Religious Studies | RELIGION AND AMERICAN CULTURE
R160 | 10455 | Stein, S


In this course we will explore together the controversy surrounding
religious groups in contemporary America known variously as “cults,”
alternative religions, or New Religious Movements. The United States
has been and remains an extremely 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 are badly misrepresented and misunderstood. Three
tragic episodes in the closing decades of the twentieth century—the
suicide/murders at Jonestown. Guyana in 1978, the fiery inferno at
Mount Carmel at Waco, Texas, in 1993, and the collective “suicide”
of members of the Heaven’s Gate community at San Diego in 1997—
produced a wave of media attention and sensationalist rhetoric
about “cults” as well as widespread recognition on the part of many
of the need for greater understanding of marginalized religious
movements. Why are New Religious Movement (a.k.a. “cults”) so
controversial? Are they being unfairly targeted? Are all such groups
the same? Is it possible to use terms such as “cult” and “sect” in a
positive descriptive manner? Are the efforts of anti-cult
organizations and deprogrammers legal and laudable, or are they
violations of the spirit and the letter of the First Amendment?
These are some of the questions we will address in this course. We
will examine a variety of diverse New Religious Movements in the
United States. The activities in this course include lectures, audio-
visual presentations, and discussions. Evaluation will be based on
two quizzes, two hourly exams, and one short paper. We will also
make use of the voluminous information concerning such religious
groups located on the internet.