Public Perceptions of New Religious Movements in Eight Countries

Public attitudes to new religious movements (NRMs) have been mixed and can range from outright hostile to more welcoming and tolerant. Where the former is concerned, NRMs are often viewed as “cults” and as inauthentic religious traditions that threaten some perceived socio-cultural and religious norms. Regarding the latter, the general public within some countries embraces a greater level of religious pluralism and freedom which allows NRMs to exist in them more peaceably.

Australians tend to have mixed feelings about NRMs despite these groups being remarkably more peaceful and pluralistic regarding religious and ethnic differences than elsewhere (Bouma 1999). According to Kohn, some find these movements cause problems for Australian society (Kohn 1997, 149-162), while members of NRMs claim to be mistreated by the authorities and the media (Sheen 1997, 163-182). It is not uncommon for the state and officials to use the terms “new religious movements” and “cults” interchangeably, despite, as Lynne Hume has noticed, the very negative connotations with the latter term scholars have observed (Hume 1996, 35-52).

The state has released reports that provide Australians with several pages of claimed negative characteristics and consequences of becoming involved in NRMs. In particular, Richardson identifies the issue raised over “brainwashing” which refers to coercive measures purportedly at the heart of NRMs religious strategies when recruiting new members (Richardson 1995). There have been calls for interfaith dialogue to examine the methods of coercion in religion and whether these require a legal approach.

In North America, particularly in Canada, public attitudes toward NRMs have swayed historically (Hexham 2001, 281-282). During the 1970s, Canada’s public perception was generally one of amusement and curiosity rather than one of fear. These groups were quite popular within the media and some outlets, such as the Star-Phoenix of Saskatoon, viewed certain emergent traditions, notably the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), positively. 

Hexham highlights how later controversies surrounding deprogramming changed the general public perception (Hexham 2001, 283). He identifies concerns over the practices of the Unification Church and the anxieties emerging from an incident in which two people in Boston became obsessed with Greek mythology and subsequently killed their pets and themselves. Hexham also sees a far more positive side to the reception of NRMs in Canada. The twenty-first-century Canadian ethos of tolerance, religious pluralism, and multi-culturalism has made the country one of the best locations for NRMs to exist (Hexham 2001, 281). More Canadians than ever before are tolerant of worldviews and religions that differ from their own or accepted social norms. There is the infrequent media article and report about a perceived dangerous cult, but there have been no calls for anti-cult legislation. In most cases, NRMs are viewed as legitimate expressions of religious belief.

In the United States, Melton acknowledges how evangelical Christians felt threatened by the unorthodox teachings of NRMs which gave rise to deviance labeling. The tendency was to label these movements “cults” which became an “appropriate label for the despised new religions” (Melton 2001, 243). The United States experienced a significant anti-cult movement backlash that held to the “tacit assumption that the nonconventional religions were less than genuine religions and that with a combination of social pressure and legal force they could be destroyed” (Melton 1993, 104). In its non-academic use, “cult” is perceived negatively and refers to traditions supposedly involved in financial and/or political corruption that indulge in immoral practices involving the abuse of women and children, sexual or other, and brainwashing techniques to exploit members and recruits (Barker 2001, 236). 

NRMs threatened dominant socio-cultural and religious values of American society (Beckford 2003, 26-31). The anti-cult movement caused great pain to certain groups and individuals, sometimes requiring the diverting of limited resources to defend themselves. Leaders and proponents of these movements were having to face off with “New Vigilantes.” These vigilantes were strong critics and opponents of NRMs who leveled numerous accusations including “brainwashing” and physical coercion within unconventional groups although the academic community, with some exceptions, were skeptical of such allegations (Robbins 2000, 516).

Meanwhile in EuropeGermany’s public attitude toward NRMs “has been quite negative” (Schoen 2001, 272). These groups have been viewed as non-traditional religions that threaten political destabilization. For many in Germany’s public, NRMs are perceived as threats to political stability in the country and are therefore treated with suspicion. Such perceptions have contributed to the state spreading awareness of NRMs (Schoen 2001, 269).

State agencies have put effort into producing information booklets on new religious movements within its borders. As early as 1979, booklets were being produced in response to concerns regarding activities of groups such as ISKCON, Scientology, the Unification Church, and others, although these booklets also included a legal component ruling out any intent to prohibit NRMs. These booklets have since been widely distributed in Germany, although Schoen says that recent scholars have brought attention to their “mixed quality” (Schoen 2001, 269). The booklets contain a significant amount of information, both legal and about these groups, that has been simplified to render it accessible to the general public. Members of NRMs have sometimes found their representation in these booklets objectionable, which, observe Eiben and Spürck, has led to claims of being unfairly portrayed despite the courts deeming this a legitimate public form of debate (Eiben and Spürck 1997, 25-46).

Latvia’s NRMs have grown despite the country’s strong Christian heritage before the Soviet occupation of 1940 when roughly 90% of the population embraced one form of Christianity or another (Bernats 1998, 5; Krumina-Konkova 1999). Krumina-Konkova notes, however, that various NRMs have been perceived negatively, which has often been based on mutual prejudice and hostility between these groups and mainstream religion (Krumina-Konkova 1999, 132). In particular, there was a negative perception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their views concerning blood transfusion (Krumina-Konkova 1999, 125). Such perceptions were enhanced when a Latvian teenager died after refusing medical blood transfusion for reasons relating to her faith, which was a tragedy that occurred at a time when public information on the Jehovah’s Witnesses was limited.

Krumina-Konkova also acknowledges how ISKCON and its activities, celebrations, events, and marches were seen negatively by the general Latvian population (Krumina-Konkova 1999, 127). This religion is perceived as being absolutely foreign and thus unacceptable in the country. It also helps little that many NRMs in Latvia tend to isolate themselves from the general society, which is seen to be a move to deliberately avoid social integration with mainstream Latvian community and culture.

In Russia, moreover, historically, scholars have noted that the country’s freedom of expression and religion has been poor, particularly under the Tsarist and Soviet Communist regimes (Shterin 2000; Froese 2004). Shterin points to how under the Tsars, the Eastern Orthodox Church was favored and seen by the intelligentsia to constitute the core of Russia’s national integrity (Shterin 2000, 311). Many other religions were thus suppressed. Under the Soviets, all other religions became the state’s enemy as anti-religious and pro-atheist-science strategies were put into place across most levels of Soviet society (Blakeley 1964; Husband 1998).

Shterin reveals how the reaction to NRMs has been broad: some Russians welcomed them, others thought of them as a curiosity, and many viewed them with outright hostility and/or negativity. A particularly negative perception has been cultivated among mental health professionals who came to see NRMs as being an affront to the “original” Russian psychological makeup formed by “traditional religions” (Shterin 2000, 317). A leading psychiatric center in Moscow, for example, requires a reference letter authored by an Orthodox priest before treatment of disorders caused by alleged cult involvement can begin. Other mental health professionals, some of whom work for the Institute of Forensic Psychiatry, explain conversion to NRMs due to socially induced “delusion.”

Similar perceptions can be found in Japan, a country where the study of NRMs has particularly thrived. Since 1912, which was the end of the Meiji period, NRMs have been the topic of discussion concerning what sort of “religion” should be considered acceptable in modern society (Baffelli 2017, 131). 

In her analysis of the contested space NRMs have occupied in Japanese society, Erica Baffelli notes how these challenges produced a backlash through defamatory campaigns, especially by newspaper agencies referring to the teachings of some new religions as “perverted” and “evil” (Baffelli 2017, 131). Baffelli further notices how the reputation of such movements hardly improved post the Second World War (Baffelli 2017, 132). Both politicians and mass media alike saw NRMs, such as Komeito and Soka Gakkai, as problematic to the “postwar orthodoxy of a strict division between religion and state”. These groups were attacked for their teachings and proselytization practices while Aum Shinrikyo’s gas attack in the Tokyo subway in 1995 hardly helped the public appeal of NRMs. According to Inose, the gas attack contributed to the reputation among the general public of NRMs being “evil heresies” (Inose 2017, 17). Baffelli claims that the gas attack made NRMs become seen as “cults” and “dangerous others” (Baffelli 2017, 132).

Ever since that attack, the main public discourse around these groups has alleged them to be “irrational” and diametrically opposed to modern, rationalized, and secular society. The result was that NRMs became increasingly defensive and cautious in the public sphere. Inose further locates the deviancy of NRMs in their rapid expansion and development, aggressive proselytizing, and their closed disposition (Inose 1992, 11-13). Where NRMs have also struggled is in their attracting new members from the intelligentsia. NRMs have struggled to be attractive to academics whose interests are generally focused elsewhere than on religion and students on university campuses.

There has been a misrepresentation of and fear over NRMs in South Africa. Paganism and Satanism have been reservoirs of public fear and suitable candidates for deviance labeling. Many South Africans associate Paganism with Satanism, devil worship, and/or evil intent (Wallace 2006, 12), whereas Satanism, which was founded by Anton Szandor LaVey (1930-1997) and that purports to be a legitimate religion, was the subject of widespread social anxiety and moral panic (Falkof 2012, 754). A Satanic panic emerged within White Afrikaans and English communities between 1989 and 1994, roughly the years encompassing the abolition of apartheid and the emergence of new South Africa (Dunbar and Swart 2012, 604). 

Documentary evidence from media, state, and police sources demonstrate how Satanism was perceived as a threat (Dunbar and Swart 2012, 606; Falkof 2012, 755). Reports claimed Satanists were seeking White children to sacrifice, that White children were making pacts with the devil, summoning demons, and engaging in activities of lust and drug abuse. The Satanic panic was, however, a powerful expression of ideological discontent during South Africa’s transition to democracy (Dunbar and Swart 2012, 607) and the result of fears over social change concerning the power and future of White society (Dunbar and Swart 2012, 621).

It is far less clear how the public perceives various other NRMs in the country. Rastafarianism has been studied by several scholars, yet remains one of the least understood religious movements in South Africa (Johnson-Hill 1996, 3). ISKCON has a presence in the country too (Sooklal 1987). There is no academic data on public perceptions of this group except for the fact that 80.6% of South African Hindus in the 1980s felt their religion had been strengthened by ISKCON’s emergence in the country (Sooklal 1987, 34). Hindus felt their religion has been bolstered through the movement’s emphasis on distributing literature, imparting knowledge about ancient Indian culture and religion, and curbing conversions to other religions. ISKCON also managed to merge spiritual and material realities successfully through its emphasis on spiritual devotion and material improvement (Sooklal 1987, 37). Unfortunately, it is not clear what the general public perception beyond local Hindus of this movement is, but Sooklal expected that ISKCON would continue to attract new devotees, especially in light of its passionate and committed missionary zeal (Sooklal 1987, 35-36).


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