Religious Studies | The Cult Controversy
R160 | 3951 | Stein


Few religious categories are more inflammatory for many Americans
than "cults." The word stereotypically conjures up images of deceit,
brainwashing, financial scandal, sexual misconduct, and violence.
This course provides a structured opportunity to examine the
controversial issues surrounding New Religious Movements
(a.k.a. "cults") in contemporary America. At stake in this process is
the very definition of such alternative religions.
The United States has been and remains a particularly fertile seedbed
and hospitable environment for such groups. Throughout our nation's
history dissenters have voiced alternative religious views and have
lived out their spiritual ideals in distinctive and creative ways.
Often these groups have been badly misrepresented and misunderstood.
Three tragic episodes in recent history--the suicide/murders at
Jonestown, Guyana in 1978, the fiery inferno at Mount Carmel at Waco,
Texas, in 1993, and the collective ritual suicide of the members the
Heaven's Gate community in San Diego in 1997--have produced a wave of
media attention and sensationalist rhetoric about "cults" as well as
widespread recognition of the need for greater understanding of
marginalized religious movements.
Are "cults" dangerous and destructive forces in our society? What
functions do intense dissenting religious groups play in America? Who
joins such religions, and why? Are these groups unfairly targeted?
These are a few of the questions we will address in R160. The
activities in this course include lectures, audio-visual
presentations, and discussions. Evaluation is based on two quizzes,
two hourly exams, one short paper, and participation in section
meetings.