Religious Studies 370

RELN 370: American Sects and Cults

Prerequisite: Three hours of Religious Studies

Credit Hours: (3)

This course investigates non-conventional religious groups in the United States, from colonial Quakers and Puritans to contemporary Scientology and the Church of Satan. Lectures will survey mainline religious and cultural trends salient to the appearance of sects and cults. Students will evaluate social-scientific theories on topics such as the mental health of leaders and followers, cult-related violence, conversion and defection, the law and deviant religions.


Detailed Description of the Content of the Course

This course examines non-conventional religious groups in the United States. Emphasis falls upon organizations founded in recent decades, the so-called "New Religions" (Scientology, ISKCON, the People's Temple, the Family); however, sects and cults from the colonial period onward (e.g., Quakers, Mormons, Shakers, Spiritualists) will be surveyed in lectures and researched in student projects. Social-scientific theories on the formation and survival of religious groups, charismatic leadership, conversion, religious disengagement, religion and mental health, religion and social protest, religion and violence, and secularization will be invoked to illuminate historical and contemporary data.

The course engages students in several specialized problems in religious studies. The first is a theoretical controversy in the study of non-conventional religions: Are the social and psychic dynamics that generate and sustain deviant faiths essentially different from those underlying conventional or mainline religion? Are sects and cults aberrant by-products of social crises and/or mental pathology, or of processes that generally produce religion, or both?

A second set of problems is specific to the study of religion in America, where, thanks to the First Amendment, sects and cults have thrived like mushrooms after a rainstorm. We will consider millennial utopianism as a persistent theme in American religions, from the Puritans to Waco. The growth of New Religions and the attendant "cult controversy" (recent second thoughts about the First Amendment) will be examined within the context of the cultural revolution of the '60s and '70s. What is the prognosis for deviant religions, we will ask, in light of current national trends such as the decline of the Protestant mainlines and the new privatism, wherein religion is a personal rather than an institutional affair?

Outline of topics:

1. The problem of definition: how to conceptualize "deviance" in religion.

2. The American setting: the disestablishment of religion and the growth of religious pluralism.

3. Historical survey of deviant religions:

  • Protestant dissent in the colonial period
  • Early national period: Mormons, Shakers, utopian communities
  • Late 19th-early 20th c.: Imported Eastern traditions, Spiritualists, theosophical groups, adventists
  • New Religions: Jesus groups, UFO cults, neo-paganism, and so on; The Anti-Cult Movement, legal controversies

4. Models of sect/cult formation: crisis and pathology, socio-economic deprivation, entrepenurialism. The effectiveness of religion as a means of social protest.

5. Leadership and authority in sects and cults; relationships between followers and leaders.

6. Joining and leaving deviant religions: The personal antecedents and consequences of sect/cult membership.

7. Sects, cults, and violence.

8. American mainstream reactions to sects and cults; the recent "cult controversy" (brainwashing accusations, deprogramming, the Satanism scare).

9. Student presentations of research.


Detailed Description of the Conduct of the Course

The first fours topics will be covered through lectures by the instructor. In the remainder of the course, students will increasingly assume responsibility for materials covered in class.

Specifically, each student will write a lengthy and detailed research paper on one American sect or cult (or, where information is scarce, a type). During the early weeks of the course, students will choose a group and begin research. In the second half of the term, as we take up the topics of leadership, conversion, violence, and so on, students will read and present for discussion pertinent social-scientific research. Each student will make at least one class presentation and turn in a written summary, in addition to the formal term paper.

An important feature of the course will be guest speakers representing various sects and cults and the Anti-Cult Movement. With the exception of older, larger sects like the Jehovah's Witnesses and Mormons, deviant religious organizations are not prominent in the local religious landscape. However, when the course was offered as a topics course, speakers were recruited from The Church of Latter Day Saints, Scientology, ECKANKAR, Ananda Marga, and the most powerful American anti-cult organization, Cult Awareness Network.


Goals and Objectives of the Course

1. To acquaint students with (a) the spectrum of non-conventional religions in America; (b) the histories and dynamics of particular groups; and (c) social-scientific theories pertinent to the birth and growth of deviant religions.

2. To supplement the focus on mainline traditions in other Religious Studies courses with a sustained treatment of deviant religious expressions.

3. To enhance students' research and analytic skills, especially the ability to identify and obtain primary and secondary sources on a specific historical phenomenon (an American sect or cult), and to view this phenomenon from multiple disciplinary perspectives.

4. To enhance the Religious Studies curriculum with a sustained treatment of religion in a geographic area hitherto neglected as a specialization, viz., the American culture to which most of our students are native.

5. To give students historical and analytic perspective on a vital contemporary religious issue, viz., the present "cult controversy" and its challenge to the ideal of personal religious freedom.


Assessment Measures

Grades will be based on class attendance and performance on essay exams, class presentations/written summaries of scholarly research, and a lengthy research paper.


Other Course Information



Approval and Subsequent Reviews

February 15, 1996 New Course Approved by VPAA
January 27, 1997 Number Change Approved by VPAA
April 17, 1998 Reviewed Kim Kipling
September 25, 2001 Reviewed Kim Kipling