Prof. Aagaard on New Religious
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
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.
Gums 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-like instruments 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 Germany), 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.
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 exploitative 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
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.
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 to play 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!