I. Hexham

From: DICTIONARY OF THEOLOGY (1988), Inter-Varsity Press.

Reprinted in Investigator 24 (1992 May)
by permission of Inter-Varsity Press.

NEW RELIGIONS is the more neutral name of groups commonly called 'cults' or 'sects'. The problem with the word 'cult' is that it lacks theoretical definition and has been used by the media to refer to many groups considered legitimate by evangelical Christians. Thus American Jewish groups have labelled 'Jews for Jesus' and other evangelical Jewish groups 'cults', while humanists have attacked Campus Crusade and the Navigators as cultic.

The sociologist Rodney Stark suggests that a cult is either a 'new faith' which has been 'imported from another society' or the result of 'cultural innovation'. Generally, however, evangelicals have used the term 'cult' to refer to religious groups which deviate from some recognized standard of evangelical orthodoxy. Given the confusion created by the popularization of the term 'cult' in the media, most social scientists prefer to talk about 'new religious movements'.

Many evangelical books such as J. K. van Baalen's The Chaos of the Cults (1936) and Walter Martin's The New Cults (1980) give extensive historical and doctrinal descriptions of specific religious movements such as the Mormons and The Way. But although this approach is useful it has the great weakness that the popularity of new religions is constantly changing. In the mid-1960s Transcendental Meditation was the most popular group, in the early 1970s the Divine Light Mission rose to prominence, then in the mid 1970s the Unification Church (Moonies) seemed to be the fastest-growing movement. But by the early 1980s the Rajneeshies were the largest new religion in America, excluding the various fundamentalist-type groups like The Way and the Local Church which were still growing.

Each of these groups experienced a period of rapid growth followed by spectacular decline. Therefore the likelihood of meeting members of a new and relatively unknown group is high. For this reason, it is better to understand in general how groups grow and the dynamics of religious belief systems, rather than learning specific details about groups which may already be dying out.

At the core of new religions lies a realm of experience which reflects the spiritual needs of individuals. This core includes experience such as revelatory dreams, visions, pre-cognition, extra-sensory perception, a sense of awe, a sense of presence, ghosts, dread, etc. In assessing these experiences, all we are required to do is recognize that people believe them to be real.

Secondly, in addition to the experiential core, new religions thrive on what may be labelled 'the new mythology', which is a collection of largely unconnected beliefs representing the folk religion of our society. This mythology includes belief in things like UFOs, mystic healings, astrology, reincarnation and a host of similar ideas which are un-Christian and relatively new in Western society. The importance of these myths is that they provide a conceptual framework within which supposed 'spiritual' experiences can be interpreted.

Thirdly, all new religions draw upon the great religious traditions to provide them with a sense of philosophy and a basic theology. The great religious traditions may be phenomenologically divided into two main types: the Abramic and the Yogic. The Abramic represents the religions of Abraham: Christianity, Islam and Judaism. The Yogic represents religions of Indian origin, which have the practice of yoga or meditation at their core. The two most important Yogic religious traditions are Hinduism and Buddhism.

The final clement in the analysis of new religions is the role played by a belief in science or modernity. All new religions claim in one way or another to represent a 'true science', even though, like the Hare Krishna Movement, they may reject modem science. This belief in 'true science' functions as a pseudo-religion which is encouraged by popular ideas about evolution and the tendency to 'believe in' rather than understand science. Thus faith-in-science replaces the scientific method in the lives of many people; and they are easy targets for the extravagant claims of new religions, which mingle psychic healing, extra-sensory perception, UFOs and a host of other credulous ideas with claims about revelations and doctrines drawn from the great religious traditions.

The synthesis of traditions can be seen in groups like the Unification Church which combines Abramic beliefs with Korean folk religion and a faith in technology. Hare Krishna on the other hand represents a Yogic tradition in a relatively pure form, while Scientology is primarily a religion of modernity which draws upon Yogic ideas to strengthen its religious appeal. Each of these new religions is reinforced by elements of the new mythology and a strong experiential core which builds on the life experience of their members.

Contrary to the claims of books like Snapping (1978), members of new religions are not brainwashed. In fact the idea of brainwashing as an explanation of conversion was first popularized by William Sargant in Battle for the Mind, and was intended to explain evangelical conversion. Although Snapping deals primarily with members of the Unification Church, and therefore has appealed to many evangelicals, the authors make it very clear that they consider evangelicals to be a prime example of brainwashing (cf Snapping. p. 46).

Sociologists David Bromley and Anson D. Shur present evidence against the brainwashing thesis in Strange Gods (1982), as do a number of other authors including the Ontario Government's special investigator in his report Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults in Ontario (1980). More importantly, as psychiatrist Saul V. Levine of the University of Toronto shows in various articles, people who join new religions do so because the group concerned meets a psychological need.

Considerable evidence now exists to show that membership of new religions depends on conversion experiences and individual choice rather than mysterious psychological control. It is true that strong social pressures are exerted to encourage membership and discourage people from leaving. But it is a fact that most people who join new religions leave of their own choice after a relatively short time.

Essentially people join new religions because those religions meet real needs. In this sense, van Baalen's observation that 'the cults are the unpaid bills of the church' still holds true. Anyone wishing to communicate with members of a new religious group must, therefore, take the converts' conversion seriously and attempt to discover what it was that caused them to convert and why they found that particular group attractive. The process of encouraging someone who has joined a new religion to reveal why they did so is usually a long one, and requires considerable tact and understanding. But unless Christians are prepared to enter into real dialogue prior to presenting the Christian message, communication will inevitably break down and each party will lose respect for the other.

In dealing with members of new religions, principles of personal evangelism apply at least as much as they do in other situations. Unfortunately, the label 'cult' often obscures this fact and charges of 'brainwashing' provide an excuse for hasty rejection and name-calling. Such an approach is both un-Christian and counter-productive. For this reason, understanding the logic of the beliefs of new religious movements, and the psychology which led to a given individual's conversion, is important if Christians are to participate in an increasingly important arena of discussion and evangelism.


J. K. van Baalen, The Chaos of the Cults (Grand Rapids, MI, 1936);
D. Bromley and A. D. Shupe, Strange Gods (Boston, MA, 1982);
F. Conway and J. Siegelman, Snapping: America's Epidemic of Sudden Personality Change (Philadelphia, 1978);
I. Hexham and K. Poewe, Understanding Cults and New Religions (Grand Rapids, MI, 1986);
D. G. Hill, Study of Mind Development Groups, Sects and Cults (Toronto, 1980);
W. Martin, The New Cults (Santa Ana, CA, 1980);
W. Sargant, Battle for the Mind (London, 1959);
R. Stark with W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival and Cult Formation (Berkeley, CA, 1985);
S. M. Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties (Berkeley, CA, 1982).

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