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Yana Garcia Mander 13.0 hw.
Assess the view that cults and sects are fringe organisations that are inevitably short lived and of
little influence on contemporary society.
Cults and sects are often hard to differentiate from one another, as a lot of them have very similar features
such as a world-rejecting values and the offer of alternative explanations to traditional beliefs. According to
Troeitsch, sects tend to be small, tight-knitted groups of individuals that often disagree with mainstream
values and attempt to change society for the better. Cults on the other hand, are loosely knit, require a lot
less commitment and do not always hold concrete beliefs.
While some sects are low profile and harmless, others carry out horrific actions and rituals which have
become apparent to the public through the media, such as 'Heaven's Gate': a sect that conducted mass
suicides as a way of gaining access to heaven, and the 'People's Temple', a sect lead by the Reverend Jim
Jones who famously drove a mass suicide in a jungle campsite in South America.
The idea that neither sects nor cults are long lasting is an important one, with theologians such as Richard
Neibuhr suggesting that sects cannot survive beyond one generation. He states that as they are often led
and "held together" by one charismatic individual who claims to have some kind of "divine power",
following the death of this leader, the sect usually disappears. Furthermore, second generation members
that are born into sects may not maintain the traditions of the movement with the same passion as the
founding generation. As a result, it is difficult for sects to maintain their extreme values, and they may
accommodate, or compromise, their ideologies and strict standards, and become denominations.
However, there are a number of problems with these explanations. First of all, the death of the leader does
not necessarily mean the "death" of the sect. Many sects survive long after the leader dies, as members still
see the individual as existing in some other form (e.g. spiritual presence). Also, it is important to note that
not all sects depend on second generation members to ensure their continued existence. Aldridge rejects
the ideas that all cults and sects have a 'charismatic leader' and that over time they often conform to less
world-rejecting views. He states that there are many cults that exclude members if they view their
behaviour to be below the group's high standards, therefore they are still able to maintain their principles.
Aldridge also claims that children can be successfully socialised into acceptance of the sect and share the
same enthusiasm as their parents.
In 1985, Stark and Bainbridge developed the 'Sectarian Cycle' which showed the four stages that sects tend
to go through. Beginning with 'schism' the group breaks away from traditional religions to a world-rejecting
sect which leads to 'initial fervour' which is when the members are initially enthusiastic and involved the
group, however over the years the sect will lessen in its appeal which can then lead to 'denominationalism'.
This is when the group is no longer considered a sect as they become less controversial and more
world-accommodating, as a means to gain and maintain members. This confirms the idea that sects are
extremely short-lived, as they either disappear due to lack of membership, or alternatively they become a
However, there is also evidence that sects can flourish in society and last for much longer than many
sociologists assume. The 'Aum Shinrikyo' sect for example, were responsible for numerous gas attacks on
the public of Japan, and had began to decline in size when their leader was imprisoned for murder.
However, this did not destroy the sect, and on the contrary, it actually grew under the new leadership of
"Aleph", and the movement continued to recruit members. This casts doubt on the claim that sects are short
lived movements, or if certain sects manage to continue on due to the dedication of the members.
Wilson proposes that there are a number of movements that can hold their ground and last for much longer
than is popularly assume. He claims that 'Adventist' sects for example, such as the 'Seventh Day Adventists'
and 'Jehovah's Witnesses' believe in the end of the world, or "the second coming of Christ" and due to their
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In terms of their influence on wider society, many sociologists argue that sects and cults have little impact,
as they are small, "fringe organisations". Indeed this appears to be the case, and the mere size of these
movements clearly limits their influence on society. Whereas churches are large organisations that have
close links to the state, sects and cults do not, and are relatively small in comparison to the larger, more
formal organisations.…read more