This is a modified version of the machine-created transcript, edited by Susan Palmer. It removes some extraneous filler words, but should be regarded as definitive. Please cite this version, whenever possible. To report errors or concerns, email ippl@uned.edu. Why? Radio thanks Susan for her efforts in editing this.

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Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

0:02

Why? Philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota’s College of Arts and Sciences. Visit us online at why Radio show.org

Hi, I’m Jack Russell Weinstein, host of why philosophical discussions about everyday life. On today’s episode we’ll be talking with Susan Palmer, asking what the differences between a religion and a cult. Religions are weird and complex things. They’re mixtures of our deepest desires, our most unspoken fears and the artistic attempt to reconstruct the beautiful. The rituals that make intuitive sense to us are baffling to others what to wear and eat, who to love and challenge where to look and why to choose one thing over another. How do we explain these things to folks who just don’t get it? This is why unfamiliar religions seem so strange to us and why this foreign nest is exploited by theological competitors. In one of my all- time favorite books lies my teacher told me by James lowen, a former guest on the show by the way, he quotes a high school social studies textbook description of Native American religions to make this very point. These Native Americans, the book claims believe that nature was filled with spirits. Each form of life such as plants and animals had a spirit, Earth and air had spirits to people were never alone. They shared their lives with the spirits of nature, also kind of childish and unsophisticated. It feels so primitive, but then lo and asks us to consider what it would sound like if we described Christianity in the same way. He offers the following. These Americans believe that one great male God ruled the world. Sometimes they divided him into three parts, which they called the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost. They’d drink wine or grape juice, believing that they’re eating the son’s body and drinking his blood. If they believe strongly enough, they would live on forever after they died. All of a sudden, Christianity sounds pretty primitive. Religion is an insider’s game. The debates and controversies are for adherence and specialists, and only those versed in the nuances can hope to approach descriptive accuracy. But this leads to a further problem. backlight is rarely objective. Once you’re in you live and die with your own religion, you give it the benefit of the doubt you prioritize its agenda, you defend it from an outsider’s critiques. Just like no one really knows anything about anyone else’s marriage. No one really understands other people’s faith. The only way to truly get it is to be a part of it.

Now, don’t feel too bad for big religions. They can hold their own Islam Christianity, Buddhism, Hinduism, even the ever threatened Judaism can withstand the attack from the non believer. They’ve got some books that are thousands of years old and others written to defend the first ones. They’ve hired clergy and build places of worship and celebrate people whose sole job is to protect them from critique. They have histories, myths and money, paintings and statues, symphonies, poems, some even have armies. In short, they have their partisans, and some of them at their best moments might even have access to some small pieces of truth. Stranger things have happened. So the big religions are doing fine. But what about the small ones? The ones just starting to form, who survive on the scraps the other have left behind? What about a sect that was made up of 12 people whose book was written last year, whose partisans seemed to out there to garner our respect? Is it fair to suggest prima face that they have no access to any truths? Is it okay to reject in principle, their wisdom and ways of life? After all, the newest medicine is the most effective and the most recent moral lessons are also the most inclusive? How is it that really religious belief is the only place we reject progress?

We have a term for these new religions we call them cults. And we do so simply to wave them away. We take the most extreme the branch davidians, the moonies, the Manson family, and we use them as stand ins for the others. We accuse them of obscene violence as if the big religions do not have a history of unjust massacres. We charged them with superstition, as if their long-standing brethren aren’t themselves pretty bizarre. We even charged them with simply looking ridiculous, but that’s just not fair. Speaking for my own team, Judaism inspires some really awful haircuts. The world cult categorizes new religions as cartoon characters, and none of us would be surprised if somewhere there were a bunch of fanatics living in a pineapple under the sea.

On this episode, we’re going to ask about the difference between religion and cults and question whether this distinction makes sense. We’re going to look at what it means to study as an outsider and the ethical dilemmas that come from taking them seriously.

We’re going to question whether there can be objectivity in the study of religion and appreciate the aesthetic beauty of the new. But mostly, what we’ll do is offer other religions the generosity and empathy we usually reserved for our own. When James Lowen offered up these caricature ish descriptions of Native American religion and Christianity, he didn’t do so to challenge that legitimacy. He did it to condemn the writers who described them so lazy Lee religions lie at the core of the human experience. If we’re going to bother to talk about them, we should probably do so with a little respect.

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And now our guest, Susan J. Palmer is a researcher sociologist and writer in the area of new religious movements. She’s a member of the School of Religious Studies at McGill University and an Affiliate Professor and part time instructor at Concordia University. She’s the author of numerous books, most recently storming Zion Zion: Government Raids on Religions with co author Stuart Wright.  Susan, welcome to “Why?”.

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Susan Palmer

5:57

Oh, thank you, Jack. It’s great to be here.

Jack Weinstein

If you’d like to participate, share your favorite moments from the show and tag us on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. Our handle is at y radio show, you can always email us at ask y at UMD. edu and listen to our previous episodes for free at y Radio show.org. So, Susan, I’m just going to not waste any time and take the bull by the horns and ask you straight out. Is the word cult, a derogatory term?

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Susan Palmer

6:26

Well, the short answer is yes. It’s more than just a way to wave a group away as you said, it’s also sometimes an excuse to, to persecute, to assault – and sometimes to launch military raids. It’s quite a serious four letter word to use against the group of people. The word of course comes from the Latin cultus, which simply was sort of an agricultural term. Colere means to “cultivate”

The word “culture” is related to that word. And it was a pretty neutral word used by historians. You talk about the cult of the Virgin Mary or cargo cults in Melanesia. But then in the 1970s, mid 1970s the media started using it as meaning a fake religion. This leader is either crazy or a psychopath

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

7:30

Was something happening that inspired that shifted it did was it organic or or was there some sort of persecution or some obvious political intent that inspired them to do this?

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Susan Palmer

7:45

Well, first there was amazing proliferation of, you know, Asian religions that sprung up in America like the Hari Krishna and the Sufis and TM, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.

And the upper middle class parents were worried because they’re young kids were joining instead of going intobthe professions and university, and they had a lot of access to the media. So, these negative articles started coming out simply because I think parents were concerned about their children. They saw this as a way to throw away your life. But then in 1978, we had the tragedy of Jonestown in Ghana. And after that, the word cult became a very sinister word.

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Jack Russell Weinstein

8:41

You know, the Jonestown Massacre brings up the phrase drinking the Kool Aid, which now is used all the time, at least in America, and most people don’t know its origin.

When when you when you hear that, do you, does it make you bristle or are you just so used to that sort of – that it’s just another notch.

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Susan Palmer

9:03

No, no, I don’t bristle, it’s just become a kind of a cliche. I find that people use the word, cult. It’s kind of like, you know, when people bring up the Nazi Holocaust in a kind of offhand way in a conversation in order to win an argument. It sort of freezes the dialogue and nobody can say anything. I had a mother who called me and she was worried about her daughter in my class, who had decided she wanted to interview a Scientologist. And she said, “Oh, dear, is Scientology a cult?” And all she wanted me to say was yes or no. And of course, it’s more complicated. So, in the end, I just said, “Look, your daughter is not a budding Scientologist. She’s a budding journalist.”

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

9:55

There are some people who think that’s worse, but we have to get in the conversation.

I’m trying to figure out which thread to pull for. So I guess let me ask a more. Well, you are a sociologist by trade. And I guess the first question I want to ask is,

“Is looking at these sorts of things different as a sociologist? Actually, you know, I’ve changed my mind what I’m going to ask you and I’ll tell you in advance so you can think about it. Is looking is looking at this sort of thing as a sociologist different than looking as a philosopher or a theologian, but actually before then I realized, I want to ask, we shift from the term cult to new religious movements. That’s the term I understand you prefer. What does that term give us? That cult doesn’t give us? Why new religious movements?

SP

Susan Palmer

Well, scholars in the field like to call them new religious movements or NRM for short

because they’re new, they’re young religions whose leader has died recently you’re still living, whose founder, the charismatic prophet, is still around.

And their movements – they move. In other words, they change rapidly because they’re because they’re very young, like a baby, they transform quickly. They expand, they change rituals, experiment. Leaders are still making up the belief system because he or she is receiving revelations, so, you know, they change constantly and then suddenly, they’re a religion, so we take them seriously. We sociologists think they’re just as, quote “religious” as the Catholic Church or any other established religion, because people are seeking those kinds of answers to religious questions, which are: “What is the nature of reality?” “ What are we doing here?” “Is there a divine power over looking us?” and “What happens when we die?” These are the kind of questions the group is addressing. New religions (quote “cults”) –  they have answers to these questions, or at least they think they do.

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Jack Russell Weinstein

12:16

So this then leads to the question I was thinking of, because as a philosopher, my first instinct is to evaluate this by the truth of the religion and to say insofar as we do or don’t have access to it, no, your ethical system is wrong or your conception of what happens after life doesn’t make any sense. As a sociologist Can you bracket the truth claims and just look at the sociological aspects when you study these new religions?

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Susan Palmer

13:00

Yeah, “bracketing” is the word. We bracket. In other words, we don’t say, “Oh, you’re right. The extraterrestrials did come to Earth to found our civilizations. You know, I was studying the Raelien movement for 15 years, the biggest UFO religion in the world. So, I would do quite a lot of bracketing, which means you don’t sneer at them and you don’t say, “Oh, they’re wrong!” But you also don’t say, “Oh, maybe that’s true, how wonderful!” Of course, there are always moments when I think, what if this were true? I mean, I do like to think that I’m, you know, still open enough to the possibility of conversion, that it is still there. That I’m not too old and hardened by all my research. So, there are always moments when I think, ’I wonder?” But as you know, as a sociologist, you’re not there to assess their truth claims and you’re not there to, you know, agree or disagree…but when I write articles about them, I don’t like to sound too distant. I don’t like to say they claim that their leader was taken for a ride on a spaceship, I’ll just say, right? I’ll say this as if I believed it for a minute, but then I’ll sort of make clear that this is what they told me, because I don’t want to appear too partisan  or overly “scientific”, you know what I mean? I mean, they’re not specimens.

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Jack Russell Weinstein

14:22

What you have a marvelous piece that has been reproduced on Longreads, which I’ll link to on the website. And in it, you introduce the study of this and talk about some of your research assumptions, and then you tell some stories and you tell the stories with such good humor and affection. But that’s not what we think about when we think about religions we think about overly serious as clinical or threatening or passion. Can you take this seriously and still laugh? I understand there’s a difference between laughing and laughing with, but philosophers are not a good humored bunch. We are overly concerned with our own seriousness. Yet you bring a kind of levity to it. Is that a part of the humanization of it? Or is that your personality and do some people object to that?

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Susan Palmer

15:22

Well, it’s probably just a personal weakness. Like, I tend to want to burst out laughing sometimes when I’m watching some weird ritual, or I joke around with my colleagues about a group we just visited, you know, but on the other hand, I do respect them. I think I have a respect for this, this yearning to know the secrets of the universe, or the attempt to build a utopian society. I mean, they have very, very high ideals. And I really admire people who, who put their life on the line and really try to figure out the meaning of life, the secret of the universe and create the perfect society I find that, this just in itself, very impressive.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

16:09

How do they react when you approach them? Are they happy about being studied? Are they resentful? Do they use it a bit? What happens when you express an interest in them?

SP

Susan Palmer

16:23

Each group is different. I’ve learned from experience to avoid certain pitfalls. Like I don’t use the word “religion”, which some of them react badly to. And often, they assume I’m a journalist, and then I have to explain I’m a sociologist, but they think that’s just a superior kind of journalist. And it depends, some groups just tell me to buzz off, you know, get lost. And some groups say, “Oh, she doesn’t realize it, but she’s…she really needs our love and she’s a lost soul groping for the light, and we can help her and she’ll soon get over this ridiculous idea that she’s a researcher and a social scientist. So that’s actually very often the kind of terms on which I get access.

Jack Russell Weinstein

And if you exploit this, and this is a threat, I’ll pull later on in the show, but if you exploit this, is that a violation of your research ethics? If you say, Oh, yes, I’m in the dark, and I’d love to learn more about it as a way to get in. Is that another good thing? I’m studying or listening to this?

SP

Susan Palmer

17:34Yes, I can do that. Basically, I’m so desperate to get the data that I’ll almost do anything, you know – but of course, research boards today are very strict. But, I mean, part of me is seeking for the Truth – the truth to reality and existence and I am kind of hoping somebody can convert me.  

So I’m sort of open, I’m open to what they want to tell me and to, you know, to think about it and see if it applies to my life.

But, but mostly I’m thinking, “Hey, this, this will be great in my article or my book.”

Right! Because you are an academic first and foremost. Right. So it’s about the publication. I’m curious, something you said in passing, that some of the groups don’t like the term “religion” – why not?

SP

Susan Palmer

Well, they think of the sort of hide-bound, dead religions today that have a rigid priesthood who will be there at the hanging to give the prisoner absolution or something. So, they rejected orthodox religion, many of them, they dislike it. They don’t want to be told that they, they’re going to end up like the other groups.

You know, it’s funny once I was, I was studying this group, which is a communal group who believes the end of the world is imminent, and they suddenly decided they’re going to go burn all their leader’s letters, that they’re going to go dig them up and burn them. And I got very upset. I said, “You can’t do that! These are important historical records. And you see, I come from five generations of Mormons, and they keep all their documents, and they have so many stories. So I said, “Someday, you know, this will be very valuable, and your great, great, great grandchildren may want to read them and write your history. They looked at me and said, “Well, we don’t want to be like the Mormon Church. We don’t want to be a church.

They said, “we believe that God is coming very soon and there won’t be a church.” And so it was really interesting because I was very upset about them doing this. And basically, they’re saying, “We don’t care about the future. We don’t care about history. We don’t want to be respectable someday.”

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

20:00

There’s another word there this respectable mean, obviously. So what did this group think the term respectable means? I mean, obviously, the term is yours. But when these groups reject this orthodox, dodgy established religion, is it analogous to a teenager sort of rejecting the way of life of their parents? It doesn’t matter what that way of life is, there’s going to be rebellion, or is there some sort of thread of respectability of institutionalization of I don’t know establishment that runs through this group in particular butt groups in general

SP

Susan Palmer

20:45

now let’s hear for billing, it’s apparent is is a good one, because I see these groups as baby religions basically. Sounds like it, then they get to be teenage religions and they get kind of obnoxious and rebellious and complete and eventually

SP

Susan Palmer

21:00

They, they either are stomped out, or they split up, or they they turn into a sort of minority religion or, you know, church or sect. But they can’t this charismatic phase where they’re hearing the leader is hearing directly from God or the extraterrestrials. And the group is very, very emotional and passionate and changing rapidly. This can’t last. This is sort of like daffodils in the spring. So

SP

Susan Palmer

21:28

yeah, I think there is this rebellious thing and the need to, it’s probably the need to create their own identity, their own group identity. So, they have to reject the identity you know, that they had before or the, you know, mainstream culture in order to create this new budding culture.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

21:51

When we come back from the break, I want to ask you what religion is and if the term differs radically in the larger, more well- known religion, these small groups, I also want to follow up on something that you just said, which is that this charismatic stage can’t last and I want to talk a little bit about whether or not there are identifiable phases that you see in each of these new religious movements. But for the moment, you’re listening to Susan Palmer and jack Russell Weinstein, on why philosophical discussion but everyday life, we’ll be back right after this.

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22:41

The Institute for philosophy and public life bridges the gap between academic philosophy and the general public. Its mission is to cultivate discussion between philosophy professionals, and others who have an interest in the subject regardless of experience or credentials. visit us on the web at philosophy and public life.org

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Announcer

23:00

The Institute for philosophy and public life because there is no ivory tower.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

23:12

We’re back with five philosophical discussion could be live from your host jack Russell Weinstein. We’re talking with Susan Palmer about the difference between religions and cults and shifting to using the term new religious movements instead of cults. You know, I grew up in New York City I was born in 1969. So I grew up in the 70s in the 80s. And the Hari Krishna movement, which you mentioned earlier, was very familiar to me it was ever present it was present in the park it was president in the in the subway,

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

23:39

hearing their tambourines and their chants and seeing them in their

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

23:45

pastel colored robes. This is it was normal and I never ever thought of the them as anything other than this religion that was always there. And I always tell a story, that I am the only person in the world to

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Jack Russell Weinstein

24:00

Ever been hit by a Hari Krishna? And it? I was walking through Harvard Square and there was a Christian representative young guy who would always sort of try to get my attention and I would ignore him. And, and and so finally he cornered me and he talked to me for Bennett. He said, What do you do? And I said, Well, I’m a philosophy grad student, and he said, and then he bashed me on both on my chest with both hands that knocked me over and said, so you should be completely interested in this. And that’s the whole story. It’s not that long of a story. But that idea of the passion, overriding the pacifism of Hari Krishna has has always stuck with me. So I guess Susan, the question I want to ask you about this is

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

24:43

does is one of the keys to accepting these religions, just taking them for granted? And what I mean by that is, for me, the Hari Krishna has were just ever present. They were always there. There was nothing odd or abnormal about them. And so I just

treated them the way that you know they were religion, a small religion that I had no interest in

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Jack Russell Weinstein

25:06

This is one of the central themes in dealing with new religious movements, that they’re isolated and they’re unfamiliar and they’re strange. Is their segregated way of life self-detrimental, does it does it interfere with their goals?

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Susan Palmer

25:26

Well, there’s several questions there. I think, first of all, what’s important is to get information to understand the group. And there are several important institutes that that offer information on unconventional religions and new religions to the public, like INFORM in London in the UK or the World Religions and Spirituality website at University of West Virginia. People can phone in or go on their website – like any worried parent whose child has just joined some strange group can find out accurate and reliable information. So they don’t depend on the tabloid articles that say, “Hey! Tthis is another Jonestown.” I think it’s really important for people who want to know about the latest “cult” that came to town – to find out. Some of these groups actually have never been studied. They’re too new. There are so many, in fact, we can’t study all of them, but for many of them, there’s a couple at least a couple of articles by a grad student or somebody. And so people can find out, they could go and get the group’s literature and look at what they believe. And, of course, the groups are all very different. Some of them are, in fact, dangerous, or they practice fraud, or there has been a history of abuse or  crime in the group. Mind you, it’s pretty rare. I mean, most of them, in my experience, are quite harmless. It’s like when you’re in when you’re swimming, you may want to avoid a moray eel, but you can hang out with the other fish, you know. So, they’re all quite different. I think that’s important too, too, for people to understand, because journalists tend to think that once you apply the word “cult”, then you think of Jonestown or Aum Shinrikyo, or Waco – the groups which have had violent episodes. The idea is this group is going to blow up and people are going to get killed. But in fact, it’s ridiculous.

It’s actually very rare. If you if you look at the sheer number of them.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

27:35

Is there an estimate as to how many of these groups there are? And is there a sense? How big do they tend to be once they start getting noticed?

SP

Susan Palmer

27:47

Well, there have been different estimates. Now the problem is, where do you draw the line between a (quote” “cult” and a church? Because some of them might have a Reverend or a priest who broke away and started a new

ittle congregations. So we’re not quite sure yet if he’s still part of the Catholic church because he hasn’t been excommunicated, yet, you know, so they’re these borderline groups. And

then there are groups that come from India or another country. And then the Swami decides to set up shop for the local hippies. And then the group goes through these amazing transformations and actually transforms into an original new religion. So the question now is, “Are they a Hindu missionary movement in the West, are they a (quote) “cult”?  It’s often hard to separate them into categories. And then of course, they’re always little groups that are sprouting up that nobody’s noticed yet. And some of them just die a natural death or move to a new location. So it’s actually quite difficult counting them. In Quebec. There used to be a Center for Information on New Religions, and they estimated they were 800 in Quebec, which is where I live. I just wrote a book, by the way, a volume co-edited with Gareau and Martin called, The Mystical Geography of Quebec, and it’s about new religious movements in Quebec. In the States, we’ve had a lot of different estimates maybe 2000 or less.

SP

Jack Russell Weintein

29:25

So it’s hard to it’s hard to say. Really? Are some cultures more accepting or fertile, I should say for new religious movements, are you more likely to find them in Quebec in America than say, Italy or a place like that?

SP

Susan Palmer

29:45

The American sociologist, Rodney Stark has this term, “favorable ecology”. So, for example, a prophet has just had a vision and decides to come to Montreal and set up shop, there will be no problem. But if he goes to Iran or China… forget it! He’ll end up in jail. So, certainly some cultures are much more open, and hospitable. The other thing I want to say, though, is not all new religions are sectarian or communal. Personally, the ones that fascinate me are the ones that have the most unique cultures. They have different family patterns, unusual authority patterns, and so on. And they often have funny costumes. And these are groups that are waiting for the end of the world, that believe everyone should share everything in common. The leader is seen as divine. And these groups are fascinating to study because they’re so different. But there are many new religions that really aren’t that different than going to an office party. In other words, they have a different philosophy but people are not that involved. They might show up for an hour a week or just subscribe to the newsletter or something. But they use the techniques to improve their career or something. They are very different types of new religions and some of them don’t demand much commitment.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

31:36

If we narrow it down to the picture that lots of people have of these, the kind you were just describing, that have their own unique culture that are often communal that are really intense response to divine charismatic leaders. What does that do to the numbers? Does it cut the numbers down to 500 in the United States and 100? I mean, I understand these are estimates. But I guess part of what we’re trying to get at is we have such a dominant sense of this as being the picture of a cult. I’m curious how representative it actually is.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

32:00

New religious movements.

SP

Susan Palmer

32:02

You mean number of adherence or number of groups like that? Well, it’s kind of hard to say. And another variable is that some groups start off just as, say. a yoga class. And the leader is a swami or something. He’s just, you know, he’s a good yoga teacher. And then he suddenly has a vision and announces, “Oh, by the way, I’m a reincarnation of Krishna or Milarepa or some great Indian sage. And he says, “Oh, and by the way, I had a revelation end of the world is coming, so everybody has to wear white and give me all their money and move into a commune.” So you have a big change, but then it might suddenly change again when he dies. They might all go back to just being a Yoga Camp.  So you do find groups that go through dramatic phases and actually transform their social structure to a more ordinary way of life.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

33:17

You talked about the violent aspect and how people are concerned about that. But in passing, you’ve also mentioned this idea of giving all your money and subsuming your identity. And I’m curious about how legitimate those fears are and how often that is, because in the back of my head, I had a conversation with someone who’s a moderately observant conservative Jew, but who’s a recovering drug addict. And once he said to me, he was paying his annual dues. And once he said to me, he said, being a Jew is a lot more expensive than being a drug addict, right? So I mean, in the sense that religions aren’t expensive, that’s not unique to new religions. But at the same time, there is this fear of people being completely subsumed. And giving up all of their worldly possessions. And that’s the that’s the cultural myth that we tell. Is that common is that something that people ought to be afraid of? Or is that like being struck by lightning or being you know, eaten by an alligator or something, it really doesn’t happen very often.

Susan Palmer

35:00

Well, you find ex-members, people who’ve been in a group for 10 or 20 years, when they come out they’re very bitter that they sold a family home and gave all the money to the group, that they haven’t had any kind of work experience, they’re not going to get any kind of pension. So then they get angry about it. But then, on the other hand, if you look at the successful religions, like Christianity or the Mormon church, the early disciples basically gave away everything and worked full time for free. And you know, it succeeded. I mean, they, they built a new civilization. So if you have a spiritual vision, an idea of the future in your charismatic leader, well, of course, they would expect people to give everything – all their money and all their time and energy – to the common project. And their expectations are so wonderful that they feel this is certainly worth doing.

And for many of them, it works out, the group becomes successful. It becomes international, the disciples are promoted, they become local leaders. It becomes part of their way of life, theri culture. And for others, you know, the ex-members, it’s a disaster they feel they have ruined their life.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

35:44

I guess that’s not so different than the garage rock and roll band that wants to make it big right that if they use all their money to buy guitars and amps and drums, and then they spend a year or two years in a van, subsuming their entire life to touring and then they can’t get a record deal or or their first record flops and then they have to go a friend of mine who was in a very aspiring band that had a couple records ended up becoming a dentist right and so I guess it’s not that different right it’s just it’s just the commitment so so what is a religion and we were talking about the initial distance between culture and religion and we now have this idea that Well, okay, new religious movements or baby religions, they’re just starting out some will be successful some Well, what is a religion? Is it something that we can define

SP

Susan Palmer

I would say a religion is a group of people that have to be collective. And they have to have some kind of experience.  Actually. Ninian Smart has a good model I used in a court case, when I was an expert witness, supporting a Rastafarian. UPS was trying to fire him.

because he refused to shave off his dreadlocks in order to get a promotion. And so UPS was saying Rastafarianism not a real religion, and I said, well it is a religion because it has the six characteristics that Ninians Smart had on his list. And one is that you have an organization, a group of people who meet. One is you have an experience  – what people consider a spiritual experience (for the Rastafarians they get it by smoking ganja). And

they have a myth, an idea of how the world was began and so on, and what happens after you die. They have doctrines. They have values – how you should live, moral values.

You know, you can use this as criteria to decide if a group is a religion or not. And there’s a difference in the way different disciplines would look at the new religions. For example, sociologists tend to be tolerant toward new religions because they see them as fascinating little mini-cultures and societies that are fun to study. And Peter Berger, the great American sociologist said, “Reality is socially constructed_ – so we don’t say this is a real or unreal culture when we look at them, or it’s just as real as what’s real for middle class North Americans.

But the psychologists tend to look at the leader as being a psychopath or schizophrenia or narcissist. There have been a lot of articles written, say, on Rajneesh as a narcissist. And psychologists tend to take seriously the brainwashing theory, which is the idea that people only join “cults” because they’re kind of pressured and hypnotized and

 put through these techniques of mind control and so on. Whereas sociologists would tend to say that conversion is voluntary. And theologians tend to dislike new religions simply because they don’t share the same belief system, so they have kind of a faith-based approach.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

39:24Tthat really touches on a lot of this which is this question of freewill and of choice. We all know the language of programming and deprogramming that when it comes to

but at the same time, right now, we’re in a period in the United States where there are adherence of Donald Trump say, where no matter what he says, no matter how obviously false it is, they accept it as true. So are the I’m gonna ask you a question which is unfair because you’re a sociologist but re the sociologists taking this from the right perspective in the sense that the psychologists are wrong to treat this force this programming this brainwashing as any different than what’s happening in politics than what happens in sports, or the psychologist, right, that there’s something unique going on there psychologically with new religions or the sociologists, right in that, you know, this is just another form of a sub community with its own rules and people are as free as not free as their individual personalities allow.

SP

Susan Palmer

40:39

Of course, I would tend to side with this.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

40:45

Right. Well, that’s why I said it was unfair question, right.

But, but but you can, I mean, you can imagine, right and I’m a, you’re an academic, you can imagine the other side so so where, where the where the fault lines there where where do you think that sociologists have the weaker claim and where do you think they have the stronger claim?

SP

Susan Palmer

41:00

Psychologists look psychological theories and study the DSP textbook. And certainly, they’ve produced some interesting studies of charisma. Max Weber applied the Greek notion of “charisma” in his three types of domination. And that very much applies to new religious movements. There have been some interesting studies of charismatic leaders that argue some of them get used to living in a bubble since they have all these people around who suck up to them and are very sycophantic. They don’t get criticism, they don’t receive the kind of criticism most of us do when we do things that hurt other people or drift out of touch with reality, or we’re too greedy. And so some of them kind of go overboard, just because they live in this environment, where they’re not getting feedback, and that can lead to violence or abuse or danger or rebellion. So it’s kind of interesting. I mean, there is this kind of danger, I think in a charismatic group where the leader is in this very special position. And, in a sense, he or she is very alone. They’re usually very brilliant people who are very sensitive and creative. I see them kind of like creative artists, and they can get misled or go too far.

And then they can ruin all their work, because you have to have an enormous amount of talent to start a new religion. The media has the sense that you just have to be a con artist to start a new religion but I say you have to have personal charisma. You need enormous energy. You have to know how to handle people, impress people. You always have unforeseen obstacles coming at you. So I kind of admire some of these “cult leaders” and what they construct and how far they get – but some of them, crash because there’s certain pitfalls, I think, that come with charisma that they they’re not aware of and they can’t handle.

Jack Russell

Are these charismatic leaders? Or are they basically just religious entrepreneurs? Are they people who have an idea or have an experience that they’re trying to articulate to others and the difficulties of starting a new sect or culture or group or what have you are really just some sort of analog to starting a new business?

SP

Susan Palmer

Well,

Well, first of all, they’re all different, so I can’t really generalize, but the ones I’ve studied, who have had been successful in starting big international groups, they seem to have a very special talent I mean, there’s this term “religiously musical”, which means you respond to religion and in an aesthetic way. You love it or you enjoy it or it touches a chord, you know. And I’m one of those people; I just love religion. I love being around religious people, even if they’re total fanatics. You know, even if they have a gun collection, I still find them wonderful.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

44:32

I do have to interrupt for just a second because you are talking to a very significant American audience. And there’s nothing fanatical about a gun collection right in America. So so and and which is a little embarrassing, but that’s a whole other conversation. And so, I think that underscores this first part, which is a lot of the things that seem foreign to one person seemed perfectly commonplace to the other

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

45:00

But you actually in in your writing, you talk about the aesthetics of religion a lot and you talk about

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

45:09

the sort of experiencing as beautiful and this thing that you’re talking about now that religious. that religious musicality is that does that make people more susceptible to religion? Or does that just make people more appreciative of what they see before them independent of their belief or commitment or attachment to the, to the discussion or to the to the religion itself?

SP

Susan Palmer

45:40

Well, I think people see if people see a community where everybody appears to really love each other and care about the other and work for rge common good. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who’ve talked about what they were like before they met this group. For example, I met a woman who was had a very serious anorexia as a teen, and she probably would have died if she hadn’t met this group. And, people who had very abusive families or something. So the group offers often a vision of…this very beautiful community. And of course, every community has its problems. And once you get to know them, you might say, “Aah, I gotta get out of here!” And some of them do. But I think with these groups, there is something very special. I mean, they’re trying to realize some high ideals. And people are making sacrifices to try to realize these ideals together. And there’s something kind of inspiring about that. And of course, the rituals, some of the rituals, like the meditations or chanting, put people in an altered state of consciousness, and then they interpret… it makes them feel, that the Truth that the group is revealing must be really true because they’re feeling it. Of course, they might be feeling if they were just at a yoga class doing the same ritual with a bunch of, you know, businessmen. But yeah, I think that there is an emotional and, and aesthetic appeal that that makes people join

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

47:56

The vision that you just described of the woman who used it to find a kind of happiness and counter her anorexia. And of course, we all know people who were substance abusers who used religion to be sober. And you also mentioned leaving abusive families. When we find members of new religions who were sick and then healed, so to speak, or became more healthy by being a part of this loving community.

We react fairly negatively we react in the sense that that that somehow the religion has done something insidious, even though if we saw that in a different context, we would be incredibly celebratory. Is this just bigotry? Is this just a cultural gut reaction to anything good that happens in a new religion to an outsider has to be bad? Or is something else going on there?

SP

Susan Palmer

48:23

Well, I think you described that very well. I’ve certainly seen that pattern. I think the bad reaction against a new religion is – there’s this idea that the person who joined is rejecting our culture, they’re rejecting their parents, their parents’ idea of reality they’re rejecting our economic patterns. They’re rejecting what we think is important – our social values, like going to university and getting a great job. And so, it’s threatening, when you see people clearly rejecting what you think is important and true. It is threatening. And so it’s very tempting then to say, Oh, well, the person didn’t choose this. They were brainwashed.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

49:15

What do you say to somebody in the back of my head, there’s one particular voice, but, but I will, I won’t name the person because I don’t want to embarrass them, whose response to all of this is going to be? A pox on all of their houses. There’s nothing happening in new religions, that isn’t happening in the big established religions. And that’s because they’re all evil, and they’re all insidious, and they’re all taking advantage. And they’re all anti science, and they’re all X, Y, and Z. And we would all be better off if there was no religion at all.

SP

Susan Palmer

But on the other hand, mainstream religions are also seen as irrational and on the wrong track. So yeah, there is this idea that once everybody wakes up and becomes enlightened, we will embrace science and reason and sweep religion under the carpet. China of course has that idea, and many Americans have that idea too – secularization and all that. This is a very strong idea, actually, but it hasn’t come true. I mean, religions are still thriving and proliferating. Christianity is booming.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

50:45

What does the existence of the new religious movements provide to that argument, that the more established religions may not give what you know, the argument for religion, the

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

51:00

argument for not necessarily everyone has to become religious but but the argument for the value of religion in human culture and human life. Is there something that the newer religions, the baby religions,

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

51:12

contribute to that arc argument contribute to that defense? That may be the instance that the larger institutions don’t?

SP

Susan Palmer

51:20

SP

Susan Palmer

51:27

Yes, I think so. I mean, religion is supposed to give us that kind of support that society doesn’t give us. People get certain emotional and community support by going to church on Sunday. But mainstream religions are often hidebound. They’re unaware of the subtle changes in society. For example, the way gender has changed and the way the family structure has changed, the way the economy has changed, and they’re not really responding in a sensitive way to people’s needs, whereas often the little upstart religions

Appear to have the answers. That may sound really weird, but they seem to work with people and they are aware of problems that people have and offer them solutions that can’t be found yet in mainstream religions because often it takes a while. For example, the Unitarian Church tody, it’s very hospitable towards gay couples. And yet 50 years ago, every Christian church was basically hostile to gay sexuality. Some neo-pagan groups have even gone way beyond that, for there’s an elaborate kind of gay culture in some of the pagan groups.

And I was just reading about this group in Brazil. I think it’s called the Valley of the Dawn or something, where they offer healing and help to people and they’re responding to poverty in a really new way. And they perform healing rituals, available to people who’ve tried different, you know, medical treatments that didn’t work. So, I think, you know, new religions are kind of filling the gaps. I mean, they’re, they’re reaching up between the cracks, if you like, where mainstream religion are absent.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

53:29

So, so it’s more than just the new religious movements provide a sort of boutique religion as sort of a religion that pays more attention to this particular individual because the institutions aren’t so big. It’s also that the larger religions are missing pieces that are that are relevant to a new world. And the new religions maybe are more responsive to that is that is that

SP

Susan Palmer

53:55

For example in the 60s, you know, same California there was this counterculture were youth who were trying psychedelic drugs. And then most of them from there went on to become interested in Asian religions and ideas of reincarnation and, you know, learning how to induce altered states of consciousness through meditation, texting through others and just, you know, dropping acid or smoking weed or whatever. So, I mean that certainly the mainstream churches were insensitive to new social trends. But you find a lot of new religions who were very sensitive, like the Hare Krishna. In fact, when they moved into San Francisco had this big poster on their temple saying,”Stay high all the time on Krishna, no, bring downs. Here you find transcendental ecstasy.” So, these (quote) “cult leaders” were talking about these real things. There was also the sexual revolution, and the mainstream churches were looking aghast at people who didn’t get married first. But the Children of God had what they called “Happy hookers for Jesus,” – female missionaries. They had very liberal attitudes towards sexuality, which they somehow absorbed into their whole religious culture. So, it became part of the sacred way they lived. And I see new religions as forums of experimentation that are experimenting with things – issues – that are going on in society that the big religions haven’t yet learned how to cope with.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

55:46

I really liked that I really liked this idea that one way of looking at all this or as many laboratories or control groups for this variable or that variable, we’re going to

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

55:58

investigate what happened

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

56:00

If we center our spiritual life on UFOs, or on sexual life or on organic growing or on breathing techniques or things like this, how often

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

56:15

have the groups, the smaller groups been able to influence the bigger groups? You know, I mentioned entrepreneurial ism earlier and part of what happens in the modern marketplace today is you get a small startup, it’s incredibly successful. And then one of the big companies buys it up. Right? And so it gets absorbed and the new technology and the new ideas the new methods become absorbed. Is there any way that the bigger religions Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, did they ever learn the lessons and absorb these

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

56:56

new religious ideas? Or are they do they see them as

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

57:00

Such competitors that what they really want us to destroy them and not learn from them?

SP

Susan Palmer

57:05

You know, that’s a really interesting question. I haven’t really thought about that, um, I can’t really offhand think of an example of, you know, a big religion borrowing something and appropriating a ritual or, or doctrine or from a new religion.

SP

Susan Palmer

57:24

Certainly, you could look at the Waldorf schools, started by Rudolf Steiner, who would be considered, you know, a charismatic leader or whatever. And today they’re very successful and respectable and in fact, you know, schools for kids of the wealthy, the intelligentsia. And Steiner’s techniques and ideas that become mainstream, even though they’re still a bit strange. I think generally, the bigger religions tend to sneer at the baby religion. We argue in our book on new religions in Quebec, we gathered all the articles that had been written about new religions in Quebec since 1945 (in French of course). The majority were written by Catholic priests or Jesuits. And they were saying these groups are all wrong, because they don’t believe in Christian doctrine, so they must be on the wrong track. But then they go on to say, it’s very impressive how these cults managed to get youth so excited about their ideas and attract so many people. So, maybe we Catholics should study them just so we can find out how they do this. And then we can apply this in our youth program. Many of them actually end with a chapter on that. It’s really interesting.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

58:54

That’s very interesting. So is there are there stages or they’re identical, final stages that any new religion goes through

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

59:05

that then has a success that that becomes successful and long standing, or are the sort of lifespans as unique as the individual belief systems.

SP

Susan Palmer

59:19

That’s a tricky question. You know, usually it starts off with an individual having a mystical experience – hearing from a divine person or having a marvelous journey in which they have a vision. And then the person has the difficult job of communicating this in a language that other people can understand. And sometimes they convert their own family first, or their friends, or their girlfriend or wife. And then they reach out and gather more people and when they get a big enough body, then they have to sort of make institutions to keep the group together and make rules. And then society sometimes starts to notice them and says, it’s exactly like me going out in the garden and say there’s a weed, I gotta yank it out, spray the weed killer on it. They may get some kind of negative notice, like there’s an article in a newspaper or something. And then, local locals don’t like their children joining. So they’ll tell the police They’ll talk to the mayor or something. And then they have to navigate their relationship with the surrounding society. Also, they have to get goods from the surrounding society and give something back. They have to have some kind of industry or service they can offer and then they might expand and move to other countries, open missions and other countries and then the leader will have this problem of having some charismatic young priest threatening to do a schism or take over his charisma, so he as to figure out how to discipline him. But you can sort of see a core pattern,

SP

Jack Weinstein

1:01:15

Even in your account, the leadership sounds disproportionately male. Is this the case? Are there? Are there a lot of instances of female charismatic leaders? Or is this a role that just tends to be male historically?

SP

Susan Palmer

1:01:49

Well, no, actually, I, I’m probably using sexist language here. So excuse me, but certainly there are many. There are many female charismatic leaders. There are more males as far as I can tell. But there are certainly many female charismatic leaders.

And there are also couples who are equal who have a kind of, you know, folie a deux where they get together and share the vision and they work together and they’re like one person

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:02:01

That’s interesting. I never thought of sort of a couple leadership. But actually, we have a friend with a couple whose friends who at least tried to start their own church in their own house. And this fits the pattern, right? I don’t know. You know, that they just, they saw themselves as very religious, Christian, they’ve got a lot of kids, they moved out of town. And there was a period of time on social networks where they were talking about having their own church and leading the group. And I don’t think they thought of themselves as starting a new denomination or a new sect, although I’m not in their heads, and we’re not such intimate friends that they would tell me if they, they were, I think they saw themselves as just evangelicals and doing their job. And I can see how that could start and if they were successful, how that could end up following this pattern and then at some points

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:03:00

someone pointed to them and saying, Oh, look, they’re cult leaders instead of, oh, they’re evangelical Christians who have a church in their own house. Right? Yeah, start getting visions, original visions and change the, you know, change the belief system.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:03:15

Or she’s the Virgin Mary reincarnated. Well, that that’ll be hard with with with five biological kids, but I guess people have made stranger claims. If they, if they tell me this, I will let you know because I can’t think of anyone else who would be better to sort of hop in and see what’s going on. Susan.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:03:35

I want to wrap up, but I do want to ask, Is there anything that we haven’t talked about that maybe you as someone who studies and really has tremendous affection for? The new religious movements, the musicality of it also just the culture, the intellectual life of it.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:03:54

What haven’t we covered that you think is important for people to either understand or not be so afraid or just appreciate the existence of these groups that they might be resistant to? Is there something that you would conclude with that would sort of help all of us see what you see a little better?

SP

Susan Palmer

1:04:17

Well, I guess I’ll probably make myself unpopular by saying this, but I would recommend that young people go out and visit these groups, because that’s what I did in my teens and early 20s. I mean, what my friends and I did for fun was to go to (quote), “cult meetings”. Whenever a new Swami came to town, we would go listen to him. We tried out different meditation techniques. And I thought of it as fun, or weird and sometimes funny. And, you know, we all defined ourselves as spiritual seekers who were on the path and hoping to become enlightened someday. But nowadays, young people don’t do that. They just go out to bars or they go to a discotheque.

They play video games. And I think it’s really sad and boring, you know. I think they should go more religious gatherings and find out for themselves. Because I find, having taught courses on new religions for about 25 years, we students, you know, in the early days, we would get information by going to a vegetarian restaurant or a new age bookshop, and looking at posters. Now, my students all go into the internet and they, they go to the group’s website, or they go to anti cult websites where you find a stark contrast between what is being said, and another source tells you what’s going on. It’s much better to talk to someone who is in the group and to actually watch them doing their rituals, and then you get it a good sense of them It’s actually very entertaining and fun. I’m really surprised that most people don’t do this on the weekend.

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:06:00

It’s interesting because right we’re recording this during

JR

The pandemic and the first vision that comes to mind is their parents who will hear you say this you acknowledge that you might be unpopular saying this, and they’re going to be worried that their kids are contaminated by this and I don’t mean contaminated with the Coronavirus. I mean contaminated with this cult that it’ll spoil them that they’ll get their claws in them and that once they have their email address or their phone number, they’ll never leave them alone. But you know, you don’t see this as much of a threat or at least no more threatening than any other aspect of life, do you?

SP

Susan Palmer

Oh, no, I visited a lot of groups when I was in, you know, my Ph.D. studies. I didn’t join any of them, well maybe one or two for a few minutes. But they didn’t try that hard to convert me. Actually, there were exceptions. There was one group, Landmark it used to be called, that phoned me every evening for weeks. And my kids are going nuts because I supposed to be making supper and the phone would go off and cause delays and my kids would say, “Mom were hungry!” while I was listening to someone’s life store and thought it was really fascinating.

But it can be very annoying, there are groups that are quite clingy and bug you, but  think if you’re interested in, you know, religion, if you’re “religiously musical”, you know, you don’t have to go to a new religious meeting, you can go to a safe, you know, a Sufi center and participate in a Dhikr, sticker, or you could go to one of the, in Quebec, they have these wonderful kind of right wing Catholic groups that still perform  the old Mass.

I mean, they’re a lot of interesting groups now, to visit or, or you could go to a Brazilian Pentecostal church or a Chinese Pentecostal church they are quite extraordinary.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:08:00

I think that that is a really good and challenging idea. It’s harder. For our listeners who are in rural areas, it’s a little harder to find, but certainly they’re out there. And it’s super intriguing and opens the door to a whole lot of new experiences, which are learning experiences or entertainment experiences, even if they don’t lead to enlightenment. Susan, thank you so much for joining us on why this has been a tremendously interesting conversation. Thank you, jack. That was really entertaining. It’s lovely speaking to a hybrid, you know, academics is part journalists per academic. It makes it so interesting. Well, I will I will pick that description instead of the more negative words that people rely on sometimes. So thank you so much. You have been listening to Jack Russell Weinstein and Susan Palmer on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I’ll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.

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1:08:58

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Announcer

1:09:00

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JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:09:36

You’re back with wide philosophical discussions with everyday life. I’m your host jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Susan Palmer, about the distinction between cult and religions and how cults should be considered as new religious movements as baby religions rather than something unique, different and even dangerous. And I have to say, towards the end, I felt nothing more than life.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:10:00

a bigot. I feel like a really guilty father. When I was a kid in New York, my friend Munster, and I used to go to the Scientology center and take their tests. And we would explore some of these things a little bit for a laugh the way that Susan likes to do it. And when we’ve traveled, we have taken our daughter Edina, to various different religious ceremonies, she’s been very interested in that we took her to a Buddhist temple, we’ve taken to other places. And recently she’s wanted to go to the Scientology center, and do it, in fact, exactly what I did at her age. And I was really resistant to taking her and I don’t know why. And I think part of the reason for that was the sense that Scientology is a cult and Buddhism isn’t and Scientology is dangerous and annoying, and they’re gonna harass us and the Buddhists won’t. And I think that’s largely unfair. I mean, I understand the various stories we hear about Scientology and

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:11:00

Everything from john travolta and Will Smith to legal cases and things like that. So there is some rational basis to it. But really, ultimately, I have held on to this distinction, that there is a difference between a religion and a cult. And I don’t want my daughter exposed to cults. And that’s unfair, on the face of it, that simply bigotry. In the end, there may be new religious movements that are dangerous, and there are maybe places that she shouldn’t go or certainly shouldn’t go alone. But that’s true of every store of every nook and cranny in this world. And so for me, this conversation really helped me move my conception of what is worth exploring. I don’t know if I have a new categorization. I don’t know if I’m never going to use the word cult again. But I do have this sense from what Susan offered, that there’s stuff there. That’s worth experiencing. Learn.

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:12:00

about talking to and taking an interest in, and that it isn’t just on the face of it, crazies who are trying to steal all our money and get us involved in some drug induced destructive orgy that will end us some faceless drone and a UFO movement, right? That’s just not fair. One of the wonders of doing the show and one of the great joys of talking to specialists is that when the scholars are good, they can really explain to you what is so pleasurable about what they study. And I think Susan has done that today. She’s really showed me and I hope all of us that new religious movements are worth our attention, if for no other reason than to appreciate the musicality and the aesthetics of the wide range of human religious experience that’s worth spending some time on. And that’s worth thinking about. You’ve been listening to jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I hope that you

JR

Jack Russell Weinstein

1:13:00

Consider tweeting or sharing your favorite parts of the show and tagging us on social networks. We’d love to hear from you and we’d love to share what you share and make you a star like we are. But otherwise, thank you for joining us as always, it’s an honor to be with you.