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A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of modern origin, which has a peripheral place within the dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. Scholars studying the sociology of religion have almost unanimously adopted this term as a neutral alternative to the word "cult". They continue to try to reach definitions and boundaries.[1]

An NRM may be one of a wide range of movements ranging from those with loose affiliations based on novel approaches to spirituality or religion to communitarian enterprises that demand a considerable amount of group conformity and a social identity that separates their adherents from mainstream society. Use of the term is not universally accepted among the groups to which it is applied.[2] 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".[3]


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.[1] 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, 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 vary in terms of leadership; authority; concepts of the individual, family, and gender; teachings; organizational structures; etc. These variations have presented a challenge to social scientists in their attempts to formulate a comprehensive and clear set of criteria for classifying NRMs.[4]

Generally, Christian denominations that are an accepted part of mainstream Christianity are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Shakers have been studied as NRMs.[5][6] Numerous Christian evangelicals consider these groups to also fit the pejorative category "cult" because of theological divergences from orthodox Christian theology.[7][8][9][10][11]


The study of New Religions emerged in Japan after an increase in religious innovation following the Second World War. "New religions" is a calque (a word-for-word translation) of shinshūkyō, which Japanese sociologists coined to refer to this phenomenon. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to cult. "Cult" had emerged in the 1890s,[3] but by the 1970s it had acquired a pejorative connotation, and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed.[1] 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." [12] Instead, especially in the sociology of religion, (but also in religious studies),[13] scholars use "new religious movement". Some still use the term "cult" for groups they believe to be extremely manipulative and exploitative.[14]

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).[12]

New religions studies

New religions studies is the interdisciplinary study of new religious movements (so called cults) that emerged as a discipline in the 1970s.[15] The term was coined by J. Gordon Melton in a 1999 paper presented at CESNUR conference in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.[15] David G. Bromley used its perspectives for a piece in Nova Religio[16] and later as a 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.[17]

Charismatic movements

NRMs based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma, as described by the German sociologist Max Weber.

In their book Theory of Religion, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of "cults" can be explained through a combination of four models:[18]

  • The psycho-pathological model – the cult founder suffers from psychological problems; he develops the cult in order to resolve these problems for himself, as a form of self-therapy
  • The entrepreneurial model – the cult founder acts like an entrepreneur, trying to develop a religion which he/she thinks will be most attractive to potential recruits, often based on his/her experiences from previous cults or other religious groups he/she has belonged to
  • The social model – the cult is formed through a social implosion, in which cult members dramatically reduce the intensity of their emotional bonds with non-cult members, and dramatically increase the intensity of those bonds with fellow cult members – this emotionally intense situation naturally encourages the formation of a shared belief system and rituals
  • The normal revelations model – the cult is formed when the founder chooses to interpret ordinary natural phenomena as supernatural, such as by ascribing his or her own creativity in inventing the cult to that of the deity.


According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU,[19] typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.[20]

Jeffrey Hadden summarizes a lecture entitled "Why Do People Join NRMs?" (a lecture in a series related to the sociology of new religious movements, a term Hadden uses to include both cults and sects)[21][22] as follows:

  1. Belonging to groups is a natural human activity;
  2. People belong to religious groups for essentially the same reasons they belong to other groups;
  3. Conversion is generally understood as an emotionally charged experience that leads to a dramatic reorganization of the convert's life;
  4. Conversion varies enormously in terms of the intensity of the experience and the degree to which it actually alters the life of the convert;
  5. Conversion is one, but not the only reason people join religious groups;
  6. Social scientists have offered a number of theories to explain why people join religious groups;
  7. Most of these explanations could apply equally well to explain why people join lots of other kinds of groups;
  8. No one theory can explain all joinings or conversions;
  9. What all of these theories have in common is the view that joining or converting is a natural process.

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.[23] Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctorial 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.[24][25]


There are at least three ways people leave a NRM: 1) by one's own decision, 2) through expulsion and 3) or through intervention (Exit counseling, deprogramming).[26][27]

According to Eileen Barker, the greatest worry of potential harm concerns the central and most dedicated followers of a new religious movement. Barker mentions that some former members may not take new initiatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, short-lived, or peripheral supporters of an NRM.[28][29]

According to Barret leaving can be difficult for some members and may include psychological trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include: conditioning by the religious movement; avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning; having had powerful religious experiences; love for the founder of the religion; emotional investment; fear of losing salvation; bonding with other members; anticipation of the realization that time, money, and efforts donated to the group were a waste; and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong[citation needed] According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.[30]

According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform "post-cult trauma" of people leaving NRMs. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.[31]

Sociologists Bromley and Hadden also note a lack of empirical support for claims by opponents of supposed consequences of having been a member of an NRM and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."[32]

NRMs and 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."[33]


Main article: Opposition to cults and new religious movements

The neutrality of this section is disputed.

Criticism of some new religious movements, a subset of which are often described by their critics as being "cults," has been a contentious issue with both sides sometimes using epithets such as "hate group" to describe the other side.[34][35] Disaffected former members, stating that they are seeking redress for perceived wrongs or looking to expose perceived wrongdoings, have, in turn, had their motives called into question. They have themselves come under attack for allegedly using methods that have been characterized as polemic, hostile, and verbally or emotionally abusive. Critics, both those who are ex-members and who aren't, have had their character and credibility impeached. The Church of Scientology, in particular, makes a practice of investigating its critics and publicizing any past crimes or wrongdoings.[36]

CESNUR’s president Massimo Introvigne writes in his article "So many evil things: Anti-cult terrorism via the Internet"[37] that fringe and extreme anti-cult activism resorts to tactics that may create a background favorable to extreme manifestations of discrimination and hate against individuals that belong to new religious movements. In a 2002 interview Eileen Barker said that the controversy surrounding certain new religious movements can turn violent by a process called deviancy amplification spiral.[38]

The Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities, associated with the Adidam NRM, sees the use of terms "cult" and "cult leader" be used in a deliberately provocative manner.[39]


See also: List of new religious movements

NRMs are diverse in their beliefs, practices, organization, and societal acceptance. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe have consequently proposed that there are NRMs, particularly those who have gained adherents in a number of nations, which can be understood as forming global subcultures.

In general, the number of people who have affiliated with NRMs worldwide is small when compared to major world religions. However, scholars of NRMs in the west have noted the growing significance of religious syncretism, where nominal adherents of established religions import elements such as Buddhist meditation techniques, Hindu yoga methods or New Age visualisations. Contemporary Celtic Christianity in countries such as Ireland is one formalised example.[40]

The diversity of NRMs has also seen the emergence of different groups in Africa, Japan, and Melanesia. In Africa, David Barrett has documented the emergence of 6,000 new indigenous churches since the late 1960s. In Japan a number of NRMs based on revitalised Shinto belief, as well as neo-Buddhist and New Age groups, have emerged, some of which originated in the late Nineteenth century in the Meiji Era and others in the aftermath of World War Two.

Around twenty-five percent of the world's distinct cultures are found in Melanesia, spanning the island nations from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. It was here that the phenomena of Cargo Cults were first discerned by anthropologists and religious studies scholars. The Cargo Cults are interpreted as indigenous NRMs that have arisen in response to colonial and post-colonial cultural changes, including the influx of modernisation and capitalist consumerism.

At the time of their foundation, the religious traditions considered "established" or "mainstream" today were seen as new religious movements. For example, Christianity was opposed by people within Judaism and within the Roman culture as sacrilege toward existing doctrines. Likewise, Protestant Christianity was originally seen as a new religious movement or breakaway development.

In similar fashion, some of the contemporary naturalistic religions (naturalism) have evolved out of traditional Christianity and Judaism via process theology or using the term ‘God’ as a metaphor. Others have emerged via a dominating scientific perspective or by atheistic rebellion to the established beliefs of their culture. Still others have added a religious ingredient to their humanistic thinking. Most of these see the ritual/spiritual aspects of religious practice as necessary for broad adoption by many people. Examples are Religious Naturalism, Scientific Pantheism, Religious Humanism and some liberal Unitarians, Quakers, Rastafarians and Jews.

See also



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Introvigne, Massimo. The Future of Religion and the Future of New Religions. URL accessed on 2006-12-13.
  2. Coney, J. (1998) “A response to Religious Liberty in Western Europe by Massimo Introvigne” ISKON Communications Journal, 5(2)
  3. 3.0 3.1 The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, (Oxford University Press, 2008) 17
  4. Ibid. Religion in the Modern World, p. 270, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  5. Encyclopaedia Britannica Online Academic Edition, New Religious Movements
  6. Paul J. Olson, Public Perception of “Cults” and “New Religious Movements”, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 2006, 45 (1): 97-106
  7. Jenkins, Philip (2000). Mystics and Messiahs: Cults and New Religions in American History, Oxford University Press.
  8. Rhodes, Ron (2001). The Challenge of the Cults and New Religions, Zondervan.
  9. Roberts, R. Philip (1998). Mormonism Unmasked, B&H Publishing.
  10. Robertson, Irvine (1991). What the Cults Believe, Fifth Edition, Moody Bible Institute.
  11. Worthy, Jack B. (2008). The Mormon Cult: A Former Missionary Reveals the Secrets of Mormon Mind Control, See Sharp Press.
  12. 12.0 12.1 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
  13. The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements, (Oxford University Press, 2008) 4
  14. Langone, Michael D.Secular and Religious Critiques of Cults: Complementary Visions, Not Irresolvable Conflicts, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  15. 15.0 15.1 Melton, J. Gordon (1999). CESNUR 99.
  16. Bromley, David G. (2004,). Perspective: Whither New Religions Studies? Defining and Shaping a New Area of Study. Nova Religio 8 (2): 83–97.
  17. Sablia, John A. (2007). "Disciplinary Perspectives on New Religious Movements: Views of from the Humanities and Social Sciences". Teaching New Religious Movements. Ed. David G. Brohmley. 41–63. Retrieved on 2010-03-19. 
  18. (1996) A Theory of Religion, 155, Peter Lang Publishing.
  19. Galanter, Marc (Editor), (1989), Cults and new religious movements: a report of the committee on psychiatry and religion of the American Psychiatric Association, ISBN 0-89042-212-5
  20. 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)
  21. University of Virginia Library
  22. Hadden, Jeffrey K. SOC 257: New Religious Movements Lectures, University of Virginia, Department of Sociology.
  23. Conversion, Unification Church, Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, Hartford Institute for Religion Research, Hartford Seminary
  24. 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 0275987175, 9780275987176, page 180
  25. Exploring New Religions, Issues in contemporary religion, George D. Chryssides, Continuum International Publishing Group, 2001 ISBN 0826459595, 9780826459596 page 1
  26. Duhaime, Jean (Université de Montréal), Les Témoigagnes de Convertis et d'ex-Adeptes (English: The testimonies of converts and former followers, an article which appeared in the book New Religions in a Postmodern World edited by Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg, RENNER Studies in New religions, Aarhus University press, 2003, ISBN 87-7288-748-6
  27. Giambalvo, Carol, Post-cult problems
  28. Barker, E. The Ones Who Got Away: People Who Attend Unification Church Workshops and Do Not Become Moonies. In: Barker E, ed. Of Gods and Men: New Religious Movements in the West. Macon, Ga. : Mercer University Press; 1983. ISBN 0-86554-095-0
  29. Galanter M. Unification Church ('Moonie') dropouts: psychological readjustment after leaving a charismatic religious group, American Journal of Psychiatry. 1983;140(8):984-989
  30. Kranenborg, Reender Dr. (Dutch language) Sekten... gevaarlijk of niet?/Cults... dangerous or not? published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 31 Sekten II by the Free university Amsterdam (1996) ISSN 0169-7374 ISBN 90-5383-426-5
  31. F. Derks and the professor of psychology of religion Jan van der Lans The post-cult syndrome: Fact or Fiction?, paper presented at conference of Psychologists of Religion, Catholic University Nijmegen, 1981, also appeared in Dutch language as Post-cult-syndroom; feit of fictie?, published in the magazine Religieuze bewegingen in Nederland/Religious movements in the Netherlands nr. 6 pages 58-75 published by the Free university Amsterdam (1983)
  32. Hadden, J and Bromley, D eds. (1993), The Handbook of Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, Inc., pp. 75-97.
  33. 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
  34. includeonly>"Group that once criticized Scientologists now owned by one", CNN. Retrieved on 20 May 2010.
  35. Tampabay: Scientology foe moves in, digs in for a long fight
  36. Template:Cite court
  37. Introvigne, Massimo, "So Many Evil Things": Anti-Cult Terrorism via the Internet, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  38. Barker, Eileen, Introducing New Religious Movements, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  39. The Foundation against Intolerance of Religious Minorities, Retrieved 22 November 2006.
  40. Cosgrove, Olivia et al. (eds), Ireland's new religious movements. Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2001

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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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