July 19 2024

Teaching New Religions at a Liberal Arts College

by Jeremy Rapport, College of Wooster

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946


I am assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster, a small, private, liberal arts college in Northeast Ohio. There I teach the course "New Religions and the New Age." The class is a part of our department's regular catalogue; in fact the job description under which I was hired was written partly with this class in mind, and so I teach the class at least once per academic year, usually during the spring semester. The class is expected to enroll twenty students, although in the five times I have taught it at Wooster, it usually has between twenty-two and twenty-five students. It surveys major new and alternative religious groups and issues. As a 200-level class, it is open to nonmajors, and it also fulfills our "religious perspectives" general education requirement. All of this means, in effect, the class is introductory level, and for the most part I teach it as such.

Although I enjoy teaching "New Religions and the New Age" a great deal (after all, how many scholars at small colleges get to teach regularly a class exactly in their research area), I also find it very challenging at times. The purpose of the class within the religious studies curriculum and its place as possibly fulfilling a distribution requirement for all students limits my ability to teach specialized knowledge or skills. While I find this frustrating, I now try to approach the pedagogy of the class as an opportunity to teach liberal arts critical thinking, reading, and writing skills in the context of the study of new religions. Because investigating new religions necessarily involves careful and critical source analysis, close reading of complex texts of many types, and the ability to clearly communicate research findings to frequently skeptical audiences, I believe it is an ideal topic for teaching classic liberal arts skills.

Case Studies for Critical Thinking

My primary goal for the course is for the students to research and write a final paper in which they analyze a specific new religion or an issue involving new religions. Thus, the majority of the class focuses on case studies that are demonstrations of the type of work I want the students to engage in for their final project. My case study approach is also informed by inductive reasoning, and I have found that starting with specific instances and moving to possible general conclusions both allows for the uncertainty inherent in claims making about religion and helps me to better focus on the lived reality of the people and groups under study.

We begin the class with a case study of Robert Matthews, better known as the Prophet Matthias, an early nineteenth century American who was seeking to overturn the rising tide of the evangelical middle class by recreating the patriarchal, Reform Christian society in which he grew up. We read Paul Johnson and Sean Wilentz's The Kingdom of Matthias (2nd ed., 2012), a book derived largely from popular press reports on Matthias and his Kingdom, which came to an ignoble end when internal strife resulted in the Prophet's arrest and trial for murdering one of his followers.

I like this book and this case study as an introduction to the study of new religions for several reasons. First, because the events took place during the first half of the nineteenth century, the book makes clear that new religions, and by extension the issues surrounding new religions, are not in fact a new development. Second, many of the issues that still shape the study of new religions are found in this story: the role of charismatic leaders in the development of communities; the primacy of affective bonds in the development—and breaking—of  religious identities and ties; the role of gender and family issues in new religions; the role of sex and communal lifestyles in the development of controversy; and the role of the popular press in developing controversies about new religions. Third, the book is fairly short and deals with a lot of issues that many students seem to find interesting: unstable and eccentric personalities, unusual religious activities, and unconventional sexual behaviors. The Kingdom of Matthias is, in other words, an excellent bait to get students into the issues and methods involved in the study of new religions. As part of my pedagogical strategy, The Kingdom of Matthias allows me both to present cult stereotypes and the issues they raise as well as begin to point to more fruitful strategies for engaging such issues.

In the case of The Kingdom of Matthias we proceed inductively through the book, looking at the specific incidents described by Johnson and Wilentz and then working out toward a more theoretically based explanation for the incident. For example, the book juxtaposes chapters about Robert Matthews's (Prophet Matthias's name prior to his religious mission) childhood in rural New York in a strict, Calvinist environment with Elijah Pierson's (Matthews’s first wealthy convert) story of becoming a new evangelical concerned with reforming a society riddled with prostitutes, drinking, and poverty. Our class discussions turn on the ways the two men's backgrounds might have informed their religious decisions and how the situations of each man help us to understand how Elijah Pierson might have found the Prophet Matthias convincing. Thus we are led into a discussion of religious conversions and the factors that might lead people to find certain religious claims credible.

That is the basic model I use throughout the rest of the class. Using primary documents, most of which come from Dereck Daschke and W. Michael Ashcraft’s (2005) edited volume, New Religions: A Documentary Reader, we read the material created by members of the groups we study and work our way out to a more theoretical discussion of the issues at play in the particular example. Theoretical issues are described and explained in more detail with Lorne Dawson's (2006) Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements.

Teaching Methods

My pedagogical goal for my religion classes is to teach students ways of describing, analyzing, and explaining religious life, thought, and behavior in a reasonably impartial manner in order for them to be better able to encounter and experience the people in their world. I tell my students that our concern as scholars of religion is for understanding and explaining the facts on the ground regardless of how those facts may make us feel about our own religious identities or lack thereof (the rise of the vocal atheist is, I have found, as much of an issue in a new religions class as is the committed evangelical Christian). Moreover, many of my students come into this class with preconceived notions about new religions, as well as about specific new religious groups, that reveal just how problematic mainstream discourse about these religious groups has become. Many students seem to assume that charismatic leaders always are out to deceive their followers, that nonconventional religious behavior, whatever that may be, is always problematic, and that no one in a right state of mind could choose to be a member of a new religion. In short, they have learned the lessons of our culture's anticult stereotypes extremely well. So a major part of my work in the class is teaching the facts about new religious groups and ways to find facts about new religions. In addition, I frequently find myself correcting students' "facts" that come from popular discourse about new religion. Lately, the Church of Scientology is the major group about which students hold a host of incorrect assumptions. An important part of my job, then, is to teach them ways to understand new religions that do not assume that such groups are dangerous or deviant. I have found that two teaching methods are particularly helpful with this goal: the "Devil's advocate" method and the aforementioned inductive method.

The “Devil’s advocate” method is more or less what one might expect it to be, teaching about unfamiliar points of view by taking the adherents’ beliefs and actions as natural and logical given their experiences and situations. By the end of the semester, my goal is that my students are able to do the same thing. One example where I have found this approach useful is discussing why the Branch Davidians, in 1993, might have chosen to remain in their burning house instead of escaping the fire and being arrested. I try to get the students to imagine making a choice between suffering and dying in a fire and suffering for eternity in hell. When we discuss Scientology, a religion that many students assume must be terribly manipulative, I talk through the auditing process, trying to emphasize how the Scientologist’s presuppositions about the mind and its powers are widely shared by the mainstream culture. My students tend to do an excellent job of asking the questions and raising the points that allow the class to work through the process, the assumptions that inform it, and its goals. My intention in these situations is to explain clearly the beliefs and practices of practitioners of the religions and to break down prejudices by putting myself in the position of the person who sympathizes with the adherent. Part of my job leading the class is to make it more difficult for prejudices to endure by making the voice of the Other as loud and clear as possible. I understand this to be not only a more accurate way to convey religious others, but also an important part of helping my students understand how investigation biases function. Because these teaching methods and materials are complex and controversial, grappling with them in this way is central not only to the study of new religions, but also to the basic goals of liberal arts education.

In addition to helping students better understand and employ theoretical tools, the inductive method I described in the previous section is also very helpful in getting students to develop reasonable ideas about adherents’ motivations and behaviors. I begin case studies by focusing on primary texts and the observed realities of the group we are studying. Admittedly, the category of “observed reality” is problematic, but for me that constitutes one of the challenges to be overcome. I must model for my students ways to describe behaviors that attempt to avoid value judgments. Our discussions of the texts and religious behaviors of the people in the group frequently bring up cult stereotypes. Students have learned the lessons of the anticult movement well and know when to describe certain behaviors as “weird” or “dangerous” or “manipulative.” What I end up using in most cases is Thomas Robbins’s (1984) concept of “transvaluational conflict,” which is when the same behavior or idea is understood very differently depending on who is performing the behavior or espousing the idea. Scientology provides numerous examples, but the one my class frequently discusses is auditing. In Scientology, auditing is a counseling process that attempts to identify unconscious memories of physical or psychological pain using a machine called an electropsychometer, or e-meter. Students, who rarely know even of the existence of this counseling ritual, readily understand its purpose when I compare it with more conventional counseling methods, especially psychotherapeutic methods. Thus an inductive approach to specific new religious practices helps students better understand the practice and recognize its origins and links with their own milieu.


By the end of the semester, if I have done my job well and my students have engaged the class material and ideas, I expect to see a research paper that reflects a nuanced understanding of the topic and argument that shows an ability to gather and evaluate evidence and draw appropriate conclusions based on that evidence. These are, of course, relatively standard goals in the context of any college writing curriculum, but I find that with the added difficulty of writing about religious groups considered deviant and/or dangerous, students tend to work harder at employing the academic skills of critical reading and thinking in order to understand and interpret the groups and issues they study. Rarely do I find uncritical acceptance of cult stereotypes or thoughtless critiques of unconventional religious groups. Moreover, because of the care required to search for and evaluate sources and to create useful, nuanced arguments, my students learn a great deal about the process of critical, analytic writing.

Teaching new religions in the liberal arts college setting is some of my most interesting and challenging pedagogical work. This work has forced me to think very carefully about how I teach any religious behavior or group, and for that I am thankful. I understand much more clearly that what is at stake in describing and analyzing religious behaviors is not only technical knowledge, but also strategies for respecting and understanding others. I know I am a better teacher overall because I teach “New Religions and the New Age.” At the same time, since I teach at private school with different expectations about teaching religion than those that exist at most public institutions, I have also come to recognize how important it is to facilitate students’ thoughts and judgments about new religions. To put it bluntly, my students learn through me both facts about new religions and methods for interpreting those facts; thus a critical part of my job is to teach them interpretive methods that facilitate both honest critiques and fair judgments about unconventional religions. It is not fair, nor even possible, to ask them to accept all religious beliefs and practices, but I can insist that they learn to understand them before passing judgment.


Ashcraft, Michael, and Dereck Daschke, eds. 2005. New Religious Movements: A Documentary Reader. New York: New York University Press.

Dawson, Lorne. 2006. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Johnson, Paul and Sean Wilentz. 2012. The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America. 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Robbins, Thomas. 1984. “Constructing Cultist ‘Mind Control’.” Sociological Analysis 45 (3): 241–256.

Jeremy RapportJeremy Rapport is assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio. He is the author of several journal articles, book chapters, and encyclopedia entries on topics related to new religions, including “Corresponding to the Rational World: Scientific Language and Rationales in Christian Science and the Unity School of Christianity,” in Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emerging Religions; “Christian Science, New Thought, and Scientific Discourse,” in Religion and the Authority of Science (Brill, 2010); “Join Us! Come, Eat! Vegetarianism in the Formative Period of the Seventh-day Adventists and the Unity School of Christianity,” in Religion, Food, and Eating in North America (Columbia University Press, 2014); and “New Religious Movements:  Nineteenth Century,” in the Encyclopedia of Religion in America (CQ Press, 2010). He is currently revising a book manuscript on the early history of the Unity School of Christianity. In his spare time he enjoys bicycling, bird watching, craft beer, and barbeque.

Header Image: Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky, September 15, 1946 (National Archives and Records Administration ARC Identifier 541335). Photo by Russell Lee. In the Public Domain.