Life and work
Lewis was born in Leonardtown, Maryland, and raised in New Port Richey, Florida. In his youth, in the early and mid-seventies, he was a member of Yogi Bhajan's 3HO, a new religious movement combining the teachings of kundalini yoga and Sikhism. Feeling disenchanted with the organization, he formed a small and short-lived breakaway movement.
Lewis received his Ph.D. in Religious Studies from the University of Wales, Lampeter, in the United Kingdom, and pursued a career as a professional reference book writer in the 1990s. In 1992, he formed an academic association called AWARE, with the primary goal "to promote intellectual and religious freedom by educating the general public about existing religions and cultures, including, but not limited to, alternative religious groups." Describing its outlook as "scholarly and non-sectarian", AWARE stated that it sought to educate scholars and the general public about the persecution of religious and cultural minorities in the United States and abroad, and to assist the United States in its efforts to counter prejudice. Other scholars involved in the formulation of AWARE as an "anti-anti-cult organization" included Eileen Barker, David G. Bromley, and Jeffrey Hadden, who felt a need for an organization of academics prepared to appear as expert witnesses in court cases. AWARE proved controversial; critics complained that Lewis associated too closely with NRM members, and Lewis dissolved the body in December 1995 after concerns from members of its advisory board.
Some months prior, in May 1995, Lewis, fellow scholar Gordon Melton and religious freedom lawyer Barry Fisher had flown to Japan in the early stages of investigations into the sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway to voice their concern that police behaviour, including mass detentions without charge and the removal of practitioners' children from the group, might be infringing the civil rights of Aum Shinrikyo members. They had travelled to Japan at the invitation and expense of Aum Shinrikyo after they had contacted the group to express concern over developments, and met with officials over a period of three days. While not having been given access to the group's chemical laboratories, they held press conferences in Japan stating their belief, based on the documentation they had been given by the group, that the group did not have the ability to produce sarin and was being scapegoated. Lewis likened the group's treatment to a Japanese Waco. The scholars' defense of Aum Shinrikyo led to a crisis of confidence in religious scholarship when the group turned out to have been responsible for the attack after all.
Lewis edits a series on Contemporary Religions for Brill, and co-edits a series on Controversial New Religions for Ashgate. He is a co-founder of the International Society for the Study of New Religions and editor-in-chief of the Alternative Spirituality & Religion Review (ASSR). He has taught in the University of Wisconsin system and, on an adjunct basis, at DePaul University, and is currently Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Tromsø and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Wales, Lampeter.
A prolific author, Lewis won a Choice Outstanding Academic Title award for Cults in America in 1999. The Choice review described it as a "very readable book" that offered a "balanced overview of controversies centering on cults in America", containing basic information on several dozen groups, as well as the more general conflict between "anti-cultists" seeking government assistance to eliminate cults, and religious "libertarians" defending religious liberty even for disliked groups. The review stated that while Lewis differed with the anti-cult view, he presented "arguments and references from both sides – respectfully and in language free from insinuation or invective. Strongly recommended". Lewis won another Choice Outstanding Academic Title award in 2005, for The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. He has also won New York Public Library and American Library Association awards for his reference books.
The work of AWARE in the 1990s was criticized by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, who alleged that Lewis was disseminating movement "propaganda", and used poor research methods. This echoed earlier criticisms in a Skeptic article by Stephen A. Kent and Theresa Krebs, who felt that materials produced by Lewis and J. Gordon Melton on the Church Universal and Triumphant and The Family were "as much an apology as a social scientific product". Anson Shupe and Susan E. Darnell in turn characterised Kent's and Krebs' paper as an ad-hominem attack, and part of a pattern of accusing scholars of bias when their field research produced findings at variance with anti-cult stereotypes. J. Gordon Melton defended the work done by Lewis and himself, stating that far from being a public relations exercise, the AWARE report on the Church Universal and Triumphant had "startled and upset" the group's leadership, and led to wide-ranging changes in the organization. Jeffrey Kaplan stated that the aims of AWARE had been "laudable", but that the risks involved for academics in joining the "cult wars", as well as the organization's apparently unsuccessful appeals for funding from new religious movements, led to controversy.
Sex, Slander, and Salvation was co-edited by Lewis.
- James R. Lewis (2010). "Autobiography of a Schism" (PDF). Marburg Journal of Religion. 15.
- Thomas Robbins; Benjamin David Zablocki (1 December 2001). Misunderstanding cults: searching for objectivity in a controversial field. University of Toronto Press. pp. 47–48. ISBN 978-0-8020-8188-9. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- Jeffrey Kaplan (1997). Radical religion in America: millenarian movements from the far right to the children of Noah. Syracuse University Press. pp. 139–140, 208. ISBN 978-0-8156-0396-2. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- "Tokyo Cult Finds an Unlikely Supporter", The Washington Post, T.R. Reid, May 1995.
- Ian Reader, "Scholarship, Aum Shinrikyo, and Academic Integrity" Archived 2011-10-05 at the Wayback Machine., Nova Religio 3, no. 2 (April 2000): 368-82.
- Apologetics Index, Aum Shinrikyo, Aum Supreme Truth; Aum Shinri Kyo; Aleph, 2005
- "Lewis, James R". ebooks.com.
- James R. Lewis « Observatoire Européen des religions et de la laïcité
- "Alternative Spirituality & Religion Review: Editorial board". Archived from the original on 2011-01-15.
- Rebecca Ann Bartlett (July 2003). Choice's outstanding academic titles, 1998-2002: reviews of scholarly titles that every library should own. Assoc of College & Resrch Libraries. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-8389-8232-7. Retrieved 24 August 2011.
- "The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements. Edited by James R. Lewis". Oxford University Press.
- "Violence and New Religious Movements. Edited by James R. Lewis". Oxford University Press.
- Kent, Stephen A.; Krebs, Theresa (1999). "When Scholars Know Sin: Alternative Religions and Their Academic Supporters". Skeptic. 6 (3): 36–44. Retrieved 2011-08-25.
- Shupe, Anson; Darnell, Susan E. (2006). Agents of Discord. New Brunswick (U.S.A.), London (U.K.): Transaction Publishers. pp. 135, 158. ISBN 0-7658-0323-2.
- Kelton, J. Gordon (1999). "Mea Culpa! Mea Culpa!". Skeptic. 7 (1): 14–17. Retrieved 2011-08-25.