A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or spiritual group of modern origins, which has a peripheral place within its society's dominant religious culture. NRMs can be novel in origin or part of a wider religion, in which case they are distinct from pre-existing denominations. Religious studies scholars contextualize the rise of NRMs in modernity, relating it as a product of and answer to modern processes of secularization, globalization, detraditionalization, fragmentation, reflexivity, and individualization. Some NRMs deal with the challenges posed by the modernizing world by embracing individualism whereas others seek tightly knit collective means.
Many scholars studying the sociology of religion prefer to use the term "New Religious Movement" as a neutral alternative to the word cult, which is often considered derogatory. Scholars continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries. Scholars have estimated that NRMs now number in the tens of thousands world-wide, with most of their members living in Asia and Africa. Most have only a few members, some have thousands, and only very few have more than one million members.
Although there is no one criterion or set of criteria for describing a group as a 'new religious movement', use of the term usually requires that the group be both of recent origin and different from existing religions. Some scholars also have a more restricted approach to what counts as 'different from existing religions'. For them, 'difference' applies to a faith that, although it may be seen as part of an existing religion (for example, by upholding the same religious text), meets with rejection from that religion for not sharing the same basic creed, or declares itself either separate from the existing religion or even 'the only right' faith. Other scholars expand their measurement of difference, considering religious movements new when, taken from their traditional cultural context, they appear in new places, perhaps in modified forms.
NRMs do not necessarily share a set of particular attributes, but have been "assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture", and "exist in a relatively contested space within society as a whole". NRMs vary in terms of leadership; authority; concepts of the individual, family, and gender; teachings; organizational structures; and in other ways. These variations have presented a challenge to social scientists in their attempts to formulate a comprehensive and clear set of criteria for classifying NRMs.
The study of new religions emerged in Japan with an increase in religious innovation following World War II. "New religions" is a calque of shinshūkyō(新宗教?), which Japanese sociologists coined to refer to Japanese new religions. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to "cult". Originally, "cult" meant a specific form of worship (e.g., the cult of the Egyptian goddess Isis) or a specific type of social group (e.g., in opposition to a sect). The use of "cult" to describe a group of people who venerate a particular saint or deity within a religion is rare now, but occasionally still used, for instance in scholarship such as Marina Warner's Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and the Cult of the Virgin Mary, or in journalism such as a 2014 article in the Independent UK "The Appeal of the Virgin Mary: A Supernatural Hope at a Time of Scepticism" which uses the phrase "the Cult of Mary."
"Cult" emerged in the 1890s, but by the 1970s had acquired a pejorative connotation and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed. This was the era of the so-called "cult wars," led by "cult-watching groups" like the English organization FAIR (an acronym for Family, Action, Information, Rescue). The efforts of the anti-cult movement condensed a moral panic around the concept of cults. Public fears around Satanisms, in particular, came to be known as a distinct phenomenon, "the satanic panic."  Consequently, scholars such as Eileen Barker, James T. Richardson, Timothy Miller and Catherine Wessinger argued that the term "cult" had become too laden with negative connotations, and "advocated dropping its use in academia." A number of alternatives to the term "new religious movement" are used by some scholars. These include "alternative religious movements" (Miller), "emergent religions" (Ellwood) and "marginal religious movements" (Harper and Le Beau).
In the 1970s and 1980s some NRMs came under opposition by the newly organized anti-cult movement and by some governments, as well as receiving extensive coverage in the news media. The media coverage of the deaths of over 900 members of the Peoples Temple by suicide and murder in 1978 is often cited as especially contributing to public opposition to cults.
In the Twenty first century many NRMs are using the Internet to give out information, to recruit members, and sometimes to hold online meetings and rituals. This is sometimes referred to as cybersectarianism. In 2006 J. Gordon Melton, executive director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told The New York Times that 40 to 45 new religious movements emerge each year in the United States. In 2007 religious scholar Elijah Siegler commented that although no NRM had become the dominant faith in any country, many of the concepts which they had first introduced (often referred to as "New Age" ideas) have become part of world-wide mainstream culture.
According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join NRMs include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which people join new religious groups, have questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
Dick Anthony, a forensicpsychologist noted for his writings on the brainwashing controversy, has defended NRMs, and in 1988 argued that involvement in such movements may often be beneficial: "There's a large research literature published in mainstream journals on the mental health effects of new religions. For the most part the effects seem to be positive in any way that's measurable."
Anson Shupe, David G. Bromley and Joseph Ventimiglia coined the term atrocity tales in 1979, which Bryan R. Wilson later took up in relation to former members' narratives. Bromley and Shupe defined an "atrocity tale" as the symbolic presentation of action or events (real or imaginary) in such a context that they come flagrantly to violate the (presumably) shared premises upon which a given set of social relationships should take place. The recounting of such tales has the intention of reaffirming normative boundaries. By sharing the reporter's disapproval or horror, an audience reasserts normative prescription and clearly locates the violator beyond the limits of public morality.
An article on the categorization of new religious movements in U.S. print media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion (formerly the American Catholic Sociological Society), criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use popular or anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight, and asserts that "The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media's reporting of the social sciences." Since 1988 a resource created by Eileen Barker called INFORM: The Information Network on Religious Movements, has sought to provide access to information in order to develop informed, reasoned, and balanced opinions on NRMs. As Barker describes in a 2012 interview with the Religious Studies Project Podcast, INFORM and Barker herself continue to be frequent contributors to media dialogues, among other public conversations, around NRMs, especially in England.
Some scholars have linked the advent of Asian NRMs in the West to the USA's Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and other laws in Western Europe which ended racially restrictive immigration quotas. Many NRMs advocate universalism, cosmopolitanism, cultural syncretism, and global citizenship. A 1998 article from The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion links New Religious movements to the phenomenon of globalization. Scholar Lorne L. Dawson writes, "The concept of globalization merely reconfigures our present understanding of the possible significance of New Religious movements as conceived under the conditions of 'modernity', though in ways that have some important yet limited analytical and explanatory advantages not yet fully appreciated by scholars of New Religious movements."
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