STEREOTYPING — The "Religious Nut"

(Investigator 144, 2012 May)

[The following was an assignment in 1997 in the TAFE College "Professional Writing" course for the subject "Australian Society". The assignment was to discuss a group that is stereotyped in Australia]


Stereotyping is attributing to a group or individual a few characteristics which identify it/him. The attributed characteristics is the stereotype.

One stereotype is that of the "religious nut" — someone who takes his religion too seriously in public, tends to confront others with it, stands out by not participating in popular Australian activities (e.g. gambling, drinks with the boys, football, the horses, attending strip clubs, etc), dampens others' fun by quoting the Bible, and may be considered a security risk in times of war.

The "religious nut" can be a particularly zealous person of a mainstream religion but is more often a "cult" member.


The convict beginning of modern Australian society made religion less influential than in Europe. Denominations transplanted were at first conventional ones Anglicans, Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Churches of Christ, Baptists.

Then came newer groups which stood out. Atypical conduct and doctrine produced the stereotype. There was the Salvation Army with military style uniforms and public singing; the Seventh Day Adventists with Saturday worship; Christadelphians insisting that Russia would invade Israel; the Jehovah's Witnesses who declared, "religion is of the devil"; the Mormons presenting the Book of Mormon as "the most correct of any book on earth"; and Pentecostals "speaking in tongues" and being "slain in the Spirit".

Around 1930 a Mrs Stephens from America introduced the "vomiting ministry" to the Assemblies of God in Adelaide. People brought paper bags to meetings to vomit into to expel demons. Although such are "religious nuts" it's the more-vocal who get stereotyped.

From 1919 to 1942 Jehovah's Witnesses (JWs) believed themselves to be announcing final notice of Armageddon — said to be only "months" away. On radio, in magazines and tracts, and with wind-up record players the government was criticized as Satanic and churches called "religious rackets". (See attached page of cartoons criticizing church ministers.)

When radio station 5KA (which was managed by JWs) got shut down and JWs publications banned in 1941 the rumor began that JWs were German spies. This together with neutrality in war gave the stereotype that "religious nuts" are traitors and a threat to democracy. The JWs, therefore, were seen as dangerous (more so than other "cults") and experienced greater prejudice including arrests.

For JWs and other small religions the stereotype is perpetuated when they make their differences as public as they legally can.

Australian values include democracy, freedom of speech, mateship, and informality. A rigid hierarchy-controlled cult where everyone repeats strange beliefs seems incompatible with common values. Ethnocentrism is to regard one's primary group as the centre of one's social world, as the best situation to be in, plus the tendency to avoid other groups. A "cult" with its "religious nuts" is ethnocentric — although mainstream society, in a broader sense, is ethnocentric also. When one group is tenacious in trying to convert the other there is a collision of values and hence conflict.


After World War Two the JWs became less provocative. The Melbourne Truth called them a "Ratbag Outfit" in 1957 and "Ratbags". (April 6, page 9) This still represented public opinion but since JWs had changed it was also prejudice — when an "in-group" negatively stereotypes an "out-group".

Needless deaths from rejecting blood transfusions and the anticipation of Armageddon for the 1970s maintained their "religious nuts" reputation.

Their numbers having increased, some public figures having joined up, and their attacks on other religions becoming low-key the JWs nowadays get reported in neutral terms as acceptable members of society. The Australian Women's Weekly had  The Irwin babies (1982, March 17) about quads with JW parents. The Macarthur Advertiser (1983, March 15) surrounded a report about the new JW headquarters near Sydney with congratulations from local businesses. A bomb blast in a Sydney Kingdom Hall in 1985 got much sympathetic publicity. (e.g. The Advertiser 1985, July 22; New Idea 1985, November 9). Australasian Post reported on a JW female "streaker" at a cricket match. (1986, July 14). Woman's Day reported on former Perfect Match hostess Debbie Newsome who had joined JWs. (1990, June 26; 1991, August 6; 1992, July 27), etc.


A similar trend of greater acceptability — of being seen as too religious but without being "religious nuts" — is occurring in other groups.

During the Chamberlain case people speculated about child sacrifice among Seventh Day Adventists. But since Lindy Chamberlain's release from prison one encounters little criticism of Adventists. Mormons too are occasionally seen on TV — currently even in a Channel 10 commercial. The Mormon president's appearance at Adelaide's Entertainment Centre got matter-of-fact attention like other news. Pastor Newsham of the Paradise Assembly of God is regularly interviewed on radio. The Salvation Army gets much media attention because of its charity work.

Partial assimilation has therefore occurred.

Growing acceptability of groups formerly called "cults" and "religious nuts" is due to increased familiarity with them, and to adjustments and changes in those groups, and to immigration and multiculturalism which has created large minorities of Muslims, Buddhists, Bahais and other Asian religions. Compared to these the Christian fringe no longer seems so strange.

Dictionary of Jehovah's Witnesses at: