Philosophical Explorations of New and Alternative Religions. Morgan Luck (ed.), 2012. Ashgate, Farnham. Reviewed for the RSP by Beth Singler. Published 5th May 2014. An audio version of this book review appeared alongside two other reviews in our May 2014 Book Reviews Podcast – see the podcast page for author information.
In this volume, edited by Morgan Luck, a variety of philosophers turn their analytical attention to the basic premises and tenets of new religious groups, such as Raelianism, Mormonism and Scientology in order to prove, or disprove their internal logic. Often this takes place through the definition and analysis of the flow of Premise A to Premise B, and so on, as seen in Logic as a field in Philosophy. As an out and proud sociologist who studies NARMs (New and Alternative Religious Movements), including some of those mentioned, I found myself asking: so what? To explain, I can quote Luck himself in his introduction to the volume where we see the real issue that is at hand. Luck admits:
“It may be usual for sociologists to describe what members of NARMS believe. They might also describe the arguments used to support those beliefs. However, it would be less common for them to critique these arguments and pronounce them good or bad. Yet this type of activity commonly occurs within Philosophy”. (6)
It is true that sociologists of religion rarely pronounce beliefs good or bad. However, Luck does not consider why this might be, but instead goes ahead with the project of applying philosophical tools, such as the aforementioned delineation of Premises, to the deduction of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ arguments. This volume, he hopes, might stimulate the interest in such an endeavour. For both philosophers and sociologists we can assume, but I suspect neither will be fully satisfied by the attempt. I obviously cannot speak for the former, but I suspect the latter would point out two reasons why they do not make such pronouncements about NARMs and their beliefs. Firstly, that such a pronouncement is intellectually unstimulating and a dead-end for research. If you can prove that a belief is ‘good’ based on a bullet pointing of its premises, what then? Where is the variety and colour of life that those beliefs illuminate? Somewhere outside of the boundary of those reified premises certainly.
Secondly, by pronouncing an argument ‘good’ or ‘bad’ you are using evaluative language and making judgements about beliefs has become anathema to sociologists of religion. In the NARM field, this widespread bracketting of the question of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ might be seen as an outcome of the ‘Cult Wars’ of earlier decades, where academics where called upon to position themselves in relation to the developing movements and their status as outsiders to the mainstream religions. The turn towards an academically neutral stance – exemplified in the move to terms such as NARM (or more commonly New Religious Movement/ NRM) from the pejoratively cast ‘cult’ – is a direct result of this period, and the work of organisations such as Inform, founded by Eileen Barker in 1988.
Reading this volume I found myself skipping the flow of premise to premise, and trying instead to glean nuggets of description and analysis of the actual impact of the beliefs. The most sociological chapter was on non-cognitive reasons for conversion, which also in part echoed discussions that took place between the 17th and 19th Centuries about the role of reflection in conversion, versus the dramatic experience of the divine (Larson, 2006: 90). Extrapolating these socio-historical similarities in form was obviously not what the editor of the volume intended, but as I cannot declare an interest in the enterprise of a philosophical analysis of NARMs so making these links, and finding descriptive elements in the other chapters relevant to my own work became more interesting.