"New religious movement" is often used instead of the word "cult" to avoid negative connotations. It is the politically correct term for a religious group that has emerged recently. Recently is relative -- a NRM could be over 50 or even 100 years old and still be considered new. Many NRMs eventually fade out, while some grow in size and/or evolve into sects or denominations.
How are NRMs and mainstream religions different?
Mainstream religions often suggest that they are the only true way, condemning all other paths. That condemnation only grows stronger when the path in conflict is a new religion. In the twentieth century, a large number of new religious movements, generally referred to indiscriminately and deprecatingly as cults, have arisen. Established religions are quick to condemn these groups; but are they more similar than one might think? In some cases, the only difference is a matter of age. New religious movements and ancient religions are often not vastly different; it is how we are socialised to see them that makes us perceive that they are.
Religion of all types is highly dependent on emotion (Williams) and therefore on psychological state. It involves emotions like fear, love, awe, joy, and faith. This essential basis is common in both mainstream religions and new religious movements (NRMs). Fear of the afterlife, of some eventual doomsday event, of unpleasant reincarnation, of unenlightenment ? all are remarkably similar. Likewise, love of a nebulous god or gods may be compared to love of a supposedly messianic human individual, and faith in that individual's teachings is very like faith in the teachings of supposed representatives of the higher being.
Both mainstream religions and NRMs often use promotional events and media, such as books, television, and charitable events. In both cases, some groups (not all) are very concerned with converting or "saving" persons who do not belong to their group. Methods vary; but NRMs are not the only religious groups to use the emotionally coercive methods that incite cries of "cult". It seems that when conversion is a prime goal, both established religions and NRMs seem to engage in activities of vague ethical merit.
Where do the two types of religion diverge? Mainstream society and religions would indicate that "cult" groups practice mind control and unethical appropriation of members' belongings, among other crimes. (see Pseudo_Intellectual's writeup under cult) This is demonstrated by books like "Cults : what parents should know : a practical guide to help parents with children in destructive groups", by Joan Carol Ross and Michel D. Langone, and by books written by religious persons who aim to inform others of their faith so that these enemies can be won over, like the "Dictionary of Cults, Sects, Religions, and the Occult" by George A. Mather and Larry A. Nichols.
In addition, fingers are often pointed at doomsday groups who have committed mass suicide or gotten in trouble with the law, such as the People's Temple in the Jonestown massacre incident, or the Branch Davidians in Waco, Texas. However, NRMs that have none of the characteristics of these groups characteristics exist, and they tend to undergo the same degree of persecution as groups which may really deserve it. While some NRMs fit the popular opinion profile, they are quite possibly not the majority. Many NRMs have sincere and well-thought-out (if somewhat wacky) premises.
How, then, can one tell a "cult" from a legitimate sort of NRM? P. E. I. Bonewitz created a series of metrics for description of a religion's level of "cult" characteristics. To provide a comparison between an established religion and an NRM, these metrics will be applied to mainstream Christianity and to the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKON; Hare Krishna), a fairly prominent NRM. Each of Bonewitz's metrics will be applied to the two religions.
"Internal control; the amount of internal political power exercised by leader(s) over members." Christianity has a traditionally hierarchical political structure. Within some branches of the religion (Roman Catholicism), the Pope has authority to instruct all other clergymen, and all lay-people. The Pope has the power to excommunicate any member of the faith. This power is toned down in other flavours of Christianity, but the religion is usually based around the power of one individual, be it the Pope or the pastor.
ISKON was founded in 1966 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The movement is now governed by a "Governing Body Commission", a group of 29 individuals with varying degrees of administrative and religious authority. The Commission disciplines its members, each being of equal rank. The Commission holds power like that of the Christian Pope, but for the fact that it is made up of many persons rather than one. This does mean that less power is concentrated in one person; however, the general corruption of ISKON Commission members in the movement's past suggests that power is still too concentrated for a major difference to be effected in that regard (Barrett).
In terms of actual control over members' lives, both religions are currently lenient. Christianity does have a history of excommunicating dissenters, but this is generally not a feature of the religion today. Suggestion and teaching are more important than control. In ISKON, similar is true. Members are free to be involved with the movement to the degree that they are comfortable with, and can leave at any time (Barrett).
"Wisdom claimed by leaders; the amount of infallibility declared about decisions." Traditional Christianity claims infallibility for its holy book, rather than its leaders. The fact that priests, bishops, and so on up may make mistakes is an acknowledged fact. In ISKON, several early members of the "Governing Body Commission" violated the religion's tenets by behaving improperly, in terms of sexual behaviour, drug use, or other illegal activity. The Commission's current chairman has stated that these mistakes were due to immaturity of the individuals involved and of the movement at the time --acknowledging the fallibility of the leading body (Barrett).
"Wisdom credited to leaders by members; the amount of trust in decisions made by leaders." In both groups, this factor varies. Some Christians may have absolute faith in the clergy, while others may not. In ISKON, great wisdom is accredited particularly to the founder of the religion. The movement maintains absolute faith in his teachings and correctness. However, degree of trust in current leaders may vary (ISKON.org).
"Dogma; the rigidity of reality concepts taught; the amount of doctrinal inflexibility." Christian concepts and doctrine were originally inflexibly set down by the Bible; however, as the religion has aged, branches of the religion have been created and flexibility has become a necessity. ISKON teaches strict belief in several principles regarding behaviour, but further verifiable information about this aspect of the movement is unavailable.
"Recruiting; the emphasis put on attracting new members; the amount of proselytizing." Christians believe that all persons who have not accepted Jesus Christ will spend eternity being tortured in hell, so naturally proselytizing is an important part of the religion. However, in the author's experience, mainstream Christian emphasis is on recruiting is not overwhelming; personally following Christian principles is generally more important.
ISKON is known particularly for the time when its disciples chanted in the street in hopes of attracting new members. Emphasis is still extant, with devotees selling or giving books and holding festivals to promote their faith. It is a goal of the movement to "systematically propagate spiritual knowledge to society at large" (Bhakivedanta Book Trust), but emphasis on this does not seem greater than that on the spiritual growth of individual members.
"Front groups; the number of subsidiary groups using names different from that of the main group." Christianity as a whole has no front groups, nor do any of its branches. Many "Christian ___ Society" type organisations exist, but most are not associated with the religion's leaders in any way. ISKON has one acknowledged "front group", which provides food to needy persons. "Food For Life", however, is openly an arm of ISKON operations (ISKON.org).
"Wealth; the amount of money and/or property desired or obtained; the degree of emphasis on members' donations." Christianity emphasises donation to charity, and support of one's church community; donations to the larger church organisation are generally not advocated. ISKON devotees sometimes choose a life of asceticism, and renunciation of material things is advocated in this case. However, ISKON literature and writings about ISKON make no mention of highly emphasised donation. The movement fundraises for maintenance of itself and its charity, "Food For Life".
"Political power; the amount of external political influence desired or obtained." Christians make appeal to political powers on issues they feel are concerned with their faith, such as gay marriage. The true area of Christian political influence is in the number of politicians who are themselves Christian. However, this influence is not officially of the relgion; rather of its members and through them its teachings. ISKON likely has no involvement in external politics, due to its reclusive nature.
"Sexual manipulation of members by leaders; the amount of control of sex lives of members." Both groups advocate sexual relations only within marriage, and no other pressure is put on members, unless it is because of deviant individuals. However, this one of Bonewitz's metrics is among the hardest to evaluate. Sexual manipulation may occur through the religion, when the religion itself has few sexual rules.
"Censorship; the amount of control over members' access to outside opinions on group, its doctrines, or its leaders." No mainstream branch of Christianity has such controls. Many members of ISKON live away from the group and therefore control of them is impossible; however, those who live in communal arrangements may or may not be subject to such control. It is of course impossible to find out without first-hand personal experience.
"Dropout control; the intensity of efforts directed at preventing or returning dropouts." Christianity attempts to prevent and reverse dropout to the same extent and for the same reasons that it proselytizes. The high attrition rate of ISKON speaks for its lack of dropout control. The movement only has about 1, 300 members in Britain, but may have as many as 30, 000 past members there (Barrett).
"Endorsement of violence when used by or for the group or its leaders." Christian endorsement of violence is a historical issue. Officially sanctioned violence has not been widespread since the Crusades. However, specific instances of violence against doctors who have performed abortions or other persons who are forcibly disagreed with does occur within the movement. ISKON condemns violence against other living things, including animals, and is generally a peaceful movement.
"Paranoia; the amount of fear concerning real or imagined enemies, the perceived power of opponents." Neither group openly exhibits any sign of paranoia. And, finally, "Grimness, the amount of disapproval concerning jokes about the group, its doctrines, or its leaders." Christian jokes bad and good can be heard all over the world ? and most Christians will laugh at them. No opportunity for assessing this tendency in ISKON members has presented itself.
While of course these two groups are not universally representative, this comparison demonstrates that mainstream religions and NRMs can both exhibit various degrees of "cult-like" behaviour. The true differences between mainstream religion and NRMs lie in the date of genesis ? Christianity is thousands of years old, while older NRMs may have lived for mere decades ? and the type of persons involved in the movement. Prejudices of established religious groups and of society as a whole lead to the stigma against "cults" that is maintained today; while in some cases it may be deserved, in some cases it is not.
Bonewitz, P. E. I. Definition of a 'cult', on The Atheism Web 30/06/1997
note: quotes beginning paragraphs throughout are Bonewitz's metrics
Barrett, David V. Sects, 'Cults' & Alternative Religions
Blanford, London, 1996
Bhaktivedanta Book Trust, 2003
James, William, The Varieties of Religious Experience
Touchstone Books; Reprint April 1, 1997
*Node your homework!
The author is not an expert, a Christian, or a member of ISKON. Any mistakes will be corrected with all speed if pointed out.
The opinions expressed in this paper may or may not be biased. Discussion is welcome.