New Religious Movements

The term new religious movements has been employed to refer to a number of distinguish able but overlapping phenomena, not all of which are unambiguously new and not all of which are, by at least some criteria, religious. There have, of course, always been new religions – Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam all started off as such. With the hindsight of history, it is possible to recognize periods that have been particularly prone to the growth of new religions. Examples would be the 1530s in Northern and Central Europe; England between 1620 and 1650 and again at the turn of the nineteenth century; the Great Awakening of the late 1730s followed by the Second Great Awakening of 1820-60 in the United States; and a ”Rush Hour of the Gods,” to borrow Neill McFarland’s (1967) term, arrived in Japan when the new religions that had been suppressed during World War II became liberated in the mid 1940s; then, roughly 30 years later, they were joined by what are now referred to as the Japanese new new religions (Shimazono 2004).

Terminological Problems

The fact that no social phenomenon is ever completely new and that none is ever completely unchanging can make the term ”new” problematic. But around the late 1960s the term ”new religious movement” (NRM) started to be used to describe a special subject of study within the scholarly community of North America and Western Europe. It referred to two types of ”new” religions: first, as in The New Religions (1970) by Jacob Needleman, it covered various forms of eastern spirituality that were new to most westerners. These new arrivals, which had frequently been in existence for hundreds or even thousands of years in their countries of origin, did not change much in their traditional beliefs and practices insofar as they were restricted to immigrants from those countries. Some, however, adopted new characteristics when they were embraced by westerners, making it possible to argue that they had become new movements in the more common, second sense, which referred to the motley assortment of groups that had been founded since World War II and were being identified as ”cults” or ”sects” in the popular media. These NRMs were new in the sense that they consisted predominantly of first generation converts, and their founding leaders were still alive.

Another terminological difficulty arose when many of those movements resisted being called a religion – the Brahma Kumaris, for example, prefer to be seen as a spiritual or educational movement. On the other hand, the Church of Scientology, although called a new religion by its founder, L. Ron Hubbard, has had to fight in courts around the world to be recognized as a religion in order to obtain such secular benefits as tax exemption.

Most NRMs would fit into the sociological category of either sector cult, but scholars came to favor the term NRM in order to avoid the pejorative overtones associated in the public mind with these labels. This has, however, led to ”NRM” being associated in the rhetoric of the movements’ opponents with what they consider to be not a neutral but a ”cult apologist” position. This politicizing of the term, the con fusions caused by the fact that many of the movements had (or now have) been in existence for some time, and the ambiguities associated with the label ”religious” have led to attempts to find other terms, such as alternative religions, minority faiths, or spiritual communities. But none of these had successfully replaced ”new religious movement” by the beginning of the third millennium.

Characteristics of New Religious Movements

The enormous diversity within the current wave of new religions cannot be overemphasized. Whilst nineteenth century sects such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses, Mormons, and Seventh Day Adventists certainly differ from one another, they do share some sort of relationship to the Judeo-Christian tradition. The new religions come, however, from a far wider range of traditions – not only Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Shinto, paganism, and various combinations of these, but also from other sources such as science fiction, psychoanalytic theories, and political ideologies.

There are those, particularly historians of religion such as J. Gordon Melton (2004), who have argued that NRMs have more in common with the traditions from which they emerged than with each other, and certainly it would be difficult to understand Krishna Consciousness without knowing something of the Hindu tradition, The Family without a knowledge of Christianity, or Soka Gakkai without knowing about Buddhism in general and the Nichiren tradition in particular. That said, however, it is also the case that there are certain characteristics which the movements might be expected to share insofar as they are new and religious.

Firstly, almost by definition, NRMs have a membership of converts, and converts to any religion are notoriously more committed and enthusiastic than those born into their religion. Secondly, founding leaders are frequently accorded a charismatic authority by their followers. This means they are accorded the right to have a direct say over more aspects of their followers’ lives than, say, the pope, or even an ayatollah, and are unlikely to be held accountable to anyone, except perhaps the God(s) to whom they alone may have a direct hotline. Furthermore, being unbounded by rules or traditions, they are likely to be unpredictable, changing revelations and instructions at a moment’s notice.

Thirdly, NRMs tend to appeal to an atypical representation of the population. Those that appeared in the West in the second half of the twentieth century were, for example, disproportionately young Caucasian adults from the better educated middle classes, although there were NRMs that attracted converts with different demographic profiles, such as the young black males who joined the Rastafarians or the Nation of Islam.

A fourth, but by no means universal, characteristic of new religions is that they frequently operate with a dichotomous mindset. Their belief system is seen as unquestionably True and Godly, and that of others as false and possibly satanic; their morals are good, others are bad. The primary defining identity is member ship – one is either a Jesus Christian or one is not; and, to protect a vulnerable membership that has embraced beliefs and practices alien to those of their relatives and friends, NRMs throughout history have frequently encouraged their members to sever close contact with non members (Luke 14:26). Clear boundaries are, thus,   drawn  between  “true”  and “false”; “good” and “bad”; “them” and “us”; and “before” and “after” (conversion).

Fifthly, NRMs have been greeted with suspicion, fear, and even hatred by those to whom they pose an alternative. The early Christians were fed to the lions, the Cathars were burned at the stake, the Baha’i continue to be persecuted in Iran and the Ahmiddya in Pakistan. At the turn of the third millennium, the People’s Republic of China have imprisoned tens of thousands of Falun Gong practitioners for “reeducation” on the grounds that they are considered a threat to individuals and the state; Jehovah’s Witnesses have been physically attacked in Georgia, and “liquidated” by a Moscow court. Parents have paid tens of thousands of dollars to have their (adult) children kidnapped from NRMs and involuntarily imprisoned until either they escaped or promised to renounce their faith. This practice of deprogramming, although not entirely abandoned, is now rare in North America and Western Europe, but it continues in Japan and elsewhere. A number of countries have amended their constitutions or passed laws that distinguish (crudely or subtly) between new and more traditional religions, denying the former privileges or rights accorded to the latter (Richardson 2004). The European Court of Human Rights has accepted a number of cases from NRMs objecting to such practices, and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has issued numerous statements criticizing the treatment meted out to minority religions.

A sixth characteristic of NRMs, and one that has been surprisingly often ignored, is that they are likely to change more fundamentally and rapidly than older religions. This is obvious merely from a demographic perspective. Converts, who had enjoyed the freedoms of youth, find themselves with the responsibilities of parenthood and dealing with children who, unlike dissident converts, cannot be expelled. Paying the rent or coping with aging and ill health can become more pressing challenges than saving the world. Charismatic leaders die; the organization   becomes   increasingly bureaucratized and governed by rules and traditions, and, thus, more accountable and predictable. Unfulfilled prophecies may result in a relaxation of theological fervor and contribute to accommodation to the host society. NRMs that were at such pains to explain how different they were from the rest of the world might start to insist that they are basically just like anyone else. Non members can become more familiar with at least some NRMs and lose some of their fear as the movements merge into the ever growing diversity of religions, cultures, and moralities of an increasingly globalizing world.

Furthermore, economic, political, and social changes in the outside world can introduce radical changes within the ”cult scene.” With the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, hundreds of NRMs swept into Eastern Europe, initially enjoying the freedom that was celebrated throughout the region, but gradually being repressed and controlled, particularly with the traditional churches objecting to foreign organizations ”stealing their flock” (Borowik & Babinski 1997). Another significant change has been the arrival of the Internet, facilitating the rapid exchange of information both for the benefit and to the detriment of NRMs (Hadden & Cowan 2000).

While the earlier Christian sects were classified in Religious Sects (1970) by Bryan Wilson according to the actions that they believed necessary to achieve salvation, no such satisfactory typology has been developed for the more disparate NRMs. Possibly the most useful distinction is that elaborated in The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life (1984) by Roy Wallis between world rejecting, world affirming, and world accommodating movements. World rejecting movements (such as the Children of God in its early days) typically entertain some kind of millennial expectation that the world will undergo radical change. World affirming groups (such as Scientology) claim to help the individual to cope with and/or succeed in society with its current values. World accommodating movements (to which Wallis assigns the Aetherius Society, Subud, and Charismatic Renewal) are fairly content with, or indifferent to, the world as it is.

Some have argued that the movements are a reflection of society, others that they arise in reaction to it; both accounts have some truth in them. It has often been observed that the more fundamentalist NRMs arose as a reaction to modernization and secularism. Bryan Wilson (1990; Wilson & Dobbelaere 1994) has argued that NRMs such as Scientology and Soka Gakkai reflect the preoccupations of a modern, secularized society in which individuals exhibit a greater concern for self development and psychic well being than for otherworldly salvation. As society moved from a production oriented economy (with the work ethic playing a central role) to a consumer economy, the image of a personal God was replaced by the idea of an impersonal force or spirit, and rewards became increasingly sought in this life, in this world – or, via reincarnation, in the next life, but still in this world.

Counting New Religious Movements and Their Members

No one knows exactly how many NRMs there are. The uncertainty lies partly in the definition, and partly in deciding where to draw boundaries. Are the hundreds of New Age groups all to be individually listed or should they be counted in clusters? There are, moreover, undoubtedly NRMs about which few but their members have ever heard. It is, however, probable that there are around 2,000 identifiable NRMs in Europe and North America, with a roughly similar number in Asia and possibly (depending again on what is included by the definition) several thousand more in Africa and elsewhere.

But while the number of NRMs is large, the number of members is usually relatively small. Again, it is difficult to estimate precise figures for most movements. Both NRMs and their opponents tend to exaggerate membership statistics, but further confusion arises because, just as with older religions, there are several ways of counting: there are core members who, like priests, nuns, or missionaries, devote their entire lives to the movements; but there are also congregational members, others who participate on special occasions only, and yet others who are sympathizers, but might be included as members, even though they could belong to another religion. In fact, although core members of world rejecting movements tend to have an exclusive  relationship  with  their particular movement, those who associate with world affirming groups may be quite promiscuous in their allegiances at a more peripheral level, practicing transcendental meditation, partaking in a number of complementary medicines, attending an assortment of encounter groups, communicating with the angelic realm, and dropping into a Krishna restaurant for a vegetarian meal.

Another difficulty is a high turnover rate, with joiners being counted more assiduously than leavers. Many people have joined an NRM for a short period of time, but then decided that it was not for them after all, and have left. This fact, which has been demonstrated by a large number of scholarly studies of a variety of movements, causes embarrassment for both the NRMs and their opponents, the latter being eager to explain membership of NRMs in terms of brainwashing or mind control – especially when they have had an interest in the illegal practice of involuntary deprogramming. However, while it is true that many NRMs, at least in their early days, have, like evangelical Christians, put considerable pressure on potential converts, this tends not to be all that effective. A study of the Unification Church in the late 1970s, when accusations of brainwashing were at their height, discovered that over 90 percent of those who became sufficiently interested in the movement to attend a residential workshop decided not to join, and the majority of those who did join left within two years (Barker 1984). Indeed, many NRMs fail to survive much beyond two or three generations.

Responses to New Religious Movements

Different individuals, groups, and societies have responded to the contemporary NRMs in a variety of ways. Some individuals have become involved in active opposition – particularly the parents of young converts who have given up promising careers and cut themselves off from family and former friends. Not that all parents have been upset – there are those who have welcomed their children’s new found faith, and more who, while not exactly overjoyed, have become resigned to the situation. At least part of the variation is likely to be traceable to previous relationships, and part to the extent to which an NRM demands exclusive commitment from its members.

Since the 1970s there has been a mushrooming of groups formed by parents and others opposed to specific NRMs or the movements in general. These began to network and came to be generically referred to as the anti cult movement. As with the NRMs, these groups and their members can differ quite radically from one another, but generally speaking they have been primarily concerned about the actual and potential harm that NRMs might cause, and have tended to select only negative actions in their depiction of what they frequently refer to as ”destructive cults.” There are also a number of frequently overlapping groups, referred to as the countercult movement, concerned more with the ”wrong theology” than the ”bad actions” of NRMs. Another type of ”cult watching”   group   that   has   arisen   is the research oriented group. These adopt the methods of the social sciences in trying to be as objective and balanced as possible in their analyses of NRMs, using, for example, the comparative method to discover whether a particular action (such as suicide or child abuse) might be found at the same or even a higher rate among members of traditional religions as it is amongst NRMs, although the action has become far more visible when reported in the media as a ”cult activity” (the religious affiliation of members  of mainstream  religions  rarely being reported in accounts of their crimes). Fourthly, there are what have been referred to as cult apologist groups, which are often closely associated with the NRMs themselves. These form a mirror image of anti cult groups insofar as they select only positive aspects of NRMs and high light the negative features of the anti-cultists.

Official responses to the NRMs have varied, from their being completely outlawed in some Islamic countries to their being treated in the same way as any other religion in countries such as the Netherlands or the US, although actual practices have not always been as even handed as the law would seem to demand. Several countries require religions to register in order to become recognized legal entities, and sometimes there are two or more levels at which registration may occur, with special privileges for, say, established, state, or traditional religions. Sometimes criteria for registration require having been active in the country for a certain number of years, or having a minimum number of members, both of which can militate against NRMs. Several governments have commissioned official reports about the movements. Some, such as the Dutch and Swedish reports, concluded that the law as it stood was adequate to deal with any antisocial behavior in which NRMs might indulge; other reports have recommended strong action being taken against the movements; and the French and Belgian reports included lists of ”sects” (including the Quakers and the YWCA) which, although not officially adopted by the respective governents, have unofficially ”given permission” to people to treat religions on the list in a discriminatory fashion.


  1. Barker, E. (1984) The Making of a Moonie: Brain washing or Choice? Blackwell, Oxford.
  2. Barker, E. (1989) New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. HMSO, London.
  3. Borowik, I. & Babinski, G. (Eds.) (1997) New Religious Phenomena in Central and Eastern Europe.
  4. Nomos, Krakow. Bromley, D. G. & Melton, J. G. (Eds.) (2002) Cults, Religion, and Violence.   Cambridge University
  5. Press, Cambridge. Dawson, L. L. (Ed.) (2003) Cults and New Religious Movements. Blackwell, Oxford.
  6. Hadden, J. K. & Cowan, D. E. (Eds.) (2000) Religion on the Internet. JAI Press, Amsterdam.
  7. McFarland, H. N. (1967) Rush Hour of the Gods. Macmillan, New York.
  8. Melton, J. G. (1992) Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America. Garland, New York.
  9. Melton, J. G. (2004) Perspective: Toward a Defini­tion of ”New Religion.” Nova Religio 8: 73 87.
  10. Richardson, J. T. (Ed.) (2004) Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe. Kluwer, Dordrecht.
  11. Shimazono, S. (2004) From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. TransPacific, Melbourne.
  12. Wilson, B. (1990) The Social Dimensions of Sectarian ism: Sects and New Religious Movements in Con temporary Society. Clarendon, Oxford.
  13. Wilson, B. & Dobbelaere, K. (1994) A Time to Chant: The Soka Gakkai Buddhists in Britain. Clarendon, Oxford.

Back to Sociology of Religion