So-called “cults” have attracted considerable attention from the legal profession, scholars across several disciplines, and the mass media (1). This entry will briefly examine these so-called cults, which, as we shall see, are better termed ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs), in order to attain an academic perspective on them. NRMs will be examined for their characteristics and, despite their diversity, their commonalities. We will also look at some of the internal and external factors that exert considerable force upon these groups resulting in their change.
New Religious Movements
Rather than referring to certain groups and traditions as “cults”, most scholars prefer to categorize these groups as New Religious Movements (NRMs) (2). Scholar Glenn Richard Bucher explains that,
“For the recent religious renaissance, the term ‘new religions” is preferable to “cults,” given the pejorativeness of the word “cult” and the common characteristics of the “new religions,” characteristics which cut across sociological types” (3).
This article will follow this academic inclination and use the term NRMs to refer to those traditions commonly perceived to be cults. Some scholars have defined NRMs as first generational membership (or “first-generational religions”), while others view them as religions that have emerged within the past few centuries (4). In the former sense, a NRM is a tradition that has emerged within the last 30 to 40 years. On the latter definition, traditions such as Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witness, the Christadelphians, Christian Science, ISKCON (Hare Krishna), and others, some of which emerged in the 1800s and 1900s constitute NRMs.
The Challenge to Defining NRMs
The difficulty in defining a NRM comes down to several factors. First, it is due to the background and agendas of those writing about the groups or traditions. In religious studies and the sociology of religion, a distinction has been made between a sect, denomination, and cult, but these distinctions are technical and wholly non-judgmental. However, in its non-academic usage, the term ‘cult’ is used negatively where it will typically refer to a tradition or group perceived to constitute a dangerous pseudo-religion likely involved in financial rackets and political intrigue. Such a group is thought to indulge in immoral sexual practices, abuses its women and children, and employs brainwashing techniques to exploit its members and recruits. They are often thought to be complicit in practices involving brainwashing persons into joining the group and participating in activities in which the person otherwise would not join, except for the alleged brainwashing and subsequent “mind control”. The group might even resort to violence and perform different kinds of criminal activities, and in some cases, these groups might encourage their members to commit mass suicide. However, this is nothing illegal about NRMs as long as they act with the law, which means that they are as free as anyone else to believe and do what they wish (5).
Although real-world examples of so-called cults in which illegal practices can be located evidences some truth to negative perceptions (one only needs to think of the infamous examples of Jim Jones, Charles Manson, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments), such a definition is not particularly helpful to scholars. Sociologist and scholar of religion Eileen Barker explains that,
“… such a ‘definition’ is not very helpful for a sociologist who, rather than aiming merely to label or condemn, is trying to find out about particular movements… we cannot start from a definitional assumption that it does all these things. This is one reason why, since the 1970s, scholars of religion have tended to prefer the concept of new religious movement or NRM, in the hope of getting away from the popularly assumed characteristics and pejorative overtones of ‘cult’ and ‘sect’” (6).
Indeed NRMs have received the rear end of the stick, so to speak, through the prejudice and bias of anti-cult watch groups. Such groups wish to control and/or ban so-called cults, warn others of their dangers, and will typically select the negative things about them at the expense of what happens to be ‘normal’ or ‘good’.
A further difficulty is delineating clear distinctions between mainstream accepted religions and NRMs. This requires an understanding of religion but there is no universally agreed definition of what is ‘religious’. If one confines religion to belief in a God or gods then much of Buddhism and Confucianism is disqualified. Similarly the Raelian movement, which refers to itself as an atheistic religion, does not make the cut. Many members of certain religious traditions, such as Rastafarians and alternative spiritualities such as New Age and Wicca, do not wish to be called religious, instead wishing to be called a ‘spiritual community’ or a ‘spiritual way of life.’ As a result, scholars of religion have tended to accept a rather comprehensive and broad understanding of religion that follows the suggestion of Paul Tillich (1886-1965) that religion is that which offers answers to questions of ultimate concern, such as: ‘Is there a God?’”What is the purpose of life?’ ‘What happens after death?” (7) As noted, the challenge is also between delineating between religions and NRM, given that the two share many characteristics. There is no activity that is typical of NRMs and atypical of older religions, and each has to be examined according to what it teaches and does at a particular time and place.
An additional challenge is that NRMs are very diverse. Eileen Barker notes that the total number of known NRM and alternative religious organizations is around 4500 although she suspects that there are far more that we are still unaware of (8). This means that “it can be extremely difficult to generalise about NRMs; they differ in their beliefs, practices, lifestyle, leadership, finances, attitudes, and their potential for harm” (9). However, despite their diversity, there are several common characteristics of NRMs.
Common Characteristics of NRMs
A major commonality between NRMs is that they appeal to an atypical segment of the population. For example, they have appealed to the socially, politically, or economically oppressed (the Rastafari religion and socio-political movement that emerged in 1930s Jamaica under the conditions of slavery is an example), and in many cases, they appeal disproportionately to younger people. For example, ISKCON attracted American converts who were predominantly in their 20s and from white, middle-class backgrounds.
A second commonality is that many of the NRMs have a founder or leader who wields a charismatic authority over his/her followers’ lives, and often far more so than, say, a Pope or Archbishop of Canterbury. Barker explains that,
“Being, by definition, unbound by rules or tradition, the charismatic leader is unaccountable to anyone, except, perhaps, to God (though s/he may be God), and is thus highly unpredictable and capable of dramatic changes without warning. If the movement grows, then a bureaucratic structure may be set up with the charismatic leader at the top and a top-down hierarchical authority and communication structure underneath” (10).
The Russian mystic Sergey Anatolyevitch Torop (commonly alled ‘Vassarion’), believed by his several thousand followers to be the Word of God and an incarnation of Jesus Christ, has established rules requiring devotees to be strict vegetarians as well as to avoid consuming alcohol and the smoking of cigarettes. Such regulations, with the additional presence of Vassarion’s portrait in the homes of his devotees, evidences a top-down hierarchical authority typical of many NRMs.
A third characteristic is that NRMs often have charismatic leaders who both hold to as well as teach a rigidly dichotomous worldview that is required to be embraced by his/her followers. Clear boundaries are demarcated between what is ‘godly and Satanic’, ‘good and bad’, ‘right and wrong’, and ‘them and us’.
Fourthly, NRMs tend to be treated with suspicion and often antagonism by other members within society. This is often the result of their teaching that everyone else has got it wrong and that they alone possess the Truth. However, this is often in response to external factors and, as such, scholars are aware of the importance of examining NRMs within the context of wider society. Their existence and belief system is alway affected by relatives, peers, public officials, the mass media, and the general public.
Internal and External Challenges to NRMs
A final characteristic of NRMs, which is worth dedicating beneath its own heading, is that they are inevitably bound to change, and they tend to do so far more rapidly and radically than older, more established religions. This change is the product of internal and external forces that exert influence on the group.
On the internal level, a major change involves revisions and adjustments to their beliefs, particularly around anticipations and prophesies of an imminent and drastic change such as the arrival of the millennium or the end of the world. The evangelist Harold Camping is remembered for a mistaken prophesy he made on Family Radio that Judgement Day would be on the 21st of May 2011. Usually, when such predictions fail to come true it results in a course of action, which can include recalculating the date. Eileen Barker explains that there,
“… is a limit to the number of times one can plausibly do this – the Jehovah Witnesses have not made any specific predictions since 1975. The explanation might be that the expected happening did in fact occur, but it did so in the spirit world, or it may be said that it would have happened if only people had done what they had been told to do, or that a disaster has been prevented by the activities of the group. It may be said that the prophecy was a test of faith for the followers. Or it may simply be that that specific belief moves from the centre of the movement’s general belief system to its periphery” (11).
Discord can emerge over to teachings that turn out to be obviously false. The leaders of the Panacea Society believed and taught that they would live forever, only to have their leader, Octavia, die. This led to the movement experiencing a demoralizing crisis, and the Society came to an end when its last member died in 2012.
Additional internal factors such as the behaviours of persons in positions of leadership can affect members within NRMs. For example, hypocrisy has proven a cause of discomfort, doubt, and has even resulted in apostasy. Sometimes living together in communities manifests communal challenges brought on by the difficulties of having to live together. Frequent adjustments have to be made if the community is to survive, and many such NRM communities have failed to adjust accordingly and thus have died out. Second-generation members such as children are also an integral factor of influence on the basis that they are born into the movement and will its important resources of time and money. Children often tend to be immune to expulsion, and the movement’s leaders realize that they need to look after them as they grow up if they wish to keep them in the fold. It is more common for first generational members within NRMs to leave the movement than for second generational members who are brought up within it. In most cases, these second generational members will grow up and occupy positions of leadership within the movement, and will sometimes abandon old beliefs and introduce new ones.
In terms of external influences, perceptions by the mass media and social media, which have been largely negative and sensational, have influenced opinion on NRMs. Convinced by the media that NRMs were engaging in the gross brainwashing of members, many people engaged in the illegal practices of “deprogramming”. This involveD kidnapping converts and holding them against their will until they escapeD or convinceD their captors that they no longer wished or intended to stay in the movement (12). Several hundred of such kidnappings occurred during the 1970s and 80s, and still occur today in Japan.
Anti-cult and cult watch groups have emerged and play a role in controlling NRMs. In some countries, such as China, Russia, Belgium, and France), governments have introduced legislation specifically targeting NRMs. In some cases, this has involved requirements concerning the number of members and length of time within a country, which has made it difficult for some NRMs to qualify as a religion.
Changes in attitudes within wider society have also influenced NRMs as more diverse options have become widely available. For instance, one need not have to join a NRM should he or she wish to celebrate vegetarianism, feminism, and ecological ideals.
Political changes have been seen to result in change too. The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the former Soviet Union opened up an unprecedentedly large pool of potential converts to NRMs.
Finally, one cannot omit the role that technology has played. Affordable travel, migration, and development of communication technologies have facilitated the sharing of information on NRMs. Such information has been both accurate and false, favourable and critical. NRMs are able to have websites to advertise their beliefs and organizations, as well as distribute information produced by their own leaders and members. This has seen a proliferation of such movements offering online courses, DVDs, and paraphernalia such as clothing ware, mugs, and other materials and spiritual items. Equally such avenues are pursued by opponents of NRMs who use the internet to disseminate negative information.
The Current (and Future) State of NRMs
As noted earlier, Barker estimates that there are roughly 4500 known NRMs, although there are likely many more. Estimating a total number of such groups is made difficult over defining what exactly constitutes a NRM, and depending on how one defines it, there are anywhere between 800 and 2000 such groups in Britain alone (13). Also as previously noted, NRMs attract atypical members of a population which means that their numbers are usually small,
“… the number of core members of NRMs is anything but a very small proportion of the general population—largely because of the high turn-over in most of the movements… Most of the movements have no more than a few hundred members—many have but a score or so. It is also the case that those movements which claim large numbers often include people who once took one of their courses, or were given a mantra, but have since had no connection with them” (14).
NRMs continue to emerge and evolve in the contemporary era. Various forms of paganism, such as the Goddess movement and Druidry, have become increasingly popular and visible. In many instances such religions have become acceptable alternatives to mainstream religions. UFO-cults still attract much attention and “virtual religions” such as Jediism and Matrixism, which do not trace to divine intervention, continue to grow. Small ‘high control groups’ such as the Westboro Baptist Church, which consists almost entirely of several families, still exist. There is also a rise in so-called ‘secular NRMs’. For some people, sporting bodies such as Manchester United can be seen to function as a religion, while numerous agnostic and atheist churches have emerged. The Sunday Assembly is a congregation of atheists and non-believers that host monthly services.
1. Richardson, James. 1991. “Cult/Brainwashing Cases and Freedom of Religion.” Journal of Church and State 33(1): 55-74.
2. Barker, Eileen. 2014. “The Not-So-New Religious Movements. Changes in ‘the Cult Scene’ over the Past Forty Years.” Temenos 50(2):235-256; Dawson, Lorne. 2003. Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell. p. 33; Richardson, James. 1993. “Definitions of Cult: From Sociological-Technical to Popular-Negative.” Review of Religious Research 34(4): 348-356. p. 348.
3. Bucher, Glenn. 1981. “Worlds of Total Meaning: An Interpretation of Cult Religion.” An Interdisciplinary Journal 64(3): 274-285. p. 276.
4. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 238.
5. Barker, Eileen. 2001. “General Overview of the “Cult Scene” in Great Britain.” The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(2): 235-240.
6. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 237.
7. Tuggy, Dale. 2014. 19d Six more classic theories of religion – Paul Tillich and W.C. Smith. Available.
8. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 236.
9. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 240
10. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 241
11. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 244.
12. Barker, Eileen. 2014. Ibid. p. 247.
13. Barker, Eileen. 2001. Ibid. p. 238.
14. Barker, Eileen. 2001. Ibid. p. 239.