New Religious Movements Essay

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The term new religious movement (NRM) refers both to various forms of Eastern spirituality brought to the west by immigrants, and to groups founded since World War II, and identified as ”cults” or ”sects” in popular parlance. The enormous diversity within the current wave of new religions cannot be over-emphasized, but in so far as they are first-generation movements, their membership of converts tends to consist disproportionately of enthusiastic young Caucasian adults from the better-educated middle classes. Founding leaders, often accorded a charismatic authority unbounded by rules or traditions, frequently encourage a dichotomous mindset, drawing clear distinctions between ”true” and ”false”; ”Godly” and ”satanic”; and ”them” and ”us.”

A further characteristic of NRMs is that they change more fundamentally and rapidly than older religions: charismatic leaders die; unfulfilled prophecies, second and subsequent generations and a maturing membership may result in a relaxation of theological fervor and contribute to accommodation to the host society. Furthermore, external social changes can introduce radical transformations within the ”cult scene,” two obvious examples being the collapse of socialism, and the arrival of the Internet.

Throughout history, new religions have been greeted with suspicion, fear and even hatred by those to whom they pose an alternative, and from the 1970s a number of groups generically referred to as the anti-cult movement emerged in opposition to what they termed ”destructive cults.” Official responses to NRMs have ranged from their being completely outlawed to their being treated much like any other religion.

No one knows exactly how many NRMs there are, partly because of definitional variations. There are possibly around two thousand identifiable NRMs in Europe and North America, with several thousand more elsewhere. The number of members is, however, usually relatively small with a high turnover rate, many movements failing to survive much beyond two or three generations.


  1. Barker, E. (2004) What are we studying.? A sociological case for keeping the ”Nova.” Nova Religio 8 (1): 88-102.
  2. Bromley, D. G. & Gordon Melton, J. (eds.) (2002) Cults, Religion and Violence. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. Dawson, L. L. (ed.) (2003) Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Blackwell, Oxford.

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