CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


organized by CESNUR, Center for Religious Studies and Research at Vilnius University, and New Religions Research and Information Center
Vilnius, Lithuania, April 9-12 2003  

New Religious Movements’ Opinions on the Hungarian Society

by Péter Török, Department for the Studies of Religion, University of Szeged, Hungary
A paper presented at the CESNUR 2003 conference, Vilnius, Lithuania. Preliminary version. Do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

While several works have studied the reception of new religious movements (NRMs) in different societies[1], it has been rarely, if ever attempted to probe systematically how NRMs evaluate their relationship with a particular society. The Department for the Studies of Religion at the University of Szeged in Hungary has had the opportunity to conduct a three-staged systematic research of NRMs in the country. The first stage is a semi-structured interview[2] with the leaders of the NRMs, which is followed by a questionnaire survey conducted among the members of several movements. In the third phase, a so-called creed-analysis closes our research.

The first phase, where the leaders of NRMs talked about their belief system, history, demographic features, geographical location, relation to the host society and other churches, etc. in the framework of the semi-structured interview, is already finished. The 68 interviews covered about two thirds (63 percent) of the registered churches[3] in Hungary. This calculation of the ‘response rate' is very conservative, because if we accepted the claim of the Prime Minister's Office that at least 25 percent of the 135 registered churches were not functioning, the response rate would be 77 percent[4]. Before presenting the findings on NRMs' opinions on Hungarian society, I have to briefly clarify some definitional problems and describe these religious organizations.

The Problems of Defining New Religious Movements in Hungary

According to an internationally recognized scholar of sociology, “most of the movements referred to as part of the current wave of new religious movements are new in that they have become visible in their present form since the Second World War"[5]. In the societies of Central and Eastern Europe, however, some religious organizations existed well before the end of World War II, but under the Communist era their operation was illegal or allowed only under severely restricted conditions[6]. As a consequence, they could function visibly only after 1990. The International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), for example, does not have a long institutional background[7], let alone in this region of Europe, but in 1998, Hungarians were more familiar with it than with the different traditional orthodox churches, the Unitarians, Adventists or Methodists.[8] All in all, these older religious organizations along with several others are also ‘new' to the Hungarians. Consequently, with the exception of the so-called historical churches[9], we had to include all the other registered churches in our departmental research. This necessity, originating from the Communist heritage of the country, will create an opportunity to compare and contrast the opinions of the ‘old' and new NRMs on the Hungarian society. However, a brief description of the interviewed churches must precede.

General Characteristics of the Interviewed Churches

The characterization of Hungarian NRMs requires a two-stepped proceeding. First a few words describe the basic characteristics of all the interviewed Hungarian NRMs, which is followed by a short description of those movements which were established under Communism or after its fall.

General Characterization

Most of the so-called non-historical Hungarian churches are rather young. Two thirds of them were established after 1987, half of them after the fall of Communism (1990). Similarly, two thirds of the surveyed smaller churches are of Christian origins. The second largest religious tradition is Buddhism with eight different ‘churches'[10]. About 10 percent of the interviewed churches do not have an organizationally accepted creed, in other words, they lack the necessary condition of a unified ideological background. Similarly, the proportion of communities without precise criteria for membership is 10 percent. At least in theory, mixed membership[11] is possible in two thirds of these religious organizations.

It cannot be said that the membership of these young churches would also be young. Only a third of the interviewed leaders claimed that their members are rather young. Women make up the majority of members in two thirds of these groups, however, the leaders are, without exception, men. With regard to their moral teaching, we can say that they are rather conservative. In an 8-item index, investigating whether pre-marital and extramarital sexuality, homosexuality, birth control, etc. is allowed, more then half of the interviewed churches (53 percent) achieved only two points or even less.

NRMs established under or after the fall of Communism

Churches of Christian faith in the subgroup of NRMs established in the post-Communist era make up only 54 percent, reflecting the influx of other religious traditions. These post-Communist NRMs are characterized by a greater proportion of groups without an organizationally accepted creed (18 percent) or precise criteria for membership (18 percent). The possibility of mixed membership is also somewhat higher (72 percent) than the average of all the interviewed churches. In other words, post-Communist NRMs give the impression to be less organized. These groups, furthermore, seem to attract in greater proportion the youth; almost half of them (47 percent) reported a younger than average membership. In their gender distribution and moral teaching, however, these groups did not seem to differ from the other interviewed churches.

New Religious Movements' Opinions on Hungarian Society

The interviewed leaders could express their opinion on the Hungarian society in five different areas. Thus I will present their

Ø    general opinion on the Hungarian society in comparison with that on the neighboring countries, the US and France
Ø    evaluation of the three post-Communist governments
Ø    satisfaction with the legal regulations of establishing churches
Ø    opinion on the Hungarian media
Ø    satisfaction with public education

General opinion on the Hungarian Society
In general, the responding leaders of the non-historical churches consider the attitude of the Hungarian society towards them as friendly: the average of the answers given on a five-point scale was 3.83. In itself, this number would not say much, because these leaders are suspicious of any research conducted among them. The echoes of the often chanted Communist slogan about the ‘good relationship between the government and the churches' are still in their ears and more so in their memories. Therefore, I also asked about their brethren's relationship with the governments of the neighboring countries. This question seemed necessary not only to relate the Hungarian situation to other societies but also because we generally lack information on the opinion of NRMs on their host societies in this region. Obviously, only those communities were able to reply to these questions which have functioning communities in the neighboring countries. According to the data presented in Table 1, even in this comparison, the position of the Hungarian society is rather good.

Table 1: The Rank Order of the Countries, Based on the Evaluation of the Leaders of Hungarian NRMs in 2002.

Rank Order



Total No. of Responses

Evaluation by 'old' NRMs (No)

Evaluation by 'new' NRMs (No)





4.53 (15)

4.45 (19)





3.67 (9)

4.5 (8)





4.33 (9)

3.64 (11)





4.05 (18)

3.94 (47)





3.83 (12)

3.80 (15)





3.25 (8)

4.28 (7)





3.25 (4)

4.00 (5)





3.00 (4)

4.00 (6)


Czech Rep.



2.86 (7)

4.28 (7)





3.28 (7)

3.64 (7)





3.28 (9)

3.09 (11)

We might be surprised that not only Ukraine but even Romania got ahead of Hungary in this list. From the comments given by the leaders to this question, it can be assumed that the brethren are in areas populated mostly by Hungarians. The NRMs conduct significant charity work in these regions with the blessings and benevolent attitude of local authorities. The main complaint of the leaders of NRMs about the countries following Hungary was the governmental support of the so-called local or national churches. Finally, the hard and sometimes harsh anti-cult policy of France is well-known even among Hungarian church-leaders.

When we compare the evaluations given by the ‘old' and ‘new' NRMs, it is worth noting that in contrast with the leaders of the older organizations, the leaders of younger movements considered their brethren's situation better and more promising in the majority of the neighboring countries. Furthermore, these differences are rather high, especially in the case of the Czech Republic. The explanation of this fact must be complex, but it would probably include the older movements' greater awareness of problems their brethrens face in other countries.

The evaluation of the post-Communist governments

A significant part of the semi-structured interviews probed the NRMs' views on the church policy of the Antall, Horn and Orbán governments. The number of responding churches increases by each government because new churches were established and registered in each year. The first and the third governments were unquestionably in favor of the so-called historical churches. Under both the Antall and the Orbán governments, legal proposals were presented at the parliament to render the registration of new religious organizations more difficult. Consequently, and not surprisingly, the Horn government received the highest evaluation from the responding non-historical churches. However, it must be noted that the ‘old' NRMs, which are exclusively of Christian origins, favored the Antall and Orbán governments over the Horn government, but the ‘new' NRMs, representing the majority in this survey, were much more critical about them, especially about the Orbán government.


Table 2: The Rank Order of the post-Communist governments, Based on the Evaluation of the Leaders of Hungarian NRMs in 2002.

Rank Order



Total No. of Responses

Evaluation by ‘old' NRMs (No.)

Evaluation by ‘new' NRMs (No.)





3.21 (12)

3.77 (30)





3.42 (12)

3.19 (21)





3.29 (12)

2.53 (37)

It should also be mentioned that the first place of the Horn government in this evaluation is not the result of a positively discriminating policy for the smaller churches, rather, it originates in this government's measures which weakened and afflicted severely the so-called historical churches. Furthermore, some of these measures damaged both the historical and the non-historical churches. The Horn government, for example, introduced the possibility of channeling 1 percent of the income tax to a church. The historical churches noted immediately that their generally old and poor membership could not provide significant financial support to them. However, the organization of informing the faithful and the execution of the channeling of the taxes created a relatively greater burden on the smaller churches than these tasks did on the historical churches whose larger infrastructure could handle them more effectively. Finally, the smaller churches noted with some bitterness that toward the end of its term, even the Horn government was forced to sign an agreement with the Vatican, promising favorable financial support to the Catholic Church.

Their satisfaction with the legal regulations of establishing churches

There is a rather general agreement among the responding NRMs that the law should somehow regulate the establishment of new churches. Only one out of four leaders stated that there should be no regulation whatsoever. However, the present law[12] on the establishment and registration of ecclesiastical organizations seems to be inadequate for about half of the NRMs. During the Orbán cabinet's term, Zsolt Semjén, understate secretary responsible for church-state relations proposed – unsuccessfully – the modification of Act IV/1990. The specialty of the proposal was that apart from defining religion in a combination of substantive and functional terms, it also delineated what did not count as a religion. This proposal divided the NRMs into two, roughly equal camps[13].

However, as we can see in Table 3, the ‘old' NRMs were much more in favor of accepting and enacting the new proposal. The leaders were asked to locate their opinion on a 5-point scale[14], whether the enactment of the proposal rendering registrations more difficult would have been better or worse for the Hungarian society. It is not surprising that the older churches, weakened by the Communists' oppressive measures, would not welcome enthusiastically the newer ecclesiastical organizations on the free – and harsh – religious market.


Table 3. The evaluation of the new proposal by the leaders of Hungarian NRMs.



Average score

‘Old' NRMs



‘New' NRMs







The Opinion of NRMs on the Hungarian Media and Public Education

The Hungarian media is rather mediocre in the eyes of the leaders of NRMs.[15] As it was presented, the Antall and Orbán governments headed by Christian and national parties were in favor of the so-called historical churches. It might, therefore, be assumed that the media organs of the Socialist and Liberal parties, i.e. the coalition partners of the Horn and the current cabinets, would present the NRMs in a more favorable fashion. However, most of the answering leaders did not feel this preferential treatment; in fact, they considered the Socialist – Liberal media slightly worse than the Hungarian media[16].

Concerning public education, most of the NRMs are satisfied with it[17], in so far they can supplement it with their own belief system. In this regard, there is no noticeable difference between the ‘old' and ‘new' NRMs. Nevertheless, one third of them intends to open their own school in the future.




As a consequence of the Communist period, not only the newly established churches but even several religious organizations, operating in the country for decades or centuries, are ‘new' to the Hungarians. The ‘old' and ‘new' NRMs consider the attitude of the Hungarian society towards them as friendly, and that of the media as mediocre or neutral. Despite the general satisfaction with public education, one third of the NRMs intend to establish their own school in the future.

With regard to the church policies of the post-Communist governments, the NRMs considered the Socialist-Liberal coalition the best. This leading position, however, is the result of a discriminatory policy conducted against the so-called historical churches. In the parliamentary elections of 2002, the country was sharply divided between the Socialist-Liberal and the Christian-national parties. The same division can be discovered among the smaller churches, where the separating line is located between the ‘old' and ‘new' NRMs. Older NRMs would not only have preferred the Christian-national parties over the Socialist-Liberal forces, they would also have seen the introduction of a more restricting law on the establishment and registration of new ecclesiastical organizations.




Barker, Eileen 1995 New Religious Movements. A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO

Beckford, James A. 1983 "The Public Response to New Religious Movements in Britain" Social Compass 30, 1:49-62

Goswami, Mukunda 1995 "NRM is Four-letter Word: The Language of Oppression." ISKCON Communications Journal, 3, 2 (December): 73-75

Kürti, László 2001 "Psychic Phenomena, Neoshamanism, and the Cultic Millieu in Hungary" Nova Religio. The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 4. 2 (April): 322- 350

Marat, Shterin 2001 "New Religions in the New Russia" Nova Religio. The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions. 4. 2 (April): 310-321.

Richardson, James T. 1983 "New Religious Movements in the United States: a Review." Social Compass 30, 1-85-110

Schanda, Balázs (ed.) 2002 Legislation on Church-State Relations in Hungary. Budapest: Ministry of Cultural Heritage

Stark, Rodney 1993 "Europe's Receptivity to New Religious Movements: Round Two." Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 32, 4 (December) 389-397

Tomka, M. 2000 “Felekezeti különbségek a közvéleményben" (Denominational Differences in Public Opinion) in Szabó, L. – Tomka, M. – Horváth, P. (eds.) …és akik mást hisznek? Hívek és egyházak egymásról. (… And Those, Who Believe Something Else? Members and Churches of Other Faiths.) Budapest: Balassi Kiadó

[1] See, for example, Beckford (1983), Richardson (1983), Stark (1993), Marat (2001), Kürti (2001).

[2] By semi-structured interview I mean that although the areas of inquiries consisted mostly of closed questions, the interviewees were encouraged to add whatever they considered necessary to illuminate an answer properly. The structure and the questions of the interviews were presented at the biannual conference of ISORECEA in Zagreb, in 2001.

[3] The requirements of registration are rather formal. According to Act IV/1990, sections 8-9, a "church has to be founded by 100 private individuals, has to have a charter … and elected organs of administration and representation. The founders have to submit a declaration whereby the organization they have set up has a religious character and its activities comply with the Constitution and the Law" (Schanda 2002:19).

[4] However, based on the lack of any means to communicate with them and the fact that they did not receive from anybody the 1 percent of the income tax, which can be channeled to the churches, I considered only 14 churches (10 percent) inoperative. Apart from the inoperative churches, 13 other organizations were, for all practical purposes (such as duplicates or part of other churches), nonexistent. In addition to the 68 registered churches, I interviewed the leaders of 4 non-registered churches as well (the Family, Sri Chimnoy, Ananda Marga, and Menora, a Messianic Jewish group). Somewhat similar research was done by the London based INFORM, but the response rate of their mailed questionnaire was only about 30 percent. I was informed, furthermore, that researchers did something similar in Japan resulting in about a response rate of 70 percent, but I could not obtain any precise information on this research.

[5] Barker (1995:145), italics in origin.

[6] The Jehovah's Witnesses, the Latter Day Saints of Jesus Christ, or as they are called, the Mormons and the followers of the Hungarian Religion are only a few of the several examples in the Hungarian case.

[7] ISKCON was founded by A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada in 1966 in the United States. I am aware of the sensitivity what labeling ISKCON as a NRM might create (c.f. Goswami 1995), and therefore I apologize for being unable to come up with a more neutral and less controversial term.

[8] Two different surveys confirmed this finding (Tomka 2000).

[9] In Hungary, the Catholic, Reformed, and Lutheran Churches, furthermore, the Association of Jewish Congregations are considered to be ‘historical'. In the Communist period, all the other legally functioning churches were ordered to operate under the umbrella of the so-called Association of Free Churches (SZET). Instead of naming precisely the ‘non-historical churches', the Communist media referred only to the “member churches of SZET", contributing thus to the unawareness of the traditional, but smaller Hungarian churches.

[10] It does not mean, though, that the membership of these Buddhist communities would be the second largest, because the overlapping of memberships is very characteristic of them.

[11] In other words, simultaneous membership in two or more religious organizations is permitted and/or conceivable.

[12] Act IV/1990 is presented in footnote #3.

[13] As we can see from the total average score (2.85), leaders claimed in about the same numbers that the new law would have been much better (22) as they claimed the opposit (24). Only ten leaders were neutral in this question.

[14] On the scale, "1" represented the "much worse" situation, "5" represented the "much better" situation.

[15] It scored 3,19 on a 5-point scale.

[16] The Socialist-Liberal media scored 3.05 on a 5 point scale. However, it is true, that the 'old' NRMs agreed somewhat more with the statement that the Socialist-Liberal media represent NRMs in a more favorable fashion.

[17] On average, about 80 percent of the responding church leaders found public education adequate.

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