Perspective on the Cults

by Dr. J. Gordon Melton


Much of the contemporary debate about alternative religions revolves around the basic doubts concerning the legitimacy of nonconventional religions. They appear strange and foreign. They challenge the status quo, particularly the religious hegemony enjoyed by the more established religions. In their zeal and organization, cults often seem, to outside observers, to be accomplishing far more than they would claim for themselves. The proliferation of alternative religions and the obvious impossibility for any individuals to become acquainted with more than a few of them calls for some kind of overall perspective.

Critics of the cults have proposed programs for the elimination of cults. Secular critics have tried to mobilize public opinion against those cults they consider to be intrusive harmful elements in the social order. Cults destroy families, harm individuals who join them, and threaten society. Christian critics, for somewhat different reasons, also view cults negatively. They see them as illegitimate parodies of God's true religion and a Satanic plot to lure people away from the pure faith. Both secular and Christian critics agree that efforts should be made both to discourage people from joining and to reclaim people who have joined.

This criticism has not slowed the growth of alternative religions, which have steadily increased in both numbers and percentage in Western society during the twentieth century. On the other hand, the massive criticism of the new religions has widened the rifts in the social fabric which have divided families and even communities along religious lines. The cults, the nonconventional religions, have developed deep roots in the American soil and are well on their way to becoming established elements in the social order. Such groups as the Church of Latter Day Saints have already created a secure niche for themselves in both the religious and secular realms. The emergence of the radically pluralistic society suggests that not a continuation of hostilities but an attitude of acceptance and understanding of a new religious social order is needful. The United States, as is true for all of the West, is becoming home to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Muslims and a veriety of psychic-occult religions just as it has been home to Christians and Jews.

Viewed parochially, cults can appear to be the stange activity of cultural outcasts, those small groups always on the edge of culture, always dissenting, always strange, sometimes sinister. If, on the contrary, one assumes a broader more historical approach, cults take on a quite different appearance. During the nineteenth century, riding the tide of colonial conquests, Christianity spread from Europe around the world. It swept across North America, Africa and Latin America and made a significant penetration of Asia. On the heels of the Christian expansion, non-Christian religion began to come into the West. Its first significant appearance was in New England where Hinduism greatly influenced the Transcendentalist Movement. By the end of the century, groups of Asians began to bring their faiths, primarily Buddhism, to Hawaii and the West Coast. Then in the twentieth century, returning upon the ships and planes that brought Western culture to the East, Asian and Middle Easterners came to America to establish now thriving communities. They brought their religion and their often exotic culture. All the while, occult religions which had all but disappeared in the eighteenth century made their comeback.

The progress of Christianity in the East and the spread of Eastern religion in the West accelerated after World War II. What has been viewed as the rise of cults in america is actually but a single phase of a total global shift in world religion. The basic component of this shift in recent decades has been the very visible penetration of Asian religion in unprecedented proportions in the West. This massive migration of people and ideas is far larger than the momentary success of one single religion and far more significant than the human frailties of an individual guru. a microcosm of world religion is being created in the West. Instead of the twenty to thirty Christian denominations from which eighteenth-century Americans could choose, those living in the next century will be able to pick from over a thousand Christian denominations and literally hundreds of non-Christian alternatives.

Given the change that is occurring in the West, approaches to nonconventional religions which attempt to comprehend their dynamics and build structures for people of diverse religious backgrounds to co-exist in a high degree of social harmony offer a far more healthy and rewarding approach than those which perpetuate hostilities built upon an incorrect perception of the larger impact of the so-called cults.

Thus, this information intends to provide an introduction to the world of unfamiliar religion. It will intoduce the more important of these faiths that are challenging the hegemony of the established religions of America and offer information about others which are also making their impact. While this is not a substitute for the detailed studies of individual groups, it should provide a point from which indepth investigation can begin. Most importantly it will furnish an overview and set the context for the understanding of any particular group.