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A new religious movement (NRM) is a religious community or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of modern origin, which has a peripheral place within the dominant religious culture. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, such as Christianity, Hinduism or Buddhism, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. Scholars studying the sociology of religion have almost unanimously adopted this term as a neutral alternative to the word cult, which is often considered derogatory. (For example, some have pointed out that the use of the word "cult" speaks more to the attitude of the individual using the label than to the nature of the NRM in question). They continue to try to reach definitions and define boundaries.
A NRM may be one of a wide range of movements ranging from those with loose affiliations based on novel approaches to spirituality or religion to communitarian enterprises that demand a considerable amount of group conformity and a social identity that separates their adherents from mainstream society. Use of the term is not universally accepted among the groups to which it is applied. 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".
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 vary in terms of leadership; authority; concepts of the individual, family, and gender; teachings; organizational structures; etc. These variations have presented a challenge to social scientists in their attempts to formulate a comprehensive and clear set of criteria for classifying NRMs. 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.
Generally, Christian denominations that are an accepted part of mainstream Christianity are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. Mormons), Jehovah's Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and Shakers have been studied as NRMs. Numerous Christian evangelicals consider these groups to also fit the pejorative category "cult" because of theological divergences from orthodox Christian theology.
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." Instead, especially in the sociology of religion, (but also in religious studies), scholars use "new religious movement". Some still use the term "cult" for groups they believe to be extremely manipulative and exploitative.
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 (so called cults) 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.
According to Marc Galanter, Professor of Psychiatry at NYU, typical reasons why people join cults include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Sociologists Stark and Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
Jeffrey Hadden summarizes a lecture entitled "Why Do People Join NRMs?" (a lecture in a series related to the sociology of new religious movements, a term Hadden uses to include both cults and sects) as follows:
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.
According to Eileen Barker, the greatest worry of potential harm concerns the central and most dedicated followers of a new religious movement. Barker mentions that some former members may not take new initiatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, short-lived, or peripheral supporters of an NRM.
According to Barret leaving can be difficult for some members and may include psychological trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include: conditioning by the religious movement; avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning; having had powerful religious experiences; love for the founder of the religion; emotional investment; fear of losing salvation; bonding with other members; anticipation of the realization that time, money, and efforts donated to the group were a waste; and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.
According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform "post-cult trauma" of people leaving NRMs. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden also note a lack of empirical support for claims by opponents of supposed consequences of having been a member of an NRM and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."
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."
Criticism of some new religious movements, a subset of which are often described by their critics as being "cults," has been a contentious issue with both sides sometimes using epithets such as "hate group" to describe the other side. Disaffected former members, stating that they are seeking redress for perceived wrongs or looking to expose perceived wrongdoings, have, in turn, had their motives called into question. They have themselves come under attack for allegedly using methods that have been characterized as polemic, hostile, and verbally or emotionally abusive.
Critics, both those who are ex-members and who aren't, have had their character and credibility impeached. The Church of Scientology, in particular, makes a practice of investigating its critics and publicizing any past crimes or wrongdoings, frequently alleging unproved wrongdoings. CESNUR’s president Massimo Introvigne writes in his article "So many evil things: Anti-cult terrorism via the Internet" that fringe and extreme anti-cult activism resorts to tactics that may create a background favorable to extreme manifestations of discrimination and hate against individuals that belong to new religious movements.
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NRMs are diverse in their beliefs, practices, organization, and societal acceptance. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe have consequently proposed that there are NRMs, particularly those who have gained adherents in a number of nations, which can be understood as forming global subcultures.
In general, the number of people who have affiliated with NRMs worldwide is small when compared to major world religions. However, scholars of NRMs in the west have noted the growing significance of religious syncretism, where nominal adherents of established religions import elements such as Buddhist meditation techniques, Hindu yoga methods or New Age visualisations. Contemporary Celtic Christianity in countries such as Ireland is one formalised example.
The diversity of NRMs has also seen the emergence of different groups in Africa, Japan, and Melanesia. In Africa, David Barrett has documented the emergence of 6,000 new indigenous churches since the late 1960s. In Japan a number of NRMs based on revitalised Shinto belief, as well as neo-Buddhist and New Age groups, have emerged, some of which originated in the late Nineteenth century in the Meiji Era and others in the aftermath of World War Two.
Around twenty-five percent of the world's distinct cultures are found in Melanesia, spanning the island nations from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. It was here that the phenomena of Cargo Cults were first discerned by anthropologists and religious studies scholars. The Cargo Cults are interpreted as indigenous NRMs that have arisen in response to colonial and post-colonial cultural changes, including the influx of modernisation and capitalist consumerism.
At the time of their foundation, the religious traditions considered "established" or "mainstream" today were seen as new religious movements. For example, Christianity was opposed by people within Judaism and within the Roman culture as sacrilege toward existing doctrines. Likewise, Protestant Christianity was originally seen as a new religious movement or breakaway development.
In similar fashion, some of the contemporary naturalistic religions (naturalism) have evolved out of traditional Christianity and Judaism via process theology or using the term ‘God’ as a metaphor. Others have emerged via a dominating scientific perspective or by atheistic rebellion to the established beliefs of their culture. Still others have added a religious ingredient to their humanistic thinking. Most of these see the ritual/spiritual aspects of religious practice as necessary for broad adoption by many people. Examples are Religious Naturalism, Scientific Pantheism, Religious Humanism and some liberal Unitarians, Quakers, Rastafarians and Jews.
Cybersectarianism is a newer organizational form which involves: "highly dispersed small groups of practitioners that may remain largely anonymous within the larger social context and operate in relative secrecy, while still linked remotely to a larger network of believers who share a set of practices and texts, and often a common devotion to a particular leader. Overseas supporters provide funding and support; domestic practitioners distribute tracts, participate in acts of resistance, and share information on the internal situation with outsiders. Collectively, members and practitioners of such sects construct viable virtual communities of faith, exchanging personal testimonies and engaging in collective study via email, on-line chat rooms and web-based message boards."
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