New Religious Movements: An Overview

Scholars adopted the term new religious movements (NRMs) in order to avoid the pejorative connotations of the popularly used term cult. Although the word cult originally referred to an organized system of worship (and is still used in that sense by scholars in several disciplines), the cult began to take on negative connotations in popular discourse in the 1960s and 1970s, when a variety of unconventional religions appeared in North America. The word conveyed a stereotype that prevented objective research into these religions; moreover, NRMs were so different from one another that it was impossible to generalize about them. Instead, NRM scholars preferred to investigate each new religion separately without imposing the filter of a stereotype. Beginning in the 1970s, people called “deprogrammers” began illegally kidnapping NRM members and attempting to undo their alleged “brainwashing,” curtailing their civil liberties in the process. As a result, many NRM scholars began to advocate freedom of religion for NRMs. While scholars admit that some members of NRMs have committed abusive and illegal acts (as have members of mainstream religions and people who have no religious commitments), they advise that law enforcement agencies exercise discipline when investigating claims of wrongdoing, rather than overreacting.

New religious movements emerge from humans’ creativity and capacity for religious expression, providing spiritual meaning and social connection for their members, just as mainstream religious groups do. Contemporary NRMs manifest the increasing pluralism associated with greater ease of global travel and communications.

NRMs provide arenas for theological and social experimentation. Some of these experiments are successful and result in lasting religious organizations that exert broad cultural and theological influences. Some experiments are less successful, resulting in small groups that are not influential or lasting. A few produce groups whose beliefs and practices are deemed utterly abhorrent by the wider society.

NRMs exist in varying degrees of tension within their respective religious and cultural contexts. To survive for the long-term, however, this tension must not become too great, and may indeed be mitigated over time. On the other hand, some degree of tension with society can attract converts who are dissatisfied with the spirituality and practices of mainstream religious institutions.

NRMs may be alternative in terms of theology, leadership, authority structures, gender roles, family and sexual relationships, and religious practices.

Ales Stenar Ship Releases Stones Old Importance

Ale’s Stones at Kåseberga

Diversity of New Religious Movements

The term new religious movements covers many types of religious movements and groups: religions that were introduced into a culture by missionary representatives from world religions abroad, such as the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) or other Asian-based religions with converts in the West, as well as Christian groups in China and Japan; religious groups that were brought into new cultural contexts by recent immigrants, such as Muslims in the West; groups that evolved out of a more established tradition, such as the Branch Davidians, which emerged from Seventh-day Adventism; reconfigurations of religious themes in traditional religions, such as Kurozumikyō, Tenrikyō, and other new religions in Japan; revivals of suppressed religious traditions, such as contemporary Pagan movements in eastern Europe; creative mergings of diverse religious traditions, such as the African Independent Churches (AICs; often called African Initiated Churches), which combined Christianity with African beliefs and modes of worship, or the New Age movement’s blend of different religions and spiritualities; imaginative and syncretistic re-creations of preexisting religious traditions, such as Neopaganism in North America; organizations that coalesced around new formulations of teachings found in alternative religious traditions, such as the Theosophical Society, which grew out of the Western Esoteric tradition and borrowed from virtually all the world’s religions; or millennial movements that formed in response to new cultural conditions or oppression (such as the Ghost Dance movement among Plains Native Americans in the nineteenth century) or innovations (such as the UFO movement known as the Raelians). However innovative they may be, NRMs always utilize elements of earlier religious traditions as building blocks to construct their new theologies, practices, and organizations.

NRMs are diverse in terms of their authority, organizational structures, and levels of commitment required of their members. For example, ISKCON in the 1960s and 1970s demanded much from its participants and had a communal structure; on the other hand, the Theosophical Society has organizational structures on the local, national, and international levels, is not communal for the most part, and does not require prospective members to pledge a large commitment of resources. Falun Gong is a network of like-minded people, and the New Age movement is an alternative milieu in which people move from one group or teacher to another, appropriating what works for them as individuals. Some NRM members may make significant investments of time, money, identities, marriages, families, and careers to a group, only to find out later that leaving the group involves very high “exit costs.” These exit costs may make it difficult for them to leave the group, even if they would like to. Many other NRM members, however, attend their alternative group and imbibe its worldview only sporadically, enjoying the socializing once or twice a week, much the way members of mainstream religions attend their churches, synagogues, and mosques.

NRMs also vary in terms of their size and influence. Many NRMs have remained small, localized groups, while others have become large denominations, such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and Church of Christ, Scientist (Christian Science). A few NRMs have become world religions, such as Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. Many others remain diffuse milieus containing many individuals and groups, such as Western Esotericism. Often, a NRM gives birth to its own movement, as additional groups and teachers continue the process of splitting off to form separate organizations, while continuing to contribute to an environment of shared ideas and practices, such as the Theosophical and the New Thought movements.

New religious movements also have different modes of origination. Many NRMs have been founded by prophets with new revelations, or messiahs who claim to have the superhuman power to create a millennial collective salvation; many others consist of movements of people who have contributed to an alternative worldview, such as Christian Identity.

New religions provide social spaces for experimentation in alternative theologies, gender roles, sexual relations, leadership structures, and group organization. Some of these experiments, such as free love and polygamy, have not been successful in the West because the wider society condemned and opposed them. Other experiments have succeeded and influenced mainstream society, such as theologies that emphasize the divine feminine, or imagine God to be both male and female, or view the ultimate reality as a neuter and impersonal force, counteracting the patriarchal conception of God. These alternative theological conceptions, such as the Christian Science Father-Mother God, the Wiccan Great Goddess, or the Theosophical impersonal ultimate, have influenced—directly or indirectly—mainstream Christian theologies; they have prefigured theological innovations in mainstream denominations. NRMs have experimented with women’s religious leadership and feminist gender roles; consequently, many mainstream religious institutions have promoted women’s equality and leadership. Yet many NRMs have opted to institutionalize patriarchal gender roles and traditional conceptions of God, often in reaction to changes in society and religion.

New religions scholars will continue to observe a particular new religious movement and the changes that occur as the new group matures, as long as the worldview, practices, and organization remain alternative, unconventional, somewhat marginal, and in some degree of tension with the mainstream cultural context. Thus, some NRMs will continue to be studied by NRM scholars well past the time they are no longer “new.” The tension with the mainstream society may arise due to alternative theology or worldview, practices, organization, leadership, gender roles, sexual practices, or other factors.

New Religions Studies

New religions studies became an emerging field in the late 1960s and 1970s, when numerous unconventional religions attracted attention from the general public. In the early twenty-first century, this maturing field has produced scholarly analysis and many insights important to the study of religions.

Investigation into new religions is an extension of the comparative and interdisciplinary study of religions. The study of new religions is the study of religions in all their diversity and creativity. Many NRM studies have focused on Western cultural contexts, but the field is increasingly becoming international in scope, examining numerous religious movements emerging from, and finding themselves in tension with, different cultures.

New religions studies is interdisciplinary. Most contributors to the field have been historians of religions and sociologists. Scholars who contribute to NRM studies also belong to the fields of psychology, anthropology, folklore, and linguistics.

Contexts Conducive To Producing NRMs

Any context may produce NRMs, because nonconformists and innovators exist in any culture. Certain contexts, however, involving cultural disruption, change, and a high degree of exchange of ideas and people, seem particularly conducive to producing NRMs.

New religions have arisen in various times and places as a result of the migration of peoples and the exchange of ideas. This process has been accelerated in today’s world due to the relative ease of travel and worldwide communication by electronic means, including the Internet. The United States, and Japan from the nineteenth century on, have been particularly fertile grounds for the creation of new religions, as people in both countries have confronted the changes affecting work, family, technology, values, and the mobility of peoples throughout the world associated with modernity and postmodernity. Growth in the number of new religions is one characteristic of the world’s increasing pluralism.

Oppressive contexts, in which an invading colonial power possessing advanced technology and military advantage seizes the land and wealth of an indigenous people, disrupts their traditional way of life, and causes loss of life, are ripe for spawning new religious movements. A colonial power will import its own religion into the new context, where it will be adapted to the values, concepts, and practices of the indigenous culture, giving rise to new religious movements such as the numerous African Independent Churches or the Latin American folk Catholic movements and Pentecostal churches. Millennial movements with new prophets and messiahs are likely to emerge among indigenous peoples desperate for liberation from their oppressors and difficult conditions. Some of these movements may be revolutionary, such as Cuscat’s War (1867–1870) in Mexico, led by the Mayan prophet Pedro Díaz Cuscat, while others may promote the expectation of salvation by divine intervention, such as the Ghost Dance movement among Plains Native Americans in the late nineteenth century. Many millennial movements reacting to poverty and oppression have set up separate communities, such as Joaseiro do Norte in Brazil or Nueva Jerusalén in Mexico.

Newly opened or liberating contexts can also give rise to a proliferation of NRMs. For instance, the demise of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s created contexts in Russia, the former Soviet states, and eastern Europe that were very receptive to the importation of NRMs, the resurgence of indigenous Pagan religious expressions, and the creation of new religions. The fall of communism as a dominant worldview and state structure in these areas left a vacuum of meaning that people quickly filled.

Charismatic Laders and the Brainwashing Debate

Members of the general public, attempting to explain why people join strange religious groups with unusual beliefs and behaviors, have often resorted to what James T. Richardson has called “the myth of the omnipotent leader” and the corresponding “myth of the passive, brainwashed follower” (cited in Wessinger, How the Millennium Comes Violently, 2000, 273–274). In subscribing to these perspectives, however, citizens forget that the beliefs and practices of any religion appear to be bizarre from the outsider’s vantage point. Instead, people in the mainstream assume that the so-called “charismatic leader” wields an invisible and irresistible power over his or her brainwashed followers.


Charisma, in the popular sense, refers to the characteristics of an attractive individual gifted with excellent communications skills, but historians of religions and sociologists use the term to designate a different quality often found in religious leaders. In a religious studies and sociological sense, charisma refers to an attribute possessed by an individual whom people believe has access to an unseen source of authority, such as revelation from God, angels, spirits, ancestors, or even extraterrestrials. The source of the authority is unseen, so people either believe or reject the claim. Charisma is socially constructed. If no one believes the individual’s claim, then he or she does not have charisma in this sense. No one can become a charismatic leader without the support and allegiance of believers, and the followers can withdraw their faith in the leader at any time.

Not all NRMs are founded or led by charismatic leaders, but this type of leadership is common in the first generation of a movement. Thereafter, authority usually becomes “routinized” (Weber, 1946) into offices that people may obtain by an institutionalized credentialing process.

Given that followers can withdraw allegiance, Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony (1995), following Max Weber, have pointed to the inherent instability of charismatic leadership. The leader may go to great lengths to continue to win the faith of followers. If such faith is forthcoming, the charismatic leader may be emboldened to demand even greater actions demonstrating commitment, involving sacrifices in relation to family, sexuality, property, and even acts of violence. If followers carry out acts of coercion and violence in support of the leader and the leader’s vision, he or she can then exert totalitarian control, making it very difficult for people to leave the group. Examples of leaders possessing charisma whose followers carried out coercive actions with varying degrees and scopes of influence include Jim Jones (1931–1978) of the Peoples Temple and Jonestown, Asahara Shōkō (b. 1955) of Aum Shinrikyō, and Adolf Hitler (1889–1945). Although Adolf Hitler may appear to have been solely a political leader, he was also the messiah of a revolutionary millennial movement (see below), and he claimed to be destined by “Nature” to lead the Germans into a collective salvation called the “Third Reich.”

Many NRMs, such as the Theosophical Society, have democratic structures of authority. These democracies often develop after the death of a charismatic founder. Also, it is important to note that many, probably most, charismatic leaders do not become totalitarian and do not lead their believers into disaster.

Brainwash Program Mask Propaganda Matrix System

Brainwash Program

Brainwashing Debate

Most social scientists studying NRMs have concluded that indoctrination practices in NRMs are not inherently different from those practiced in mainstream institutions, such as families, schools, churches, the military, and prisons. They reject the concept that anyone’s will can be overcome by a mysterious power of “mind control” or “brainwashing.” This is not to say that social and interpersonal influence techniques are not present, as they are in all social situations. Although most NRMs do not use coercive practices to retain members, a few have. An NRM cannot become coercive, however, without the willing complicity of at least some of its members.

An example of an NRM that actively attempted to practice brainwashing is Aum Shinrikyō, the criminal Japanese new religion active in the late 1980s through the mid-1990s. Aum devotees kidnapped, imprisoned, starved, drugged, subjected to electric shocks, and abused people in attempts to convert them. None of these people became believers, although many of them were severely injured or killed. On the other hand, Aum members who willingly went through socialization processes, such as listening to the guru’s lectures, working long hours for the organization, listening to audio-taped affirmations, and enduring immersions in cold water and hot water as ascetic practices, were committed believers. The contrast between these two types of people illustrates that socialization processes are most effective when the individual willingly participates in them.

People join new religions for numerous reasons: the worldview makes sense to them; they find benefits in the religious practices; they have preexisting affective bonds with family members and friends who are members; they like the people and the alternative community and “family” they have found; the group offers a sense of belonging and social support; they enjoy the adventure offered in terms of travel and new lifestyles; the new religion enables them to live out their commitments to values and beliefs that were inculcated by their upbringing; they like the roles of men and women; they become emotionally attracted to the leader for various reasons; membership offers therapeutic benefits in dealing with personal problems and life transitions.

The rapid turnover of membership that is common to most NRMs disproves the brainwashing theory, which claims that people are unable to resist the mesmerizing influence exerted by a charismatic leader. For instance, The Family (formerly the Children of God) had about fifty-seven thousand people join during its first twenty-five years, but only about three thousand adult members remained at the end of that time (See statistics on NRMs summarized in Richardson 2003 and Palmer 2003). People leave a new religion when they lose faith or become disenchanted with the group and its lifestyle and leadership.

New Religions and Scriptures

A library of holy Jewish scripture,located inside the caves of the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel.

A library of holy Jewish scripture, located inside the caves of the Wailing Wall in the old city of Jerusalem, Israel.

New religions offer new interpretations of traditional scriptures, such as the Bible and the Qurʾān, and often produce their own scriptures.

The scriptures of established religious traditions are so internally diverse that, for centuries, leaders, prophets, messiahs, and ordinary people have offered new interpretations of them; these new readings have often led to the formation of new movements.

The founders of new religions claiming divine revelation often produce new scriptures themselves, while sometimes people’s written memories of these individuals become new scriptures. For example, Joseph Smith, Jr. claimed to have translated a text engraved on golden tablets, which became known as the Book of Mormon, a scripture important to Mormons (along with the Bible).

New interpretations of established scriptures and the production of new scriptures is an important part of the creativity of religion-making. In the twenty-first century, additional scriptures may be found in nonwritten media, such as movies, videos, audiotapes, CDs, and websites. Whatever the medium, scriptures address the meaning and purpose of life and provide advice on proper living. Scriptures convey a worldview in which meaningful human life is possible.

Women And Gender Roles in NRMs

Many NRMs experiment with gender roles and sexuality. Some NRMs enforce conservative patriarchal gender roles (such as the Unification Church and the Twelve Tribes), many are attractive primarily to heterosexuals, others welcome people of all sexual orientations (such as the Raelians), some encourage free love within the group (such as The Family, Raelians, and the followers of Rajneesh in the 1970s), while others promote celibacy (such as the Shakers and the Brahma Kumaris).

A conservative NRM that follows the Bible or the Qurʾān (such as the Twelve Tribes and the Nation of Islam, respectively) may encourage traditional heterosexual marriages and male headship of the family. Some NRMs have experimented with polygamy, such as the nineteenth-century Latter-day Saints (Mormons) and contemporary Mormon splinter groups. The Branch Davidians practiced celibacy for ordinary members, but their leader, David Koresh (1959–1993), took numerous wives, with whom he had children to fulfill his interpretations of biblical prophecies.

Other NRMs promote equality for women and do not restrict women to the roles of wife and mother. Often, these religions welcome people of all sexual orientations, such as the Raelian group. Neopaganism has been particularly woman-affirming in its emphasis on a Great Goddess, multiple goddesses, and the sacredness of Earth.

When patriarchal religious institutions are dominant in the mainstream, women’s religious leadership is necessarily exercised on the margins of society in unconventional religions. Women have founded new religions, and women in NRMs have been acknowledged as being prophets, messiahs, theologians, and philosophers. For instance, Mother Ann Lee (1736–1784), who in the late eighteenth century founded the Shakers—which promoted women’s liberation through men and women living together in celibate communities—was regarded by the Shakers as the “Second Appearing of Christ in female form.” Helena P. Blavatsky (1831–1891), an unconventional Russian world traveler, articulated the philosophical basis for Theosophy and claimed to be in touch with enlightened masters via psychic means. Mary Baker Eddy (1821–1910) received a healing and revelation that led her to write her magnum opus, Science and Health, With Key to the Scriptures (1875) and found the Church of Christ, Scientist.

Scholar Mary Farrell Bednarowski (1980) has pointed out that NRMs founded by women or that have women as leaders often develop a view of God that either promotes a divine feminine, perhaps balanced with a divine masculine aspect of God, or sees the ultimate reality as impersonal.

Children in New Religions

Children are a highly sensitive topic with respect to NRMs, and the scholarly study of children in NRMs is just beginning. Children in NRMs are often the subjects of custody battles between the parent who is a member and the parent who is not a member or who has left the group. People in mainstream society often fear for the welfare of children in NRMs because of their unorthodox practices and beliefs. Under these circumstances, exaggerated allegations are often made about the treatment of children in NRMs. Sometimes there is a real basis for these concerns, but often there is not. For instance, authorities have seized children from two alternative Christian groups, the Twelve Tribes and The Family, only to have to return them later when no evidence of abuse could be produced. On the other hand, the leader of the Nuwaubian Nation of Moors was convicted in 2004 for sexually abusing children, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness in the late 1990s and early 2000s had to confront the damage caused by abuse of children placed in ISKCON boarding schools. The highly publicized pedophilia scandal in the Roman Catholic Church in the early 2000s reminds us that abuse of children can occur in mainstream religions and not only in unconventional ones.

Fears about children in NRMs can lead to overreactions from law enforcement officials. The two assaults against the Branch Davidians in 1993 by federal agents purportedly were motivated by concerns about the safety of the children, but their actions resulted in the deaths of twenty-three children under the age of fifteen (including two who were born in the fire when their pregnant mothers died and then died themselves), five teenagers over fifteen, eighteen people in their twenties, and their parents. A number of the young women who died in the fire were the mothers of the eighteen children who were eight years old or younger who died with them. In the Branch Davidian case, the matter of child abuse did not fall under federal jurisdiction. The Branch Davidians had been investigated for child abuse by Texas authorities and the case was closed for lack of evidence. While the allegations of severe corporal punishment remain unsubstantiated, David Koresh was, in fact, having sex with underage girls with the permission of their parents, and the girls were bearing his children.

Religiously committed parents want their children to be raised in the lifestyle they deem best according to their deeply held beliefs. This is the case for parents who belong to mainstream, as well as marginal, religions. Difficulties arise when the values of parents in unconventional religions diverge radically from the values of mainstream society.

Sometimes parents in a new religion hold to a faith so strongly that they permit their daughters to be married at early ages, as with the Branch Davidians and contemporary polygamous Mormons. On rare occasions, strongly committed parents may kill their children to achieve an ultimate goal by collective suicide, which occurred at Jonestown in 1978 and with the Solar Temple in 1994 and 1995.

The vast majority of parents in NRMs do not go to these extremes, however. Scholars recognize the need for additional research into the benign situations of children in NRMs, as well as in the cases where harm was done. Close scholarly examinations of children in NRMs will likely reveal complex situations possessing both positive and negative features.


The religious patterns that scholars term millennialism —belief in an imminent transition to a collective salvation (either earthly or heavenly) effected by a supernatural or superhuman agent—are ideal for promoting new religious movements. Persuading people that a catastrophic destruction of the world is imminent, and that salvation can be found only among the “elect” who join the new religion and have faith in its prophet or messiah and his or her message, is a powerful factor in motivating people to convert. Likewise, an anticipation of an imminent, nonviolent, progressive transformation into a new age in accordance with a divine plan can motivate people to join the movement to facilitate the collective salvation. Millennial beliefs are often, but not always, found in new religious movements.

New Religions and Violence

It is well known that members of dominant religious traditions often commit violence or become caught up in violence While the vast majority of NRMs do not become involved in violence, some have been involved in spectacular cases of violence. Excluding the inevitable isolated incidents caused by deranged individuals, religious violence is typically interactive in nature. The quality of the interactions of people in mainstream society—law enforcement agents and other government officials, reporters, psychologists and social workers, citizens, concerned relatives, and anticultists—with members of a new religion helps determine whether or not tragic violence occurs. It is seldom only the believers who contribute to a situation that culminates in violence, although their actions and the content of their faith certainly do affect the overall scenario.

Assaulted NRMs

Members of NRMs do not always initiate the violence; sometimes, they are attacked by others. When members of a new religious movement are assaulted, they may or may not fight back. The early Christians did not fight back when they were assaulted. Some of the early Christians, as well as some Falun Gong practitioners in the early twenty-first century, may have deliberately put themselves in danger of being harmed by the state. Conversely, the Branch Davidians tried to defend themselves in 1993.

Fragile NRMs

A few new religions become fragile in reaction to internal weaknesses and experiences of opposition from society. Members of a fragile NRM initiate violence to preserve their endangered religious goal. Their violence may be directed outwardly against perceived enemies, inwardly against members, or both. Jonestown in Guyana (1978); the Solar Temple in Switzerland, Quebec, and France (1994, 1995, 1997); Aum Shinrikyō in Japan (1995); and Heaven’s Gate in the United States (1997) are examples of fragile groups. The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God (MRTCG) (2000), a Catholic Marian apparition group in Uganda involved in the deaths of about 780 people, also may have been a fragile millennial group.

Revolutionary NRMs

The most dangerous NRMs are the ones that are revolutionary. These are usually revolutionary millennial movements seeking to achieve a collective salvation on Earth. They use violence to try to overthrow what they see as the corrupt order to create a new one. The Taiping Revolution in China from 1850 to 1864 and the German Nazis in the twentieth century can be seen as revolutionary NRMs. Al-Qāʿidah is a contemporary example of a revolutionary NRM. Even in the cases of revolutionary NRMs, however, the quality of interactions of people in mainstream society with nonbelievers is crucial for stimulating the believers’ sense of being persecuted, thus confirming their convictions that revolutionary violence is needed to achieve a collective salvation for those who are identified as worthy of being included in the “elect.”


A dualistic outlook usually contributes to episodes of violence involving new religious movements. An extreme dualism entails a rigid perspective of good versus evil, or of us versus them. But dualism is not restricted to religious believers. In these interactive conflicts, dualism can usually be discerned in the worldviews of reporters, anticult activists, law enforcement agents, politicians, and government officials. Among the religious believers, the dualism is often associated with a millennial outlook that expects catastrophic destruction before salvation is achieved for the elect.

Governmental Opposition to NRMs: Freedom of Religion Issues

It is a serious matter when a religion is called a “cult” or “sect” by a government and the general public. Labeling a group with the pejorative term cult or an equivalent term promotes opposition, discrimination, and even persecution of the believers, with possible disastrous consequences. The believers become dehumanized by the pejorative label, and outsiders may believe it is morally right to exterminate them.

Scholarship on the Branch Davidian conflict in 1993 indicates that federal agents were motivated in great part by the “cult” stereotype to carry out two assaults against the community. The media depicted the Branch Davidians as “cultists” during the fifty-one-day siege; as a result, much of the American public approved of the gas-and-tank assault carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation that resulted in the deaths of seventy-four Branch Davidians. In all, eighty Branch Davidians and four law enforcement agents died in what was later determined to be an unnecessary conflict. David Koresh had consistently expressed his willingness to cooperate with authorities, from the initial investigations to the fiery end, provided the Branch Davidians were permitted to remain faithful to their biblical concerns.

During 1999 and the early 2000s, Falun Gong was the most visible among many persecuted religious groups in the People’s Republic of China. Falun Gong adherents, who practiced a form of qigong (exercises designed to enhance qi, or life force), surprised officials in the Chinese Communist Party in 1999 by coordinating a protest gathering of more than ten thousand people near the Beijing residence of the highest party leaders. Despite being labeled an “evil cult” and outlawed, Falun Gong practitioners continued to assert their right to freedom of religion by practicing their qigong exercises in public places, such as Tiananmen Square, where they were arrested. Reportedly, hundreds of Falun Gong practitioners died in custody. All of the official forces of the People’s Republic of China, including the media, were mobilized in the repression of Falun Gong practitioners.

In the mid- to late 1990s, France and Belgium issued reports and passed laws against sectes, the pejorative term equivalent to cults. Minority religions of all types unfortunate enough to be included on the lists of sectes were subjected to harassment and surveillance by law enforcement agents, and members lost jobs and suffered other civil disabilities.

Russia and former Soviet republics in the late 1990s and early 2000s took steps to curtail the legal rights of minority religious groups and to favor traditional historical churches, such as the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia and the Armenian Apostolic Church in Armenia. In 2004, the city of Moscow banned the religious activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses, including holding meetings and services in private homes. In Turkmenistan, all religions other than approved Islam and Russian Orthodoxy were banned; members of all other religions were treated harshly.

The ideologies of the American anticult and countercult (evangelical Christian) movements have been exported to other countries, where the anticult/countercult perspective is utilized to curtail religious freedoms and justify state-sponsored repression and violence against unconventional religious groups. Phillip Charles Lucas (2004) points out that the right to freedom of religion needs to be balanced with the concern that some religious groups may be engaged in illegal and harmful activities. The “cult” stereotype promoted by the anticult and countercult movements has promoted religious bigotry and has led to extreme actions on the part of authorities in various countries.

When authorities suspect illegal activities on the part of NRM members, they should conduct a careful investigation and ensure that the actions of law enforcement agents conform to reasonable and moderate procedures to avoid causing unnecessary harm. Furthermore, law enforcement agents should consult with credentialed scholars of religions.

NRMs are religions. They represent the creativity of the human spirit. They are novel, alternative, and unconventional in their cultural contexts, and thus they live in some degree of tension with society. At the same time, they express the universal human yearning for contact with the sacred, and in this regard they are neither novel nor unusual. Because they are religions-in-formation, the study of them sheds light on all religions, as well as on the perpetual human quest for meaning.

New religions studies is focused on emergent, alternative, and unconventional religions in any given cultural context, thus it is interdisciplinary in approach and multicultural in scope. Because of the cultural opposition that often confronts NRMs, scholars in the field also study social control efforts directed against NRMs. The field represents an important extension of the study of religions in all their diversity.


Barker, Eileen. “Perspective: What Are We Studying? A Sociological Case for Keeping the ‘Nova. ‘” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 8, no. 1 (2004): 88–102. Barker, a sociologist, argues for defining a new religion as being a first-generation group consisting of converts, and that the cultural antagonism directed toward NRMs is a consequence of their being novel.

Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. “Outside the Mainstream: Women’s Religion and Women’s Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-Century America.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48 (1980): 207–231. Groundbreaking essay that illuminates factors which promote ongoing women’s religious leadership in unconventional religions.

Bromley, David G. “Perspective: Whither New Religions Studies: Defining and Shaping a New Area of Study.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 8, no. 2 (2004). In a discussion of the sociological development of New Religions Studies (NRS) as an emerging interdisciplinary area of study, Bromley argues that mainstream religions are characterized by congruence or alignment with the dominant culture, while NRMs are characterized by a lack of alignment and are therefore in tension with the dominant culture, values, and institutions.

Campbell, Colin. “The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization.” A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (1972): 119–136. Reprinted in The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization. Edited by Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw, 12–25. Walnut Creek, Calif., 2002. Campbell describes a milieu of “seekership” among alternative ideas and practices associated with the Western Esoteric tradition or Occultism, and often associated with the Theosophical and New Age movements, which has incorporated influences from Asian religions.

Dawson, Lorne L. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Oxford, 1998. Excellent sociological treatment of the main issues relating to new religions, including typologies, causes of NRMs, conversion, the brainwashing debate, violence, and cultural significance.

Dawson, Lorne L. “Who Joins New Religious Movements and Why: Twenty Years of Research and What Have We Learned?” In Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, pp. 116–130. Edited by Lorne L. Dawson. Oxford, 2003. Helpful summary of conclusions found in social scientific literature on why people join new religious movements

Ellwood, Robert S. Introducing Religion: From Inside and Outside. 3rd ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1993. A pioneering scholar of new religions offers a focused treatment of “emergent religion” on pages 129–133.

Ellwood, Robert S. “Nazism as a Millennialist Movement.” In Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases, pp. 241–260. Edited by Catherine Wessinger. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000. Discussion of German Nazism as a revolutionary millennial movement.

Gallagher, Eugene V. “Introduction.” The New Religious Movements Experience in America. Westport, Conn., 2004. Excellent introduction to the study of NRMs in America and the issues involved, such as deprogramming, freedom of religion, the brainwashing theory, and typologies.

Lucas, Phillip Charles. “The Future of New and Minority Religions in the Twenty-First Century: Religious Freedom Under Siege.” In New Religious Movements in the 21st Century: Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective, edited by Phillip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins, pp. 341–357. New York, 2004. The important conclusion to a significant set of essays on the status of new religious movements in different countries and parts of the world.

Melton, J. Gordon. “Perspective: Toward a Definition of ‘New Religion.'” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 8, no. 1 (2004): 73–87. Melton, a historian of religions, opts for understanding a new religious movement as being any religion that is assigned fringe status by the dominant religions in any given culture because of significantly different beliefs and practices.

Miller, Timothy, ed. When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. Albany, N.Y., 1991. A collection of essays on a variety of NRMs examining the processes of “routinization of charisma” after the death of the founding charismatic leader.

Miller, Timothy. “Introduction.” In America’s Alternative Religions, edited by Timothy Miller, pp. 1–10. Albany, N.Y., 1995. Miller, a historian of religions, opts for the term “alternative” to describe NRMs, and emphasizes that NRMs are not inherently inferior to mainstream religions.

Needleman, Jacob. The New Religions. New York, 1970. Probably the first title to use the term “new religions,” Needleman studies Asian religions in the United States, especially California, that attracted attention in the late 1960s.

Nova Religio Symposium: Falun Gong.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 6, no. 2 (April 2003). A collection of eight scholarly articles on the history and practice of Falun Gong, and its conflict with the government of the People’s Republic of China.

Palmer, Susan Jean. Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women’s Roles in New Religions. Syracuse, N.Y., 1994. Examines women’s roles in a variety of NRMs—International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Rajneesh movement, Unification Church, Institute of Applied Metaphysics, Messianic Community (Twelve Tribes), Raelian movement, Institute for the Development of the Harmonious Human Being, The Family—paying particular attention to gender roles and sexual expressions.

Palmer, Susan J. “Women’s ‘Cocoon Work’ in New Religious Movements: Sexual Experimentation and Feminine Rites of Passage.” In Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, pp. 245–56. Edited by Lorne L. Dawson. Oxford, 2003. This summary of gender roles for women in a variety of NRMs proposes that women’s temporary membership in an NRM serves as a rite of passage.

Palmer, Susan J., and Charlotte E. Hardman, eds. Children in New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J., 1999. The first collection of scholarly articles on children in new religions.

Puttick, Elizabeth. “Women in New Religious Movements.” In Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, pp. 230–44. Edited by Lorne L. Dawson. Oxford, 2003. Illuminating discussion of women’s gender roles and expressions of sexuality in “traditionalist” (patriarchal) new religions and more liberal “personal development” new religions; includes discussion of issues of abuse and sexual abuse of women.

Richardson, James T. “A Critique of ‘Brainwashing’ Claims about New Religious Movements.” In Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, pp. 160–66. Edited by Lorne L. Dawson. Oxford, 2003. A social scientific critique of the brainwashing theory as scientifically unfounded and self-serving to proponents.

Robbins, Thomas, and Dick Anthony. “Sects and Violence: Factors Enhancing the Volatility of Marginal Religious Movements.” In Armageddon in Waco: Critical Perspectives on the Branch Davidian Conflict. Edited by Stuart A. Wright, pp. 236–59. Chicago, 1995. Discusses the precariousness of charismatic authority in addition to other factors that can contribute to violence involving a new religion.

Robbins, Thomas, and David Bromley. “Social Experimentation and the Significance of American New Religions: A Focused Review Essay.” Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion. 4 (1992): 1–28. Discusses NRMs as “laboratories of social experimentation,” which can produce innovations that later will be incorporated into mainstream religions and societies.

Weber, Max. “The Social Psychology of the World Religions.” In From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology, pp. 267–301, especially 297. Translated and edited by H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills. New York, 1946. Early discussion, first published in 1922–1923, of the process of “routinization” of charisma.

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream. Urbana, Ill., 1993. An examination of the factors in certain new religions that have promoted women’s religious leadership after the death of the founder (often a woman).

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. “Introduction: Going Beyond and Retaining Charisma: Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions.” In Women’s Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations Outside the Mainstream. Edited by Catherine Wessinger, 1–19. Urbana, Ill., 1993. In addition to discussing the factors that support ongoing religious leadership by women in alternative religions, examines some different ways a religion may be considered “marginal” to the mainstream cultural contexts.

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases. Syracuse, N.Y., 2000. Studies millennialism in a variety of cultures and time periods to elucidate the connection between millennial beliefs and episodes of violence.

Wessinger, Catherine, ed. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven’s Gate. New York, 2000. Case studies of NRMs and millennial groups from 1978 involved in dramatic incidents of violence.

Benjamin D. Zablocki, “Exit Cost Analysis: A New Approach to the Scientific Study of Brainwashing,” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 1, no. 2 (1998): 216–49. Discussion of “exit costs” considered by people choosing whether to stay in or leave a religious group.

By Catherine Wessinger (2005)

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