Not Upton Sinclaire’s “Jungle,” but Jim Jones’s: How Religious Sausage is Made

Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader

(Blackwell Readings in Religion 2003)

Editor: Lorne L. Dawson

This is one of those “breaking the spell” books on religion in which the intricate social psychology–the underbelly of new religious movements–is laid bare and demystified. The book consists of thought-provoking essays on cults by social scientists, psychologists, and historians. The editor has clearly attempted to give readers a handle, both theoretical and historical, on how new religious movements get started and thrive. Some of the essays in the book are so good that they justify, in and of themselves, the purchase of the book. Roy Wallis’s essay, for example, makes some fascinating distinctions between “world denying religious movements” and “world affirming religious movements” that are extremely helpful. The sociologist Rodney Stark’s essay is also excellent. It discusses how the promises that cults offer to converts function as “compensators” for general, and unachievable longings (such as eternal life). Lastly, this book is especially useful for reflecting on how the world’s major religions (Christianity and Islam etc.) likely had their beginnings. In other words, the patterns typical of new religious movements are suggestive of how the old religious movements got their start.

Short of a time machine, the study of contemporary new religious movements (cults) is as close as we are likely to get to witnessing the early beginnings, and evolution, of mature religions. This book is thus an excellent introduction to the scientific study of religion generally.

Here’s the Amazon link to the book:

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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