New religious movement

A new religious movement (NRM) 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.[1] Many have their own unique scriptures, while others reinterpret existing texts.[2]

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.[3][4][5] Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries.[6] 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.[7]


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.[6] Some scholars also have a more restricted approach to what counts as 'different from existing religions'. For them, 'difference' applies to a faith that, although it may be seen as part of an existing religion (for example, by upholding the same religious text), meets with rejection from that religion for not sharing the same basic creed, or declares itself either separate from the existing religion or even 'the only right' faith. Other scholars expand their measurement of difference, considering religious movements new when, taken from their traditional cultural context, they appear in new places, perhaps in modified forms.

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".[8] 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.[9]

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.[10][11]


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. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to "cult". Originally, "cult" meant a specific form of worship (e.g., the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis) or a specific type of social group (e.g., in opposition to a sect).[12] The use of "cult" to describe a group of people who venerate a particular saint or deity within a religion is rare now, but occasionally still used, for instance in scholarship such as Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, or in journalism such as a 2014 article in the Independent UK "The Appeal of the Virgin Mary: A Supernatural Hope at a Time of Scepticism" which uses the phrase "the Cult of Mary."

"Cult" emerged in the 1890s,[8] but by the 1970s had acquired a pejorative connotation and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed.[6] This was the era of the so-called "cult wars," led by "cult-watching groups" like the English organization FAIR (an acronym for Family, Action, Information, Rescue).[13] 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."[14] 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).[15]


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.[16] 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.[17] In 1891, the Unity Church, the first New Thought denomination, was founded in the United States.[18][19]

In 1893, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago.[20] 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.[21] Also attending were Soyen Shaku, the "First American Ancestor" of Zen,[22] the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, and the Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi.[23] This conference gave Asian religious teachers their first wide American audience.[18]

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.[18][24] 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.

At the same time, 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.[18][25]

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.[18] 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.[26][27][28] 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.[29] In 1967, The Beatles' visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India brought public attention to the Transcendental Meditation movement.[30][31]

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.[18]

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.[32] Since 1999, the persecution of Falun Gong in China has been severe.[33][34] Ethan Gutmann interviewed over 100 witnesses and estimated that 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners were killed for their organs from 2000 to 2008.[35][36][37][38]

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.[18] This is sometimes referred to as cybersectarianism.[39][40] 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.[41] 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.[18]

The media

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."[42] Since 1988 a resource created by Eileen Barker called INFORM: The Information Network on Religious Movements, has sought to provide access to information in order to develop informed, reasoned, and balanced opinions on NRMs. As Barker describes in a 2012 interview with the Religious Studies Project Podcast, INFORM and Barker herself continue to be frequent contributors to media dialogues, among other public conversations, around NRMs, especially in England.[43]


There has been opposition to NRMs throughout their history.[44] Some historical events have been: Anti-Mormonism,[45] the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses,[46] the persecution of Bahá'ís,[47] and the persecution of Falun Gong.[33][34][35][36][37][38] Presently the Christian countercult movement, which began in the 1800s, opposes most NRMs because of theological differences. The secular anti-cult movement, which began in the 1970s, opposes some NRMs, as well as some non-religious groups, mainly charging them with psychological abuse of their own members.[18] 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.[48]

New religious studies

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.[49] David G. Bromley used its perspectives for a piece in Nova Religio[50] 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.[51]


According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU,[52] 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.[53]

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.[54] 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.[55][56]

Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist noted for his writings on the brainwashing controversy,[57][58] 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."[59]

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.[60]

See also


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  2. John Bowker, 2011, The Message and the Book, UK, Atlantic Books, page 13-14
  3. Sreenivasan, J. 2008. Utopias in American History: ABC-CLIO.
  4. T.L. Brink (2008) Psychology: A Student Friendly Approach. "Unit 13: Social Psychology." pp 320
  5. Olson, Paul J. 2006. "The Public Perception of "Cults" and "New Religious Movements". Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 45 (1): 97-106
  6. 1 2 3 Introvigne, Massimo (June 15, 2001). "The Future of Religion and the Future of New Religions". Retrieved 2006-12-13.
  7. Eileen Barker, 1999, "New Religious Movements: their incidence and significance", New Religious Movements: challenge and response, Bryan Wilson and Jamie Cresswell editors, Routledge ISBN 0415200504
  8. 1 2 The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, (Oxford University Press, 2008) 17
  9. Religion in the Modern World, p. 270, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
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  12. Gallagher, Eugene V. 2007. "Compared to What? 'Cults' and 'New Religious Movements.'" History of Religions 47(2/3): 212.
  13. Barker, Eileen. 2010. "Stepping out of the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Engagement in ‘The Cult Wars.’" Methodological Innovations Online 6(1): 20.
  14. Petersen, Jesper Aagaard. 2004. "Modern Satanism: Dark Doctrines and Black Flames." In Controversial New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis, and Jesper Aagaard Petersen. New York: Oxford University Press. doi: 10.1093/019515682X.003.0019
  15. Paul J. Olson, The Public Perception of "Cults" and "New Religious Movements" Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion; Mar2006, Vol. 45 Issue 1, 97-106
  16. Tenrikyo Church Headquarters (1954). The Doctrine of Tenrikyo (2006 ed.). Tenri, Nara, Japan: Tenrikyo Church Headquarters. p. 3.
  17. Yao, Xinzhong (2000). An Introduction to Confucianism. Cambridge University Press. pp. 121–122. ISBN 0521644305.
  18. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Elijah Siegler, 2007, New Religious Movements, Prentice Hall, ISBN 0131834789
  19. "Unity School of Christianity". Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 2009-06-26.
  20. McRae, John R. (1991). "Oriental Verities on the American Frontier: The 1893 World's Parliament of Religions and the Thought of Masao Abe". Buddhist-Christian Studies. University of Hawai'i Press. 11: 7–36. doi:10.2307/1390252. JSTOR 1390252.
  21. First Public Mentions of the Bahá'í Faith
  22. Ford, James Ishmael (2006). Zen Master Who?. Wisdom Publications. pp. 59–62. ISBN 0-86171-509-8.
  23. Jain, Pankaz; Pankaz Hingarh; Dr. Bipin Doshi and Smt. Priti Shah. "Virchand Gandhi, A Gandhi Before Gandhi". herenow4u.
  24. Fisher, Jonah (16 January 2010). "Unholy row over World Cup trumpet". BBC Sport. Retrieved 2010-01-16.
  25. J.K.van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults, 4th rev.ed.Grand Rapids: William Eerdmans Publishing, 1962.
  26. Partridge, Christopher Hugh (ed.) (2003) UFO Religions. Routledge. Chapter 4 Opening A Channel To The Stars: The Origins and Development of the Aetherius Society by Simon G. Smith pp. 84–102
  27. James R. Lewis (ed.) (1995), The Gods have landed: new religions from other worlds (Albany: State University of New York Press),ISBN 0-7914-2330-1. p. .28
  28. John A. Saliba‌ (2006). The Study of UFO Religions, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, November 2006, Vol. 10, No. 2, pp. 103–123.
  29. Gibson 2002, pp. 4, 6
  30. van den Berg, Stephanie (5 February 2008). "Beatles Guru Maharishi Mahesh Yogi Dies". The Sydney Morning Herald. AFP. Archived from the original on 30 August 2010.
  31. Corder, Mike (10 February 2008). "Maharishi Mahesh Yogi; The Beatles' mentor had global empire". San Diego Union-Tribune. Associated Press. Archived from the original on 29 August 2010.
  32. Seth Faison (27 April 1999) In Beijing: A Roar of Silent Protestors, The New York Times
  33. 1 2 David Kilgour, David Matas (6 July 2006, revised 31 January 2007) An Independent Investigation into Allegations of Organ Harvesting of Falun Gong Practitioners in China (in 22 languages)
  34. 1 2 "China: The crackdown on Falun Gong and other so-called "heretical organizations"". Amnesty International. 23 March 2000. Archived from the original on November 10, 2009. Retrieved 17 March 2010.
  35. 1 2 Jay Nordlinger (25 August 2014) "Face The Slaughter: The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem, by Ethan Gutmann", National Review
  36. 1 2 Viv Young (11 August 2014) "The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting, and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem", New York Journal of Books
  37. 1 2 Ethan Gutmann (August 2014) The Slaughter: Mass Killings, Organ Harvesting and China’s Secret Solution to Its Dissident Problem "Average number of Falun Gong in Laogai System at any given time" Low estimate 450,000, High estimate 1,000,000 p 320. "Best estimate of Falun Gong harvested 2000 to 2008" 65,000 p 322.
  38. 1 2 Barbara Turnbull (21 October 2014) "Q&A: Author and analyst Ethan Gutmann discusses China’s illegal organ trade",The Toronto Star
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  41. Seeking Entry-Level Prophet: Burning Bush and Tablets Not Required, New York Times, August 28, 2006
  42. van Driel, Barend and James T. Richardson. Research Note Categorization of New Religious Movements in American Print Media. Sociological Analysis 1988, 49, 2:171-183
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  51. Sablia, John A. (2007). "Disciplinary Perspectives on New Religious Movements: Views of from the Humanities and Social Sciences". In David G. Brohmley. Teaching New Religious Movements. pp. 41–63. doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195177299.001.0001/acprof-9780195177299-chapter-3 (inactive 2016-07-04). Retrieved 2014-03-17.
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  53. Bader, Chris & A. Demaris, A test of the Stark-Bainbridge theory of affiliation with religious cults and sects. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 35, 285-303. (1996)
  54. Conversion, Unification Church, Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary
  55. Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America: African diaspora traditions and other American innovations, Volume 5 of Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America, W. Michael Ashcraft, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN 0-275-98717-5, ISBN 978-0-275-98717-6, page 180
  56. Exploring New Religions, Issues in contemporary religion, George D. Chryssides, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001 ISBN 0-8264-5959-5, ISBN 978-0-8264-5959-6 page 1
  57. Dawson, Lorne L.. Cults in context: readings in the study of new religious movements, Transaction Publishers 1998, p. 340, ISBN 978-0-7658-0478-5
  58. Robbins, Thomas. In Gods we trust: new patterns of religious pluralism in America, Transaction Publishers 1996, p. 537, ISBN 978-0-88738-800-2
  59. Sipchen, Bob (1988-11-17). "Ten Years After Jonestown, the Battle Intensifies Over the Influence of 'Alternative' Religions", Los Angeles Times
  60. Magliocco, Sabina. 2012. “Neopaganism.” In O. Hammer and M. Rothstein, Eds., The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, pp. 150-166. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Further reading

  • Barrett, David B., George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the Modern World, 2 vols. 2nd edition, Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
  • Clarke, Peter B. (2000). Japanese New Religions: In Global Perspective. Richmond : Curzon. ISBN 9780700711857
  • Hexham, Irving and Karla Poewe, New Religions as Global Cultures, Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1997.
  • Hexham, Irving, Stephen Rost & John W. Morehead (eds) Encountering New Religious Movements: A Holistic Evangelical Approach, Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2004.
  • Kranenborg, Reender (Dutch language) Een nieuw licht op de kerk?: Bijdragen van nieuwe religieuze bewegingen voor de kerk van vandaag/A new perspective on the church: Contributions by NRMs for today's church Published by het Boekencentrum, (a Christian publishing house), the Hague, 1984. ISBN 90-239-0809-0.
  • Stark, Rodney (ed) Religious Movements: Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, New York: Paragon House, 1985.
  • Arweck, Elisabeth and Peter B. Clarke, New Religious Movements in Western Europe: An Annotated Bibliography, Westport & London: Greenwood Press, 1997.
  • Barker, Eileen, New religious movements: a practical introduction London, Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1989.
  • Barker, Eileen and Margit Warburg (eds) New Religions and New Religiosity, Aarhus, Denmark: Aargus University Press, 1998.
  • Beck, Hubert F. How to Respond to the Cults, in The Response Series. St. Louis, Mo.: Concordia Publishing House, 1977. 40 p. N.B.: Written from a Confessional Lutheran perspective. ISBN 0-570-07682-X
  • Beckford, James A. (ed) New Religious Movements and Rapid Social Change, Paris: UNESCO/London, Beverly Hills & New Delhi: SAGE Publications, 1986.
  • Chryssides, George D., Exploring New Religions, London & New York: Cassell, 1999.
  • Clarke, Peter B. (ed.), Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements, London & New York: Routledge, 2006.
  • Davis, Derek H., and Barry Hankins (eds) New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, Waco: J. M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies and Baylor University Press, 2002.
  • Enroth, Ronald M., and J. Gordon Melton. Why Cults Succeed Where the Church Fails. Elgin, Ill.: Brethren Press, 1985. v, 133 p. ISBN 0-87178-932-9
  • Jenkins, Philip, Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Kohn, Rachael, The New Believers: Re-Imagining God, Sydney: Harper Collins, 2003.
  • Loeliger, Carl and Garry Trompf (eds) New Religious Movements in Melanesia, Suva, Fiji: University of the South Pacific & University of Papua New Guinea, 1985.
  • Meldgaard, Helle and Johannes Aagaard (eds) New Religious Movements in Europe, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1997.
  • Needleman, Jacob and George Baker (eds) Understanding the New Religions, New York: Seabury Press, 1981.
  • Partridge, Christopher (ed) Encyclopedia of New Religions: New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Spiritualities, Oxford: Lion, 2004.
  • Possamai, Adam, Religion and Popular Culture: A Hyper-Real Testament, Brussels: P. I. E. - Peter Lang, 2005.
  • Saliba, John A., Understanding New Religious Movements, 2nd edition, Walnut Creek, Lanham: Alta Mira Press, 2003.
  • Staemmler, Birgit, Dehn, Ulrich (ed.): Establishing the Revolutionary: An Introduction to New Religions in Japan. LIT, Münster, 2011. ISBN 978-3-643-90152-1
  • Thursby, Gene. "Siddha Yoga: Swami Muktanada and the Seat of Power." When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate Of New Religious Movements. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991 pp. 165–182.
  • Toch, Hans. The Social Psychology of Social Movements, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1965.
  • Towler, Robert (ed) New Religions and the New Europe, Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press, 1995.
  • Trompf, G. W. (ed) Cargo Cults and Millenarian Movements: Transoceanic Comparisons of New Religious Movements, Berlin & New York: Mouton de Gruyter, 1990.
  • Wilson, Bryan and Jamie Cresswell (eds) New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response, London & New York: Routledge, 1999.
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