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Chercheurs de dieux dans l’espace public - Frontier Religions in Public Space

Pauline Côté

Première partie / Part I. De l'étrange au familier en religion - Exploring the religious frontier

The continuum between “cults” and “normal” religion1

James A. Beckford

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  • 1 Paper prepared for the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (...)

1The central theme of this paper is that an artificially strong barrier has been erected between new religious movements (or “cults”) and other religious phenomena. This barrier exaggerates the movements’ distinctiveness, if not pathology. Of course, case studies of separate movements have revealed interesting details about them; and comparative studies have identified some common characteristics and types. But is is useful to remind ourselves that, in some respects, new religious movements are subject to the same socio-cultural forces as are other religious phenomena. In particular, the contested boundaries between (a) religion and non-religion and (b) “normal” and “deviant” religion affect not only new religious movements but also “mainstream” expressions of religion. A better contextualisation of new religious movements might help to combat misplaced anxiety about them and to identify the grounds for justifiable concerns about them.


2While dramatic and tragic events have been unfolding around the world in connection with religious movements as varied as Aum Shinrykyo, the Branch Davidians, the solar Temple and Heaven’s Gate, “shadow drama” has been taking place in various countries of Western and Eastern Europe. I am referring to the succession of public inquiries and official reports on religious sects or “cults” which have emerged from France, Germany, Spain, Belgium, and Russia in recent years. There have also been debates in the European Parliament. Some of these reports have recommended draconian measures to deal with what is often perceived as the serious problem of “so-called sects”, “destructive cults” or “psychogroups”. Levels of anxiety, at least among some citizens and public officials, are high — even about groups as old and well known as the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons.

3Public concern about the gas attacks carried out in Japan and the suicides in other places in fully understandable. The case of the Branch Davidians is more complicated because public concern is about the violent actions taken by the US authorities as well as about the reports of authoritarianism, exploitation and sexual abuse in the group. What I find more difficult to understand is the virtually universal failure to see that these abuses occur in many religious organisations: not just the stigmatised minority movements. Evidence has come to light in recent years of, for example:

Systematic sexual abuse of children in the care of Catholic priests;
Brutality in residential institutions for young people run by the Catholic church in various countries;
Catholic church policies for transporting young children from Britain and Ireland to Australia under the bogus pretext that they were orphans;
Massive financial irregularities in the catholic Archdiocese of Chicago;
Clergy malfeasance of various kinds in many American churches (Shupe, 1995);
Sexual improprieties among Methodist clergy in the UK;
Financial irregularities in certain Pentecostal churches in the UK;
Racism in the Church of England;
The exploitation of women in many Christian churches;
Collusion between church officials and some of the world’s most brutal regimes.

4This list of examples of scandals, abuses and problems in mainstream, supposedly respectable Christian churches is far from exhaustive, but it is intended merely to draw attention to the disparity between the levels of public awareness and anxiety about problems in well established religious organisations and the levels of concern about so-called “cults”. Moreover, there are few genuine controversies about mainstream churches: merely a perception of scattered problems associated with particular individuals. As a category, churches are not perceived to give rise to difficult moral or legal dilemmas. Indeed, William Bainbridge (1997: 24) refers to them as “conventional religious organizations”. Yet, in my view, this categorical distinction between them and so-called cults is exaggerated. There is actually a continuum between the problematic and the unproblematic aspects of all religious collectivities.

5From a sociological point of view, it makes very little difference whether the abuses are accidental or consequential on doctrines or ideology.

6Admittedly, the most spectacular episodes of violence and collective suicide have occurred in so-called cultic groups, but public animosity against the category of “cult” was strong even before the destruction of the People’s Temple at Jonestown, Guyana in 1978. In any case, that particular episode and the armed assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas in 1993 should remind us that both of the religious collectivities concerned were developments of more or less respectable Christian denominations. And in the wake of the massive slaughter of religiously identified opponents in such places as the former Yugoslavia and Northern Ireland, who can deny that “ordinary” religion can also be a hazard to life and limb?

7The important thing is therefore to understand why and how problems occur in any religious collectivity: not just in collectivities categorised a priori as cultic. This could be done by analysing the processes of, for example, exploitation, authoritarian leadership, harassment and abuse, systematic fraud and deception, violence and patriarchy in all religious collectivities. Such as approach might even reveal that religious collectivities are not themselves completely distinctive; it might show that religious collectivities are only marginally different from other voluntary organisations in respect of the problems to which they give rise. This is an heretical thought for a sociologist of religion.

8This is not the place to develop this particular argument further (see Beckford, 1985a, 1989), so let me turn now to the question of why the problems attributed to “cults” gain a much higher public profile than the much more widespread problems attributable to supposedly conventional religious collectivities.

1. The Social Sources of Cult Controversies

9Allegations that so-called cults brainwash their recruits, exploit them economically, abuse them sexually and, in many other ways, ruin their lives are too well known to need repeating here (Barker, 1984, 1989; Beckford, 1985b; Richardson, 1985, 1991, 1996). I want to suggest that this pattern of accusations and, in particular, its exclusive focus on stigmatised movements can be explained in terms of several characteristics of late twentieth century life in advanced industrial societies.

1.1 Massification and demonisation

10Firstly, the consolidation of nation states with relatively stable boundaries and effective measures for monitoring and controlling the activities of their populations has helped to perpetuate the medieval suspicion of people who were migrants, vagrants, wandering holy men and women or free spirits. Nowadays citizenship is not only the key to eligibility for various obligations and benefits but it is also inseparable from numerous processes of official registration, monitoring and surveillance. The surface of late modern life may appear to be fragmented or confused, but the underlying forces of standardisation, rationalisation and commodification are still powerful. The metaphor of “slipping through the net” conveys the sense that people whose life course does not conform with the “normal” progression through stages of education, training, employment, consumption, sexual relationships, leisure and welfare have somehow managed to avoid the normal devices for detecting failures in the system or weaknesses of individual motivation.

11The fact that members of some minority religious movements choose to order aspects of their lives in accordance with different priorities makes them objects of suspicion because, among other things, their nonconventional ways of living imply that something is wrong with the machinery of “normalization”. The public sense of fear and outrage is all the more intense because it is widely believed that late modernity is a time of great individualisation and that non-conventional religious practices are therefore unnecessary. But permissible individualisation is mostly confined to choice of such things as dress, leisure activities, language and sexual relations. Departures from the expected patterns of education, employment and consumption are grounds for suspicion and, in some cases, demonisation. It is therefore acceptable to “shop around” for religious ideas, alternative therapies or spiritual experiences; but it is not acceptable to follow a religious path which involves a break with the publicly approved life course. The fact that some people choose to abandon the path of “normal” education or employment for the sake of non-conventional religious ideals is experienced by others as an affront to their conviction that modern individuals are free, rational decision-makers. In other words, modern living is both massified and pervaded by an ideological conviction that individual freedom of choice is stronger than ever.

12In these circumstances, claims that new religious movements brainwash their recruits or exploit them unfairly can be interpreted as reactions against the exercise of free will in a register to which the accusers are deaf. Allegations of brainwashing are the modern equivalent of late medieval accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession (Anthony & Robbins, 1980; Robbins, 1988). The common thread is the claim that reason has been subverted by an external agency.

1.2 Communication and controversy

13Secondly, the severity of present-day strictures against NRMs is partly a function of the efficiency and rapidity of communication in the late twentieth century. In previous eras it was common for unconventional religious groups to operate only in very small geographical areas or to create their own remote communities as refuges from prying eyes. But nowadays it is possible for even small movements, with the help of telecommunications, to reach large audiences scattered over huge areas of the world. By the same logic it is more difficult for such movements to avoid prying eyes because communications among their opponents or critics are equally efficient. So, just as NRMs can capitalise on the advantages of computerized mailing lists and multi-media presentations to spread their message, cult monitoring groups find it relatively easy to collect information about large numbers of NRMs and to compile aggregate statistics. In this sense, the idea that the category of “cult” has become threatening on a large scale has been facilitated by the technology which permits rapid exchange, compilation and analysis of information between cult monitoring groups, researchers, journalists and programme makers around the world.

  • 2 Disputes in some Christian churches are also intensified by the ease of modern communications and (...)

14The intensity of today’s cult controversies has to be understood partly in terms of the simultaneous application of communications technology by NRMs and by their opponents. If global communications have made the human world appear to be a smaller place than previously, they are also making cult controversies more intense2. There is no reason why a small world should be less conflictual than a larger one. In other words, we should expect that religious controversies of all kinds will become more intense in the future. Indeed, one might go further and speculate that religion will continue to be a major contributor to global disputes because it is one of the places where the “colonisation of the lifeworld” by “the system” (Habermas, 1987) can be challenged.

1.3 Secularisation and polarisation

15Thirdly, I suggest that religion is paradoxically likely to remain at the heart of controversies and disputes in the globalised future despite the fact that levels of participation in the activities of formal religious organisations are in decline and that religion exercises relatively little explicit influence over the policies pursued by governments, businesses or public institutions. How can religion be simultaneously controversial but marginal? Would it not be more sensible to expect that religion would become more bland and uninteresting as more people became religiously “illiterate” or simply unconcerned about it?

16My answer is that it is precisely the fact that large numbers of people in advanced industrial societies are ignorant or apathetic about religion most of the time that makes the activities of those who are enthusiastic about their religion potentially more controversial. I am not simply repeating the observation that secularization is compatible with outbursts of religious enthusiasm in marginal places (Wilson, 1976). I am arguing that a process of polarisation is taking place between religiously energetic minorities and religiously apathetic majorities. Moreover, this process of polarisation will ensure that, in the midst of secularization, religion will remain controversial. My claim is not that NRMs are throw-backs to an earlier age of religious vitality. On the contrary, I want to suggest that it is very modern dynamic between active minorities and inactive majorities which is helping to create a new and polarized situation. The public animosity towards NRMs is only one expression of the perverse logic which connects secularization with intense religious controversies. NRMs are simply caught up in a process which affects all religious collectivities.

2. What Would Make “Cults” Appear to Be “Normal”

17What evidence is there to support my argument that the demonisation of “cults” is a product of social forces inherent in late twentieth century advanced industrial societies? One way of answering this question is to calculate how far NRMs would have to change in order to become acceptable. In other words, what would help to make NRMs appear to be normal or acceptable? I was inspired to pursue this approach by Peter Brown’s stunning insight into the political economy of religious toleration in late Roman antiquity:

Seen from the point of view of the civic notables of the fourth and fifth centuries, the annual paroxysm of the collection of taxes... and not religious affairs – however exciting these might be... to those who knew about such things, on a supernatural level – was the true elephant in the zoo of late Roman politics... In most areas, the system of negotiated consensus was usually stretched to its limits by the task of extracting taxes. It had little energy left over to give “bite” to intolerant policies in matters of religion (Brown, 1995: 41-2).

18In short, religious minorities and enthusiasts in late Antiquity could be tolerated if they paid their taxes. Toleration was extended to minority religions for pragmatic reasons: not out of concern for philosophical principles. Is this still the situation? Let me discuss five ways in which toleration is extended these days to NRMs which satisfy various nonreligious conditions imposed by state authorities.

192.1 Toleration depends these days on much more than paying taxes, although movements which are seen to evade their fiscal obligations certainly confirm the modern stereotype of cults as fraudulent. The Church of Scientology, for example, has attracted especially harsh criticism for its attempts to qualify for tax privileges on the grounds of being a religious organisation in the USA (successfully) or a charity in the UK (unsuccessfully). In both cases, the crucial question is whether Scientology constitutes a religion: and the answer is sought paradoxically from state agencies with responsibility for purely material things. Nevertheless, religious movements seeking to have their religious authenticity affirmed must turn to these secular agencies. Being recognised as religious in the eyes of the US Internal Revenue Service or the Charity commission in the UK or a court of law in Italy is a necessary but not sufficient condition for achieving acceptability in the long-run.

202.2 In parts of southern Europe and elsewhere in the world, NRMs are tolerated on condition that their members comply with requirements to perform military service. States which offer exemption to categories of religious professionals still tend to demand that NRMs prove their religious authenticity by showing willingness to comply with conscription laws before becoming eligible to apply for exemption.

212.3 Another condition of NRMs’ acceptability in many countries is the abandonment of all claims to cure medical problems, especially if therapy forms part of the movements’ normal practices. Challenges to, or evasions of, state-licensed medical practices are rarely tolerated. NRMs are under suspicion if their members do not avail themselves of publicly available medical services or personnel.

222.4 Education is less tightly controlled by state agencies than is the provision of health care, but NRMs which prefer to educate their members’ children in their own schools are still widely suspected of irresponsibility or ulterior motives. Movements which educate their children from different countries in a single international school are especially suspect. They are accused of trying to hide their children in places where the standards of education and care cannot be easily monitored.

232.5 A novel condition of acceptability in the UK concerns the accessibility to the public of NRMs’ worship services. The Broadcasting Act 1990 made it a condition of religious organisations’ access to commercial channels of television and radio that their worship services should be publicly advertised and accessible to members of the public without special invitation or the payment of entrance fees. This condition seems to be predicated on two assumptions. The first is that bona fide religious organisations presumably have no need to impose restrictions on access to their services; and the second is that the risk of abuse or exploitation is reduced if a religious organization’s services are open to public scrutiny.

24In short, there is a close parallel between late Antiquity and the late twentieth century in so far as toleration of religious minorities in both eras was and is still conditional on their satisfying largely “secular” criteria of religious authenticity. My point is that this dependence on the deployment of non-religious criteria by agencies of the state in order to make decisions about the authenticity of NRMs is virtually inevitable at a time when religion is fragmented and when no single religious organisation has control over it (Beckford, 1989).


The Normal – Abnormal Continuum

25The difference between “normal” and “abnormal” religious groups is not so much a matter of fixed categorical distinctions but more a matter of skirmishes along a shifting frontier. In fact, sociological analysis is best served by substituting “continuum” for “distinctions”. Of course, public opinion and some religious interest groups prefer to make categorical distinctions between, say, “real religion” and “destructive cults”. But a dispassionate analysis of the social aspects of religion suggests that, within all religious organisations, some practices are accepted as clear evidence of religious authenticity and others are suspected of compromising that authenticity. The criteria of acceptability change over time, often reflecting ethical and ideological changes which take place outside religious organisations.

26Moreover, the skirmishes that break out from time to time in connection with the objectionable practices of specific NRMs are rarely conducted in isolation from other grievances. Discussion of particular cases quickly gives way to claims about the entire category of “destructive cults” or “cultism” as a general issue. Continuities between NRMs and other religious organisations are thereby ignored or suppressed for ideological reasons. Sociologists would be better advised to concentrate on analysing specific dimensions of all religious collectivities without making prior judgements about their church-like or cult-like nature.



Ammerman, Nancy (1990), Baptist Battles: Social Change and Religious Conflict in the Southern Baptist Convention, NJ.: Rutgers University Press.

Anthony, D & T. Robbins (1980), “A demonology of cults”, Inquiry Magazine, September: 9-11.

Bainbridge, William S. (1997), The Sociology of Religious Movements, New York: Routledge.

Barker, Eileen V. (1984), The Making of a Moonie, Oxford: Blackwell.

Barker, Eileen V. (1989), New Religious Movements. A Practical Introduction, London: HMSO.

Beckford, James A. (1985a), “The insulation and isolation of the sociology of religion”, Sociological Analysis, 46 (4): 347-54.

Beckford, James A. (1985b), Cult Controversies. Societal Responses to New Religious Movements, London: Tavistock.

Beckford, James A. (1989), Religion in Advanced Industrial Society, London: Routledge.

Brown, Peter (1995), Authority and the Sacred, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Habermas, Jürgen (1987), The Theory of Communicative Action, Vol. 2, Boston: Beacon Press.

Richardson, James T. (1985), “The “deformation” of new religions: impacts of societal and organizational factors”, Pp. 163-75 in T. Robbins, W. Shepherd & J. McBride (eds), Cults, Culture and the Law, Chico, CA.: Scholars Press.

Richardson, James T. (1991), “Cult/brainwashing cases and freedom of religion”, Journal of Church and State, 33: 55-74.

Richardson, James T. (1996), “Brainwashing” claims and minority religions outside the United States: cultural diffusion of a questionable concept in the legal arena”, Brigham Young University Law Review, 4: 873-904.

Robbins, T. (1988), Cults, Converts and Charisma, London: Sage.

Shupe, Anson D. (1995), In the Name of All that’s Holy: A Theory of Clergy Malfeasance, Westport, CT.: Praeger.

Wilson, Bryan R. (1976), Contemporary Transformations of Religion, Oxford University Press.


1 Paper prepared for the biennial meeting of the International Society for the Sociology of Religion, Université de Toulouse-le-Mirail, 1997.

2 Disputes in some Christian churches are also intensified by the ease of modern communications and by the relentless search of journalists for sensational stories. See Ammerman, 1990 on the conduct of disputes among the souther Baptists in the USA.


Professor Department of Sociology University of Warwick
President International Society for the Sociology of Religion

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