In order to differentiate between religious groups, typologies have been created in an attempt to provide clear cut definitions between the organisations however the extent of their success is argued by different sociologists. The terms cult and sect are often used interchangeably to refer to relatively small religious groups whose beliefs and practices deviate from those of mainstream religions and appear strange to most people however sects and cults are very different in beliefs and practices, whether they develop and change into churches and denominations will be discussed further.
Troeltch is the main creator of the first typology he defines a sect as a small, exclusive group that is hostile to the wider society. They expect high levels of commitment and most members are poor and oppressed in the wider world and most are led by a charismatic leader. Many sociologists would argue that some of the characteristics in Troeltch’s definition of a sect such as being headed by a charismatic leader have led to sect development into denominations; Niebuhr argues that sects fall apart when their leader dies as members aren’t as accepting to replacements.
In order to prevent the break-down of the organisation sects develop a form of hierarchy which it turn leads to a loss some of its values making it more like Niebuhr’s definition of a denomination which is an organisation that is less controlling of its members and has more levels of hierarchy. for example some would say that Jesus was a charismatic leader in early years of Christianity and when he died the apostles took over spreading the word eventually a formal hierarchy was formed and we have since seen Christianity develop from a sect to a church.
However it can be argued that the unification church whose leader has just passed is still continuing without becoming a denomination or church; although the future of the organisation is uncertain is still running even after the election of his son as his successor. According to Troeltch’s definition, sects reject wider society and have high commitment levels this causes people to leave as they can’t take the level of control for long periods of time, people begin to feel isolated and marginalised and therefore the sect crumbles.
In order to counter-act this sects reduce the level of control over its members becoming more denomination-like in the process this idea is demonstrated by the members of the peoples temple who stated that they believe Jonestown and the people’s temple would have worked if Jim jones hadn’t come in and controlled people to extreme levels.
However according to Troelchs definitions sects can’t become denominations because unlike sects denominations have mixed but mainly MC and UP members and they also don’t claim monopolies on religious truths this suggests that the typology is some-what out- dated because in today’s society we see organisation with a mixture of aspects from all organisations; Aldridge argues that groups such as the church of the latter day saints (Mormons) have an ambiguous positions, in the USA they are seen as a denomination but in the UK they are seen as deviant and are therefore regarded more like sects.
It is therefore too general of a statement to say all sects ‘inevitably’ become denomination or churches because in society today there are too many belief systems with features from a range of organisations. Wilson argues that sects change to denominations due to increased bureaucracy; he argues as the organisation grows it needs to be managed therefore people are put in place to manage it and as more officials are put in place a hierarchy is formed, the more hierarchical the sect is the more the members become more disconnected with the belief system and therefore it becomes more of a denomination.
Also 2nd generation individuals lack commitment to rules organisations have so rules start breaking down, schisms occur as some of the sect want to evolve and dilute and some are fundamentalist, so breakaways occur for example The Armish (the fundamentalists) are a break away from the Quakers (a denomination). Stark and Bainbridge agree with the idea that sect become denominations due to schisms however they argue that schisms are due to other reasons.
Stark and Bainbridge argue sects always start as a schism between the needs of the deprived and the needs of the privileged, this schism causes a sectarian break away headed by a charismatic leader finally a denominalisation occurs as a result of the protestant ethic effect rules, regulations and commitment of the sect adapt so that it can exist alongside society helping it grow and become more successful however this causes another schism starting the cycle again. However weber would argue that this cycle just turns churches to denominations rather than turn sects into denominations.
He argues that the church only represents the privileged and powerful so people without feel unrepresented causing a schism and a formation of a break away sects, church membership therefore declines and the church becomes a denomination. Wallis would argue against Troeltch and Niebuhr’s definitions of churches, sect and denominations, he believes the only way to distinguish types of organisations is by looking at their relationship to the wider society he therefore he identifies 3 types of new religious movements the first are world rejecting new religious movements.
Their beliefs are very critical of the outside world and therefore they often seek radical change, because of this the institutions often act as ‘total institutions’ controlling every aspect of the lives of their members, world rejecting new religious movements often base their lives around commune where members are expected to submit to the rigour of an ascetic lifestyle an example of this would be the people’s temple where members commuted to Jonestown and lived under the strict ruling of Jim Jones.
The second are world accommodating new religious movements which are often offshoots of existing major churches or denominations; they neither accept nor reject the world as they are more concerned with religious rather than worldly questions. They focus on individual spiritual purity for example Pentacostalists practise speaking in tongues.
The final movements are world-affirming, rather than turning against the world these movements are positive about the world and argue individuals are often lacking something spiritually preventing them from reaching fulfilment so they offer followers access to supernatural or spiritual powers that enhance their ability to live fulfilling lives examples of these would be transcendental meditation and scientology.
A cult is a loosely knit group organised around some common theme and interests Cults are individualistic in that they allow individual members to decide what they will or will not accept. Many cults emphasize the ‘power’, ‘divinity’ and real self which is said to reside within individuals. A main aim of cults is to help people experience their ‘inner power’.
Stark and Bainbridge classify cults into 3 different categories; Audience cults which require little commitment from followers and act as much like forms of entertainment e. g. Astrology. Second are client cults which offer services to followers who are seen as customers for example scientology and finally cult movements cults that may expect members to give up aspects of their life e. g. living in a commune, they offer complete spiritual packages including answers to ‘core’ questions for example The heaven’s gate cult.
Some sociologist would argue that because cults operate in a business-like fashion they are very much focused on growth and expansion therefore they aim to gain new members and in the process become more diluted for the customer making them more denomination-like in values however Bruce would argue that cults don’t turn into denominations and churches but rather offer an alternative to them. He argues that as society becomes more diverse we have more choice and freedoms in mainstream life, cults are a consequence of this; cults help us cope with choices we have and create stability.
Different cults help us cope with different choices for example weight watchers help us chose a healthy lifestyle and are a consequence of modern day obesity. In conclusion the idea that sect and cults inevitably turn into denominations and churches is an out-dated one that applies more in a modern society, where we there isn’t much diversity within religious organisations however society has now becomes more post- modern we are seeing hybridity and a pick and mix of features from all organisations.
A loss of faith in science and detraditionalisation has made it more than likely that we see churches and denominations becoming more like cults in order to prevent their death for example churches have already become more like audience cults by having god channels on television and advertising on social media such as Facebook, a change in values and the development of choice has meant people don’t have to rely on traditional forms of spirituality and are focusing more on self-spirituality which if forcing churches to change instead.