The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society

The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society

The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society

The Social Dimensions of Sectarianism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Contemporary Society

Synopsis

This wide-ranging collection explores the complex relationships between religious sects and contemporary Western society and examines the controversial social, political, and religious issues that arise as sects seek to pursue a way of life at variance with that of other people. Wilson argues that sects, often subject to negative theological and moral judgements, can be understood only as social entities and as such require a scientifically neutral and unbiased approach to explore their emergence and persistence. He traces the growth and expansion of various movements--including the Unification Church, the Scientologists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and the Exclusive Brethren--relating them to their social context, and indicates the sections of society from which their support is likely to come.

Excerpt

The sectarian studies drawn together in these pages were written at various times over the last decade and a half. They constitute research and analysis into various facets of the sectarian phenomenon --a phenomenon growing in importance in contemporary society. The search for meaning, for fulfilling relationships, and for a distinctive mode of living which confers a sense both of belonging and of identity, has become a significant reaction to the encompassing impersonality of the often abrasive rationalization of modern life. The quest for community finds its most vibrant and enduring expression among sects, but even sects that offer little by way of community experience often attract a following among those who seek an alternative value system or new methods by means of which they hope to enhance their life experience.

Sects provide existential and intellectual alternatives to normal social facilities. They present a challenge to quotidian assumptions and values, and this they do despite the diversity of the prospectuses which they canvass--world overturn, communitarian withdrawal, born-again conversion, the enhancement of human potential, or the reform or reconstruction of social institutions. Whatever their programme, they are likely to find themselves at odds with the society in which they arise or spread, and with at least some if not all aspects of its secular (or religious) culture. In these pages, the obvious point of enquiry--why sects appeal to their adherents (examined in Chapters 8 and 9--is augmented by discussion of the nature of the tension that inevitably occurs between the sect and the wider secular world. Conflict may occur formally with the law, but whether an open and explicit divergence of values issues in such public confrontation or not, a sect is necessarily engaged in a process of tension management with the general public in various of the activities that it commissions or the abstentions that it exhorts. This characteristic manifestation of sectarianism is the focus for Chapters 2, 3, 4, and 5, which constitute Part I of this volume.

Tension between sects and society tends to dissipate over time-- either as society extends toleration to a wider range of movements, or, in some cases, as sects gradually come to find greater accommodation with the requirements of the secular world. The processes of evolution . . .

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