In 1974, while back at Michigan State University to take graduate courses for ongoing teacher certification, one of the classes I chose one semester was Social Psychology. It changed my perspective on many things forever.
The emphasis of this particular course was the Social Psychology of Social Movements. That’s a broad term—a social movement can be anything from Nazism to … Trekkie-ism.
And yet in some ways the underlying psychology of why and how people get swept up into being a dedicated, enthusiastic part of something bigger than themselves often is astonishingly similar, no matter the exact nature of that “something.”
And this is just as true when that “something” is a religious movement or group. What is it in the human psyche that allows a person to get caught up following and supporting a questionable religious teacher, and causes them to maintain an allegiance to the group formed around that person—even if their involvement ends up being harmful emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and sometimes even physically?
Since the mid-1970s, I have been fascinated by the history of religious movements from this perspective. Before the advent of the Internet, I read every book I could find in libraries or bookstores that discussed in particular teachers and groups throughout the centuries since Jesus walked the Earth that had proclaimed that “the End” was coming in their own time—and that becoming part of their group was the only sure protection from the Tribulation that was going to come on the Earth prior to that End. I also specialized in books about authoritarian groups that formed around one or a small group of leaders who proclaimed themselves to be God’s Main (or only) Spokesmen on Earth.
I gathered up a limited collection of such books. But when I first got on the Internet in 1996, my horizons expanded exponentially! The resources available for research on the Net were essentially unlimited. I added to my repertoire research on religious teachers who had concocted their own brand of “spiritual novelties” to attract followers—promises of health and wealth, dogmatic speculation on highly debatable Bible passages about prophecy, alleged “secrets of gaining God’s favor” supposedly lost since the first century, and much more.
Within a couple of years, my research became known in certain circles, and I began getting inquiries from online friends all over the world. People would be watching TV late at night, and wonder just who that guy was with the pompadour hairdo and the bombastic declarations that Your Miracle was just waiting to be claimed … if only you’d send his ministry a “seed of faith” donation. Or who was behind that program that insisted that The Great Tribulation would be starting next year, and you could know it for sure yourself if you’d just read their latest book with all the Prophetic Calculations laid out for you.
After a while, I found myself answering the same questions over and over. It dawned on me then that it would be convenient if I could just lay out much of the results of my research in easily searched ways on a website. Then when someone wanted information about a group or teacher or odd religious theory, I could just give them a link to the appropriate part of the website.
Thus was born the Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion. Since I put up the first version of the Field Guide on the Net, I’ve had over ¾ million visitors. I’ve corresponded with a number of researchers and journalists looking for information on various teachers and groups. The site has been mentioned in newspaper columns around the world as a source for info on prophetic theories. I’ve heard from people thanking me for helping them… or a loved one … escape from or avoid involvement in toxic religious groups. One time I had a pleasant email conversation with the former Senior Curator of Anthropology/Archaeology of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (in charge of the Dead Sea Scrolls and such). He wrote to thank me for my profile on the Field Guide exposing the phony tactics of someone he’d had to deal with himself.
I mention all this to announce the Grand Opening of the newly revised, revamped, remodeled, expanded, and updated version of the Field Guide. It has a whole new look, new navigation features, new sections, many new photographs, and more.
Harold Camping, who used to just warrant a few paragraphs on the site now has a whole page of his own, related to his spectacularly failed prediction of the Beginning of the End of the World that was supposed to happen on May 21, 2011.
There is a new page in the Religious Urban Legends section about the email recently making the rounds offering the astonishing discovery of proof of the biblical mention of “Giants in the Earth.”
The Who’s Who Digest of 125+ short overviews of movers and shakers in the world of religion has been updated with new information about some of the entries—some folks have died since the last update, others have been involved in new shenanigans—and with new entries of new gurus.
The Field Guide profile on the Worldwide Church of God has been expanded greatly with a new WCG Family Tree section. It has a series of four extensive pages, covering the Pre-History of the group going back to the 1800s, and moving forward through the splits, and splinters of splits, and splinters of splinters of splits… ad nauseum … of the group, going all the way forward to the latest splinter of a split (or is that a split of a splinter?… it’s all SO confusing!) in 2011.
The new drop-down menus should help navigate the site efficiently. But for those who prefer it, there is a Site Map that has the structure of the whole site laid out on one page, with clickable links to every section.
Plan to stop by soon and trek around the Wild World with me on the Field Guide to the Wild World of Religion website.