In a discussion of religion, the major world religions including Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism come to mind. This is understandable since these religions have been in existence for thousands of years. However other alternative religions, cults and sects continue to emerge. Sometimes we see new religious movements, such as Theosophy or Qigong. Other times, religions change because of cultural change or the movement to a new location. Religious hybrids, such as Christian Science and Mormonism that are modern interpretations of Christianity, result in new religions. There is also those religions that emerge unrelated to major religions, such as Scientology.
New Religious Movements
Whenever a new religious movement begins to gain its footing, there is often backlash from major religions. As a result, new religions are often given negative associations with categorizations that include sect and cult. These words do not have negative connotations in their original meanings, but when used to describe new religious movements, most people automatically conjure up ideas of total control and destructive behavior.
Of course, some new religious movements, sects and cults have had devastating results for members including:
- Jim Jones and The People’s Temple and their mass suicide in Guyana
- Heaven’s Gate, a UFO religious group in which 38 members committed suicide so to be transported to a space ship hiding behind Comet Hale-Bopp
- David Koresh and the Christian sect of the Branch Davidians that was under siege following an ATF raid
- The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints aka Mormon Fundamentalists, a polygamist sect whose leader Warren Jeffs was convicted of two felony counts of child sexual assault
Other new religious movements that do not have such a negative association include:
- Jehovah’s Witnesses
- Christian Science
- Nation of Islam
- Unarius Academy of Science
A Sociological Perspective
Sociologist Max Weber studied the concept of cults and determined they are founded on charismatic leadership. According to Weber, to maintain and expand a cult, charisma must become a fixture of the religion. However, sociologist Roy Wallis felt a cult is defined by epistemic individualism, which causes the group to have no central focus since the individual member has the ultimate choice about participation. Wallis continued that cults are formed so to meet the needs of individuals, and as a result the individuals are at liberty to amend and alter the belief systems and rules for membership. Furthermore, sociologists William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark state in Theory of Religion that cults form due to rational choice theory, and that every religion started out as a “obscure, tiny, deviant cult.”