Dawson, who has an Hons. B.A. from Queen's University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. from McMaster University, is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Waterloo. He was Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at the university (2000-2006) and co-founder and second Director of the Lauier-Waterloo PhD in Religious Studies (2006-2009). From 2011-2015 he will be Chair of the Department of Sociology & Legal Studies at the University of Waterloo. He serves on the editorial board of Method and Theory in the Study of Religion, the journal of the North American Association for the Study of Religion, and served for six years on the editorial board of Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review, the journal of the Association for the Sociology of Religion. He is also on the editorial borards of the academic journals "Nova Religio" and "Fieldwork in the Study of Religion."
Dawson has published a large number of scholarly articles on new religious movements, along with books such as Cults in Context (editor, 1998), Comprehending Cults (1998; 2nd ed. 2006), Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader (2003, editor) and others (e.g., "Religion Online", edited with Douglas Cowan, 2004). Dawson expressed the view in 1998 that "In the late 1980s the activity of NRMs tapered off, and membership in the relatively well-established groups like Scientology, Krishna Consciousness, and the Unification Church has stabilized well below levels achieved in the early to mid-seventies", arguing that "fewer new religions are being formed now, and they are attracting fewer followers" – a view that has been contested by other more recent authors perceiving ongoing proliferation of such groups, although they acknowledge that these communities take different forms now to those that were common in the 1970s and 1980s.
Dawson's writings on brainwashing theories and the debates surrounding them were listed by scholars James A. Beckford and Nicholas Jay Demerath as recommended background reading on the topic in The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, along with those by David G. Bromley, James T. Richardson, Larry Shinn, Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins.
Dawson's research has also focused on the significance of new religious movements in present-day culture and the role the Internet, with sites such as YouTube, plays in contemporary religion, including religious conflict and hate propaganda: "The antireligion perspective has been around on the Internet since its beginning, though using YouTube to express such thoughts is new. To my mind, it is a very unique scheme. In a sense, it is a new twist on a long habit of trolling, baiting and flaming people online and purposely seeking to attract attention and stir up trouble. It is in line with the culture of the Internet and the bad-boy element of the Internet." Dawson has commented that the semi-anonymous nature of the Internet makes it a medium to voice feelings that would otherwise go unexpressed: "Suppressed, maybe even truly repressed, feelings may be expressed – from anger to love. People simply will say things they would not say otherwise. Rather virulent expressions of ridicule or hatred, for example, are commonly encountered on the Internet. So are statements that would probably be too embarrassing for most of us to say in other kinds of public forums. Ironically, under conditions of technical anonymity, the sociality of the Internet offers an unparalleled opportunity for greater self-disclosure and exploration."
His most recent research and publications have also focused on the nature of charismatic authority and its role in fomenting violence behaviour in some new religious movements, and how groups respond to the failure of prophecy. The research on why some new religious movements become violent has lead to work on the process of radicalization in cases of homegrown terrorism (e.g., "The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-Grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue," Terrorism and Political Violence 22, 2010: 1-21).
- Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, Wiley-Blackwell 2009, ISBN 9781405101813
- Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements, Oxford University Press 2006, ISBN 9780195420098
- Religion Online: Finding Faith on the Internet, Routledge 2004, ISBN 9780415970228 (with Douglas E. Cowan)
- Cults in Context: Readings in the Study of New Religious Movements, Transaction Publishers 1998, ISBN 9780765804785
- Reason, Freedom, and Religion: Closing the Gap between the Humanistic and Scientific Study of Religion, Volume 6 of Toronto Studies in Religion, P. Lang 1988, ISBN 9780820406008
Articles and book chapters (recent)
- “Clearing the Underbrush: Moving Beyond Festinger to a New Paradigm for the Study of Failed Prophecy,” in William Swatos and Diana Tumminia, eds., How Prophecy Lives. Leiden, Holland: Brill (forthcoming).
- “Leadership and the Impact of Failed Prophecy on New Religious Movements: The Case of the Church Universal and Triumphant,” in William Swatos and Diana Tumminia, eds., How Prophecy Lives. Leiden, Holland: Brill (forthcoming, with Bradley C. Whitsel).
- “Prophetic Failure and Millennial Movements,” in Catherine Wessinger, ed., Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
- “Charismatic Leadership in Millennialist Movements: Its Nature, Origins, and Development,” in Catherine Wessinger, ed., Oxford Handbook of Millennialism. New York: Oxford University Press (forthcoming).
- “The Study of New Religious Movements and the Radicalization of Home-grown Terrorists: Opening a Dialogue,” Terrorism and Political Violence Vol. 21, No. 1, 2010: 1-21.
- “Church-Sect-Cult: Constructing Typologies of Religious Groups,” Chapter 29 in Peter Clarke, ed., Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008: 525-544.
- “Is there a ‘Renaissance’ of Religion in Canada? A Critical Look at Bibby and Beyond.” Studies in Religion Vol. 37, No. 3-4, 2008: 389-415 (with Joel Thiessen).
- “The Scandal of the Lubavitch Rebbe: Messianism as a Response to Failed Prophecy.” Journal of Contemporary Religion. Vol. 23, No. 2, 2008: 163-180 (with Simon Dein).
- “Civil Religion in America and in Global Context,” in James Beckford and N. J. Demerath III, eds., Handbook of Sociology of Religion. London: Sage, 2007: 251-276; reprinted in Religion, State and Politics, The Open University of Israel, 2008 (with Marcela Cristi).
- “The Meaning and Significance of New Religious Movements,”in David G. Bromley, ed., Teaching About New Religious Movements. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007: 115-134.
- “Privatization, Globalization and Religious Innovation: Giddens’ Theory of Modernity and the Refutation of Secularization,” in James A. Beckford and John Walliss, eds., Theorising Religion: Classical and Contemporary Debates. London: Ashgate, 2006: 105-119.
- “Psychopathologies and the Attribution of Charisma: A Critical Introduction to the Psychology of Charisma and the Explanation of Violence in New Religious Movements.” Nova Religio Vol. 10, No. 2, 2006: 3-28.
- “Do Virtual Religious ‘Communities’ Exist? Clarifying the Issues,” in Gorän Larson, ed., Religious Communities on the Internet. Uppsala Swedish Science Press, 2006: 30-46.
- “New Religious Movements,” in Robert Segal, ed., Blackwell Companion to the Study of Religion. Oxford and Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006: 269-284.
- Method & Theory in the Study of Religion – Journal of the North American Association for the Study of Religion
- Editor's Report 2006–2007: Sociology of Religion: A Quarterly Review
- Yamane, David. "Giving Thanks to Peer Reviewers", Sociology of Religion 2007, 68:4 v-viii
- Beckford, James A.; Demerath, Nicholas Jay. The SAGE Handbook of the Sociology of Religion, SAGE 2007, p. 243, ISBN 9781412911955
- Bromley, David G.; Melton, J. Gordon. Cults, religion, and violence, Cambridge University Press 2002, p. ix, ISBN 9780521668989
- Mosteller, Rachel (2007-02-17). "Taking the Debate About God Online, and Battling It Out With Videos", New York Times. Retrieved 2010-06-17.
- Petricevic, Mirko (2004-07-24). "Internet boosts the speed of hate and magnifies its presence", The Record. Retrieved 2010-06-17.
- Lorne Dawson, "Researching Religion in Cyberspace: Issues and Strategies", in Religion on the Internet: Research Prospects and Promises, by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan (eds.), p. 34, quoted in: Wilson, Jeff. Mourning the Unborn Dead: a Buddhist Ritual Comes to America, Oxford University Press 2009, p. 231, ISBN 9780195371932