Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Dr. Douglas Cowan Interview Part 3: Conclusion

The conclusion of our three-part interview with Dr. Douglas Cowan of Renison College/University of Waterloo on the evangelical countercult movement.

MoreheadsMusings: How would you define propaganda?

Douglas Cowan: The definition that I developed then, and that I hold to now, is:

Propaganda is a systematic, ideologically driven, action-oriented manipulation and dissemination of information, which is intended for a specific target audience, and which is intended to intended to influence the beliefs and behaviour of that audience in manners consonant with the aims of the propagandist.

The particular value of this definition is that it does not rely on subjective characteristics such as “good” or “bad” propaganda, or that what “we” (the good guys) give out is “information” and what “they” (the bad guys) do is propaganda. My analysis is not dependent on whether or not one agrees with the information one is investigating. It also provides a more systematic way of looking at information and information management that is open to empirical investigation. For example, three of the most important components of this definition of propaganda are that it is systematic, that is, it not simply one pamphlet, one lecture, one whatever, but that the information can be tracked and investigated across a coherent body of data. Second, it is a manipulation of information. Some scholars have argued that all information is propaganda, but I disagree. I argue that there is an inherent manipulation in propagandistic discourse that shapes, moulds, and manages the information in ways that support the aims and intentions of the propagandists. To take a couple of simple examples, using the word “cult” to describe a religious movement when one knows the very negative connotations that word carries in our culture is a way of manipulating the information one disseminates. Or, simply inventing information about a group, lying about them, or, at best, only revealing partial truths. The third component that is important to note is that propaganda is not for everyone, it has a specific target audience. You could not use the vast majority of evangelical countercult material on adherents of new religions. The moment you call Mormons satanic, or say that all other religions than one’s own are from the Devil, you’ve pretty much stopped any reasonable chance at dialogue. In broad terms, the most successful propaganda is propaganda aimed at people who are most likely to be sympathetic to it already.

MoreheadsMusings: Evangelical readers who are not sociologists or trained in religious studies, may struggle to understand your argument. Are there any non-technical texts you could recommend for evangelicals to start with in grasping the sociological theories you draw on?

Douglas Cowan: Hmmm, that’s a tough one. Although it is a bit dated, one of the best is Peter Berger’s The Sacred Canopy. For a good introduction to the kind of propaganda analysis that I am talking about, though they take a slightly different approach, would be Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, The Manufacture of Consent, a very well-known study.

MoreheadsMusings: A member of the countercult movement might casually dismiss the thesis and resulting criticism of the countercult movement in your book, but what positive insights might be gained through critical self-reflection on your book’s ideas?

Douglas Cowan: While the critique that I offer might sting a bit, I do think there are benefits. For example, I alluded earlier to the ease with many countercult arguments can be defeated or dismantled. And I wasn’t exaggerating. It really is a simple matter. By paying attention to some of the criticisms I make in the book, perhaps countercult apologists might come up with arguments that are not so easy to challenge. Also, to go back to what I suggested is the real motivation behind an awful lot of countercult apologetics—reality maintenance for people who already believe they have the only true interpretation of this, that, or the other thing—then I’m not sure they’ll really get much out of this. They are more likely to ignore the critique—which is exactly what has happened. On the other hand, if there are people who are genuinely interested in dialogue with members of new religions, and, to be honest, I’ve met far fewer of those, then the kind of arguments they make could be modified by the critiques I offer. What is important to recognize about that, though, is that dialogue is not monologue, and in countercult discourse the two are often used as though they are synonymous. Real dialogue only occurs when there is (a) an exchange of ideas that occurs on an equal footing, and (b) equal potential for each partner in the dialogue to be changed by the process. This doesn’t mean that an evangelical Christian would convert to Mormonism, for example, though I suppose that’s a possibility. What it means is that the evangelical is as open to changing his or her mind about the LDS church as, hopefully, the Latter-day Saint is to changing perceptions of evangelicalism. There have been some significant and well-reported events of this kind recently, though those have tended to draw trenchant criticism from much of the countercult, so I guess I don’t hold out much hope.

MoreheadsMusings: To the best of your knowledge, have there been any substantial interactions with your thesis by members of the countercult movement?

Douglas Cowan: Only from the good folk at Sacred Tribes. Most others go on and on about how “somebody really needs to take Cowan on,” but to date no one has stepped up. Various people have been huffing and blowing for a couple of years now about writing an in-depth review or refutation, but I haven’t seen anything yet.

MoreheadsMusings: What have been some of the reactions from members of the countercult?

Douglas Cowan: As I pointed out, there has been some huffing and blowing that someone should sit down and really take me to task for what I’ve written. But, to date, no one really has. Mostly, with the exception of the odd mention on email lists, my work has been pretty much ignored by the countercult. One of the more absurd reactions was from a couple of the people I discuss briefly who thought that because they were mentioned in the book I ought to be sending them free copies. Fortunately, that level of response was fairly limited.

MoreheadsMusings: In 2002 you were invited to make a presentation to the annual conference of Evangelical Ministries to New Religions. You wrote a paper after this experience that you presented to the Center for Studies on New Religions. What are your current thoughts on this encounter with the countercult community, and have there been any continuing reactions to your presentation?

Douglas Cowan: What’s interesting about the 2002 EMNR conference is that, though many of the participants dismiss the importance of my work, the presentation I made there was still being talked about three years later. I would be surprised if very many other presentations have that kind of shelf life. I had though that the EMNR might organize an author-meets-critics roundtable for one of their conferences—something I suspect would be quite a draw. I understand, though, that that suggestion was soundly rejected. Too bad, I’d certainly be willing to do it.

MoreheadsMusings: Some of the countercult characterizations of your thesis we have heard include the notion that all apologetic activity is propaganda, and that you are advocating some form of epistemic relativism. Would you consider these accurate representations of your thesis? If not, what do such characterizations indicate about the countercult understanding of your thesis?

Douglas Cowan: I’ve heard that, too. Also that I’m “postmodern,” which, in a very soft way, I suppose that I am, in that I reject overarching metanarratives as adequate explanations for human history, society, and behaviour. In terms of “epistemic relativism,” I don’t know that I’m advocating anything so much as (a) pointing out that epistemologies are relative; if they weren’t, there would be a much narrower range of beliefs available and evident, even within Christianity. (b) Rather than advocating a particular position, I also calling attention to the logical shortcomings of the apologetic system that currently characterizes much of the evangelical countercult movement, and asking how often very intelligent people can hold to epistemological positions that are so patently tenuous.

In terms of what this indicates about their understanding of my thesis, I feel a bit like one of the religious groups they target. There has been very little attempt to understand what I’ve written, but no shortage of commentary that what I’ve written is wrong, ill-informed, and so forth. Perhaps if a more affordable paperback is released, more people will be able to interact with the material, and some substantial responses will be offered.

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