What are New Religious Movements and Modern Religions?

Image: Leili Egea

Most of the world’s major religions evolved out of the ancient civilizations and often have their foundations in the folk traditions that preceded them. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, trace themselves back to the stories of Noah and the Flood, long before any Middle Eastern civilizations. Various branches of Hinduism are based upon beliefs that predate Indian civilization.

Over time new religious movements and breakaway sects emerged: Jainism and Buddhism from Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism from indigenous Chinese religious beliefs. Recent religious movements of a more contemporary origin (post the 1500s CE) have also broken away from other religions. Such would include Sikhism breaking away from Hindu and Islamic beliefs, and Mormonism and Jehovah’s Witness from Christianity. Both Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses hold to the divinity of Christ as do Christians, although many of their other beliefs separate them for mainstream Christianity. Tenrikyo, a recent Japanese religious movement, has similarities to both Buddhism and Shinto, while the Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation movements derive from Hinduism. As a result, it is sometimes challenging to determine whether a breakaway group is a branch of an older religion, or a completely new religion itself.

There are cases of syncretic religions that are a merger of two or more religions that have evolved, especially among displaced or oppressed people. Africans, for example, taken to the Caribbean as slaves were forced to adopt the Christianity of their masters, but did so alongside beliefs they brought from their homelands. This resulted in creole faiths, of which Voodoo and Rastafarianism are two well-known examples. Rastafarianism is a Jamaican religion that grew out of the Black Consciousness movement. It constructed a mythology around the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, a country Rastafarians consider to be Judah. In Pacific regions where westerners exerted influence, various traditional folk religions emerged, such as the cargo cults that emerged on underdeveloped island nations such as Fiji, New Guinea, and Vanuatu. Other new religions began with the goal of either uniting all religious faiths or recognizing the validity of other beliefs and embracing them in their own faith. These include the Baha’i (established in Iran, 1863), Cao Dai (founded in Vietnam, 1926), and Unitarian Universalism (formed in the United States, 1961).

Moreover, fascination with mysticism and mystical enlightenment manifested the Hasidic movement in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, as well as several recent Christian charismatic denominations. Some have taken to historical neopagan religions, such as Wicca, while there have also been religions emerging out of loosely science-based beliefs, such as Scientology, Raelianism, and UFO religions. Often charismatic leaders stand behind the founding of these new religious movements and they typically claim divine revelation. Others have dismissed these movements as “cults,” which attempt to give power and glory to their leaders.

Scholarly Debate on New Religious Movements

The above gives a taste of what many scholars will consider “newer” religions, but in reality there is a lack of consensus within scholarship and still much debate (1). For example, some scholars have raised the question of when, if ever, does a “new religious movement” become an “old” religion? At what point is it to change classification. Is Mormonism, which emerged in nineteenth-century America, new? One could certainly agree that it is newer than the ancient traditions of Buddhism, but does that make it a “new religious movement”? Scholars will disagree on this.

A further issue regards definition. We have observed previously the lack of academic consensus over and the difficulty in obtaining an adequate definition of religion. This is largely due to religion’s incredible diversity ranging from the most spiritualized paganisms to the most secular and atheistic religions and all in between. This certainly has significance for scholars within the field of new and alternative religion because a consensus definition has not been yet formulated, yet their work has them wishing to define, examine, and disseminate data on new religions. But if one cannot find agreement on what a new religion is, then how can they be compared and collated? However, there are ways around this difficult, such as adopting Ninian Smart’s seven-dimensions framework or working with very broad provisional definitions.

References and Recommended Readings

Barker, Eileen. 2014. “The Not-So-New Religious Movements: Changes in ‘the Cult Scene’ over the Past Forty Years.” Temenos – Nordic Journal of Comparative Religion, 50(2):235-256. p. 238-239.

Ambalu, S. 2013. The Religions Book. London: DK Publishing. p. 294-295.

Smart, Ninian. 1992. The World’s Religions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 474-546.



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