Flowering of Cults in the 20th Century

by Dr. J. Gordon Melton


Numbers: Everyone who has looked at the cult phenomenon has agreed that the number of alternative religious groups has grown significantly during the twentieth century, particularly since World War II. Using the broad definition of the social scientists, one can find some 500 to 600 cults or alternative religions in the United States. Of these, over 100 are primarily ethnic bodies confined to first and second generation immigrant communities. These ethnic religions do no recruiting beyond their small ethnic base and frequently continue the use of the language of their home country, a significant barrier to their spread into the general population.

Beyond the cults, however, numerous sect groups have splintered from the large mainline denominations although they resemble each other in most ways. They affirm the Western Christian tradition but dissent on one or more significant points. When their dissent becomes extreme or centers upon some key issues of doctrine, the label "cult" is frequently applied to these groups as well. Among the sects, for example, the Jehovah's Witnesses disagree with the Christian tradition by their denial of a number of central affirmations of orthodox Christian faith--the Trinity, hell, salvation by grace along with a number of lesser beliefs. The Witnesses placed great importance upon their predictions of the exact date of the end of the world, and they have tended to draw their members into a closed social circle. Other sects deviated by their acceptance of faith healing or glossolalia or other nonconventional behavioral patterns and thus earned the designation "cult," particularly from Christian writers.

If one adds the Christian groups which have strongly dissented from the doctrinal norms of the Western Christian tradition, several hundred more groups join the list of cultic groups. Such groups deserve attention in any survey of the cultic milleu in America as they have tended to become separatist and develop alternative social structures which become the focus of their members' daily lives. Also, the more extreme sects occasionally have developed corrupt, rigid authoritarian leadership structures. Unhampered by normal societal checks, such corrupt leadership has led to disastrous results, amply illustrated, for example, in the murders and crimes perpetrated by the members of the Church of the Lamb of God. Anti-cultists draw their image of destructive cults from extreme sects as well as from those groups more normally labeled cults.

Just as there are not really so many cult groups as are frequently reported in the press, cults also lack the huge membership often credited to them. If such alleged membership, reportedly in the millions, existed, every neighborhood would have visible cult centers. Only a few of the older cults--the Jehovah's Witnesses, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints--have attained a broad membership throughout the nation. Of those groups formed in the twentieth century, only a few, such as the American Muslim Mission (found in 1930), can count their mebership in the tens of thousands. The more famous of the contemporary cults, such as the Unification Church (with 5,000 to 7,000 members) or the Hare Krishna (with approximately 2,500 initiated members), can count their membership in the thousands. Most cults have only a few hundred members and spend most of their energy just surviving. Thus, in those several hundred groups which have become prominent during the last decades, a total of 150,000 to 200,000 would be a more reasonable membership estimate.

One cannot, however, measure cult statistics solely by membership. It must be noted that many times the number of members have had only a brief period of cult involvement. Over ninety percent of those who join an alternative religion leave it within a few years. Even larger numbers of individuals, in the process of examining a religious group, participate in some activity but never join. Over one million people took the basic course in Transcendental Meditation, but only a minority joined the TM organization, and the total American membership remains in the 10,000 to 20,000 range. Similarly, only a few of the many thousands who were initiated into the Divine Light Mission became "premies." Between thirty and forty thousand of the several hundred thousand who have taken the basic weekend introduction to the Unification Church eventually joined the orgnaization. Of that number fewer than 7,000 remained as members as 1984. While the cults grew appreciably during the 1970s, they still constitute a numerically small part of the American religious scene.

The Course of Growth: While the growth of cults has not been alarming, it has been noticeable and raised questions of its causes. Why has the United States experienced this sudden burst of new alternative religions with its element of Oriental religions and Christian groups which originated in the Orient (such as the Local Church)? Some researchers have pointed to the social unrest of the 1960s and the pattern of emergent religions arising in times of social upheaval. However, while this observation provided some helpful reflection on the patterns of religious diversification, it did little to explain the rise of the new Asian component. Other students, primarily critics of the new religions, claim the growth of the new religions to be a result of their use of new manipulative psychological techniques which attract and control (i.e., brainwash) youthful followers, many of whom join during the crises of adolescence. This explanation suffers from its inability to describe any demonstrably new element in the cultic conversion techniques which have been used by Evangelical Christians for generations, in spite of the use of modern psychological terminology in discussions of conversion events. A final group of observers of the milieu or the new religions, their supporters, sees these groups as the visible expression of a new religious consciousness.

More detailed and dispassionate obsevation has suggested that several mundane causes may underlie the seemingly sudden flowering of the new religions. First, the contemporary burst of alternative religions continues a history of growth in metaphysical, occult and Eastern religion which is at least a century and a half old. Asian religion entered the United States in the early 1800s and found an initial expression in the Transcendentalist Movement in New England. The large immigration of Asians in the last half of the nineteenth century brought the first Buddhist and Hindu teachers to the United States and threatened many West Coast residents. California could have become like Hawaii, which is one third Buddhist. During the first decades of this century, legislators passed a series of Asian exclusion acts which slowed the flow of immigrants from India, Japan, and Southeast Asia to a trickle. The natural growth of Asian religion was thus effectively stunted. Then in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson rescinded the Asian exclusion laws and raised Asian immigration quotas to a par with those of other nations. As a result, asians have come to the Untied States in the hundreds of thousands and are currently reshaping urban centers by their presence. For example, census records show that fewer than 12,000 Indians were admitted to the United States prior to 1960 (though many more than that came into the country illegally). Most lived in California. By 1980 over 380,000 had been admitted. 84,000 live in New York city, 34,000 in Chicago, and 60,000 in California. Equally dramatic figures could be cited for Japanese, Koreans, and other Asians.

The Asians brought with them their teachers--swamis, Zen masters, gurus--and a zeal to spread their religions among Americans. The new availability of Asian teachers has been the major factor in the growth of alternative religions in the last two decades. For the first time Asian faiths have become a genuine option for religious seekers in the West.

As the Asian missionaries arrived, they found a West prepared by recent cultural events and scientific developments to receive them. Within the occult and metaphysical communities, which had grown steadily through the century, the gurus found a welcome image of the East as the fountainhead of pure wisdom. Occult/metaphysical groups, which had been the conduit for Eastern teachings, had, as a result, built a hunger for unmediated experiences under a Hindu swami or a Japanese Zen master. Such a desire for firsthand acquaintance with Eastern religion had also been created within the colleges that were offering a growing number of courses in Eastern faiths. Students wished to go beyond the academic experience.

Three signifcant developments within the large scientific comunity also prepared the West for the burst of new religions. The emergence of parapsychology out of the older field of psychical research, the discovery and spread of LSD and other mind-altering drugs, and the rise of alternative branches of the psychologcal disciplines (most notably humanistic psychology and Jungian psychotherapy) established a scientific basis for the introspective search which Eastern and occult religions claimed as their special expertise. In their own differing ways, parapsychology, hallucinogenics and psychology became the legitimizing agents for mystical occultism and Eastern spiritual disciplines.

The flowering of the cults in the last two decades is best seen as the convergence and maturation of several trends which had been developing in North America for many decades. Unleashed by the demise of Asian immigration restrictions, these trends flowed into a new permissive environment. Without the many years of effort by members of alternative religions prior to 1965 and the development of the culture to receive the Eastern gospel, there would have been little response to the Eastern teachers when they finally did arrive.

Who Joins? Since World War II, America has experienced two periods of national religious revival, first in the early 1950s and again in the 1970s. In both of them, millions of Americans attained a new religious appreciation and joined a church or some religious organization. While thousands were joining alternative religions, hundreds of thousands were joining conservative Protestant Evangelical chuches, especially the pentecostal ones. Many thousands of members of mainline churches formed pentecostal groups without leaving their primary affiliation. Many blacks were attracted to Moslem organizations, while many poorer whites moved to new sectarian churches. Older "cults"--Mormons, Jehovah's Witnesses--grew among broad segments of the population.

The new cults, those which experienced their first real growth in the 1970s, and many of which had an Eastern or occult orientation, grew among a very narrow segment of the population. They primarily attracted single young adults (age 18-25). The new recruits were generlly drawn from the upper half of the population economically and educationally. University campuses have continued to be a favorite recruiting ground.

Members of the new cults have been drawn equally from all segments of the established religious population though some groups show a marked individual variance. Like the population, about half of the new members have a Protestant-Free Church background and another fourth are Roman Catholic. The Jewish community is the exception, being overrepresented. Nonconventional religions tend to draw a much higher percentage of their membership, particularly their leadership, from among the Jewish segment of the population than national percentages would lead one to expect. This overrepresentation of Jews in some new religions has become a matter of legitimate concern for some Jewish religious leaders though no consensus of opinion on a single method of response has emerged. Some have become leaders in the anti-cult movement while others have become equally vocal in defending the cults from what they feel are unjustified attacks by anti-cultists.

Though the great majority of people who join nonconventional religions could easily adopt the religion of their parents, only a minority are ever active in a church or synagogue as a teenager. The weak tie to the parental religion often proves unable to hold in the face of the young adult's reading books about and then visiting different religious groups available in the community. For example, the great majority of people who joined the Hare Krishna movement had done some reading in Eastern religion and had adopted vegetarianism prior to any firsthand contact with group members. Members of many new religions had participated in the drug culture and were drawn to a religious group which promised a chemical-free alternative to the psychedelic experience.

Thus, while some groups have been actively recruiting members, potential converts have also been actively searching for a group that can meet their specific needs and desires (both religious and otherwise). They will test and reject groups until they find the right one and will leave that group if it no longer fulfills their expectations.

The nonconventional religions also vary widely in their recruitment processes. Some, particularly those with Evangelical Christian roots (and a few which are Eastern, but reacting to Christian missionary activity) have an aggressive program of membership enlistment. Most others rely upon the distribution of literature or the sponsoring of introductory classes to which a potential convert must make the initial effort and attend. Many Hindu groups offer hatha yoga exercise classes out of which they recruit individuals who show an interest in more religious forms of yoga (bhakti, raja, or japa). Some of the groups that lead a more austere and demanding life, put prospective members through a testing period (similar to a monastic novitiate) before initiating them. A few, such as the Pagan and magickal groups, do not recruit at all, and prospective members must take all the initiative in locating a group (frequently a difficult process).

In return, nonconventional religions reap a small harvest from those with whom they come in contact. Of those who attend an initial recruitment event--an introductory TM lecture, a weekend on Unification theology, a Scientology personality test, a five-week hatha yoga class--less than 10% will join. Of those who do join, the overwhelming majority will stay with the group for less than two years. For example, during its first decade (1965-74), the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (the Hare Krishnas) initiated 5,000 members. An additional 2,500 were initiated between 1975 and 1983. Of the 7,500, only 2,500 remained active in 1984. Only a handful were deprogrammed; the rest simply walked away. Those who leave can move on to a new religion or remain loosely affiliated with the group. Most return to the religion in which they were raised.

Nonconventional religions, particularly those singled out as "destructive cults," have frequently been accused of engaging in deceptive recruitment practices. The charges of deception emerged from reflection upon the activities of the Oakland Family, a local center of the Unification Church headed by Rev. Sun Myung Moon. The Family operated several structures which were not openly identified with the controversial Church, and certain literature made no reference to the Church as its sponsor. Some people who eventually became members of the Church for a short period claimed that they became active in the life of the Church before realizing that it was the Unification Church with which they had affiliated. Almost all serious charges about deceptive elements in the recruiting process have stemmed from the Oakland Family in the 1970s. Complaints about deceptive recruiting have been little heard in recent years except in the most general checklists of cult practices published by anti-cult organizations.

Most groups are and have been quite open and proud of their organization, and many, particularly those whose members adopt distinctive dress, would have a next to impossible task concealing their identity. No adult would have any question about whom they were dealing with when they met a Krishna devotee on the street or visited a Krishna temple. The Church of Scientology has had a long-standing policy of having prospective members fill out a form in which they acknowledge their awareness that they are about to participate in a Scientology event. While new members may not be aware of all of the implications of joining a distinctively different religion, they do understand the basic beliefs and requirements and the identity of the group they are joining.

SOURCE:  http://www.americanreligion.org/cultwtch/20thcen.html