Beliefs in society: Reasons why cults and sects are short lived


Generation differences

Generation Differences

Niebuhr (1929) - sects and cults tend not to survive because membership is based upon voluntary adult commitment. Once the first generation start to have children, though, the children are admitted as new members when they were too young to understand the teachings of the religion. These new members would not be able to sustain the fervour of the first generation.  Consequently, a sect may then become a denomination.

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Sects that also rely on a charismatic leader tend to disappear if a leader dies.  Alternatively, the nature of the group could change.  

Rather than one single leader holding the group together, a hierarchical structure could develop which would be very similar to the style of leadership in a denomination.

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Fundamental characteristics of sects could also result in the formation of a denomination.  Sects encourage its members to lead an ascetic lifestyle, which sees members working hard and saving money.  As a result, the membership would be upwardly socially mobile, and would no longer wish to belong to a religious group which catered for marginal members of society.  Once again the sect would have to change or die: either by becoming a denomination or losing membership, e.g. Methodism.  A number of sects have also disappeared because of mass suicide, for example, Heaven’s Gate.

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Young adults are more likely to join sects; they have no commitments and are therefore able to withdraw from the world.  In addition, sects offer them moral guidance and a sense of community.  However, the membership of sects is often short term; people may join when they are seventeen years old and leave when they are nineteen.  

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NRM's as evidence of secularisation

The number of NRM’s in Western societies is also seen as evidence of secularisation by some theorists.  Wilson (1966) argues that they have many secular aspects, such as individualism and materialism. Cults in particular seldom have a coherent spiritual foundation.  He considers sects to be weak, fragile organisations that cannot last.

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Sociologists claim that becoming a denomination or dying is not the only alternative for a sect or cult.  Some sects survive and become established sects, often achieving this through isolating themselves from the outside world. 

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Distinct beliefs

Wilson (1966) claims that other sects are unable to form themselves into denominations due to their particular beliefs.  Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists, for example, have the primary aim of preparing themselves for judgement day. To achieve this they must separate themselves from today’s sinful and corrupt society.  Only a membership of the sect will guarantee them a place in the new world order.  Therefore becoming a denomination would compromise their position which demands separation from the wider society.  Wilson argues that this means a sect will not inevitably become a denomination, but this will depend on their views of salvation.

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Wallis 3 types of NRM's

Wallis claims that for world rejecting NRM’s, they can either relax their demands upon its members and form a more conventional structure (similar to a denomination) or they become world accommodating or world affirming sects.  However, some world rejecting sects take the opposite route and increase their rejection of the wider society.  This can have the result of the mass suicide and destruction of the sect.

Wallis also looks at social changes leading to the members of certain sects as becoming less marginal in society, so threatening the basis on which the sect was founded.  However, he claims that as new groups in society become marginal, more sects will arise.

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Wallis 3 types of NRM's 2

World affirming sects often support the norms and values of mainstream culture and therefore, to flourish, simply become flexible to adapt their services to meet the demands of a changing society.  

Therefore, Wallis does not agree totally that sects and cults inevitably become denominations and churches but his work does suggest that there may be tendencies towards this direction, particularly for world rejecting sects.

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Why sects tend to be short lived

Sects: tend to be short-lived because once the charismatic leader dies; the enthusiasm of the group is lost. It will be interesting to see if Moonies survive the death of the Rev. Moon. It is also difficult for members to retain their commitment to such a demanding organisation. Moonies, for example require that you cut off all contact with friends and family who are not fellow Moonies. Even if a member stays in a sect for life, it is unlikely that their children will choose to do the same so many sects die after a single generation. On the other hand, the Amish are a sect which has existed for a very long time.

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Why cults tend to be short lived

Cults: tend to be short-lived because once people feel that their self-improvement is complete, they no longer need to belong and practise their faith. Also, cults tend to come and go with the fashion so people may commit for a short period of time before moving onto another more popular cult. Cults do not require a high level of commitment and in fact, there may be no need to attend a meeting so it’s as easy to end the membership as it is to start it. That is why it is difficult to know just how many Scientologists there are in the world at any one time.

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