new religious movements

new religious movements (NRM)

sectarian or communitarian groups of worshippers, not necessarily Christian, who have usually undergone an intense conversion experience, and are often regarded with suspicion or even hostility by the public and press. Barker (1989) estimates that there are at least five hundred different new religious movements in the UK. This apparent diversity – expressed in the differences of outlook and constituency and in the methods of recruitment of the many various groups – has been usefully conceptualized by Wallis (1984), who divides them into ‘world rejecting (e.g. the Moonies, Hare Krishna), ’world affirming (e.g. Transcendental Meditation, Scientology) and ‘world accommodating movements (e.g. evangelical, charismatic, ’born again Christian renewal groups).

World rejection movements expect their converts to reject their past lives, and to separate themselves from family and friends. The outside world is regarded with suspicion and hostility. Personal identity is submerged into the collective identity of the community which always takes priority over the individual, and which encourages the sharing of possessions and affection. World affirming movements see the external world more benevolently. These movements tend to be more individualistic, with belief systems less clearly codified and articulated and acts of worship less organized. World affirming movements tend to regard everyone as having hidden potential and capacities which can be unlocked by believers and practitioners. Happiness and contentment are seen as something within everyone's grasp, provided that new ways of relating to the world (rather than rejecting or transforming it) are adopted. World accommodating movements tend to emphasize the importance of individual religious experience. Evangelical church groups are typical, where collective celebrations of faith are the vehicle for feelings of intense personal involvement with the spiritual and sacred realms addressed in acts of worship.

Though diverse and numerous, NRM tend individually to have only a small number of members. Public hostility is thus not justified by their numerical strength. Rather, this hostility should be seen as a product of the particular orientation which different groups adopt towards the world: in so far as world rejecting movements demand the total involvement of their members, and the breaking of family ties, anger and resentment are going to be almost inevitable consequences. NRM seem to have grown as a result of people's dissatisfaction with the kind of religious experience offered by the traditional Christian churches. Arguably too, they can be seen as a response to the crisis of identity’ in late modernity discussed by GIDDENS (1991). Given, however, the relatively small number of people actually involved in NRM, and the fact that they seem to appeal mostly to the young middle class, and then only for a few years, their recent growth cannot be seen as something which seriously offsets the trend towards SECULARIZATION. See also SECT, CULT, SOCIOLOGY OF RELIGION.