Why are there cults?

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Until recently, cult was a respectable word describing religious practices; Catholicism has plenty of them. Around the 1960s the word was derailed to describe unfamiliar religious groups that recruit vulnerable people (young, old, marginalized) and use mind-control on them for nefarious purposes. Popular depictions include Jim Jones’ People’s Temple, which ended in mass suicide in 1978; David Koresh’s Branch Davidians, which fell to a hail of federal bullets in 1993; and Marshall Applewhite’s Heaven’s Gate UFO believers, also resulting in suicides in 1997. These groups became the poster children for the horrors of losing your family members to a cult.

Not all new religious movements (NRMS)—the technical designation for such groups—are dangerous and manipulative however. What we might ask is: Why do these groups arise at all? Several social factors have been identified that make NRMs probable: the breakdown of social constants, which leads to a crisis of meaning; the East-meets-West phenomenon on a shrinking globe; the rise of religious secularization, in which the lines between religion and ideology become fuzzy. Other reasons people join NRMs are because of inadequacies in mainstream religion, the depersonalized modern world, and honest curiosity.

NRMs aren’t the problem. That they reveal a 21st-century hunger for meaning, truth, wholeness, and values is a very hopeful thing. Successful NRMs supply charismatic leadership and an attractive counter-worldly critique and emphasize the need for a deep personal experience of the transcendent. Mainstream religions that can offer all that have nothing to fear. Consider the U.S. religious scene in the 1800s. In the same era that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormons) was galvanized by Joseph Smith and Brigham Young to offer Americans a new religious covenant, Christian Science headed by the personally persuasive Mary Baker Eddy was harvesting from the same barrel of citizens discontented with their congregations. In turn Catholicism was set on fire by evangelically minded priests like Isaac Hecker, the founder of the Paulist order—yet all three movements were viewed as “cult-like” by mainstream American Protestantism.

Also consider this: The same 1960s that ignited the NRMs inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. Is every new enthusiasm assigned “cult” status? The real difficulty with NRMs is that, absent time-honored structures and hidden from the public eye, they lack the checks and balances that work to keep mainstream religion honest—or force it to pay the piper when it’s not.

1 Corinthians 14; 1 Thessalonians 5:19-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-15; 2 Peter 3; 1 John 4:1-6

Introduction to the Study of Religion by Nancy C. Ring, Mary N. MacDonald, Kathleen S. Nash, and Fred Glennon (Orbis Books, 2012)
Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements, 2nd ed., by Lorne L. Dawson (Oxford University Press, 2006)

Reprinted with permission from PrepareTheWord.com. ©TrueQuest Communications.

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