Cults and Sects

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The most striking change in the organization of religion in the world in the last four hundred years has been the break-up of the monolithic Christian church into a diversity of sects. Another alteration in the society occurred with the formation of first cults. In this paper, we will discuss the major characteristics of sects, theological explanation of their origin and connection of the deprivation theory to their appearance. We will also describe three types of deprivation identified by Glock and accentuate on the three main differences between a sect and a church as well as between a cult and a sect.

Sects can be defined as religious organizations that arise in response to changes that they find repugnant either in churches or in broader society. Presumably, they restore true faith which was put aside by religious institutions too eager to compromise with society. Members of sects denominate themselves as preservers of religious tradition and believe that they cleanse the church of its secular associations. This religious organization emerged as a protest against liberal developments in mainstream churches, such as the acceptance of homosexuals, divorce or abortion. Sects are characterized by the fact that they are opposed to some basic societal institutions. Because of this reason, they are attractive to people who were left out or estranged from these institutions – the poor, the underprivileged, the handicapped, and the alienated. People who choose to become sectarians seek spiritual wealth but consider established churches to be excessively bureaucratic. They also ardently desire to feel belongingness and emotional commitment (Johnstone, 2007). Sects are characterized by voluntary membership, requirement of total commitment from members, emergence out of protest, rejection of the established view of reality, and offer of love and acceptance to members. They also presuppose exclusivity in the meaning that their members consider themselves to be the chosen ones, the elite of the society. Sects have rules that are to be observed by their members. The breach of sect’s regulations leads to expulsion. These organizations are also sources of self-identification for those who make them up. Sects have at their core a set of ideological values which give their rulers legitimacy in the eyes of the followers. The root of all sectarianism lies in alienation of some group from the inclusive society within which it has to carry out its life. It is a kind of a protest movement distinguished from other similar movements by basic fact that it experiences and expresses dissatisfaction and striving in religious terms. Hunger and humiliation are frequently identified as primary causes of alienation (Gill, 2012).

Generally, there exists a differentiation between the two types of deprivation, and both of them are causes of the deprived one’s receptivity to particular religious messages. Absolute deprivation is frequently linked to physical sufferings, starvation and poorness, while relative deprivation can be defined as the divergence between what an individual expects in life and what he actually gets. Glock points out five types of deprivation depending on the tension felt: economic, social, organismic, ethical, and psychic. Every type caused the appearance of certain religious groups’ types, namely healing movement, reform movement, sect, church or cult. According to a category into which it fell, Glock determined the future of a particular religious group. Generally speaking, religious movements emerge as sects when they are stimulated by economic deprivation, as churches where the deprivation is social, and as cults where it is psychic, meaning that it lacks personal sense of meaning (Denison et al., 1998).

If to compare a church and a sect, three major differences can be established between them. The church is the type of organization which seeks to dominate in the whole society. Therefore it is universal and desires to cover the entire life of humanity. It aims at including all members of the society and has a tendency to equate citizenship and membership. Sects, on the other hand, are small groups that seek inward perfection and aim at direct personal fellowship between members of each group. They are forced to organize themselves into small groups and to renounce the very idea of world domination. The second major difference between the church and the sect lies in the fact that the latter utilizes or even dominates the state and becomes integral and supportive part of the social order. Because of this, church is identified with the upper classes although its membership is made up of all classes. Sects are normally connected with those elements of society that are opposed to a state or at least are indifferent to it. In most cases, these are the lower classes and the peasantry. And the last difference between a church and a sect is linked to their internal organization. While in the case of sect it is charismatic, meaning that it must have a manipulative leader at its head, in case of church it is bureaucratic (Gill, 2012).

Cults are those sects that experience most tension within the broader society. They are characterized by the fact that their religions are independent from the religious traditions in which they function. They stand outside Judeo-Christian tradition and have different God or no God. Cults tend to arise in times of societal stress and change, when established religions do not seem adequate for explaining the upheavals that individuals experience. They urge members to alter their lives radically and withdraw from society altogether. Cults generally remain small and survive no more than a few years (Johnstone, 2007).

Sects and cults, frequently confused as being identical notions, have several important differences. In contrast to cults, sects partly reject the social world in which they live but still reflect the religious heritage of the surrounding society. Another major aspect of difference between the two organizations lies in the fact that cults can form without breaking off from another religious group, while sects are created only in this way. One more difference is connected to the fact that cults are not advocating a return to pure religion – they offer something new or something lost, or forgotten. Another difference between cults and sects is that the former are more likely to be led by charismatic leaders who invented their own religious doctrines (Johnstone, 2007).

To conclude with, church, cults and sects are social organizations that have many similarities and discrepancies at their core and from sociological perspective are connected to three types of deprivations: economic, social and psychic.

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