Why do people join alternative religions? How do they join, and what problems may they encounter having done so? Why can it be so difficult to leave a movement? What about dangerous cults? Can we trust everything that anti-cultists say? These are some of the questions that Barrett sets out to answer, with a fair degree of success.
A central issue that he confronts at the outset is the definition of a cult. As he rightly points out, one person's cult is another's religion; all religions begin life as cults. An alternative definition is that a cult is a religion which you happen to dislike. There is however a difference between the popular or tabloid use of the word and the sociologists' terminology. Because of its generally pejorative connotations, sociologists avoid speaking of cults and prefer the neutral terms "new religious movement" (NRM) or "alternative religion". Barrett elects to use these almost interchangeably. As he remarks, none of the adherents of these movements would describe themselves as members of a cult ("cult" is a four-letter word). Nothing is to be gained, he believes, from asking whether a given movement is a cult or a real religion; we should instead ask: What does this movement believe? What does it do? Where did it come from? What is its context?
The first part of the book looks at the NRM phenomenon in general terms. There are chapters on the appeal of NRMs and the kinds of people they appeal to; on the problems that individuals face on leaving a movement; and on what happens when the founder of a movement dies. The pathology of cults is also considered: what happens in "killer cults" such as Heaven's Gate or the Branch Davidians? While admitting that the leaders of these organizations must be held primarily responsible for the disasters that ensued, Barrett finds that mainstream society is also partly to blame for failing to understand the mentality of the members and for not seeking to defuse the tensions in advance. In these situations each side tends to demonize the other, with horrendous consequences.
Tabloid newpapers frequently publish lurid accounts of people being "brainwashed" by sinister cults. During the Korean war a few captives of the Communists were induced, by torture or the threat of torture, sleep deprivation, and similar techniques to adopt the beliefs of their captors. Even using these extreme methods, the propagandists were largely unsuccessful; only about 1 in 50 captives was converted. Nevertheless, the model was taken up for a time by anti-cultists to explain how people today are induced to join cults; and though now discredited, this theory still figures largely in the popular imagination. In fact, deception and coercion are not prominent reasons why people join and remain within NRMs. The motives are more easily explained in terms of individual psychology. To illustrate how this happens, Barrett provides a number of imaginary sample cases.
The second part of the book looks in reasonable detail at the beliefs, practices, and histories of a wide range of NRMs. These are arranged in several categories, though this inevitably becomes rather artificial at times. First, there are offshoots from Christianity, which has been characterized by fissiparous tendencies from its inception. Although Barret doesn't make the point, this probably reflects the emphasis on correct belief that has been prominent in Christianity from the outset—something that distinguishes it from, say, Buddhism. The range of modern "Christian" offshoots is wide, from the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses through Anthroposophy and the Christadelphians to the Toronto Blessing and the Alpha Course.
The next, and rather small, category is "Other Religions of the Book"—that is, religions derived from Judaism and Islam. Here we encounter the Baha'i faith, for instance, and the Rastafarian Movement. The third category, "Eastern Movements in the West", is larger, and includes Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, Sahaja Yoga, and Transcendental Meditation. A still larger group is that of "Esoteric and Neo-Pagan Movements", which is something of a catch-all, ranging from Satanic Ritual Abuse through the Rosicrucians, the Aetherius Society, and Wicca to Flying Saucer Cults. Finally we come to "Personal Development Movements", including Neuro-Linguistic Programming and Landmark Forum (a development of Est). The "religious" status of some of these movements is questionable though I think that Barrett is right to include them. The book concludes with a detailed examination of the schisms within an obscure sect, the Worldwide Church of God; this is probably of interest to sociologists but I found it somewhat tedious and merely skimmed it.
To judge from Barrett's account of the one movement I have any direct experience of, his presentations of the background and beliefs of the organizations he deals with are generally fair and objective. He achieves this mainly by letting them speak for themselves; he offers few comments of his own but he does present "warts and all" summaries of the historical antecedents of the movements and the backgrounds of their founders, and these are sometimes entertaining. He manages to cover a pretty wide range of movements though inevitably there are omissions; I was sorry not to find anything about Oscar Ichazo's 'Arica', which seems to me to be one of the more remarkable examples of a Gurdjieff system clone.
This is a well-researched book that will interest anyone with a curiosity about the nature of religious belief. I'm not sure what its effect would be on a reader who was already a member of one of the movements discussed by Barrett; its effect on an agnostic (this agnostic, anyway) was to produce a mounting sense of bewilderment at the diversity of beliefs that human beings are capable of entertaining. There seems to be something in the human mind that hankers after belief systems—the more comprehensive, the better. (See my essay The Casaubon Complex.)