CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

Eighteen Years in the Field: Types of New Religious Movements in Bulgaria (1990-2008)

by MARIO MARINOV (Department of Sociology
South-West University “Neofit Rilski”, Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.



The paper describes the types of new religious movements, appearing in Bulgaria after 1990. The diversity ranges from the Unification movement and ISKCON - “world-rejecting” NRMs in the classification of Wallis (1984); through the big variety of charismatic neo-Pentecostal churches (“world-accommodating”); to the White Brotherhood, Sri Chinmoy, the Silva method (“world-affirming”), and many quasi-religious corporations, like AquaSource. The diversity among movements is described in several indicators: former religious affiliation, knowledge about religion, gender, age, social class, ethnic groups, growth.

The different stages of transition from communism are marked by the presence of different types of NRMs:
The beginning of the 1990s – the period of rejecting the communist past – is marked by the appearance of “world-rejecting” NRMs, which tend toward a decline through the years 1990 – 2007. At the middle of the 1990s – the most difficult years of transition in economic terms – there was a steady growth of “world-accommodating” groups such as neo-Pentecostals. The other type – the “world-affirming” is still not very popular in terms of membership, but they tend to appear in the public sphere after Bulgaria became a member of the European Union.

Social reactions towards new religious movements in Bulgaria include the constructions of reality offered by the media, parents and relatives of members of new religious movements, traditional religions, anti-cultists, nationalists, the public administration, human rights activists, the new religious movements themselves, lawyers, therapists, sociologists. The advantages of the sociological construction of reality are discussed. 

* * *

I would like to pay attention to two concepts in relation to the new religious movements (NRMs) in Bulgaria: the notion of diversity and the notion of difference. This is a logical step after my previous research outlining what is typical for a new religious movement in Bulgaria as an “ideal type” for understanding the nature of these phenomena.
There are at least two reasons why the study of new religious movements (NRMs) in Bulgaria from a sociological point of view is important.
Firstly, this is a phenomenon not studied yet in the context of modern Bulgarian society. There are different levels of the construction of reality about NRMs (Barker, 1993), and the sociological construction of reality is still well behind in its public appearance compared to the constructions offered by media, government administrators, human rights activists, anti-cultists, NRMs themselves, and parents.
Secondly, the discourse on NRMs is an issue of modern Bulgarian nationalism. This is one of the reasons for the NRMs to be a sensitive issue in Bulgaria. The perceived overlaps between religious and national identity mean that the NRMs may be viewed as a threat to the national identity. The problems with religious and national identity are one main sphere of social conflicts related to the NRMs. The problems of the family are another such sphere.
To mention my possible methodological starting points, I would like to keep to the approach of the sociology of religion and to avoid the use of theological, historical or philosophical vocabulary of categories. There is a number of reasons for this, but I would like to outline social problems which require a sociological approach to them. The use of a sociological approach also requires the distinction between scientific and everyday life conscience. Hence, I have to outline the definitions (or at least the working terms) within the sociology of religion such as "traditional religion", "church", "sect", "cult", "new religious movement (NRM)". A special attention is to be paid to the different use of terms, and especially the wide use of the term "sect" in modern Bulgarian press and everyday life, which is different from the scientific term and covers a much wider collection of religious movements.

The term “new religious movements” has a certain defined notion in the Western literature. According to Barker (1991-b, p.9):

“The TERM new religious movements (NRMs) is used to cover a disparate collection of organisations, most of which have emerged in their present form since the 1950s, and most of which offer some kind of answer to questions of a fundamental religious, spiritual or philosophical nature.”

In her reference to Wilson (Barker, 1991-b, pp.10-11) one may read some of the features of new religious movements, summarized by Bryan Wilson in the early 1980s:

“exotic provenance; new cultural life-style; a level of engagement markedly different from that of traditional Church Christianity; charismatic leadership; a following predominantly young and drawn in disproportionate measure from the better-educated and middle class sections of society; social conspicuity; international operation; and emergence within the last decade and a half.”


Concerning new religious movements, one could always argue either whether they are new or whether they are religious. This is particularly true about Western societies where a certain degree of religious freedom has been present. In Central and Eastern Europe, and particularly in Bulgaria, the situation is different, as the oppression against religions has prevented many non-mainstream religious bodies from establishing earlier their legitimately functioning structures. In this sense the most of them are really a new social phenomenon for the post-communist countries. The other question – whether they are really religious, is much more complicated. Those societies were not less secularized than the West, and the appearance of new religious movements coincided with the total opening of the societies toward more freedom in all spheres of life. I place the new religious movements in Bulgaria within the secularization thesis, which I will come back to at a later point.
The appearance of a variety of political parties coincided with the appearance of a variety of churches and for many East Europeans the basic differences between these two processes were not so obvious. Especially in a highly politically polarized society as the Bulgarian society of 1989 - 1991, where all non-political organizations (including women's, youth, cultural and other organizations) had to be defined in a discourse within the bipolar distinction “communist” or “democratic”. Apart from politics, the re-emergence of religious freedom also coincided with the re-emergence of phenomena like pornography, freedom of traveling and the first challenges of the transition toward a market economy. My own opinion is that at the beginning of their existence in the region the new religious movements were more secular than in the later phases of their development when they became more engaged in their international structures and the society as a whole started to develop more normally as a free democratic society. In the later phases, for example, a young future entrepreneur does not need to become a member of a NRM in order to establish his international contacts through their networks, and a young future scholar does not need necessarily to join a NRM in order to be able to travel abroad and to read in Western libraries.
A characteristic feature of the newly emerging societies was the problem of the free choice versus the inability to realize it. People of the region, especially youth, did not know how to behave within the new socio-political order and this created a number of social problems.
The re-establishment of many basic religious rights and freedoms brought a number of people back to the churches, but this was not a clear indication of religious commitment. Spirituality, however, emerged with a new force. Despite of all typical post-communist features of church-going as a “new fashion” or a symbolic ritual of political commitment, the different religious communities at last had the chance to express freely their specific beliefs and to undertake the first steps toward a legitimate recognition.
The specific features of the Bulgarian situation may be summarized as peaceful co-existence of different religions along with the compromises of the Bulgarian Orthodox church. The historical conditions had laid the foundations for the appearance of many ethnic groups with specific religious commitments, which has normally been supported throughout country's history by a certain degree of ethnic and religious tolerance. In the years of the communist regime many steps have been taken towards devaluation of the rights of Catholic and Protestant communities, Muslims and representatives of different smaller religious groups. The traditional religion in this society – Orthodox Christianity had to experience a great state intervention in its internal structures and organization of church life. The contemporary development in Bulgaria shows a continuous spectacle of splits and questioning of legitimacy inside the headquarters of the Bulgarian Orthodox church.
All these strange patterns of development lead us to a question: who can attract the youth? This is a strong argument for the explanation of the appearance of different new religious movements and their attempts to gain influence. Spirituality becomes a sphere of struggle for influence among different social communities.
After the collapse of the communist regimes new problems arose from the complex nature of post-communist societies. The possibilities of free practicing of political activities, free traveling and expressing ideas, etc. on the one hand, appeared in combination with higher frustration from the challenges of the transition toward market economy, higher unemployment and uncertainty for the future, higher criminality and moral disorder on the other hand. New challenges for the future development of these societies were posed by nationalism, xenophobia, and polarization within society. In this respect religious differences reappeared as a new basic division within the unstable societies of the region. This division was not self-determined, of course. It appeared as a logical reflection of many complex world-wide issues, such as Islamic fundamentalism, controversies among different religious doctrines and their political implications.
The NRMs were seen by many as a threat. In 1994 some changes were adopted in the Law of Persons and the Family -- article 133-A was introduced, requiring an approval from the Directorate of Religious Affairs of the Council of Ministers before legal registration of a religious organization. Some lawyers said that this was absurd, as it allowed administrative power to prevail legislature. A conflict emerged between the Directorate of Religious Affairs and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee on this issue. A conference was held in January 1995 during which there were strong attacks against NRMs from nationalists, and the support from only one MP of the Movement for Rights and Freedoms, representing the interests of the ethnic Turks in Bulgaria.
It is interesting to follow the arguments of the anti-cultists (consisting of parents' committees, nationalists, politicians and administrators – they all use of the term “sects” in its broad definition): the NRMs are dangerous for the national security; they create "socially abnormal personalities"; they are a foreign invasion; they come to Bulgaria as a result of "a geopolitical intervention of the world powers to destroy the uniqueness of Bulgarian culture"; they stimulate conscientious objection; some of them refuse blood transfusion; the fact that they are preparing teachers for kindergartens.
Another problem which arises from this discussion is about the contemporary individual and the problem of choice. I am particularly interested in the choice of a marital partner and a pattern of family life. I will discuss this problem in the particular case of the Unification church (the Moonies) with some empirical applications.
In order to give my account, I should remember that I had entered the structures of the movement through a desire to study the problems of "the blessed couples" and the lifestyle within the movement. My original plan for research methodologies was to use church statistics, survey methodology, etc., exalted with a participant observation. Later on the situation compelled me to use only a participant observation, unstructured interviews and a limited diary (Marinov, 1995). The observation was done in the spring and summer of 1990 and covered a number of the Moonie communities mainly in Britain and Bulgaria, but some observation was also carried out in France and former Czechoslovakia during my participation in conferences of the Moonie backed P.W.P.A. and C.A.R.P. People from six continents were observed.
I noted, though there were no statistics available, that there were some basic differences between the Moonie converts in Britain and in Bulgaria in terms of gender structure. It was obvious that in Britain there were more men converted and in Bulgaria more women. The bigger amount of the male population in the Moonie communities in the West is also noted by Barker (1984) and Grace (1985). According to Grace, it could be also explained by the acceptance of the Oriental pattern of male domination in society. The presence of more women among the first Bulgarian converts I could explain with the relatively higher expectations for a future successful “blessing” – a notion that was shared by some of the British male missionaries at the very beginning as well. It was obvious for the community that there had been some “couples” formed among them though nothing was openly shown in public.
Another difference between the British and Bulgarian converts which I had pointed out was in terms of social stratification. Most of the Bulgarians were students; there were some young academics and teachers, and some from the working class. Among the students the greatest in number were students of economics. The most of the British missionaries whom I had asked about their background appeared to be from the working or lower middle class. Very few of them had studied at a university level and most of those who had been students had dropped out of university. If we compare my assumptions with the conclusions of Barker about the Moonies in Britain based on some quantitative methods (Barker, 1984) and with the data of Wilson and Dobbelaere about the Moonies in Belgium (Wilson, 1990) it is obvious that my assumptions were not based on a representative sample. Here comes one of the limitations of the use of a covert participant observation.

Another case which I would like to mention in order to demonstrate diversity and difference among new religious movements in Bulgaria are the quasi-religious corporations. The study of quasi-religious corporations is very rare and makes a very little part of the literature in the sociology of religion. One of the few studies known is the text of Bromley (Bromley 1991), in which the basic characteristics of quasi-religious corporations have been discussed, emphasizing on the most popular one - Amway. The insufficient information about the quasi-religious corporations in general is transformed into the lack of any information about AquaSource.
AquaSource is interesting not only due to the lack of information, but because with the sociological study of “the case of AquaSource” relations between religion and business, spirituality and health, multi-level marketing and network formation could be explained, as well as the specificity of their beliefs which are based on the New Age.
AquaSource has been established as a company in June 1994 in the United Kingdom by David Howell and Robert Davidson, both homeopaths. Another leading figure in the corporation is Arthur Sperling who is responsible for its activities in Bulgaria. The activities of AquaSource are connected with the distribution of blue-green algae products from the Klamath Lake, Oregon, USA. According to information from AquaSource, there exist four companies dealing with Klamath algae, among them Cell Tech and AquaSource. In November 1997 AquaSource had two offices in the United Kingdom and Bulgaria, and was also working in Ireland, Iceland, and Saudi Arabia (data from a telephone interview with Mr. Arthur Sperling on 3 November 1997).
The attendance of meetings is the essence of social life of AquaSource distributors - at these meetings they exchange products, money, and information, establish new contacts, give consultations to each other, attract new customers. The frequency of attendance of these meetings can be regarded not only as a quantitative indicator, but also as an indicator of their participation in and personal commitment to the activities of the corporation. There also exists a type of distributors who have signed contracts just in order to buy products at a lower price - in fact they do not function as real distributors and do not form their own networks. This fact is also not taken into consideration by the leaders when mentioning the numbers.  As a result of a participant observation we can state that these exaggerations are aimed at the attracting of new distributors in order to present the corporation as fast growing, stable and successful.
Bulgaria is the second country in which AquaSource is developing its activities, after the United Kingdom which also covers Ireland. In September 1995 the products of AquaSource were presented in Bulgaria by Mr. Teodor Troev, a journalist who was a correspondent of the Financial Times in Sofia. AquaSource (Bulgaria) Ltd. was established. In 1996 they received a certificate No. 3157/1996 from the Ministry of Healthcare of the Republic of Bulgaria. In November 1997 the only office and distribution center was opened. The owners of AquaSource (Bulgaria) Ltd. are holders from the United Kingdom and Bulgaria. It is a daughter company of AquaSource (UK).
The AquaSource products are distributed in the form of capsules, powder, and liquid. When they are in the form of powder, it is recommended to take them diluted in pure juice. In their essence they are regarded as food, not as medicines.
AquaSource is trying to expand its business into other countries. The AquaSource expansion in the world presupposes the establishment of local companies with local partners who know their markets well. It is expected that Germany will be the biggest market of AquaSource products in Europe. The company is also interested in the markets of Central and Eastern Europe. Bulgaria is a suitable country for the start and development of the activities of AquaSource and other quasi-religious corporations because its market is still not oversaturated with goods and services. On the other hand, in Bulgaria there are no present widespread multi-level marketing networks which compete each other. Some functionaries of quasi-religious corporations defined Bulgaria in 1997 as a “not upturned virgin soil”.
The belief system of AquaSource is not explicitly stated and is definitely invisible for the everyday-level consciousness. In his telephone interview from November 1997 Sperling did not reply to the question asking to which tradition they belonged. As associated organizations of AquaSource he pointed out the colleges of practical homeopathy in London, Birmingham, and Iceland. When asked to describe briefly the basic beliefs of AquaSource, Sperling mentioned the belief in health food products and in network marketing. A non-sociologist of religion would take this answer into account as an escape from the question. But this is exactly the point where we can find one of the basic characteristics of AquaSource as a quasi-religious corporation. The AquaSource people think of themselves as of “carriers of health and prosperity for all the people on the Earth”. They believe that people whom they can help are already chosen and are waiting for the AquaSource people to visit them.
The Age of Aquarius and the Findhorn foundation were mentioned often in the meetings of AquaSource. This gives evidence to see the connection between AquaSource and the New Age movements. In AquaSource the New Age ideas are being accepted from the point of view of their practical relevance to business. The Age of Aquarius is the age of prosperity for AquaSource; a person should receive and use everything which has been given to him/her for the purposes of his/her health and material prosperity. The Findhorn foundation was mentioned in connection with the growing of agricultural crops very far in the North where there were no practical conditions for their growth. But they said, they grew the crops and the basic point was that they did that with a lot of love - it helped the plants to develop.
The cycle of work in AquaSource is from new moon till full moon - at new moon a new cycle begins and then the period is considered good for new initiatives. This is the time when they are most active to include new distributors in the business and place orders for new products. At certain occasions they have waited for the fulfillment of an order until full moon comes. But not all distributors are strictly following these requirements.
A particular place in the business teaching of AquaSource has been given to the Silva method. The works of Jose Silva have been quoted as authoritative references and some of the basic methods of work are based upon them. As additional readings are recommended books by Dale Carnegie, M. Scott Peck, Joseph Krishener, Napoleon Hill. AquaSource is using meditative techniques for the distributors’ training. An emphasis is given to the belief in oneself and to the belief in success.

So, let us go back to the question of diversity. It is to be found within the huge spectrum of NRMs, which, though very small in numbers, are to be found in Bulgaria. The diversity ranges from the Unification movement and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) – both defined as “world-rejecting” NRMs in the classification of Roy Wallis (Wallis 1984); through the big variety of charismatic neo-Pentecostal churches (“world-accommodating”); to the White Brotherhood, Sri Chinmoy, the Silva method (“world-affirming”), and many quasi-religious corporations. The diversity among the individual movements and their respective members is to be found in several indicators:

  1. Former religious affiliation – it can range between former atheists, adherents of traditional churches, spiritual “seekers”, members of other NRMs, etc.

  2. Knowledge about religion – here diversity ranges between those who have sought exploration of different traditions and the desire for new knowledge has converted them to a NRM, and those who have had no previous knowledge about religion and find it in a NRM for the first time.

  3. Gender – here you can have all three possible types of NRMs: with predominantly female membership, with predominantly male adherents, or with mixed membership.

  4. Age – an interesting indicator for religion in Bulgaria in general. Sociological studies suggest a missing middle generation in most traditional religions in the country supporting a picture with flows of very old and very young activists. In most of the new religious movements when they flourished in the beginning of the 1990s the predominant age cohort was the one between 20 and 30 years of age. Now, in 2008 the change over time has shifted this generation in the group between 30 and 45 years of age, but there are many drop outs, as well as few new converts.

  5. Social class – studies in the United Kingdom indicate the upper middle class as one of the most affiliated to the formation of NRMs. In Bulgaria children of the intelligentsia and former nomenklatura were among the first leaders of non-traditional religious groups. It is worth noting that “measuring” this indicator is somehow tricky. There is a tendency of the movements themselves to exaggerate the presence of members of families of political figures or rich families, and to undermine the ordinary members from all walks of life.

  6. Ethnic groups – the universalistic globalized point of view of the churches of Pentecostal origin attracts many adherents of minority ethnic groups such as Roma. On the other hand, the White Brotherhood is attractive to its adherents with its emphasis on pan-Slavism, and old Bulgarian pagan traditions. There is also the other extreme – some groups tend to be rather exclusivist in their appeal to membership.

  7. Growth – a tendency which I have observed in the period 1990 – 2008 is the decline of “world-rejecting” NRMs and the steady growth of “world-accommodating” groups such as neo-Pentecostals. The other type – the “world-affirming” is still not very popular in terms of membership.


Let us now face the other concept – difference. It is often to be found in new religious movements in Bulgaria in the notion of cutting off from the rest of society. I will use again the Roy Wallis classification (Wallis 1984), where difference is a specific feature of the “world-rejecting” NRMs in their desire to be different from the rest of the world. In Bulgaria “difference” in new religious movements often comes as “data” in the narratives of NRMs adherents when they refer to the established Orthodox church. It was a real challenge for me as a sociologist when I had to interpret an interview with a Bulgarian adherent of the Unification church, during which the interviewee used the expression “our church” for the Bulgarian Orthodox church, and not for the Unification church. Later similar situations appeared while working with supporters of other groups. There is often a strong “we” concept as opposed to the “them” concept. I have found out an implicit “Orthodox Christian” point of reference in narratives of NRMs adherents. This is to be interpreted within the secularization thesis, where traditional inherited religious identity is perceived as a culture, not as a belief. According to the European Values Studies, Bulgaria is one of the most secular nations of Eastern Europe.
There is also another dimension of difference – the difference “within oneself”. I have come across this dimension while studying narratives of members of Charismatic neo-Pentecostal churches within the Faith movement – the most successful flow among non-traditional religious groups in Bulgaria in the mid-1990s. When I compared answers to similar questions given within the group context in focus groups, and later by the same interviewees in in-depth interviews to the lone interviewer, I have found out some differences which are to be placed within the so called “inner dialogue hypothesis”. The most significant indicators there proved to be age and the length of involvement in a certain group.

To summarize, one conclusion from my research in 1990 – 2008 is that the different stages of transition from communism are marked by the presence of different types of new religious movements:

      1. The beginning of the 1990s – the period of rejecting the communist past – is marked by the appearance of “world-rejecting” new religious movements, which tend toward a decline through the years 1990 – 2008.

      2. At the middle of the 1990s – the most difficult years of transition in economic terms – there was a steady growth of “world-accommodating” groups such as neo-Pentecostals.

      3. The other type – the “world-affirming” is still not very popular in terms of membership, but they tend to appear in the public sphere after Bulgaria became a member of the European Union.

Sociologists have to take into account that the possible sources and the concrete appearances of the conflicts related to NRMs may have completely different interpretations according to the different constructions of reality of the social actors concerned (NRMs themselves, media, government administrators, human rights activists, anti-cultists, nationalists, parents, etc.). It would be a contribution from sociologists to offer an objective and not biased construction of reality about NRMs to society. In the present time, however, very few would be ready to listen to it.
It is difficult to generalize about new religious movements. My argument is that they are an integral part of Bulgarian society and should not be considered a “foreign invasion”, which is quite often the media label attached to them.


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