London professor shares knowledge of religious cults


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Understanding a minority religion takes attention, reliable information and a willingness to relate to various perspectives, Eileen Barker, professor emerita of sociology with special reference to the study of religion at the London School of Economics, University of London, said.

Barker visited Loyola on Wednesday, Nov. 13, to explain trends involving new religious movements – more specifically, cults. Barker discussed common perceptions involving religious movements and cults during her lecture, “Stepping Out of the Ivory Tower: Social Science as a Weapon in the ‘Cult Wars’.”

Barker is the founder of the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements, or INFORM, an educational charity that provides an objective stream of information on religious movements.

Margaret Mitchell, world religions senior, said that she believed Barker’s discussion of INFORM, was the highlight of the lecture.

“The INFORM group was the coolest aspect of the lecture. Specifically, the way they mediate between different groups like the new religious movements and the anti-cult movement,” Mitchell said.

Barker said that INFORM has been able to provide accurate information about minority religions through examination and research, having traveled around the world to observe new religious movements and cults.

“I try to illustrate how, even if we can never hope to portray ‘the whole truth’ about any particular social phenomenon, we can point out that certain claims are wrong, while other constructions of reality are selective and thus misleading,” Barker said.

Barker said that she created INFORM to respond to the negative attention many minority religions receive.

Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies, recruited Barker to speak at Loyola and said that she believes Barker’s view on understanding new religious movements can encourage people to accept minority religions.

“Instead of applying a derogatory label to any group, it is important to utilize good research methods and critical analysis to find out what they are like,” Wessinger said. “It is important to get to know the people to avoid dehumanizing them with a pejorative label. Dehumanizing any group of people can lead to tragic consequences.”

Wessinger said that she hopes the lecture opened a dialogue about little-known religions and helped rejecte pejorative stereotypes of minority religions.

Barker said that she hopes the discussion encouraged the audience to acknowledge the differences of these religious movements and act respectfully towards them.

Barker said that she believes that by attempting to comprehend the differences in religions and societies, the assumptions toward the topic will decrease.

“Those of us who are privileged enough to spend our lives as academics ought to try to give something back to society which, even though it may not make the world a much better place, might contribute to the reduction of unnecessary ignorance and suffering,” Barker said.


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