Interest in and Motivations for Studying New Religious Movements

Scholars specializing in new religious movements (NRMs) since the 1970s have observed the emergence of these traditions across Africa, Asia, North America, and Europe.

North American scholarship has thrived regarding the study of NRMs. In the United States, NRMs have been the object of academic study since the 1970s (Melton 1993, 97), in particular when scholars first began investigating three broad groups: Eastern mystical movements, the Jesus Movement or “Jesus Freaks”, and religio-therapeutic groups such as the New Age (Robbins 2000, 517).

The growth of NRMs evidences little sign of slowing down and can be traced to immigration laws passed in 1965 that made it easier for Asian and Middle Eastern peoples to migrate to the United States and bring with them Eastern religious ideas. Many Westerners also went to Asian countries and returned with new religious ideas they received there. Growth further happened when many Americans, in particular those among the baby-boomer generation (those born between 1946 and 1964), started feeling alienated from mainstream culture and society. Many within this generation turned to alternatives in politics, art, economics, and, importantly, in religion (Robbins 2000, 516). As of the early 1990s, there were 836 emergent religions across North America. Most of these formed post-1940 (Melton 1993, 101) and many were contributing to a transformation of American values (Tipton 1982, 79-109).

Socio-cultural and historical contexts prove powerful influences on the emergence of NRMs in various locations. It is, for instance, the atheistic-communist ideologies of former Soviet Russia and Latvia that contributed to certain trajectories in their respective religious landscapes (Durham and Homer 1998). In both cases where religion and religious freedom were severely jeopardized under a domineering state, there were great religious revivals during and after the transitionary periods into democratization and political liberalization.

The Vissarion Congregation emerged in Krasnoyarsk in 1991 and continues to grow and Mormonism emerged in Latvia in 1992 as did various Eastern alternative religions and the URUSVATI center (Krumina-Konkova 1999, 127-128). Similar revivals occurred in South Africa within Pagan groups that flourished under the new democratic state. It took a shift in the country’s constitution for there to be a flourishing of new religious discourses that facilitated the growth of various NRMs, among them Pagan and New Age groups (Wallace 2006, 28, 66, 97). These revivals partly explain the growth of NRMs that flourish in periods just after they have been stifled, especially when new legislation is more friendly to allowing citizens the freedom to practice religion (Crnic 2007, 517).

The emergence of NRMs in Africa has also been of great interest. In Nigeria, scholars have come to note how NRMs incorporating various indigenous, Christian, and Islamic elements have flourished (Mbabuike 1996). It is important, these scholars maintain, that one contextualizes Nigeria’s NRMs within historical colonialism given its influence on the country’s religions (Jordan 1971; Mbabuike 1996). The conditions of colonialism, imperialism, and disenchantment led to the growth of “New Age” emergent religions and the flourishing of native Christian and Islamic sects attempting to “Nigerianize” religious institutions (Mbabuike 1996, 408).

Academic interest in South Africa’s NRMs progressed chiefly after the end of apartheid and with the advent of the secular state. Dan Wallace brings light to how the country became increasingly influenced by external trends and developments, and how this has contributed to the growth of these movements (Wallace 2006, 28). Before 1994, South Africa had been influenced by predominantly internal factors along racial, economic, social, and religious lines. These internal factors, facilitated by the apartheid system established in 1948, produced broad divisions across racial groups in South African society. The result was the separation of peoples, the separate development of races, and entrenched inequality. This changed when the post-1994 government produced legislation affirming human dignity, equality, non-racialism, non-sexism, and religious and gender rights. This facilitated the emergence of new religious discourses (Wallace 2006, 28). These discourses propelled growth in, on the one hand, conservative and fundamentalist ideas as well as, on the other, trends towards greater tolerance and accommodation of different religious beliefs, ideas, and practices. The latter made South Africa an increasingly suitable place for the materialization of NRMs.

Motivations for Studying NRMs

In 2015, Eileen Barker, a sociologist and specialist in NRMs, revealed that there were roughly 4500 global NRMs on record (Barker 2014, 236). According to academic researchers of the United Kingdom’s Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM), as of 2019, this number jumped to 5077 (INFORM 2019, 16). These movements are therefore numerous, have a wide geographical spread, and come in various sizes. 

Raelianism is on the bigger side of the spectrum with tens of thousands of members and has a presence in France, Canada, and the United States (Palmer 2005, 118). Most NRMs do not grow to great proportions and can number anywhere from five, a few dozen, to several hundred members. The presence of these movements is no longer surprising given their emergence across the globe (Robbins 2001, 172). “They have”, writes John Melton, “established themselves as significant and stable minorities and are bringing about a new pluralistic religious environment in which each urban area will have a medley of all of the world’s major religions and many of its lesser ones” (Melton 1993, 112).

Despite concerns over NRMs being exaggerated, occasional violence, abuse, and death have been a part of some of them (Barker 2014, 240), notably in the tragedies of The Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments, Jones Town, and the Heaven’s Gate controversies, leading to calls for active vigilance (Beit-Hallahmi 2001). This underscores scholarly attentiveness to the dynamics of power, leadership, and the processes of recruitment, conversion, and socialization within these movements (Robbins and Bromley 1993, 93).

A common perception among many in the general public is that these religions are dangerous “cults” that are seen as threatening and unconventional (Beckford 2003, 26-31). Scholars therefore study and disseminate information about these traditions to offset common misunderstandings (Zablocki and Robbins 2001, 17). Misunderstanding and stigmatization can spawn strong opposition, varying levels of discrimination, and occasional governmental persecution (Robbins 2001, 172). Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, are known to experience discrimination in Europe and the United States (Robbins 2005, 106). Because these movements are alternatives to the conventional socio-cultural and religious norms of societies, “it is not surprising that they are frequently greeted with ignorance, suspicion, fear, and hostility—even when they have not offended against any law or, indeed, done anything that would be considered harmful were it performed in a traditional religion” (Barker 2004, 96).

We have seen the rise of scholarly interest in NRMs when these movements began flourishing. The rise of NRMs is explained by several factors. There was the importing of Eastern religious ideas into Western society. These ideas were well received by alienated Westerners looking for alternative religious worldviews and lifestyles. NRMs flourished in democratic settings, especially after the fall of domineering states and their regulation and control. We further noted several reasons why scholars wish to study NRMs. First, simply because there is something to be studied, namely the thousands of NRMs known to exist, and because many people join these movements. Some scholars wish to keep an eye on them because they can occasionally engender violence. Most scholars, moreover, wish to disseminate accurate information about these movements because they believe this will prevent misunderstanding, stigmatization, and discrimination. 


Barker, Eileen. 2004. “Perspective: What Are We Studying? A Sociological Case for Keeping the ‘Nova.’” Nova Religio 8(1):88-102. DOI: 10.1525/nr.2004.8.1.88.

Barker, Eileen. 2014. “The Not-So-New Religious Movements. Changes in ‘the Cult Scene’ over the Past Forty Years.” Temenos 50(2):235-256. DOI:

Beckford, James. 2003. “The Continuum Between “Cults” and “Normal” Religion.” In Cults and New Religious Movements: A Reader, edited by Lorne Dawson, 26-35. Hoboken: Wiley-Blackwell.

Crnic, Ales. 2007. “New Religions in “New Europe.”” Journal of Church and State 49(3):517-551.

Durham, W. Cole., and Homer, Lauren. 1998. “Russia’s 1997 Law on Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations: An Analytical Appraisal.” Emory Law Review.

INFORM. 2019. “Annual Report: April 2018–March 2019.” Accessed March 22, 2020.

Jordan, John. 1971. Bishop Shanahan of Southern Nigeria. Dublin: Elo.

Krumina-Konkova, Solveiga. 1999. “New Religions in Latvia.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 3(1):119-134.

Mbabuike, Michael. 1996. “Skimming the New Waves: A Survey of New Age Religions in Nigeria.” Journal of Black Studies 26(4):401-413.

Melton, John Gordon. 1993. “Another Look at New Religions.” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 52:97-112.

Palmer, Susan. 2005. “Aliens Adored: Raël’s UFO Religion.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 9(1):117-118.

Robbins, Thomas., and Bromley, David G. 1993. “New Religious Movements in the United States.” Archives de sciences sociales des religions 38(83):91-106.

Robbins, Thomas. 2000. ““Quo Vadis” the Scientific Study of New Religious Movements?” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 39(4):515-523.

Robbins, Thomas. 2001. “Introduction: Alternative Religions, the State, and the Globe.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(2):172-186.

Tipton, Steven. 1982. “The moral logic of alternative religions.” In Religion in America, edited by Mary Douglas and Steven Tipton, 79-107. Boston: Beacon.

Wallace, Dale. 2006. “The construction and articulation of a pagan identity in South Africa: a study of the nature and implications of a contested religious identity in a pluralistic society.” PhD diss., University of Kwazulu-Natal.

Zablocki, Benjamin., and Robbins, Thomas. 2001. Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

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