The Best Article I Ever Read – Linda Woodhead
I wish I had been present at the 1993 annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) when Professor Eileen Barker delivered her subversive presidential address: “The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!”1 I imagine that not all audience members were delighted. The address lives up to its billing, driving a cart and horses through pervasive positivistic assumptions in the study of religion and ushering in a very different approach. I will not pretend that it changed my life the first time I read it, but I have gone back to it time and again, and it continues to illuminate and inspire.
The thrust of Barker’s article is to propel the study of religion “outside the Ivory Tower” (p. 290) and into the messy and complicated arenas of modern life in which the study of religion actually takes place. Her targets are those who pretend that studying religion is like studying patient pathologies in controlled conditions, and who speak of the scholar as a white-coated scientist undertaking clinically detached studies of an object that exists independently of, and unaffected by, her or his research. This is what she considers the ‘joke’. Barker seems to assume, or at least does not question, that natural scientists actually operate this way; but that is not really her concern. Her focus is on how we study religion in the real world, and her contention is that it is a lot messier and more fraught than easy talk about a scientific method admits.
Barker is not making these arguments from the proverbial scholarly armchair, nor is she interested in abstract epistemological or theoretical reflection. She is reporting back from her front-line experiences studying and writing about new religious movements (NRMs) while engaged in a living dialogue between those experiences and the philosophy of social science. In other words, in the years preceding her address to the SSSR, Barker was venturing into new territory, being exposed to new problems, retreating back to reflect and report on them, then sallying out again. Her courage is remarkable. She speaks about some of her adversaries and battle scars: the Moonies who did not want their membership numbers revealed; radio, television, and newspapers that broadcast hostile stories claiming that she posed “a dangerous threat to the nation”; and an MP who stood up in the House of Commons to attack Inform—the non-profit charity established by Barker at the London School of Economics (LSE) in 1988 whose purpose is to provide information on NRMs.
In a section of the article entitled “The Loneliness of the Long-Term Researcher,” Barker speaks of how the isolation, psychological and emotional discomfort, and intellectual uncertainties of research become amplified when one strays away from safe academic topics of no public concern. This loneliness leads to temptations: to ‘go native’ and give allegiance to groups one is studying, or to react to hostility and being branded ‘the enemy’ with a kind of binary thinking that tempts one not to check all one’s sources as thoroughly as one should (p. 306). Faced with these difficulties and the lack of support, the bigger temptation is to drop out altogether. Even Barker admits to asking students or colleagues to deputize for her on a couple of occasions when she simply could not face another attack. And although she was not derailed by what she suffered, it is not, she confesses with typical understatement, “something that I would recommend to a friend” (p. 292).
Barker found herself in the eye of a particularly severe storm because her attempt to provide accurate information about new religious movements coincided with a period of anxiety about ‘cults’, and because her work unsettled NRMs and anti-cult movements alike. She could not win. Both sides wanted to co-opt her to their cause, and both found her resolute independence threatening. Barker remarks that her claim to be gathering neutral, reliable information was particularly incensing to cultists and anti-cultists. As a result of her refusal to ‘take sides’, a frustrated journalist made her the butt of an article entitled “No Room for a View” (p. 306).
There is an irony here, because the neutrality for which Barker was being attacked in the outside world seems rather like the white-coated scientist stance she was attacking at the annual meeting of the SSSR. Yet Barker was not really sawing off the scientific branch she was sitting on. In fact, her address upholds a surprisingly high view of the status of the sociology of religion—the discipline, or sub-discipline, that she defends.
At the center of Barker’s article is a taxonomy of the different groups that have an interest in the study of religion. Today we might call them ‘communities of practice’ or’stakeholders’, but Barker refers to them as ‘competitors’. She identifies six: the sociology of religion, NRMs, anti-cult movements (ACMs), the media, law, and therapy. All, she says, have ‘competing logics’ in the way they approach religion, and all produce a different kind of ‘truth’. Barker exposes the logic of each of these groups, deploying her sociological acumen to probe the consequences of their distinctive power structures, belief systems, and communication networks.
Speaking about the media, for example, she notes that the overriding interest is to get a story that will attract new audiences and retain existing ones for the sake of revenue. Deadlines are tight, and word space is limited. There are various tropes and stock characters that reappear—like the grieving mother or the man who saved a victim from the clutches of a cult. These have to be set within a story that is simple to follow and free of long-winded complexities and qualifications. The logic is to present news one story at a time, not to introduce comparisons or contextualize. Thus, negative incidents within cults will not be balanced by, for example, a discussion of the cults’ more positive contributions, and anyone who is a ‘cultist’ is likely to be identified in a negative story, whereas other identities such as Christian are less likely to get a mention (something that may have changed since then). Above all, observes Barker, in the logic of the media it is the sensational story and the vivid details that count—the sharp edge—not the broad and deep account, measured and balanced.
Barker is confident that it is the sociology of religion that is best able to generate this balanced account because its logic and interests yield truth more effectively than its competitors. Despite her title, she turns out to be a staunch defender of the (social) scientific method against post-positivist relativism, and has harsh things to say about some versions of postmodernism and deconstructionism that were so influential at the time (p. 301). Not that she thinks there is any such thing as “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth,” only different, selective approaches to the truth (p. 294). Nevertheless, she considers accounts of NRMs generated by social science to be more scientific than those generated by the law, the media, the therapist, the anti-cultist, or the ‘cults’ themselves because ‘the logic of its approach is infinitely superior for producing balanced and accurate accounts’ (p. 301).
In Barker’s view, this logic uses proven methods “to present as accurate, objective, and unbiased an account as possible” (p. 294). Its greatest assets are its openness to criticism and empirical testing and, above all, its comparative approach—its ability to gain understanding by looking beyond the single case, and putting that case within a wider frame of reference. Surprisingly, Barker says little about the material and institutional context of academic sociology, and even less about the roles, material interests, social constraints, and networks of sociologists and how they constrain or support the quest for truth and the exposure of falsehood. Nevertheless, she believes that the sociology of religion is able to produce not only a more balanced account than its competitors, but also a more useful one: being better at showing how things are, it is better at providing a reliable basis for action (p. 302).
Making a Difference
Barker’s article was, and is, a game changer, not only because it altered the framework within which those engaged in the academic study of religion think about that enterprise, but because it did so on the basis of her experience of doing research not just ‘for its own sake’ but in order to make a difference. ‘Making a difference’ is the topic Barker addresses at the outset of her article, and it is one that she feels the need to defend against purists. While she concedes that scholarship for its own sake has its place, she is unapologetic about wanting to use it for countering falsehoods, fostering a better general understanding of religion, and providing a basis for better decision-making. As she states rather firmly, “I know of nothing intrinsic to science that would proscribe such involvement” (p. 302).
Barker practiced what she preached by being a courageous pioneer, not just in intellectual terms, but in her prominent and sustained role as a public intellectual. Her success in founding Inform (now based at King’s College London) and helping it to persist to the present day with government and other sources of funding, and in the face of repeated attacks and legal challenges, is extraordinary. It is a model of how academic research can interface with both governmental and non-governmental bodies, as well as with the general public.2
What Barker’s work alerted her to, however, was that she could no longer pretend to be a detached observer reporting neutrally on her research subjects. Her work made a difference by contributing to society, but in a more epistemologically problematic way: it affected the data she was researching. Indeed, it meant that she and her organization became part of the data they were concerned with, and part of the ongoing social construction of reality. Barker distinguishes two kinds of impact she had on what she was studying. She made a difference in various unforeseen and often unintentional ways: by breaking down the insider-outside boundaries of groups she entered, for example, and by asking questions and making observations that proved consequential for her informants, with some finding it easier to leave, some to stay. But she also had more intentional effects as a result of mediating between NRM members and their parents, making statements in the media, and appearing as an expert witness in court cases. Through the work of Inform she tried to mitigate unnecessary frictions and dampen the “deviance amplification” (p. 292) that would otherwise ramp up tensions between NRMs and wider society. By the late 1980s, Barker was very much part of the ‘cult scene’ and ‘cult controversies’ (Beckford 1985), and it was from within this challenging situation that she spoke to the SSSR about what it might mean to remain scientific when all those around you are trying to tempt you to lose your head and play by their rules.
The issue of affecting one’s own data does not trouble Barker too much. The remedy is simply to be alert and self-critical about the matter and to reflect upon it openly in one’s work. If it is possible to mitigate the effects, one should take the trouble to do so. More concerning, however, are the problems of being tugged about by the competing interests that construct the social reality one is trying to interpret and of being drawn into speaking the language of one’s ‘competitors’ and playing by their rules. The danger is great, because if the academic is to make an impact and get a hearing beyond narrow scholarly circles—as Barker thinks some academics should—then one has to go down this road. It is in explaining how not to go too far, and when to stop, that her article makes one of its most valuable contributions for the researcher.
The real danger, Barker believes, lies in surrendering scientific values for other ones. By the same token, the remedy lies in remaining faithful to what she calls the ‘meta-values’ of social science. The most important such value is, paradoxically, that “research ought to be as value-free as possible” (p. 307). This means that it should always aim to describe and explain what is the case without being swayed by the values and preferences of the researcher. For example, one often finds things one approves or disapproves of in one’s data, but that should have no bearing on how or whether one reports it. Social scientists should try to exclude their own evaluations from the collection and analysis of data and should restrict their investigation to “what is (rather than what ought to be)” (p. 296). They must be constantly aware of the danger of being sucked into broader agendas and starting to select and evaluate topics and evidence on that basis.
This does not mean that science can or should be value-free; it means that scholars should be self-critical about their values and allow them to enter into the research process only at certain circumscribed points. For Barker, it is legitimate for values to affect the choice of research topic—researchers in a given society at a given time will consider some things more valuable to research than others (although succumbing to fashion or theoretical preoccupation is a temptation to be avoided). Researchers may also be concerned about the uses of their results and may legitimately hope, and try to ensure, that they are used to improve understanding and bring other benefits. One might also add, although Barker does not, that researchers may hope to have a positive or at least a neutral impact on the people and institutions they research—and her silence on this point perhaps reflects her concern that this should not become a goal that takes priority over others. To remain scientific, Barker insists, the overriding agenda of the study of religion should always be telling the truth about what one finds as best one can, and remaining open to criticism, evidence, and alternative interpretations. Of course, academics can use findings “to fight bigotry, injustice, and what we conceive to be unnecessary misery” (p. 309), but they should do so, Barker argues, only as citizens, not as scientists. “The exercise of social science,” Barker maintains, “ought to remain as value-free as possible” (p. 308)—that is its value.
What Has Changed?
A quarter of a century has passed since Barker gave her address to the SSSR. In many respects it is as relevant as ever to students of religion—and in some respects even more so. With regard to the ‘competitors’, however, the scene has changed. Cult controversies have died down but not gone away, and ‘old’ mainstream religions have become at least as much a cause of scandal and controversy. I am thinking not only of controversies around Islam, but of abuses of power in historic Catholic and Protestant churches, including sexual abuse. Since the 1980s, mainstream religions in the West seem to have become more cult-like, at least through the inscription of sharper boundaries between themselves and wider society. Furthermore, the anti-cult movements and other secular activists have seen their institutional strength diminished, while more agnostic and indifferent attitudes to religion have grown—a situation signaled by the growing number of people on both sides of the Atlantic who self-identify as having ‘no religion’.
The media have also changed considerably since 1993. The broadcast media that were the formidable forces Barker was dealing with have diminished in size, confidence, influence, and audience. Their activities and distortions have been curbed somewhat by various scandals and by regulation. They now compete for attention and revenue with a myriad of different forms of new media, most of them digitally mediated. What is more, anyone who wants to do so can now enter the communications fray via social media, blogs, websites, and so on, and some can achieve considerable notice—barriers to entry have virtually disappeared. This not only creates new opportunities and audiences for academics, but also offers them much greater direct access to their audiences and research’subjects’, who in turn have greater access to them. In this context it becomes increasingly difficult for professions to police their boundaries. Some ‘lay’ people prove to have expertise on a par with ‘experts’, especially in matters that concern them directly—not only their health, but also their religion and beliefs.
Yet these changes make Barker’s challenges more, not less, relevant. What does the social scientist have to offer that the informed blogger, specialist journalist, or documentary maker filming a six-part program about a religious cult for Netflix does not? The answers may be less clear than when Barker was writing, and the boundaries between academic output and other kinds of presentation more blurred. Barker did not suggest that pushing into public realms in order to make one’s findings better known might enhance the research process itself, but in the contemporary context it’s clearer that this can happen. My own experience, which is not unique, is that provoking open debate about topics concerning religion and belief can generate light as well as heat and can supply not only invaluable new data and lines of inquiry but also inspiring ideas and interpretations—for there are many good social scientists besides those who wear that nomenclature as a professional badge and are paid to do the work.3
In this situation of deeper social immersion—and greater emphasis on the importance of academic ‘impact’—Barker’s warning about upholding value-free social science and not being co-opted into other agendas seems even more important. The material conditions that allow academics to devote themselves to broad and deep inquiry become more precious as the public relations industry grows at the expense of honest journalism and as information, both true and false, becomes easier to access. This context also makes academic knowledge increasingly open to legal and other kinds of challenges from competing interests, which means that the freedom universities provide—above all by giving legal and material protection to academic freedom—becomes ever more critical.
In my view, universities should now be doing more to help academics respond to these conditions and rise to Barker’s challenge of’scientific’ value, not least by offering greater advice and support in dealing with legal challenges and avoiding them in the first place. Without such support, for all the talk about impact, the momentum and the incentives are actually toward risk-free and non-controversial research and away from the sort of trenchant work that Barker was—and still is—involved in. This tendency is exacerbated by the growing influence of research ethics committees (RECs) in higher education since the 1990s. While ethical oversight and accountability are to be welcomed, RECs have to be courageous and well-supported if they are not to discourage riskier forms of research that may not benefit participants directly, and that may be costly both to them and to researchers in the sorts of ways that Barker’s research was costly to her. There is also a natural tendency for qualitative researchers not to want to offend or upset research participants whom they have come to know and toward whom they feel gratitude, nor to face the hostility that a truthful account might generate. All of this may lead to the temptation to ignore Barker’s hard-core message that telling the truth should come first, and the temptation to do so now comes from inside the academy as well as outside.
Barker’s address to the SSSR and the stance it embodies locate her as an insider-outsider within her field. As president of one of its most prestigious societies, she uses the opportunity to undermine its investment in its’scientific’ status and ends by offering a powerful defense of the (social) scientific enterprise. She weaves in and out of the ‘tribe’ she addresses, unsettling and confirming their sacred values as she does so. By the end, the outsider has moved the insiders forward, planting their disciplinary enterprise on safer ground.
Perhaps social change always comes from the margins, or at least from boundary-crossers who originate outside but gain a hearing and a foothold inside. A major element of Barker’s outsider status is easy to identify, for her gender would have set her apart from other SSSR members, who would have been mostly male, and from a higher education sector in which women were—and still are—a rarity, especially at the professorial level.4
One can speculate that it was this liminal status that gave Barker her ability to see around conventional corners while maintaining a deep loyalty and commitment to what she considered the core values of her discipline. The benefits that accrue from being an insider are substantial, but there is also a cost: you have to live by the rules and remain loyal to the group and its protocols. If the group enhances its status by claiming scientific credentials, it would be foolhardy to question them. Similarly, if the accepted model of success lies in establishing a theoretical emplacement and attracting followers—all within the safety of the academic cloister—then venturing into the melee of media, politics, and controversy as Barker did was inherently subversive and could be easily dismissed as a ‘distraction’. For those who play by the narrower rules, Eileen Barker may never be considered one of the ‘greats’ in her field. If you take her career and accomplishments in the round, however, and include her research, her publications, Inform and its work, her students and employees, her achievements as a public intellectual, and her public service, she is one of the greatest and most original. But taking that view involves reframing and expanding one’s conception of what it means to be a scientist and a scholar of religion—and that is exactly her point.
A Dear Friend and Colleague - James T. Richardson
I first met Eileen in 1973 when we both attended a conference of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (ISSR) in The Hague. She had recently completed her doctoral degree at the London School of Economics (LSE) and was teaching sociology there. I was a young assistant professor at the University of Nevada and had started research on one of the Jesus movement organizations that had arisen in the US. This was my first international professional trip, and encountering Eileen was a wonderful bonus. She immediately showed an interest in my work and career, which was much appreciated. Indeed, she then arranged for me to be invited as a Visitor in Sociology at LSE for the coming year for a sabbatical. So together with my wife and our young daughter, I spent 1974–1975 in London, where I worked on my first book and also did research on an international Jesus movement group. Eileen was kind enough to allow my participation in her seminar as well. It was a very good and productive year.
Luckily, my contacts with Eileen did not end after that year at LSE, but have continued ever since for 45 years. We have both been regular attendees at the SISR biannual sessions that have been held in many different countries, and we both have participated in other professional organizations, including the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, the Association for the Sociology of Religion, the American Academy of Religion, and the British Sociological Association Sociology of Religion Study Group, as well as many one-off conferences on specific topics over the years.
One of the high points of such participation was the assistance Eileen and I gave to the initial organization of the International Study of Religion in Eastern and Central Europe Association (ISORECEA). We offered strong support both personally and financially to get this new group going, and it is now a flourishing member of the professional organizations focused on religion in the contemporary world. She and I were both made honorary members of ISORECEA at the last annual meeting in Lithuania, along with Irena Borowik, a sociologist from Jagiellonian University, who was the original organizer of the scholars of religion in that region of the world.
A few years after I met Eileen, I was program chair of the annual Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (SSSR) conference, which was to be held in Chicago. I decided to showcase some European scholars as plenary participants and invited Eileen, James Beckford, and David Martin to speak at the conference. They all made strong impressions on the mostly American scholars who were in attendance. It is worth noting that since that meeting in 1977, both Eileen and James Beckford have been elected president of the SSSR, and the number of international participants in the SSSR has increased dramatically. Eileen was the first non-American scholar to be elected to head that organization, and her presidential address, “The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must Be Joking!” (1995) has been cited many times since. One of her books, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984), received the prestigious Distinguished Book Award from the SSSR in 1985.
Eileen and I have engaged in a number of mutual projects over the years, with Eileen generally taking a leading role. Of particular note have been efforts to educate academics and law enforcement entities in China about minority faiths. She has made many trips to China and has been important in recommending my own involvement in some of those projects. She knows more about minority religions in China than all but a few scholars, and she has had an impact on the thinking of many in China. A highlight of this involvement has been her participation in lecturing to cadets at the Public Security University in Beijing, which trains law enforcement personnel for all the provinces in China. She recommended that I be invited to participate in the fall of 2016, and she and I, along with Gordon Melton of Baylor University, each delivered six lectures to classes of cadets there. It was an eye-opening experience. More recently, Eileen and I have been part of a small team of scholars who have made two trips to China in 2017 to do research on a controversial religious group, the Church of Almighty God, which has attracted much negative attention from authorities there. We have met with law enforcement officials involved in exerting control over this growing group, as well as academics involved in research on this movement. We hope we have had some positive impact on understanding this and other religious groups in China.
Eileen has, to her credit, reached out to the major ‘anti-cult’ organizations that oppose new religious movements (NRMs) and has attended their conferences, both in America and in other countries. She has done much to encourage interaction between these groups and the scholars who study NRMs. Eileen convinced me to attend a couple of such sessions, and it was quite a learning—and sharing—experience. I give her high marks for her indefatigable spirit in working with these organizations.
Eileen can perhaps be best described as a ‘force of nature’. She is, I believe, the most well-known sociologist of religion around the world who is still active professionally. She has given over 600 presentations in over 60 countries, at last count, and is continually in high demand to speak at conferences around the world, offering insights to other scholars and policy makers in a number of countries. She has had a profound impact on the discipline of the sociology of religion and on the continuing battles over religious freedom that are occurring with disappointing regularity around the world.
The founding of Inform several decades ago by Eileen is a clear demonstration of her commitment to the idea of sociological research making a real difference in the world. The Inform collection of primary materials on new religions is the largest in the world, and scholars, law enforcement personnel, and policy makers from many countries have visited Inform to access its materials, participate in Inform conferences, and seek advice from Eileen.
I will close with a last but very important thought concerning Eileen. She also is a dear friend to many around the world, including myself and my family. She is very open and generous with her help and advice, especially to young scholars (and even more so to those from regions where being a good practicing sociologist is difficult). My wife and I have enjoyed knowing Eileen and her husband Peter over the years. We have watched each other’s children grow up and have shared in their successes as well as their difficulties. My family has spent a number of nights in Eileen’s home as a good place to rest and visit when traveling to Europe. Many others have been invited over the years and have appreciated Eileen’s hospitality in Wembley—an experience not to be missed!
I am one of a group of innumerable others who count ourselves fortunate to know Eileen and to have been able to share her deep-seated enthusiasm for sociological research and for religious freedom. May she live long and prosper!
In Appreciation - Martyn Percy
I first met Professor Eileen Barker 25 years ago. I had just finished a doctorate on contemporary fundamentalism and revivalism with Peter Clarke at King’s College, London. Peter introduced me to Eileen, who was over the road at the London School of Economics (LSE), and she invited me to come and talk to her phenomenal network seminars, which were crammed with bright students working on cults and sects. These seminars were veritable intellectual powerhouses—incubators for nascent ethnographers, packed with number-crunchers, interviewers, data analysts, and statisticians, all beavering away in the folds of Eileen’s distinctive cultivation of the sociology of religion.
I later met Eileen through Colin Slee, who was researching sects and cults and drawing on Eileen’s work. Colin and I used to saunter off for fieldwork days, dropping in for friendly chats with groups such as Scientologists, the Jesus Army, the Family, and more besides. Colin kept notes. My job was to observe and help keep our wits about us. Eileen critiqued the notes Colin made—always sharp, shrewd, and savvy feedback.
I have a vivid memory of Eileen Barker helping me out of a hole I had dug for myself at a conference at Trinity College, Dublin. The subject was contemporary charismatic religious experience, and most of the gathering came from the worlds of religious studies and the social sciences. I had presented a paper describing how contemporary charismatic worship songs laid the foundation for subsequent religious experience. If you sang about the love and power of God enough—over and over again, as I suggested—it was unsurprising that believers framed their subsequent religious experiences through the ‘grammar of assent’ in which they were fluent. I confess this is a somewhat reductive reading of religious experience. Or, as Pentecostals might normally say, “you reap what you sow.”
Attending the seminar was a young man who came from this tradition. Visibly distressed and angry, he accused me of heresy and of belittling his beliefs. The first accusation did not stand, and the second was far, far from my intentions. I have always regarded myself as something of an empathetic ethnographer and not a sniping critic—the kind that writes catty restaurant reviews when in a bad mood. I explained what sociology tried to do. I explained that the discipline was complementary, not competitive, and Eileen chipped in at this point. She explained that in her work with cults and sects, it was precisely this kind of dry, empathetic critical account—a mirror to the soul of a movement, if you like—that religious groups needed and that the mature ones actually sought, as realism was, in the end, the only way such groups could protect themselves from dangerous fantasies. My questioner seemed satisfied with this, and the conference continued. But Eileen’s intervention spoke volumes about her poise and confidence in the discipline.
The sociology of religion is, in part, an attempt at categorization that seeks to ‘establish normative epochs’ for meaning. It concerns itself with describing phenomena in commonsensical ways, creating categories of knowledge and meaning in order to give a’social’ account of what it sees. Thus, ‘religion’ tends to be treated like a ‘thing’—an ‘object’ of scientific analysis—and deconstructed accordingly. Correspondingly, religion is broken down into its (alleged) constituent parts (e.g., ‘the sacred’, ‘the profane’, etc.), or referred to in functional terms (e.g.,’social legitimization’, ‘projection’, etc.).
However, like many modernist human sciences, the sociology of religion often fails to see itself as a construction of reality, social or otherwise. It needs a self-consciousness. As Catherine Bell (1996: 188) points out: “That we construct ‘religion’ and’science’ is not the main problem: that we forget we have constructed them in our own image—that is a problem.” In saying this, Bell is suggesting that a ‘pure’ description of phenomena is not possible. Both the human sciences and theology are engaged in an interpretative task and describe what they see according to the prescribed rules of their respective grammars of assent. In the case of the sociology of religion, this approach has often tended to assume a humanist-oriented perspective, which has sometimes imagined itself to be ‘neutral’.
Thus, sociologists describe what they see, while theologians and religious people are said to ‘ascribe’ meaning to the same phenomena. On the other hand, those who have had religious experiences feel that they were ‘real’, and the sociological account is therefore deemed to be at best complementary and at worst unrepresentative. Invariably, both approaches forget that ‘religion’ is something of a complex word with no agreed upon or specific definition.
The problems that sociologists sometimes face in offering comprehensive accounts of human behavior can be seen in John Elster’s (1989) introductory work to the social sciences. Although the book is in many ways an exemplary work, offering theories for emotions, collective action, and the like, in terms of choice it serves as a typical example of a late modernist meta-narrative. Without too much attention to ethnographic detail or exceptions to rules, the reader is offered a macro-theory of social life, which, although illuminating, leaves much to be desired. For example, does an individualistic or collectivist account of human behavior really explain the allure of a shrine for pilgrims, or the non-rationality but controllability of speaking in tongues?
According to Peter Winch (1958), a work like Elster’s fails in its task because of the inadequate philosophical or epistemological basis that underpins the discipline. Critiques of sociology have been present since the 1950s, challenging the basis of rational accounts of the sublime, although the work of Winch is one of the more prescient in this respect, questioning the explanation and interpretation of human affairs in relation to social science. He argues that disciplines such as sociology fail to adequately comprehend the nature of intention and therefore the actual constitution of acts. This leads to a kind of false relativism, which might suit certain types of ‘liberal’ thinking, but in fact does not assist us much in the task of finding the underlying truth or meaning of a belief system.
Sociology, following its founding fathers such as Durkheim, Weber, or Sohm, makes fundamental methodological presumptions about the nature of religion that not all religious believers will want to buy into. It assumes that religion is a human enterprise that can be described in humanistic terms, with reference to notions such as structure, ideology, and sociality. In this view, religion is a ‘created’ cosmos that brings stability, order, meaning, and moral cement to a given community: the very word ‘religion’ means ‘to bind’, from the Latin word religare.
To be sure, certain sociologists, such as Steve Bruce (1996) and Bryan Wilson (1970), sometimes seem to have set themselves up as quasi-gurus and their theories as secular alternatives or remedies to religion. Believing themselves to be ‘neutral’ (in that rather passé modernist sense), it is almost as though they are preaching at times: “Come unto me, all ye who are religious, and I will explain.” Here, the sociology of religion emerges as a kind of ‘gnostic despair’, with some scholars lamenting the postmodern world in which ‘choice’ has broken down established religion. The sociology of religion therefore becomes a’secret knowledge’ in a universe of collapsing faiths (Bruce 1996: 234).
What I have always appreciated about Eileen Barker’s work is her openness to what I have termed ‘theological constructions of reality’. In so doing, I take Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s (1966) idea of sociological constructions of reality and gently reframe it. And this is precisely where Eileen’s work is so valuable. She does not work on meta-narratives or on the (always interpretive) ‘general descriptions’ that are often so beloved of sociologists of religion. In contrast, she actually deals with reality. Thus, her students conduct real interviews with real people, produce real data, and are immersed in fieldwork, surveys, statistics, and more data.
The value of the approach championed by Eileen Barker’s work for contextual theology and grounded and contemporary ecclesiology cannot be overstated. For, put together, sociology and theology can learn from and enrich each other. Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1840) helpfully made a distinction between ‘apprehension’ (i.e., the rational-empirical) and ‘comprehension’ (i.e., the religious imagination, historically aware and self-conscious) in the study of faith. In the context of late modernity or postmodernity, the journey from apprehension to comprehension in theology and religious studies needs to avoid the polarized dualisms of modernity and requires (at times) a trusting synthesis of social science and theology. This is especially the case when evaluating experience, ecclesiology, faith claims, and the like.
It would be wrong to suggest, however, that reductive accounts are necessarily damaging to faith. On the contrary, such accounts provide helpful skeletons—an anatomy, if you will—that might suggest anything from a pathology to a cure. Theologians who are interested in studying religious movements cannot afford to ignore these insights. While it is true that autopsies give no insight into the condition of the soul, they nonetheless tell us something about how a body might have lived and moved—and what might have eventually killed it. Sociology is ultimately in the service of simple social realism, which is surely a worthy theological and intellectual goal. So far as the use of any sociological theory goes, no one could or should suggest that it provides a comprehensive account of something religious or spiritual. Rather, it is a complementary account, which in my view, is a necessary component in discernment and the pursuit of wisdom.
A Friend and Mentor - Catherine Wessinger
Dr. Eileen Barker has mentored many people, but first of all she is a friend to everyone. Her encouragement, advice, and friendship have enriched my personal as well as my professional life.
I met Eileen in 1990 when I first attended the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. At that time, I was new to the study of new religious movements (NRMs), having come to it through my interest in religious movements in the West influenced by Hinduism. Eileen and I became friends, and subsequently we frequently roomed together at conferences.
The November 1993 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) in Washington, DC—coming seven months after the events outside Waco, Texas, which resulted in the deaths of 4 federal law enforcement agents and a total of 82 Branch Davidians of all ages—was unique in many ways. A special panel was organized to discuss the law enforcement agents’ interactions with the Branch Davidians. Several surviving Branch Davidians attended the conference, and one of them spoke on the panel. Members of other NRMs, frantic to speak with new religions scholars in the hope of gaining allies in the event that their community was attacked by law enforcement agents, attended the AAR meeting. Eileen and I shared a hotel room, which was also the venue for the New Religious Movements Group reception that year. During the reception, our modest-sized hotel room was packed with scholars, members of new religions (one of whom appropriated the room’s tray and went around serving drinks), and the Branch Davidian survivors. Finally, we all went out into the hallway—in front of the elevators—to sit on the floor while listening to a Branch Davidian speak about his experiences of the two assaults by federal agents, the 51-day siege, and how he escaped the fire. (After that year, the New Religious Movements Group steering committee found ways to rent a room for the annual reception.)
I had studied the varieties of millennialism while writing my dissertation on Annie Besant in the early 1980s, so I was concerned about the bad judgment of law enforcement agents attacking a religious community whose members believed in an apocalyptic theology that predicted their martyrdom. I ended up writing a book, How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate (2000). Eileen was one of the readers of the manuscript, and she gave me important advice in her report to the publisher and also privately about shortcomings in my writing. I am indebted to her for her input: after her admonition, I will never write another split infinitive!
A couple of years prior to meeting Eileen, I had spent a month in an ashram in the United States to study a religious movement focused on a Hindu guru. At that time, I realized that my graduate school training as a historian of religions in the late 1970s had not prepared me to navigate the ethical and methodological issues that arise when doing fieldwork and interacting with living believers. Therefore, in 1994, as the chair of the New Religious Movements Group, I organized the first pre-AAR meeting to discuss “Methodological and Ethical Issues in the Study of Contemporary Religions” (now known as the NRM Group’s “Methods Meeting”). This initial meeting was by invitation only so that new religions scholars could speak frankly about their experiences. As part of those discussions, Eileen told me that I needed to get out more to interview people. I have taken her advice to heart, particularly in my oral history project with surviving Branch Davidians, which has produced three autobiographies.
Since we have often roomed together at conferences, I know that wherever Eileen travels in the world, she visits and interviews members of NRMs. She continually follows up on members and former members of the Unification Church, as well as other new religious organizations she has studied. Additionally, she has spent years attending anti-cult conferences to promote dialogue with anti-cult scholars as well as non-professional anti-cultists. Eileen has made a sustained effort to break through the communication barrier between new religions scholars and anti-cult scholars, while maintaining her conclusion, based on her research reported in The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? (1984), that the brainwashing thesis is an inadequate explanation for why people join minority religions. Eileen’s characteristic warmth, interest, and affirmation of the humanity of all persons is evident in her dealings with everyone, including members of stigmatized religions and also anti-cultists who disagree with her scholarly conclusions.
As the founder in 1988 of Inform: The Information Network on Religious Movements, affiliated for 30 years with the London School of Economics and now affiliated with King’s College London, Eileen has long experience serving as a consultant for law enforcement agents in the UK. In the United States, after the debacle involving the Branch Davidians, FBI agents were instructed by the US attorney general to reach out and establish contacts with religion scholars. Since I was involved in early meetings of scholars with FBI agents, I can say that Eileen’s sociological expertise is valued within the FBI. In addition, for some years, Eileen and other new religions scholars have been teaching periodically at the Chinese People’s Public Security University in Beijing with the motivation of encouraging law enforcement authorities in the Peoples’ Republic of China to protect human rights and respect freedom of religion.
On a personal note, while rooming with Eileen when we attended the 2000 annual meeting of the AAR, I asked for her opinion about a spur-of-the-moment decision I needed to make. I followed her advice, and the result is that my husband and I fondly consider Eileen Barker to be the guardian spirit of our marriage. With such a caring fairy godmother, emanating the efficacious power of love, our marriage is blessed indeed.
Reflections on the Trajectory of My Work - Eileen Barker
I never planned to be a social scientist, far less a sociologist of religion. As a child I wanted to be an actress. I went to drama school and for five years thoroughly enjoyed treading the boards. Then my younger daughter became seriously ill, and I had to devote myself to looking after her. After several months, the highlight of which was the Presbyterian coffee mornings, my husband agreed that I could have Thursday evenings to do whatever I liked while he took care of the children. The local technical college offered evening classes in lampshade making and social history. We had enough lampshades, so I decided to try social history. Thus it was that, unbeknownst to myself, I took my first steps along a trajectory that I was to follow for the rest of my working life. After the first year at the college, a friend persuaded me to go with her to what was then the Regent Street Polytechnic to spend two evenings a week studying sociology. Still under the illusion that I would return to the stage, I was buying tickets at the Aldwych Theatre when I found myself caught up in a crowd of ‘revolting students’ (it was 1967) and followed them into the London School of Economics (LSE). Seeing a security guard looking at me suspiciously (or so I thought), I said I was looking for the admissions department. Two weeks later I was called for an interview and offered a place at LSE. Three years later, having obtained a BSc in sociology, I was offered a post as a lecturer in the Sociology Department, and there I was to remain until, in 2003, I retired as Professor Emeritus in Sociology with Special Reference to the Study of Religion.
Family and friends—and I—found it difficult to understand how I could have made such a radical change in my life without apparently ever planning to do so. However, in hindsight, my career has not been that jerky. As a child, I had been relatively shy, not knowing who I was—or, rather, which Eileen I really was. Being an actress, I could explore different aspects of myself and, perhaps, protect the insecure parts by clearly playing a role. At drama school and as a professional thespian, I learned not only how to explore parts of a shared humanity that might react in certain ways in a given situation, but also numerous techniques of control and of communication (Stanislavski 1937). In a slightly different form, these are skills that the researcher draws on while doing fieldwork. On the one hand, she needs some kind of empathic understanding (Verstehen) if she is hoping to interpret the actions of individuals who find themselves in various social situations; on the other hand, although the concept of’social science’ is sometimes thought of as a contradiction in terms, there are methods that are common to the natural sciences and several techniques that, minimally, help the sociologist to avoid mistakes that one can all too easily find in the societal conventional wisdom, the comparative method being perhaps the most fundamental approach (Barker 1995, 2013a).
My focus on religion again seemed little more than happenstance. In our second year as undergraduates, we had to choose two options. One of those I had chosen I found boring, and I was irritated by the teacher’s self-aggrandizing style. I sat in on a couple of sociology of religion lectures, which happened to fit with my timetable, and decided to change courses. Again with hindsight, I suspect there may have been a resonance with my past. I come from a long line of Scottish clergy and medical missionaries, and had spent my childhood attending Sunday school and listening to what seemed to me interminably long sermons in the kirk. I had little interest in God, but I had been fascinated by the lives of my forebears, by what had driven them to foreign climes to minister to ‘the natives’, and by the question of why my mother had been born in a leper colony. I had spent hours with my grandfather listening to his stories about the beliefs and practices of the people he had worked with in the Holy Land, in India, in Africa, and in the West Indies.
The fact that nearly all my relatives were medical doctors meant that my parents had been sure that when their stage-struck daughter came to her senses, she too would want to study medicine. The agreement was that they would pay for me to go to drama school on the condition that I first sat for those A-Levels (physics, chemistry, zoology) that would enable me to enter medical school. It was having those under my belt that enabled me to go to LSE, but it was also the interest I had developed in science that probably pushed me toward deciding to study the relationship between science (or, rather, scientists) and religion for my PhD. Between a heavy teaching load and family life, I spent whatever free time I had visiting scientists who purported to demonstrate that science proved the truth, or falsity, of the Bible and that religion was complementary to, distinct from, or irrelevant to the Bible (Barker 1979a, 1979c, 1980, 1981). Besides interviewing individual scientists, I attended meetings of various groups including creationists, evangelicals, Marxists, and those ‘new agers’ who claimed that they were working at the frontiers of science, and whose work included psychical research, dousing, life after death experiences, and all manner of what other scientists might refer to as pseudo-science or just plain nonsense.
As far as theoretical perspectives were concerned, it is difficult to tell exactly who influenced me most, but I certainly found myself drawing on classic works, such as Weber ( 1947), Durkheim ( 1987), Simmel (Wolf 1950), and George Herbert Mead (1967). Perhaps the contemporary authors whose writings, and later acquaintance, most affected my thought were Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann (1967) and Mary Douglas (1966, 1970). If I had to give myself a label, I would probably choose that of a social constructionist, somewhat eclectically selecting ideas that seemed useful for understanding whatever aspects of social life I have been observing. Douglas’s development of Durkheim’s work on the construction of social concepts and boundaries has been particularly pertinent in helping me to’see’ what others might be viewing through their conceptual apparatus—and what they might consider particularly powerful, dangerous, or polluting. Douglas and Goffman (1969) also helped me to recognize how some of the many ways in which people present themselves could reflect and be reflected in their general worldview. This is something I had half-learned as an actress, but it became blatantly obvious if I found myself ‘doing’ participant observation at, say, an evangelical meeting in the afternoon followed by a revolutionary Marxist meeting that evening. I soon realized that I needed a quick change of clothing (Barker 1996).
Although I was certainly mixing with people whom my colleagues considered decidedly ‘weird’, I did not anticipate the next jerk—or was it just a swerve?—in my career. I received an invitation to give a lecture at something called the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences. There were, I was told, several Nobel Laureates attending. I was flattered and accepted. My husband, who worked at the BBC, looked up the sponsors of the conference and discovered that it was the Unification Church, the founder of which was a Reverend Sun Myung Moon, a Korean millionaire with connections to the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA). His followers, I was told, had been brainwashed into believing him to be the Messiah: they had been separated from their families, worked long hours selling flowers and literature in the streets, and let Moon choose their marriage partners (who probably did not speak the same language) and then marry them off, hundreds at a time. Furthermore, questions were being asked in Parliament, where it was suggested that the movement should be prosecuted for “offenses of deception under the Theft Act.” “You can’t go now,” said my husband. On the contrary, nothing would have stopped me from going now.
In fact, the conference turned out to be disappointingly respectable (Barker 1979b). Yet my curiosity had been roused, and one thing led to another. I decided to write an article on the movement for a scholarly journal while continuing with research on scientists and religion. But a couple of years later I was settling down to a full-scale study of the ‘Moonies’, as they were now popularly known. It took some time to get permission to conduct the study on my own terms (i.e., with a complete list of the British membership so that I could do interviews on a truly random sample basis), to gain access to the various Unification centers throughout Britain, and to procure independent funding, which came from what was then the Social Science Research Council of Great Britain (Barker 1984: 12–37).
By this time, the Unification Church (UC) had become internationally known as one of the most contentious of the wave of ‘cults’ that were mushrooming throughout the West. One American survey found that only Charles Manson elicited more negative reactions than Moon out of a list of 155 persons (Weiner and Stillman 1979: 246). I decided to try to see the movement from as many perspectives as possible and attempt to understand how all these different ways of seeing a social phenomenon interacted with each other. So far as Unificationism itself was concerned, I soon realized that while I got one picture of an individual during an in-depth interview (these usually lasted between 4 and 8 hours—one marathon lasted for 12), I frequently got a very different picture while observing that individual in a social setting. A third approach was to distribute a 42-page questionnaire to all the Unificationists in Britain and several in the United States, with a similar questionnaire being distributed to non-Unificationists as a control group. This allowed me to test some of the hypotheses that emerged during the quantitative research (Barker 1984). I also interviewed a number of former Unificationists, several of whom, as time passed, I had known when they were still members. Then I started to have contact with a number of parents and other relatives who approached me wanting to find out more about the movement. I also needed to plow through much of the literature, both that produced by the movement (mainly long speeches by Reverend Moon) and that produced by its various opponents—particularly the burgeoning anti-cult movement (ACM) and the media.
As the 1970s progressed, so did the growth of the ACM (Shupe and Bromley 1980). Originally it was comprised largely of concerned parents who did not know what to do when their son or daughter suddenly gave up their university studies or a promising career and ‘disappeared’ into one or other of the ‘cults’. The main explanation offered for this abrupt change was that the (adult) children had been brainwashed and the only remedy was (illegally) to kidnap the ‘victims’ and restrain them in a’safe house’ until they managed either to escape or to convince their captors that they had renounced their faith (Bromley and Richardson 1983). This practice of deprogramming, which could cost the worried parents tens of thousands of dollars and which was frequently counter-productive (Barker 1983), gained a further boost after the Jonestown tragedy in 1978, when over 900 members of the Peoples Temple committed suicide or were murdered in the Guyana forest (Moore 2009).
Again, I found the trajectory of my career undergoing a slight twist. I was meeting people who had undergone deprogramming, which could be a terrifying experience, even according to the deprogrammers themselves (Patrick 1976). I was also being approached by worried relatives, some of whom were having difficulty in contacting, let alone understanding, their son or daughter. Over and over I was told that the ‘Moonies’ were brainwashed. They had, the ACMs confidently asserted, been subjected to some kind of irresistible and irreversible mind control techniques. But by this time I knew a lot of Unificationists quite well and was unconvinced. I disagreed profoundly with their theology and found the movement itself eminently resistible, but the members seemed pretty well in control of their senses. Some were clearly above average intelligence, and not a few of them had found ways to disobey their leaders without detection and were more than capable of bending the rules when it suited their purpose. This was not to say that the movement did not put pressure on its members; it undoubtedly did, and some of the leaders might well have been glad to have the powers attributed to them by their opponents. But the metaphor of brainwashing seemed to be providing more information about the speaker’s opinion of the final product of the conversion process than about the process itself. The chapter that I had intended to write on conversion to the UC turned out to be a whole book addressing the fundamental question: brainwashing or choice? (Barker 1984).
This was a subject that seemed to me to lie at the heart of sociological inquiry. While individuals have to take the social reality that confronts them into account, to what extent will they be controlled by it, challenge it, change it, or try to ignore it? Clearly, an individual will respond to different situations in different ways, and different individuals will respond to the same social reality in different ways. This is where questions of power and authority come into play. And, one way or another, it is the question that has lain at the base of much of my research since that time. In this case, I was to find that of the 1,017 people who were sufficiently interested in the UC to attend the residential workshops where the so-called irresistible and irreversible brainwashing took place, 90 percent were perfectly capable of deciding that they did not want to join the movement and less than half of the 10 percent who did join were still affiliated after two years’ membership (Barker 1984: 146). The conclusion seemed clear to me: there must be some other factors apart from the UC that were responsible for the eventual outcome. The individuals themselves had some say in the matter.
While that particular study was confined to the UC, I have written elsewhere about cases where social pressure has been well-nigh irresistible (Barker 2009), and by now I have found myself one of the key players in the ‘cult wars’ (see Barker 2011b, 2017b). The British ACM, with whom I had naively offered to share my findings, seemed to consider me even worse than the cults, which my sociological colleagues and I were now calling new religious movements (NRMs) as the term ‘cult’ had accumulated such an enormous amount of negative baggage. I was accused of being a Moonie or, by the more generous of their number, a dupe who was being deceived. Sections of the media conducted exposés, most of which were based on things I had never said or done. Letters were sent to Ralf Dahrendorf (then the director of LSE) telling him I was a danger to students. Luckily, he and most of my colleagues were supportive of my work, but the attacks were pretty bruising on occasion. Meanwhile, I was seeing more parents whose fears were fanned by ignorance and misinformation, making it increasingly difficult for them to respond to the situation without exacerbating it.
Eventually, feelings of frustration and, on occasion, anger led me to decide that something ought to be done; it was time to take more positive action. The work of a growing number of scholars who had conducted rigorous and systematic studies of the new religions, but whose research tended to be either ignored or derided, ought to be heard. With the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream churches, in January 1988 I founded an educational charity, called Inform (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements),1 whose mission was—and remains—that of offering inquirers information that is as reliable, balanced, contextualized, and up-to-date as possible (Barker 2001, 2006).
To provide an accessible basis for Inform’s work, I wrote a book called New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction (1989), which was published under the aegis of the Home Office. For this I had to focus my research on communicating basic information so that it could be helpful not only to non-scholars but also to people with a variety of legitimate concerns about some of the movements. Setting up Inform and publishing this book involved taking a stand that today might be called ‘impact’ but at that time was seen as stepping out of the ivory tower of academia and not being the objective ‘value-free’ sociologist that several of my mentors had taught me I ought to be. Others had, however, introduced me to Weber’s (1949) distinction between ‘value freedom’ and ‘value relevance’—a distinction that has been an important guiding principle for my career (Barker 1995, 2011b).
With the founding of Inform, all hell broke loose. The two’sides’ (the ACMs and the scholars) intensified their battles, each gaining solace from their like-minded colleagues in their own social space, rarely taking the other side’s pronouncements seriously, confining any exchanges to the courts and confrontational media programs. ‘They’ thought ‘we’ were ‘cult apologists’—why else would the cults let us into their centers to feed us with their mendacious tales? ‘We’ considered that ‘they’ were ignorant, partly because they refused to have anything to do with the movements, relying instead on disaffected ‘apostates’ and the sensational media (to which they had frequently fed the sensational stories).
When I asked a chair of one of the British anti-cult groups what it was I was writing that he thought was wrong, he said it was not that I was wrong, but that I made the picture too complicated. I was muddying the waters. This confirmed my suspicion that the ACM just wanted to present unambiguous generalizations, selecting any putative negative aspects of the NRMs and ignoring or denying any positive or even ‘normal’ aspects of the religions.
Then around the mid-1990s it occurred to me that ‘we’ were generalizing about the ACM. We were concerned about the deprogramming and other human rights issues, and in our efforts to ‘redress the balance’, we were sometimes guilty of stressing the more positive aspects of NRMs while underplaying some negative aspects that might feed the deprogrammers’ narratives. Furthermore, we were doing little in the way of systematic research into ACMs; instead, we tended to generalize, selecting only their more draconian statements and practices.
In 1998 I wrote to the president of what had become the largest anti-cult movement, then called the American Family Foundation (AFF), and asked whether I could attend their upcoming conference in Philadelphia. Somewhat to my surprise, I received a response saying they would be delighted to welcome me. Most of the participants at the conference were polite, some whispered to their neighbors with furtive glances in my direction, and a few demanded to know how I had dared to turn up and were downright rude. But several were curious and/or friendly and made a point of chatting with me; these included both the AFF’s president and its executive director, Michael Langone. I was encouraged to present a paper the following year. I then suggested that four of ‘them’ and four of ‘us’ might meet for a full day before their next conference and discuss some of the problems each’side’ had with the other. This we did, and although there remained a number of points of disagreement, we all learned a great deal from that meeting. I realized that we were asking different questions: while they were asking about the harm that cults could do to their members (and relatives), we were inquiring about what members of NRMs believed and did. I also learned that it was ridiculous to generalize about ACMs. They differed from each other as much, and possibly even more, than we scholars differed from each other. I also discovered that we could learn a great deal from their experiences. Since then, I have continued to have a close relationship with many of the members of other ‘cult-watching groups’, and now it is common practice to attend each other’s meetings and exchange information. There are, however, still members of the ACM who are virulently hostile to both Inform and myself.
Two international events have further shaped my career. The first of these took place early in 1990 when I was offered some funding for library research, which I was not particularly interested in doing. Surprisingly, the funders asked what I would like to spend my time doing. It was just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, and I said that I would like to go with a microphone into the Former Soviet Union and ask people about their religious beliefs. Even more surprisingly, my proposal was approved on the spot, and I soon started on the first of many visits to Central and Eastern Europe. Finding that the very few scholars who were studying religion at that time did not know of the work of other researchers, even those in their own countries, a Polish colleague, Irena Borowik, and I formed an organization, ISORECEA (International Study of Religion in Eastern and Central Europe Association),2 which organizes conferences at regular intervals, enabling researchers from the region to get together, to exchange information, and to publish scholarly books and an open-access, peer-reviewed journal, Religion and Society in Central and Eastern Europe (RASCEE).3 ISORECEA has since become an important part of my research (Barker 1997).
The other developing interest has been East Asia. In 2000 I was offered a Japanese state scholarship to study new religions in Japan. Further visits to Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong, and Taiwan whetted my appetite for this new (to me) perception of the religious. Then I was invited to give a course on the sociology of religion at Renmin University in Beijing. Once again, I found myself being presented with a different perspective—one that involved taking the state into account far more than I had ever done before, even in Eastern Europe (Barker 2011a). One of the students attending the Renmin course was a professor of criminology at the Chinese People’s Public Security University, and she was eager for me to talk to her students. Such a meeting was not possible at the time, but several visits later she turned up at my hotel room, and I agreed to return to Beijing and give a two-week course on the sociology of religion at the Public Security University if I would be able to meet up with government ministers responsible for religion, some ‘anti-cult’ groups, and some ‘re-educated’ former members of the outlawed qigong movement, Falun Gong (Ownby 2008; Palmer 2007). This was agreed upon, and I have now made a half-dozen annual visits to the university’s large campus in Beijing to lecture, to interview various officials and former members of xie jiao (heretical organizations), and to go on a number of field visits. On one occasion I remarked to a colleague from Peking University that as I had not mastered the Chinese language, it was he and his colleagues, not I, who should be doing this research, to which he replied that it was probably because I did not speak Chinese that I had the access he did not have.
Throughout my working life, just when I think I have grasped some new perspective, something further has happened to bring me up short and make me realize that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. I have continually found myself challenged by perceptions of reality that differ radically from my own, whether it is talking with the Chinese police and a variety of other officials or to members of some of the ‘weirder’ new religions that I have come across over the past 40-odd years. My innate curiosity has constantly led me to ask: How could they believe that? What could lead them to do this? And the questions have become ever more challenging as I found that I could like and respect people who believed things and did things I could not believe or ever choose to do. Of course, I do not like all of them, but I have been continually surprised to discover how individuals who do not seem to be all that different from my own family and friends can, given a particular social environment, appear and, in one sense at least, be all that different.
One advantage of growing older is that I have, without really thinking about it, been able to conduct a longitudinal study of several social phenomena (Barker 2012, 2017a). I know grandchildren of NRM converts I knew in the 1970s. I have kept in touch with members who have stayed in their movements and those who left many years ago. I have observed some fundamental changes in society, such as the arrival of the Internet, and have seen how these have affected the new religions. I have also witnessed the emergence of new NRMs and how they fit into the economic, political, legal, and general cultural and religious changes of societies. Today, change still fuels my curiosity (Barker 2013b, 2014, 2017a). And, of course, I have no idea what will turn up tomorrow.
All subsequent references by page number only are to this address, which was published two years after the SSSR annual meeting (see Barker 1995).
When I became the director of a national research program in Britain on “Religion and Society,” which was funded by two UK research councils from 2007 to 2015, it was naturally to Inform and Eileen that I looked for inspiration, and she was unstintingly supportive.
My colleague John Urry used to argue that it is a measure of the success of social science that its approaches are now mainstream.
Public duty records in the UK from 2017 that showed mean and median gender pay gaps revealed a higher education sector with wide gaps and reflected badly on this sector compared to others. Male pay is between a fifth and a third higher than female remuneration. The ‘pay gap’ also masks a ‘grade gap’: women are clustered in the lower pay grades and positions, men in the higher. See, for example. “First Gender Pay Gap Data Paints UK Universities in Poor Light,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 22 March 2018, https://www.timeshighereducation.com/news/first-gender-pay-gap-data-paints-uk-universities-poor-light.
For more information about Inform and its work, see http://www.Inform.ac.
More information about ISORECEA can be found at https://www.isorecea.net/.
This open-access journal can be viewed at https://www.rascee.net/index.php/.
BarkerEileen. 1979a. “In the Beginning: The Battle of Creationist Science against Evolutionism.” In On the Margins of Science: The Social Construction of Rejected Knowledge ed. Roy Wallis179-200. Keele: Keele University Press.
BarkerEileen. 1979c. “Thus Spake the Scientist: A Comparative Account of the New Priesthood and Its Organisational Bases.” Annual Review of the Social Sciences of Religion 3: 79-103.
BarkerEileen. 1980. “Science and Theology Diverse Resolutions of an Interdisciplinary Gap by the New Priesthood of Science.” Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 5 (4): 281-291.
BarkerEileen. 1981. “Science as Theology: The Theological Functioning of Western Science.” In The Sciences and Theology in the Twentieth Century ed. Arthur R. Peacocke262-280. London: Oriel.
BarkerEileen. 1983. “With Enemies Like That: Some Functions of Deprogramming as an Aid to Sectar ian Membership.” In Bromley and Richardson329-344.
BarkerEileen. 1996. “You Don’t Get Marxists in Fundamentalists Boots: A Comparative Exploration of the Presentation of Self as Implicit Religion.” In LSE on Social Science: A Centenary Anthology ed. Helen Sasson and Derek Diamond195-215. London: LSE Books.
BarkerEileen. 1997. “But Who’s Going to Win? National and Minority Religions in Post-Communist Society.” In New Religious Phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe ed. Irena Borowik and Grzegorz Babiński25-62. Krakow: Nomos.
BarkerEileen. 2001. “INFORM: Bringing the Sociology of Religion to the Public Space.” In Frontier Religions in Public Space ed. Pauline Côté21-34. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.
BarkerEileen. 2006. “What Should We Do about the Cults? Policies, Information and the Perspective of INFORM.” In The New Religious Question: State Regulation or State Interference? ed. Pauline Côté and Gunn T. Jeremy371-395. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.
BarkerEileen. 2009. “In God’s Name: Practising Unconditional Love to the Death.” In Dying for Faith: Religiously Motivated Violence in the Contemporary World ed. Madawi Al-Rasheed and Marat Shterin49-58. London: I.B. Tauris.
BarkerEileen. 2011a. “Religion in China: Some Introductory Notes for the Intrepid Western Scholar.” In Social Scientific Studies of Religion in China: Methodology Theories and Findings ed. Fenggang Yang and Graeme Lang109-132. Leiden: Brill.
BarkerEileen. 2011b. “Stepping out of the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Engagement in ‘The Cult Wars.’” Methodological Innovations 6 (1): 18-39. doi.org/10.4256/mio.2010.0026.
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