chapter  17
24 Pages

Sects, cults and movements

Religious sects have attracted an enormous amount of interest from sociologists as have the New Religious Movements (NRMs) which have mushroomed in the industrial societies of the West in recent decades. This is not simply because they have been important aspects of religious history in all the great religious traditions of the world or because many of the important religious traditions themselves began as sectarian breakaways or schisms from established traditions but also because sects have a fascination in their own right. Sects are in many ways religious experiments which offer the sociologist an opportunity to study religiosity in its purest forms uncontaminated by the complexities of motive, organisation and doctrine that the long-established Churches and denominations entail. Sects also offer the opportunity to study what are often radically new ideas and beliefs, styles of organisation and life and the background against which and from which they emerge. Since a large proportion of the membership of some of them may be very recent converts they offer an opportunity to study the process of conversion to unorthodox and ‘deviant’ beliefs and practices and how such ‘deviance’ is maintained against the pressures of the wider society. They offer, then, insights into religious change and the emergence of new religious traditions. They are, in short, something of a laboratory for the sociologist of religion.