Cults, Chakras, and Crunchy Granola in the Classroom

This guest post is from Daniel Gorman Jr., a history Ph.D. candidate, an Andrew W. Mellon Digital Humanities Fellow, and president of the Graduate Student Association at the University of Rochester. 


When applications opened at my university for summer courses — courses that meet three hours per day, four days per week, for four weeks — I wanted to pitch a course that would genuinely engage students. I study U.S. religious history, so a course on New Age religions, highlighting well-publicized practices such as yoga and Scientology, seemed promising. The description I submitted to the registrar gave the course’s periodization as 1950 to the present, focusing on the new religious movements (NRMs) of the Cold War, the 1970s–90s “New Age,” and the computer age. My goal was to question the simplistic idea of the cult — coded as violent, brainwashed, and frivolous — that has circulated in the fifty years since the Manson Family murders. Instead of writing off these NRMs as “cults,” to be feared and ridiculed, we would sift through decades of pop culture and explore these movements as actual religions.

Once I started compiling the syllabus, though, I ran into a problem. If I started the course’s narrative in 1950, I would have plenty of NRMs to choose from. However, I would be dropping students into a discussion of American religions without context or theoretical discussion. Students would be lost without understanding the foundations of the “New Age,” or the Christian milieu against which many NRMs cast themselves as alternatives. The registrar listing didn’t change, but in practice my course’s subtitle should have been “New Religious Movements in America,” instead of “New Age Religions.”

To convey that “New Age” religions build on concerns that are nearly 200 years old, I assigned Leigh Eric Schmidt’s Restless Souls, which situates the beginning of personal spirituality (instead of organized religion) in nineteenth-century Transcendentalism. Restless Souls provided my course with its first major inflection point, the first meeting in 1838 of the Transcendental Club, which sparked Emerson and others’ pursuit of religious truth beyond denominational constraints. Schmidt outlines three forms of spirituality — personal religions in the Emerson/Thoreau vein, the pursuit of a universalist religion harmonizing all others, and conversion to a single, non-Western tradition. This framework helped my students to categorize the NRMs of the late 1800s and 1900s.

I did not find a good answer to how much of the standard U.S. religious survey to incorporate. I structured the course topically instead of chronologically, which worked well for zooming in on particular NRMs or themes, but not so well for situating NRMs within an integrated narrative of American religious life. On day one, I discussed different academic definitions of religion, comparing Bruce Lincoln, Catherine A. Albanese, and Jonathan Z. Smith’s definitions. Such theoretical language was new for my students, but they stuck with it admirably. After the break, I tried giving a big-picture lecture about American religious history, touching on key concepts and events such as African American religions, the Great Awakenings, metaphysics, and the arrival of non-Western religious practitioners in substantial numbers after the 1965 immigration reforms. This turned into an info dump: I was introducing too much information to my students at once. Perhaps this background approach would have worked in a regular semester course — devoting a week to the general arc of U.S. religious history — but it did not work in a one-day format. To help students think about connections between NRMs, I made frequent use of whiteboard charts and doodles, creating quick timelines and thematic charts.

Additionally, I tasked students with presenting on one of the homework readings each day and preparing notes about the reading that would go into a Google Doc. This assignment, which counted toward class participation, served two purposes. First, it ensured that students at least read some of the readings, since they had to present on their title.[1] Second, the ever-expanding Google Doc served as an interactive timeline, breaking up the contents of the readings like Lego blocks and snapping them into a new historical narrative of American NRMs. My students said the Google timeline was a helpful reference as they worked on their research papers. The drawback was that the Google Doc needed constant editing and reformatting, and that was only with a total of two students contributing to it.

With such long class sessions and relatively little time for students to do homework assignments, I decided to assign secondary sources for external reading and use primary sources as the basis for classroom discussions. The typical class session began with student discussions of the homework readings, with my comments and additions. After the break, students would have time to read primary sources on their own, after which we would reconvene to talk through the material. These periods of productive silence varied the class’s rhythm, so that students were not expected to talk constantly, Oxford tutorial style, with their instructor. The inclusion of AV material, such as NPR documentaries about Jonestown, historic interviews with homesteading pioneers Scott and Helen Nearing, and documentaries such as Going Clear, The Source Family, and Wild Wild Country, was essential.

Our syllabus integrated the perspectives of people of color, even though the stereotyped image of a hippie or NRM participant is a young, moderately affluent white person. Akasha Gloria Hull’s Soul Talk, simultaneously a scholarly text and a work of intersectional theology, provided substantial insight into the African American New Age. I also assigned material by Margarita Guillory on African American Spiritual churches, Kathryn Lofton on Oprah Winfrey, and Arthur H. Fauset’s foundational Black Gods of the Metropolis. Reflecting how the course pivoted from “New Age” toward “New Religions” broadly, we discussed the introduction of Hindusim and Buddhism to the U.S., and how both immigrants and natural-born citizens practiced various forms of these traditions. Philip Deslippe’s work on early Hindu “swamis” on the vaudeville circuit, Catherine Albanese’s overview of post-1965 immigration reforms and the arrival of Asian religions, and Mark Singleton’s study of early-twentieth-century Indian yoga (Yoga Body) provided global context for America’s increasing religious and ethnic diversity during the so-called “New Age.” While we discussed “plastic shamans” Carlos Casteneda and Don Miguel Ruiz, whose works dress up Western metaphysical ideas in Southwestern Native imagery, we did not tackle Latinx American curanderismo and its relationship to Latinx Christianity. If I teach this course again, I want to expand the content on Southwestern and indigenous NRMs, to counterbalance the more publicized influence of the “East” on American spirituality.

I incorporated guest speakers and ethnography into the course to help students appreciate that NRMs are living traditions, not simply topics discussed in books or see in documentaries. Our four guest speakers described their engagement with NRMs — a professor actively involved in interfaith activism and the universalist-leaning Parliament of the World’s Religions; a professor who studied Hinduism in India for years and become an expert on both Indian and U.S. yoga(s); the pagan chaplain from a neighboring college; and a local zendo director who described how Americans have helped to sustain the Zen Buddhist tradition. For one of their two major papers, my students also had to visit a new religious site, broadly defined, in the city and write an ethnography about their experiences. Interestingly, although our city is home to “New Age” facilities such as an Eckankar center and Wicca-friendly stores, my students opted to visit new religious sites in the sense of religions that, while centuries old, are relatively new to the U.S. Student 1 visited the local Hindu temple, while Student 2 visited a Tibetan Buddhist center to which mainly white suburbanites belong.

Above all, “Cults, Chakras, and Crunchy Granola” provided an opportunity to unpack the loaded, pejorative term cult. Much as Zeller observed with his students, my two students did not want to give up the use of cult entirely, feeling that the word should be reserved for corrupt or violent NRMs that inflict harm on followers. Nonetheless, as Zeller saw with his students, my students said at course’s end that they better appreciated the arbitrariness of deeming one group a cult and another a religion.[2] Even so, my students felt NRM was an imprecise term — what time period do we define as “new,” anyway? Cult was even part of my class title, and I was trying to get away from simplistic narratives.

In the end, the accelerated timeline was not ideal — neither my students nor I had much time to breathe — but the course still provided a lab for broadening the American religious survey.


[1] I drew inspiration from Benjamin Zeller’s use of peer-teaching case studies in his new religious movements course (“‘But Aren’t Cults Bad?’: Active Learning, Productive Chaos, and Teaching New Religious Movements,” Teaching Theology and Religion 18, No. 2 (Apr. 2015): 129.

[2] See Zeller, “But Aren’t Cults Bad?” 131.

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