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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

New Religious Movements: Just How Far Is Too Far?

They may be classified as ‘religious’ movements, but do cult leaders know where to draw the line between the acceptable, or dare I say the normal, and the atypical? This is a question that undoubtedly hassles the mind of the average member of society, especially as cults are proving to have a more negative than positive impact on humanity and social order.

One of the ‘religious’ movements that have left a glaringly ugly scar on humanity, and possibly Christianity, is The People's Temple which was founded by Jim Jones in the 1950s. This is the story of the amount of power a vision and a mission can conjure, it is the story of a man who wanted to free the people from “the opiate of religion using religion”. Some may wonder how plausible such a quest is, but Jim Jones saw a way, he saw a path that summoned him and he followed it through. He followed it through to Doomsday.

How he did this, one might ask. Well, it was easy for him. Jim Jones, who called himself a Marxist, found ways in which he could relate with ethnic minorities, those who felt the wrath of discrimination in disparate America. He was, to them, someone who loved them and wanted to help them, so he provided a sort of “coping strategy” for them. Jim Jones made the people believe that there was a family that cared for them in his place of worship, his ‘church’. Sociologically speaking, one would say that he provided a surrogate family for his followers. Functionalist sociologists argued that the family fulfils reproductive, educational, sexual and economical functions for its members; undoubtedly, Jones provided these in excess.

Clearly, he started this with good intentions, but where did it all go wrong? What got to Jim Jones? What made him believe that what the world needed was a “revolutionary suicide”, a total destruction in the name of an ultimate salvation? What made one man, who was supposedly Christian, dispute the existence of God, telling his followers that “there is nobody in the sky that’s going to save you”? Jim Jones said “you have to believe what you see, if you see me as a friend, I’ll be your friend. If you see me as a father, I’ll be your father. If you see me as a saviour, I’ll be your saviour. If you see me as your God, I’ll be your God.” He sure was persuasive enough to maintain his followers until the 18th November 1978, where he initiated a mass suicide and the fatality of 909 people.

So how do you know when a ‘religious’ movement is precarious? How far is too far when it comes to ‘religious’ practices? How do you decide what religious group to belong to when all of them seem to provide spiritual satisfaction? Most importantly, how do you know when you have set yourself up for a disastrous ride by subscribing to a religion that seemed the most wonderful of options? You never know, that is the simplest, most straightforward answer. You just never know. So what advice do we give people? It is not quite appropriate to tell people not to subscribe to any religious group, as beliefs are different, and people belong to each for different reasons, but we can advise people to think carefully about the practices of a group before subscribing. Just how far is too far? Think about it.

SIDE NOTE: I was asked to write a pretend newspaper article about New Religious Movements and the impacts they had on society. I rushed it, as it was impromptu, so it may seem a bit all over the place. I still thought I'd share, anyway.