Essay Sample on New Religious Movements with Perspectives on Religious Deviance

Posted on July 21, 2008

New Religious Movements: Theoretical Perspectives on Religious Deviance

The subject of deviance, taken from any context – be it political, religious or cultural – has fueled many heated debates over the decades.  Although the topic has accumulated a rather large body of knowledge, experts, theorists, critics and academicians are no closer to reaching an agreement about anything.  According to Clinard (2004), “deviance takes many forms, but the agreement remains elusive about which specific behaviours and conditions constitute deviance. This ambiguity becomes especially evident when some people praise the same behaviour that others condemn. To understand deviance, one must first understand this contradiction:  No consensus reliably identifies behaviour, people, or conditions that are deviant, although most people would say that they know deviance when they see it.” (p.2)

Despite all the theoretical landmines in this subject arena, Adler and Adler (1994) offer a rather straightforward definition of deviance as “violations of social norms.”(p.7) For the purposes of this discussion about deviance, particularly the religious deviance of groups known as “cults”, we will employ such a definition.  “Norms are behavioural codes, or prescriptions, that guide people into actions and self-presentations that conform to social acceptability.  Norms need not be agreed on by every member of the group doing the defining, but a clear or vocal majority must agree.” (Adler & Adler).

People may be viewed as deviant due to their behaviour, beliefs, or condition. Among these three, it appears that the judging of behaviour is what most are familiar with.  The behavioural patterns considered as manifestations of a deviant nature may either be intentional or inadvertent. People can, and often are, labelled deviant for alternative attitudes or belief systems that depart from what society considers prescribed norms.  These alternative belief systems may be, but not limited to, a religious or political category, wherein the people who ascribe to such values are considered to hold strange and unorthodox perspectives (e.g. cult members, extreme political leftists, Satanists). (Adler & Adler)

In the words of Howard Becker (as cited in Adler & Adler, 1994), “a deviant is an outsider, one who is outside the consensus of what constitutes proper conduct”. (p.17) The problem with this dangerously simplistic viewpoint is the rather inescapable fact that everyone is someone else for everyone. Thus, discussions on deviance quickly turn into one of norms and the vain and tiresome quest of searching for universal truths, applicable anywhere and to everyone.

Historically speaking, many prescribed behavioural modes or norms of were originally enforced by the powerful arm of the church through the concept of “sin.” Certain virtues were praised to be mediums to eternal salvation while the transgressions of these rules would lead to the fires of hell.  The use of “secular law to regulate to regulate them is a relic of the time when the authority of the state was used to enforce the rules of an established church.  That era is past, but we can see our cultural heritage most clearly perhaps in the laws we inherited from the Puritan theocracy in New England.  We have (or have had in the recent past) laws against blasphemy, obscenity, contraception, Sabbath breaking, extra-marital sexual relations, lewdness, homosexuality, gambling and drunkenness.”(Clinard, 2004, p.24)

This behavioural inheritance echoes the remnants of a culture in which religion once was dominant.  As times have progressed, our culture has evolved, our economic and technological systems have gotten more and more sophisticated, scientific breakthroughs have occurred and baffled the world, communication and the role of mass media have been emphasized, virtually as the world got smaller in terms of frontiers to be crossed, the role religion as a social glue has waned in importance. “If we remove the religious component, the criterion for whether the conduct in question should be forbidden should rest on whether there is any demonstrable, objectively measurable social harm resulting from it.  To determine this, we must separately consider and evaluate each mode of conduct.  In a totally rational world we would expect to find a correlation between the prohibition of conduct and its objective harmfulness.  But this is not a rational world and the correlation does not exist.” (Clinard, 2004,p15)

Taking note of these contemporary times, nothing is more evident, than the global religious diversity.  And yet, this diversity does not automatically translate to tolerance or even acceptance, as many current events regarding Christianity and Islam may point out.  Often, as many have said though few have believed, it is the inadequacy of these well-established religions to reach some of their followers at a more spiritual level beyond rote recitations of faith that lead others to form counter-religions or counter-cultures offering a new religious path.

The period from the late1960s through the middle 1970s was the time when the concept of “counterculture” of flamboyant political and vigorous protest among the ranks of educated youth in America.  Sociologists such as Robert Bellah and Charles Glock (as cited by Robbins, 1998) “have interpreted the cultural tumult as essentially a religious crisis or cultural crisis of meaning in which dominant value complexes such as utilitarian individualism were being challenged.”(p.1)

Sociology, as a scientific discipline, commits itself to the search for general, explanatory theories that shed light, albeit in an abstract way, to the probable causes of empirical change in any given societal situation.  In the sub-area of religion, however, it is extremely difficult to encapsulate the diverse cultural, social and spiritual processes in one neat idea.  Therefore,  “the sociological task is to embrace, in analytical formulations of wide application, diverse cultural contents – and the unstated but implicit, assumption of sociologists is that their concepts should, like those of natural scientists, be of universal application.  It has been commonplace of modern sociological theory that social systems depend for their integration on value consensus, and that such consensus attains its ultimate expression in religion.”(Barker,1982,p.16)

The concept of “new religious movements”, particularly that of the cultic phenomena is extremely problematic for sociologists.  New movements have been a recurring in the different contexts of Christian cultures in the West.  Most of these movements are often ridiculed, persecuted, or suppressed until they cease to be new and eventually cease to be.

The term “cult” is derived from 15th century Latin word for “tend, care or cultivate.”  Through the years, however, with its increased usage in relation to those religious groups that have been judged as an extreme departure from the average, prescribed norm, the term has lost its original etymological connotation of good. “In popular usage this term refers, in an often pejorative way, to those religious movements which have succeeded in recruiting thousands of young members in many countries in the past decades.” (Barker, 1982,p.29)
The term cult is frequently applied to a wide range of groups – political, therapeutic, magical and even scientific.  Those who use the term generally imply that the group is irrational in its beliefs and dogmatically led by a charismatic, possibly unscrupulous leader.

Classically, the term cult has applied to various eccentric forms of religious worship and the groups that practice them.  During the past years, however, the word has taken on a pejorative meaning and generally implies that the group is suspect.  Critics use the term to describe groups they regard as false, dishonourable, and predatory and apply it to nonreligious groups that are seen as doctrinaire and extreme.  It can be said that one person’s religion is another person’s cult. (Committee on Psychiatry & Religion, 1992)

Sociology, in response to the call for explanations for general deviant behaviour offers many theories.  Each may of course be used to explain why certain individuals join these cults and exactly what they are in actual search of.  Popular culture views these cultic members as either crazy, fraudulent or a mixture of both, brainwashing and manipulating impressionable souls out their religious heritage and money.  Sociology prefers to analyze the behaviour and not judge the doer.  Therefore, with suspended judgement, this body of knowledge offers the following theories; chosen from a wide range due present the most-balance approach to explain the religious behaviour of these so-called deviant cults.

Differential association theory is a classic, formal sociological statement of an idea familiar to everyone:  people are influenced by their friends.  In religious terms, people will tend to convert to a new religion if the majority of their friends already belong.
Edwin H. Sutherland’s theory of differential association, which centers on how people learn to be deviant, has become one of the most widely known theories in sociology since it first appeared in his Principles of Criminology in 1947.

Sutherland’s theory accounts for the cause of an individual’s deviant act, and the epidemiology, or distribution of deviant behaviour as reflected in various rates.  Sutherland argued that deviant group behaviour resulted from normative conflict.  Conflict among norms affects deviance through differential social organization determined by neighbourhood structures, peer group relationships, and family organization.  An individual’s normative conflict results in criminal behaviour through differential association in which the deviant learns criminal definitions of behaviour from personal associates. (Adler & Adler, 1994)

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