Religious Sects

A religious sect is defined as a marginal group of people with common religious beliefs or a new religious movement. The word sect has a Latin origin, deriving from the word secta, which means a path. It became widely used with the rise of Protestantism and the emergence of numerous Catholic denominations.

According to Bryan Wilson, author of Religious Sects: a Sociological Study (1970), sects are movements of religious protest. "Their members separate themselves from other men in respect of their religious beliefs, practices and institutions and often in many other departments of their lives. They reject the authority of orthodox religious leaders, and often of the secular government. Allegiance to a sect is voluntary but individuals are admitted only on proof of conviction, or by some other test of merit: continuing affiliation rests on evidence of commitment to sect beliefs and practices."

Wilson argues that sectors may appear marginal in history, which he describes as "odd groups of alienated men with outlandish ideas." During other times, sects have been significant, such as the Mahdi movement in Sudan in the 1880s or the Taiping sect in China in the mid-1800s. Wilson believes that sects can act as a catalyst in history, focusing on acute forms of social discontent. They often mark the moment of social structural collapse and can even herald social reintegration.

In a bid to define the nature of a sect, the field of sociology focuses mainly on the differences between a sect and a church. In addition, some researchers extend this comparison to cults and denominations. Sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920) was the first to study in detail the church-sect typology. He defined a sect as a new religious group, which appears in protest against the well-established religious community. According to Weber, the leaders of the sect often come from lower socio-economic classes.

In his book The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (translated version 1960) German Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch (1865 to 1923) introduced considerable changes to Weber's church-sect typology. While Weber laid the emphasis on church organization, Troeltsch was more interested in behavior. Troeltsch defined three types of religious behavior: churchly, sectarian and mystical. He also identified churches as conservative and state-supportive organizations, although strongly believed that sects involved smaller groups whose main goal was inward perfection.

Roland Johnstone further developed the sociological study of religion and in his book Religion in Society: A Sociology of Religion (1997), where he defined the church as an organization, which exercises monopoly and seeks to remove religious competition. It is closely related with the state authorities. It has full-time staff and tries to cover all members of society. Johnstone examined several criteria for defining a denomination.

Johnstone believed that a prerequisite for the emergence of a denomination is the fact that the church had lost its monopoly. Johnstone identified a number of differences between sects and denominations. In particular, he argued that sects expect their members to be fully involved in activities. He also examined the issue of tension between the sect and state authorities.

According to the classifications used by Johnstone, many denominations originated as sects, including Lutheranism, Methodists, Baptists and Seventh-day Adventists. Following this train of thought, a religious movement can go through all three forms - sect, denomination and church. For instance, Christianity evolved as a sect of the Jewish religion. Hence in the Roman Empire, Christians were prosecuted by the state authorities until Constantine I became the first Christian emperor in the 4th century. Theodosius I pronounced Christianity as an official religion in 380.

In contemporary society one of the most controversial groups, which is viewed by some as a sect, is Scientology. Upon its establishment in the mid-20th century by L. Ron Hubbard, this movement was a secular philosophical group. The Church of Scientology was established in the 1950s in the United States. The church is highly controversial because of allegations about brainwashing methods and attempts to control the minds of its members.

Advocates of Scientology refute these accusations and argue that it is "a religion in its highest meaning, as it helps bring man to total freedom and truth." The main principles of scientology are that you are an immortal spiritual being; your experience extends well beyond a single lifetime and your capabilities are unlimited. Scientologists believe that man is basically good, with his survival depending on himself and his fellow human beings "in his attainment of brotherhood with the universe."

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Religious Sects: A Sociological Study
Bryan Wilson.
McGraw-Hill, 1970
Sects, Cults, and Spiritual Communities: A Sociological Analysis
William W. Zellner; Marc Petrowsky.
Praeger, 1998
The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society
Bryan R. Wilson.
Clarendon Press, 1992
The Buddhist Sects of Japan: Their History, Philosophical Doctrines and Sanctuaries
E. Steinilber-Oberlin; Kuni Matsuo; Marc Logé.
George Allen & Unwin, 1938
End-Time Visions: The Road to Armageddon?
Richard Abanes.
Four Walls Eight Windows, 1998
When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements
Timothy Miller.
State University of New York Press, 1991
Heretical Sects in Pre-Reformation England
Walker, Greg.
History Today, Vol. 43, May 1993
The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements
James R. Lewis.
Oxford University Press, 2004
Women in a Medieval Heretical Sect: Agnes and Huguette the Waldensians
Shulamith Shahar; Yael Lotan.
Boydell Press, 2001
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