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James R. Lewis

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James R. Lewis

James R. Lewis


James R. Lewis is Executive Director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Edication (AWARE)

He is known as a cult apologist who has worked on behalf of, among others, AUM Shinrikyo and The Family.

Aum Shinrikyo

Lewis accompanied Barry Fisher, of the American Bar Association's subcommittee on religious freedom, on his trip to Japan in defense of AUM Shinrikyo:

One of the Americans, James Lewis, told a hostile and evidently incredulous roomful of Japanese reporters gathered at an Aum office Monday that the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both murder cases. He said the Americans had determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum.

He was accompanied by two Santa Barbarans - J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions, and James R. Lewis, director of the Association of World Academics for Religious Education--and Thomas Banigan of Anver Bioscience Design Inc. in Sierra Madre.
Source: Alleged Persecution of Cult Investigated, Los Angeles Times

The trip was paid for by AUM Shinrikyo itself.

Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs, in a A Rejoinder To Melton, Shupe, And Lewis, write:

Returning to the larger question about compromised scholarship, SKEPTIC readers will want to know about another major incident (not involving The Family) in which Lewis' research and/or judgement was seriously flawed. in the introduction to his co-edited volume on Church Universal and Triumphant, Lewis prophetically stated, "[m]any scholars of stigmatized religions, myself included, have a secret fear that they will one day examine a controversial religious group, give it a clean bill of health, and later discover that they had defended the People's Temple, or worse" (in Lewis and Melton, 1994b,viii). His secret fear came true when he defended Aum Shinri Kyo.

Following Aum's March 20, 1995, Tokyo subway sarin gas attack (and another poison gas incident in 1994 that killed seven people), Lewis and three other Americans (including Melton) traveled to Japan on tickets that Aum had purchased for them. After spending three days interviewing Aum leaders and others, Lewis told a gathering of Japanese reporters that "the cult could not have produced the rare poison gas, sarin, used in both mass murder cases. Lewis said the American group determined this from photos and documents provided by Aum" (Reid, 1995, A8). Subsequently, observers around the world of the events following the Aum subway gassing gasped as investigators revealed information that contradicted the assessments offered by "prominent scholars in the specialty of new religious movements" such as Lewis and Melton.

Japanese Studies expert Ian Reader observed, "Melton had earlier made the comment that, when the media reports scandal stories about religious movements, the substance of such stories normally proves to be less than the extent of the allegations." As, however, information became available about the actions of Aum, "the evidence showed the actions of the movement to be greater than had originally been rumored." Reader concluded, "[a]s a result of all this, not only has the reputation and image of religion in general been damaged, but so has that of its scholars..." (Reader, 1995, 2). Lewis' advocacy on behalf of what he calls "persecuted religious minorities" has contributed to this damage because, in some instances, he has allowed his research to be compromised by the very groups that he is defending.
Clarifying Contentious Issues: A Rejoinder To Melton, Shupe, And Lewis, by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs. Skeptic Magazine, Vol. 7, No. 1 1999

Likewise, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi opened his paper, Dear Colleagues: Integrity and Suspicion in NRM Research - in which he addresses rampant academic compromise among scholars of New Religious Movements - by describing this event.

In early May 1995, as Japanese law-enforcement authorities were collecting evidence linking the Aum Shinrikyo NRM to the March 20 poison gas attack which killed 13 commuters, and preparing what they thought was a strong case, they discovered, to their utter surprise, that they were under attack from an unexpected direction. According to media reports, four Americans arrived in Tokyo to defend Aum Shinrikyo against charges of mass terrorism. Two of them were NRM scholars. According to these reports, they stated that Aum Shinrikyo could not have produced the gas used in the attack, and called on Japanese police not to ''crush a religion and deny freedom'' (Reid, 1995; Reader, 1995).

Reliable reports since 1995 have shown that Japanese authorities were actually not just overly cautious, but negligent and deferential, if not protective, regarding criminal activities by Aum, because of its status as an NRM. ''Some observers wonder what took the Japanese authorities so long to take decisive action. It seems apparent that enough serious concerns had been raised about various Aum activities to warrant a more serious police inquiry prior to the subway gas attack'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 321). The group can only be described as extremely violent and murderous. ''Thirty-three Aum followers are believed to have been killed between ...1988 and ...1995...Another twenty-one followers have been reported missing [and presumed dead]'' (Mullins, 1997, p. 320). Among non-members, there have been 24 murder victims. One triple murder case in 1989 and another poison gas attack in 1994 which killed seven have been committed by the group, as well as less serious crimes which the police was not too eager to investigate (Beit-Hallahmi, 1998; Haworth, 1995; Mullins, 1997). So it is safe to conclude that religious freedom was not the issue in this case. Nor is it likely, as some Aum apologists among NRM scholars have claimed, that this lethal record (77 deaths on numerous occasions over seven years) and other non-lethal criminal activities were the deeds of a few rogue leaders. Numerous individuals must have been involved in, and numerous others aware of, these activities.

Some NRM scholars have suggested that the trip to Japan, as reported in the media, caused the field an image problem (Reader, 1995). Let me make clear right away that my concern here is not with images, but with the reality of scholarship. I am afraid that in this case, as in many others, the reality may be actually worse than the image. How do we react to the Aum episode? Do we raise our eyebrows? Do we shrug our shoulders? Is it just an isolated case of bad judgment? Are we shocked by the alleged involvement of NRM researchers in this tragic story? Given the climate and culture of the NRM research community, and earlier demonstrations of support for NRMs in trouble, we are not completely surprised. Much of the discourse in NRM research over the past 20 years has been marked by a happy consensus on the question of the relations between NRMs and their social environment.

The Family

Like Melton, Lewis also helped The Family (formerly known as the ''Children of God'') in its public relations battle. Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs write:

At the same time that Lewis intervened in Kent's publication process in early March, 1993, he and various academics associated with his organization, the Association for World Academics for Religious Education (AWARE) were engaged in producing a publication to help The Family cultivate a positive public image. In January, 1993, Family representatives had contacted Lewis (as the Executive Director of AWARE) and another unnamed academic "seeking advice on how to combat the negative publicity and other attacks they felt certain would result from the group's bold new public stature" in the United States (Lewis and Melton, 1994b, vi). Already in other countries around the world, The Family had been trying to distance itself from its controversial sexual practices such as "flirty fishing" (religious prostitution), sexual sharing among members, and sexual abuse of children (Ward, 1995). The resultant collection of essays published by Lewis and J. Gordon Melton, entitled Sex, Slander, and Salvation, became a volume that The Family touted as proof of its legitimacy and the group has distributed copies to media in an attempt to gain favorable press. At least one academic, however, who reviewed the book saw it otherwise.
Alternative Religions And Their Academic Defenders, by Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs


AWARE, led by James R. Lewis, has become a contractor for operations that can no longer claim any semblance or resemblance to research. One symptomatic product of the post-Waco NRM consensus is the Lewis volume titled From The Ashes: Making Sense of Waco (1994a). It seems like a typical apologetic pamphlet, a collection of 47 statements, authored by 46 individuals and 3 groups. Of the 46 individuals, 34 are holders of a PhD degree, and 19 are recognized NRM scholars. One cannot claim that this collection of opinion-pieces is unrepresentative of the NRM research network; quite the contrary. Most of the top scholars are here. The most significant fact is the participation by so many recognized scholars in this propaganda effort. In addition to From The Ashes we now have Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective (Lewis and Melton 1994a), and Sex, Slander, and Salvation: Investigating the Children of God / The Family (Lewis and Melton 1994b). The last two are clearly made-to-order PR efforts (with a few scholarly papers which got in by honest mistakes on the part of both authors and editors). The Family and Church Universal and Triumphant were interested in academic character witnesses, and many NRM scholars were happy to oblige. Balch and Langdon (1996) provide an inside view of how AWARE operates by offering a report on the fieldwork, if such a term can be used, which led to the AWARE 1994 volume on CUT (Lewis and Melton 1994a). What is described is a travesty of research. It is much worse than anybody could imagine, a real sellout by recognized NRM scholars. Among the contributors to the Family volume we find Susan J. Palmer, James T. Richardson, David G. Bromley, Charlotte Hardman, Massimo Introvigne, Stuart A. Wright, and John A. Saliba. The whole NRM research network is involved, the names we have known over the past thirty years, individuals with well-deserved reputations lend their support to this propaganda effort. There must be some very good reasons (or explanations, at least) for this behavior. The PR documents produced for groups such as Church Universal and Triumphant or The Family are but extreme examples of the literature of apologetics which has dominated NRM research for many years.

Another aspect of these cases is that the reporting of financial arrangements is less than truthful. The fact that CUT financed the whole research expedition to Wyoming is not directly reported. We least that CUT provided only room and board, while AWARE covered all other costs (Lewis, 1994). The fact that The Family volume was financed by the group itself is never reported anywhere, although it is clear to the reader that the whole project was initiated by Family leaders (Lewis 1994c). The Family volume has been recognized for what it is: a propaganda effort, pure and simple, paid for by the group (Balch 1996).
Source: Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Collaborationism and Research Integrity, Part 1, Chapter 1 of Misunderstanding Cults (University of Toronto Press, 2001), p. 48,49

Intervention and Misrepresentation

In their paper, Alternative Religions And Their Academic Defenders, Kent and Krebs also point out the following:

Amidst The Family's public relations campaign, one of the authors of this article (Stephen Kent, along with a former student) received publication acceptance of a lengthy study on the psychosexual history of David Berg in the annual, peer-reviewed publication, Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion (RSSSR). Several months before the release of the book, the publisher (JAI Press) mailed announcements of the forthcoming volume to academics and libraries around the world. An unnamed researcher, probably in the United Kingdom, received the notice, and alerted The Family.

As Kent was checking his page proofs, the publication's editors informed him that an attorney representing The Family, a Family spokesperson, and an American researcher all had sent letters objecting to the publication of his article (which the objectors had not read). The lawyer and The Family representative made vague overtures about a lawsuit. The American researcher, Mr. James R. Lewis, alleged "questionable" aspects of Kent's research on Berg, and also accused him of "violat[ing] professional ethics" (in Mobilio, 1994, 17). Remarkably, after alleging ethical problems with Kent's study, Lewis misrepresented his own credentials by identifying himself as "James R. Lewis, Ph. D.," even though he never completed the doctorate at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Indeed, at least three controversial religions and a professional colleague though that Lewis had his doctorate (Church of Scientology International, [1994/1995?], [3], 67, 68; Church of Scientology International, 1995a [3], 33, 35; Cult Awareness Network, [1996/1997]; Royal Teton Ranch News, 1994, 8; Scott vs. Ross, et. al. 1995a, 134).

The intervention worked. JAI Press did not have liability insurance, and over the objections of the editors and the University of Alberta Vice-President for Research, the publisher (Herbert Johnson) withdrew the Berg article as well as another on Scientology that RSSSR had accepted. Kent's university refused Johnson's peculiar offer to publish both pieces if it "assume[d] all legal costs emanating from [Kent's] writings and the consequences thereof" against JAI Press [in Mobilio, 19994, 18; see Johnson, 1993, 1) The fact that Kent had passed several university ethics reviews involving his research on the Children of God (Bridger, 1995) did not sway the publisher's decision, nor was Johnson moved to change his mind after Lewis withdrew his objection. The article (Kent, 1994), eventually appeared in Cultic Studies Journal without incident.

On this and other issues see Alternative Religions And Their Academic Defenders, which includes a rebuttal by Lewis, answered in a rejoinder by Kent and Krebs.


Lewis was editor of Syzygy: Journal of Alternative Religion and Culture. It is no longer published, but an index of back issues is maintained on the web. The magazine's address and sponsonship information shows Lewis to be aligned with fellow cult apologists Massimo Introvigne and J. Gordon Melton - whose respective organizations, CESNUR and ISAR (Institute for the Study of American Religion), sponsored the journal.

The Washington Post, in an article dated June 2, 1993, said Lewis was a senior research associate at Melton's institute.

Not surprisingly, Lewis is listed as a "professional referral" by the Scientology-backed Cult Awareness Network


Non-Christian Alternative Religions And Their Academic Supporters By Stephen Kent and Theresa Krebs. Includes a rebuttal by Lewis, answered in a rejoinder by Kent and Krebs
Non-Christian The Farce Revealed : Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective A critical look at the AWARE study, ''Church Universal and Triumphant in Scholarly Perspective,'' which was edited by cult apologists James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton

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James R. Lewis
First posted: Aug. 3, 1998
Last Updated: Feb. 7, 2002
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