New Religious Movements

A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or spiritual group of modern origins, which has a peripheral place within its nation's dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, 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, which is often considered derogatory.[1][2] Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries.[3]

A 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 NRM is not universally accepted among the groups to which it is applied.[4] Scholars have estimated that NRM's now number in the tens of thousands world-wide, with most in Asia and Africa. Most have only a few members, some have thousands, and only very few have more than a million.[5]


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.[3] 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 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".[6] 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.[7]

Generally, Christian denominations are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons), the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Shakers have been studied as NRMs.[8][9]


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,[6] 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.[3] 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).[10]

New religions studies

New religions studies is the interdisciplinary study of new religious movements that emerged as a discipline in the 1970s.[11] The term was coined by J. Gordon Melton in a 1999 paper presented at CESNUR conference in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania.[11] David G. Bromley used its perspectives for a piece in Nova Religio[12] 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.[13]


Scholars usually consider the mid-1800s 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 Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, is now one of the most successful NRM's in terms of membership. In 1844 the Bahá'í Faith was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in Iran. In 1891 the Unity Church, the first New Thought denomination, was founded in the United States.[14][15]

In 1893, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago.[16] The conference included NRM's of the time, such as Spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by its founder Mary Baker Eddy. Rev. Henry Jessup addressing the meeting was the first to mention the Bahá'í Faith in the United States.[17] Also attending were Soyen Shaku, the "First American Ancestor" of Zen,[18] the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, and the Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi.[19] This conference gave Asian religious teachers their first wide American audience.[14]

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.[14][20] 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 Dai in Vietnam, Soka Gakkai in Japan, and Yiguandao in China. At the same time Christian critics of NRM's began referring to them as "cults"; with 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, being especially influential.[14][21]

New religious movements expanded in many nations in the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese new religions became very popular after the American 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.[14] In 1955 the Aetherius Society was founded in England. It and some other NRM's have been called "UFO religions" since they combine belief in extraterrestrial life with traditional religious principles.[22][23][24] In 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in the United States by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.[25] In 1967, The Beatles' visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India brought public attention to the Transcendental Meditation movement.[26][27]

In the 1970s and 1980s some NRM's 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 deaths of over 900 members of the People's Temple by suicide and murder in 1978 is often cited as especially contributing to public opposition to "cults."[14]

In the late 1980s and the 1990s the decline of communism opened up new opportunities for NRM's. Falun Gong was founded in China in 1992. At first it was tolerated by the Chinese government but later severely persecuted.[14]

In the Twenty first century many NRM's are using the Internet to give out information, to recruit members, and sometimes to hold online meetings and rituals.[14] This is sometimes referred to as cybersectarianism.[28][29] 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.[30] 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 world-wide mainstream culture.[14]


According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU,[31] typical reasons why people join NRM's 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.[32]

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.[33] 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.[34][35]

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."[36]


There has been opposition to NRM's throughout their history.[37] The Christian countercult movement, which began in the 1800s, opposes most NRM's 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 abuse of their own members.[14]

NRMs and globalization

Some scholars have linked the advent of Asian NRM's in the West to the USA's Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and other laws in Western Europe which ended racially restrictive immigration quotas. Many NRMs believe in universalism, cosmopolitanism, cultural syncretism, and global citizenship.[14] A 1998 article from The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion links New Religious movements to the phenomenon of globalization. Scholar Lorne L. Dawson writes, "The concept of globalization merely reconfigures our present understanding of the possible significance of New Religious movements as conceived under the conditions of 'modernity', though in ways that have some important yet limited analytical and explanatory advantages no yet fully appreciated by scholars of New Religious movements."[38]

See also


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 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.
  • 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.

External links

  • AcademicInfo: Religious Movements Gateway - Directory of Online Resources
  • Hartford Institute of Religious Research: New religious movements
  • Skepsis - Online texts about NRMs

Template:New Religious Movements, Cults, and Sects

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