A UC Santa Barbara researcher has found a lot of different people who have found a lot of different gods, be it God, Allah, Buddha or Ramtha, a 35,000-year-old spirit warrior from Atlantis that J.Z. Knight of Tacoma, Washington claims to be inhabited by.
Published last December, J. Gordon Melton’s seventh edition of the Encyclopedia of American Religion documents the existence of over 2,000 religious groups throughout the world. Melton is the director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion, located in Santa Barbara, and adjunct research specialist at UCSB’s Dept. of Religious Studies. The most recent version of his book also contains documentation on several hundred currently defunct cults and religious groups.
Melton said he began his research on religions and cults of the world during the mid 1960s. The first two books he published listed a total of only 400 groups.
By the time he was in graduate school at Northwestern, Melton said he was able to double his previous list with new groups he had learned about. While attending the school, Melton began hanging around with counterculture-type people who invited him to attend their ritual practices. He said it was easy to dedicate himself to the study of the groups.
“Nobody else was doing it, so I decided that it was something I was going to do,” Melton said. “From then on, it became my life work.”
Melton also studies secret cults but tries not to betray their trust when writing about them.
“Most of the secret groups are not secret,” Melton said. “They want to establish contact. You just need to learn how to contact them. Nowadays it’s a lot easier due to the Internet.”
Not only a student of religion, Melton is a participant as an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church in Illinois. He has an office at the University United Methodist Church in Isla Vista, where he occasionally preaches.
Although he is an evangelical Christian, he said his views are objective when exploring other groups. Melton said he believes in religious freedom, but has never found any other religious group that was able to convince him enough to change his Methodist beliefs.
“When I write my books, I try not to report my own feelings,” Melton said. “That’s the best way. Just keep it to the facts.”
Melton said he is fairly conservative religiously and theologically, but not socially. He said everyone should be respected for their individual religious backgrounds.
“As a religious scholar, my hope is that people will learn to honor other peoples’ traditions and values and live together without throwing rocks at each other,” Melton said. “Part of the rationale for doing this book is that any group is a minority religion, a small part of the whole. We need to learn to respect other people and honor their practices.”
Melton said many Christians, secular apologists and countercult professionals disagree with his work and often attack him.
The Christian website “Apologetics Index” calls Melton a “cult apologist,” and says many cults use his works “in their crusade against the anticult and countercult movements.”
Melton does not consider himself to be a controversial figure, but acknowledges that he has been involved in controversial topics. He specifically mentioned the misconception that cults were brainwashing people, an idea that originally tainted the public image of cults in the 1970s.
Another myth about cults is that they often commit mass suicide. Melton said there have actually been only three such incidents, with the mass suicide of 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult in San Diego in March 1997 being the most recent.
Beginning in the late 1960s, most social scientists stopped using the world “cult” in favor of the term “new religion.”
Melton is also known for defending cults such as the Aum Shinrikyo group. He was the first to write about the Aum before the group was connected with a sarin nerve gas attack on a Japanese subway station in 1995. After interviewing members of the cult, Melton and his colleagues believed that if the group committed the attack, they did it at the urging of their leaders rather than for religious reasons.
Melton said he has written around 35 books and built a collection of nearly 50,000 volumes and 25 filing cabinets’ worth of materials that he has collected during his studies. Melton brought all of his materials with him to UCSB, and they are stored in the special collections office, located on the third floor of Davidson Library, where they may be viewed by students.
He said he continues to travel and discover more religious groups, though each group reacts differently to his curiosity.
“A few cults don’t want anyone to write about them, but most of them want to be revealed. Some groups can care less,” Melton said.
Melton will be teaching a class called “New Religions” at UCSB this summer.