New Religious Movements
A Review of Press Reports on Cultism and Unethical Social
The Cult Observer: Guest
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 Worlds 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
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 paradigmone 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
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
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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