•Led by a bureaucratic hierarchy
of the truth
•Claim monopoly of the truth
•Place few demands on members
•Small, exclusive groups
•Hostile towards wider society
•Expect a high level of
•Draw members from the poor
•Led by a charismatic leader
•Believe they have monopoly of
•Lie between churches and sects
•Don’t appeal to all of society
•Membership is less exclusive
•Impose some minor restrictions
•Broadly accept society’s values
•Tolerant of other religious
•Don’t claim monopoly of the
•Small grouping around shared
themes and interests
•No sharply defined, exclusive
•Led by ‘practitioners’/’therapists’
who claim special knowledge
•Tolerant of other organisations
•Don’t demand strong
•Members are like customers
Similarities and Differences
How they see themselves: Churches and
Sects see their interpretation of the faith
as the only correct one. Denominations
and Cults accept there may be many valid
How they are seen by wider society:
Churches and denominations are seen as
respectable. Sects and Cults are seen as
The above descriptions don’t fit today’s
reality. Bruce argues Troeltsch’s idea of
a church can only apply to the Catholic
Church before the Protestant Reformation
(in the respect of claiming monopoly).
Since then, sects and cults have
flourished and religious diversity is a
norm. In Troeltsch’s sense, no monopoly
means churches are no longer churches.
New Religious Movements (NRMs)
Wallis categorises these NRMs into 3
groups based on their relationship with
the outside world...
•Religious and have a
clear notion of God
•Highly critical of the
•Members must make a
sharp break from their
restricted contact with
the outside world
These are often
focus on religion rather
than worldly matters
and wish to restore the
spiritual purity of
religion. Members lead
•Not highly organised
and lack some
conventional features of
•Accept the world as it is
and promise followers
success of mainstream
goals and values
•Tolerant of other
•Offer special knowledge
•Most are cults
•Entry is through
Wallis offers a useful way of classifying the
new religious movements. But, some
argue it is not clear whether he is
categorising them based on the teaching
or members beliefs. Also, he ignores the
diversity of beliefs that may exist within a
He knows real NRMs may not just fit into
one category, but sociologists find these
Sects & Cults
Stark and Bainbridge reject typologies all
together. We should distinguish between
organisations based on the degree of
tension and conflict between it and wider
Sects result from schisms (splits in
existing organisations). They break away
from churches, usually due to differences
Cults are new religions or ones new to
that particular society
Audience Cults these are the least organised
with no formal membership or commitment. There is
little interaction through members and participation
could be through media. (e.g. Astrology)
Client Cults the relationship between a client
and a consultant. Emphasis has shifted to ‘therapies’
promising personal fulfilment and self-discovery.
Some followers become enthusiastic so class it as
cultic. (e.g. Homeopathy and spiritualism)
Cultic Movements these are the most
organised and demand commitment. The aim is to
meet all of its members religious needs and the are
rarely allowed to belong to other religious groups at
the same time. (e.g. The Moonies)
Stark and Bainbridge make some useful
distinctions between organisations, but
the idea of using their degree of conflict
with wider society is similar to Troeltsch’s
distinction between churches and sects.
Also, some of their examples don’t fit
neatly into any one of their categories.
There are 3 main explanations for the
Troeltsch noted sects tend to draw members from the poor
and oppressed and Weber supports this by pointing out
that sects arise in marginalised groups. Weber believes
sects offer a solution to their problem by offering their
members a “theodicy of disprivilege” (give deprivation a
meaning in order to cope with it). This may involve
explaining their misfortune as a test of their faith.
Historically, sects and millenarian movements have recruited
from the marginalised poor, but since the 1960s, the sect-
like world-rejecting NRMs have recruited from affluent
However, Wallis says even the affluent middle class
members have become marginal to society (by being
hippies, using drugs for example)
Middle class people feel spiritually deprived too; they could see
today’s materialistic, consumerist world as impersonal. Wallis
argues they may turn to sects for a sense of community.
Stark and Bainbridge argue it is the relatively deprived who break
away from churches to form sects to safeguard the original
message. They do this because the middle class members of the
church seek to compromise its beliefs to fit into society. They also
argue that world-rejecting sects offer the deprived the
compensators they need for the rewards they are denied in this
By contrast, the privileged need no compensators or world-rejecting
religion; they are attracted to world accepting churches that
express their status and bring them further success.
Wilson argues the rapid social change disrupted
and undermined established norms and values,
producing anomie. In response to the uncertainty
and insecurity this creates, those who are most
affected by the disruption may turn to sects
which offer a sense of a community and clear
norms and values.
Bruce sees the growth of sects and cults as a
response to the social changes involved in
modernisation and secularisation. In today’s
secular society, people are more attracted to
cults as they are less demanding.
The Growth of World-Rejecting
and World-Affirming NRMS
World-Rejecting: Wallis believes changes
during the 60s gave freedom from adult
responsibilities and let a counter-culture
develop. Also, the growth of radical,
political movements offered alternative
ideas about the future.
World-Affirming: Bruce believes this
growth is a response to modernity. Work
no longer provides meaning or a source if
identity and we don’t always have the
opportunities to achieve. World-Affirming
NRMS provide identity and the technology
The Dynamics of Sects & NRMs
Sects are often short-lived. Niebuhr
argues sects are world-rejecting and exist
due to a schism. They are short lived as
Compromise with the world
Abandon their ideas and become a
The Second Generation: who are born into the
sect and lack the commitment and fervour of their
parents who voluntarily joined the sect.
The ‘Protestant Ethic’ Effect: sects that
practise ascetism tend to become prosperous and
upwardly mobile. So, members compromise the world
and leave the sect.
Death of the Leader: Sects have a charismatic
leader, so their death or the introduction of a
bureaucratic leader would turn the sect into a
The Sectarian Cycle: Stark and
1. Schism: There is tension between deprived members of
a church and privileged ones. The deprived form away
and form a sect.
2. Initial Fervour: A charismatic leadership and tension
between the sects beliefs and wider society.
3. Denominotionalism: The ‘Protestant Ethic’ effect occurs
and the coolness of the second generation disappears.
4. Establishment: The sect becomes more world accepting
and tension reduces.
5. Further Schism: The less privileged members break
away to create a new sect true to the original message.
However, Wilson argues not all sects follow this pattern.
There are two different answers to the question: “What
shall we do to be saved?”
Conversionist (e.g. Evangelicals). Their aim is to convert
large numbers of people, so are likely to rapidly grow into
larger, more formal denominations.
Adventist (e.g. Jehovah’s Witnesses’). To be saved, they
believe they must hold themselves separate from the
corrupt world around them. This separatism prevents them
from compromising and becoming a denomination.
Nevertheless, some sects have survived over many
generations (e.g. The Amish). They have become
The Effect of Globalisation
However, globalisation could make it harder for
Adventist sect members to keep to themselves.
On the other hand, globalisation could make it
easier for them to recruit in the Third World.
The Growth of New Age
The term ‘New Age’ covers a range of beliefs and activities
that have been widespread since the 1980s. They include
beliefs in aliens, UFOs and yoga for example.
Heelas identifies two common themes that characterise the
Self-spirituality New Agers seeking the spiritual have
turned away from traditional ‘external’ religions such as the
churches and instead look inside to find it.
Detraditionalisation The New Age rejects the spiritual
authority of external traditional sources such as priests or
sacred texts. Instead, it values personal experience and
believes that we can discover the truth for ourselves and
But, New Age beliefs vary; some have world-affirming
aspects, others have world-rejecting. Heelas notes most
Postmodernity and the New Age
Drane argues the popularity of the New
Age is part of a shift towards postmodern
society. One of postmodern features is a
loss of faith in ‘meta-narratives’. Instead
of progress, science brought war, global
warming and environmental disaster so
people lost faith in experts. At the same
time, they were disillusioned with the
churches failure to meet spiritual needs.
As a result, they turn to New Age to find
the truth for themselves.
The New Age and Modernity
Bruce argues its growth is a feature of the latest
phase of modern society. It values individualism
which is an important value among those in
“expressive professions”, whom the New Age
appeals to most. Bruce notes New Age beliefs
are often softer versions of much more
demanding and self-disciplined traditional Easter
religions that have been ‘watered down’ to make
them attractive to self-centred Westerners. (This
is why New Age activities are usually audience or
The Links Between New Age and
A Source of Identity: Today, an individual has a
fragmented identity. New Age beliefs offer ‘authentic’
Consumer Culture: This creates dissatisfaction
as it doesn’t deliver perfection, whereas New Age
Rapid Social Change: This disrupts established
norms and values; the New Age provides certainty
and truth (like sects).
Decline of Organised Religion: Modernity
leads to secularisation, so removing alternatives to
New Age beliefs.
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