alternative religion 4157

Alternative Religion

April 30, 2021

Cult or Alternative Religion, religious group whose practices and beliefs differ from those of the dominant or mainstream religions. Cults vary tremendously, and much disagreement surrounds the definition of a cult and which groups should be classified as cults. Today, scholars generally use the terms alternative religion, new religion, or new religious movement to describe groups that deviate from the religious mainstream.

Alternative religions have appeared throughout history. Although many of them soon disappeared, others persisted, and some eventually became established denominations. Religions once classed as cults include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Theosophy, and Christian Science.


Historically, the word cult referred to religious practices that emphasize ritual devotion to a god or gods or the idolization of a person or object. References continue today to the cult of the Virgin Mary or the cult of a particular saint. They allude to special worship of that person. But cult took on additional meanings as it began to be applied to unconventional religious movements or to breakaway groups.

People sometimes confuse cults with sects, but there are differences. Cults are similar to sects in that they both promote a new religion or a new interpretation of an established religion. Sects, however, are groups that have broken away from an established religion, often in protest against what they see as corruption or impure doctrine.

Cults, in contrast to sects, differ sharply from traditional religions in their doctrine. In addition, cults are typically smaller and more loosely organized than sects. And finally, cults generally form around a leader who claims to have special spiritual powers, such as healing or prophecy. Such leaders, sometimes called charismatics, emphasize the importance of personal religious experiences. Cult followers typically feel intense loyalty to the group and its leader.

Scholars who regard cults as first-generation religions note that several major religions could once have been viewed as cults. These religions began as small groups of people inspired by a charismatic leader with novel religious ideas. Christianity, for example, began with a small group of Jews who accepted the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and regarded him as the Christ (Greek for “chosen one”). Similarly, Buddhism was founded by a single person, Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha), who rejected principles of Hinduism and found acceptance for his new ideas among a small group of disciples.

The meaning of the word cult shifted dramatically in the West in the 1960s and 1970s with the appearance of many alternative religious movements that had unconventional practices and sought to convert young adults. The public viewed these groups and their leaders as extremist and dangerous and felt they exercised mind control over their followers. Those who joined cults were viewed as emotionally disturbed or as victims of coercion or brainwashing. Cult, in popular usage, came to describe any group with a fanatical devotion to a person, movement, or common interest.


Alternative religious movements tend to flourish in relatively open societies and where two distinctive cultures meet. For example, they proliferated in the ancient Roman Empire, which tolerated diverse beliefs and ruled over a variety of peoples and cultures. One such religion was Christianity, which emerged after the Romans conquered the region of Judah (now part of Israel) in 63 bc. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had established its dominance in Europe. However, the Christian church did not tolerate new religious movements and sought instead to extinguish them, sometimes using violence.

The United States, with its constitutional guarantee of religious liberty, has been the birthplace of many new religious movements. Those founded in the 19th century include the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (1830), Spiritualism (about 1848), Jehovah’s Witnesses (1872), the Theosophical Society (1875), and Christian Science (1879). The Universal Peace Mission of Father Divine began in the late 1910s and soon attracted a large following. These groups were typically greeted, at least initially, with suspicion, ridicule, and hostility. For example, members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sometimes known as Mormons, were physically attacked by mobs and driven from their communities.

Pluralism—the existence of diverse cultures and beliefs—expanded greatly in Europe and North America in the wake of World War II (1939-1945). American troops stationed as occupation forces in Japan were exposed to Zen, a school of Buddhism that emphasizes meditation, and some began Zen groups after they returned home.

During the 1960s and 1970s the number of cults in the United States surged. Scholars attribute this increase in part to a climate of social and political change in which young people began to explore alternative lifestyles. Perhaps even more important, President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965 repealed laws that had severely restricted immigration from Asia to the United States. As a result of the repeal, large numbers of people from India, Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia began to arrive in the United States. Among the immigrants were gurus, swamis, and preachers who sought to establish American branches of their religious movements. These movements included the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (see Hare Krishna) from India; the Divine Light Mission (now called Elan Vital), also from India; and the Unification Church from Korea, led by Sun Myung Moon. By the early 1970s each of these groups had attracted a small following in the United States.

Not all the new religious movements came from the East, however. Groups that emerged in the United States also experienced rapid growth in the 1960s and 1970s. The Church of Scientology, founded in 1954 by American writer and philosopher L. Ron Hubbard, drew many adherents. Others that thrived included The Way International, founded in the 1940s by radio minister Victor Paul Wierwille; the Church Universal and Triumphant (originally called Summit Lighthouse), founded in the 1960s by mystics Mark Prophet and Elizabeth Clare Prophet; and the Children of God (later renamed The Family), founded in 1968 by evangelist David Berg. Other movements emerged that emphasized witchcraft, paganism, Satanism, or occultism.

Cults and alternative religions tend to prosper in times of social instability. They offer members clear solutions to complex problems, a promise of salvation, and a sense of security in belonging to a group. The social upheaval of the 1960s and the experimentation with alternative lifestyles probably contributed to the surge in cult membership. The communal lifestyle, practiced by many of the alternative religions, appealed to many young people who sought to remake society.


Opposition to unconventional religious movements developed in the 1960s, especially among parents, because of efforts made by the groups to convert young people and the demands the groups made upon converts. Recruitment efforts sometimes resulted in young people dropping out of college, abandoning career goals, and adopting a full-time religious life in an unfamiliar group setting. The conformity, loyalty, and discipline required of members also raised alarm. The group might require its members to wear strange-looking garments, follow a strict or unusual diet, chant or meditate at specific times, or take a new name. Some groups required that members live in isolated communities and restricted or ended members’ contact with family members and others outside the cult.

Parents and other concerned people accused cults of using deception and psychological manipulation in recruiting and maintaining new members, a process dubbed brainwashing or mind control. They further charged that cults used brainwashing techniques to strip members of their ability to act or think independently. The charges of brainwashing appeared to be confirmed after the 1978 mass suicide by members of the People’s Temple, an agricultural commune in Jonestown, Guyana. On the orders of their leader, Jim Jones, more than 900 followers of the cult, mostly Americans, took poison and died.

The first organized anticult group, the Parents’ Committee to Free Our Children from the Children of God (later called FREECOG), formed in the early 1970s. Spurred by the frustrations of parents of young people who had joined the group Children of God, FREECOG charged the cult with brainwashing its members. By the mid-1970s publicity about the disturbing practices of cults had led to an anticult movement in North America, western Europe, and elsewhere. In the early 1980s most of the parent groups merged into what became known as the Cult Awareness Network. After the mass suicide in Jonestown, congressional hearings on the cult phenomenon were held in Washington, D.C. Several states also held hearings at which former cult members and their parents testified against cult membership.

In light of the potential dangers of cult membership, many parents believed in intervention to forcefully remove their children from the group. Children were sometimes abducted from the group and detained against their will. Parent groups supported the practice of deprogramming, which involved intense psychological pressure to break the cult member’s allegiance to the group. Civil libertarian groups criticized these practices.

The cult controversy set the stage for scholarly research on alternative religions. By the mid-1980s many social scientists who researched alternative religions found little substance in the popular notion that cults relied on brainwashing or other psychological coercion to recruit members. Some members who had undergone deprogramming won court victories against deprogrammers for civil rights violations. These setbacks weakened the anticult movement.

Opposition to cults or new religions has also come from sources other than parents. New religions have historically encountered opposition from established religions, especially from evangelical Christian groups. In general, evangelicals have regarded as false religions those groups that reject the basic tenets of orthodox Christianity. Their anticult activity has consisted primarily of producing anticult literature for distribution to church members and members of cults.


Some cults or alternative religions are clearly dangerous: They provoke violence or antisocial acts or place their members in physical danger. A few have caused the deaths of members through mass suicide or have supported violence, including murder, against people outside the cult. Sociologists note that violent cults are only a small minority of alternative religions, although they draw the most media attention.

Dangerous cults tend to share certain characteristics. These groups typically have an exceedingly authoritarian leader who seeks to control every aspect of members’ lives and allows no questioning of decisions. Such leaders may hold themselves above the law or exempt themselves from requirements made of other members of the group. They often preach a doomsday scenario that presumes persecution from forces outside the cult and a consequent need to prepare for an imminent Armageddon, or final battle between good and evil. In preparation they may hoard firearms. Alternatively, cult leaders may prepare members for suicide, which the group believes will transport it to a place of eternal bliss.

The greatest loss of life related to cult activities occurred when 913 members of the People’s Temple died in Jonestown, an agricultural commune in Guyana led by pastor Jim Jones. In 1978 a U.S. congressman visited the commune to investigate charges that the group was holding some members against their will. Cult leaders assassinated the congressman and four others, including three newspaper reporters. Jones then ordered his followers to commit suicide by drinking punch laced with cyanide.

Several other cults gained worldwide notoriety in the 1990s. In 1993 a confrontation between U.S. government agents and the Branch Davidians of Waco, Texas, resulted in the death of more than 80 Davidians, including about 20 children. Four federal agents also died. In 1994, 53 members of the International Chivalric Order Solar Tradition (commonly called the Solar Temple) died in suicides and murders at two villages in Switzerland and at a site near Montréal, Québec, Canada. The Solar Temple members believed their deaths would result in the transit of their spirits to another planet. More members of this cult died of suicide or murder from 1995 to 1997. In Tokyo, Japan, members of Aum Shinrikyo released poison nerve gas in a Tokyo subway station in 1995, killing 12 passengers and injuring 5,000 more. The group’s leaders were put on trial, and several were sentenced to death.

The largest mass suicide in the United States occurred in 1997, when 39 members of the Heaven’s Gate cult killed themselves in Rancho Santa Fe, California. Members of the cult believed that through suicide their souls would leave their bodily containers and would travel to a higher realm. Part of their faith stemmed from a belief in UFOs (unidentified flying objects). They believed a UFO spaceship hidden behind the comet Hale-Bopp, which was then approaching Earth, would transport their souls.


Sociologists expect alternative religions to continue to grow in the Western world in the atmosphere of individual freedom that dominates Western culture. Opposition to alternative religions has generally declined in North America. The New Age Movement has increased tolerance for a variety of spiritual experiences and changed the attitudes of many people toward religion. Opposition to alternative religions has grown stronger in other countries, however, especially in western Europe. The French and German governments, for example, do not recognize the Church of Scientology as a religion; some officials claim that its organization is antidemocratic. Other religious groups that encounter difficulty in Europe include Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Unification Church.

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