Why New Religions? The Sociology of Cults and the Need to Belong

By Cadell Last

Last night, I watched a new film, The Master, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix and Amy Adams, which tells the story of a World War II veteran in 1950 who becomes involved in a new religious movement. After officially stating that the “The Master” is not based on the story of L. Ron Hubbard and the Church of Scientology, director Paul Thomas Anderson has recently acknowledged “that Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard was the inspiration for the title character in “The Master,” but [that] the focus of the film is the relationship between a charismatic spiritual leader and his troubled follower, not the movement itself.”

Inspired by Anderson’s exploration of the early days of the Church of Scientology, I found myself asking the following questions: Why do people join cults and new age religions? Why have these cults and religions grown so rapidly over the past 50 years?

First, we must ask ourselves a few important questions: What is a cult? What is a new age religion? And how do these differ from traditional religions?

Contemporary sociologists do not actually differentiate between cults and ‘new religious movements’ (NRMs), but see them rather as similar human phenomena, according to Lorne L. Dawson, author of Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. However, cults and NRMs are generally understood to be distinct from traditional religions, even though scientists and politicians alike appear to have difficulty explaining what it is about cults and NRMs that makes them different from traditional religions. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has suggested that the only difference is that cults and NRMs are modern developments, whereas traditional religions have gained increased validity with the “passage of time.” Other scholars, such as James R. Lewis, see them as different because they are “assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture.”

Scientology is certainly a good example of how the lines between traditional religions and NRMs can become blurred. Although Scientology’s bible, Dianetics, states that Scientology “fulfills the goal of religion” from a “standpoint of reason,” the origin and internal structure of Scientology is strikingly similar to that of any major traditional religion, according to Douglas Cowan and David Bromley’s Cults and New Religions: A Brief History, and its claims about the universe stem from unwavering faith in the beliefs and opinions of one man. 

However, unlike traditional religions, Scientology is an extremely controversial institution throughout the Western world, and has struggled to gain tax-exempt status in many countries (Italy, Germany, Greece, Australia). Perhaps as a result of this, practitioners can sometimes expect to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to complete their ‘training’. Despite the controversy surrounding Scientology and the deep pockets that are required of new members, this NRM has succeeded in attracting more than 9 million members worldwide, with more than 6,000 churches in 159 countries.

Scientology is not the only NRM that has become a major cultural presence in the modern Western world. There are major NRMs associated with Asian traditions of philosophy, devotion, meditation and magic (Elan Vital), the human potential movement (Scientology), occult revival (Wicca), New-Age groups (Ramtha and the Church Universal and Triumphant), and UFO’s and aliens (Heaven’s Gate). Each of these new movements have well over 100,000 members. 

The pervasiveness and growing influence of NRMs are truly startling. We cannot help but ask ourselves how Scientology (and other NRMs), unarmed with empirical or scientific evidence to support their assertions, have become so powerful in the modern world. People who adhere to a religious tradition are not doing so because of any persuasive arguments in favor of the existence of a god or because of the scientific legitimacy of any religion. As the film The Master shows, and as the findings discussed in the following paragraph will demonstrate, NRMs satisfy important socio-cultural needs, most of which are related to a deep-seated desire to build and maintain strong social relationships. By understanding the needs that are satisfied by NRMs, secular societies may be able to combat the rise of these new religions.

Over the past 30 years sociologists have studied the reasons for which people join NRMs. Early research revealed that individuals who joined NRMs shared certain characteristics, including (1) a societal grievance and (2) a strong interpersonal bond with NRM recruiters, according to scholars Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge. Researchers have since built upon these earlier studies, collecting data and refining their scientific understanding of NRM recruitment. Currently, academics have identified three main characteristics that are shared by individuals who join NRMs:

1) Pre-existing social networks and interpersonal bonds (friends tend to recruit friends; family members tend to recruit family members)

2) Affective ties between members (the quality of the strength of social bonds developed between members)

3) Intensive interaction with new members (daily routines to prevent and/or reverse rapid disintegration of the group)

Other statistically important aspects of NRM recruitment include:

4) Weak extra-cult social ties

5) Weak ideological alignments (no affiliation or experience in a religion)

6) Seekership (people seeking answers to ‘big questions’ in life)

7) Direct rewards (people seeking an institution that will heighten self-esteem and give them a sense of power or control)

Although NRM members seem to share a desire to seek out the answers to the greater questions in life, this does not seem to be the most important characteristic. Clearly, the characteristics which appear to be the most significant among NRM members have mainly to do with the desire to build and maintain strong social relationships.

NRMs appear to function as institutions that provide people with a strong social network where they can bond with other people and develop a sense of community. As explored in The Master, NRMs prey on the lonely, the lost, and the wandering, using them to gain power, money and prestige. Therefore, denying these organizations tax-free status is not a strong enough measure if we as a society wish to reduce the influence and the growth of these organizations. To be effective, we must recognize that individuals in secularized communities may have lost institutions like churches, temples, and community centers which, in the past, may have served a basic human need, for example, the relief of loneliness.

I will leave you with the following questions: Can secular societies find a way to relieve human loneliness? If so, how?

Cadell Last is a biological anthropology graduate student at the University of Toronto. He has conducted extensive research on the activity patterns of ring-tailed lemurs, as well as on chimpanzee demography, nesting patterns and evolution. Cadell is a writer for The Advanced Apes, and he is currently working on his first book about human evolution, “Humble Origins.” You can contact him at www.theadvancedapes.com, on Twitter @cadelllast, on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TheAdvancedApes, or at cadell.last@gmail.com.

For a list of references, contact hnn@americanhumanist.org.

This article was originally published on ThePeopleProject.com on October 12, 2012. Reprinted with permission.