Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1943-) Independent scholar affiliated with the Santa Barbara Centre for Humanistic Studies; B.A., government, Harvard University, 1965; Ph.D., sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1973. Subsequent teaching or research appointments at Queens College (CUNY), the New School for Social Research, Yale University, and the Graduate Theological Union.

As a sociologist of religion, Robbins has specialized in the study of new, marginal, and deviant religious movements. Over a several-decade period, he has been one of the leading contributors to the social scientific literature in this area. His early work was significantly informed by functionalism, and his later work by social constructionism and deviance theory. Three central themes run through Robbins's work on new religious groups: exploring the range and diversity of current religious expression, comparing historical episodes that parallel present developments, and analyzing the interaction of legal, policy, and cultural issues surrounding contemporary groups.

Throughout Robbins's career, he has attempted to capture and convey in his writing the extraordinary variety of forms in which contemporary religiosity is manifested. He has conceptualized this variety in terms of religious "innovation" and "experimentation" (Robbins and Bromley 1992). His concern for the relationship between the growth of culturally innovative spiritual movements and the evolution of American society at the end of the twentieth century is evident in In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (with Dick Anthony, Transaction 1981). The broadening of his interests is reflected in the second edition of this volume (Transaction 1990), which highlights the current surge of evangelical and fundamentalist Christianity as well as the changing and contested role of women in American religion. In other work, Robbins has explored comparisons between historical and contemporary events. Most notable are his studies of mass suicides among the Russian Old Believers as compared with those at Jonestown in 1979 (Robbins 1986) and a comparative analysis of current agitation against "cults" with early-nineteenth-century controversies over Catholics, Mormons, and Freemasons (Robbins and Anthony 1979). A further development in exploring the diversity of contemporary religious forms is Between the Sacred and the Secular: Research and Theory on Quasi-Religion (JAI 1994), coedited with Arthur L. Greil. In this volume, Robbins and Greil bring together a number of scholars who examine the increasingly ambiguous and contested "boundary" of religion and the consequent enhanced salience for the sociology of religion of the study of how "religious" designations are produced and negotiated in modern society. Robbins also has attempted to synthesize the large and rapidly growing literature on new religious movements. His most notable work of this kind is Cults, Converts and Charisma (Sage 1988), which is the most comprehensive integration of the sociological literature on the growth of new religions in North America and Europe for the two-decade period beginning in the late 1960s.

Beginning in the mid-1980s, Robbins became increasingly interested in the legal and church-state issues being raised by contemporary religious movements. In particular, he developed a corpus of work on the interface of legal and social science issues in controversies over the alleged use of "mind control" by religious and therapeutic "cults." Robbins initially pursued these interests by assembling interdisciplinary essays addressing a range of church-state issues in Cults, Culture and the Law (Scholars Press 1985, with William Shepherd and James McBride) and in Church-State Relations (Transaction 1987, with Roland Robertson). Following these books, Robbins produced a series of seminal articles on related issues, most notably "Law, Social Science and the 'Brainwashing' Exception to the First Amendment" (Anthony and Robbins 1992). In much of this work, Robbins collaborated with other scholars sharing his interests, including Dick Anthony, James Beckford, and David Bromley.

Robbins's concern with issues arising from the controversies and conflicts surrounding new movements sensitized him to the increasingly problematic quality of "objectivity" in the contemporary study of religion. As a result, he has explored the tendency of scholars to "become part of their data," which ultimately raises the question of "whether a value-neutral 'scientific' study of religion can remain viable in a period of religious tumult" (Robbins and Robertson 1991).

Robbins's most recent stream of work extends his interest in religious diversity to an analysis of apocalypticism. This line of work began with two book chapters in 1995: the first, "Sects and Violence," deals with the interaction of "exogenous" and "endogenous" factors in precipitating violent confrontations between religious officials and state authorities; the second, "Religious Totalism, Violence and Exemplary Dualism," employs insights from depth psychology to explore the volatility and the potential for violence in apocalyptic and millennial sects. His most recent project, Millennium, Messiahs and Mayhem (with Susan J. Palmer, Routledge 1997), brings together an array of scholars concerned with apocalypticism to explore various facets and manifestations of contemporary apocalyptic movements.

David G. Bromley


D. Anthony and T. Robbins, "Law, Social Science and the 'Brainwashing' Exception to the First Amendment," Behavioral Sciences and the Law 10(1992):5-30

D. Anthony and T. Robbins, "Religious Totalism, Violence, and Exemplary Dualism," in Terrorism and Political Violence 7(1995):10-50

T. Robbins, "Religious Mass Suicide Before Jonestown," Sociological Analysis 41(1986):1-20

T. Robbins and D. Anthony, "Cults, Brainwashing and Counter-Subversion," Annals 446(1979):78-90

T. Robbins and D. Anthony, "Sects and Violence," in Armageddon at Waco , ed. S. A. Wright (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995): 236-259

T. Robbins and D. Bromley, "Social Experimentation and the Significance of American New Religions," Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion , Vol. 4 (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1992): 1-29

T. Robbins and R. Robertson, "Studying Religion Today," Religion 21(1991):319-339.

David G. Bromley

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