A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or spiritual group of modern origins, which has a peripheral place within its nation's dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. Many scholars studying the sociology of religion prefer to use this term 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 a million.
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, 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 (LDS Church), the Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Science, and the Shakers have been studied as NRMs.
The study of New Religions emerged in Japan after an increase in religious innovation following the Second World War. "New religions" is a calque (a word-for-word translation) of shinshūkyō, which Japanese sociologists coined to refer to this phenomenon. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to cult. "Cult" had emerged in the 1890s, but by the 1970s it had acquired a pejorative connotation, and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed. 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-1800s 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. 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. Rev. Henry 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, and 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 Dai and Hoa Hao in Vietnam, Soka Gakkai in Japan, and Yiguandao in China. At the same time Christian critics of NRMs began referring to them as "cults"; with 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, being especially influential.
New religious movements expanded in many nations in the 1950s and 1960s. Japanese new religions became very popular after the American 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 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 People's 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 opened up new opportunities for NRMs. Falun Gong Falun was first taught publicly in Northeast China in 1992 by Li Hongzhi. At first it was accepted by the Chinese government but later severely persecuted.
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.
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 doctorial 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.
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.
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."
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 believe in 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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