Cults, more appropriately called “new religious movements” in sociology, have emerged since the 1950s in the United States (and elsewhere) and have gathered much media attention. Many of these faiths provide religious alternatives to mainstream Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Judaism and are popular with young adults. New religions, such as the Unification Church (“the Moonies”), Scientology, Hare Krishna, and the People’s Temple, garner negative press and public antipathy for three primary reasons.
First, many people—especially family members of these young adults—are concerned about the nature of their conversion. Have they freely decided to convert, or has the cult pressured them to join? Worse, has the cult brainwashed these new members, robbing them of free will? With little information forthcoming, from the faith or the convert, family members often perceive that brainwashing has occurred. It seems impossible that their beloved has freely chosen such an odd faith, so the group must have done something nefarious. If or when family members are able to question these new recruits, they cannot articulate their new faith’s theology clearly, and the family members’ worries grow.
But conversion theories would predict such a problem. Although there is some debate, much sociological research on conversion states that adults convert not for theological reasons but because they have developed social bonds with members. Individuals who convert often meet the new faith at an emotionally perilous moment, such as a romantic breakup, the first year away at college, and so on. The new religion tends to envelope the person with hospitality (pejoratively, this was known as “love bombing”) and praise for seeking the correct path to spiritual enlightenment. Conversely, as these affective bonds grow with the new faith, ties to family and friends not involved in the new religion weaken. Families often feel isolated from their loved ones once they convert and wonder how much of the isolation is ordered by the new religious movement to hide them away from those who might talk them out of the faith. When families reunite, questioning about the conversion is often the topic of conversation, and new converts feel interrogated by those who claim to love them. They respond by further reducing contact, which only increases their families’ suspicions.
The second reason that cults are perceived as worrisome is the range of behaviors members pursue after they have been converted. Caught up in the fervor of saving the world, practitioners of new religious movements often engage in constant recruitment. Even worse, at least one new religion (the Children of God, now known as The Family) encourages female members to use their sexuality to convert wealthy men, a practice known as “flirty fishing.” Fundraising is viewed suspiciously by outsiders, especially practices such as selling flowers in airports. After some members of The Family left the group and went to the press, nearly all complained about exhausting schedules, wherein they would rise before dawn and not return home until late. Questions were raised by family members and in the press about where all the money had gone; was it financing extravagant lifestyles of the charismatic leaders?
Other behaviors that are perceived by outsiders as odd are dietary practices, such as vegetarianism (Hare Krishna); the use of chemicals/drugs (the Love Israel family’s ritual use of toluene); the practice of spiritual counseling using E-meters to become “clear” (e.g., Scientology); unfamiliar clothing norms and trance possession (e.g., Bhagwan Shree Rasjneesh); the belief in extraterrestrial life (e.g., Heaven’s Gate), and so on.
Even more serious allegations have been raised about some new religious movements. Children who grew up in the Children of God told of horrific physical and sexual abuse in the boarding schools used by the group. While never proven, allegations of child sexual abuse were among the reasons the government used to justify its 1993 raid against the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. Female ex-members of many movements have given accounts of being asked to sexually service leaders, in part to demonstrate their religious commitment. Undoubtedly physical and sexual abuse occurred in the People’s Temple, led by Jim Jones, especially during its time in Guyana. Perhaps the best-known examples of new religious movements using violence are Aum Shinrikyo’s 1995 attack on the Japanese subway system and the 1978 People’s Temple assassination of a U.S. congressman, Leo Ryan, followed by the murder-suicide of the nearly 1,000 members.
The third reason that cults are perceived as worrisome concerns if and how members are able to leave: Are they free to simply walk away? Or must families hire experts, called deprogrammers, to help members leave? In part, the debate over leaving these new religious movements mirrors the conversion debate. Those who feel that cult members freely choose to belong tend to believe that they are free to leave. Those who feel that the group has nefariously done something to the convert to facilitate joining the cult, naturally assume that the person will need intervention to leave. Initially, deprogrammings were often forcibly accomplished, by kidnapping the member and taking him or her to an undisclosed location prepared for the intervention. The deprogrammer, assistants, and the family engaged in emotional dialogue with the believer, until the member chose to leave (adherents to the brainwashing hypothesis tend to use the phrase “snapped out of the cult” to express what happened during the deprogramming). After some members of various cults, who had been kidnapped but managed to escape, sued the deprogrammers and their families for kidnapping, a “gentler” form of deprogramming, called “rational evaluation,” emerged.
One of the many misconceptions about the emergence of these so-called cults is that this was a unique time in U.S. history and that they burst forth, primarily in the post-Vietnam War era, as young adults struggled in the changed sociopolitical landscape. This claim, notwithstanding its popularity, is false. A careful examination of religious history has shown that new religious movements have long been a part of U.S. history, as any student of the First and Second Great Awakenings knows. While many movements arose, only to die off, others evolved into established religions, such as the Church of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons).
- Dawson, Lorne, ed. 1998. Cults in Context: Readings in the Study of New Religious Movements. Toronto, ON: Canadian Scholars Press.
- Lofland, John and Rodney Stark. 1965. “Becoming a World Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective.” American Sociological Review 30(6):862-75.
- Wilson, Bryan, ed. 1999. New Religious Movements. New York: Routledge.
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