Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements:
A Sociological Approach

Sociology 300RN/580G
Fall 2003

Instructor Douglas E. Cowan
204C Haag Hall
(816) 235-1492
Designation Sociology 300RN (undergraduate):
Sociology 580G (graduate):
Location 404 Royall Hall
Time Tuesday / Thursday 2:00-3:15 p.m.
Office hours Tuesday / Thursday 3:30-4:30 p.m., or by appointment
Required textbook Lorne L. Dawson, eds. Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader (n.b. this must be the second edition); plus other readings as assigned by Prof. Cowan and either placed on electronic reserve or available online.
Online syllabus

Description | Assignments and Class Evaluation | Electronic Reserve Readings | Course Syllabus | Attendance Policy | Academic Honesty | Graduate Students

Class Description

Rarely a year goes by when we are not confronted with news of some religious group that has been labelled a "cult" by the mass media, antagonistic countermovements, or friends and family dismayed over the religious choices their beloved relatives have made. The problem is: how do you know they've joined a cult? How would you know a cult if you saw one? Is this even possible? How many religious believers consider themselves part of a "cult"?

Despite the fact that a wide variety of religious groups are popularly lumped together as "cults," there are often vast differences between them. Some are sectarian variations of established religious traditions; others are syncretistic, combining elements of two or more traditions; still others are imports from other cultures; and, finally, some are simply invented using the raw material of the cultures at hand. What is crystal clear is that they are not all the same.

In the introduction to New Religions as Global Cultures, Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe establish a baseline for the study of NRMs: "understanding must precede criticism" (1995: xiii). With this caveat in mind, students can expect to experience: (a) a variety of methods for understanding and analyzing new religious movements in society—sociological, historical, and textual; (b) an introduction to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs and practices which exist (and flourish) outside the cultural mainstream; and (c) an introduction to some of the means by which dominant religious and secular cultures have confronted the presence of new religious movements.

Assignments and Class Evaluation

Two in-class tests Mixed short answer and essay questions (20% each) 40%
Book review 15%

Research paper

(a) Class presentation on research-in-progress
(b) Final research paper

There will be no registrar scheduled final exam for this course.

Book Review (due October 23)

For this assignment, each student will choose an academic book from the list provided by Prof. Cowan and write a 500-word review of that book. It is very important to note that this review is not simply to be a repetition of what is in the book. The review must include some critical analysis of the material. That is, how well or poorly does the author make his or her point? Does he or she answer the questions raised by the book?

Research Paper (due December 12)

There are three parts to this asignment: (a) selection and approval of topic; (b) class presentation of research-in-progress; and (c) the final paper.

(a) Selection and approval of topic

Each student must make an appointment to see me prior to the end of office hours on September 18 to discuss your proposed research topic. Only when I have approved your topic and your research method may you proceed.


(b) Class presentation

During the weeks of Oct 28-30 and November 4-6, each student will make a brief presentation (i.e., no more than ten minutes) on their research in progress.


(c) Final research paper

Essays by undergraduate students should be between 2500-3000 words; essays by graduate students should be no less than 5000 words long. Both must include proper citation and documentation.

Click here for examples of documentation styles. 

Final research papers are due by 5:00 pm on Friday, December 12, 2003, in my office. However, since the only opportunity I have to offer feedback occurs if students turn in paper drafts, I encourage students to do so. You may email me these drafts, or give them to me in hard copy. either way, I must have them before Thanksgiving.

Final papers are to be submitted in hard copy only; email submissions will be returned to the student unread.

Click here for a Written Presentation Grading Rubric to understand how I make evaluate students' work.

A note about using the Internet: students are permitted to use the Internet to conduct secondary research only under the following two conditions: (1) secondary print corroborative sources are used in the presentation and the research paper; or (b) sources are Internet-based and only available online. In this case, students must submit full hard-copies of all pages cited with their final papers.

Failure to abide by these conditions will seriously affect the student's evaluation.


To Access Electronic Reserve Readings:

The Electronic Reserve system (Eres) is designed to allow students to access reserve reading materials from their home computer or computer workstations here on campus. Once you have accessed the readings for the week, they can be downloaded in Portable Document Format (.pdf). This requires the Adobe Acrobat Reader. If this is not already installed on your computer, you can download it free of charge at ( Click on the "Get Acrobat reader button" at the bottom of the home page, and follow the directions to the "Free Reader."

Do not wait until the last minute. I recommend that you print out a number of readings at one sitting.
Excuses regarding computer malfunction or failure will not be accepted.

To download and print Eres material:

  1. Go to the Miller Nichols Library website (
  2. Click on "Miller Nichols Library."
  3. Click on "Reserve Materials."
  4. Click on "Eres" service.
  5. Click on "Electronic Reserves and Course Materials." If you are reading this online, you can go right from here.
  6. Under "Select an Instructor," choose "Cowan, Douglas." Click "Go."
  7. Click hyperlink for "Cults, Sects, and New Religious Movements"
  8. Click "Accept."
  9. Click hyperlink for appropriate reading (see Master List of Readings below); .pdf readings will open in a new window. Print readings using the "Print" function on the .pdf window.
  10. Read carefully, and participate boldly in class!

Master List of Eres and Online Readings (in order):


Course Syllabus


Topic Required Reading (bullet-point indicates e-res or online reading)
Aug 26-28 Introduction to the course
Defining "cults": Part 1

Dawson, ed., Introduction

  • Ankerberg and Weldon, "Introduction" to Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions

Aug. 28: Prof. Ebersole will be guest lecturing on new religions in Japan.

Sept 2-4 Defining "cults": Part 2

Dawson, ed., Chap. 2 (Beckford, "The Continuum between 'Cults' and 'Normal' Religion)

  • Singer and Lalich, "Defining Cults"

N.b. There will be no class on September 4.

Sept 9-11 Where NRMs come from...

Dawson, ed., Chap. 4 (Stark and Bainbridge, "Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models")

  • Stark and Bainbridge, "Of Churches, Sects, and Cults"
Sept 16-18 Recruitment, Retention, and Rejection: Who joins new religious movements and why?

Dawson, ed., Chap. 7 (Dawson, "Who Joins New Religious Movements and Why: Twenty Years of Research and What Have we Learned?")
Dawson, ed., Chap. 8 (Levine, "The Joiners")

Sept 23-25 The Brainwashing and Deprogramming Controversy

Dawson, ed., Chap. 9 (Singer, "The Process of Brainwashing, Psychological Coercion, and Thought Reform")
Dawson, ed., Chap. 11 (Robbins, "Constructing Cultist 'Mind Control'")

  • Bromley, Shupe, and Ventimiglia, "The Role of Anecdotal Atrocities in the Social Construction of Evil"
Sept 30-Oct 2

Religion and Violence:
The Social Construction of New Religious Movements

Oct 7-9 Sex, Gender, and NRMs

Dawson, ed., Chap. 14 (Puttick, "Women in New Religious Movements")
Dawson, ed., Chap. 15 (Palmer, "Women's 'Cocoon Work' in New Religious Movements: Sexual Experimentation and Feminine Rites of Passage")

Oct 14-16

Scientology: Part One

History and Controversy


Dawson, ed., Chap. 16 (Stark, "Why Religious Movements Succeed or Fail")

Oct 21-23

Scientology: Part Two

Present and Controversy

  • Cowan, "Contested Spaces: Movement, Countermovement, and E-Space Propaganda"; available online at
  • Dawson, "Raising Lazarus: A Methodological Critique of Stephen Kent's Revival of the Brainwashing Hypothesis"

October 23 (2:00-4:00): Field trip to Church of Scientology (Kansas City), 39th and Main.

Oct 28-30

October 28: In-class Quiz #1

Class presentations of research-in-progress

Nov 4-6
Class presentations of research-in-progress
Nov 11-13 Neopaganism and the New Age: Part One
  • Adler, "The Craft Today"
  • Jorgensen, "The Esoteric Scene in America"
Nov 18-20 Neopaganism and the New Age: Part Two
  • Kaplan, "The Reconstruction of the Asatru and Odinist Traditions"
  • Engler, "ETs, Rafts, and Runestones: Confronting Pseudoarcheology in the Classroom"
Nov 25-27 Neopaganism and the New Age: Part Three
  • Ivakhiv, "Vortexes and Crossed Currents: Sedona's Multichannel Wilderness"

November 27: No class. Have a happy thanksgiving!

Dec 2-4 The Social Meaning of New Religious Movements


Dec 9
In-class quiz #2
Dec 12
Final Research Paper due


Attendance Policy

Students are expected to attend and participate in all class sessions. Only excused absences which have been arranged in advance with Prof. Cowan, or which are substantiated by medical documentation, will be accepted. As well, class will begin promptly at 2:00 and students are expected to be on time. Any more than two unexcused absences will result in a grade penalty of 1% per missed class. If you come in late and are not present when attendance is taken, you will be counted as absent. This policy is based on long experience and empirical evidence which demonstrates clearly that students who attend class achieve far better command of the material than those who do not.


Academic Honesty

Please note that I have a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty, and I am very good at finding it. Academic dishonesty will result in a "0" for the assignment in question, and consequences can range from course failure (for undergraduate students) to a request for official dismissal from the program in which a student is enrolled (for graduate students). If you are unclear about what constitutes plagiarism, click here.

If you would like to know under what circumstances I will exhibit leniency towards plagiarism, click here.


Graduate Students

If students are taking this course for graduate credit (i.e., you are registered in Sociology 580G), there will be an increased workload. The essay portion of in-class tests will be graded at a graduate level; you will be expected to write two book reviews based on outside reading (the second review will be due with you final paper), and together they will constitute 15% of your grade. Graduate research papers are to be no less than 5000 words long.


Douglas E. Cowan
University of Missouri-Kansas City