Cults, Movements, World ReligionsMARY KOCHAN
To many of us, the modern religious landscape appears increasingly confusing, even strange or frightening. No matter how strong in faith and regular in religious practice our families may be, we are not insulated from contact with a bewildering variety of religious expressions, a Babel of “prophetic” voices and a dizzying array of competing world views.
Abound in Confusing Religious Landscape
Myung Moon founder of
the Unification Church
Insulation is not
what our lay vocation is about, anyway. Instead of insulation, what we seek is
contact, the contact which makes the electric presence of Christ-in-us available
to light our world.
What, though, is the lay of the land which is our
field of mission? What species of faiths are we likely to encounter? What are
we to make of the religious variety flourishing around us?
We may be
familiar, to some extent, with mainline Protestant sects. But it is the increasing
presence of cults, movements and world religions — some alarmingly aggressive
— which give rise to questions like these:
“Our daughters both
have steady boyfriends now; one is a Baptist and the other is Mormon. Do these
relationships threaten their Catholic faith? If so, are they both the same kind
of threat? How do we speak to our daughters about the spiritual implications of
sense of all of this and answering the questions of our family members and friends,
requires that we make some distinctions between cults, movements and world religions.
“I just got the strangest letter from my sister.
She says that her family is not going to celebrate Christmas this year, something
about ‘pagan origins’. This is just going to give my mother heart failure. What
should I do?”
“I thought it was great when my son said he was joining
a campus Bible study. I was glad he was making Christian friends at school, even
if they were Protestant. But now he says he is going to quit college to devote
himself to fund-raising for this group’s outreach program. When I asked him where
he thought he was going to live if he did this, he said it was no problem. Apparently
this group has some kind of commune in a renovated old house and they have invited
him to live there. I am furious that he would consider throwing away his education
like this. He seems to have suddenly abandoned all the dreams he has pursued for
years. Who are these people and what have they done to my boy?”
is a new woman at my job and I am going to be working with her a lot. She says
she is Muslim. She sometimes refers to “the will of God” in conversation. I wonder:
When she says ‘God’ what she is thinking? Does she pray to the same God I pray
“Last week some Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my house. They were
very nice. It was great to have someone visit me. I’m beginning to feel cut off
from everything, stuck here in the house all day alone with this baby. I hope
they come back. I could sure use some friends. They offered me a ‘free home Bible
study’; there can’t be any harm in that, can there?”
“My cousin has always
been a little eccentric, but she’s a lot of fun. She invited me to some kind of
‘New Age’ convention next week? Doesn’t that have something to do with crystals
and energy fields? Is there anything to all that stuff?”
and I had an argument about whether it is possible to be a Catholic and a Buddhist
at the same time. He says you can, if you view Jesus as an “Ascended Master”.
I thought we were supposed to view Jesus as God Almighty. The more I talk to my
brother the more confused I feel. I don’t want to be disloyal to the Catholic
Church, but I don’t like to think my brother could go to hell just because of
his sincere convictions. Can someone help me sort all this out?”
How Do We Define a Cult?
Let's begin by clearing up confusion about the word “CULT”:
Do not get good “CULT” mixed up with bad “CULT”.
“Cult” (from Latin
for worship) has the simple meaning of “devotion”, as in the Catholic usage referring
to the “cult” of a particular saint or as used secularly e.g. when a movie is
said to have a “cult following.” Within the past thirty years another meaning
has evolved — the use of the word to describe a group, usually religious,
which places certain destructive demands upon its members’ thinking and behavior.
Do not get “CULT” mixed up with “OCCULT”.
(from Latin for covered or concealed) refers to those arts which are supposed
to reveal hidden or secret knowledge i.e. astrology and various kinds of divination.
Some cults do involve their members in overtly occult practices but this is, by
no means, true of many groups which are correctly designated cults. Occult practices
are not, in themselves, a factor in so labeling a group.
a cult requires the use of, and almost always combines, a theological definition
and a psycho/sociological definition.
Theological definitions identify
a cult based upon its doctrines.
Theologically we distinguish cult
groups from Christian groups by those very things in which we and our separated
brethren agree, in particular the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. Thus we identify
as cults those groups which deny the Christian doctrine of God, even though they
may call themselves Christians and may use the Bible. Other United States cults
are splinter groups from Eastern (world) religions or may represent attempts to
fuse pagan beliefs with Christianity. Note however, that European Christians use
the word "sects" to mean what Americans refer to as "cults".
cults are identified by behavior.
Whatever its doctrines, if a group
uses deception in recruiting and retaining members, it is identified as a cult.
Authority within a cult group is abusive and is maintained by manipulative communication
and coercive control. Isolation, either physical or psychological, contributes
to the siege mentality and paranoia of cult members — while it fosters pride
in the exclusivity of membership in the group. Many cults actively recruit Christians
— especially targeting youths and the aged — although no age group
or social class is immune.
Movement Differs from a Cult
Movements lack the tight organizational
structure of cults; they do not usually foster exclusivity and isolationism. Rather,
a movement is promoted by loosely-associated teachers through various media channels.
Movements often exhibit the nature of fads — great initial enthusiasm and
interest soon fades — or a movement may be assimilated into the common way
of life. The movements focusing on health and exercise within the past couple
of decades are examples of this and demonstrate that some movements are theologically
neutral or benign. However, other movements can be dangerous to Christians.
A movement may lead people away from the Christian faith and lead them to
believe and promote error. This can be an insidious process. No one could be,
for example, an active Mormon and an active Presbyterian at the same time or be
a member of a Catholic parish while identifying as a Jehovah’s Witness. Yet someone
can be part of a movement (i.e. the “New Age” movement) while maintaining active
membership in a local Christian congregation. Thus it is that movements have the
potential to quickly spread false teaching among Christians. Even when doctrine
is not an issue, the faddish nature of movements can be destabilizing, distracting
and wasteful — but when a movement promotes bad doctrine, the effects can
be disastrous. Some recent religious movements have resulted in the formation
of new cults.
One example of this is the formation of the International
Church of Christ (not to be confused with the fundamentalist Protestant Evangelical
Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ). This cult group, which recruits so heavily
on college campuses that some colleges have had to ban their activities, formed
out of the "shepherding" movement within Protestantism.
Makes a Religion World Class?
When we refer to the “world
religions” we are acknowledging the world class status and global influence of
several belief systems, some of which are of great antiquity. The major world
religions apart from Christianity and Judaism are: Hinduism; Buddhism; Confucianism;
Shintoism and Islam. Although authentic representatives of these religions live
in the United States, for the most part what we find in this country are variants
which have been revised for consumption by Westerners. Many lesser known religious,
ethical and philosophical systems have promoters in this country.
than size and antiquity are needed to qualify, however. A world religion must
contain a belief system of enough richness and complexity that it is capable of
supporting a civilization. It has to give an account of life that can sustain
people in all walks of life, deal with the real complexities of human relationships,
absorb new ideas and discoveries, and enter into conversation with the other great
human traditions. A look at the list shows that such belief systems do not come
along often in history. The last one to appear in the list above is Islam in the
We are seeing in America the development, over the past
100 years, of what may be the next world religion. That is Mormonism. To the question
of whether Mormonism is substantial enough of a belief system to support a civilization,
we must admit that it already supports an entire state in the United States, an
entity already larger than many countries. It is interesting to observe that if
Mormonism does indeed become another world religion, it and Islam would both owe
their vitality to the great amount of Jewish and Christian thought they appropriated.
Cults, Movements and World Religions —Why be
The variety of religious contexts which have formed
our neighbors have given rise to many religious dialects and languages. As religious
pluralism increases, so do religious languages proliferate and we may discover
ourselves at a loss to find shared meaning when it comes to discussing those things
which matter most to every human being. Some knowledge of these groups can help
us to build bridges to our neighbors, bridges over which some of them may be graced
to cross into the Catholic faith. This knowledge can also protect us and our loved
ones from deception.
Such acquaintance must, of necessity, make use
of labels and consider people as members of groups. There are some advantages
to this; a group identity is a kind of shorthand. That someone identifies himself
or herself as a Christian Scientist, a Unitarian or a Seventh Day Adventist does
say something about his or her constellation of beliefs. But it would be a mistake
to conclude that we know a great deal about a particular individual once we know
a religious label. Rather, our awareness of the religious affiliation should help
us find a way to open up personal communication.
Mary Kochan. "Cults, Movements, World Religions." Lay Witness.
This article is reprinted with permission from Lay Witness magazine.
Lay Witness is a publication of Catholic United for the Faith, Inc.,
an international lay apostolate founded in 1968 to support, defend, and advance
the efforts of the teaching Church.
After growing up as a third generation Jehovah's Witness, Mary Kochan worked
her way backwards through the Protestant Reformation to enter the Catholic Church
on Trinity Sunday, 1996. Mary has done extensive work and research on the problem
of religious cults, writing and speaking to live and radio audiences and answering
questions about all aspects of cultic behavior. She is married to Daniel and is
a member of St. Theresa parish in Douglasville, Georgia.
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