Language Appropriation in New Religious Movements: Identity, Conflict, Boundaries, and Pejorative Terms

  • Author / Creator
    Klippenstein, Kristian
  • As a broad classificatory category, new religious movements (NRMs) refers to groups as varied as they are unorthodox. As diverse emergent agents of restoration or change, the social transformations that their doctrines promote and behaviors achieve vary in both articulation and form. To cope with this diversity, one strand of popular and academic inquiry into NRMs stretching from 1960s anti-cult literature to the present utilizes a hermeneutic of meaninglessness. This widely deployable approach to reading new religious texts argues that NRM leaders (mis)use words in their efforts to befuddle and seduce potential converts – recruitment, rather than coherence, guides vocabulary choice in new religious doctrines. Promoters of this hermeneutic point to seemingly catachrestic deployments of familiar terms as evidence of NRMs as organizations that abuse and misuse language.
    While a widely applicable tool for examining new religious texts is valuable, the hermeneutic of meaninglessness fails both in its understanding of language and its depiction of NRMs as careless, incoherent language users. This thesis combines recent re-appraisals of religious studies theory with close readings of texts produced by Scientology, Peoples Temple, the Children of God, and the Jesus People to reject the hermeneutic of meaninglessness while providing an alternate analytical framework for approaching new religious texts. In particular, it identifies moments of pejorative language appropriation and adaptation in new religious texts as sites of identity and worldview construction, contestation and conflict with cultural interlocutors, and boundary maintenance. Rather than evidence of terminological paucity, language appropriation in new religious texts reveals persistent patterns for crafting communication strategies, fostering in-group fluency, and ascribing organizational functions to semantic change.
    To draw out language appropriation’s functional presence in new religious discourse, and to highlight the agonistic dimension of new religious language, this thesis adapts Tim Murphy’s language-based theory of religion, particularly his definition of religion as “the structuring of asymmetrical relations between real or imagined groups or classes.” It also conceptualizes new religious texts as examples of M. A. K. Halliday’s model of “anti-languages.” Combined with sociolinguistic research on language’s relation to identity, conflict, and boundaries as well as scholarship on pejorative/slurring speech, these theories form the basis for an illuminating examination of language choices in new religions.
    To demonstrate the organizational effects of fostering fluency and adapting vocabulary, the thesis first turns to L. Ron Hubbard’s writings on language in Dianetics and Scientology. It explores his conception of language change in relation to new religious discoveries, insistence on proper definition as a key aspect of effective group practice, and doctrinal/behavioral apparatus for promoting fluency amongst Scientologists. Moreover, the thesis explores his doctrine of “propaganda through the redefinition of words” as a conceptual analogue to the language appropriation and adaptation processes that takes place in other NRMs, discussing Hubbard’s adaptation of squirrel and psychiatry as examples.
    Peoples Temple’s audiotapes, the Children of God’s MO Letters, and the Jesus People’s Hollywood Free Paper, in turn, each present an opportunity to trace the appropriation of particular pejorative/slurring terms in individual NRMs. Guided by Halliday’s observation that anti-languages most often adapt vocabulary that relates to major organizational concerns, the thesis traces the borrowing and altering of nigger in Peoples Temple, whore/harlot/hooker in the Children of God, and freak in the Jesus People. These terms relate to doctrinal and practical interests in race, sex, and counterculture, respectively. Analyzing each group’s corpora reveals both the persistence of language appropriation as a discursive tactic and the organizational divergences in doctrine, practice, and demographic between each NRM. As such, a language appropriation-focused approach to new religious texts is a broadly applicable framework for studying new religions. It reveals patterns across organizations while highlighting distinctive elements, encourages textual analysis of denotative and connotative change without advocating for a particular term’s definition, and matches new religious examples to religious studies theory and sociolinguistic concepts. 

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2020
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Doctor of Philosophy
  • DOI
  • License
    Permission is hereby granted to the University of Alberta Libraries to reproduce single copies of this thesis and to lend or sell such copies for private, scholarly or scientific research purposes only. Where the thesis is converted to, or otherwise made available in digital form, the University of Alberta will advise potential users of the thesis of these terms. The author reserves all other publication and other rights in association with the copyright in the thesis and, except as herein before provided, neither the thesis nor any substantial portion thereof may be printed or otherwise reproduced in any material form whatsoever without the author's prior written permission.