New religious movement
A new religious movement (NRM), also known as a new religion, is a religious community or spiritual group of modern origins, which has a peripheral place within its society's dominant religious culture. NRMs can be novel in origin or part of a wider religion, in which case they are distinct from pre-existing denominations. Religious studies scholars contextualize the rise of NRMs in modernity, relating it as a product of and answer to modern processes of secularization, globalization, detraditionalization, fragmentation, reflexivity, and individualization. Some NRMs deal with the challenges posed by the modernizing world by embracing individualism whereas others seek tightly knit collective means. Many have their own unique scriptures, while others reinterpret existing texts.
Many scholars studying the sociology of religion prefer to use the term "New Religious Movement" as a neutral alternative to the word cult, which is often considered derogatory. Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries. Scholars have estimated that NRMs now number in the tens of thousands worldwide, with most of their members living in Asia and Africa. Most have only a few members, some have thousands, and only very few have more than one million members.
- 1 Definitions
- 2 History
- 3 Beliefs and practices
- 4 Leadership
- 5 Involvement
- 6 Reception
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Although there is no one criterion or set of criteria for describing a group as a 'new religious movement', use of the term usually requires that the group be both of recent origin and different from existing religions. In 1989, the sociologist of religion Eileen Barker defined the term "new religious movements" as "a disparate collection of organisations, most of which have emerged in their present form since the 1950s, and most of which offer some kind of answer to questions of a fundamental religious, spiritual or philosophical nature." As noted by scholars of religion Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, "new religions are just young religions". In this they argued that NRMs are "not inherently different" from mainstream and established religious movements, with the differences between the two having been greatly exaggerated by the media and popular perceptions.
NRMs do not necessarily share a set of particular attributes, but have been "assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture", and "exist in a relatively contested space within society as a whole". NRMs vary in terms of leadership; authority; concepts of the individual, family, and gender; teachings; organizational structures; and in other ways. These variations have presented a challenge to social scientists in their attempts to formulate a comprehensive and clear set of criteria for classifying NRMs. Generally, Christian denominations are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Shakers have been studied as NRMs.
"Cults", "sects", and "alternative religions"
Since at least the early 2000s, most sociologists of religion have used the term "new religious movement" to avoid the pejorative undertones of terms like "cult" and "sect". These are words that have been used in different ways by different groups. For instance, from the nineteenth century onward a number of sociologists used the terms "cult" and "sect" in very specific ways. The sociologist Ernst Troeltsch for instance differentiated "churches" from "sect" by claiming that the former term should apply to groups which stretched across social strata while "sects" were typically defined by containing converts who came from socially disadvantaged sectors of society.
As commonly used, for instance in sensationalist tabloid articles, the term "cult" has pejorative associations. According to the sociologist of religion David V. Barrett, the term "cult" was widely understood as meaning "one of those fake religions that brainwashes people into joining, takes all their money, then commits all sorts of abuse on them, and then they all commit suicide." In the U.S., the term began to be used in this pejorative manner to refer to Spiritualism and Christian Science during the 1890s. Tabloid articles have repeatedly combined the word "cult" with other terms to make their coverage more sensationalistic, thus referring to various new religions as a "sex cult", "evil cult", or "suicide cult".
Alternately, the term "cult" is also used in reference to devotion or dedication to a particular person or place. For instance, within the Roman Catholic Church devotion to Mary, mother of Jesus is usually termed the "Cult of Mary". It is also used in non-religious contexts to refer to fandoms devoted to television shows like The Prisoner, The X-Files, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
The term "new religions" is a calque of shinshūkyō (新宗教?), a Japanese term developed to describe the proliferation of Japanese new religions in the years following the Second World War. From Japan this term was translated and used by several American authors, including Jacob Needleman, to describe the range of groups that appeared in the San Francisco Bay Area during the 1960s. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to "cult".  Another term that has been employed for many NRMs is "alternative religion", something used to convey the difference between these groups and established or mainstream religious movements while at the same time evading the problem posed by groups that are not particularly new.
"Cult" emerged in the 1890s, but by the 1970s had acquired a pejorative connotation and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed. This was the era of the so-called "cult wars," led by "cult-watching groups." The efforts of the anti-cult movement condensed a moral panic around the concept of cults. Public fears around Satanisms, in particular, came to be known as a distinct phenomenon, "the satanic panic." Consequently, scholars such as Eileen Barker, James T. Richardson, Timothy Miller and Catherine Wessinger argued that the term "cult" had become too laden with negative connotations, and "advocated dropping its use in academia." A number of alternatives to the term "new religious movement" are used by some scholars. These include "alternative religious movements" (Miller), "emergent religions" (Ellwood) and "marginal religious movements" (Harper and Le Beau).
Scholars usually consider the mid-19th century as the beginning of the era of new religious movements. During this time spiritualism and esotericism were becoming popular in Europe and North America. The Latter Day Saint movement including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, is now one of the most successful NRMs in terms of membership. In Japan, 1838 marks the beginning of Tenrikyo. In 1844 the Bahá'í Faith was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in Iran. In 1860 Donghak, later Cheondoism, was founded by Choi Jae-Woo in China. It later ignited the Donghak Peasant Revolution in 1894. In 1891, the Unity Church, the first New Thought denomination, was founded in the United States.
In 1893, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago. The conference included NRMs of the time such as spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by its founder Mary Baker Eddy. Henry Harris Jessup addressing the meeting was the first to mention the Bahá'í Faith in the United States. Also attending were Soyen Shaku, the "First American Ancestor" of Zen, the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, and the Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi. This conference gave Asian religious teachers their first wide American audience.
In 1911 the Nazareth Baptist Church, the first and one of the largest modern African initiated churches, was founded by Isaiah Shembe in South Africa. The 1930s saw the founding of the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States, the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo in Vietnam, Soka Gakkai in Japan, and Yiguandao in China.
New religious movements expanded in many nations in the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese new religions became very popular after the occupation of Japan forced a separation of the Japanese government and Shinto, which had been the state religion, bringing about greater freedom of religion. In 1954 Scientology was founded in the United States and the Unification Church in South Korea. In 1955 the Aetherius Society was founded in England. It and some other NRMs have been called UFO religions, since they combine belief in extraterrestrial life with traditional religious principles. In 1965 Paul Twitchell founded Eckankar, an NRM derived partially from Sant Mat. In 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in the United States by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1967, The Beatles' visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India brought public attention to the Transcendental Meditation movement.
In the late 1980s and the 1990s the decline of communism and the revolutions of 1989 opened up new opportunities for NRMs. Falun Gong was first taught publicly in Northeast China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. At first it was accepted by the Chinese government and by 1999 there were 70 million practitioners in China. Since 1999, the persecution of Falun Gong in China has been severe. Ethan Gutmann interviewed over 100 witnesses and estimated that 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners were killed for their organs from 2000 to 2008.
In the 21st century many NRMs are using the Internet to give out information, to recruit members, and sometimes to hold online meetings and rituals. This is sometimes referred to as cybersectarianism. In 2006 J. Gordon Melton, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times that 40 to 45 new religious movements emerge each year in the United States. In 2007 religious scholar Elijah Siegler commented that although no NRM had become the dominant faith in any country, many of the concepts which they had first introduced (often referred to as "New Age" ideas) have become part of worldwide mainstream culture.
Beliefs and practices
As noted by Barker, NRMs cannot all be "lumped together" and differ from one another on many issues. Virtually no generalisation can be made about NRMs that will apply to every single group, with Barrett noting that "generalizations tend not to be very helpful" when studying NRMs. For instance, a small number of new religions encourage illegal drug use; Rastafarians smoke ganja as a sacrament while some modern Pagans take entheogens. Conversely, ISKCON and the Brahma Kumaris strictly forbid the use of any drugs, with the Church of Scientology establishing Narconon to combat the illegal drug trade.
NRMs frequently claim justification for their beliefs and practices by insisting that these are not new, but rather had been forgotten truths that are only now being revived. New religions often utilise a range of older elements. New religions often claim that they exist at a crucial place in time and space.
The mass suicide and killing of 913 members of the Peoples Temple in Jonestown, Guyana in 1978 brought the idea of "killer cults" to public attention. A number of subsequent events contributed to this image of new religions. In 1993, 80 members of the Branch Davidians were killed in a fire at their Texas compound when the federal authorities stormed their compound. In 1994, a number of members of the Order of the Solar Temple committed suicide in Canada and Switzerland. In 1995 members of the Japanese new religion Aum Shinrikyo murdered a number of people, including through a sarin attack on the Tokyo subway. In 1997, 39 members of the Heaven's Gate group killed themselves in the belief that their spirits would leave the Earth and join a passing comet. There have also been cases where members of NRMs have been killed because they engaged in dangerous actions while believing themselves to be invincible; in Uganda several hundred members of the Holy Spirit Movement were killed as they approached gunfire because its leader, Alice Lakwena, told them that they would be protected from bullets by the oil of the shea tree. These events are extremely rare and very unusual. In those cases where large number of casualties resulted, the new religion in question was led by a charismatic leader.
There are also instances in which violence has been directed at new religions. In India, for example, there have been mob killings of members of the Ananda Marga group. Such violence can also be administered by the state. In Philadelphia in 1988, police bombed a house that killed members of the MOVE group. In Iran, the Ba'hai have faced persecution, while the Ahmadiyya have faced similar violence in Pakistan.
Many NRMs are led by a charismatic leader. Some NRMS have instead been formed by groups of individuals, particularly those who have split from a pre-existing religious group. As these individuals grow older, many have children who are then brought up within the NRM.
The death of an NRM's founder represents a significant moment in any religion's history. Over the months and years following their death, the movement can die out, fragment into multiple groups, consolidate its position, or change its nature to become something quite different to that which its founder intended. In some cases a group moves closer to the religious mainstream after the death of its founder. A number of founders of new religions established clear plans for succession in order to prevent confusion after their death. For instance, Mary Baker Eddy, the American founder of Christian Science, spent fifteen years working on her book The Manual of the Mother Church, which laid out how the group should be run by her successors.
Those who convert to a NRM typically believe that in doing so they are gaining some benefit in their life. This can come in many forms, from an increasing sense of freedom, to a release from drug dependency, and a feeling of self-respect and direction. Many of those who have left NRMs still report have gained much from their experience. There are various reasons as to why an individual would join and then remain part of an NRM. These consist of both push and pull factors.
According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join NRMs include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which people join new religious groups, have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
In the 1960s sociologist John Lofland lived with Unification Church missionary Young Oon Kim and a small group of American church members in California and studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled: 'The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes', and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion, as well as one of the first sociological studies of a new religious movement.
Sabina Magliocco, professor of Anthropology and Folklore at California State University, Northridge, has discussed joining NRMs in terms of its growing popularity due to reading, social and political interests, and most importantly, the Internet. With more than 20,000 websites and chat rooms devoted to Pagan topics, young people are increasingly using the Internet to form communities around NRMs rather than meeting in person.
A popular explanation for why people join new religious movements is that they have been "brainwashed" or subject to "mind control" by the NRM itself. This explanation provides a rationale for 'deprogramming', a process in which members of NRMs are illegally kidnapped by individuals who then attempt to convinced them to reject their beliefs. Professional deprogrammers therefore have a financial interest in promoting the 'brainwashing' explanation. Academic research however has demonstrated that these brainwashing techniques "simply do not exist". Other popular conceptions which are not supported by evidence hold that those who convert to new religions are either mentally ill or become so through their involvement with the groups.
An NRM may place considerable pressure on an individual to convert. This may entail "love bombing", in which an individual is given considerable attention and affection, or it may play upon the individual's sense of guilt; sometimes both tactics are adopted. Sometimes NRMs employ deception as part of their attempt to entice people to join them, typically through withholding information from those they seek to recruit, such as the identity of the group that they represent or the obligations and restrictions that will be expected of any convert. Some recruiters go beyond concealing the truth to actively lie about their group and its activities. Some new religions legitimise this deception by referring to "transcendental trickery" or "heavenly deception".
Most of those individuals who are exposed to an NRM's proselytizing efforts reject the beliefs and do not involve themselves in the NRM. For example, of the thousand individuals who attended a Unification Church event in London in 1979, around 90% had no further contact with the group. Approximately 8% joined as full-time members for at least a week, and less than 4% were still full-time members two years later.
A small number of new religions use harsh methods of indoctrination, or conditioning, to make its members more obedient to the demands of its leadership. This can include providing members with a poor diet, subjecting them to sleep deprivation, or encouraging members to spy upon each other. The factors of friendship and socialisation within a group help new religions to retain people in the movements. A number of groups, particularly those which are forms of occultism, have a prescribed system of courses and grades through which members can progress.
Many members of NRMs leave these groups of their own free will. Some of those who do so retain friends within the movement. Some of those who leave a religious community are unhappy with the time that they spent as part of it. Leaving an NRM can pose a number of difficulties for an individual. For instance, it may result in them having to abandon a daily framework that they had previously adhered to. It can also generate mixed emotions as ex-members lose the feelings of absolute certainty that they had held while in the group.
Barker stated that the majority of NRMs originated in either North America (particularly California) or Asia (particularly India), but that some are from Britain and France. NRMs typically consist largely of first-generation believers, and thus often have a younger average membership than mainstream religious congregations. In the Third World, NRMs most often appeal to the poor and oppressed sectors of society. Within Western countries, they are more likely to appeal to members of the middle and upper-middle classes, with Barrett stating that new religions in the UK and US largely attract "white, middle-class late teens and twenties". There are exceptions, such as the Rastafari movement and the Nation of Islam which have primarily attracted disadvantaged black youth in Western countries.
An article on the categorization of new religious movements in U.S. print media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion (formerly the American Catholic Sociological Society), criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use popular or anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight, and asserts that "The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media's reporting of the social sciences."
There has been opposition to NRMs throughout their history. Some historical events have been: Anti-Mormonism, the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, the persecution of Bahá'ís, and the persecution of Falun Gong.
In the 1930s, Christian critics of NRMs began referring to them as "cults". The 1938 book The Chaos of Cults by Jan Karel van Baalen (1890–1968), an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, was especially influential. Presently the Christian countercult movement opposes most NRMs because of theological differences. It is closely associated with evangelical Christianity. The UK-based Reachout Trust was initially established to oppose the Jehovah's Witnesses and what it regarded as "counterfeit Christian groups", but it came to wider attention in the late 1980s and 1990s for its role in promoting claims about Satanic ritual abuse. In the US, a Christian Research Institute was founded in 1960 by Walter Martin to counter opposition to evangelical Christianity and has come to focus on criticisms of NRMs. In Australia, the Concerned Christians Growth Ministries was founded by Adrian van Leen in 1979, which issued a magazine titled Take a Closer Look; in its first issue, it said that it wanted to "make you aware of the constant and growing threat of pseudo-Christian and non-Christian cults".
In the 1970s and 1980s some NRMs came under opposition by the newly organized anti-cult movement and by some governments, as well as receiving extensive coverage in the news media. The media coverage of the deaths of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple by suicide and murder in 1978 is often cited as especially contributing to public opposition to cults. The secular anti-cult movement opposes some NRMs, as well as some non-religious groups, mainly charging them with psychological abuse of their own members. It actively seeks to discourage people from joining new religions (which it refers to as "cults"). It also encourages them to leave them, and at times seeking to restrict their freedom of movement. The first organised opposition to new religions in the United States appeared in 1972 with the formation of FREECOG (Parents Committee to Free Our Sons and Daughters from the Children of God). In 1973 FREECOG renamed itself as the Volunteer Parents of America, and then the Citizens Freedom Foundation (CFF), before becoming the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) in 1984. In 1979, another anti-cult group, the American Family Foundation (AFF) was founded; it began organising annual conferences, launching an information phone line, and publishing the Cult Observer and the Cultic Studies Journal. The CAN and AFF were separate organisations although fashioned a number of joint boards and programmes. In 1996 the CAN was sued for its involvement in the deprogramming of a member of the American Pentecostal Church. This bankrupted the organisation, and its name was purchased by a group which included a number of Scientologists. In the UK, the politician Paul Rose established an anti-cult group called FAIR (Family Action Information and Resource) in 1976. In 1987, Ian Harworth founded another such group, the Cult Information Centre.
Family members are often distressed when a relative of theirs joins a new religion. Although children break away from their parents for all manner of reasons, in cases where NRMS are involved it is often the latter that are blamed for the break. Some anti-cultist groups emphasise the idea that "cults" always use deceit and trickery to recruit members. The anti-cult movement adopted the term "brainwashing", which had been developed by the journalist Edward Hunter and then used by Robert J. Lifton to apply to the methods employed by Chinese to convert captured U.S. soldiers to their cause in the Korean War. Lifton himself had doubts about the applicability of his 'brainwashing' hypothesis to the techniques used by NRMs to convert recruits. A number of ex-members of various new religions have made false allegations about their experiences in such groups. For instance, in the late 1980s a man in Dublin, Ireland was given a three year suspended sentence for falsely claiming that he had been drugged, kidnapped, and held captive by members of ISKCON.
Scholars of religion have often critiqued anti-cult groups of un-critically believing anecdotal stories provided by the ex-members of new religions, of encouraging ex-members to think that they are the victims of manipulation and abuse, and of irresponsibly scare-mongering about NRMs. Of the "well over a thousand groups that have been or might be called cults" listed in the files of INFORM, says Eileen Barker, the "vast majority" have not engaged in criminal activities. Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist noted for his writings on the brainwashing controversy, has defended NRMs, and in 1988 argued that involvement in such movements may often be beneficial: "There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."
The study of new religions emerged in Japan with an increase in religious innovation following World War II. "New religions" is a calque of shinshūkyō (新宗教?), which Japanese sociologists coined to refer to Japanese new religions. New religions studies is the interdisciplinary study of new religious movements that emerged as a discipline in the 1970s. The term was coined by J. Gordon Melton in a 1999 paper presented at CESNUR conference in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. David G. Bromley used its perspectives for a piece in Nova Religio and later as an Editor of Teaching New Religious Movements in The American Academy of Religion's Teaching Religious Studies Series; the term has been used by James R. Lewis, Jean-François Mayer. The study draws from the disciplines of anthropology, psychiatry, history, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and theology.
Barker noted that there five sources of information on NRMs: the information provided by such groups themselves, that provided by ex-members as well as the friends and relatives of members, organisations that collect information on NRMs, the mainstream media, and academics studying such phenomena.
The study of new religions is unified by its topic of interest, rather than by its methodology, and is therefore interdisciplinary in nature. A sizeable body of scholarly literature on new religions has been published, most of it produced by social scientists. The study of new religions was initially confined largely to a narrow array of largely sociological questions. This came to change in later scholarship, which began to apply theories and methods initially developed for examining more mainstream religions to the study of new ones. The majority of research has been directed toward those new religions which have attracted a greater deal of public controversy; less controversial NRMs have tended to be the subject of less scholarly research. It has also been noted that scholars of new religions have often avoided researching certain movements which tend instead to be studied by scholars from other backgrounds; the feminist spirituality movement is usually examined by scholars of women's studies, African-American new religions by scholars of Africana studies, and Native American new religions by scholars of Native American studies.
In Japan, the academic study of new religions appeared in the years following the Second World War. Conversely, in Western nations the study of new religions only formed into its own distinct field in the 1970s; prior to this, new religions had been examined from varying perspectives, with Pentecostalism for instance being studied by church historians and cargo cults by anthropologists. This Western academic study of new religions emerged in response to growing public concerns regarding the emergence of various NRMs during the 1970s. By the latter part of that decade, increasing numbers of papers on new religions were being presented at the annual conferences of the American Academy of Religion, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the Association for the Sociology of Religion. The manner in which the scholarly study of new religions rose to prominence due to the public perception that these movements were social threats bore similarities with the manner in which Islamic studies grew in Western nations following the September 11 attacks in 2001. The study of new religions would only be fully embraced by the Western religious studies establishment in the 1990s.
In 1988, the charity INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) was established by Barker, who was then a professor of sociology at the London School of Economics. The organisation was supported by the UK Home Office and the British established churches and was designed to conduct research and disseminate accurate information about new religions. Barker established INFORM due to her "conviction that a great deal of unnecessary suffering has resulted from ignorance of the nature and characteristics of the current wave of [NRMs] in the West." Also in 1988, the Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne established CESNUR (Centre for Studies on New Religions) in Turin; it brought together academics studying NRMs in both Europe and North America. In the United States, CESNUR gained representation through the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California, which was directed by J. Gordon Melton.
Scholars of new religion often operate in a politicised environment given that their research can be cited in legal briefs and judicial decisions regarding NRMs. In Barker's view, academic research into NRMs had practical applications in dealing with the problems that people experience with regard to NRMs. It can, for example, provide accurate information about a particular religious movement that can help guide an individual's reactions to the group; "an awareness of the complexity of a situation might help people to avoid precipitous actions that would later have been regretted." However, given that scholars of new religions often reject the stereotypes about "cults" promoted by the anti-cultist movements, they have often been criticised by proponents of the latter. Anti-cult groups have sometimes criticised scholarly groups such as these, claiming that they uncritically believe what NRMs tell them, that they are pro-NRM, or that they ignore the issues raised by ex-members. Said anti-cultists have accused academic researchers of being "cult apologists".
- List of new religious movements
- List of new religious movement researchers
- Religious pluralism
- Sociological classifications of religious movements
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