FEAR OF UNCONVENTIONAL RELIGIOUS GROUPS AND ITS IMPACT ON RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE
FEAR OF UNCONVENTIONAL RELIGIOUS GROUPS AND ITS IMPACT ON RELIGIOUS TOLERANCE
Faith groups that hold beliefs deviating from the mainstream religious norms often become victims of discriminations from the established ones. An infinite number of worldviews compete for a finite number of potential devotees. The new religions claim to address the spiritual needs of today’s society that the established faiths have overlooked. To the secular and religious institutions dominating the mainstream, these elements are seen as disruptive to the normative values and are at times referenced using the pejorative term “cult.” It is a pervasive term infamously used to disparage a faith contrary to the assertors, akin to “fanatic” being utilized to malign a person with strong religious or political beliefs. Some use the term without vindictiveness as they believe that cult or sect is synonymous with new religious movements (NRM). On the other hand, the defenders of new religious movements argue that every faith group in their early stages faced opposition given alternative viewpoints they supported. Agreement regarding the prerequisites used to define NRMs continues to comprise an indefinable subject. In respect to this, most scholars tend to concur on two common aspects, timeline, and deviance. The faith groups must have a degree of distinction from existing religions and of a recent origin.
The oppositions rarely emerge from the harm that the new paradigms elicit, but for the different outlooks, the religions propose relative to the established norms. Religions are fundamental institutions in any society that often dictate a people’s culture. Therefore, opposition by the dominant faith group translates to rejection by society. The wellbeing of minority faith groups is undermined given the deluge of criticism challenging the legitimacy of their beliefs. In contemporary society, a multicultural reality persists with equally diverse belief systems. The capacity to accommodate other people’s beliefs is critical for a harmonious and sustainable existence. Tolerance does not imply agreeing with opinions contrary to one’s own instead respecting people’s right to have one. An analysis of the Church of the Latter Day Saints and Jonestown will be instrumental in highlighting the inner workings of new religious movements. Using an analysis of selected articles and publications on discrimination against alternative spiritualities and unconventional religious movements, the paper aims to clarify the misconceptions about these minority faith groups towards promoting tolerance by using real-world illustration such as the Jonestown Cult and the movements sparked by David Koresh.
The study employed meta-analysis to analyze studies about new religious movements collected through a systematic review. The timeline of publication was widened to 1989 given the scarcity of comprehensive material on the subject. Studies for systematic review were derived from the school library and its accompaniment database and other online resources such as world CAT and Google Scholar. The keywords employed in the search were new religious movements, alternative faith groups, neo-religious, emerging religions, alternative spiritualities, unconventional religious grouping, religious tolerance, and religious discrimination. The option of collecting information through surveys could not be pursued as it would have resulted in one-sided conclusion. The study aimed to be inclusive in their viewpoints. Given that NRMs are often closed groups, the entry would prove problematic for the researcher causing them to succumb to the temptation of utilizing the findings and perspectives of external experts only. Publications by researchers that are members or former members of NRM were given precedence. The works possess unique insights that a temporary membership to collect data cannot match. This is not to say that their works were taken at face value, they underwent rigorous scrutiny against the set criteria akin to the other works.
Given that the emerging faith groups are recent in nature, a majority have limited studies focused on them. The criteria for the systematic review were the NRM under study has to have been in operation for more than three years and a minimum membership of 2000 devotees. While there is a wealth of material on the Latter Day Saints and proven cults such as Jonestown, evaluating other studies was critical to facilitate a balanced representation. Otherwise, the tendency to present an inaccurate generalization of the characteristics of the prominent alternative spiritualities as representative of other faith grouping increases. The findings are a weighted average of five peer-reviewed studies. The method strived to identify patterns inherent to the study results of the different studies among other interesting relationships. The contradicting findings of individual studies were more important as they present differing outlook helping the study uncover the hidden truths. The moderators were instrumental in explaining the disparities between studies.
During the investigation, the studies accounted for publication biases given the majority of the studies are performed by researchers with links either directly or indirectly to the established religions. The research also highlighted the context of every individual study. Comparison of the studies eliminates externalities causing researcher redirect their focus to more central issues. The reports that were undertaken to prompt legislative policy or economic initiatives did not make the shortlist as they utilize datasets that favor their preconceived outcomes. Even if an author was from a given existing religion but they stated their possible conflict of interests, such as receiving funding from a given existing faith group, they qualified. Their potential bias was taken into account when analyzing their study.
This precaution was necessary considering the research is depended exclusively on existing body of works. As bias cannot be controlled by the method, the study ensured that only reports that had effective designs in their original studies were utilized. The study leveraged the evidence-synthesis aspect of meta-analysis more than its statistical property given that the research pertaining to NRMs is predominantly qualitative in nature. The contribution of the statistical approach was limited to combining the results from the selected studies towards resolving uncertainties when the reports disagreed as well as increase the power of the findings. More data naturally increases the accuracy of estimates. It is the statistical element that elevates this research beyond mere literature review. Combining different studies helped eliminate sampling errors that may occur when utilizing a single study.
The scope of this study while limited to new religious movements that are undergoing discrimination utilizes references from established religions from time to time to promote understanding. The reason for the narrower emphasis is the ambiguous implications of terms such as a religious minority group. Christians are religious minorities in some sections of the world like in the Middle East and Northern Africa and a majority in the western hemisphere. While its adherents are culpable of branding other faith groups as heretics, they receive similar treatments in another side of the planet. They are called infidels and are arguably the highest victims of persecutions globally. The above phenomenon attests to the relativity of a person’s belief system. Christianity’s acceptance in the mainstream, its supporters’ plight notwithstanding, disqualifies it as an unconventional religious grouping. The new religious movement focuses on faith groups with origins in the recent past. While tackling the Christian denominations on the periphery relative to the accepted doctrines is allowed, addressing the intricacies of Christianity is too broad a subject for the research paper.
This essay is not an apologist movement of actual cults but criticisms of the broad utilization of term. In contemporary society, the public often generalizes the term to refer to any new religious movements by linking them to atrocities committed by unpopular sects. The fallibilities of a few rogue dogmas become a cautionary tale determining the public’s subsequent interactions with all neo-religions. NMRs’s antagonists exaggerate the practices of the faith groups to elicit fear from the public. The resultant stigma exacerbates religious differences undermining efforts towards promoting tolerance.
Many new religious groups do not create entirely original belief categories, but instead they modify existing ones. Within established religions, there are fissures that divide its adherents into factions. The emerging religions tend to emulate this characteristic as they mature. The faith groups that are in consensus on the core doctrines are perceived as denominations while those perceived to be deviating from any of the primary ideologies that form the belief system are branded sects. For example, a female Islamic movement may incorporate feminist philosophies towards improving their status within the religion. The faith group’s stance is unpopular given the patriarchic underpinnings of its parent religion. As its beliefs do not subscribe to any of the branches of the larger Islamic religion, they become new religious movements. Usually, the adherents of NRMs may still identify with a given religion even when the leaders of established religion are of a contrary opinion. In Christianity, the divisions arise due to factions replacing the traditional implications of the Bible with a personal interpretation of a charismatic individual.
Usually, these sects do not conform to the sociological definition of a cult. Their indictment is mainly attributed to theological disparities. They are termed sects by mainstream believers different from the proven factions that have become established in their own right. For instance, Christian sects may pay undue emphasis on non-essential doctrines such as day of worship while failing to adopt the overarching tenets of the Holy Trinity or Divinity of Christ. The Church of Mormon exemplifies a denomination under constant criticism from its contemporaries. The Latter-Day Saints have its independent religious scripture, the Book of Mormon. Consistent with its counterparts, this NRM does not claim to present new insights but to revive forgotten truths. They acknowledge the Bible is the word of God but only when interpreted correctly, that is according to their unique revelation. Initially, the Book of Mormon as meant to be used as a complement to the Bible but it was later utilized as a substitute. Their point of separation from mainstream Christian religion is after Christ’s resurrection.
They assert that the teachings of the Messiah were since corrupted. This event draws parallels to the separation of Abrahamic faiths, Islam and Judaism; the former branched from its earlier contemporary asserting a misinterpretation of Abraham’s directive. The above occurrence implies that after a sustained duration the Mormons may become an independent religion. In fact, it has grown so big that divisions among the Church of Latter Day Saints have begun with a faction called the Community of Christ reverting back to the doctrines of traditional Protestants. They have subsequently distanced themselves from the mainstream Mormon Church. Even within the factions that remain true to their founding principles, there are further subdivisions. The Remnant Church of Christ of the Latter Day Saints asserts that leadership succession should be drawn exclusively from their founder Joseph Smith’s lineage. This conflict draws yet another similarity to Islam that split into the Shiite and Sunni branches based on succession woes. Another camp, the fundamentalist church has been warped in controversy given their support of practices such as polygamy.
The opposition to unconventional faith groups is not limited to adherents of a mainstream belief system as members of the public that are not necessarily religious can be equally denigrating. The family members, neighbors, and colleagues of the converts are usually the greatest culprits. Initial anti-cult movements were pioneered by parents of the recruits. Regardless, the unconventionality of the beliefs and rituals that the new faith groups practice, they are protected by the freedom of worship, unless they undermine the constitutional rights of those around them in the process. The discrimination is amplified when it is spearheaded by the governmental and institutional bodies that are supposed to protect them. The freedom of worship and free-will of these marginalized groups have to be protected given the rise in alternative spiritual groups. In the United States, about 40 new religions emerge annually. Legislation that mitigates freedoms of minority religious groups emboldens locals to act out their hidden prejudices. Like any discriminative stance, it comes down to complexes where one group perceives itself to be superior to inferior others. Justice for the group existing in fringes of society remains elusive given their deprived status.
The supervision of emerging belief systems to prevent fatal eventualities remains necessary. Understanding the contemporary definition of a cult is necessary to educate public against of the fallacies behind most of their concerns. Approaching the opposition as an irrational mob is bound to antagonize them further. The People’s Temple of Jonestown has become the embodiment of an occult. Its undesired outcomes relegated this new religion to a cult. Waiting for fatal eventualities to occur to brand a grouping cult is counterintuitive. A preemptive stance requires studying the past to avoid repeating it. The sociological definition of a cult is group membership, not necessarily religious, that exerts undue pressure on its recruits. These strange demands include de-associating the members from all their previous social connections including friends and relatives; the believers’ interactions are limited to other devotees. Irrational demands that are emotionally and physically draining are the norm towards earning salvation. Jonestown’s members had to progress through a system of steps to progress through the ranks, a reward equivalent to their dedication.
A singular charismatic individual, Jim Jones in this instance, is presented to be the oracle in all matters pertaining to the religion, has exclusive access to the truth. The Jonestown organization was hierarchic with diligent performance earning new recruits the privilege to interact with the chosen one. The lower leveled recruits were usually clueless as opposed to their higher ranked colleagues that were complicit. The concept of promotion as a result of acts was contrary to their ideals of an egalitarian society as the hierarchy was relevant for administrative purposes only. Freethought was curtailed with internal disagreements not being condoned similar to external criticism, Jim Jones was beyond reproach. The leadership utilized fear to maintain obedience. A cult’s culture of impeding dissent is especially harmful to children as it stunts their development of critical thinking and problem-solving. Fear also thwarts creativity. Exit from the group was problematic at times accompanied by fatal repercussions. The leaders of the typical cult convince their members that they possess unique insights that are a panacea to the otherwise dystopian world. The Jonestown devotees succumbed to the lie mentioned above. They relocated to the agricultural project in Guyana anticipating a socialist existence safe from the media’s intrusions and capitalist America, a fresh start.
Some characteristics of modern cult overlap with established religion but the latter often manifest less than two of the characteristics. Sociologists assert that attributing the characteristics of the dominant alternative spiritualities to other NRMs is misguided given that any two faith groups differ in many of their approaches and practices, even their newness is not a point of similarity. At the outset, Jonestown did not receive the hostile reception that is assumed all the NRMs receive. In fact, they were celebrated to an extent before the onslaught of media coverage that is partly responsible for their migration. The danger of cults is that a few zealots are sufficient to cause irreparable damage. The victims of the Jonestown massacre drank the poison under duress contrary to the modern narratives of voluntary consumption. Only a few of the members following Jones’s instruction committed suicide. The high profile member senator, Leo Ryan was among the homicide victims. The death toll amounted to 918 casualties the largest mass murder of American civilians that would later be surpassed by the victims of 9/11 bombing. A cultic environment is detrimental to children given that 301 of the victims were minors. However, the new religious movements that devolve into cults are isolated incidences.
The narrative presented to the public is mostly given from the critic’s perspective. Changing the narrative will require creating awareness of both sides of the story. The above is easier said than done given that the media often perpetuates the urban myths about unconventional religion movements to appease the majority. The resultant shock value leads to an increase viewership and ratings. Sensational headlines such as sex cult or suicide cult dominate the airwaves. It follows that they do not hesitate to revisit the Jonestown ‘drinking the cool-aid’ fiasco of 1987. However, the media alone is not at fault for their antagonistic representation of the emerging faiths. Some of the names that these religions employ are inherently news fodder. For instance, when a faith group brands itself Satanists they do not need external vilification as the word essentially implies devil worship even to an impartial observer. The campaigns for government intervention to moderate media depiction of new religious movement should be conducted with caution so as not to restrict the freedom of the press. While regulating its approach is critical, its autonomy serves a critical purpose in a modern civilization.
The unconventional religious movements are accused of luring recruits through deception and strong brainwashing techniques. The powerful brainwashing strategies should imply that these faith groups register significant growth in a short time span, which is not the case. Even in the digital era, critiques have argued that unsuspecting internet users are lured into alternative spiritualities’ websites given their exemplary branding, interactive interface, and user experience of their sites. Statistics reveal that online conversions are existent but minimal. The recruits of many faiths, unorthodox ones notwithstanding, are converted through the efforts of close relations ranging from friends, colleagues to the family. Unconventional religious movements’ limited success in recruiting and retaining members highlights the implausibility of brainwashing and mind control narratives. The media tends to present the cults as a natural progression from NRMs, the rule rather than the exception.
Both secular and religious critics who believe the recruits are brainwashed recommend exit counseling and deprogramming even without the apparent victim’s consent. Exit counseling is not coercive and is meant to allow the former members overcome the supposed trauma associated with their experiences in the new religious movements simultaneously facilitate their reintegration into society. They argue that the individuals are vulnerable and have been deprived of their free will; subsequently, they are unable to make informed decisions. As such, they make their decisions for them. The practice of treatment without patient consent is common practice when dealing with mental patients. The above suggests that critics believe that the members’ tenure at an alternative religious group is bound to drive a person insane. Deprogramming entails attempts to re-inculcate former values to the individual, help return them to their ‘real’ selves. This practice has been the source of many controversies and scandals with the leaders of several anti-cult movements serving sentences for crimes ranging kidnapping to murder. These irrational tendencies reaching such extremes are attributed to the public overlooking lesser infractions targeted at minority faith groups. Their activities are rationalized courtesy of the testimonies of former members even without assessing their validity. If the members are mentally challenged either on entry or after the exit of the NRMs as the critiques propose, then their credibility as witnesses is compromised. While there are consistent calls demanding regulation of minority faith groups, accountability on the critics’ side is lacking. The government’s oversight of religious intolerance against the emerging faith groups, which usually lack political traction or influence determines public opinion, is limited to nonexistent. Their interventions are only reactionary after the damage is already done.
Every society tests new values against their existing criteria to gauge the substance and potential consequence. It is quintessential defense mechanism employed towards maintaining a society’s stability. The extent of social cohesion is hinged on the stability of its norms and values. Emerging faith groups with weak foundations usually buckle under the pressure whereas more articulate dogmas become refined by the onslaught. The beliefs’ marginal placement generates conflict with the mainstream from a cultural context. The phenomenon of being scrutinized and the accompaniment biased evaluation is not a strange occurrence. It is the beliefs that overcome the beat down that secure they place within society’s guiding tenets. Christians endured centuries of hostile reception before attaining its widespread acceptance and even then the persecutions persist. However, the punitive opposition that exists today renders the accusers the zealots. Their claims of striving to moderate NRMs are contradictory given the choice of tactics. The credibility of the accusers increases exponentially in the public’s eyes when they intensify their opposition to a scandal in a nontraditional faith movement emerges, mass suicides at heaven gates. It is critical to not that NRM’s do not hold a monopoly over scandals as worse things have been done in the name of established religion. Most NRM’s do not outlive their founders. The ones that persist often split apart after the demise of their leaders. Succession wrangles emerge as it was the charisma of the founders that united them. This eventuality is true to alternative spiritualities as it is to cults.
While riding the controversy’s wave, few people can scrutinize their motives of the whistleblowers as their focus is transfixed on the culprits attempting to erode the society’s values. To avoid being pariahs, the critics and human right watch lists may be willing to overlook offenses by the public until the controversy in question dissipates. As such, practices such as deprogramming in these emotive junctures are condoned. Some followers of established faiths may have ulterior motives such as financial gains from slandering an emerging competitor to secure faithful and their accompaniment giving. Rather than protest foul play, educators should leverage the decreased frequency of scandals among the unconventional groups to highlight their grievances and create awareness. Just like not all new religious movements are insidious, some critics have genuine motives. As the assertions of the unorthodox faith groups have not penetrated society they are viewed with suspicion; it is human nature to fear the unknown. It is the mandate of the aggrieved to capitalize on every opportunity to enlighten society. When information is scarce, the public’s imagination feels the vacuum often referencing the worst-case scenarios. Unlike their predecessors, today’s new religious movements have the opportunity to control the narrative. The internet platform can be leveraged to present their viewpoints to the public. They should emulate successful strategies employed by established religions. As beliefs are a matter of preference, they should focus on emphasizing their right to worship. The legitimacy of their religions may not be validated but the exposure may absolve them of accusations of fatal ideologies. The opposition of NRMs is inevitable given these organizations are also born as a criticism of the existing religions.
Having been founded in the late 1820s, one can argue that the Church of Latter Day Saints is on the cusp of becoming an established religion. Firstly, with almost two centuries in existence, it brings to question the duration after which emerging faith groups cease to be new. Secondly, whether an emergent religion enjoying mainstream acceptance complete with numbers to back it up should remain categorized with other NRMs that survive on the fringes of society. The new religious movements rise to reflect the changing realities of the modern world. Often the alternative spiritualities are factions that separate from established religions and depart from their founding beliefs. The new religious movements’ existence is in of itself a critique of the sufficiency of mainstream religions and their accompanying values. It follows that the religious institutions that dominate mainstream culture are the most avid critics of new faith groups. There is a need for the government to protect emerging faith groups’ right to worship. The discrimination that they endure often undermines their constitutional as well as their human rights. The anti-cultic movements often engage in coerced deprogramming, leading to the physical and psychological detriment of the members. The essence of this paper is to educate the public of the misconceptions that surround alternative spiritualities to help promote religious tolerance in society. The available studies usually focus on the factors that inform the rise of new religions rather than evaluating the existing ones. The media and the public utilize the religions historically known for their destructive tendencies to define all new faith groups.
Generalizing attributes of a few new religious
movements is a misguided approach, since any two groups practice a different
set of beliefs. The intention of the indictment and association of NRMs with
known cults is to discredit the legitimacy of their beliefs. Most of the
oppositions to NRMs are exaggerated and have a subjective basis. However, the
same level of scrutiny directed to any social institution should persist
towards new religious movements. A culture of openness and transparency should
exist in all NRMs to eliminate the inherent suspicion the public has of their
beliefs and activities. In the digital age, they can use the cyberspace to
raise awareness of their values and causes. Criticism is not an occurrence
unique to NRMs as Christians and Muslims endure opposition and persecution
despite being accepted by the mainstream culture. The media has a strategic
role in keeping institutions accountable; emerging faith groups are not exempt
from supervision and scrutiny. Religious movements become cults when they
result in detrimental outcomes such as death. As cults have a derogatory
implication, any faith group should not be branded with the name until its
malicious intent is proven. Given that cults are realized in retrospect,
vigilance by the public, the media, and its members are necessary to prevent
that eventuality. Before the Jonestown became a cult, it was a new religious
movement. Hence, rather than concentrate on conventional notions regarding
religious movements, focus should incline towards the acknowledgement of NRMs
in an effort to avert the conflicts that led to occurrences such as the
Jonestown Massacre and the Waco siege.
Cowan, Douglas and David Bromley. Cults and New Religions: A Brief History. New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2015.
Doherty, Bernard. “Sensational Scientology!: The Church of Scientology and Australian Tabloid Television.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 17, no. 3 (2014): 38-63. Accessed March 27, 2018, http://nr.ucpress.edu/content/17/3/38
Moore, Rebecca. The Need for a New Look at Jonestown. New York: E. Mellen Press, 1989.
Palmer, Susan. The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored ‘War on Sects”. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Tabor, James, and Eugene Gallagher. Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995.
Wright, Stuart, and James Richardson, eds. Saints Under Siege: The Texas State Raid on
the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints. New York: NYU Press, 2011.
 Douglas Cowan and David Bromley, Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 015), 1.
 Ibid, pp 1.
 Ibid, pp 3.
 Ibid, pp 3.
 Ibid, pp 1.
 Ibid, pp 12.
 Ibid, pp 14.
 Bernard Doherty, “Sensational Scientology!: The Church of Scientology and Australian Tabloid Television,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 17, no. 3 (2014): 38, accessed March 27, 2018, http://nr.ucpress.edu/content/17/3/38
 James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America,(Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), pp.78-79.
 Rebecca Moore, The Need for a New Look at Jonestown.(New York: E. Mellen Press, 1989), pp. 67.
 James Tabor and Eugene Gallagher, Why Waco?: Cults and the Battle for Religious Freedom in America,(Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), pp 49.
 Ibid, pp.54.
 Stuart Wright, and James Richardson, eds. Saints Under Siege: The Texas State Raid on the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints,(New York: NYU Press, 2011), pp 76.
 Bernard Doherty,” Sensational Scientology!: The Church of Scientology and Australian Tabloid Television,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 17, no. 3 (2014): 38, accessed April 19, 2018, http://nr.ucpress.edu/content/17/3/38
 Susan Palmer, The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored “War on Sects”, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 34.
 Susan Palmer, The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored “War on Sects”, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 49
 Susan Palmer, The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored “War on Sects”, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), pp. 111.
 Douglas Cowan and David Bromley, Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, (New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 015), pp.35.
 Ibid, pp. 59.
 Susan Palmer, The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la Republique, and the Government-Sponsored “War on Sects”, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011),pp. 129.
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