Book of the week
A lonely young student in her first year at university misses her home and family. Then she meets a group of friends who invite her to their shared house. After a while, she moves in and becomes part of an inward-looking community. She neglects her studies, no longer keeps in touch with home and, before long, her parents are grieving for a daughter kidnapped by a cult.
Another young woman also joins an inward-looking community. Her hair is cut off, and she adopts strange clothes, forswears marriage and adopts a new name. Now her brief hours of sleep are interrupted by compulsory prayer. She too is cut off from the world, but in this case the parents rejoice. Their devout Catholic daughter has become a nun.
The difficulties of defining sects, cults and religions are thoroughly explored in the introductory section of David Barrett's comprehensive (or, rather, massive) survey of what he prefers to label alternative religions or "new religious movements". These range from the more obvious Christian offshoots such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Jesus Army to movements derived from Eastern faiths and neo-pagan religions ranging from Satanism to Wicca (or witchcraft) and flying-saucer cults.
This introductory section also considers the appeal of sects, especially in a period of declining traditional belief; and the difficulties some adherents experience in leaving a movement. There is also a fascinating analysis of what happens to an apocalyptic cult when the world fails to end on a predicted date. This is followed by the main part of the book, which describes 100 movements from the Aetherius Society to the Worldwide Church of God.
The followers of some of these alternative religions will doubtless be surprised or even insulted to find themselves in this survey. Members of the Baha'i faith consider theirs a world faith that ranks alongside Judaism, Islam and Sikhism. Sincere Christan Evangelicals who have been inspired (or, depending on your convictions, brainwashed) by Alpha Courses across Britain will not enjoy rubbing shoulders with Druids and exponents of Occult Science. Similarly members of Opus Dei ("The Work of God") consider themselves the Pope's favourites and mainstream Catholics rather than dangerous and deviant fanatics.
Individual readers, too, will consider some of the featured organisations not so much creeds worthy of respect as small groups of social inadequates or, in even less politically correct language, nutters. Take His Eminence Sir George King (knighted by the Byzantine Royal House in exile). In 1954, an Indian Swami walked through the locked front door of his London flat and subsequently helped him tape-record a message from the planet Venus, which is how the Aetherius Society began. Incredible, yes, but did not Christianity begin when Jesus appeared to his disciples in the upper room after his crucifixion?
Sceptics may criticise this brilliantly researched book for its non-judgmental approach and cast the author as an apologist for cults, even to the extent of showing sympathy for (or at least understanding of) the Branch Davidians at Waco.
But Barrett's objectivity is one of his strengths. He describes with scrupulous fairness any group whose members are demonstrably sincere. He can also be critical of those who seek to police the cults and whose occasional attempts at "rescue" are sometimes as harmful as a group's powers of indoctrination.
The book's other great strength is its readability. Barrett has aimed to brief working teachers, clergy, youth workers, counsellors and journalists who may find themselves having to deal with such movements and their followers rather than to impress academic colleagues.
The result is an invaluable, highly readable and often witty guide to what (in his words) "your Great Aunt Maude would not recognise as a religion".