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"BY RELIGION I MEAN ..." SOME POSSIBLE DEFINITIONS OF CULTS, NEW RELIGIONS, AND RELATED GROUPS

 

"By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Church of England as established by law."

Henry Fielding, 18th. century novelist, in Tom Jones, book 3, chap. 3.

Fielding's definition of religion is fun. But, it is not much help for the serious student of religion. Therefore, we need to decide what we mean by such terms as "new religious movements."


Redefining Church, Sect and Cult, Etc.

Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, in (A Theory of Religion (New York, Peter Lang, 1987) use the work of sociologist Benton Johnson (1963) to construct a more reliable guide to religious organizations. They define church, sect, and cult as follows:

1 A church is a conventional religious organization.

2 A sect is a deviant religious organization with traditional beliefs and practices.

3 A cult is a deviant religious organization with novel beliefs and practices.

(Stark and Bainbridge 1987:124).

These definitions are precise and for the most part avoid value judgements on the worth of each movement. They also allow for change over time so that what may be a novelty today can become a tradition tomorrow and convention in a hundred years time. Another advantage of them is that they clearly distinguish religious from non-religious organizations. After all not everything is a "religious" phenomenon.

According to Stark and Bainbridge a religion must be based on some "supernatural assumptions" to distinguish it from secular thought. In their view religions involve:

"systems of general compensators based on supernatural assumptions" (1987:39).

By compensators they mean whatever people regard as rewards whether or not they are immediately apparent (1987:36)

Finally, it needs to be noted those groups which Stark and Bainbridge identify as sects and cults can also be seen as revitalization movements (1987:188).

Revitalization movements attempt to revive religious traditions through practical innovations and new expressions of traditional piety. They do not, however, seek to fundamentally change a tradition or incorporate radically new beliefs. Consequently revitalization movements do not produce new religions, rather they reaffirm old traditions.


What are New Religious Movements?

Despite the wonderfully concise meaning that Stark and Bainbridge assign it, the word cult remains an emotionally loaded term burdened with negative imagery. For this reason many writers have adopted the convention of calling contemporary groups, identified as either cults or sects, new religious movements (NRM's), or new religions.

Unfortunately, redefining cults as new religions can also confuse the issue. For example in Stark and Bainbridge's view cults grow out of established traditions to which they remain attached. In this sense they may be new religious movements, but not new religions. New religions on the other hand break with existing traditions to create something which did not previously exist.

Thus, as a first approximation, we might define new religious movements as cults and sects which although directly related to modernity grow out of existing traditions which are very important sources for their beliefs and practices.

On the other hand new religions are those groups which reject any attachment to clearly identified ongoing traditions. In this sense new religions express a "love of the new" and rejection of tradition as an authoritative guide for contemporary beliefs and practices.

Modernity is more than the spread of industrialization which has still to impact some societies. Rather, it is change brought about by an awareness of industrial goods, science, and technology. Modernity implies a distinction between that which is new as opposed to that which is ancient, or, that which is innovative as opposed to that which is traditional. It is usually an explicit and self-conscious commitment to be "modern" in intellectual, cultural and religious affairs .


How is Religion defined?

In the The Concise Dictionary of Religion (Downers Grove, InterVarsity Press, 1993:186-187) Irving Hexham wrote:

Hundreds of different definitions of religion exist each reflecting either a scholarly or a dogmatic bias depending in the last resort on the presuppositions of the person making the definition. Religion clearly contains intellectual, ritual, social and ethical elements, bound together by an explicit or implicit belief in the reality of an unseen world, whether this belief be expressed in supernaturalistic or idealistic terms. A number of the more common definitions are:

Berger, Peter - "the human enterprise by which a sacred cosmos is established."

Durkheim Emile - "a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things."

Frazer, James - "a propitiation or conciliation of powers superior to man which are believed to direct or control the course of nature and human life."

Hegel, George - "the knowledge possessed by the finite mind of its nature as absolute mind."

James, William - "the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto."

Kant, Immanuel - "the recognition of all our duties as divine commands."

Marx, Karl - "the self-conscious and self-feeling of man who has either not found himself or has already lost himself again... the general theory of the world... its logic in a popular form... its moral sanction, its solemn completion, its universal ground for consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence..."

Schleiermacher, Friedrich - "a feeling for the infinite" and "a feeling of absolute dependence."

Stark, Rodney - "any socially organized pattern of beliefs and practices concerning ultimate meaning that assumes the existence of the supernatural."

Whitehead, Alfred North - "what the individual does with his own solitariness."

Weber, Max - "to say what it is, is not possible... the essence of religion is not even our concern, as we make it our task to study the conditions and effects of a particular type of social behavior."

The one I find most useful is:

Smart, Ninian - "a set of institutionalized rituals identified with a tradition and expressing and/or evoking sacral sentiments directed at a divine or trans-divine focus seen in the context of the human phenomenological environment and at least partially described by myths or by myths and doctrines."