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New Religious Movements: History of Study


In the 1970s a new subfield in academia developed around the study of what was termed new religions. Though minority religions had regularly populated the fringes of Western culture throughout history, a host of new religious movements had appeared in North America at the end of the 1960s and incited public controversy. Parents of the young adults who had joined many of these groups mounted fierce battles against what they termed cults. In order to present a more balanced view, early research efforts began, initially in the San Francisco Bay metropolitan area, to explore these groups from an academic perspective. At the time, it was assumed by some that the sudden burst of new religions was merely a passing phenomenon, particularly related to the social unrest of the 1960s. The long-term role of the many diverse movements was more fully understood only after their growth continued over several decades. Still in its relative infancy, the study of new religions was dramatically affected by the murder/suicides that occurred at Jonestown, Guyana, in November 1978.

New Religions Studies

The contemporary study of new religions grew from two roots: the study of cults (or in Europe, sects) through the early twentieth century, and the burst of new religious life in Japan following World War II. Through the late nineteenth century, observers of the trends in American religion realized that pluralism was altering the Christian community and that a number of "heretical" expressions were demanding a place on the spiritual landscape. By the end of the century, the first book had appeared that labeled some of these diverse religions "cults." Then, through the first half of the twentieth century, scholars and church leaders tried to discover why people would forsake traditional religions for these obviously false new religious expressions. Among these movements in question were Spiritualism, Mormonism, Theosophy, Christian Science, and New Thought. At the same time a variety of Christian literature denouncing the different groups would begin to circulate as part of an effort to stop their growth and keep Christians from straying toward them.

Simultaneously, with the growth of religious pluralism, both the psychology and sociology of religion developed as distinctive areas of concentration within the emerging social sciences. Pioneering scholars would attempt overviews of the different new religions. Favored targets were commonly independent African American groups such as Father Divine's Peace Mission and the Church of God and Saints of Christ; proselytizing Christian sectarian groups including Jehovah's Witnesses and Seventh-day Adventists; and alternative religions with distinctive practices, among them Spiritualism and Christian Science. The new Pentecostal movement with its unfamiliar practice of speaking in tongues spread across America just as observers were trying to make sense of Spiritualist séances, metaphysical healing, and occult fortune-telling.

The first generation of scholarly comment on new religions range from the rather empathetic remarks of William James in his classic, The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), to the caustic ridicule heaped on the Pentecostals by James' Harvard College colleague, George B. Cutten, in his Speaking with Tongues: Historically and Psychologically Considered (1927).

Prior to the 1950s, the study of "cults" was a fringe topic. Only a few scholars showed any long-term interest in the subject, and only a handful of Christian scholars wrote more than a single book on the topic. Among the few titles that attempted to go beyond a negative reductionist approach to the various groups and adopt, with relative success, an understanding of them as valid religious expressions that needed to be understood in their own right were Elmer T. Clark's The Psychology of Religious Awakening (1929); Louis R. Binder's Modern Religious Cults and Society (1933); and Arthur Huff Fauset's Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North (1944). Among those who denounced the heretical teachings of the groups was Reformed Church minister Jan Karel Van Baalen, whose Chaos of the Cults first appeared in 1938. His somewhat careful study of the teachings of the "cults" was motivated by a desire to show how untenable they were in the light of Protestant orthodoxy.

The largely negative approach to the alternative religious groups was firmly established in the 1930s. The search for a rationale to explain why religious groups, outside of the limited pluralism marked by the major American denominations, could attract a followingalbeit a minority onedominated scholarly writing of the era. Attraction to the new religions was seen as a product of economic, social, and educational deprivation, if not actually linked to ill-defined psychological disturbances.


A transition from the earlier, more negative approach to new religions occurred in the two decades following World War II. In England, sociologist Bryan Wilson (19262004) began to look at what he termed sectarian religion. Following a format already applied to the more familiar churches, both state-sponsored and free, Wilson began to explore the different behavior and theologies proposed by individual sects and ask questions about the social organization of those groups then visible in England, North America, and Africa. His work, published in several books through the 1960s, led to a system of classifying sects according to the variant paths to salvation they outlined for their members:

  • conversionist,
  • revolutionist,
  • introversionist,
  • manipulationist,
  • thamaturgical,
  • reformist,
  • and utopian.

In a similar vein, church historian Elmer Clark, surveying American groups, classified them according to their dominant organizational thrust, thus finding sects that were:

  • pessimistic (or adventist),
  • perfectionist (or subjectivist),
  • charismatic (or pentecostal),
  • communistic,
  • legalistic (or objectivists),
  • egocentric (the New Thought groups),
  • and esoteric (or mystical).

It is to be noted that both Wilson and Clark developed their classification schema apart from the emerging distinction between sect and cult, and both included in their discussion some groups that would later be seen as sects (Salvation Army, Christadelphians) and those thought of as "new religions" (Christian Science, Jehovah's Witnesses) under the single rubric of sects. This approach had the benefit of allowing consideration of some otherwise orthodox Christian groups that evidenced out-of-the-ordinary behavior, such as speaking in tongues, contemporary revelations, communalism, and apocalypticism.

Joining Wilson and Clark was Marcus Bach, one of the first faculty members of the University of Iowa's pioneering religious-studies department. Bach was the first to teach a class on new religions and to invite members of the groups under discussion to come into his class and speak to students. He would go on to author a number of books with catchy titles, such as Strange Sects and Curious Cults (1906), that nevertheless offered the general public a factual and empathetic entrance into the life of groups such as the Amish, the Doukhobors, the Hutterites, and Father Divine's Peace Mission.

Whereas Clark's and Bach's influence was largely through their books, Wilson emerged as the teacher of a new generation of British scholars, mostly sociologists, who began in the 1970s to make the study of new religions their primary research field. His students, including Roy Wallis, and others inspired by his example, such as Eileen Barker and James Beckford, would arrive on the scene just as interest turned to emerging studies about Japan and its religious sects.

As a new generation of scholars in North America and Europe were absorbing Clark and Wilson, the Japanese religious community was in some turmoil. Nearly a century of suppression of Japan's diverse religions ended decisively with the introduction of American-style religious freedom in 1945. Over the next decade, a number of religious groups appeared seemingly out of nowhere. Attempting to make some sense of the phenomena, scholars soon discovered three different types of groups: some that had assumed a low profile during the Meiji era; others that had disbanded but were reconstituted after 1945; and a few that were entirely new. Scholars also saw that new groups were emerging at a steady pace. During the 1960s, Western scholars of Japanese religion like Harry Thomsen and H. Neill McFarland produced the first English-language texts about the shin shūkyō, or "new religions" of Japan.

The Emergence of New Religions Study

The books from Japan offered Western scholars a much-needed tool: a new language with which to discuss the numerous, outside-the-mainstream alternative religions that had become their focus in the 1970s. At this time, some older, unfamiliar religious groups joined a number of recently introduced movements to create a new alternative religious milieu, and many found the term borrowed from the Japanese, "new religions," appropriate to describe these recently visible movements elsewhere. Scholars sought distance from the older terms of "sect"which in Europe had been used to describe so many groups that it hindered analysisand "cult," which had in America taken on a decidedly negative connotation. While not altogether fitting terms, "new religion" and "new religious movement" (NRM) nevertheless gradually replaced the previous terminology, especially the term cult.

Leading the way in the appropriation of Japanese religious studies in the English-speaking world was Robert S. Ellwood, who emerged in the 1970s as one of the leading new religions scholars. He drew upon his own training in Eastern religions to produce a set of early theoretical texts including Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (1973), The Eagle and the Rising Sun: Americans and the New Religions of Japan (1974), and Alternative Altars: Unconventional and Eastern Spirituality in America (1979), and an early study of Tenrikyo (a Japanese new religion) in 1982.

A secondary origin for the term New Religion has also been suggested. In 1970, San Francisco Bay Area scholar Jacob Needleman authored a book titled The New Religions, which his colleagues began to use to describe the emergence of so many unfamiliar alternative religions within the counterculture at the end of the 1960s. Needleman found special significance in Zen Buddhism, the followers of Meher Baba, Subud, Transcendental Meditation, Krishnamurti, Tibetan Buddhism, and G. I. Gurdjieff. He also went beyond the largely descriptive work from Japan, and invited readers to consider the philosophical/theological questions about the nature of genuine spirituality.

In the mid-1970s, a group of scholars in the Bay Area became the center for the initial studies of new religions, and a number of books flowed from a well-funded project they initiated. The works most closely associated with the study are The New Religious Consciousness (1977), edited by Charles T. Glock and Robert N. Bellah; Robert Wuthnow's Experimentation in American Religion (1978); and Steven Tipton's Getting Saved from the Sixties (1982). In 1977, the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, received a Rockefeller Grant that allowed the school to host a large conference on new religious movements, the papers of which appeared in 1978 as Understanding the New Religions, edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker. Understanding the New Religions summarized the consensus prior to the deaths at Jonestown that would set a whole new agenda for scholars.

As scholars in both England and the United States pursued their initial studies of the new religions, a second important social phenomenon was also emerging: the cult awareness movement. This movement was fueled by in part by the large number of college-age youths who had joined various new religions, and the subsequent concern of parents that their sons and daughters were too deeply involved in what were viewed as cult-like movements. Parents found some early support from various psychological counselors, lawyers, and law-enforcement officials. Through the 1970s, scholars followed the development of the cult awareness movement with some concern relative to its effects on issues of religious freedom, concerns that were heightened by the introduction of coercive deprogramming. Members of a spectrum of new religions were being taken into custody, held against their will, and placed under rather strong psychological pressure to renounce and withdraw from the group they had joined.

The leadership of the cult awareness movement sought justification for the necessity of kidnapping and deprogramming the offspring of concerned parents. Such a rationale appeared during the trial of millionaire heiress Patty Hearst in 1976. Hearst's lawyer, F. Lee Bailey (1933), argued that Hearst, who had participated in a bank robbery some months after being captured and held by the Symbionese Liberation Army, had been brainwashed. Though unable to prevent her conviction, two of the psychologists that had worked with Bailey, Louis J. West (19251999) from the University of California-Los Angeles and Margaret Singer (19212003), a psychologist in private practice in Berkeley, began to apply the same argument to members of the new religionsthat they were being brainwashed and, in effect, held against their will. They found additional support from Massachusetts psychiatrist John Clark (19261999).

The reality of the Jonestown deaths in 1978, and the introduction of the brainwashing hypothesis into the conversations would dominate new religions studies for the next decade. The debate would go on largely without the participation of the primary exponents of brainwashing, for West, Singer, and Clark rarely appeared at scholarly gatherings to defend their ideas, and they did not respond directly to their scholarly critics. In fact, discussion of the issues was substantially hindered because the primary statements concerning the reputed brainwashing in the new religions were made in hard-to-retrieve court depositions and testimony. Despite the obstacles, by the mid-1980s a consensus had been reached in the major relevant academic associations that brainwashing, as articulated primarily in court by Margaret Singer, had no basis in fact. That position was argued by the likes of psychologists Dick Anthony and Newton Maloney, sociologists Eileen Barker, Tom Robbins, and James T. Richardson, and others.

The brainwashing issue would lead to the establishment of a Task Force within the American Psychological Association to prepare a statement concerning the new approach to brainwashing. That Task Force's 1987 report was unanimously rejected by the reviewers. The publicizing of the rejection letter largely ended the debate over brainwashing in academia and several years later, with supportive documents by Dick Anthony and Rutgers psychiatrist Perry London, the idea and its exponents failed to make their case convincingly before the court, most notably in the case of United States v. Fishman (1990), in which a former Scientologist claimed his "brainwashing" in Scientology as a factor leading to his embezzling bank funds. Though the idea of brainwashing still appears in the occasional court case, new religions in North America no longer fear accusations of brainwashing as a major concern and the practice of coercive deprogramming was largely replaced with non-coercive exit counseling. (Brainwashing ideas remain alive in some European countries like France and Spain and deprogramming still occurs in Japan.)

The brainwashing controversy, though a diversion from the agenda set in the 1970s for studying new religions, had several important effects. Firstly, it brought a number of people to the field, and during the 1980s the Association for the Sociology of Religion, the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and the American Academy of Religion developed tracks for papers on new religions. At the same time, as a significant percentage of research on new religions was devoted to dealing with the controversy, a relatively small number of new religions became the focus of numerous studies. These groups, less than two dozen in number, had been threatened with legal action due to accusations of brainwashing. As a result, the majority of the new religions were looked at only cursorily. The early neglect of the hundreds of new religions also meant that the development of overall understandings of the field initially lagged.

The decisive rejection of brainwashing as a theory by the scholarly associations and the courts had its most dramatic impact on the cult awareness community. Unable to call upon its stable of experts to defend its actions, a court rendered a $1 million judgment against the Cult Awareness Network following a deprogramming incident in Seattle in 1995, forcing it into bankruptcy and dissolution. By this time, the majority of new religious movements scholars had moved on to other concerns. Professionals who supported the brainwashing theory subsequently launched personal attacks against major new religions scholars whom they labeled "cult apologists." Attempts to revive the brainwashing theory in the late 1990s by several sociologists have found little positive response from the majority of scholars who study new religions.

Picking up the Study

While the brainwashing controversy in the 1980s diverted significant energy, new religions studies did continue, and through the 1970s and 1980s considerable progress was made. Among the most important trends was the gradual dismantling of the definition of "cult/new religion" which scholars had been using since the 1950s. Sociologists such as J. Milton Yinger had suggested back then that cults were small, ephemeral groups, led by a charismatic leader to whom a cosmic status and/or various supernatural abilities had been assigned, and which operated in a different theological world than that of the dominant mainstream religions.

As early as 1969, Geoffrey Nelson's work on British Spiritualism pointed out that new religions were not ephemeral, one-generation phenomena. A variety of subsequent work pointed out that the role of charismatic leaders had been overestimated (Miller, 1991). In this regard, scholars undercut one of the most persistent ideas about new religions: that the death of a founder was a major trauma that tended to cause his or her group to fragment or dissolve entirely. This notion was further dispelled as many new religions passed through their first generation, were seen to splinter over a variety of reasons, but managed the death of their founder with relative ease. In like measure, the other elements of the old definition did not fit many of the prominent new religions of the 1970s and 1980s.

Since the beginning of the twenty-first century, scholars such as David G. Bromley, Eileen Barker, and J. Gordon Melton have turned their attention to reconstructing definitions of the new religions. Bromley has emphasized their nature as breaking with the dominant religious culture of the society and their alienation from its power structures. Barker has emphasized the special characteristics that first-generation religious groups tend to share. Melton has emphasized the manner in which new religions, in spite of their obvious innovations, tend to perpetuate the life of older religious traditions out of which they had emerged. Thus contemporary definitions of new religions see them as groups that operate both socially and culturally outside the mainstream of society while seeking to continue or revitalize an older tradition. During their first generation they tend to share certain characteristics relative to leadership, membership profiles, and a response to basic organizational imperatives, though operating out of different theologies and advocating different practices.

Additional Developments

While much energy was placed on discussing brainwashing, the field of new religions studies matured along several contemporaneous parallel tracks in the latter half of the twentieth century. One of the first manifestations of this maturity was the publication of significant reference books in the 1970s, which were needed to support the emerging new field of study. The regularly updated Encyclopedia of American Religions, which includes an entry on all of the new religions known to be operating in North America, was first published in 1979 and was in its seventh edition just a quarter-century later. Through the 1980s, Garland Publishing issued a set of bibliographies on new religions, culminating in two outstanding volumes by John Saliba which covered research in the social and psychological sciences (1987, 1990). Meanwhile, in Japan scholars associated with the Association for the Study of Religion and Society produced an expansive dictionary of Japanese new religions, Shinshûkyô jiten (1990).

Specialized reference works on new religions appeared as well. These include works by Peter Clark (A Bibliography of Japanese New Religious Movements, 1999); James R. Lewis (The Encyclopedia of Cults and New Religions, 2002); and Christopher Partridge (New Religions: A Guide, 2004). Massimo Introvigne and his colleagues at the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin, Italy, compiled a large volume on religions that, like its American counterpart, covered all the new religions operating in Italy (Encyclopedia delle Religioni in Italia, 2001). In a singularly important volume, in 1993 David Bromley and Jeffrey Hadden compiled a set of papers from a broadly representative set of new religions scholars surveying the field, The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America.

Parallel to the development of reference works in the scholarly study of new religions was the rise in the number of academic conferences in the field. In the 1980s, several such conferences were sponsored by the Unification Church, though later abandoned by the Church in favor of other programs. Through the rest of that decade, the various academic societies concerned with religion, especially the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and the American Academy of Religion, created space on their annual programs for papers on new religions. In 1989, the Center for Studies on New Religions began to sponsor annual international conferences that alternated between Europe and the Americas. Within a decade these conferences were attracting between one and two hundred attendees.

The Institute for the Study of American Religion (ISAR), founded in 1968, was the first research facility founded to focus upon what would later be called new religions. In the 1980s, however, similar institutes would also emerge, most noticeably the Center for the Study of New Religions (1982), headed by Peter Clarke at Kings College, London; the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM, 1988), headed by Eileen Barker and headquartered at the London School of Economics; and the aforementioned Center for Studies of New Religions (CESNUR, 1988) in Turin, Italy. These centers would, through the 1990s, give birth to a spectrum of institutes and study centers across Europe. Several research centers emerged in Japan as well.

The work of these centers includes the archiving of materials produced by and about the new religions. The largest such archive is included in the American Religions Collection that began in 1985 with the deposit of ISAR's library and files at the Davidson Library at the University of California's Santa Barbara campus. CESNUR houses a similar collection in Turin. Other equally valuable collections, many with local emphases, were under development in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Of particular interest are the specialized collections housed by organizations such as the Jonestown Institute, founded by Rebecca Moore and Fielding McGehee III, in San Diego, which has gathered an extensive collection related to the Peoples Temple.

Fields within Fields

New religions studies emerged and continues to exist in contested space. It examines religions that challenge society's dominant religious institutions. Along with questions about the legitimacy of many new religions have been questions about the legitimacy of academic study of some controversial groups. Several well-known groups advocate ideas and practices that the general public perceives to be beyond merely "different"; they are strange in the extreme and even threatening to the social order and individual well-being. A few groups have been involved in violent incidents involving multiple homicides and/or suicides. A number have engaged in illegal activities, from fraud to smuggling to confidence schemes. At the same time, groups in different countries have been subjected to government regulation and even suppression despite their lack of direct association with harmful or illegal activity. Above and beyond their being targeted by cult awareness groups, because of their fringe-like status NRMs have occasionally been caught up in waves of social panic and become victims of guilt by association.

Through the last decades of twentieth century, the study of new religions proceeded within the context of a steady stream of public controversy, and the lines between research and the response to such controversy was often blurred. In the mid-1980s, for example, new religions scholars were called upon to deal with a wave of interest in Satanism. Prompted by the rise of the Church of Satan in San Francisco in the 1960s, the study of Satanism had been part of the first phase of NRM studies in the 1970s. In the 1980s, however, hundreds of claims emerged that a widespread, secretive Satanic movement characterized by the ritual abuse of children existed. The primary evidence for this movement proved to be a set of reports by people undergoing psychological counseling. In the course of such counseling, they began to "remember" events from their childhood and teen years that they had forgotten. At the same time, similar reports were emerging among UFO investigators of alien abductions and medical examinations. Both appeared in the context of widespread attention to the problem of child abuse and new legislative initiatives aimed at its prevention.

Given the inability of law-enforcement officials and investigative reporters to find corroborative evidence of widespread Satanism, new religions scholars, with their own knowledge of the world of religious Satanism, rather quickly reached a consensus on the falsity of such reports, at least relative to their satanic content. Their findings, published in books by Jean La Fontaine in the United Kingdom and Jeffrey S. Victor, James T. Richardson, Joel Best, and David Bromley in the United States, contributed significantly to ending the public controversy.

The late 1990s saw a rising level of attention to millennialism, a perennial subject within new religions, and the possible role that the arrival of the twenty-first century would have on different religious groups. Millennial beliefs have often been associated with intense confrontations between new religions and society; two oft-quoted precedents were the sixteenth-century Anabaptists at Münster, Germany, and the Fifth Monarchy Men in England. New considerations of millennialism were provided by a group within the American Academy of Religions and several other research projects, such as the Boston-based Center for Millennial Studies. Initial speculation on the confluence of millennialism and violence was followed by closer analysis of the more widespread and peaceful millennial movements, especially in the wake of the non-event of the end of the millennium in 1999.

Interest in Satanism and millennialism closely paralleled the subject that became the major focus of NRM studies after the end of the brainwashing controversy: violence. The incident involving Jim Jones's Peoples Temple at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978 had generated some interest in violence, but was seen as a singular incident with little reference to the larger world of new religions. The Peoples Temple, however interesting otherwise, had been a congregation in a large Christian denomination, the Disciples of Christ, and its membership was predominantly older African Americans. In contrast, many new religions, especially the more controversial ones, consisted largely of Caucasian young adults.

The issue of violence and new religions, however, changed considerably after the deaths of the majority of the members of the Branch Davidians at Mount Carmel, their church center near Waco, Texas, in 1993. In 1994, an all-day symposium on violence and new religions was held in conjunction with the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion's annual fall meeting. As facts about the role played by associates of the Cult Awareness Network in both the initiation of the raid on Mount Carmel and the conduct during the subsequent fifty-one-day siege, new religions scholars became more vocal in attempting to communicate with law-enforcement officials, especially those within the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), in hopes of averting any future reoccurrence. Eventually, a series of meetings were held, the FBI began to send observers to the annual meetings of the American Academy of Religion, and numerous individual contacts between FBI agents and individual scholars took place.

The changes that flowed from the Branch Davidian incident occurred in the context of a set of subsequent episodes of violence involving groups such as the Solar Temple in Switzerland, France, and Quebec (1994, 1995, 1997), Aum Shinrikyō in Japan (1995), Heaven's Gate in the United States (1997), and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda (2000). Each of these occurrences, unique in their own right, generated significant reconsideration of the possible connection between life within new religions and these large-scale violent events. Taking the lead in such reconsideration was Catherine Wessinger, who proposed new ways of looking at the role of millennialism and called attention to the fragility and instability within some groups that pushed them toward violent confrontations. Wessinger's How the Millennium Comes Violently (2000) set the stage for a second round of discussions brought together by David G. Bromley and J. Gordon Melton and published in 2002 as Cults, Religion & Violence. Between the appearance of the two books, a heretofore little known radical Islamist group, al-Qāʿidah, in its attack on the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., and New York City's World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, provided the foundation for future ongoing discussions. Contributing to the Bromley-Melton volume was John R. Hall, who continued his seminal discussion of the close association of religion in general to violence as also developed in two books, Gone from the Promised Land: Jonestown in American Cultural History (1987), one of the more perceptive volumes on Jonestown, and Apocalypse Observed: Religious Movements and Violence in North America and Europe and Japan (2000), a book he co-authored with Philip D. Schuyler and Sylvaine Trinh.

Legal Perspectives

Through the 1970s and 1980s, scholars assumed that new religions were an American concern, a peculiar product of the social unrest of the 1960s, especially in California. Such attitudes began to change by the end of the 1980s as the widespread presence of new religions in Europe and other parts of the world was recognized, and as the history of the gradual rise of religious pluralism throughout the world in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was more fully documented. And as the spread of a more radical religious pluralism was recognized, new religions became the target of numerous legal actions.

In the 1970s, questions about the legitimacy of the new religions were raised by associations of parents in the United States whose members were angry at their sons and daughters who had been swept into an alternative religious life, often at the cost of hoped-for careers in business or the professions. Their search for a solution to their dilemma provided the context for the emergence of deprogramming and the brainwashing ideas that supported it. Proponents of brainwashing charged that the new religions took away the ability of recruits to make informed choices about joining. Some went so far as to suggest that new religions were not religions (in any legal sense) at all, but were merely con games in which leaders brainwashed and exploited members for personal financial gain.

Legal cases between new religions and their detractors began in the 1970s, and by the end of the decade it was determined that civil court provided the best venue for litigating parental concerns. Then, during the 1980s, a number of multimillion-dollar lawsuits were filed against new religions by former group members who had been deprogrammed; they sought redress and damages as a result of having undergone brainwashing. While almost all the judgments were reversed on appeal, juries seemed eager to deliver a series of decisions against unpopular new religions such as the Church of Scientology, the Church Universal and Triumphant, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, and the Unification Church.

Deprogramming, brainwashing, and the court cases of the 1980s provided an abundance of material for legal speculation. James T. Richardson, a professor at the University of Nevada with degrees and appointments in both sociology and law, emerged in the early 1980s as the leading scholar offering legal reflections on new religions. His 1983 book, The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy: Sociological, Psychological, Legal, and Historical Perspectives, co-edited with David G. Bromley, is an important document of the era. Subsequently Richardson has remained at the forefront of writing about and focusing dialogue on the legal status of new religions globally.

During the 1990s, with the new legal era brought on by the Fishman decision in the United States, much of the legal news on new religions shifted to Europe, where, as James Beckford so ably noted in his 1985 text, Cult Controversies, intense debates (minus the brainwashing element) paralleled those in the United States. But then, following the Solar Temple deaths in 1994, the French government moved first to establish a parliamentary commission that in 1996 issued a report condemning a number of new religions, and some 172 groups were placed on a list of "sects." The primary accusation was their practicing "mental manipulation," a term that signaled the introduction of brainwashing theory into Europe from the United States. A year later the Canton of Geneva, in French-speaking Switzerland, issued a similar decree, followed by a 600-page report from Belgium, which singled out some 189 groups. The Belgian document included, somewhat surprisingly for American scholars, the Young Women's Christian Association, the Assemblies of God, and the Quakers.

These first reports were then followed by a second wave of reports from, among others, the General Direction of the Police with the Italian Ministry of Internal Affairs, the commission established by the German parliament, and the government of Sweden. The more reflective tone of these documents backed away in part from the brainwashing theory and found little that was sinister in new religions overall. Meanwhile in France, Belgium, and several other countries, steps were taken to stop the progress of new religions by the establishment of official cult observatories, and in the case of France the passing of a series of anticult laws.

The dialogues within the government of Western Europe were followed by discussions and an array of actions in the lands of the former Soviet bloc of nations, where in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union, new religions had quickly and visibly proliferated. Governments found themselves caught between the still-dominant voices of religious secularists, leaders of older churches asking for the return of pre-Communist privileges, and demands for the implementation of Western-style religious freedoms. The different governments made an array of accommodations to these voices that found common ground in their dislike of the missionaries of the new religions. Meanwhile, new religions studies have emerged as a prominent focus of post-Soviet countries in Eastern and Central Europe.

The changes in Europe continue to provide fertile ground for scholars of new religions who, sharing a bias toward religious freedom as the foundational issue, have written extensively about the prospects and promises in the post-Soviet era. Many of these insights have been drawn together in two edited volumes: Phillip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins' The Future of New Religions in the 21st Century (2004), and James T. Richardson's Regulating Religion: Case Studies from Around the Globe (2004).

Family Life

As first-generation new religions, whose membership consisted almost totally of young adult converts, evolved into second-generation new religions, concern was expressed about children born and raised in such settings. Critics suggested a range of potential problems, including their alienation from culture and society to their being physically and psychologically harmed by growing up in a cult milieu. Concern was punctuated by occasional reports of child abuse, usually the beating of a minor by a group leader who was not the child's parent. On a rare occasion, a child died as a result of such beatings.

However, the situation of children in new religions gained a new level of attention in the early 1990s when widespread charges of sexual abuse emerged around The Family, a group that had earlier called itself the Children of God. In the early 1990s, Family homes in several countries, most notably France, Spain, Argentina, and Australia, were raided and the minors taken into custody by child-welfare officials while legal charges were prepared against the adults. A series of lengthy court proceedings followed, culminating in a child-custody case in England. Though the defendants in each of the cases stemming from the raids were found not guilty, and the Family-member mother in the child-custody case retained legal custody, it emerged that in the 1980s a number of young peopleoverwhelmingly teenage womenhad been molested while in Family homes. The Family, however, between the time the molestations had occurred and the court cases, had taken steps to change the environment that permitted such abuse and, as it happened, those taken into custody in the raids were not the individuals accused of molesting the minors. The revelations of the Family's problems were followed by similar disclosures coming out of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness, which in the 1970s had operated a school in Texas that included pedophiles on its staff.

The British custody dispute, which became the lengthiest legal case in the history of Britain's family court system, called attention to the variant roles assumed by women and children in some new religions with strong male hierarchical organizations. However, even prior to this time, scholars had noticed that new religions had become an arena for women who were shut out of traditional leadership roles in older Christian and Jewish groups to exercise their leadership skills. One such study is Catherine Wessinger's Women's Leadership in Marginal Religions: Explorations outside the Mainstream (1993).

It would be Canadian new religions scholar Susan J. Palmer, however, an expert witness in the Family's British court case, who would in the mid-1990s seize the issue of women's and children's diverse life within new religions and launch a collaborative effort with other concerned scholars to pursue study of the issue. Turning first to the role of women, she wrote Moon Sisters, Krishna Mothers, Rajneesh Lovers: Women's Roles in New Religions (1994) and then several years later, with co-editor Charlotte E. Hardeman, issued Children in the New Religions (1999).

Western Esotericism

As the twenty-first century began, a new issue has been placed on the agenda of new religions scholars by Sorbonne professor Antoine Faivre: Western Esotericism. Esoteric/metaphysical/occult groups have been considered in new religions studies from the beginning. One of the earliest popular essays in new religions, Colin Campbell's "The Cult, the Cultic Milieu and Secularization" (1972), grew out of his observation of the British occult community, and a large number of writings appeared in the 1990s which attempted to understand the New Age movement. The problem in writing about such groups, in spite of early works such as J. Stillson Judah's The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America (1967) and additional works on the common history of such movements, has been their tendency to treat esoteric bodies as isolated organizations without a history prior to their particular founding.

Faivre, and those who gathered around him such as Joscelyn Godwin and Wouter Hanegraaff, have compiled a picture of an alternative religious impulse in the West that has had a near-continuous presence at least since the second century ce and has grown steadily over the last four centuries. In fact, the largest percentage of the new religionsincluding Theosophical Society, Scientology, Wicca, New Age (1970s and 1980s) and Post-New Age (1990s to the present) groupsare generally contemporary manifestations of the Esoteric tradition.

Of the world's major religious movements, the Western Esoteric tradition has remained the least known, in large part due to its role as a losing competitor to Christianity, resulting in its dismissal as serious religion in recent centuries. The modern revival of Esotericism can be traced to the beginning of the sixteenth century and the development of a Christian Qabbalah by Johann Rauchlin (14551522). Its subsequent history can be traced through Rosicrucianism, Speculative Freemasonry, the Swedenborgian movement, the Mesmerist and Magnetist movements, neo-Templarism, Spiritualism, Ceremonial Magic, Theosophy and its many offshoots (Alice Bailey, I AM), Wicca, and most recently the New Age Movement.

In the mid-1980s Faivre founded the Association pour la Recherche et l'Information sur l'Esotericisme and its journal ARIES. In the late 1990s, with Faivre nearing retirement, the association's work was transferred to Amsterdam, where Hanegraaff headed a new department of esoteric studies. By this time, the field had grown exponentially, and early in the new century, two new structures arose to perpetuate esoteric studies both in England (Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies, or ASANAS) and North America (Association for the Study of Esotericism).

Western Esoteric studies now exists as a subfield its own right. When it concentrates on Esoteric history, it resonates the least with new religions studies. Yet because all contemporary esoteric groups would fall under the rubric of "new religion," when Western esoteric studies turns its attention to the twentieth century, the two fields are almost indistinguishable.


In the first four decades of its existence, the academic field of new religions grew from a handful of scholars who in the 1960s decided that these interesting groups then proliferating on the fringes of Japanese, North American, and European societies were important enough to enjoy more than sporadic cursory glances. At the onset of the twenty-first century there were several hundred scholars around the world who were devoting the majority of their research time to this field of inquiry. To a certain extent, the progress since the 1960s can be traced in the series of new religions text books produced over the decades by Robert Ellwood (1973), David Bromley and Anson Shupe (1981), Gordon Melton and Robert Moore (1982), Melton (1986, 1992), Timothy Miller (1995), Eileen Barker (1989), John Saliba (1995, 2003), William Sims Bainbridge (1998), James R. Lewis (1998), Lorne Dawson (1998), and most recently, Stephen J. Hunt (2003).

The study of new religions has been a bulwark in countering the more extreme conclusions of secularization theory, offered new approaches for governments in dealing with controversial groups that have disturbed the social quiet of some societies, and has begun to see the naturalness of the emergence of innovative religious experiments as societies grow and change. Born in part in the times of social turmoil in postwar Japan and the generation of Baby Boomers coming of age in America, new religions studies has expended considerable energy to map the presence of NRMs through time and space, indicating their steady emergence through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the process, more than a thousand new religions operating in the West have been documented and several dozen examined in considerable depth.

In the process, some consensus has been reached concerning issues such as brainwashing, Satanism, and the fact of religious pluralism as part of the long-term future of contemporary society, though, as a young field of inquiry, far more questions have been posed and remain to be posed than have been answered.

See Also

Anticult Movements; Brainwashing (Debate); Branch Davidians; Cults and Sects; Esotericism; Heaven's Gate; Jonestown and Peoples Temple; Millenarianism, overview article; Secularization; Unification Church.


Listed below is a highly selective list of some of the important titles produced by scholars of new religions. Many of the textbooks cover much of the same ground though differing whether from a social science (Bainbridge, Barker, Dawson) or religious studies (Ellwood, Lewis, Melton, Saliba) perspective. Many of the volumes are anthologies, chosen for the spectrum of opinion they present on a problem of high interest in the field of new religions studies (Bromley and Melton, Palmer and Hardmann, Richardson). Finally, a set of foundational studies in Western esotericism have been cited (Faivre, Godwin, Judah).

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

Barker, Eileen. The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing? New York, 1984.

Barker, Eileen. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London, 1989.

Bromley, David G., and James T. Richardson, eds. The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy. Lewiston, N.Y., 1983.

Bromley, David G., and Jeffrey Hadden. The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America. Greenwich, Conn., 1993.

Bromley, David G., and J. Gordon Melton, eds. Cults, Religion and Violence. New York, 2002.

Clark, Elmer T. Small Sects in America. Nashville, Tenn., 1949.

Clarke, Peter B. Bibliography of Japanese New Religions, with Annotations and an Introduction to Japanese New Religions at Home and Abroad. Richmond, U.K., 1999.

Dawson, Lorne L. Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements. Toronto, Ont., 1998.

Ellwood, Robert S. Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1973.

Ellwood, Robert S. The Eagle and the Rising Sun: Americans and the New Religions of Japan. Philadelphia, 1974.

Faivre, Antoine. Theosophy, Imagination, Tradition: Studies in Western Esotericism. Albany, N.Y., 2000.

Godwin, Joscelyn. The Theosophical Enlightenment. Albany, N.Y., 1994.

Hunt, Stephen J. Alternative Religions: A Sociological Introduction. Aldershot, U.K. 2003.

Introvigne, Massimo, et al. Enciclopedia delle religioni in Italia. Turin, 2001.

Judah, J. Stillson. The History and Philosophy of the Metaphysical Movements in America. Philadelphia, 1967.

Lewis, James R. Cults in America. Santa Barbara, Calif., 1998.

Melton, J. Gordon. Encyclopedia of American Religions. 7th ed. Detroit, Mich., 2003.

Miller, Timothy, ed. When Prophets Die: The Post Charismatic Fate of New Religious Movements. Albany, N.Y., 1991.

Miller, Timothy, ed. America's Alternative Religions. Albany, N.Y., 1995.

Needleman, Jacob. The New Religions. New York, 1969.

Nelson, Geoffrey K. Spiritualism and Society. London, 1969.

Palmer, Susan J., and Charlotte E. Hardman, eds. Children in New Religions. New Brunswick, N.J., 1999.

Richardson, James T. Regulating Religion: Case Studies from around the Globe. New York, 2003.

Saliba, John A. Psychiatry and the Cults: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1987.

Saliba, John A. Social Science and the Cults: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1990.

Van Baalen, Jan Karel. The Chaos of Cults. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1938.

Wessinger, Catherine. How the Millennium Comes Violently: From Jonestown to Heaven's Gate. New York, 2000.

Wilson, Bryan. Sects and Society: A Sociological Study of Three Religious Groups in Britain. London, 1961.

Wilson, Bryan, and Jamie Cresswell, eds. New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response. London, 1999.

J. Gordon Melton (2005)

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