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The Sect as a New Religious Movement

Sects  and Cults

The word “sect” serves as a sociological definition for certain voluntary religious communities that differ from the established church (ecclesia), the denomination or the sub-group within the larger one. Sects differ from both denominations and churches in several ways:

  • The sect is exclusive

  • The sect claims to have a monopoly on the truth

  • Not organized or led by “professional clergy.”

  •  In order to be accepted, members’ lives must show a definitive change

  • Total allegiance is demanded to the point that membership in the sect is the most important part of one’s identity.

  • Sanctions and expulsion are directed toward those who stray from the teachings of the sect.

  • The sect is a protest group against the culture and state as well as the church.

 It is probable that most genuine sects either die out or become a denomination in a relatively short period of time. The need for structure and organization, loss of zeal and upward mobility of members are factors in causing a sect to become more “mainstream.”

On the other hand a cult is thought to represent an even more radical break with the prevailing religious tradition. Although the use of the term cult is widely debated in the academic study of religion, Livingston uses it to describe new religious movements that "appear to represent estrangement from, or indifference to, the older religious traditions; indeed, many do not at all resemble sectarian secession from an older tradition."  Nevertheless, there seems to be a growing consensus that the phrase "new religious movement" is a better, more objective classification of what Livingston call a cult.  In this case, the classification of Bryan Wilson can be used to classify these new religious movements without attempting to discern which is a "cult" and which is a "sect."

The Classification of New Religious Movements

Recently, the academic study of religion has moved away from a narrow definition of sect and cult.  Instead, it is preferable to refer to "new religious movements" and to classify them by certain characteristics. Sociologist Bryan Wilson has suggested that  new religious movements can be understood  in terms of how they respond to "the world" or society. Basically, there are four types of responses.

1. Conversionist groups usually do not seek to change the world.  Rather they strive to transcend the evil of this world through a conversion experience that is usually highly emotional and very personal.  For example the early 20th century saw the emergence of Pentecostal groups that emphasized a personal, emotional  spiritual experience, but largely ignored social reforms. We will return to the Pentecostal movement later in the course.

2. Revolutionist movements believe that salvation is imminent, but only after the present order is destroyed.  In the United States, a clear example of such a movement is the Branch Davidian community.

3. Gnostic or manipulationist groups accept and actively pursue what could be described as worldly goals. The idea is that one can use spiritual techniques to achieve such goals as long life (or even immortality), wealth, success, health and power. Scientology with its emphasis on fulfilling one's potential and freedom from the physical constraints of the material body is an example of such a group.

4. The utopia group seeks not to overthrow the existing world, but to reconstruct it according to a divinely given plan. The utopia group always relies upon a communal model for this reconstruction of the present order. Many such groups arose in America in the decades before the Civil War.  Each sought to create a new, ideal society purged of evil. One such movement was known as the Shakers.   More recently, The People's Temple exemplified a utopian movement.