Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements

Religious Studies 680 (Winter 2004)

Heaven’s Gate… Branch Davidians… Hare Krishnas… Solar Temple… Scientology... who knows? Maybe a church group near you…

Often called "cults" by secular and religious media, many new religious movements are not really new at all. Some are sectarian variations of established religious traditions; others are syncretistic, combining elements of two or more traditions. Some are innovative; others are imported. What is clear is that they are not all the same. This course considers the topic of new religious movements as a phenomenon in modern culture. Class topics will include: the problem of definition, methods of research and tools for analysis, and class discussion of various new religious movements.

In the introduction to New Religious Movements as Global Cultures, Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe establish a baseline for the study of NRMs; i.e., "understanding must precede criticism." With this in mind, students can expect to experience: (a) a variety of methods for analysing and understanding new religious movements in society: sociological, historical, and textual; (b) an introduction to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs which exist (and flourish) outside the cultural mainstream; and (c) an introduction to some of the means by which dominant religious and secular culture has confronted the presence of NRMs—e.g., deprogramming, exit counselling, and theologically oriented countermovement.


Douglas E. Cowan
204C Haag Hall
(816) 235-1492

Office Hours

11:00-12:00 Tuesday and Thursday
6:15-7:00 Tuesday
or by appointment

Class Location Royall Hall 204
Time Tuesday, 7:00-9:45







class schedule | coursework and evaluation | important note

Class Schedule

There will be one assigned text per week, thirteen texts in total. Students will be expected to have read the entire text carefully, and to come to class well prepared to discuss issues raised by the author(s). This class will be conducted in seminar format; the readings for each week will be introduced by student presentations. Should the class size dictate, some students should be prepared to present more than one text; rather than a burden, this should be viewed as another opportunity to sharpen one's analytical and presentation skills. Rather than simply a précis of the work, students will be expected to discuss intelligently the issues and questions raised in the work by the author(s). This includes: (a) the major issues addressed by the author(s) and conclusions reached; (b) the theory and method(s) employed in the study; (c) a critical evaluation of the strengths and limitations of the work; and (d) the significant questions or issues which are raised by the study. As the course proceeds, special effort should be made to relate the theory, method, and data encountered between and among the different class texts.

January 13
Introduction to the course
January 20 Lorne L. Dawson
Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements
January 27 Richard N. Ostling and Joan K. Ostling
Mormon America: The Power and the Promise


February 3 James W. Coleman
The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition


Preliminary research proposals are due at the beginning of class today. See below for details.

February 10 E. Burke Rochford
Hare Krishna in America
February 17 Ennis B. Edmonds
Rastafari: From Outcasts to Culture Bearers
February 24

Douglas E. Cowan
Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult

March 2 Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, eds. Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field Presenter:
March 16 David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton
Cults, Religion, and Violence
March 23 M. D. Faber
New Age Thinking: A Psychoanalytic Critique
March 30 Steven J. Sutcliffe
Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices


First drafts of research papers are due in class.

April 6 Ronald Hutton
The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft
April 13 Jeffrey S. Victor
Satanic Panic: The Creation of a Contemporary Legend
April 20 James R. Lewis
Legitimating New Religions
April 27
Class presentation of term research

Coursework and Evaluation

Students will be evaluated on (a) class participation, (b) their presentation(s) of weekly readings, and (c) an original research essay on a topic of their choice, but within the purview of the course. Class attendance is mandatory, and only excused absences arranged in advance with me will be permitted.

Note well that class participation is not the same as class attendance. In seminar courses such as this, simply reading the class material accounts for only a small percentage of the learning that takes place. Rather, the majority of learning occurs in the midst of class interaction, discussion, and often disgreement—with each other, with the text under consideration, and with the instructor. At the Ph.D. level, this interaction is particularly important, and the crucial thing to remember is: You don't have to be right all the time, but you do have to step up and at least risk being wrong. A good rule-of-thumb for class participation is this: At the end of the course, if I cannot honestly answer the question, "Did Student A actually read the texts?" your participation has been inadequate.

Essays must be written to conform to the style of a particular peer-reviewed, academic journal, to which such an essay might be submitted for consideration for publication. As such, students will be expected to identify which journal would be an appropriate venue for their paper and to employ that journal's length, documentation, research, and discourse protocols in the preparation of their papers. Since the ability to connect with particular scholarly discourses is essential to success in academic publishing and the progress of one's career path, I cannot overstate the importance of this aspect of the assignment. Students in my seminars have gone on to present papers written for class in national meetings of the American Academy of Religion and to publish revised versions of their papers in peer-reviewed journals.

Final research papers are due in Haag Hall 204 by 4:00 pm on Friday, April 30. Since the ability to plan and manage one's time is a crucial component of the professional academic's life, late papers will be penalized, and Incompletes granted only in extraordinary circumstances. Since the only opportunity I have to offer feedback occurs if students turn in research drafts, I require that all students do so. There is a three-step process for this. (a) You must clear your topic with me by the fourth week of class and provide a written research proposal. This proposal should be no more than 3 pages in length and include a general statement of the topic and its importance, a preliminary bibliography, and a one-paragraph description of your research method. Research proposals are to be submitted in hard copy. (b) First drafts are due in class on March 30. Turn them in on the disk provided in either Word or Rich Text Format. And (c), final papers will be submitted both in hard copy and on the disk with your draft(s); email submissions will be returned to the student unread.

Because the Interdisciplinary Ph.D. program in Religious Studies is meant to be broadly comparative in nature, students are NOT permitted to choose research topics related to the subject their dissertation.

A note about using the Internet. While students are permitted to use the Internet to conduct research, citation of the Internet in research papers is permissible only under the following conditions: (1) Primary research sources are Internet-based and only available online—for example, you are writing about the Internet. (2) Secondary research sources are available online; this includes newspaper articles accessed through Lexis-Nexis, online peer-reviewed journals, and full-text articles from peer-reviewed journals accessed through databases such as JSTOR and ATLA. (3) If secondary research sources are simply from Web sites, secondary print sources, whether scholarly or corroborative, must be used in the presentation and the research paper. For example, do not cite online versions of the Ante-Nicene Patristics; I expect you to go to the library and cite book, chapter, and page number(s). While the Internet is a tremendous boon to scholarship, it is also responsible for creating one of the laziest generations of students and scholars in the history of higher education. Failure to abide by these conditions will seriously affect the student's evaluation. If you are in any doubt about the acceptability of an Internet resource, do one or both of these: go offline, or see me for an evaluation of the source.

Click here to see my grading scale, and here to see a written presentation rubric on which assessment is based.

Academic Honesty

Please note that I have a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Consequences can range from course failure (for undergraduate students) to dismissal from the academic program in which a student is enrolled (for graduate students). At the Ph.D. level there is simply no debate about this, and students are expected to know what constitutes plagiarism. If you are unclear about what plagiarism is, click here. Or, click here to see under what conditions I will exhibit leniency towards plagiarism.

Douglas E. Cowan
The University of Missouri-Kansas City