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New Religious Movements


New Religious Movements is a label covering a broad spectrum of world-wide spiritual ferment that has been especially pronounced since the 1960s. Use of the expression has partially superceded the terms "sect" or "cult" in reference to non-mainline religious movementsalthough the latter (more pejorative) terms are still widely used in public discourse.

The discussion of new religious movement (NRMs) in this article is restricted to North America. However, NRMs are a world-wide phenomena by no means confined to the United States. A wide variety of both indigenous and imported NRMs have flourished globally in the postWorld War II era, especially in Latin America, Africa, and Japan. While it is not possible to gage accurately the total number of individuals involved in these movements, the scale on which they have emerged since the 1960s is unique.

NRMs in North America vary considerably in size, in theological and organizational characteristics, and in their spiritual techniques, therapies and rituals. They can be grouped into three broad categories:

1. Movements of a non-Christian, non-Western derivation: Buddhist groups (Zen, Nichiren Shoshu, Tantrism), hare krishna (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), transcendental meditation (Science of Creative Intelligence), Meher Baba, and other Hindu-derived guru groups.

2. Christian or Neo-Christian groups: Charismatics/neo-Pentecostals, the unification church (Moonies), groups associated with the Jesus Movement (Alamo Foundation, Children of God), the Way Ministry, the conservative/fundamentalism New Religious Right, televangelist ministries, Roman Catholic Traditionalists.

3. Religio-therapeutic self-help groups derivative of transpersonal psychology and the human potential movement that syncretistically combine traditional and eclectic elements of religious language, symbolism, and discipline (scientology, est, Arica, Eckankar and various new age groups).

Aside from the above categories, NRMs have also been grouped according to leadership style, organizational characteristics, and whether or not their theologies are monistic or dualistic, world rejecting, world affirming, or world accommodating.

Although it has been common practice to refer to the above groups as "new" religious movements, many were neither new as religious phenomenon nor new to the American culture. The Hare Krishna movement was brought to the United States in 1965 by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. The beliefs of the movement, however, derive from a bhakti tradition founded by Sri Caitanya in Bengal, India, in the 16th century. Other Buddhist and Hindu-derived movements popularized in the 1960s had earlier penetrated American culture through the initiatives of individuals such as Swami Vivekananda, Madame Blavatsky, Soyen Shaku, Shigetsu Sasaki, Paranahansa Yogananda, and others. Ethnic-based Eastern religions had also taken root in American society long before popular interest in these traditions surfaced during the 1960s and 1970s. The New Religious Right also had clear historical lineage in early 20th century Protestant fundamentalism.

The "new" aspects of NRMs in the 1960s and 1970s applied to their unexpected growth in the face of secularization (especially the assumption that supernaturalism was outmoded and dying); the fact that many such movementsespecially the counter-culture and quasi-therapeutic groupsappealed to a youthful constituency, which was predominantly middle-class, affluent, college-educated and which had not been traditionally associated with marginal religious movements; the manner in which NRMs offered religious cosmologies with unique combinations of theological or cultural elements that in themselves were familiar; and where NRMs were based on religious forms of another culture or where they expressed a radical shift in American cultural values.

Two aspects of NRMS have received widespread attention. The first concerns assessment of the social and historical factors that facilitate the rise of such movements. The second concerns explicating the dynamics of recruitment and commitment by which NRMs form and sustain their membership.

The Rise of New Religious Movements. Religious movements seem to arise where dominant religious institutions are internally unstable, where theological innovation is possible, where charismatic leadership is present, where the socio-political climate fosters religious liberty and expressiveness, and where the normative meaning and plausibility structures of a society have been weakened.

Historians generally interpreted the proliferation of NRMs in the 1960s and 1970s as a manifestation of the religious enthusiasm that periodically alters the American religious landscape. These outbreaks of religious effervescence ("Great Awakenings") give expression to the realignment of religion and culture brought about by revitalization tendencies within religious traditions themselves, and by socio-cultural adjustments attending modernization.

The rise of NRMs has also been linked to the dynamics of secularization. According to this view, religious history is dominated by cycles rather than by a linear trend toward increasing secularity. The staying power of religion lies in the fact that individuals continue to need supernaturally based "compensators" for rewards that are scarce, inequitably distributed, or materially unattainable. Thus, most individuals do not respond to new social and cultural problems by abandoning religion, but by developing religious innovations or new religions on the ruins of the old, especially where mainline religions have moved in the direction of secularization and cultural accommodation. Viewed from this perspective, secularization is a self-limiting process that actually stimulates the rise of NRMs.

A different interpretation, more in keeping with the traditional assessment that secularization has a corrosive effect on religion, holds that NRMs are a manifestation of, rather than a response to, secularization. Counter culture and religio-therapeutic groups in particular are derided as contrived, artificial, and bizarre phenomena that point to the triviality of religion in modern society. These movements give expression to the structural differentiation of religion and to its reduction to the status of a packaged and marketed consumer item in contemporary culture. Such groups are said to manifest ritualized traits of narcissistic and obsessive self-fixation. In so doing, they mirror the powerlessness and alienation endemic in modern society. They have no formative influence on the larger culture, either because their sources of inspiration are esoteric and highly subjective, or because participants see themselves in exclusive terms and withdraw from "worldly pursuits" in an individualized quest for salvationthus reinforcing the status quo and testifying to the waning social significance of religion in modern society. This interpretation of the rise of NRMs vis-à-vis secularization theory is not applicable, however, to movements that stress moral constraints, self-discipline, and social altruism.

Cultural Crisis. A widely accepted perspective on the rise of NRMs is the cultural crisis hypothesis. This interpretive framework focuses on the socio-cultural conditions conducive to religious change. It does not explain the appeal of particular NRMs nor differential growth rates among them.

The culture crisis hypothesis holds that NRMs flourish in response to fundamental alterations in the social and meaning structures that integrate a society. Because religious values and forms are enmeshed with the historical, cultural, and social structures through which religious self-understanding is expressed, strains and alterations in these dimensions of social reality necessarily produce strains and alterations in the religious sphere. According to this hypothesis, the rise of NRMs in the United States was functionally related to a broad value crisis and mass disaffection from the common understanding of American culture that occurred between the election of President John F. Kennedy and the collapse of the American regime in Vietnam in 1975. The trauma of the Civil Rights Movement, the atrocities in Vietnam, assassinations, and the spread of post-Watergate political cynicism, eroded core American cultural values and the structures by which they were upheld, including institutions responsible for conveying moral and spiritual values. These cultural shocks polarized Americans, delegitimized institutional authority, eroded the politicomoral ideology of American civil religion, and brought about a decisive break with the meaning of the past, especially among many idealist youth.

NRMs grew fruitfully in this cultural vacuum. In one manner or another, most NRMs emphasized the primacy of experience over creed and dogma, access to spiritual and personal empowerment, unifying values in the form of a pragmatic, success-oriented, or a syncretistic theology proposed as a new revelation, and more meaningful expressions of social solidarity and community-oriented lifestyles.

Movements such as the Unification Church and the New Religious Right responded to the culture crisis with a revitalized synthesis of political and religious themes. The "Moral Majority" and kindred groups, such as Christian Voice, Religious Roundtable, and National Christian Action Coalition, called for a restoration of moral traditionalism, a renewed sense of national order and purpose, and a reassertion of values and myths associated with the gospel of wealth, patriotic idealism, and the messianic understanding of American life and national identity.

The rapid proliferation of NRMs during the 1960s has also been interpreted as a consequence of social experimentation (not directly related to a cultural crisis) stemming from demographic and generational shifts and the new lifestyles and social arrangement flamboyantly popularized by the "hippie" counter-culture. By the 1960s, the "baby boom" and the postWorld War II transformation of the American class structure had produced a burgeoning youth population whose affluence, social posture, and greater discretionary time facilitated experimentation with a wide variety of living arrangements and life styles. Widespread psychedelic drug experimentation provided an important link between the youth-oriented counter-culture and the rise of NRMs. In some instances, drug experimentation altered spiritual frames of reference and/or broke down normative perceptions of everyday reality, thereby facilitating movement into NRMs that emphasized meditative or "mystical" religious experience. In other instances (especially the Jesus Movement of the late 1960s), NRMs provided participants with a therapeutic means of kicking a drug habit.

While the precise relationship between the presence of cultural fragmentation and crisis and the rise of NRMs remains subject to debate, it is clear that the proliferation of NRMs is both stimulated and facilitated by strain in value, meaning, and plausibility structures that undergird a social order. The presence of outmoded or discredited myths, ideologies, and institutional arrangements, and the absence of meaningful community experience are key factors conducive to religious ferment.

Conversion Recruitment. Prior to the 1960s, social and behavioral science theories about participation in "sects" and "cults" focused almost exclusively on the lower-class origins of such movements and on the psycho-economic relationship between their ideology and alleged deprivations of neophytes. Sociological and anthropological studies consistently linked the rise of "sects," "revitalization movements," "cargo," and "crisis" cults to severe social and cultural dislocation. Participation in such movements was viewed as compensatory behavior that arose in response to unrest, privation, and maladjustment. Although the concept of deprivation was broadened to include social, organismic, ethical, and psychical tensions, the operating assumption continued to hold that converts to "sects" and "cults" were individuals who experienced some form of personal or cultural trauma. This assumption animates the culture crisis hypothesis discussed earlier.

Although deprivation/motivation theory remains an important insight into religious affiliation, the understanding of conversion/recruitment on the basis of the analysis of NRMs is now more nuanced, interactive, and process oriented. Deprivation/motivation has come under serious criticism because of its conceptual vagueness, reductionism, and failure to give adequate attention to the active role played by religious groups and organizations in the conversion/recruitment process. While it is true that some people will find a particular worldview more appealing than another because of their psychological or emotional state, closer attention has been drawn to issues of structural availability, to how conversion/recruitment works as a funneling process, to the role of social interaction and interpersonal bonds, to the role of participants as active seekers, and to the specific strategies by which groups mobilize resources and seek participants to achieve their objectives.

Conversion/recruitment dynamics vary across groups and among individuals. However, most studies of conversion/recruitment vis-à-vis NRMs have focused on two levels of analysis: predispositional and situational factors.

Predispositional factors are internal variables related to a convert's motivational state and prior socialization. They include the presence of "felt needs" and/or tensions in the individual, the holding of a religious problem-solving perspective, and religious-seeking incentives.

Many participants in NRMs were geographically unsettled, subjectively dissatisfied with their lives, alienated from dominant institutions, and lacking strong communal ties. Many had participated in or experimented with several NRMs before actually joining a specific one. Participants also tended to be drawn from the ranks of young adults previously socialized in mainline (and more liberal) religious traditions, but who were unchurched at the time of their NRM affiliation.

Situational factors are external variables related to the individual's interaction with the proselytizing organization. They include encountering the NRM at a "turning point" in one's life, the development (or pre-existence) of affective bonds, intensive encapsulation, and the weakening or neutralization of affective ties outside the movement.

Studies have consistently shown that NRMs that employed the establishment of affective bonds in the service of proselytizing grew more rapidly than those that did not. Movements that recruited individuals who were social isolates before joining had slower growth rates because their members failed to provide a new network for movement growth. NRMs that isolated their participants from society, or that required the severance of nonmovement interpersonal ties, also grew less rapidly than those that were more fluid and open.

Studies of conversion/recruitment dynamics in NRMs also suggest that some individuals assume movement roles and participate in group activities prior to actual commitment to or knowledgeable understanding of the specific belief system. Social pressures and group encapsulation then work to intensify commitment. Conversion/recruitment under these circumstances is a socially structured event arising out of role relationships and the necessity of legitimating behavior at variance with the individual's normal social intercourse. The fact that some individuals joined NRMs quickly and with only sketchy knowledge about the group gave rise to questions about group manipulation and deception.

Other theories explain conversion to NRMs as rational choice process in which individuals assess their needs at the time and determine the balance of rewards and costs associated with a particular movement. Ambiguities over gender role identity and relationships have also been linked with NRMs involvement.

Deprogramming Controversy. Not unlike controversies surrounding new religions in earlier eras, contemporary NRMs have met with varying degrees of public hostility and opposition. Conflicts over groups such as the Children of God (The Family), the Unification Church, and the Hare Krishna movement have generally focused on allegations of financial exploitation, misrepresentation, political intrigue, authoritarian leadership, sexual impropriety, and charges that such groups utilize "brainwashing" and "mind-control" techniques both as strategies for recruitment and as a means of retaining individuals against their will. The tragic mass murder/suicide of over 900 followers of the Rev. Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978along with other well-publicized controversies surrounding NRM leadersstimulated anticult initiatives at the time.

In response to the above factors, and to youth behavior that violated parental perceptions and expectations and the cultural values of materialism, occupation competition, and achievement, anti-cult groups, such as the American Freedom Foundation, the Citizens Freedom Foundation, and the Spiritual Counterfeit Program, began forming in the early 1970s. These organizations consisted primarily of parents, NRM apostates, and professional "deprogrammers" who viewed many NRMs as dangerous expressions of intense religious commitment, zealotry, or dogmatic sectarianism.

To secure the goal of freeing individuals from "destructive cults," anti-cult organizations established informational networks, monitored NRMs, sought to educate the public through published and media material, and lobbied to gain support for their activities and legislation to curb NRM activity.

Coercive action against NRM participants was initiated under the aegis of seeking temporary guardianships and conservatorships through the legal system. More controversial extra-legal initiatives included forcible abductions and intense "deprogramming" sessions. Courts have generally been reluctant to prosecute coercive de-programming on the grounds that such episodes involve family or parental matters.

Although anti-cult groups have had only limited success in mobilizing other institutions against new religions, they have been more successful at achieving symbolic degradation of NRMs. However, there has been little empirical evidence to show that the vast majority of NRM participants are recruited through "brainwashing" or coercive tactics, or that they were kept in movements by Orwellian-like mind-control techniques. The perception that NRMs engage in "brainwashing" has repeatedly been called in question by scholarly research and by many religious leaders. The small number of actual recruits relative to contacts and the extremely high dropout rates among groups against which such charges have been directed belie such allegations.

Religious Response to NRMs. The attitude of mainline religious bodies toward NRMs varied from active opposition, to indifference, to qualified endorsement.

Protestant conservative/fundamentalist groups took the most active role in developing a coherent and largely negative response. Literature published by these organizations assert Christian claims of exclusivism and alert individuals to the "dangers" of cults as the work of the anti-Christ.

A second approach is a more benign rejection of NRMs as a resurgence of gnosticismespecially those groups that emphasize "knowledge," mystical experiences, and freeing the divine within. These NRMs are held to be incompatible with Christianity and, in the case of those Eastern-derived religions, unlikely to become socially significant outside their own cultural milieu.

A third approach looks positively on NRMs as legitimate religious phenomena, as presenting new opportunities for inter-religious dialogue, as a challenge for self-evaluation, and as a stimulus for spiritual and ecclesial renewal within mainline religions.

On May 4, 1986, the Vatican released a report on "Sects or New Religious Movements: Pastoral Challenge" in response to mounting episcopal concern over the dramatic growth of NRMs among Catholic populations. According to the document, the spread of NRMs is not to be viewed as a threat but as a stimulus for spiritual and ecclesial renewal. Such movements are to be approached with an attitude of openness and understanding reflecting the principles of respect for the person and religious liberty laid down by Vatican II. At the same time, Catholics are cautioned against being "naively irenical." The Church's response to NRMs is acknowledged to extend beyond the "spiritual" to the social, cultural, political, and economic conditions from which NRMs draw their constituents. Community and parish patterns that are more caring and relevant are encouraged. Special attention is to be paid to the role of Holy Scripture, catechesis and evangelization. Forms of worship and ministry are to be relevant to cultural environments and life situations. Creativity in the liturgy, diversified ministries, and lay leadership are also called for in response to NRMs.

Bibliography: s. e. ahlstrom, "National Trauma and Changing Religious Values," Daedalus (Winter 1978): 1329. e. baker, ed., Of God and Men: New Religious Movements in the West (Macon, Ga. 1983). d. g. bromley and p. e. hammond, The Future of New Religious Movements (Macon, Ga. 1987). j. a. beckford, Cult Controversies: The Societal Response to New Religious Movements (New York 1985). d. bromley and j. t. richardson, eds., The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (Toronto 1983). r. s. ellwood, Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America (Englewood Cliffs, N.J. 1973). l. p. gerlach and v. hine, "Five Factors Crucial to the Growth and Spread of a Modern Religious Movement," Journal for The Scientific Study of Religion 7 (1966) 2340. b. wilson, ed., The Social Impact of the New Religions (New York 1981). c. glock and r. bellah, eds., The New Religious Consciousness (Berkeley 1976). j. needleman and g. barker, eds., Understanding the New Religions (New York 1978). j. t. richardson, Conversion Careers: In and Out of the New Religions (Beverly Hills, Calif. 1978). t. robbins and d. anthony, eds., In Gods We Trus New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (New Brunswick 1981). a. d shupe and d. g. bromley, The New Vigilantes: Deprogrammers, Anti-Cultists and the New Religions (Beverly Hills, Calif. 1980). r. stark and w. s. bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization and Cult Formation (Berkeley 1985). r. wuthnow, The Consciousness Reformation (Berkeley 1976). m. fuss, et al., Rethinking New Religious Movements (Rome 1998). m. galanter, Cults: Faith, Healing, and Coercion, 2d. ed. (New York 1999). l. l. dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Toronto 1998).

[w. d. dinges]

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