What is New religious movements (NRM)?

(Read this article in Norwegian)


Historical background

During the sixties and seventies there was a definite rise in the New Religious Movements. Later on one has tried to explain this as a reaction towards the cultural trends characterized by conspicuous consumption and less interest in traditional religious virtues and authority. We must also consider the other tendencies in society like pluralism, individualism and private ownership. There were those who sought authoritarian groups that offered clear and definite answers, while others were drawn to more subjective individual spiritual experiences.

Some movements at that time were Hare Krishna, Transcendental meditation, The Scientology Church, the New-Age movement, God’s Children and the Jesus movement. These groups were called New Religious Movements due to the presentation of new religious perspectives were presented and less rigidity between nations, thereby presenting a new platform for recruiting new members. They encouraged a radical change in lifestyle and were less institutionalized. Later on the term “alternative religious community” was used, suggesting similarities between the New Religious Movements and other religious groups previously known, also representing an anti-culture (A well known example here in Norway is Smith’s Friends and Jehovah’s Witnesses). In Norway the term the connotation “isolated religious group” is used for certain groups.

During the seventies there was a favorable attitude towards the positive aspects of new religious groups by specialists as well as the population in general. One reason for this was their assisting drug addicts to abandon their habit and “adolescents dropping out” From a social psychological perspective it was easy to understand the value of a person sensing a social belonging and finding the answers to existential questions. Later on, however, there was a growing concern on the destructive elements of these groups, and, in time, the negative loaded term “sects” ("cults"), a concept traditionally beeing employed in theological discussions to denote a deviation from the official teachings of the Norwegian Lutheran Church (the so-called dissenters), became the accepted definition of New Religious Movements.

In more recent times the term fundamentalism has been used to describe specific negative aspects of, among others, New Religious Movements. Fundamentalism is thus defined as “a picture of the world where religious authority dominates and is unquestioned and absolute and not open to discussion, criticism or alteration". (Lawrence, 1995, discussed by Brekke, 2004, pg. 193)  Fundamentalism is therefore an ever existing phenomenon not primarily tied to the religious sphere.

The official academic term to-day is New Religious Movements. But this terminology only covers what is new, and excludes those that are more institutionalized and those which base their thoughts on old ideas, visions or truths that are discovered anew and found to be relevant to today’s thinking. Alternative Religious Movements can be interpreted in such a way as to include almost anything in the sense that all congregations to a certain degree could be a religious alternative.

A common problem for these to terms is that both have a relatively permanent and categorical definition of various religious alternatives, which greatly limits religious groups or their subsidiaries to develop in other directions or express themselves in a different manner.  It would appear to be a world of difference from a regular Pentecostal congregation and the Knutby group in Sweden, the latter considered itself part of the Pentecostal movement.

Considering the term “isolated religious grups” it can also be used to discuss groups not associated with Christianity. But the term is limited due to the question of where are the limitations when using words like "closed" or "isolated". In relation to what?  Geography? Social compatibility? Others?


The sect consept

This expression "Sect" (in Norway "Sekt" is used in the same way as Cult in US) is well established in the population, and has to a degree been used as a scientific term. But what we really mean by it is unclear. The following illustrate how a term can have different interpretations:

  1. The traditional use has been theological, thereby leaving it up to theologicans to define what is and what is not a sect. This hides the fact that in western Christian inspired cultures, not the least here in Norway, we have a long history of disagreement about what is “the true religion” and how far do we stretch this in relation to dissenters.
  2. The Big Norwegian Encyclopedia (1989) defines this as those who have broken away from the established congregations. But many well established religious organizations have initially been non-conformist. This concerns both Islam and Christianity which were, at one time, defined as dissenters due to their conviction that the Jewish religion did not have the correct, og full, understanding of God’s will. Another difficulty is that not all religious groups that society in general assumes are sects have been non-conformist.
  3. Sects have also been perceived as a small group of people living in their own world with their own special religious interests. This definition excludes larger trends and organizations, but includes cloisters, which in the population as a whole is not considered sectarian.
  4. Ottossen (1997) states that autocracy and fundamentalism are the two basics for a sect. It is common, for example, to point to other groups with characteristics that are potentially negative, for example that the atmosphere is controlling as far as thoughts and feelings, and/or being autocratic, stringent, perfectionist, having charismatic leadership, separating people into normal or pathological individuals, and being authoritarian, rhetorically dogmatic, rigid, extreme, marginal, fundamentalistic, categorizing and/or preaching.
  5. There are those who refer to groups who do not comply, with basic and accepted principles in our society or the UN’s Bill of Rights, for example, respect, freedom and equality. However, as the Bill of Rights is to be interpreted according to our cultural background, it is assumed that this is a product of modern thinking that will include all trains of thought that are not a product of western tradition.
  6. There are specific occurrences where Norwegian politicians have used the term when discussing the so called “sect schools” with specific reference to speaking in tongues (Gunnestad, 2006) and “closed societies.”

In the USA there is an ongoing discussion concerning the concept “cult” which is often used in the same manner that we use the word “sect”. Langone (1999) who represents the ICSA / International Cultic Studies Association (former AFF - American Family Foundation) states that the difficulties sociologists specializing in religious studies encountered during the last 20 years in replacing the difficult cult concept with New Religious Movements and alternative religious groups, implies that this is still a usable term when clearly defined, yet not so stringent that the term becomes useless. Besides Langone says that it is often difficult for others to understand the meaning of New Religious Movements without using the cult concept. Saliba (2003) states that AFF is too narrow in its interpretation, by saying that they do not use the term cult in an objective way, emphasing the negative aspects.

In an article from 1998 I concidered the sect concept as relevant in scientific study (Totland 1998), but not now. The reasons for this is as follows.

  1. There are no objective criteria for such a definition.
  2. One limits the scope by discussing a phenomenon only related to religous grups, thereby excluding non-religious grups. In the USA during the last 25 years there has been a growing tendency not to relate the cult concept to religious groups (Rudin, 2002).
  3. Analytically the cult concept has no meaning or content. It is simply a social term that to a very slight degree provides any insight into the concrete mechanisms that provide the basis for the way a particular movement practices its faith. In revealing the actual characteristics and the inner dynamics, ther is a need for more extensive empirical studies and a closer analysis of the social and psychological mechanisms that influence people both within and outside these environments, than just the term sect.
  4. Wanting a constructive dialogue with these groups, and showing them respect, there is no good staring point using such a tainted word.
  5. It can be tempting to construct a definition with a basis in one spesific religious movement giving a negative impression, in order to use the same definition to “prove” that the movement is a sect.
  6. It is a static description of specific congregations, leaving little room for the fact that within such groups there room for great variation and that the particular movement can have altered over time.
  7. It can be percied as talking about organized groups where alle members are "cultic". In reality we talk about different sub-groups more or less dominating an organized group, including groups most people would not concider to be cultic.

Even though I find the concept sect in scholarly study useless, it is imperative to accept its existence among the population. And studying the various use of “sect” in the population, is in itself a challenge for research. So why is this concept still popular, in spite of its being negative? Maybe because the population need to have a simple way to categorize a complex phenomenon by using terminology that is already familiar. Or maybe because New Religious Movements may seem incomprehensible, strange and threatening, and one chooses to handle this ”fear of the unknown” by describing them in a negative way (Kilbourne & Richardson, 1986). Such groups can certainly appear threatening in so far as they claim to define and represent the whole picture of existence. In addition, their mere existence may awaken attitudes in oneself that one is trying to repress, thereby provoking aggression.

The sect concept is, to my way of thinking, able to be used in a scientific way only as long as the focus is on the way people use it to define this social phenomenon. Should the choice still fall on this terminology it is imperative to state how the term is used.


But there are different opinions on using this concept.  Here is an exampel on a comment relatet to the cult-concept. The say here: "The reason we use the term ‘cult’ anyway is that the word tends to be the first that comes to mind when someone is looking for help." The argument is understandable, but in my opinion not good enough. It is simple in the start of a a conversation rather to say that "I am now talking about groups that most people describe as "cults" and then further on tell why one is using andother concept. Besides, I think that it is important to discripe people from "other groups" in a most possible respectfull way, and avoid a "we-and-them" attitude".
As a paralell it is like describing certain groups of peple as "negroes" - which in a certain way is correct due to the colour of their skin, yet should be avoided because it is a loaded concept, many people use it in a disparagingly way and can bli experienced as disrespectfully, even if it difficult to find a synonymously concept (like blacks, darkskinned, people with african backgruoud or afroamericans.
Actually it is of of no interest, or at least immaterial, what colour another person has.
Besides: We are all in a situation where we unconsciously might be "cought up" by one or several mecanisms we think only exist among "cultmembers". Actually we are all in the same boat






What are the characteristics of New religious movements?

Michaelsen (2005) claim, from a sociological viewpoint, that New Religious Movements are to be seen as a system that employs a special strategy to foment survival in a world that doesn’t support such a philosophy. Further attempts to describe the special attributes will always be a simplification, either due to the description not being relevant to all movements or because one elucidates mechanisms that can be found in non-religious groups as well.

One way of describing the distinguishing characteristics of New Religious Movements can be to put emphasis on the prophet(s), the one(s) who started the movement. The starting point is this prophet experiencing a form of cognitive discord. This can have been the result of inconsistency in a religious movement, for example “how can one assume that God is love when He at the same time created hell?” (This being the basis for the Seventh Day Adventists as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses) or ideological discrepancies in society, for example "How can a society exist in a moral abyss despite norms for the opposite?". Certain individuals experience this discord more upsetting than others, and attempt with great intensity to find a solution both for themselves and the world in general. The aim is to create a new moral orientation both for the individual and for society (Burrige, 1969, pg. 162). Wallace (1956) uses her idea “revitalization movements” as a synonym for New Religious Movements and explains their existence in the following way (pg. 264-281). “With a few exceptions; every religious revitalization movement with which I am acquainted has been originally conceived in one or several hallucinatory visions by a single individual.  A supernatural being appears to the prophet-to-be, explains his own and his society’ as being entirely or partly a result of the violation of certain rules, and promises individual and social revitalization if the injunctions are followed and the rituals practiced, but personal and social catastrophe if they are not.” Foster (2007) had a discussion about what characterizes the prophet’s leadership qualities: He maintains that in this particular group it is not unusual to find people with manic depressive symptoms and confirms this by having seen a number of prophet representatives with these traits. William James also discusses this problem in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. This group that James refers to as “religious geniuses” show a religious fanaticism that far exceeds the normal. “Religion exists not as a dull habit, but as an acute fever” (pg. 24). He further states: “They have known no measure, been liable to obsessions and fixed ideas; and frequently they have fallen into trances, heard voices, seen visions, and presented all sorts of peculiarities which are ordinarily classed as pathological. Often, moreover, these pathological features in their career have helped to give them their religious authority and influence.” Foster (2007) also has a hypothesis that individuals with various forms of mania to a great degree are able to convince themselves and others that their insight is directly inspired by God or other spiritual phenomenon. Or as James expressed it: "If there were such a thing as inspiration from a higher realm, it might well be that the neurotic temperament would furnish the chief condition of the requisite receptivity".

How are we to understand such phenomena? One can look at “the spiritual creativity” as a form of prophetic revelation exclusively as a ”psychic problem” for the individual, and as a problem for society, and agree with Wallace who describes their experience as “hallucinatory”. One can join James and avoid similar reductionism and describe phenomena without really questioning what lies behind of spiritual reality and agree that the individual has the right to believe as he does. We can also view these prophet like personalities as something either who “in any case” will always be a part of our culture and who with their good qualities contribute new, refreshing and important perspectives. A parallel situation shows us that creative people like authors, novelists, and poets have a greater leaning towards psychic problems, and then usually manic and depressive states. Foster is of the opinion that we are really discussing the same state that we find with the religious prophets. The phenomenon is as follows: Creative processes can be judged as a reaction towards stress (cognitive discord) which results in cognitive fragmentation with the need to reconstruct. While this is going on there is a state of mental imbalance, “improvement “is achieved when cognitive harmony and reorientation is attained. If, on the other hand, this isn’t achieved, the result can be serious mental illness. In summation Foster describes the prophet figure thus (pg.14): ”Even, more than in other types of artistic creativity, religious creativity shows what a fine line separates insanity and social disorganization from ecstasy and the highest visionary reorganization of the individual and  society. The prophet, as Kenelm Burridge suggests, is both a dangerous and necessary person, an adventurer who puts himself at risk in order to try more fundamentally than the average person to make sense of his confusing world. As Burridge notes (pg.162): “It is not appropriate to think of a prophet as reduced in size to a schizophrenic or a paranoid, someone mentally sick. In relation to those to whom he speaks a prophet is necessarily corrupted by his wider experience. He is an “outsider“, an odd one, extraordinary. Nevertheless, he specifically attempts to initiate, both in himself and in others, a process of moral regeneration.”

However, what are the consequences when new religious congregations are formed by this type of prophet? The usual result, as I see it, is religious elitism. An elitist way of thinking presents a picture in which that group represents the Varsity group certainly superior to other groups of individuals. This elite way of thinking is familiar to us from the political arena (for example fascism) and from other cultural groups or nations who consider themselves superior to others. Such a way of thinking is anti-humanistic and respectless because it denies the fact that we are all equal. In relation to religious elitism it can be illustrated by special congregations give the impression that they, in contrast to others, have discovered and practice exclusive knowledge, ideas, insight, visions, competence or revelations, and due to this have the right to be an exclusive representative and conveyor of these aspects. In other words “When God has revealed this to us (Or:” When we are the only ones who are enlightened”) it must mean that there is something very special about us, in a positive way, of course”. These viewpoints are made legitimate by (1) including or excluding specific sosical categories in relation to the surroundings (“we and them”), (2) challenge a conventional dogma and using an either/or reasoning, (3) move to extremes as far as social integration is concerned  either by total isolation  or venture into direct confrontation with the established society (Brekke, 2004), (4) defend their point of views from their own experience ("our scriptures tells us that God, in these times, has chosen us to…..etc”), (5)  refer to external criticism as justification for their own existence, and (6) define other groups as illegitimate. Other religious congregations, or other people in general, are considered immature, worthless, ignorant, negligent, lost, hypocritical, blind or devilish, and some thank God that they are different from other people/ other religious individuals/other Christians. These congregations picture themselves as representing the “only really true”, the “superior“ or the ”enlightened” knowledge and membership here among these people is a precondition to becoming a part of this “secret”. The consequences of such a train of thought can be manifold: Some, though not all, place this as the reason for their very existence and what they do with it. Some, but not all, reject their former social contacts.  Some view this “call” and its obligation with pleasure and enthusiasm: They “know” something others do not, they are chosen by God himself to play center stage in The Great Plan to Save the World, and have become “a part of the solution and no longer a part of the problem” in the world. In addition to this one can look forward to crowning glory and honor in the afterlife if one is truly obligated. Others may feel, even if they feel a certain amount of gladness due to what they “know”, will simultaneously feel the obligation of obedience to God as a heavy burden if one cannot fulfill everything, as well as experiencing  a continual fear  of damnation if one doesn’t follow God’s will (well enough). Some repress their own ability to reflect and analyze by avoiding any suggestion that implies that the group they belong to isn’t “perfect “. And some claim that the religious world they believe in is identical to, and cannot be separated from, their own personal interpretation of this, so called egosyntonic interpretation. Wormnes (1981 pg. 188) states the following: Egosyntonic interpretation is often used by a client to tyrannize both himself and his surroundings. At times they are an ideological conviction and this becomes a guideline in a person’s life. Watzlawick (1976) goes to the extent to describe such ideological use of one’s own reality as directly threatening. He says: “It becomes more dangerous if it is coupled with the missionary zeal to enlighten the rest of the world, whether the rest of the world wishes to be enlightened or not (Watzlawick, 1976 pg. 8).”

For scholars who wish to use the term sect it is not unusual for them to point to religious elitism as a focal point (Hutten, 1957; Lifton, 1961; Hoekema, 1972; Wallis,1990; Gustavsson, 1991). And Wilson (1990) chooses to define sect movements as those groups that exist in a tense relationship with traditional religion and society in general, and emphasize exclusivity and a monopoly on the truth as two of seven distinct features.

There are, as far as I am able to judge, several examples from Norway that show Christiany inspired groups that in an initial phase showed respect for other Christian groups and who conveyed a theological basis that resulted in them being respected by the established Christian organizations, but at the same time have a profile showing their own unique insight or so-called expertise which caused them to see themselves an elite congregation.

Occasionally it becomes obvious that such groups exist. Some do not even hide the fact that they represent a religious elite movement in society, their group has been chosen by God, the basis for their faith being the prophet’s revelation, that they are holier than other religious congregations, that they are the only ones who know what is really true, that they are the only ones who can truly relate what God “really” means (Bakkevig, 2005), or that they are the only ones who represent the true and authentic version. At other times it isn’t quite that obvious: There are, for example, religious groups that express the idea of inclusion, while at the same time can appear to be excluding (for example Bahá’i). Nevertheless we must ascertain that all groups in principle undergo a continual process of change, both inwardly and outwardly. A relevant example of this in relation to elite religious congregations would be the so-called Anabaptists who were very active in the 1500s and who leaned towards brotherly love, generosity, and helpfulness while they attempted to have the least contact with the outside world, but who later did a complete about face, got into serious conflict with society, and saw themselves as participants in the cosmic world of good and evil (Brekke, 2004). There are also a number of groups that state they are changing and become more middle of the roaders. An example of this is Enevald Flåten, the leader of “The Living Word” in Bergen who, in an interview in "Vårt Land" 07.17.97 (pg. 16) says that he regrets having criticized others by stating that “The Living Word” was the only true proponent of the real truth. “The dumbest thing I’ve obviously done is to criticize others, to say that “we have the truth, you others are only religious”. This is something I sincerely apologize for. ” Similar statements have come from the leader of Oslo’s Christian Center, Åge Ålekjær in "Vårt Land" (01.03.06, pg. 14) in an interview entitled “A Little More Easygoing“: "We were much more aggressive in our preaching of the gospel in the beginning. We were so convinced that what we were doing was correct that we almost became a sect.  This created a good deal of tension when we were together with other Christians, despite the fact that we had decreed in our rules and regulations that it was important to have a good relationship with other church communities”. At the same time "Vårt Land" (01.04.06 pg. 2) had a comment by the editor with the title “Repentant Sinner?” which questioned just how deep the change of heart really went. Other religious communities are, on the other hand, more difficult to categorize as they often vacillate from one viewpoint to another. An example of this, based on my own observations, is as follows: A religious group establishes itself on the basis of one person who claims having had a vision and given a task by God to reach out to other people with the same vision. The group then finds out that there is so much ignorance from the outside world concerning this vision that they draw the conclusion that this group must be specially chosen by God to pass this on and that one must become a member of the said group to be a part of this knowledge. Over an extended period of time this attitude will lead to internal strife: Some discover that there are also others who have had the same vision and therefore moderate their views, while others end up, due to their excludinging attitude, in confrontation with other. Thereby the group move toward polarization and splitting up. Due to former cooperation and unity, or perhaps on other grounds, there is over time a kind of compromise. The congregation chooses to present itself in a more embracing manner, for example, by moderating their principles and calling It advice, while certain more radical elements prefer to “lie low” without really renouncing their religious elitism.


How some New religious movements arises and develop


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