CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

Term "Sect" as a phenomenon of a repressive social consciousness

by Arunas Peskaitis, OFM (psychologist with an MA in Religious studies)
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 Conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

The connotations of the term "sect" have always been negative. In societies with strong traditional religiosity this term always means marginalization and heresy. In secularized societies this term has been presented as neutral, but it's sociological definitions betray that the term has not escaped a value load: a "sect" is described as a group, which denies the values of liberalism. The current attempts to define a sect as a destructive religious group also lead to the formation of a-priori position towards such groups, based on near of minorities. The repudiation of the term "sect" in sociological discourse would initiate processes that could gradually lead to a more tolerant position of social consciousness that would finally influence the vocabulary used by the media in religion discourse.

The theme of “Sects” is widely discussed and well heard in Lithuania. But it is a question, if it is really being “discussed” – one can easily doubt that since it is difficult to classify as “discussion” a conversation on a subject with no attempt to define what the subject is.

Mirrors play a significant role in the history of human civilization. Mirrors appear in ancient times, they are there in Antique, they are known in ancient Egypt and in still more ancient civilizations – and that is natural, because a mirror is a thing producing images. A mirror shows our reflection, an image, and only higher animals and the human being halts to linger at a mirror; humans linger there longer, because it is essential for humans to reflect. The capacity to reflect is common to all humans, therefore I would suggest that academic discussion, a conversation with a purpose to use reflection consciously, is no uncommon human capacity.

It is interesting to observe that, though humanity enjoyed mirrors at all periods of it’s development, there are signs, there are images, that reflect better the mentality, experience and positions of ours and our society. And these images are not recognized as images, they are not recognized as products of the society’s activities. Words are not simply means of communication, not only devices of communicating something to someone; words are also images – the words we use certainly reflect the state of our consciousness, health of our consciousness, peculiarities of our thinking. The words that are used in media, terms, that are widespread and often heard – these reflect the social mentality.

Therefore, the words widely and often used can be defined as images of society’s mentality. Among those words we can discern “boogie-words”, that is, words that are used to scare, words that express the desire of the society to control something, to stop something. Those kinds of words express mythologized craving to repress, to marginalize those things that are less known – the processes of stigmatisation and marginalization that are well known to sociologists, begin with these kinds of words. Thus whole groups of people, even countries and ideas can be demonised. These kinds of words are always characterized with two features: they have an encoded preconceived negative attitude, negative posture, and they are indefinable.

Different epochs and different societies have those kinds of words, and the use of those words is the more widespread and their meaning – the wider, the more punitive, controlling mentality is widespread. A good example of that kind of word in many a society of European culture for many years (even up to now) has been the word “Jews”. The “Jews” are always responsible for something, they do something, govern something, buy, etc. This word is used without an attempt to define, what those “Jews” are – if they are an ethnic group, or cultural form, or a religion, or a sum total of certain organizations… The word “Jews” in it’s original meaning simply denotes a people with a particular way of life – children, grandparents, culture, customs, religion. However, when this word is used with repressive connotations, “the Jews” acquire indefineability and negativity. The words “Russia” or “Russian” have a similar fate in Lithuania today – we often read about “Russian money”, “Russian influence”, but we never discern, who are those Russians: are we talking about the official politics of Kremlin, or about the politics of Russian political parties, or perhaps about the politics of Russian large capital. This does not seem to matter, for it seems like the word “Russian” explains everything, but clearly there are so many powers and interest groups in Russian societal and political life that by simply using this word we are actually “clouding” the reality, which we are trying to explain or about which we want to provide information to the public. The use of such words always has that “clouding” dimension, because undefined words that are used to scare, are also words that are hindering analysis, spread of information and reflection.

Here I approach the word that is the subject of my paper – the word “sect”. The word “sect” in it’s use always reflects repressive mentality. It is a paradox that exactly this word is often presented as a very well defined and even as a scientific term. The original meaning of the word has a clearly negative connotation. The original meaning is this – “sect” is a group that has separated from the “mother religion”, from a major religious tradition. Therefore “sect” in this definition is a “marginal” phenomenon, and whatever is no the margin is unclear, dark, bad. Sect is always associated with religious perversions, orgies, killing, perverse way of life. And these religious marginal phenomena in different times really had very different religious practices, therefore the negative connotations of the word “sect” were being constantly reinforced by separate facts. At the same time these “marginal” phenomena were being demonised – to find an example we just need to look at the early Church history, where we would see that accusations against them were based not on knowledge, understanding, who those Christians are, but on a prejudice that Christians are a secret, self-enclosed group and therefore dangerous. Whatever is unknown is dangerous. This is how repressive mentality expressed itself in the original meaning of the word “sect”.

Later the word “sect” gets a more defined meaning and in the works of M.Weber a “sect” is defined as a particular type of religious organization. . Therefore the well-known differentiation into sect, denomination and church is presented as a sociological model, which attempts to separate the three types of religious organization that exists in society. Here I would dare to assert, that even in this presumably sociological definition of a “sect” we can clearly discern an axiological base. The point of reference here is, of course, a secular, liberal worldview. “Sect” is associated with authoritarianism, fanaticism, radicalism, and church – with whatever is acceptable to society, whatever is not aggressive, with “lukewarm” religiosity. Even the saying “one is born into a church, while a sect is joined” clearly shows that we are dealing not with a sociological, but axiological system of reference – “sect” is dangerous, because it’s religiosity is “sharp” – that is what this model is asserting. The church, on the other hand, is a museum heritage to be preserved – therefore the church is associated with harmlessness. It can co-exist with all the institutes of the society and present it’s services. This so-called sociological paradigm already has it’s legal consequences – we can see the famous “sect list” in France, which used to include a few catholic religious communities, distinguished by their radicalism. It means that a sect in this case is understood as a marginal phenomenon, which is not to be defined in any way. It is defined only through a negative relationship, though there is an attempt to present the negative relationship itself as an objective description of a phenomenon. What is happening in reality, is that the phenomenon is presented through a negative relationship with the liberal, secular society.

Finally we come to the current use of the word. It is best seen in the Lithuanian media, where the word “sect” can literally mean anything. The media never tries to be petty about the word, never tries to understand the term, so, whatever is less known, whatever is less understood in Lithuania’s spiritual panorama, is defined as “sect”. There are many examples, and I will present just a few. Laikinoji sostinė article “In the snare of sects”, Fall 1999; Lietuvos Rytas, article “Sects are washing your brain and laundering your pockets”, 1999; article “Sectarians are terrorising äeökinė”, 1999; Respublika, article “Sect members are curing drug addiction with words and seduction” August 16, 2002, written by Mindaugas Peleckis. I would like to dwell more on the writings of this author. The works of M.Peleckis, addressing the issue of “sects”, are very frequent – his publications present a panorama of religious communities (including Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Krishna devotees) that are all dismissed as “sects”. In one of his articles, entitled “Sects are taking children to summer camps without a hindrance”, he is describing, how the members of the above mentioned religious communities are taking their own children to the camps set up by their communities… Of course the title of the article presupposes a question – why is nobody trying to stop it? It should be stopped, shouldn’t it? The title has an encoded message: “the sects are taking somebody’s children by force, and of course, sects are bad”.

Therefore the word sect in Lithuanian media is associated with such crimes as money loundering, drug addiction, arm smuggling, etc. It is very interesting when articles appear, in which the media is expressing indignation that the law enforcement fails to uncover the crimes of “sects”. The indignation arises as the media has no doubts that all the bad things reside in “sects”. Why do I pay so much attention to the media? It is because through it, through the media this word, as a phenomenon of repressive social consciousness, does it’s destructive work in the society – and today it is evident.

Just recently we have seen a great stir in the news about the phenomena of the new magic, but the genre of this interest was not completely evident: sometimes it appeared like advertisement, at other times – as spread of information, sometimes like criticism, or even attempt at critical analysis. This ambivalence about the genre made those phenomena appear as appearances of incomprehensible, undefined reality. It is in this way that the words “bio-fields”, “energies”, “cosmic energy” are used without clarity in the vocabulary of the “new magicians” themselves. Therefore there were a lot of words used without clear meaning, but the word “sect” is not used in this context. Therefore all the stir in the media can be understood as a more ore less conscious social advertisement – the “bad word” is not used here. And, what is more important: while the word “sect” is used and attributed to all kinds of movements, at no time is it attributed to the phenomena related to the “new magic”. This way the “new magic” becomes an object of society’s interest – exactly the kind of religiosity, which is flourishing in all segments of society; it is often called New Age type or individual religiosity. It means, that whatever is “bad” in the world of religion is somehow “enclosed” in the word “sect”, and the absence of the word somehow hinders presentation of critical analysis on the diverse phenomena of the field of religion, for somehow the very absence of the word allows for positive conclusions regarding the described phenomena.

In other words, the indefinebility of certain repressive words, particularly the word “sect”, not only forms a certain predisposition towards marginal religious groups, but it also prevents us from looking critically at the problems present in the world of religion. To put it simply, there are religious groups whose destructiveness to personality is worth exploring, and it should be done; however, when all unrecognisable groups are called “sects”, the field of particular research endeavours gets too narrow.

There were different attempts to define “sect”. In 1998 the European Bishops Conference Council organized a conference in Vienna there was such an attempt, but it ended without any result, saying, that it is not worth or meaningful to use this word both in religious studies and in theological literature, because apart from the negative connotations it does not provide anything to help us understand the religious world. There are other attempts to define this word, lets say, a well-known attempt of W.Hobsch, who tried to distil the marks of destructiveness and criteria on how to discern those marks. It shows that in the academic community a view that the word “sect” has connotations so negative that it’s use should be restricted to destructive phenomena, prevails.

Therefore, two positions are possible:

a) an attempt to make the word “sect” completely extinct from any kind of use; however, such an attempt is utopian and impossible;

b) an attempt to define this word in the best possible manner. If it has already acquired the negative connotations, it should be used strictly according to crieteria to define destructive religious realities. When this kind of attempt is not made and the word remains without a definition and only with the negative connotations, the use of this word, as the use of all “repressive words” sometimes becomes dangerous for the growth of civic society.

The European union counties are no exception – in the discussion with the proponents of the French “anticult” law these proponents could not understand how come they should define the word “sect” when it is used in the law…. Therefore, the desire to govern and demonstrate power expresses itself through indefineabilities. Finally, the desire to govern is related with the individualistic understanding of human rights, which is revealed more and more in the Law of the European union and is presenting a challenge to Christians, civic society and academic community.

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