One of the most enjoyable academic conferences on religious studies is CESNUR, the Center for the Study of New Religions, and this past month we hosted the group’s annual meeting at Baylor. I spoke on a topic that I have addressed before, namely the sharp decline in public concern (or panic) about dangerous religious cults in the United States. As I will suggest, I believe this might mark a significant social trend, and perhaps even a bellwether for secularization.

Throughout American history, a recurrent narrative has warned of the danger of small, tight-knit groups, following a charismatic leader, and allegedly prone to sexual abuse and misconduct, the maltreatment and exploitation of members, violence and financial fraud, brainwashing and mind control. Although the word “cult” has no strict social scientific definition, a useful checklist for such groups would include such categories as authoritarian, puritanical, totalistic, charismatically led, and intolerant.

Wherever we look in US history, we find public fears about such groups, whether we are considering the 1820s or 1880s, the 1920s or (especially) the 1970s – the years of massive reaction against unpopular or stigmatized groups like the “Moonies” (Unification Church) and Scientologists, Hare Krishnas and Children of God, The Way International and Synanon. Cults continued to be national news between 1984 and 1994, with the absurd Satanic Panic, and were in the news with the Waco Siege of 1993, and the mass suicides of the Heaven’s Gate and Solar Temple movements.

But look at the past fifteen years or so, basically the present century. When have we had a cult scare on anything like traditional lines? Yes, there have been plenty of local concerns and investigations, by strictly local and regional media. Offhand, I can think of a couple in Texas, and several have surfaced around the country. In 2008, we saw the massive official action against the polygamist sect headed by Warren Jeffs in Texas, the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints). Anti-cult groups like Cultwatch still operate. Recently, the Atlantic catalogued “The Seven Signs You are in a Cult.”

But compared to the 1970s, the cult issue has vanished almost entirely. When did you last see the once-familiar media story about Group X with exposés of its sinister guru, with tragic images of weeping parents wondering how their child could have become associated with this dreadful organization? Why would they renounce their worldly hopes to devote their lives to this evil sect?

Moreover, if such groups really were out there, we are massively more likely to hear about them than we would twenty or thirty years ago. I am thinking of course about the Internet, which allows strictly local concerns and debates to be blown up to a national or global scale. If there was a cult panic in City X, it would, surely, go national within a very short time.

For many years, I taught a course at Penn State University on Sects, Cults and New Religious Movements, and I included what I thought was a useful term paper assignment: “You are to imagine that someone close to you – a friend or sibling – has become involved with a new or fringe religious group, is spending a lot of time with it, and seems likely to become a full member. Your friends and family are worried that it might be a dangerous cult, and have asked you to find out about it urgently. Your paper will represent an investigation of the group, and the kind of information that you would want to pass on to your friends.” Students thus delved into the primary materials stating the case for and against the particular group, and tried to offer and objective assessment. In particular, they would learn to be very critical in sifting partisan resources on the Internet.

Good, eh? Or so I thought until around 2000, when students found it ever harder to find controversial groups that anyone they knew might conceivably have run up against. Confirming this impression, I looked around Penn State, a very large university with some 45,000 students at its main campus, offering exactly the kind of young population that should in theory offer rich pickings for predatory fringe sects. But those sects just aren’t there, and I looked hard. (I don’t extend the cult label to the university’s friendly and harmless neo-pagan groups – which are, in any case, tiny).

Recently, the Jewish Daily Forward offered an article entitled Jewish Parents Once Panicked About Teens Joining Cults — But No Longer. How Did Communal Freak-Out Fade Away So Completely?  It’s a good question, and not just for Jewish families.

Now, you might think that the removal of such a social danger as predatory cults is entirely good news, but I wonder what exactly is happening? A couple of years ago, I wrote a column that asked where the cults had gone, suggesting that “Cults no longer fill the role they once did in the religious marketplace.” I went on to ask,

Just possibly, that marketplace really has changed in an unprecedented way, to reduce the public taste for supernatural manifestations of any kind whatever. Last month, a widely reported Pew survey made the striking point that 20 percent of American adults now claim no religious affiliation, and the figure for those under thirty approaches one third. … Assume for the sake of argument that such surveys genuinely do reflect a secular shift, and the United States really is moving to become more similar to Canada, or the nations of Western Europe. If that were the case, then one of the first symptoms we would expect would be a general reduction of interest in spiritual or religious matters across large sections of society. We would no longer find the broad but ill-focused concern that manifested itself in the supernatural boom of the 1970s. Without a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry, moreover, there would be no foundation for the extremism that produced so many prospective members for the cults.

In other words, the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades. … Perhaps secularization really is looming

So I return to my basic theme. In my view, declining concern about cults is not just a function of shifting media attitudes, but it rather reflects a genuine and epochal decline in the number and scale of controversial fringe sects. There really are far fewer fringe groups to be worried about. And that may be a mixed blessing.





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