Is It a Cult or the Beginning of a New Religion?

A new course examines gurus and their dreams of utopias to help us understand how religion works—and maybe also how organized religion begins

What’s the dividing line between a cult and a religion? It might be something as simple as this: a religion is a cult that’s gotten successful and gone mainstream. In fact, in academic studies, the word cult is often eschewed in favor of a different term: new religious movements.

That’s the central focus of the new class Gurus, Cults, and Utopias, taught by Brian Hatcher, Packard Professor of Theology. He noticed that the Department of Religion covered all the conventional bases in its classes, but needed an offering addressing religions at the periphery, which might also offer a different perspective on religion in general, especially for students new to the field.

The class discusses the likes of end-times prophecy groups such as Heaven’s Gate (whose members died in the expectation of hitching a ride on a UFO trailing the Hale-Bopp comet to the next stage of human development) and Aum Shinrikyo, whose members released poison gas on the Tokyo subway system. But there are also other less apocalyptic groups, like the International Society for Krishna Consciousness—think the Hare Krishnas at airports in the 1980s, now more mainstream and sometimes adopted by diasporic South Asian Hindus.

The gurus of the course title come in many types. Hatcher is a scholar of Hinduism, and says that the Sanskrit word itself means a weighty, consequential figure who is a spiritual teacher. “It’s someone recognized as having special accomplishments, either through ascetic practice or spiritual learning,” he says. “A guru could be tradition-based, having studied under teachers within a lineage, or they could be self-attained spiritual-adepts who have reached their own conclusions and have become teachers.”

Gurus are frequently “imbued with a kind of teaching charisma, which they use to set themselves apart and gather followers around them. “Guru movements are not necessarily always messianic,” Hatcher notes, though it’s often a key factor in those movements grounded in biblical style revelations and predictions of future comings.

The 1960s saw a proliferation of “cults,” though they have pretty much always existed. After all, religions start somewhere, and they inevitably start small and tend to represent the interests of splinter groups or outsiders. “We talk about that in class—what’s the difference between the Jesus movement in its early days and the kinds of issues they faced around prophecy, and other more contemporary groups,” says Hatcher.

Brian Hatcher gestures at the blackboard while students look on.

“I hope it may help students think about the need to become literate about religion, to consider how our notions about what is a true or false religion impact how we think about our fellow citizens—let alone how we view our leaders and other representatives,” says Brian Hatcher. Photo: Alonso Nichols

The field of religious studies has slowly come around to serious study of these groups, hence the move to call them new religious movements instead of cults. “It’s another way to study what religion is, how we define it, what our classificatory systems are,” Hatcher says.

The Mormon church—officially the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints—is an example of a now-mainstream religious group that was once viewed as a cult from its founding in the early 1800s. “They were seen as strange,” says Hatcher. Those old prejudices don’t go away completely. During the 2012 presidential election cycle, a prominent Dallas Baptist minister called the church a cult when explaining why he opposed Mitt Romney, a prominent Mormon. “It really is a case of . . . othering those who are different,” says Hatcher.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

One of the takeaways from the class is understanding that it’s hard to “really separate these new religious movements from other religious movements,” says Owen Thomas, A25, a religion and computer science double major. “How do we define religion?”

Those kinds of questions come up in classroom discussions, which play an integral part of the course, says Hatcher.

“The classes I’ve enjoyed most resulted from Professor Hatcher asking interesting, open-ended questions—we have really interesting conversations with lots of different opinions. We have students from a whole variety of backgrounds—English students, religion students, computer science students, biology students,” says Aaron Klein, A24, an English major. “It’s really a gift to have that because it creates such a vibrant environment for conversation.”

Just using the word “cult” brings a lot of baggage. “It’s just fascinating to see that this word has such a stigma, even though its meaning is not as concrete as one might think,” says Klein. “I’m Jewish, observantly so, and it’s always been a part of my life. But thinking about some of these cults or new religious movements, I wonder how much this differs from the earliest days of my own faith, when Judaism was first developing.”

“I feel like every time I take a class, I come out of it thinking that this is all so much more complicated than I had ever previously considered,” says Charlie Dineen, A24, a religion major who is also teaching an Ex College class on ethics and post-apocalyptic media. “It’s expanded the way I think about religion—giving me more opportunities to think about it.”

Gwen Brown, A24, had a friend who got involved with a religious group that seemed a bit cult-like, and taking the course has given her some perspective. “It was very interesting to see how that transformed him,” she says. “We’re not close anymore, but I think that the course has been good to try to understand it a little bit more.”

Hatcher hopes to offer the class, which filled up very quickly this semester, again in the next academic year. “I hope it may help students think about the need to become literate about religion, to consider how our notions about what is a true or false religion impact how we think about our fellow citizens—let alone how we view our leaders and other representatives.”

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