The appeal of new religions, from the Peoples Temple to the most nonviolent among them, demonstrates a need for friendship, intimacy and community that society and the established churches have not satisfied Christian theologian Harvey Cox said this week.

When mainline religious institutions accommodate themselves so completely to society's spirit of "money, profit and comfort" the author and Harvard Divinity School professor said, some people look for alternatives. The extablished churches, Cox said, "have become more of less part of the furniture. They don't provide much of an alternative, as Jesus did or as St. Francis did."

"I would hope our churches would assert a clear alternative to the standard way of life," Cox told a press conference following a "Conference on Cults" organized by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

The people who join new religious groups "want a life with people which is not in competitive terms. There is a side to us that doesn't want to compete. They call each other brother and sister. They share things," he added.

Jenestown clearly tells America something about evil, Cox said, despite what he sees as a reduced national ability "to grasp the reality of evil."

"Our tendency is to look away from the dark side, the evil side. But it reasserts itself," Cox said, and if ignored can reassert itself even more strongly. "Jonestown is very hard for positive thinkers," he said.

Cox and the other conference representatives stressed the participants' unwillingness to generalize from the Jonestown tragedy and their lack of detailed understanding of the disparate new religious groups.

Cox and Berkeley sociologist Charles Y. Glock emphasized that this is not the first proliferation of new religious movements in U.S. history.

Father Divine and the I am Movement are examples of organizations that flowered in the 1930s and have all but disappeared, Glock said. In the 30s, the social uncertainty that he believes produced new movements was caused by the depression. Now, the uncertainty stems from the political and social rebellion of the 1960s, Glock said.

"I studiously avoid using the word 'cult,'" Cox said. "It always is a word to refer to a group you disapprove of."

People tend to disapprove of, or even be panicked by, new movements in their early years, Cox said. The United States, however, had the capacity to absorb and live with these movements, he added.

Cox said the conference consensus was that no "panic reaction" such as a call for immediate legislation or any governmental crackdown was necessary. He added that he would have difficulty in accepting the government or anyone else's decision as to who should be the targets of such a crackdown and who should not.

Glock suggested that Americans might better be concerned about the number of youths on hard drugs or living in circumstances likely to lead them to become criminals.

"In a sense, the media have made the cults an event," he said.

In response to reporters' questions about the conference's discussion of mind control techniques, Cox, Glock and Princeton sociologist Marvin Bressler said they saw little if anything new in the techniques of the new religions.

"We begin to call it mind control only when the end result produces a person who is notably different," Cox said, but the effort to control other people's minds is all around us.

Cox said he does not see any "discontinuity" between Madison Avenue advertisers' efforts and those of leaders of new religious groups.