Why Do People Join Unusual Religious Organisations?

I’ve never understood what motivated my parents to join an unusual religious movement. I can certainly understand feeling drawn to the joy, the festivals, the food, the music but I’m not sure I’ll ever understand why you would renounce mainstream society to fully commit to something.
Having grown up chanting verses from the Bhagavad-Gita, it seems reasonable to make it my starting point. In chapter 7, verse 16, Krishna says, ‘Four kinds of pious men render devotional service unto Me—the distressed, the desirer of wealth, the inquisitive, and he who is searching for knowledge of the Absolute.’
Sociologists use the term New Religious Movement (NRM) (Barker, 1984). I can see why the community I grew up in is classed as an NRM although it would also be reasonable to describe it as an old religious movement, given that it dates from 1500s Bengal. However, it certainly represents adopting something new with unfamiliar and significant lifestyle changes.
My search for information about New Religious Movements takes me on a whistle stop tour through the A-Level Sociology syllabus, specifically the Beliefs in Society module. (I used to share an office with a Sociology teacher.) I’m interested to see how the above Bhagavad-Gita verse marries up with sociological theories as to why people join NRMs. Sociologists classify some new religious movements as world rejecting, which includes groups who are keen to recruit new members.
There are four types of perceived deprivation an individual might experience which could lead them to a world-rejecting new religious movement.
  • Social deprivation – a lack of status, prestige or power or dissatisfaction with work or career.
  • Organismic deprivation – people suffering from physical or mental health problems seeking healing or an alternative to drugs or alcohol.
  • Ethical deprivation – people may feel the world is in moral decline and chose a religious movement which offers a retreat from the world.
  • Psychic deprivation – felt by people searching for more than the values and goals of the capitalist system, instead seeking deeper, inner fulfillment.
With regards to social deprivation, people who feel that they are not part of society or have been rejected by it, may be more likely to join a world rejecting NRM (Wallis, 1984). An NRM may appeal if it presents salvation as compensation for poverty (Weber, 1922). Christianity however also encourages followers to look beyond materialism and prestige. I am reminded of the Bible verse which appears in the Gospels – it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.
With regards to organismic deprivation, we certainly had some lost souls and people seeking healing. A very tall young man named Gerry spent some time at the temple on the island, having struggled with drugs. There was nothing on the island to be tempted by except lots of deep-fried food and long country walks. Sadly he died some years later. A friend went to sing at his funeral at his family’s request, who said the time he had spent at the temple had meant a lot to him.
According to Suzanne Newcome, a research fellow at Inform, a new religious movements network based at the London School of Economics, ‘Often these groups have a lot of legitimate criticism about society – there is a lot of inequality, a rat race which stifles individuality,” (Wolfson, 2018). NRMs which highlight a perceived societal moral decline may hold appeal for those who are especially aware of stark inequalities within society.
Barker (1989) discusses the psychic deprivation felt by young people from affluent, middle-class backgrounds who are aware of their parents’ success but do not see them as happy. Being young, they have few attachments and responsibilities; they may decide instead of following in their parents’ footsteps, to seek answers as to why they feel something is missing from their comfortable lives. I think of the verse from the Siksastakam written by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. ‘I have no desire to accumulate wealth, nor do I desire beautiful women, nor do I want any number of followers. I only want your causeless devotional service.’ (Approaching the Lord to gain material prosperity is somewhat at odds with Gaudiya Vaishnava teachings but it’s certainly not unheard of for people to pray for things they want.)
Young people from affluent backgrounds experienced a ‘crisis of meaning’ (Bellah, 1976) in the late 1960s, the youth counterculture of the decade having burnt itself out. This lead to increased membership of NRMs, which perhaps offered another means of rejecting society following an initial rejection: turn on, tune in, drop out.
The effort to maintain commitment to a world rejecting NRM is unsustainable (Barker, 1989). If the first generation is successful in doing so, this may not be the case for their children (Niebuhr, 1929; Stark, 1996) who may take a mellower approach, with beliefs and practices softened to be more aligned with mainstream society in order to maintain membership. Baker (1950) describes this as ‘cooling down’. Part of this may be due to members growing older and wanting more normal lives (Barker, 1989).
This very much rings true for me. The community I grew up in has changed significantly over the years, shifting from members living in temples to a largely congregational community. Children go to mainstream schools, young people do exams and go to university, adults have regular jobs. Very few of my generation have chosen to live in the temple or pursue their faith with the fervour our parents did. We turn up at the temple in jeans in time for the feast and take over the kirtan, as the older generation tuts that it is not a competition to see who can sing the most complicated tunes or play the most intricate mridanga beats.
While there is certainly some overlap between the Bhagavad-Gita and sociological theory (and my own observations), it would be remiss not to look at genuine religious experience. Just because I’ve never had one, doesn’t mean other people haven’t. I’ve spoken to people who said they felt they had tried everything but hadn’t found what they were looking for until they encountered AC Bhaktivedanta Swami’s teachings. And I can’t argue with that. (I do think if you are going to join a religion, why not pick a one with deep fried food and dancing? A friend used to say we put the ‘celibate’ in ‘celebratory’.)I remember a conversation with an elderly French lady who felt no attraction to the ‘métro, boulot, dodo’ existence, the 9-5. She talked about moving into the temple and the enthusiasm and inspiration she felt and how much she enjoyed it. My dad said he was always happiest working for the temple, unpaid though it was. When we lived on the island, he was general manager, librarian and treasurer. Alongside that, his wholesale business importing oil paintings from Hong Kong provided for us.We talked about eschewing materialism for the higher purpose of religion but there were bills to be paid and people had families to maintain. Working also meant you could make financial donations which kept the temple going. Doing the needful rather than chasing wealth and prestige.I’ve previously mentioned my curiosity about other New Religious Movements led by Indian gurus who came to the west. Most of these movements practice yoga, often as a means of engaging with the public (and I assume with the intention of people becoming involved with the organisation). When I say yoga, I mean the practice of physical exercises, which we never did. Yoga however has a wider meaning and refers to different pathways in Hinduism. I listen to a Radio 4 interview with Jessica Frazier, Lecturer in Religious Studies at the University of Kent and Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Hindu Studies, who talks about the origin of the word yoga, which means link. It comes from the Sanskrit word ‘yuj’ which shares its roots with English word ‘yoke’ and originally referred to the linking of the material and spiritual worlds through religious ritual.

The Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition I grew up with practices bhakti, focusing on the worship of Krishna, to the exclusion of all other Hindu deities. Other traditions follow bhakti but worship other deities, often including Krishna.

Among the different Eastern NRMs, there are the Brahma Kumaris, a matriarchal tradition founded in India in the 1930s, who practice raja yoga, as do the followers of Sivananda or the Divine Life Society. 3HO practice Kundalini yoga, which is rooted in Sikhism. The Ramakrishna movement espouses Advaita Vedanta, taking an impersonalist approach, holding that the soul is part of Brahman. Vaishnavas however believe that the soul is part and parcel of the Lord and that he is a person. This is quite a significant schism in Hinduism.

Sri Chinmoy focuses strongly on meditation and also promotes the benefits of running. I can’t entirely tell what his followers believe – Wikipedia tells me it is influenced by bhakti yoga, albeit a very different focus and presentation to what I’m used to. The Self Realisation Society follow Paramahamsa Yogananda, who is credited for bringing yoga and meditation to the West in the early 20th century. His followers practice kriya yoga which is attributed to the Bhagavad Gita and they also highlight the similarities between their beliefs and Christianity. I note the veneration of the respective leaders of Sri Chinmoy, The Self Realisation Society and Bhakti Marg. Bhakti Marg also practice kriya yoga, linking it explictly with bhakti. They describe themselves as blending different Vaishnava traditions, an idea which is alien to me. Founded in 2005, they worship Narasimha along with other forms of Krishna and Siva and Durga. I’m intrigued to listen to their kirtan. The recorded sessions on Youtube sound strange to me – far too Westernised for my tastes and I’m confused by the instrumentation. A broadcast of their morning worship sounds familiar but simultaneously odd to me.

Listening to various kirtans, I happen upon something called Bhakti Fest which takes place in California and was founded by Ram Dass. Previously known as Richard Alpert, he was a psychology academic who worked with Timothy Leary at Harvard University. He went to India in 1967 and met Neem Karoli Baba, who from what I can tell was a Hanuman worshipping follower of bhakti yoga who also embraced other major world religions. I find what Ram Dass espouses rather confusing. He blends bhakti yoga, focussing on Hanuman worship, with karma yoga and Theravadin, Mahayana & Zen Buddhism along with Sufi and Jewish mysticism. An eclectic mix to say the least. I think about how different this to AC Bhaktivedanta Swami’s teachings which focused on following the scriptures and avoiding ‘speculation’. I suspect the blending of so many ideas would certainly be classed as speculation.

Another interesting difference between the Gaudiya Vaishnava tradition I know and other Eastern movements is the focus on improving your life, or not. As my mother likes to say, the purpose of religion is not to improve your material life. I listen to an interview with Chakravarti Ram-Prasad, Distinguished Professor at Lancaster University’s Department of Religious Studies. He talks about the Hindu belief in reincarnation, referring to the world as a ‘house of sorrow’ from which people hope to escape by achieving moksa or liberation, a very familiar concept to me and one that Gaudiya Vaishnavism focuses on. Followers aim to rid themselves of worldly desires and attachments in order to be freed from ‘the cycle of birth, death, disease and old age’. I can however certainly see the appeal of something that promises to improve your life and make it easier.

Many of the above mentioned movements follow the Bhagavad-Gita. There are numerous different commentaries on the Bhagavad-Gita, with a great variety of meanings interpreted from it. AC Bhaktivedanta Swami entitled his translation and commentary ‘Bhagavad Gita: As It Is’ as he disapproved of many of the existing interpretations. (In a Radio 4 programme on the Bhagavad-Gita, Julius Lipner, Professor of Hinduism & Comparative Study of Religion and Fellow of Clare Hall, University of Cambridge, highlights how the Penguin edition of the Bhagavad-Gita is very heavily influenced by the King James Bible.) I shall stop there for now, for a comparative study of the different interpretations of the Gita is a conversation for another day. Or maybe even a PhD thesis.

What can I say as I draw to a close? Perhaps I feel a little clearer, but with a sense of how different what I grew up with is, compared to other new religious movements. Confusion and identity crisis aside however, I wouldn’t change my experience of food and music that I grew up with for the world.

Barker, E. 1989. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO. TSO Shop
Bellah, R. (1976) edited with Charles Y. Glock, with two chapters: “The New Consciousness and the Berkeley New Left” and “New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis of Modernity,” in The New Religious Consciousness. University of California Press.
BBC Radio 4 – In Our Time episode on the Bhagavad Gita presented by Melvyn Bragg. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00zt235. Accessed 18/04/2019.
Inform Leaflet on Mindfulness. Available at: https://inform.ac/sites/inform.hocext.co.uk/files/2018-08/Mindfulness.pdf. Accessed 18/04/2019
Niebuhr (1929) Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Westminster John Knox Press
Stark, R. (1996) The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History. Princeton University Press.
Wallis, R. (1984) The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life. London: Routledge
Weber, M. (1922) “Political Organizations and the State,” in Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft (Economy and Society), ed. Johannes Winckelmann. Tübingen: Mohr Verlag,
Wolfson, S. (2018) The free-love cult that terrorised America and -and became Netflix’s latest must – watch. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2018/apr/07/cult-oregon-1980s-terror-netflix-documentary-wild-country. Accessed 16/04/2019