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Cult Observer

New Religious Movements

A Review of Press Reports on Cultism and Unethical Social Influence

The Cult Observer: Guest Columns
Prof. Aagaard on New Religious Movements

by Johannes Aagaard

What are labeled cults in the USA are normally called new religious movements (NRMs) in Europe. New Age should be added to these concepts, indicating the wider and more pervasive, but also more subtle, religiosity which is generally the basis of new religious movements. Although these phenomena have roots in past generations, the "age" of New Age takes it back to the last third of the last century. The World’s Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 can be taken as the real beginning of the worldwide expansion of Neo-Hinduism (Vivekananda), Neo-Buddhism (Anagarika), and Theosophy (Annie Besant). From 1893 to this day, these three movements have grown as part of the same New Age Tree, the Tree of Knowledge, or Gnosis. Theosophy in various forms, including Anthroposophy, the Wisdom of Martinus, Alice Bailey, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Ananda Tara Shan (the Rosegarden), Benjamin Creme, etc., seems to be the common denominator of most of the New Age groupings. The theosophical paradigm seems to constitute in some way a synthesis of what might superficially be called East-West spirituality.

The Light from the East Comes from the West

The new paradigm—one could call it the Pacific paradigm— is called "the Light from the East," but in fact it most often comes from the West. It came over the Pacific Ocean to the west coast of the USA, crossed that country, continued across the Atlantic, included Western Europe, and is now entering the formerly Communist world as a sure winner.

The capitalist market system quickly determined the financial prospects of this new paradigm. Gurus and masters were caught up in the market mechanisms and transformed into managers and multinational leaders. New technological and streamlined pseudo-religions were created and their supermen came to lead organizations which are Mafia-likeinstruments of manipulation.

Very few of the new expressions of synthetic spirituality survived this capitalist exploitation, and even fewer wanted to. Youth were and are caught up in the NRM invasion, and very large segments of Western culture, already influenced by the New Age paradigm, are ready to sell out their Christian heritage.

Parent Organizations’ Approach

The immediate and understandable reaction against the new paradigm and its organizational and financial exploitation came from the parents of young people caught up in the "stormy weather" of "Cults" (the term common in the US), "Jugend-religionen" (in Gemany), and New Religious Movements (the term generally used elsewhere).

It is a well-known fact that in many countries parents and relatives of people who have joined new religious movements have come together to create organizations to support one another and to counter the influence of what they call "cults." Children of parents who have become cult members also participate.

These organizations understandably do not care much for subtleties and differentiations when they approach the NRMs. They generally take a very negative attitude toward research about NRMs because researchers do not stand up generally against the cults but rather set the "truth question" aside. The parents’ organizations, however, also tend to set the truth question aside, for they consider the cults as solely exploitalive and without any genuine religious characteristics. To ask the truth question in relation to the NRMs would, for the parents’ groups, be as phony as asking the truth question in relation to the Mafia.

This means that the parents take no stand of their own. They do not operate as Christian bodies and do not deal positively with religion as a common option. Individual members are often Christians, especially the leaders (but not always). There seems to be a tendency for parents against cults also to be parents against Christianity. But it is impossible to generalize on this point.

The Scholars’ Approach

Research on NRMs has become a force in itself. Sociology of religion, psychology of religion, history of religion, etc., all share in a general attempt to collect data and establish documentation to clarify, analyze, and understand the NRMs as contemporary expressions of the religious search of mankind. In this effort there is a general tendency to set the "truth question" aside because taking a stand on the truthfulness and the reliability of NRMs would impair the "objectivity" and "neutrality" of scholarly projects.

This scholarly detachment is sometimes taken to the extreme that even value statements must be forsaken. For a scholar, Catholicism has the same value as Scientology, Quakerism, or the Ananda Marga. It is possible to ask, however, whether there is a tendency to fall into a rather naive and positivistic methodology in this approach. Is such neutrality and objectivity anything but a dream? Indeed, this dream sometimes turns into a nightmare when the "neutral" and "objective" scholar turns against the parents’ organizations and attacks them for taking a stand against the cults. The simple fact of being against cults and working in anti-cult organizations seems to be objectionable when seen by the "neutral" and "objective" scholar. In fact, this scholar seems toplay the role of anti-anti-cult agent. But one cannot uphold neutrality by doubling one’ s anti-attitude. Minus against minus means a plus, and that is a stand. I believe that the anti-anti-cult movement is methodologically in deep trouble, seen from scholarly and heuristic viewpoints as well as from social and political perspectives. Science for science’ s sake is really old hat!

Johannes Aagaard, a professor at the Institute of Missiology and Ecumenical Theology, Faculty of Theology, Aarhus University (Denmark), is Converter of the Dialog Center International, a Christian research organization that collects and disseminates information on cults and new religious movements. His remarks here are a transcription of a presentation he made during a recent visit to the U.S.

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