Although I agree with Toby Lester ("Oh, Gods!," February Atlantic) that reports of the death of religion are greatly exaggerated, I am concerned about his dismissal of cult critics as ignorant and intolerant. He is turning a blind eye to the very real dangers of cults here and around the world.
Lester depends for his information on a particular group of "clubby" academics who purport to be experts on "new religious movements." They promote their careers by claiming that these movements are essentially benign, arguing that to question any religion violates fundamental human rights. Their willingness to ignore the dangers posed by destructive religious movements has real and negative consequences, contributing to a climate of unquestioning acceptance of any group that calls itself a religion.
Herbert L. Rosedale
Bonita Springs, Fla.
Toby Lester replies:
Herbert Rosedale has mischaracterized my article. I did not dismiss "cult critics" (his term, not mine) as either "ignorant" or "intolerant" (again, his terms). In fact, I deliberately avoided getting into the cult-anti-cult debate at all, because as far as I can tell, it inevitably boils down to unprovable judgments about what is true religion and what is not. Are some new religious movements less than savory? Of course, and we should watch out for them. But a major point I tried to make was that just about every new religious movement—including those that today have hundreds of millions of members—was initially dismissed as socially deviant. What interests me about the scholars of new religious movements is that they try to study what new movements are like, not whether the movements are socially acceptable.
According to Ron Rosenbaum ("Degrees of Evil," February Atlantic), to credit Osama bin Laden with a belief in the rightness of his actions is, in effect, to excuse him of committing anything worse than "a well-meaning religious mistake." Rosenbaum gets it backward. Bin Laden's fanatical belief in the rightness of his actions lies at the very heart of his wickedness, because it blinds him to the moral reality of his victims.