In my callow youth,1 I hung out a lot with members of NRMs.2 It was ethnographic research, and my actual experiences contradicted a lot of conventional wisdom about these groups.

Though a number of people were concerned that these folks with try to convert me, none of them (except the Jews for Jesus) even tried.

Others were concerned that the danger was not in explicit attempts at evangelization but in some form of insidious and subtle mind control.3 Looking at the actual membership numbers and group activities, I found myself asking instead, if these people are so good at mind control, why are their attrition rates so high?

I was also told by worried friends and family that these groups were basically all alike and dangerous to boot. In fact, I found that, as David Bromley and Anson Shupe pointed out in "Strange Gods," these groups were more different than alike. What was strangely similiar was the set of urban legends told about such a diverse collection of sectarian movements. Moreover, the weird tales told about them were strangely parallel to stories told by Protestants about Roman Catholics in the U.S. in the 19th century, which was a place and time when Catholics were considered pretty far out.

On the whole, I'd say that any random member of the population is more likely to be bitten by a rabid bat and die of rabies than come to any harm by joining a new religious movement.4

  1. I.e., graduate school, where I did a lot of coursework in sociology of religion.

  2. For example: Moonies, Jews for Jesus, Christian Fundamentalists, and Scientologists.

  3. My friends and family were particular concerned about my association with the Moonies, because everybody "knew" that Rev. Moon could turn you into a twinkie-eating idiot who worshiped him unconditionally. After spending some continuous time with the Moonies - even travelling with them out of the country, on two occasions - I came away with a deep admiration for the spirituality and dedication of the Unification Church members I knew well, but I never could get over my intense dislike of Sun Myung Moon himself, and of course I thought their theology was boring to the point of being laughable. If that was brainwashing, it was pretty feeble stuff.

  4. Of course, people do get bitten by bats and do die of rabies. Often, they are spelunkers who go into caves where bats live. No activity is 100% free of risk.