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The Cult Threat: Real or Imagined
By Gordon Melton, Institute for Study of American Religion
Delivered at the International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium", Washington DC, April 17-19, 1998

In the United States we have moved in this century from a population of about 70 million people when we started the century to somewhere in excess of 280 million now. That means our population has quadrupled in this century. Also, at the beginning of the century about 30 percent of the people were religiously affiliated, which was up from 15 percent at the beginning of the previous century. We have had a trend quite the opposite of what has seemingly been happening in Europe. Now, well above 70 percent of the people consider themselves affiliated members of a religious group. It is actually close to 80 percent. The significance of those figures is that our population has quadrupled but church membership is eight times as great as it was at the beginning of the century.

What that has meant is that there has been a steady growth of religious affiliation; it was sometime around World War II that half the country became religiously affiliated. At the same time we became urbanized. That is, we started the century predominantly a rural country. We are now predominantly an urban country, and the growth of church membership has been predominantly an urban phenomenon. This is fairly important for understanding the issue of cults.

If you go out into the countryside in America, you will not find representatives of the new religions, except in an odd retreat center or country commune. Membership in the new religions is an urban phenomenon. What is true for us has, in its overall aspect, been true for much of the free world. If we go to Africa now, there are tens of thousands of new religions, most of which we have never heard of.

There are over 1,000 denominations in the small country of Botswana. If you go to South Africa, the number zooms way up. There are almost as many groups operating in South Africa as there are in the United States. If you go to free Asia you have a very similar kind of situation: several thousand groups in Japan and in Korea. Very, very, diverse cultures are being built. The same is true in western Europe. We are just beginning to document the religious history and statistical summaries of what has been going on in Europe, because it wasn’t until the 1990s that Europeans realized they were in the same situation as the rest of us with respect to diversity.

The two most diverse places in the world now turn out to be Los Angeles and London. London has every brand of religion you could imagine as a result of the open transportation policy through the British Commonwealth. Everywhere that the British Commonwealth was, members of different religions use the open travel policy to land in London and the surrounding countryside.

Los Angeles was America’s doorway to Asia. It was the end product of western immigration through the country. So everybody from the East landed in Los Angeles. Twenty percent of all the Vietnamese in America live in Los Angeles and Orange Counties, two counties in Southern California. The majority of the Buddhists in America live in Southern California. A very diverse situation has developed there.

The landscape in our own communities is still dominated by traditional churches. Walk down the street and you still see First Church on the corner, the familiar Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, and Lutheran churches dotting the landscape. But the space in between these churches is beginning to be filled by all sorts of different groups: new evangelical groups that were not around 30 years ago, religions from countries that we had only read about in our textbooks in school or in travelogues that we had seen. We don’t know where some of the new religions came from. Some have strange names and strange behavior, and their members dress in strange ways.

If we went out into outer space to get an overview, what we would see that has happened over the last 100 years is that the large religious communities that were once defined geographically have now dispersed globally. Most of what we call new religions are simply old religions in a new context. Hare Krishnas are a mainline religion in Bengal. They are new religions here. The Presbyterian Church is a cult in parts of Asia.

That kind of dispersion of religion has gone on everywhere. You see it in the urban centers around the world. One of the things that we have been doing recently is mapping the world religiously. It doesn’t matter where we go. We could go to Johannesburg, Nairobi, Singapore, Tokyo, Los Angeles, or Washington, D.C., and basically the same group of religions dominate the culture. It might be a slightly different mix, some new religions are there, and there are a whole host of indigenous religions that are peculiar to a particular place. But a world culture of religion is developing in the great urban centers. Here is where the problem comes in.

Some folks feel that this space being filled up between the older religions is growing like a cancer in the body politic, that some of these new groups that we are calling religions are in fact not religions but destructive cults. Cults are considered harmful in a number of ways. The most common complaint is that they break up families. Because they destroy the family unit, their growth will destroy family life as we know and love it.

Second, it is suggested that they brainwash people to gain and hold them as members. It is believed that these religions have learned sinister psychoactive techniques by which they are able to override people’ discriminatory powers and cause them to join groups that they would not rationally join at another time. And once they are in, they are overcome by these psychoactive techniques and unable to escape from the increasingly degrading condition that they find themselves in.

A third complaint about these groups is that they cause irreparable psychological damage.

The practice of such psychoactive techniques as prayer and meditation are said to cause you to become psychologically ill over a period of time. If you do them for a number of years, the damage to your brain will be such that you will never recover.

The final major complaint about these groups is that they are destroying the social order, the very identities that we have as Western, civilized people. The primary evidence of the destructive nature of these cults is the obviously destructive actions of a few groups. The most famous incident is the Jonestown incident, which occurred in November 1978.

In this particular case, what is often forgotten is that the People’s Temple was a church that was about as mainline as you could get. It was a congregation of a group called Disciples of Christ. The Disciples of Christ had at the time about one million members. They were members of the National Council of Churches. The leadership of the People’s Temple was involved very strongly in the ecumenical movement in California. One of its lay leaders was a prominent person in the California Council of Churches. This was not a way-out group. It only became a way-out group the morning after the death of the members who were in Guyana.

If Jonestown has any message for us, it is that we better watch out for mainline churches—they can be dangerous to your health. That is, of course, another problem. When mainline churches become dangerous to your health we don’t call it destructive cultism. We usually call it war, or maybe terrorism, as is the case in Northern Ireland. That is an important point to keep in perspective. Danger tends to escalate the more the mainline a group is.

More pointedly, as we have gone through the years, the present concern with destructive cultism has been the Solar Temple and the Aum Shinrikyo. The Jonestown incident, however, had the effect of generating a considerable observation of new religions in their broad spectrum. Over the last 20 years we have had very close observation of a number of new groups, and it is of some interest that the groups that have shown up as moving in a destructive direction are those that nobody knew about.

When the Aum Shinrikyo incident hit, only one article in English had been published about them. When the Branch Davidian incident occurred, only one article in English had been published about them. When Heaven’s Gate occurred, there had been a series of articles about Heaven’s Gate, but only one person had written them. The groups that are more well known and that we have studied and worked with, the larger groups, have proved not to be that kind of threat.

What have we found by our observations of new religions over the last 20 years? Overall, we have found that the new religions are very much like the old. One of the reasons is that most of the new religions are old religions, and they continue patterns that are very familiar to us. Only one or two of them have even challenged our working definitions of what religion is. At this point we think of religion as primarily a product of culture building in a free society. If we are in a free situation, people make culture. We make art, we make music, but we also make religion. If we live in a free society, we will make religion endlessly. We will create new ways to worship, new ways to sing, new ways to think about the world—all kinds of new intellectual and religious structures.

Most of those new ways of thinking will be confined to our own religious community. We call them revival movements or various kinds of reinvigoration activities. But some of those new ways of worshiping and thinking about religion create new communities. That is why in the entire free world, we have been creating new forms of religious life. That has been intensified as we have neared the end of the century. Over half the denominations currently operating in the West have been created since 1965. Over half the religious organizations that currently function in our culture have been created in our lifetime. They are products of the innovations that have taken place in the post-World War II environment.

Are these new groups a threat? It is very hard for me as a Methodist to sit here and say, “Are these new groups a real threat? Do they destroy families? No, they don’t.” But in this kind of pluralistic world society, one of the problems that we shall have to live with for the indefinite future is that many families are going to be split by religious differences.

It is the old situation, what happened when a Catholic married a Jew? But now, what happens when a Baptist marries a Buddhist? The families are simply going to have to learn to live with the fact that within their own families there will be extreme differences. No family will be immune from catching the bug. Some of those differences will be nominally serious differences. That is, some members of the family will be nominally religious and won’t know how to deal with one of their members who all of sudden catches the religious bug and becomes seriously and deeply religious. Others will have to deal with people who are members of different communities that they don’t know.

Second, are the new religions a threat because they are going to brainwash our children? No. We have not been able to find anything that happens in the new religions that does not also happen in the old religions. They have not discovered any techniques of brainwashing people. One of the things that we know from experiments over the last 25 years is that governments have tried every way to find out how to brainwash people, and all of those experiments have been unsuccessful. The new religions have not fared any better.

Do the new religions cause psychological damage? That is a continuing issue, particularly in Europe, where anti-cultism is a real force. But there is no evidence of that. New religions have now been with us for a full generation. They have affected the lives of millions and millions of people. Yet there is no line-up at mental hospitals or psychiatrists’ offices of people who are showing disturbances because they have been members of new religions. There is simply no evidence that membership in new religions causes any kind of psychological damage.

Are new religions out to destroy the social order? Well, that one we have to give a hesitatingly affirmative answer to. Not that new religions are purposefully setting out to destroy things. But the fact is, within one generation the number of religious groups operating within society has doubled and the nature of those religious groups is to make a quantum leap in religious thinking. The diversity that results is of necessity going to be threatening and destructive of structures from the past. Social change changes things.

We have undergone an immense social change in the West in the past generation. No one particular religion is particularly responsible. Taken together, the kind of diversity that has been created by the rise of new evangelicalism, by the development of strong Muslim communities in the West, in and of itself creates a new situation for dialogue that we simply have to learn to live with.

We have an interesting situation in this country where, since World War II, for the first time in this country’s history, we have a Christian majority. The majority of Americans are professing Christians. We have gone from the secularism that created the country to a country professing Christianity. At the same time, we have developed immense, meaningful communities of Buddhist, Hindus, and Muslims and lesser communities of Sikhs, Jains, and Zoroastrians. All of a sudden we have a Christian majority and at the same time significant non-Christian minorities.

That remakes the way we think of society. We have been blessed in this country with a secular society. The Founding Fathers left us a secular order, which is of immense importance because it creates a forum in which dialogue between different religious groups can take place. You have a government that can manage that dialogue and keep the peace, while at the same time feeling itself incompetent to ultimately reach judgments on some of the key issues that are at stake.

In the end, the answer to the question “are the cults a threat?” is primarily “no” in the sinister mode but “yes” in the important mode of their participation in the radical social change that we are all feeling the pressure of.

[Washington ICRF Conference] [ICRF Home] [Original webpage]

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