The Church and Dominant Religion’s Perception of New Religious Movements

Scholars have brought attention to how new religious movements (NRMs) have been defined and perceived by the dominant church and religious traditions (Bainbridge 1997; Schoen 2001; Wallace 2006; Baffelli 2017; Goshadze 2018). The dominant religious tradition in a country has a significant influence on how many citizens view conventional religion. In most of the countries reviewed here, which are mostly Western, this is typically a form of Christianity. 

Mariam Goshadze has observed how in the Euro-American context, religion has been explored through a center-periphery discourse “where primarily Christian traditions have served as the nuclei of spiritual advancement and innovation while practices and beliefs from the “rest of the world” were forced to the margins” (Goshadze 2018, 2). Goshadze thus puts her weight behind current efforts seeking to bring into academic discussion the perspectives of cultures neglected under this center-periphery discourse.

William Bainbridge refers to churches as “conventional religious organizations” (Bainbridge 1997, 24) that are not, as a category, perceived by most to give rise to difficult moral and legal dilemmas (Beckford 2003, 27). The United States, Germany, Canada, Russia, and South Africa are countries where Christian traditions continue to be dominant. For many in these countries, despite the growth in the tolerance of religious diversity, NRMs are often viewed as deviant because they present cultural and ideological challenges to dominant Christian traditions (Bromley and Melton 2012, 6).

NRMs in Germany have struggled in light of Christianity’s predominance in the public square where it is most strongly felt (Schoen 2001, 268). There Church “cult” investigators provide the courts with information while there also exist bodies within the Protestant Church, such as the Evangelische Zentrale für Weltanschauungsfragen (EZW) center, and aggressive anti-cultist pastors who strongly oppose NRMs.

Russia’s NRMs have been perceived as deviant in more recent times too, especially in light of anti-cultic groups in the mid-1990s (Shterin 2000, 317). Levinson and Polosin observe how the anti-cultists viewed them as a threat to national identity and the country’s survival in its transitional state (Levinson and Polosin 1998). Negative representations of NRMs became frequent and many efforts to confront them were connected to the United States; for example, Russian objectors came to share similar concerns on the effects that conversion could have on individual careers and family relations (Richardson and Shterin 2000).

Russia witnessed an anti-cult movement in the 1990s drawing impetus from the anti-cult movement in the United States. Members of Russia’s anti-cult groups treated NRMs groups with suspicion and hostility, and intended to suppress them as they were deemed threatening to authentic Russian culture and tradition (Levinson and Polosin 1998; Shterin 2001, 317).

The church also had a role in the deviant labeling of these groups (Shterin 2000, 316). The St. Ireneus of Lyon Information Centre (SILIC) provided access to Western anti-cult circles and deemed such work necessary if Russia was to become integrated into the “civilised world.” This was well received by the Moscow Patriarchy who saw their country as being the “canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church.” The Moscow Patriarchy maintained the Russian Orthodox Church to be the legitimate religion of the country and thus put their weight behind anti-cult efforts opposing the proselytization of NRMs (Shterin 2000, 316).

In Japan, the Shinto orthodoxy of the late 1800s came to see NRM as constituting a “religious otherness” (Baffelli 2017, 131). Groups such as Renmonkyõ and Tenrikyõ were perceived by an array of Japanese, notably bureaucrats, social educators, sectarian leaders, and journalists, as threatening, which led to numerous accusations of “superstition”, notably in response to magical healing practiced in these groups. During and after the Second World War, religious organizations and groups not affiliated with a legally approved sect of Shinto, of which there were thirteen, were viewed suspiciously and monitored closely by authorities. Some NRMs, such as Oomoto, were suppressed (Stalker 2007).

More recent issues raised regarding NRMs by dominant religious leaders concern them preying on the ignorant and suffering, and for their exaggerated and misleading claims of the benefits of being members of their movements. It remains that modern Japanese culture is significantly influenced by Buddhism and Shinto. These religions tend to have strong ties to family and community loyalty, and many Japanese, even some among the intelligentsia, still formally participate in the rites of one or both of these religions. It is often from accepted Buddhist and Shinto religious convictions that NRMs in the country are considered deviant. Although NRMs continue to exist in modern Japanese society, they do so in a state that is generally far from comfortable (Inose 2017, 17).

Various of South Africa’s NRMs movements, notably forms of Paganism and the New Age religion, have been seen as deviant in light of dominant, mainstream Christian traditions (Wallace 2006, 12), which, remarks Chrissie Steyn, has led to a level of public alarm and fear (Steyn 1994a, 99-100). This has to do with doctrinal and practical differences. Doctrinally, the New Age posits human beings to be inherently divine rather than fallen and helpless; by contrast, the Church tends to view human beings as fallen and helpless (Steyn 1994a, 100). Its practices and beliefs deviate elsewhere from Christianity, notably in the New Age practitioner’s acceptance and pursuit of assistance from transcendent realms via channeled messaging, its alternative therapies, and the metaphysical conviction underlying its mystical practices.

Paganism, which began flourishing in the 1990s and has come to consist of a network of small, autonomous groups whose unifying feature is the reverence of nature, has also struggled under the mainstream religion in the country. Wallace observes how Paganism is seen as deviant in light of its devotees embracing unconventional conceptions and practices, such as the use of magic/magick, spells, divination, wands, pentacles, and the self-designation of witch, most of which contradict traditional Christian and African Traditional perspectives in South African society (Wallace 2006, 12). Christianity remains the dominant religious discourse in this country which has “not erased strong societal tendencies to equate the categories ‘Christian’ and ‘non-Christian’, with believer and non-believer, or, respectively, as those who stand inside or outside some kind of truth” (Wallace 2006, 28).

In many instances, but not all, anti-cult groups and churches have worked in tandem in opposition to NRMs. Anti-cultist movements have been a strong feature in several countries of which Canada, Germany, Russia, South Africa, and the United States are just a few (Melton 1993; Richardson 1995; Richardson and Shterin 2000; Shterin 2000; Hexham 2001; Wallace 2006).

Hexham locates early interests in Canada’s NRMs in the work of Christian minister Jan Karel van Baalen which stereotyped them as “cults” and “pagan(s)” (Hexham 2001). Baalen’s book The Chaos of Cults (1938) was influential at a lay and academic level and remained in print in the 1980s. Hexham traces the emergence of anti-cult groups in several major Canadian cities during the late 1970s who promoted deprogramming and supported restrictive laws regarding conversion to NRMs. The province of Ontario established a commission to investigate NRMs, a move received warmly by anti-cultists, but less so by most churches, academics, and the members of the groups themselves.

It was for a time common to refer to Canada’s NRMs as cults in the negative sense, although their reception was mixed (Hexham 2001). Despite positive media publicity at stages, these groups caused public concern over the alleged cultic practices of brainwashing and violence, which led to a strong backlash from anti-cult groups across major metropoles. The anti-cult movement that spawned in the United States contributed to the growth of scholarship on NRMs and the demonizing of these groups and their members (Melton 2001, 243). Behind the anti-cult movement were many evangelical Christians who felt threatened by the teachings of NRMs and went on to question their legitimacy as authentic religions (Melton 2001, 104). 

Germany and South Africa have had their anti-cultist movements too. Germany’s anti-cult movement was connected to Protestantism and aggressive anti-cultist pastors and investigators (Schoen 2001, 271), and South Africa’s was a backlash to alleged devil worship (Dunbar and Swart 2012). South Africa’s anti-cult movement was supported by the police as evidenced by one official who stated that “satanists don’t play golf on a Saturday. They kill children”, and the eventual criminalization of Satanism in the 1990s (Dunbar and Swart 2012, 611).


Bainbridge, William. 1997. The Sociology of Religious Movements. New York: Routledge. 

Baffelli, Erica. 2017. “Contested Positioning: “New Religions” and Secular Spheres.” Japan Review 30:129- 152.

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.

Bromley, David G., and Melton, Gordon. 2012. “Reconceptualizing Types of Religious Organization: Dominant, Sectarian, Alternative, and Emergent Tradition Groups.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 15(3):4-28. 

Goshadze, Mariam. 2018. “Religion: Introduction.” Transition 125:1-7. 

Hexham, Irving. 2001. “New Religions and the Anticult Movement in Canada.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(2):281-288.

Levinson, L., and Polosin, V. 1998. Belaya Kniga (The White Book). Moscow: Allegro.

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

Melton, John Gordon. 2001. “The Fate of NRMs and their Detractors in Twenty-first Century America.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(2):241-248.  

Richardson, James. 1995. “Minority Religions (‘Cults’) and the Law.” University of Queensland Law Journal 18:183-207. 

Schoen, Brigitte. 2001. “New Religions in Germany: The Publicity of the Public Square.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 4(2):266-274.  

Shterin, Marat. 2000. “New Religious Movements in Russia in the 1990s.” In Religious Transition in Russia, edited by Matti Kotiranta. Helsinki: Alexander Institute.

Stalker, Nancy. 2007. Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Richardson, James., and Shterin, Marat. 2000. “Effects of the Western Anti-Cult Movement on Development of Laws Concerning Religion in Post-Communist Russia.” Journal of Religion and State 42:247-271. 

Stalker, Nancy. 2007. Prophet Motive: Deguchi Onisaburo, Oomoto and the Rise of New Religions in Imperial Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Steyn, Chrissie. 1994[a]. “The New Age Movement in South Africa.” Journal for the Study of Religion 7(2):83-106. 

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. 

Yuri, Inose. 2017. “Gender and New Religions in Modern Japan.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 44(1):15-35. 


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