Gender roles in New Religions

One key issue in the study of NRM was gender role.  Historically, most religions were established by male founders with female followers that participated in worship services.  These gender roles have been long upheld, but the emerging NRMs have succeeded in
breaking this tradition.  (Pike p. 215)

The traditional perspective of gender role in religion has been male domination over females.  This view is found excessively in established religions as well as newly emerging faiths.  “Women have accounted for the majority of participants in American religious
groups…NRM are not consistent in their perceptions or treatment of women, but
in this they are no different from mainstream religions.”  (D&A p. 5)

There are two approaches to the study of gender in NRMs.  The first was a “negative evaluation of NRMs as abusive to women” and the second approach “suggests that relations in new religions are complex and rarely reducible to the simplistic image of male gurus and passive female followers. “  (Pike p.212)  Examples of each approach can be found in the course materials.

In a religion based on a “master-disciple relationship” the male often takes the fatherly role, especially over the female disciples.  Abuse is frequent when women followers must obey without question.  Many high profile religions emerged in the 1960’s and 1970’s following the traditional pattern of a divine male figure.  These charismatic males were
able to create their own religions that became labeled as cults.  (Pike p.216)

Controlling charismatic male leaders have caused a negative view on emerging religions.  In 1950, James Jones, an unadorned pastor became the charismatic leader of Sommerset Southside Church.  His service there was short as his zealousness was too much for the congregation.  After several false starts, Jones founded the People’s Temple in 1956.  His charismatic appeal won him favor in the eyes of many established churches and he eventually became an ordained minister.  Jones visions of the future and preaching style enabled him to convince his congregation to move to Guyana after a magazine released horrifying reports of abuse and financial misdealing.  Jones was able to brainwash
his congregation into a mass suicide in 1978.  Information gathered after the suicide shed light on the cult Jones had actually created.  (Smith p.108-109)

David Koresh was another example of a male charismatic leader that was assertive in having control over his female followers.  The Branch Davidians were an established group and Vernon Howell, later known as David Koresh, became the leader.  Koresh believed under his guidance as a loving father figure, the congregation he referred to as his
family would establish heaven on Earth.  Under this charismatic mans leadership, the women, their daughters and even the men were forced to submit to Koresh as sexual objects.    In 1993 Koresh’s congregation perished during a siege by the FBI and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.  (Pike p.216, D&A p.262-263)

While men were typically the founders of alternative religions, there are groups that emerged under the leadership of women.  Studies found when
females establish a group and function as leaders, the women disciples are seen
as spiritually superior.  Neo-pagans base their religion on a “woman-centered theology” established by female spiritualist, Starhawk.  Also elevating female leadership is the New Age movement.  Both Neo-pagan and New Agers attempted to balance gender equality and avoid “absolute devotion to charismatic leaders.”  (Pike p. 216-217)  Sexual freedom
is important to these groups and sexuality is viewed as an expression of one’s self, separate from their religious identity.  (Pike p. 221)

Christian Science, Spiritualism and the Shakers were established by female mediums and all three groups have male and female leadership roles.  The lack of a single, male charismatic leader appears to enable these groups to avoid the abuse that often develops in male established religions.  (Pike p. 215)  Other religions based on extraterrestrial and
androgynous races, attempt to view their divine as genderless, removing the
importance of a deity having a gender.

The key issue of gender within NRMs is sensitive.  The abuse of
women by charismatic male leaders is a fact in NRMs.  On the other hand, there are established NRMs and ones that are still emerging that give equality to and even celebrate the females within their group.  In either case, gender will always remain a key issue in religious movements.

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