CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

Defining the New Spirituality

by George D. Chryssides (University of Wolverhampton) - A paper presented at CESNUR 14th International Conference, Riga, Latvia, August 29-31, 2000. Preliminary version -- do not reproduce without the consent of the author

In this paper I wish to return to a seemingly banal question – one which has been discussed many times before by scholars of new religious movements (NRMs). What is a new religious movement? Despite the fact that it has been addressed on numerous occasions – including two attempts by the present author (Chryssides, 1994; 1999) – I am not convinced that an adequate definition has yet been devised.

The question is an important one for a variety of reasons. First, those of us who teach courses in NRMs need to justify our choice of subject matter, and have to set parameters so that students are clearly aware of which movements are legitimate topics for their researches and which lie outside the scope of their subject area. Second, it is important to use a definition that serves as an effective rejoinder to organizations and movements who typically question their inclusion under the umbrella ‘new religious movements’. Sometimes this is because they do not consider themselves new: ISKCON, for example, claims to be the world’s oldest religion, drawing from the ancient Vedas and from the stories of Krishna’s life, which purportedly dates back to before 3,000 BCE. The Latter-day Saints and the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to have recovered the traditions respectively of the Church God gave to Adam, and first century Christianity. Practitioners of Vipassana will claim that insight meditation was taught and practised by the Buddha himself. The Baha’i insist that they are not an NRM, but an emergent world religion.

Third, given the anti-cult movement’s (ACM’s) insistence that the term ‘new religious movements’ is simply a euphemism for ‘cults’, NRMs can understandably feel that the seemingly less innocuous term ‘NRM’ lumps them together with a somewhat unsavoury group of religious or quasi-religious movements. Some time ago the author took some students on a study weekend in London, taking in the Nipponzon Myohoji peace pagoda. When one of the nuns discovered that the programme also included the Unification Church, she was outraged, insisting that there was no respect in which they were ‘like the Moonies’. Attempts to persuade her that one of the objects of the study visits was to reveal the diversity of new forms of spirituality were of no avail. This incident highlights the need to be able to present a clear definition of NRMs that is value-free.

It is largely the media and the anti-cult movement that have been proactive in defining the scope of the ‘cult scene’. Groups as disparate as the Unification Church, the Church of Scientology, est (Erhard Seminar Training), TM, Promise Keepers, neuro-linguistic programmers, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and the Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, all attract the media label ‘cultic’. Anti-cultism goes further, and Christian anti-cult organizations have added Unitarian Universalists, Dungeons and Dragons, some forms of alternative medicine, and, most recently, Pokémon (Reachout Trust, 2000). Reading the annals of anti-cult literature, it can often be difficult to see any coherence in the range of movements that are judged to fall within anti-cultism’s remit: the concept ‘cult’ seems to merely encompass a somewhat nebulous cluster of organizations and movements that are simply disliked.

There is no doubt considerable muddle in the anti-cultists’ selection of their targets. Some Christian anti-cultists, I believe, have erroneously conflated the ‘Satanic’ with almost anything they judge to be contrary to evangelical Protestantism (presumably the children’s role-play fantasy games), causing one commentator to conclude that one in ten members of the British population in 1995 were covert Satanists (cited in Harvey, 1995). Other objects of criticism seem more like life skills (neuro-linguistic programming), forms of alternative therapy (Reiki, homeopathy, acupuncture), and oracular devices (Tarot, astrology, biorhythms). Even some sectors of the anti-cult movement seem now willing to acknowledge a certain degree diversity amongst ‘cults’; in Britain, both the Cult Information Centre (CIC) and FAIR (Family Action Information and Resource) now distinguish between ‘religious cults’ and ‘therapy cults’. (The latter are sometimes also called ‘self improvement’ or ‘counselling’ cults.) (Haworth, 1994; FAIR, 1994.)

There is certainly a distinction to be drawn between movements and organizations that one might legitimately regard as religions, or even ‘religious’, and those movements that simply afford ‘life tools’. However, I doubt whether the twin concepts of ‘religious cults’ and ‘therapy cults’ encompass all the subject matter which the anti-cult movement wishes to take aboard. est, TM, Tarot, the Emin Foundation, the School of Economic Science, and biorhythms, do not seem neatly to fall into either category. However, there is no necessity to devise an academically sound definition that is wholly congruent with that of the ACM. While a roughly congruent definition enables academic researchers to engage in debate with and offer appropriate correctives to the ACM’s inaccuracies and scaremongering, I think it is appropriate at times for scholars to declare that certain areas lie outside their field of expertise. An adequate definition of NRMs may therefore cause us to undertake some tidying up around the edges, removing certain movements (Pokémon and Dungeons and Dragons, seem obvious examples) from our range of interests, and perhaps acknowledging that other movements that have not hitherto been considered as NRMs, to be so regarded.

Some attempted definitions

In his book Perspectives on New Religious Movements (1995), John Saliba considers three types of definition that are characteristically offered: (1) theological; (2) psychological, and (3) sociological.

An example of (1) – mine, not Saliba’s – comes from Christian anti-cultists McDowell and Stewart, who proceed to offer their ‘theological’ definition:

A cult is a group of people basing their beliefs upon the world view of an isolated leadership, which always denies the central doctrines of Christianity as taught from the Bible. (McDowell and Stewart, 1992, p 15.)

The problems of such a definition should be plainly apparent. Its sheer scope causes it to embrace other traditional world religions, diaspora religions, and secular organizations, such as Marxism and humanism. Further, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, ‘Jesus Only’ Pentecostalists, among many others, would claim that they affirm Christianity’s central doctrines, as taught in the Bible, accusing the mainstream Churches of having imported ideas such as the Trinity, and the immortality of the soul in place of the resurrection of the body, and so on. While it is a legitimate question to ask what the Bible really teaches on matters of doctrine, such debate must take place in a different arena. Academics, as well as secular cult-monitoring groups, cannot possibly operate with a definition that presupposes specific religious doctrines and declares that they are firmly embedded in Christianity.

Psychological definitions relate to the alleged psychological hold that NRM leaders or their organizations have on enquirers and members. Saliba quotes Philip Cushman, who defines the characteristics of a ‘cult’ as follows. [It]

is controlled by a charismatic leader who is thought to be God or some one who carries an exclusive message from God that elevates him or her above others;

fosters the idea that there is only one correct belief and only one correct practice of that belief;

demands unquestionable loyalty and complete obedience to its restrictive ideas, rules, and totalistic methods;

uses methods of mind control;

uses deception and deceit when recruiting and interacting with the outside world;

systematically exploits a member’s labor and finances; attacks and/or abandons members who disagree with or leave the group. (in Saliba, 1995, p.5.)

Such definitions of course assume, contentiously, that the ‘cults’ are indeed guilty of brainwashing and psychological manipulation. Suffice it to say that such claims run counter to the finds of most academic research: only a small handful of psychologists and psychiatrists (for example Singer and Lifton) support a mind control theory. The ‘marks of the cult’ approach which such definitions presuppose, takes little, if any, account of the fact that new religions change through time. In recent times we have witnessed the deaths of a number of NRM leaders: Prabhupada in 1977, Osho (Rajneesh) in 1985, L. Ron Hubbard in 1986, and Moses Berg in 1994. In any case, as new religions expand, new enquirers are unlikely to meet the leader, who has usually become inaccessible, although they will no doubt hear the group speak of him or her with great approval. One possible theory about charismatic leaders is that, as a movement grows, the charisma that pertains to the leader becomes gradually transferred to his or her followers. It is doubtful whether charisma can be attributed to a supposedly ‘charismatic’ leader unequivocally: charisma must depend as much on the leader’s following as on the leader. (It would make sense to say that I had charisma, but that no one recognized it!) It may be more helpful therefore, as Weber did, to speak of the ‘routinization of charisma’ and to acknowledge that ‘group charisma’ is a greater factor in maintaining a leader’s kudos than any ‘personal magnetism’, if such a thing exists.

I have discussed sociological definitions at some length in Exploring New Religions. Such definitions essentially depend on the typologies developed by Weber, Becker Troeltsch and Yinger, of church, denomination, sect and cult. Part of the difficulty of this typology is devising an agreed definition of ‘cult’, which can be variously understood as a loosely defined group, a group which emphasizes mystical experience (Troeltsch’s ‘mystical’, which contrasted with ‘sect’) or a group which is further removed from dominant religion and culture than the established sect (as with Yinger). A further, more serious, difficulty lies in the fact that different NRMs have different degrees of organization and cohesion, ranging from the Unification Church and the Church of Scientology, whose chain of command is clear and whose practices are prescribed with exactness, to channellers, whose practices vary, and may lack institutional organization.

In what follows, I hope to develop a way of understanding the concept ‘NRM’. To make an obvious point, the term comprises three obvious components (‘N’, ‘R’ and ‘M’). As far as newness is concerned, the bulk of recent literature defines ‘new’ variously as post-World War Two (Clarke, 1987), post-1950s (Barker, 1989), 1960s and 1970s (Melton and Moore, 1982; Beckford, 1985; Nelson, 1987). These time frames are problematic for several reasons. If they relate to the inception of the organizations, relatively few have come into being after the Second World War. The Unification Church and the Church of Scientology would be included if a 1950s cut-off point were adopted, but Vipassana (‘discovered’ in 1914), Krishnamurti (who established his own independent identity as a spiritual leader in 1929), the Soka Gakkai (founded 1930), Brahma Kumaris (1938), and The Way International (1942) would be well out of range. It is also inappropriate to use the date of a religion’s arrival in the west as a definitional criterion. Not only is it the case that several NRMs (like Yogananda’s Self-Realization Fellowship) came to the west in the pre-war period; it is also true that the major world religions (apart from Christianity) arrived substantially in Europe during the post-war period. Reference to the west is also inappropriate since NRMs are a global phenomenon, and not merely something that affects westerners. The recent Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God received coverage in media and anti-cult circles, and has been plainly designated a ‘cult’, despite the fact that it never attempted to penetrate the west, and appears to have attracted no western converts whatsoever.

For these reasons, then, in common with Robert S Ellwood and Harry B Partin, I prefer a more liberal 150-year rule (approximately), which enables the inclusion – with a bit of licence – of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Latter-day Saints, Christadelphians, Christian Science, and Theosophy, although not Swedenborgians or Quakers. (One colleague recently suggested a 200-year time frame, which would justify their inclusion.) This compass would enable the compass of legitimate academic enquiry to be identical with that of the anti-cult movement and the media.

Also important to one’s definition is the non-recognition of such groups by a related mainstream religion (if one exists). In the case of Witnesses, LDS, Christadelphians, Unificationists (among others) their claimed Christian identity is disputed. Either the NRM dissociates itself from the mainstream, as in the case of Mormons and JWs, who insist that mainstream Christianity became corrupted at an early stage, and that their organizations remain the sole true expressions of the faith. Alternatively the NRM may see itself as part of the mainstream religion, but find itself rejected or even expelled – as in the case of the Unification Church.

A few organizations or movements fall within this definition of ‘new’, but nonetheless tend to be excluded by the various interest groups. Unitarian Universalists might be one case in point, having been established through the merger of Unitarians and Universalists in the USA and Canada in 1961. Another example is Pentecostalism: there no real evidence that its followers are reviving an ancient practice that took its rise at the Pentecost following Jesus’ death and presumed resurrection; indeed it took several decades for Christians who were so inclined to make the connection between these exuberant utterances and the early Pentecost experience, talking instead about ‘fire baptism’ or ‘baptism of the Spirit’. Although it is possible to suggest reasons for their exclusion – Unitarianism and Universalism each have a much longer history, and Pentecostalism retains a belief in mainstream Christian doctrine – it may be a salutary exercise for scholars of the new religions to consider whether the edges of their subject-matter need some re-definition.

What is religion?

Something needs to be said about the (real or supposed) religious nature of those organizations and movements that have come to be labelled as NRMs. A common criticism of some NRMs is that they are ‘pseudo-religions’, more accurately businesses or political organizations, simply masquerading as religions in order to enjoy privileges such as tax exemption and religious freedom. Cynics will insist that an organization’s decision to claim or disclaim a religious identity depends on expediency: thus, it is sometimes alleged that Scientologists claim a religious identity to gain taxation benefits and other religious freedom privileges, while one of TM’s aims was to secure the practice of its techniques in American schools, which they certainly could not have done if they were regarded as a religion.

There must be something plausibly religious about a movement or organization for it to count as a religion and hence an NRM. One possible suggestion is that religion demands exclusive allegiance: this would ipso facto exclude Scientology, TM and the Soka Gakkai simply on the grounds that they claim compatibility with whatever other religion the practitioner has been following. Certainly, evangelical Protestantism may be particularly unhappy with such divided loyalties, holding in common with the semitic religions the notion of the ‘jealous god’ who demands exclusive allegiance. Eastern religions do not operate in such an all-embracing way, but allow seekers to use whichever religion offers the particular facility that they need at any particular time. It is normal in Korea, to cite but one example, for individuals to combine Confucianism, Buddhism and shamanism according to their various purposes.

The definition of ‘religion’ remains contested amongst scholars. Historically, a divide has existed between those who opted for a ‘supernaturalist’ definition, and others, like Yinger, have gone for a ‘functional’ one. Others identify a number of salient features associated with religion, for example Ninian Smart, who distinguishes at least six ‘dimensions’ which he believes are characteristic of religion: the experiential, the mythical, the doctrinal, the ethical, the ritual, and the social/institutional. It would not be realistic to try to resolve the question of defining religion here, but it may be sufficient to suggest that there are certain minimal expectations of an organization, movement, ideology or worldview for it appropriately to be judged religious. In particular, one might suggest that a bona fide religion must offer at least one, and possibly more of the following:

(1) Answers to life’s ultimate and fundamental questions, such as ‘Why I am here?’, ‘What happens after I die?’, ‘Is there a God or supernatural force that created and sustains the universe?’

(2) Rites of passage for marking key events in one’s life, in the context of the above answers.

(3) Techniques and strategies for coping with life. This must mean life as a whole, and not simply parts of life, such as personal efficiency, or ability to succeed in one’s work.

(4) Some kind of guide to life in the form of a code of ethics. (This may be formally set out, as in the Jewish-Christian Ten Commandments, or the Buddhist precepts, or it may be implicit.)

I believe that these elements help to sort out what is genuinely a religion and what is not. For example, TM is simply – as they state – a technique. Although it enables one to cope with life, it offers no goal beyond human existence (such as moksha), nor does it offer rites or passage or an ethic. Unlike certain other Hindu-derived movements, TM does not prescribe a dharma to its followers – that is to say a set of spiritual obligations deriving from one’s essential nature. [1] By contrast, Scientology has a cosmology, offers explanations about life before and after our present one, affords an ethic, and has its own rites and ceremonies. The so-called ‘self religions’, sometimes called ‘therapy cults’ and at other times the ‘human potential movement’, have some features associated with religion. It was typical of est not simply to promote its seminars as means of improving personal efficiency; Werner Erhard’s message was that it was the participants’ entire lives that ‘simply did not work’, and the aim was ‘personal transformation’. Admittedly, the human potential religions have tended to lack rites of passage, although one erstwhile Exegesis participant suggested to me that this was because it was young and short-lived, and that it would have been a subsequent development, had it continued.

One further point is worth noting about the concept of religion. The fact that an organization either embraces or rejects being categorized as a religion does not mean that scholars have to follow suit. ‘Religion’ can be either an ‘emic’ or an ‘etic’ concept, and once a scholar has adopted a working definition of religion, it is still possible that an organization rejects the category from within, although it satisfies etic scholarly criteria. The reverse is also true: an organization might claim to be religious, but fail to satisfy criteria imposed by academic study.

What is a movement?

Having made some suggestions about defining religion, it should be apparent that certain organizations and movements that are typically included under the label ‘NRM’ are not strictly religions at all, but are either interest groups within a religious denomination, or forms of spirituality whose follows reject the formal organization that is normally associated with religion. Indeed the term ‘religious movement’ itself is somewhat of an oxymoron: movements are loose, often exploratory and innovative, and tend to lack clearly defined formal members; religions and religious organizations, by contrast, are well organized and more often than not, have fairly clear rules defining who belong and who do not. Thus, while the Soka Gakkai, The Family, and the Unification Church are plainly new religions, there exists a plethora of spiritual movements and organizations that cannot genuinely be regarded as religions in their own right.

The New Age Movement is one such example. It is nebulous, with little formal organization or membership, and its followers often explicitly reject organized religion, particularly traditional Christianity. Other movements that are often included within the category ‘NRM’ have a membership that exclusively belongs to a parent religious tradition, for example Opus Dei, the Neo-Catechumenate, the Focolare and Promise Keepers, none of which are independent religions, but rather seek to reinforce the traditional values of either Roman Catholicism or conservative evangelical Protestantism. They offer no new ethic, no additional rites, with the possible exception of Opus Dei’s penitential practices.

Are these legitimate subjects for inclusion in the study of NRMs? Certainly, their rise, development, teachings and practices are all of interest both to sociologists and religious studies scholars. However, by no means every recently formed religious organization or movement merits serious academic attention by scholars of NRMs, or attracts the ACM’s attention. Cases in point might be the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association, and Christian CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament), both of which are in a sense new religious movements, but yet are plainly different in character from the other movements and organizations mentioned above. To qualify as an NRM, the group presumably must offer something distinctively religious, not simply an ancillary hobby, such as motorcycling, or a political agenda.

The above examples make it evident that there is no straightforward way of defining which organizations and spiritual movements fall within the category ‘NRM’ and which do not. A substantial contributory factor to the problem lies in the sheer diversity, not only of the groups themselves, but also of the types of group that are taken aboard for comment by academics, anti-cultists and the media alike. If an adequate definition of this area of study is to be devised, it is therefore necessary to propose a typology of different types of religious and spiritual groups. What follows is very much an exploratory attempt at devising such a set of categories.

(1) There are spiritual groups that can unproblematically be designated as ‘new religions’ or ‘new religious organizations’. They fall within the 150-year time frame stipulated above, are outside the mainstream, and possess the degree of organization and development that is characteristic of a formal religious group. Examples are the Unification Church, The Family, the Jesus Army, the Soka Gakkai and the Church of Scientology.

(2) There are ‘spiritual movements’, which lack the formal organization that is characteristic of religion, and whose followers are typically more inclined to talk about spirituality than religion, and may even claim to reject organized religion. Examples are the New Age Movement, ‘goddess spirituality’, and possibly wicca and paganism.

(3) There are innovative and reformist groups within existing organized religions, such as Opus Dei. Obviously, most large religious denominations proliferate a variety of interest groups: women’s leagues, youth organizations, liturgical or musical groups. Such groups would not normally fall within the aegis of the study of new religions: although at times such groups may be innovative, they do not normally challenge the conventions of the mainstream religion or denomination from which they emanate. By contrast, a movement that challenges the status quo, such as the Toronto Blessing, represents more than natural organic development within Christianity, but presents a challenge to conventional, more formal ways of worshipping, and hence comes to be regarded with suspicion or even hostility by many mainstream Christians.

(4) There exists a range of interests that are typically associated with spirituality: healing, meditation, visualization and practices that are often labelled ‘occultist’, such as Tarot, kabbalah, and possibly channelling. Although it would be inappropriate to categorize, say, Reiki as a new religion, it is at least an interesting religious phenomenon, and certainly worthy of serious academic study.

(5) Finally there are organizations and movements that offer specific techniques or services, many of which are broadly classified under the umbrella term ‘human potential movement’: biofeedback, biorhythms, neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), and techniques for activities such telephoning selling (Exegesis, now Programmes Ltd). While it is extremely doubtful whether these phenomena are examples of religions, followers often claim that the techniques or results have an important spiritual dimension. Whether such phenomena should be of interest to the student of religion is a matter in need of important debate; however, it can certainly be agreed that they constitute at least a part of the sociologist’s subject matter, if not that of the religious studies scholar.

These five categories are not rigid. Thus, visualization is a practice of a specific religious organization, such as the Western Buddhist Order and hence an aspect of (1); it is an interest within sectors the New Age Movement; or it can be a practice aimed at securing specific pragmatic benefits, such as increased self confidence, greater wealth, or whatever. The existence of overlapping categories is not necessary a weakness, but rather reflects the complexity and multi-faceted nature of new forms of spirituality.

Given such diversity and complexity, the time may now have arrived for scholars to question whether the single category ‘new religious movement’ adequately encapsulates the subject matter that is usually reckoned to fall within its boundaries. Perhaps some new term is needed, such as ‘new spiritual organizations and movements’, which will provide a clearer signal regarding phenomena that deserve attention in this area. Unfortunately the term ‘NRM’ has become so thoroughly familiar that such a change is difficult, but is it too late to admit that it is a term that is not wholly congruent with this area of academic study?


1. [back] or this point I am indebted to my colleague Ron Geaves.


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