Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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The term new religious movements (NRMs, sometimes referred to as alternative religious movements, marginal religious movements, or cults) identifies an important but difficult-to-demarcate set of religious entities. Although some NRMs indeed are of recent origin, many others constitute contemporary rediscoveries or recombinations of cultural themes explored by predecessor groups. Likewise, many NRMs are not religious in the traditional sense. The admixture of contemporary forms of technological innovation, therapy and medicine, economic enterprise, and global organization has given some NRMs a decidedly anomalous profile. In contrast to movements in earlier eras, contemporary NRMs are much more likely to make conscious decisions about whether to define and present themselves as religious and whether to seek administrative/legal legitimation as religious bodies. Finally, a great number of NRMs are cultural transplants, most often of Asian origin, new in the sense only that they are new to the West. Such groups may manifest social movement characteristics in their societies of destination but are likely to have a much more institutional form in their societies of origin.

The available evidence strongly indicates that there has been a long history of nontraditional religious groups in the United States and that these groups have maintained a strong minority presence (Moore 1985). Since a high proportion of these NRMs have survived, the overall number has continued to rise. Through the 1950s, the religious triumvirate—Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism—dominated the American religious landscape. The erosion of the cultural dominance of these established traditions along with the rapid influx of NRMs has enhanced awareness of religious diversity and of the minority traditions that historically have maintained a more subterranean presence. The period beginning in 1965 was one of exceptional growth in NRMs, particularly of groups of Asian origin, as a result of a relaxation in immigration statutes. According to Melton (1995), currently there are over 1,500 religious groups in the United States, and about half of those are "nonconventional" (a label that excludes various mainstream groups, sectarian offshoots of these groups, and immigrant churches). Despite these impressive numbers, the vast majority of NRMs, of course, are small and are likely to have more impact as a set than individually.

When the term NRM is employed, then, the characteristics that the designated groups share in varying degrees are that they are part of a very large number of movements that appeared in Western societies or experienced rapid growth since the mid-1960s, are nontraditional and nonimmigrant religious groups, began with first-generation converts as their primary membership base, attracted among their converts higher status young adults, manifest social movement characteristics and may present an anomalous profile with respect to traditional, mainstream religious organization and belief, and proclaim themselves to be in search of spiritual enlightenment, personal development, or contact with immanent/transcendent forces, entities, or knowledge.

The extraordinary diversity of NRMs is captured by the number of traditions represented in their ranks. These traditions include the Jesus People Movement (The Family [Children of God], Jesus People U.S.A., Alamo Foundation, Church of Bible Understanding) and other Christian-related groups (Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity [Moonies], Crossroads Movement [Boston Church of Christ], The Way International); Sufism (Gurdjieff Foundation, Subud); Hinduism (Dawn Horse Communion, Divine Light Mission [Elan Vital], International Society for Krishna Consciousness, International Meditation Society [Transcendental Meditation], Ananda Marga Yoga Society, the Bhagwan movement of Shree Rajneesh, Brahma Kumaris); Buddhism (Nichiren Shoshu of America [Soka Gakki]); Sikhism (Healthy, Happy, Holy Organization); New Age and Human Potential Movement groups (Arica, The Farm, Findhorn, est [The Forum], Insight/MSIA, Primal Therapy, Psychosynthesis); Dianic and Neopagan witchcraft groups; ritual magic groups (Ordo Templi Orientis); satanic churches (Church of Satan, Temple of Set); and UFO groups (Raelians).

Types of Movements

Most scholars studying NRMs have recognized that there is a complex of factors associated with the surge in the number of NRMs and converts' interest in them. One of the most important ways that social scientists have sought to offer theoretical interpretations for NRMs, while dealing with their obvious diversity, has been to create typologies through which theoretically linked explanations for different forms of movement ideology and organization can be fashioned. A substantial number of typologies have been created, with differing objectives and perspectives—type of meaning system, form of movement organization and adherent-movement relationship, and relationship between movement and larger society.

Working from the premise that NRMs constitute responses to pervasive moral ambiguity, several typologies categorize movements in terms of the kinds of meaning they offer or individuals seek. Anthony and Robbins (1982) have distinguished between monistic and dualistic NRMs and also have developed a number of additional subtypes. Movements with a monistic perspective proclaim meaning systems that are relativistic and subjectivistic, and are likely to conceive of the sacred as immanent. Dualistic movements affirm moral absolutism and tend to conceive of the sacred as transcendent. Monism-dualism most sharply distinguishes Eastern and quasi-religious therapies, which are more likely to be monistic, from Western religions (particularly conservative Christianity), which are more likely to be dualistic. This distinction is roughly paralleled by Westley's (1983) division of NRMs into those that locate the sacred lying inside versus outside the human individual. Hargrove (1978) divides NRMs and individual seekers into two types, integrative and transformative , based on the kind of meaning that individuals are seeking and that movements offer. Alienation is a problem for liberal personalities, and therefore they are likely to search out transformative NRMs in search of personal growth and new experiences; conservative personalities experiencing a breakdown in moral codes are likely to seek integrative NRMs that provide greater community.

Other typologies focus on the form of movement organization and the nature of the relationship between organization and adherents. Lofland and Richardson (1984) define "elemental forms" of NRM organization based on the extent of their corporateness, that is, the extent to which individuals create a shared collective life: the clinic, congregation, work collective, household collective, corps, and colony. Stark and Bainbridge (1985) distinguish three types of cults, which identify levels of organizational and client involvement: (1) audience cults, which exhibit virtually no formal organization because there is no significant commitment from participants/consumers; (2) client cults, in which spiritual service providers are relatively organized in contrast to their clients, who are linked into moderate commitment social networks through which valued goods and services are exchanged; and (3) cult movements, which seek to provide services that meet all of adherents' spiritual needs, although they vary considerably in the degree to which they mobilize adherents' time, energy, and commitment. Finally, Bird (1979) develops a tripartite typology based on the relationship between adherents and movement. In devotee groups, adherents submit themselves to a spiritual master or transcendent truth; in discipleship groups, adherents strive for mastery of spiritual disciplines in pursuit of spiritual enlightenment; and in apprenticeship groups, adherents work to acquire a variety of skills that will allow them to unleash spiritual powers that reside within them.

Finally, NRMs have been categorized on the basis of their relationship to the prevailing structure of social relations. Wallis (1984) distinguishes between world-affirming and world-rejecting movements. The former affirms conventional norms and values and offers a means for adherents to realize untapped individual potential with minimal distancing from conventional society; the latter is antagonistic to conventional society and requires that adherents distance themselves from mainstream social life, which is deemed irreparably corrupted and doomed to destruction. Bromley (1997) makes a similar distinction, between adaptive and transformative movements. However, he roots the distinction in the form of social relations each type of movement seeks to authorize and empower. Adaptive movements distance less from conventional society because they are more compatible with the dominant contractual form of social relations (authorized by state/economy), while transformative movements that reassert covenantal forms of social relations (authorized by family, religion, community) are inherently involved in conflict with the organizational mode of dominant institutions.

Interpretations of NRMs

Among scholars studying NRMs, there have been a number of explanations for their appearance and significance. Some social scientists regard NRMs as evidence of the fallacy of a linear evolutionary model of secularization or have offered alternative models, such as the Stark and Bainbridge (1985) cyclical model of periodic resurgence of new religious movements, with NRMs appearing and gaining adherents as mainline religious bodies secularize. Others take the emergence of NRMs as evidence of secularization. Wilson (1982), for example, argues that Western societies have become highly secularized, and religion has become one component of consumer-determined lifestyle choices; NRMs are simply among the more exotic choices available in the contemporary spiritual supermarket. Bell (1977) contends that ongoing secularization motivates individuals to search for new forms of religion as secular alternatives and traditional religions fail to offer meaningful religious understandings.

One of the most common explanations for the emergence of NRMs links them directly to the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, which was punctuated by the Vietnam War, the Watergate political scandal, and countercultural rebellion. Robert Bellah (1976), for example, argues that American civil religion provided a master narrative merging the values of biblical religion and utilitarian individualism, but that the latter became the dominant element in contemporary society, precipitating a crisis of meaning. He identifies NRMs as successor movements to the countercultural movements of the 1960s. Working from this perspective, Tipton (1982) studied several different types of NRMs that constituted different responses to the failure of mainline religious traditions to provide a meaningful moral context for everyday life and offered alternative routes for their adherents to get "saved from the sixties." These explanations tend to focus on demand for new forms of religion by individuals in search of meaning. A strong case has been made that supply-related rather than demand-related factors are central to explaining religious change (Finke and Iannaccone 1993).

NRM Continuity and Discontinuity with Conventional Society

There has been considerable reflection by social scientists on the degree of continuity/discontinuity between NRMs and the prevailing social order. Explanations for NRM emergence emphasizing factors such as the erosion of moral order, expansion of contractual social relations, or the tumult surrounding the youth counterculture have tended to emphasize the discontinuities, because social movements of any kind are by definition organizations engaged in protest. At the same time, typologies such as those of Wallis (1984) and Bromley (1997) have distinguished between degrees of movement distancing, noting that some movements maintain adherents' positions in conventional society while others isolate and encapsulate them. Various other lines of research have concluded that the continuity-discontinuity relationship between movement and society can be quite complex. It seems clear that a number of NRMs appear to have functioned not only as ways out of conventional society but also as ways back in as they essentially become halfway houses between countercultural and conventional lifestyles. Robbins et al. (1975) delineated four processes through which NRMs have facilitated the social reintegration of adherents: (1) inculcation of values or behavioral patterns congruent with societal norms, (2) combination of countercultural and conventional values, (3) compensation in spiritual form for alienating attributes of conventional society, and (4) redirection of deviant behavior into more conventional channels.

From this perspective, individuals may acquire orientations and skills commensurate with conventional society even if they currently can be acquired and rehearsed in a deviant social context. Further, there can be a variable degree of coincidence between organizational and adherent interests in NRMs. While movements as organizations have been prone to develop commitment-enhancing and commitment-maintaining mechanisms, individual adherents have been equally prone to adopt an experimental posture with respect to NRM affiliation (Robbins and Bromley 1992). Similarly, even in the most intensive periods of mobilization, research has indicated that NRM membership has tended to be composed of a relatively small core of highly committed adherents surrounded by a much larger band of less committed affiliates. As NRMs have passed this point of mobilization, they have elaborated membership categories so as to include affiliates with lower or declining levels of involvement. Finally, NRMs often have rejected some elements of the conventional order while adopting others, perhaps even becoming models that more conventional religious groups may adopt once distanced from their controversial origins. For example, NRMs in essence have nominated new modes of integrating religion and technology (e.g., televangelism), new relationships between religion and healing (quasi-religious therapies), and new ways of financing religious organization (e.g., global corporate holding companies). At an individual level, NRMs may offer adherents a means for recombination of the situational-expressive ethic of the counterculture with various elements of the dominant social order (Tipton 1982). At both structural and individual levels, then, NRMs combine conformity and resistance to conventional social patterns.

Research on Affiliation/Conversion and Organization/Change

The most active area of research on NRMs has been the process of affiliation/conversion and, more recently, defection. Beyond the simple assertion that conversion involves radical personal change, there is great debate over how to specify that change. A variety of causal factors have been proposed to account for variation in the propensity for and probability of conversion, which Machalek and Snow (1993) divide into individual attributes (physical, psychological, social status) and contextual influences (temporal, sociocultural). Positions on type and degree of change vary from simple membership change to a qualitative shift in identity or orientation, from a unique form of change to simply another type of socialization (Long and Hadden 1983), from change in symbolic behavior to change in role behavior (Bromley and Shupe 1986). Some research has proposed causal process models (Lofland and Stark 1965, Bromley and Shupe 1986), while other research has attempted to delineate different types of conversion. In the latter cases, these typologies have differentiated degree of adherent involvement/commitment or types of conversion. For example, Lofland and Skonovd (1981) identify five conversion types based on degree of pressure, temporal duration, affective arousal, af-fective content, and belief-participation ordering; Lofland and Richardson (1984) delineate four major types and eleven subtypes of conversion organized by level of analysis and degree of individual agency. Most of the categories of conversion contained in these typologies presume a substantial measure of convert voluntarism. Although some scholars have proposed much more manipulative, coercive models of NRM conversions (Singer with Lalich 1995), these largely have been rejected by social scientists as adequate explanations for NRM affiliation (Barker 1984, Bromley and Richardson 1983, Shupe and Bromley 1994).

After the initial wave of theorizing and research on conversion/affiliation, the agenda on conversion-related issues has gradually expanded. Two of the most important of these issues are defection from NRMs and gender differences in NRM involvement. As it became clear that most NRM careers were relatively short-lived, research began to focus on the defection process. Scholars working in this area have encountered similar definitional problems and have developed similar models, usually either linking defection to changes in movement structure or examining defection at a social psychological level through a causal process model (Wright and Ebaugh 1993). As yet there have been only a few attempts to develop models that incorporate both conversion and defection (Bromley 1997). In the case of research on gender and NRMs, feminist scholars have effectively advanced the argument that generic theories offering explanations for the emergence of NRMs or of conversions to them fail to take into account significant gender differences. To the extent that sociocultural patterns are patriarchal, then the response of men and women to both stability and change in these patterns may differ substantially. With respect to the latter issue, Davidman (1991) suggests that conversion motives of newly Orthodox Jewish women may be distinctive, and Jacobs (1989) finds gender-specific reasons for NRM disaffiliation. Recently, there has been more research on specifically feminist forms of spirituality, such as witchcraft (Neitz 1994), that explores forms of religious expression by women in specific social locations (Palmer 1994).

There are far fewer theoretical or empirical works on leadership and organization of NRMs than on conversion. The existing corpus of theory and research addresses the issues of (1) attributes of the prophetic leaders who founded NRMs, with movement toward normalizing rather than stigmatizing models; (2) the way in which charismatic authority is exercised and yields to more institutionalized leadership; (3) the implications for NRMs of leadership succession upon the death of the prophetic founder, suggesting surprisingly little organizational disruption; (4) the dynamics of charismatic leadership, documenting the capacity of these leaders to sense and identify cultural contradictions and mobilize adherents, as well as instability and abuse of charismatic authority; (5) factors associated with movement success and failure, indicating a very mixed record and uncertain prospects for most current NRMs; (6) the variety of means through which NRMs finance themselves, describing new ways of combining economic, technological, organizational, and religious forms; and (7) the way in which control agencies and oppositional movements have influenced NRM organizations and development, suggesting that opposition has significant impact on NRMs but does not typically determine their developmental trajectories.

New Religious Movements as an Area of Study

There has been a long-standing interest in marginal groups in the sociology of religion, primarily in the form of theory and research on sects and on the relationship between churches and sects. With the recent proliferation of NRMs and growing awareness of the extent of religious diversity, NRMs have developed rapidly as an area of study. The maturation of NRM research as a semiautonomous area has led to a number of problems in developing an integrated corpus of knowledge. First, there has been disproportionate focus on some of the largest and most controversial of the NRMs while the vast majority of the small, more fluid New Age and feminist spirituality groups, by contrast, remain unstudied. Second, even among the more extensively studied groups, research usually has consisted of single-occasion studies that have not been followed up. Given the rapidity with which NRMs have changed during the early phases of their histories, findings become dated rapidly and developmental histories difficult to compile. Third, in the absence of theoretical/methodological protocols, limited baseline information is available across movements. Fourth, only a narrow range of issues has been researched in depth. The vast majority of research has been social psychological in nature, which in substantial measure reflects the origination of NRM research in the controversy over how and why young adults came to affiliate with these movements. Fifth, virtually all of the research on NRMs has been conducted in North America and western Europe. The experiences and impact of globally deployed NRMs have received considerably less scrutiny. In addition, virtually none of the very large number of NRMs outside of the West has been studied systematically, severely limiting the capacity for cross-culturally based theoretical development. Sixth, there is only a slightly better track record with respect to historical comparison. While social scientists are extremely aware of parallels in the development of and reaction to religious groups such as the Catholics and Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses, historical-comparative work remains a largely undeveloped area.

In addition to research by individual scholars, research units and advocacy groups of various types have been created specifically directed at collecting and disseminating data on new religions. Among the most active of these have been the Center for the Study of New Religious Movements at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California; the Institution for the Study of American Religion at the University of California at Santa Barbara; the Information Network Focus on Religious Movements (INFORM) at the London School of Economics in London, England; the Center for Studies on New Religions (CESNUR) in Torino, Italy. Most prominent among the advocacy groups are oppositional groups such as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) headquartered in Chicago, Illinois; FAIR in the United Kingdom; and the Association for the Defense of the Family and the Individual (ADFI) in France.

There is also a network of Christian organizations that oppose NRMs on theological grounds, and civil libertarian organizations, often funded by the targeted groups, that advocate religious liberty. A few scholarly journals have been established as forums for theory and research on NRMs. These include Syzygy in the United States, Update in Denmark, and the Journal of Contemporary Religion in England. A number of recent publications on NRMs contain comprehensive information on scholarly issues, specific groups, and evaluations of movement organization and practices. These include Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions (Gale 1992), Bromley and Hadden's The Handbook on Cults and Sects in America (JAI 1994), Miller's America's Alternative Religions (SUNY Press 1995), Robbins's Cults, Converts, and Charisma (Sage 1988), Saliba's two bibliographic books, Psychiatry and the Cults (Garland 1987) and Social Science and the Cults (Garland 1990), and Galanter's Cults and New Religious Movements (American Psychiatric Association 1989).

See also Anti-Cult Movement, Brainwashing, Charisma, Civil Religion, Cult

David G. Bromley


D. Anthony and T. Robbins, "Spiritual Innovation and the Crisis of American Civil Religion," in Religion in America , ed. M. Douglas and S. Tipton (Boston: Beacon, 1982): 229-248

E. Barker, The Making of a "Moonie" (Oxford: Blackwell, 1984)

D. Bell, "The Return of the Sacred," British Journal of Sociology 28(1977):419-449

R. Bellah, "New Religious Consciousness and the Crisis in Modernity," in The New Religious Consciousness , ed. C. Glock and R. Bellah (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976): 333-352

F. Bird, "The Pursuit of Innocence," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):335-346

D. G. Bromley, "A Sociological Narrative of Crisis Episodes, Collective Action, Culture Workers, and Countermovements," Sociology of Religion 58(1997):105-140

D. G. Bromley and J. K. Hadden (eds.), Handbook on Cults and Sects in America (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1993)

D. G. Bromley and J. T. Richardson (eds.), The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (Lewiston, N.Y.: Mellen, 1983)

D. Bromley and A. Shupe, "Affiliation and Disaffiliation," Thought 61(1986):192-211

L. Davidman, Tradition in a Rootless World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991)

R. Finke and L. Iannaccone, "Supply-Side Explanations for Religious Change," Annals 527(1993):27-39

B. Hargrove, "Integrative and Transformative Religions," in Understanding the New Religions , ed. J. Needleman and G. Baker (New York: Seabury, 1978): 257-266

J. Jacobs, Divine Disenchantment (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989)

J. Lofland and J. T. Richardson, "Religious Movement Organizations," in Research in Social Movements, Conflicts and Change , ed. L. Kriesberg (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1984): 29-51

J. Lofland and L. Skonovd, "Conversion Motifs," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 20(1981):373-385

J. Lofland and R. Stark, "Becoming a World-Saver," American Sociological Review 30(1965):862-875

T. Long and J. K. Hadden, "Religious Conversion and the Concept of Socialization," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 22(1983):1-14

R. Machalek and D. Snow, "Conversion to New Religious Movements," in Bromley and Hadden, q.v ., Vol. B (1993): 53-74

J. G. Melton, "The Changing Scene of New Religious Movements," Social Compass 42(1995):265-276

L. Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985)

M. J. Neitz, "Quasi-Religions and Cultural Movements," in Between Sacred and Secular , ed. A. Greil and T. Robbins (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1994): 127-150

S. Palmer, Moon Sisters (Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1994)

T. Robbins and D. Bromley, "Social Experimentation and the Significance of American New Religions," Research in the Social Scientific Study of Religion , Vol. 4 (Greenwich, Conn: JAI, 1992): 1-28

T. Robbins et al., "Youth Culture Religious Movements," Sociological Quarterly 16(1975):48-64

A. Shupe and D. G. Bromley (eds.), Anti-Cult Movements in Cross-Cultural Perspective (New York: Garland, 1994)

M. T. Singer with J. Lalich, Cults in Our Midst (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1995)

R. Stark, "Normal Revelations," in Religion and the Social Order , ed. D. G. Bromley (Greenwich, Conn.: JAI, 1991): 239-252

R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985)

S. Tipton, Getting Saved from the Sixties (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982)

R. Wallis, Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life (London: Routledge, 1984)

F. Westley, The Complex Forms of the New Religious Life (Chico, Calif.: Scholars Press, 1983)

B. Wilson, Religion in Sociological Perspective (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982)

S. Wright and H. R. Ebaugh, "Leaving New Religions," in Bromley and Hadden, q.v ., Vol. B (1993): 117-138.

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