyalty, thus creating a reduction of "value space." The result may be that the group is left with a unidimensional vision that deprives it of alternative criteria by which politically, morally and religiously extreme forms of behavior can be inhibited (Mills, 1982:84). As the movement's demands become more extreme and "rational," the basis for refusing them is reduced. Unquestioning obedience becomes expected, for there is only one goal, not competing, balancing goals that allow the individual enough autonomy to do his or her own balancing act. With no grey areas, the comfort and security of knowing who or where you are can be welcome; one may be free from the anxieties of anomic or antinomian uncertainty, but there are no freedoms to play with.
In other words, the collective wisdom of normative dissonance protects a democratic pluralism from the extreme pursuits of ideals to the extent that other, equally desirable values are violated, or even the ideal itself is negated — one path, relentlessly pursued, leads to social determinism; while another path, relentlessly pursued, leads to vacuity and chaos.
As a final paradoxical twist, the recognition of the consequences of the single-minded pursuit of a reconstructed society by some of the NRMs (and ORMs) may even contribute to a reformist reconstruction of society by warning us that we have to be careful not to be too greedy in trying to get too much of any one particular goal.
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Let me end on a personal note. NRMs offer much that is good, expose much that is evil, and I will defend — and have defended — their right to think very strange thoughts and to pursue the most extraordinary of goals as far as they wish — so long, that is, as they do not hurt others or interfere with the rest of us pursuing our goals — or even try to stop me from saying that not only do I think that some of their goals seem to me like pure hell, but that they, the movements, sometimes seem to be hell-bent on pursuing what must, by their own standards, be pure hell.
Finally, let me admit that I write not as a person who is any more, as I once used to be, a moderate militant. I write rather as one who, largely through her experiences as a sociologist of religion studying new religious movements in their attempts to restructure society and establish the new Jerusalem, has turned into an extremely militant moderate.
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