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Surviving and growing

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

Every religion begins as a cult but not all cults grow into religions

A religion is a social organisation, and the sociology of religion is about social organisation, not about the beliefs or rituals of its members, except insomuch as they illustrate social variables, or have functional and causal relationships.

A cult is small, and has both beliefs and practises which are seen as deviant by the wider society.  To survive, therefore, it must have a social organisation designed with that fact in mind.  Leadership is usually based upon charisma, and it is the power of that charisma which holds it together in the face of mainstream hostility.  What we ask is  how it graduates to a religion.

It must change its social organisation to accommodate changes from cult to religion.  As a religion, it will not be seen so much as a deviation but as a mainstream organisation.   Charisma is not based upon smooth and peaceful succession. Leadership must then be recruited rationally or bureaucratically through rules of succession rather than by the charisma of individuals.

Increasing membership is a characteristic of the graduation, but that by itself does not necessarily indicate changes in social organisation.  The beliefs and practices tend to be very strict and rigidly dogmatic for it to survive as a cult but, to increase its membership, the beliefs and practices must become more flexible and tolerant.  Membership requirements must loosen up.  New charismatic leaders will just produce new cults, not help a cult to graduate to a religion.

Social organisation tends to be more gemeinschaft (viz. Tönnies) when it is a cult, and the personalities of the leaders are very important, but as it grows to a religion, there must be more reliance on organizational rules and regulations, more gesellschaft in its social organisation.  Solidarity (viz. Durkheim) of the organisation can be mechanical when it is a cult, but must convert to organic solidarity when it graduates.

In religions, some leaders may be very popular, but popularity is not the same as charisma.  The Dalai Lama, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and Archbishop Desmond Tutu are or were all very popular, but their popularity does not define and structure their religions, as a charismatic leader defines a cult.

It is important to define how those social characteristics helped it to graduate.  Christianity was a cult for several centuries after the time of Joshua (Jesus) if there even was such a historical person.  Paul on the road to Damascus was a charismatic leader.  The Christians in the catacombs of Rome were cult members.  The political leader of the Roman Empire helped Christianity to graduate, by the mere fact that he was so powerful in the wider society.  Sitharta was charismatic, and originated the cult, but for the religion to survive, it had to develop mechanisms of succession of leadership.

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Last update: 2014.02.23

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