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Study Notes

New Age Movements and Cults

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

Last updated 17 Jul 2018

Brian Wilson argued that many religious and spiritual organisations operating in contemporary society do not fit into categories such as churches and sects. This has led to the development of typologies of cults and other New Religious Movements.

According to Roy Wallis (1984) cults differ from sects in that they are individualised, loosely-organised, tolerant and make very few demands on their adherents. This is almost the opposite of what we tend to mean by cult in popular usage and popular culture. For Wallis, cults do not claim to have found the truth, nor do they condemn those who are not part of their group.

One typology of cults was developed by Wallis and a contrasting one by Stark and Bainbridge (1975). These looked at ways of understanding New Religious Movements (NRMs) which include cults and certain types of sect. Not to be confused with New Age Movements (NAMs) which we shall come onto later!

New Religious Movements (NRMs) according to Wallis:

World Affirming NRM

World-affirming NRMs – or cults – seek to offer their members spiritual enrichment. They often do not include belief in a God and generally make few demands on their members. Instead they offer personal fulfilment, meditation and ways to turn individuals into “better people”, unlocking their “hidden potential”. This can include quite individualised beliefs, such as participating in forms of meditation and there is much overlap with New Age Movements. However, some world-affirming cults are more organised and have greater demands on their members, such as Scientology.

World Accommodating NRM

World-accommodating NRMs separate life into spiritual and worldly spheres, focusing on the spiritual. They neither affirm nor reject the world, but they do adapt in order to ensure they can peacefully live within it.

World Rejecting NRM

A world-rejecting NRM is one that sees the world as inherently evil or corrupt. They think that the way society is currently organised is against the will of God (or Gods or other spiritual forces) and needs to radically change. E.g. Millenarianism is a belief system whereby adherents are waiting for a moment of radical change.

NRMs according to Stark and Bainbridge:

Audience cult

Stark and Bainbridge look at religions and spiritual movements as if they were business organisations, referring to participants/adherents/congregants as customers or clients.

An audience cult is one where the participant (or client) is a passive consumer. People might attend lectures, read books or buy DVDs to hear a particular message or consume a particular set of ideas. There is no necessary ongoing relationship (other than to buy the next book) or expectations.

It has been argued that Scientology began as an audience cult, because initially it was people reading L Ron Hubbard’s book on the subject of Dianetics.

Client cult

A client cult is one where the cult has a relationship with its adherents akin to a doctor/patient relationship. The cult is a service provider and the clients enter into a prolonged relationship as they might do with a therapist. It is not like a sect or church however, as they will choose when, how often and for how long they wish to receive these services.

It has been argued that Scientology developed from being an audience cult into being a client cult when it sought to treat people through the application of Hubbard’s theory (dianetics) and “dianetic auditing”. This is a form of psychological therapy, although one that is highly controversial and widely rejected by the scientific community.

Cult movement

A cult movement is one which does not simply provide one service, but looks to fulfil all the spiritual needs of their customers. This relationship then becomes more like a traditional church, denomination or sect, then with the clients being more like members of a congregation. They are more likely to identify themselves as a member of the group and as a believer. Within this typology there is still a wide range of organisations with some expecting more commitment than others.

It has been argued that ultimately Scientology turned from being a client cult into what it is today, a cult movement: the Church of Scientology.

John Drane (1999) – a postmodernist – suggests that New Age movements have grown as a result of an apparent failure of science as a belief system. He argues that while the Enlightenment and rationalisation led to people dismissing traditional religions, they increasingly found that science did not provide the answers they needed either. There was a sense that science, reason and development would solve the world’s problems, but in fact they have created a whole load of new ones, like impending environmental disaster or the risk of nuclear catastrophe. Drane then argues that people are turning away from science and looking within themselves and turning to spirituality.

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