At first, religion and the field of sociology seem to be very disparate, as religion is concerned with faith and personal beliefs, but reading history it could be seen that religion when practiced by a big number of people behaves just like any other social institution. Therefore, methods of sociology can be used to study aspects of religion. In this essay, focus would be kept on how sects emerge from a bigger religion in the larger context in a society.
The word sect comes from Latin noun “secta” meaning “to follow”. In religion it signifies a sub group that breaks away from a larger established denomination, because of its own distinct ideological beliefs. The first to conceptualize this phenomenon were the German sociologist Max Weber and the theologian Ernst Troeltsch. If one views religion as the sea then the sects and the sub sects are the rivers and tributaries that are connected to the sea but have their own identities. Using this analogy, we can imagine the sea as the main source which contains parts of all the rivers but the rivers have their own stories, own paths of meeting the sea. The rivers are the sects and the sea is the religion.
For instance, Buddhism could be used as an example to understand how sects are formed. The Buddha taught over 2500 years ago in India but his teaching did not survive in any written form. So the teachings were spread orally for two hundred years before people started writing them down. The social dynamic had changed over the two hundred years and now his teachings were interpreted differently by different people. These and other social forces led to division of schools that interpreted Buddhist teachings differently and from which over time and years other schools emerged. Theravada Buddhism (Teaching of the elders), Mahayana Buddhism (the great vehicle) and Vajrayana teachings which emphasise esotericism. Moreover, as the teachings spread to different countries like China and Japan and south east Asia, it met very different cultures so the Buddhist ideas also were shaped in turn by the new conditions where it lived for many years. Thus, more schools emerged across time and now according to rough estimates more than a hundred schools exist in the world.
The characteristics of religion practiced by a people has link with the geographical location of the people, the class they belong to, their race and their ethnicity. Religious sects are faiths with belief systems that are less formal and less integrated into society. And they tend to attract followers that are more disadvantaged. The Bhakti movement arising out of the Hindu religion in India, or the Jehovah’s Witness from Christianity are two such examples that had a reformist role in their respective societies.
As through history there have been instances of tensions and sometimes even violence between major religious schools and the deviating sects, people sometimes confuse sects with cults which is incorrect. Sects are formed when a group of people deviate from the ideas of the parent school and to follow their own understanding of the teachings of a belief. Cults have a more negative connotation and are classified as organizations that have harmful effect on the society. The Mansion family was one such cult. Cults usually have a reputation of being run by a manipulating guru that maintains its clout through exploitation. The recent Netflix series Wild Wild Country explored the workings of another such cult by the controversial Indian guru Rajneesh aka Osho. The sociologist Roy Wallis distinguished sects and cults with the differing element of the former claiming epistemological authority whereas cults did not. Sect’s usually claim to possess some privileged access to truth or salvation that cults do not. Cult leaders have the common characteristic of holding power over a group by charisma or psychological manipulation.
An interesting aspect of the way in which sect is understood by sociologist is the difference in how it is understood across the west and east. In eastern part of the world, especially India in Asia, Hinduism has a lot of schools but because there is no centre or a place of origin of the religion sects are considered a natural development in the course the system. Different interpretations lead to different paths to salvation. Though not without conflict, as we know how the caste system in Hinduism tried to dominate or supress other forms of interpretation of the religion, there have been various religious movements such as the Bhakti movement which did much good to the society. However in the west, deviating from the main school was seen as heresy and somehow threating the order in a society. This is mainly because sects challenge the majoritarian approach and is a minority that proposes an alternative to the conventional models of faith. We can also understand this by looking at religion from a sociological point of view. Durkheim understood that religion can sometimes act as a tool for a society to impose control on its people. This is why almost all religion have a set of rules one must adhere to stay in God’s good graces. Another sociologist, Karl Marx, saw religion as a negative force that becomes an obstacle to revolutionary change in society, as people see the current order in society as divine law.The idea of one true religion is at the root cause of development of sects. Basically they arise out of a conviction that their interpretation of the original belief is more faithful then the other schools of followers. They feel they are representing the truer version of the religion, with beliefs and practices that better match the original aim of the founders of the religion.
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