Monday, 5 June 2006
Cult or Sect ? (Part 1)
A sect is, as we all know, a moderately deviant group which we have reservations about. A cult, on the other hand, is an aggressively deviant group which may be downright dangerous. Right?
The problem with that kind of definition is that it bogs down in subjectivity. Would you describe UCG, for example, as a cult or a sect? How do you know? What about Flurry's PCG, the Living Church of God or the Missouri Lutherans?
Sociologists, bless them, have come up with a working definition that avoids all the finger pointing. Conventional churches (denominations) are low-tension in relation to the surrounding culture. Not too many demands on members - or cause to raise eyebrows at the Rotary Club. So Episcopalians (or Anglicans) fit right in (except perhaps in New Hampshire).
Sects exist in a higher state of tension with the world around them. They make greater demands on their members, and knowing that Mrs Mcgillicuddy is a Seventh-day Adventist gives you important information about what makes her tick. Sects are similar to conventional churches in lots of ways. But they put the stress on their differences (denominational distinctives) which they value above the shared features.
Cults, according to the sociologists, are of another order entirely. They share very little with the other churches and sects in society. They come in from the outside with strange, alluring ideas that are novel in the host culture. Scientology has arguably less in common with the Episcopalian church down the street than a gathering of Trekkies, and local Baptists are unlikely to find themselves attending a Moonie service by mistake.
Now, here's the interesting part. Sects seem to recruit a quite different group of people to the cults. Sixteen years ago a major survey of American religous affiliations was conducted with a large sample group. Among the things the survey asked about was educational background. So, how would you rank each of the following faiths in terms of percentage of college graduates? Try making your own list with those you think would have the highest percentage at the top, and the lowest at the bottom. They're listed here in alphabetical order. You might also like to write D, S or C beside each (for denomination, sect or cult).
Assemblies of God
Worldwide Church of God
Yes, the WCG - then still a fairly prominent player in the religious marketplace - was included. So, what percentage of college graduates do you think WCG boasted in 1990, and how did sociologists categorize them (us)?
As a bit of a clue, here are the results for 3 other religious groups:
Episcopal (D) 70%
Nazarene (S) 34%
New Age (C) 67%
Answers next time, along with a prediction about the long term viability of Six-pack Gerry's Oklahoma cult... er, sect, um, oh never mind...
(I've taken the information in this series of postings from sociologist Rodney Stark's book, The Rise of Christianity.)