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 worldwide, 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.
Generally, Christian denominations are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Shakers have been studied as 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).
New religions studies is the interdisciplinary study of new religious movements that emerged as a discipline in the 1970s. The term was coined by J. Gordon Melton in a 1999 paper presented at CESNUR conference in Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania. David G. Bromley used its perspectives for a piece in Nova Religio and later as an Editor of Teaching New Religious Movements in The American Academy of Religion's Teaching Religious Studies Series; the term has been used by James R. Lewis, Jean-François Mayer. The study draws from the disciplines of anthropology, psychiatry, history, psychology, sociology, religious studies, and theology.
Scholars usually consider the mid-19th century as the beginning of the era of new religious movements. During this time spiritualism and esotericism were becoming popular in Europe and North America. The Latter Day Saint movement including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, founded by Joseph Smith in 1830, is now one of the most successful NRMs in terms of membership. In 1844 the Bahá'í Faith was founded by Bahá'u'lláh in Iran. n 1860 Donghak, later Cheondoism, was founded by Choi Jae-Woo in China. It later ignited the Donghak Peasant Revolution in 1894. In 1891, the Unity Church, the first New Thought denomination, was founded in the United States.
In 1893, the first Parliament of the World's Religions was held in Chicago. The conference included NRMs of the time such as spiritualism and Christian Science. The latter was represented by its founder Mary Baker Eddy. Henry Harris Jessup addressing the meeting was the first to mention the Bahá'í Faith in the United States. Also attending were Soyen Shaku, the "First American Ancestor" of Zen, the Buddhist preacher Anagarika Dharmapala, the Jain preacher Virchand Gandhi This conference gave Asian religious teachers their first wide American audience.
In 1911 the Nazareth Baptist Church, the first and one of the largest modern African initiated churches, was founded by Isaiah Shembe in South Africa. The 1930s saw the founding of the Nation of Islam and the Jehovah's Witnesses in the United States, the Rastafari movement in Jamaica, Cao Đài and Hòa Hảo in Vietnam, Soka Gakkai in Japan, and Yiguandao in China.
At the same time, Christian critics of NRMs began referring to them as "cults": the 1938 book The Chaos of Cults by Jan Karel van Baalen (1890–1968), an ordained minister in the Christian Reformed Church in North America, was especially influential.
New religious movements expanded in many nations in the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese new religions became very popular after the occupation of Japan forced a separation of the Japanese government and Shinto, which had been the state religion, bringing about greater freedom of religion. In 1954 Scientology was founded in the United States and the Unification Church in South Korea. In 1955 the Aetherius Society was founded in England. It and some other NRMs have been called UFO religions, since they combine belief in extraterrestrial life with traditional religious principles. In 1965 Paul Twitchell founded Eckankar, an NRM derived partially from Sant Mat.
In 1966 the International Society for Krishna Consciousness was founded in the United States by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada. In 1967, The Beatles' visit to Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in India brought public attention to the Transcendental Meditation movement.
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 late 1980s and the 1990s the decline of communism and the revolutions of 1989 opened up new opportunities for NRMs. Falun Gong was first taught publicly in Northeast China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. At first it was accepted by the Chinese government and by 1999 there were 70 million practitioners in China. Since 1999, the persecution of Falun Gong in China has been severe. Ethan Gutmann interviewed over 100 witnesses and estimated that 65,000 Falun Gong practitioners were killed for their organs from 2000 to 2008.
In the 21st 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 worldwide 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.
In the 1960s sociologist John Lofland lived with Unification Church missionary Young Oon Kim and a small group of American church members in California and studied their activities in trying to promote their beliefs and win new members. Lofland noted that most of their efforts were ineffective and that most of the people who joined did so because of personal relationships with other members, often family relationships. Lofland published his findings in 1964 as a doctoral thesis entitled: 'The World Savers: A Field Study of Cult Processes', and in 1966 in book form by Prentice-Hall as Doomsday Cult: A Study of Conversion, Proselytization, and Maintenance of Faith. It is considered to be one of the most important and widely cited studies of the process of religious conversion, as well as one of the first sociological studies of a new religious movement.
Dick Anthony, a forensic psychologist 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."
Sabina Magliocco, professor of Anthropology and Folklore at California State University, Northridge, has discussed joining NRMs in terms of its growing popularity due to reading, social and political interests, and most importantly, the Internet. With more than 20,000 websites and chat rooms devoted to Pagan topics, young people are increasingly using the Internet to form communities around NRMs rather than meeting in person.
There has been opposition to NRMs throughout their history. Some historical events have been: Anti-Mormonism, the persecution of Jehovah's Witnesses, the persecution of Bahá'ís, and the persecution of Falun Gong. Presently the Christian countercult movement, which began in the 1800s, opposes most NRMs because of theological differences. The secular anti-cult movement, which began in the 1970s, opposes some NRMs, as well as some non-religious groups, mainly charging them with psychological abuse of their own members. Of the "well over a thousand groups that have been or might be called cults" listed in the files of INFORM, says Eileen Barker, the "vast majority" have not engaged in criminal activities.
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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