The decline of cults as evidence of secularization

19 Nov

Historian Philip Jenkins observes a piece of evidence often overlooked regarding the secularization thesis in America.  I’ve argued that the secularization thesis, though performing poorly in many ways, may still explain trends in American religiosity of the standards are relaxed and the indicators are broadened.  Churches can “secularize” and people can “secularize” in ways that do not involved disbelief in God or even identifying themselves as non-religious (though that number has increased anyways).  Jenkins points to another good indicator, the decline of cults.  Here’s a clip:

Last month, a widely reported Pew survey made the striking point that 20 percent of American adults now claim no religious affiliation, and the figure for those under thirty approaches one third. Now, this data can be interpreted in many ways short of implying massive secularization. “Not affiliated” is not synonymous with atheist or even agnostic, rather it just means that: not affiliated to any religious institution presently, and things may change over time. The churches should not plan their closing-down sales just yet – particularly given the influx of immigrants from deeply religious Global South societies.

But assume for the sake of argument that such surveys genuinely do reflect a secular shift, and the United States really is moving to become more similar to Canada, or the nations of Western Europe. If that were the case, then one of the first symptoms we would expect would be a general reduction of interest in spiritual or religious matters across large sections of society. We would no longer find the broad but ill-focused concern that manifested itself in the supernatural boom of the 1970s. Without a solid core of spiritual activism and inquiry, moreover, there would be no foundation for the extremism that produced so many prospective members for the cults.

In other words, the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be the disappearance of cults, and a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades. If that linkage is genuine, then the odds of a national religious recovery or revival like that of the 1970s would be vastly diminished. Perhaps secularization really is looming.

For many years, conservative religious leaders have bemoaned the popularity of cults, which reputedly deceive so many innocent people. The time may come, though, when those same pastors and priests look back nostalgically to the days when they still had cults to fight.

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