Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Dr. Douglas Cowan Interview: Part 2

Late last week I posted the first installment in a multi-part interview with Dr. Douglas Cowan. Following is the second installment.

MoreheadsMusings: Who is the primary or intended reading audience of your book?

Douglas Cowan: As a dissertation, a dissertation that was twice as long as the published book, by the way, Bearing False Witness? had a very specific purpose and a very limited audience. As a book, on the other hand, it was written primarily for academics in my field—sociologists of religion and religious studies scholars. And, it has been rather favourably reviewed in the American Journal of Sociology, which is nice. But, and this has been hard for some members of the countercult to understand, it was not written with them in mind as the audience. I have had to repeat over and over to many folks, “You are the group I wrote the book about; you’re not the group I wrote the book for.” When I presented some of the research at the 2002 EMNR conference, I found that a lot of people seemed to think that my task, or my goal, was to help them do their countercult work better—which is a fundamental misunderstanding of the work, and not a little characteristic of the ego-centricity of many countercult apologists. That is, if you don’t think like us, and we can’t use what you have, why should we care about what you think? A good example of this was when I wouldn’t disclose my religious beliefs at the conference. There was quite a bit of email traffic about this following the event, and my position was (and remains): if my criticisms have validity, then it shouldn’t matter what my personal religious beliefs are. If they have validity, and I obviously believe that they do, then you can’t use the fact that I’m not an evangelical Christian to dismiss them. I think that an awful lot of the countercult folks actually know this, they simply don’t want to admit it. While they’re very good at dishing out criticism, they’re very poor at receiving it. In fact, I would suggest that these are the two areas in which many members of the evangelical countercult show the least grace: the manner in which they exercise their witness to others, and the manner in which they respond to criticism of that witness.

Unfortunately, when BFW? came out, it came out in a very expensive edition, and I am contemplating a revised edition that would be much more affordable, and which would take into account changes in the countercult, such as the incarnational approach modeled by the folks at Sacred Tribes.

MoreheadsMusings: In your book you rely on a theory called “the sociology of knowledge.” Could you briefly explain the main premises of this view?

Douglas Cowan: Sure. A sociology of knowledge asks some fairly basic questions: how do we come to think the way we do about something? Why do we think particular ways and not others? And how do we keep thinking that way in the face of disconfirming evidence? It is not so much interested in “knowledge as objective Truth,” as it is in “what passes for ‘knowledge’,” to quote Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann, in a given culture. For example, on what basis do countercult apologists make the claims they do? How do they support their particular vision on the religious traditions they target? What happens when they’re proven wrong about something, or challenged in some very fundamental way about what it is they believe? How do they resolve the “cognitive dissonance” that represents?

Sociologies of knowledge are predicated on the concept of social construction. That is, all knowledge is constructed knowledge, it’s manufactured by communities using the raw materials and conceptual tools those communities have available to them. Obviously, one of the tools for the countercult is the Bible. But, more than that, their often very particular and idiosyncratic interpretation of the Bible. The argument runs that their interpretation is more accurate, more valid, more faithful, and therefore more correct than an interpretation offered by, say, a Jehovah’s Witness or a Oneness Pentecostal. That’s why one of the very common things one finds in countercult literature is the concern to demonstrate facility with the Bible, and the necessary superiority of one’s own interpretation—which is most often done through challenging the interpretations offered by others. What they lose sight of, of course, is that their interpretations are also just that—interpretations—and have no more prima facie validity than those offered by anyone else.

For example, a number of popular countercult authors have come to the conclusion that there cannot be life on any other of the unimaginable number of planets in the universe. Why? Because the Bible doesn’t say that there is, and to paraphrase one such apologist, one would think that God would include such an important detail in the Bible if it were true. Not to put too fine a point on it, this is logically absurd, and monumentally arrogant—and easy to demonstrate in both cases.

However, rather than simply countering the argument, a sociology of knowledge asks, “OK, how did you come to this conclusion, as opposed to another? What is it about your understanding of the Bible that leads you here? And how do you support that conclusion in the face of challenge and disconfirmation?” For example, the Bible says nothing about the Internet, but countercult apologists have wasted no time making good use of it.

What this kind of analysis led me to relatively quickly is that the vast majority of material resources produced by the countercult is not meant for adherents of alternative religions. It is not intended, really, to convert anyone. Rather, by and large, it is meant for evangelical Christians who already share the basic worldview of the countercult apologists, and who want to be confirmed and reinforced in their beliefs. They’re hymn books produced for the choir, not for those they would like to join the choir.

Now, this is not to say that nothing is ever produced for adherents of other religions, or that literature is not designed to assist evangelicals in their interactions with these folks. Of course, there is. But, for the most part, countercult apologetics is about reality maintenance, maintaining and reinforcing the security and the superiority of one’s own evangelical Christian worldview.

MoreheadsMusings: Is the sociology of knowledge generally accepted as a valid approach by sociologists of religion?

Douglas Cowan: Absolutely. And the great thing about it is that there is no community to which its theoretical principles or methodological approaches cannot be applied.

MoreheadsMusings: Why did you decide to apply the sociology of knowledge approach to your analysis of countercult apologetics?

Douglas Cowan: For me, the sociology of knowledge approach addresses the most interesting and significant questions about a group—not so much how and when a group develops, but why it develops when it does and why it evolves in the way that is does. Since I am also interested in the role of the “movement intellectual,” those who claim to speak with a certain measure of authority for different groups and the effect those movement intellectuals have, this allowed me to investigate the ways in which evangelical countercult propaganda has shaped and influenced Christian perceptions of new religious movements. Though I was a member of a very liberal Protestant church in Canada, remember my reaction to reading The God Makers—not that Decker and Hunt were propagandists who should not be believed if their tongues came notarized, but that the religious group they were describing were actually as described. The printed word, especially the word that is published and sold commercially, is an especially powerful tool in our society. The sociology of knowledge allows me to investigate the effects these words have, which is why I chose to concentrate on publicly available works, and then locate them in the analytical framework of propaganda theory

No comments: