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In contrast, the legitimacy new religions seek in the public eye has more to do with social acceptance—rather like the acceptance accorded to a legitimate child as opposed to an illegitimate child. Critics of new religions seek to persuade society that such religions are illegitimate, meaning they should not be accorded the status of a religion. Many critics would also argue that certain nontraditional or unusual religions should be abolished altogether.

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In other words, they seek to legitimate the repression of such groups. Most of the case studies utilized in these pages have been drawn from groups I have researched in the past. One result of this approach is that I use the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness—a group I spent years studying and with which I am intimately familiar—as my primary example in several chapters. My approach involves a mix of methodologies. Although my primary point of reference is sociological, I also examine legitimation from a religious studies approach that—in the tradition of theorists such as Rudolf Otto , Joachim Wach and Mircea Eliade —examines the role religious experience plays in the generation of new religious forms.

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In chapters 9 and 10, I include data collected from survey research on former members of controversial new religions for a brief description of this research, see Appendix B. In chapter 6, I also refer to a survey of religious Satanists for details, see Appendix A. As a consequence, most chapters examine a mix of different legitimation strategies in the life of one or more religious groups.


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The book is divided into two major sections. Part 1 surveys the range of strategies used to legitimate new religions. Part 2 examines some of the strategies deployed by critics in their efforts to delegitimate new religions. After discussing the analysis of religious experience in terms of the approach to religion articulated by the Otto-Wach-Eliade tradition,1 chapter 2 examines the prophetic consciousness of founders of new religions via a case study of John-Roger Hinkins, the founder of the Movement for Spiritual Inner Awareness. Chapter 3 carries forward this discussion in the context of Native American prophet religions.

In addition to their visions, these prophets drew on familiar themes from their cultural traditions to legitimate their new religious syntheses. The appeal to science as a legitimation strategy is the theme of chapter 5. Chapter 6 examines the variety of legitimation strategies deployed in the Satanist tradition founded by Anton LaVey. Additionally, he appealed to human nature as viewed through the lens of Darwinism. Another legitimation strategy LaVey made use of was to amplify his personal charismatic status by creating an impressive pseudo-biography in which he portrayed himself as an extraordinary individual.

In the next set of chapters, the discussion shifts to an examination of the delegitimation strategies that characterize the cult controversy. As a consequence, researchers have articulated judgmental points of view that in effect call into question the legitimacy of certain new religions. Chapter 12 analyses this issue through an examination of select scholarship on Soka Gakkai International.


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  5. This must be emphasized in con trast to all forms of determinism in which religion is viewed as a function, and in contrast to all forms of relativism in which it appears wholly depen dent upon environmental factors. The basic idea behind such gatherings is not new—the same general notion informed the annual camp meetings that were a part of nineteenth-century Evangelical Protestantism—but in most other ways the activities that take place during Spring Renewal depart markedly from the camp meetings of the past century.

    The workshop that had the most personal impact for me took place early in the retreat. Such feelings linger as emotional burdens that keep us from fully opening to each new experience of love. In an ideal world, he went on to say, we might be able to recontact all of our old lovers and try to effect a better resolution to our broken relationships. But, even if that was logistically possible, it would be unlikely that we would be able to completely heal all of the old bitterness.

    Such was the gist of the discussion that led up to a group exercise, an exercise I cannot describe with any hope of doing justice to the experience.

    We stood up and formed two circles, one consisting of approximately forty males and the other of about the same number of females, and were instructed to successively ask each person of the opposite sex to forgive us and to accept our love. While we went through this exchange, we were asked to try to see the other person as someone of the opposite sex we needed to forgive relatives as well as ex-lovers or as someone by whom we wanted to be forgiven.

    As we were forming the circles, I knew that the exercise would be powerful, but I was not prepared for the intensity of the actual experience. It was not long, however, before the experience became quite intense. After looking into the eyes of only a few women—people who really seemed to be offering me complete forgiveness—I began to drop some of my psychological barriers. I very quickly found myself genuinely asking for forgiveness for the many times that I had consciously or unconsciously hurt my romantic partners. I do not remember at what point I began weeping, but I do remember that when I reached the camp yoga instructor I let go of the last shreds of my resistance.

    The instructor herself was red-faced from crying, and the fullness of her sincerity allowed me to feel completely forgiven.

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    I felt reborn. Perhaps it was because I already felt open, or because I had already been forgiven by every female in the room, or some combination of these. But at that point I was ready to forgive all of womankind for every offense, real or imagined, that its members had ever committed against me. Many mainstream Protestant denominations—Methodists, Baptists, and Presbyterians—once offered the seeker life-transforming experiences in the context of revivals and camp meetings.

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    But as these religious bodies settled down into comfortable accommodation with the surrounding secular society, they lost their intensity. One result of this accommodation was that revivals and camp meetings—and the accompanying intense religious experiences— were relegated to quaint and mildly embarrassing chapters in denominational histories.

    Academics have not been exempt from this tendency. Is the attraction of transformational experiences, for example, really so hard to comprehend?


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    What if we actually could let go of the burden of our past and be reborn as new people? Such transformation may or may not be attainable, but the attractiveness of the possibility is certainly understandable. Religious experience is, however, only one aspect of the spiritual life, and only one of the factors that attract individuals to deeper religious involvement. The core of religion, according to Wach and others, is religious experience. Religious experience, in turn, is expressed in at least three ways: In a community church, ashram, etc.

    In a doctrine theology, worldview, etc. In addition to Wach, the emphasis on—and privileging of—religious experience is central to the approach of other key religious studies theorists such as Rudolf Otto and Mircea Eliade. This tradition has been heavily criticized over the past decade. Russell T. He has also attacked the notion that religious experience is sui generis For the purpose of the present analysis, it will be assumed that one need not be religious—nor need one defend the notion of religious experience as sui generis— in order to utilize this theoretical approach.

    I spent a week at the Spring Renewal. The exercise took place on the morning of the third day, if I remember correctly. Up to that point, I did not feel like I was part of the group: I was from the mainland while most of the participants were island residents.

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    I also tended to keep a reserved distance as part of my academic persona. After the exercise, this changed dramatically. I became quite close to a number of the participants and clearly recall wishing we could just continue to live together in that YMCA camp. In other words, it is easy to imagine how the people who had shared the experience might agree to meet on a regular basis and reenact the exercise in order to recapture the original experience. This would become the rough equivalent of a church service. Finally, it is also possible to see how the experience might constitute the basis for a new theology: The teacher who led the group initially put forward a few quasi-theological notions, such as the fall-from-Eden story of the eclipse of matriarchy by evil patriarchs.

    Direct religious experience is, in a certain sense, self-legitimating: It opens the door to a sacred realm and leaves experiencers transformed. Nevertheless, such encounters do not take place in a vacuum. Although experiences and ideas are intimately bound up with one another, it is nevertheless analytically useful to separate them and to note that religious experiences and religious ideology mutually impact one another. On the other hand, a profound encounter with the sacred can compel one to rethink and reshape her or his religious ideology.

    Although the sources of religions are diverse, the discipline of religious studies has traditionally given religious experience pride of place as the matrix out of which religions emerge.