The Rise of the Study of New Religions

A paper presented by J. Gordon Melton at CESNUR 99, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania - Preliminary version © J. Gordon Melton, 1999

The symbolic watershed looming before us in the arrival of a new millennium and the occasion of this last meeting of CESNUR in the old millennium provides an opportunity to look back and to assess the course of New Religious Studies in the past generation. Since New Religions Studies emerged as a separate area of specialization within religious studies and the sociology of religion in the 1970s, literally hundreds of books and thousands of papers have been written in an effort to understand the nature of New Religions and their likely role in the coming century. In 1970 one could literally count on their hand the number of people with a primary interest in New Religions; today several hundred scholars have made this work the primary focus of their research and writing and that many more are knowledgeable contributors to the field. In 1970 one was hard pressed to find a forum for the presentation of papers, much less get them published. Today, a variety of conferences offer significant space to New Religious Studies, and CESNUR and Nova Religio offer a forum for continued debate.

But the question of the hour is ‘have we learned anything?’ Have we made any progress in our studies? . . . an interesting question in itself in this post-modernist world that we have come to inhabit. Whether we would call it progress or not, we can affirm that we have discarded opinions about the New Religions that have proved to be of limited value in understanding them and hypotheses that have been unable to encompass the broad phenomena we have discovered and explored. To understand the shifts in our view of New Religions, however, it is necessary to get a handle on some of the more basic questions concerning the nature of the discipline itself and the topic under discussion.

First, New Religions Studies emerged as a separate sub-discipline in the 1970s at the point where religious studies and the social scientific study of religion converged. As such it has, from its inception, been a multi-disciplinary venture held together by the subject matter rather than anything approaching a unified methodological approach. Within the academy, the study of New Religions overlaps, for example, the study of Eastern Religions, women’s religions, and esotericism. We operate as anthropologists, sociologists and psychologists. As such, we constantly struggle to communicate with our colleagues who frequently approach the subject with vastly differing methodologies and assumptions and whose interest might be focused upon one set of groups to the exclusion of others. In spite of those differences, however, since the change of terminology from "cult" to "New Religion" or "NRM," genuine progress has been made in studying New Religions [1].

The creation of New Religion Studies as a separate discipline builds upon two histories, the evolution of the older discipline of the History of Religions and the study of cults that has tended to be focused in theology and sociology. Through this century, the study of world religions has made us aware of a bewildering array of beliefs and practices followed by humankind, and has shifted our perspective on what is normal in religion. The insights of comparative religious studies have been vividly reinforced as the mass movements of people in this century have brought large communities of the worlds major religions to the West.

Simultaneously, the presence of religious freedom in the West has seen the steady proliferation of the number of religious options in the culture. In the United States the number of different denominations and other religious groups has grown from 17 (1790) to 350 (1900) to some 2000 to day [2]. While most of these two thousand groups are Christian denominations (including most of the 350 groups that were present in 1900), an increasing percentage of them are located across the wide spectrum of world religion. It includes the "Nondenominational" Christian denominations, African religions such as Voudou and Santeria, and even the several groups of the religiously non-religious, i.e., the atheists and humanists.

At the beginning of this century, some American churchmen began to perceive that the fragmentation of Christianity was not the only thing happening in the West. A number of new and strange religious options were appearing on the urban landscape. There were Christian Scientists, Spiritualists, Mormons, and Theosophists. In the twenties and 30s, they were joined by the likes of Father Divine’s Peace Mission and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. These were labeled cults and a series of Christian (conservative Protestant) anti-cult books would begin to warn people of the presence of these strange different religions [3]. [In Europe, sect remained the common term to describe what was called a "cult" in America.]

The first non-theological studies of these "cults’ appeared as early practitioners of the new disciplines of the sociology of religion and the psychology of religion began to look at the minority religious options, and a set of books and papers were produced through the 1940s. By the end of World War II, the scientific study of religion had appeared and courses on the psychology and the sociology of religion were being offered and the need for text books that summarized the findings to date were produced. These textbooks included, however, brief, a summary of thoughts about "cults" that became the foundation upon which future studies would build. Typical of the understanding of cults is the oft quoted paragraph from Milton Yinger’s popular textbook, Religion, Society and the individual.

The term cult is used in many different ways, usually with the connotations of small size, search for a mystical experience, lack of an organizational structure, and presence of a charismatic leader. Some of these criteria (mysticism, for example) emphasize cultural characteristics that are inappropriate in our classification scheme; yet there seems to be the need for a term that will describe groups that are similar to sects, but represent a sharper break, in religious terms, from the dominant religious tradition of a society. Bay a cult, therefore, we will mean a group that is at the farthest extreme from the "universal church" with which we started. It is small, short-lived, often local, frequently built around a dominant leader (as compared with the greater tendency toward widespread lay participation in the sect). Both because its beliefs and rites deviate quite widely from those that are traditional in a society (there is less of a tendency to appeal to "primitive Christianity," for example) and because the problems of succession following the death of a charismatic leader are often difficult, the cult tends to be small, to break up easily, and is relatively unlikely to develop into an established sect or a denomination. The cult is concerned almost wholly with the problems of the individual, with little regard for questions of social order; the implications for anarchy are even stronger than in the case of the sect; which is led by its interest in "right behavior" (whether the avoidance of individual sin or the establishment of social justice) back to the problem of social integration. The cults are religious "mutants," extreme variations on the dominant themes by means of which men try to solve their problems. Pure type cults are not common in Western society; most groups that might be called cults are fairly close to the sect type. Perhaps the best examples are the various spiritualist groups and some of the "Moslem" groups among American Negroes. [4]

Much of what would become the study of New Religions would challenge and test Yinger’s definitions, and a percentage of our progress can be measured by the degree to which we still work with that understand of NRMs.

The second basic concern is the continuing problem we have never really resolved, over the boundaries of our study. Just what is a New Religion or New Religious Movement? With some trepidation, let me attempt a workable definition. For the past 35 years, I have worked with a three-fold division of religious organizations which I have termed primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary religious groups are those groups that hold the primary religious allegiance of their supporters and followers. They provide the ongoing regular opportunities for worship (or its equivalent) and would be the basic group with which a believer would identify. They tend to be the group that performs vital life-cycle functions such as marriages and burials (examples: United Methodist Church, the Unification Church, The Family).

A secondary religious group is an organization that provides one of a very limited set of religious functions such as education, evangelism, publishing, social service, social action, etc., but does not provide the rounded services of a primary group. [Examples: Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, Shambhala Press, Moody Bible Institute] Primary religious groups, as they grow and develop, will tend to create subsidiary structures that function as their publishing, educational, or outreach arms. Independent secondary groups will emerge to serve a set of related primary groups. Tertiary religious groups are basically groups of groups, organizations that focus on dialogue between primary religious groups or on cooperative action by several primary religious groups for a specific goal. [Examples: World Council of Churches, World Buddhist Federation, Vishwa Hindu Parishad.]

New Religious groups or movements are primary religious groups/movements that operate apart from the dominant religious culture (in our case, the Christian West) in which they are located but seek adherents from their new host culture. Given that definition, the single largest block of NRMs represent new intrusions of an older religion from another culture, such as the Hare Krishna or the Zen Buddhists. A number of these NRMs come from the smaller religious traditions such as the Punjabi Sant Mat tradition (Divine Light Mission), Shintoism (Mahikari), and Zoroastrianism (Mazdaznan). A second set of NRMs represents older religious traditions that have never integrated into the dominant culture through several generations (Theosophy, Spiritualism). It should be noted that during the centuries that Christianity has been the dominant religious tradition in the West, the competing dissenting tradition that we know as ancient Gnosticism never died. It transmuted and persisted through a variety of minority communities until it experienced a notable revival in the sixteenth century following the Protestant Reformation’s creation of space for alternative religious expressions throughout Europe [5]. Today, a new "Gnostic" community has emerged out of the succession of esoteric movements that began with Christian Cabala and established itself in Rosicrucianism, Speculative Freemasonry, Theosophy, ceremonial magic, and most recently the New Age Movement [6]. Not unrelated, the Christian Science/New Thought tradition also continues to produce its share of New Religious organizations. Finally, on occasion, new radical innovations within a host culture appear, Scientology being the most obvious example from the last century. However, the single characteristic that such diverse groups as ECKANKAR, the Covenant of the Goddess, and the Sufi Order share is that each operates out of a basically different religious myth than that of the dominant culture.

To these alternative religions we must also add those New Religious groups who accept the basic dominant religious consensus while adopting a significant theological divergence or act in a different manner from the majority, The Family, and Jehovah’s Witnesses immediately come to mind [7]. Within the Christian community, not believing in the Trinity, adopting a communal life style, or advocating a different sexual ethic have always been suspect.

Proselytizing, especially if viewed as sheep-stealing has been a source of tension between religious communities. Generally, immigrant religions, i.e., communities of expatriates who follow a different religion but who do not try to intrude upon the host culture and proselytize (Buddhist Churches of America, Albanian Orthodox Church) are not considered New Religions. Given that definition of New Religions, Soka Gakkai and the Zen Center of Los Angeles are in, but the Buddhist Churches of America are not. ISKCON and Siddha Yoga Meditation are in, but the Hindu Temple of New Jersey and the Sri Venkateswara Temple in Pittsburgh are not.

Of particular importance, we have reached a general consensus that New Religions are genuine and valid religions. A few may be bad religion and some may be led by evil people, but they are religions. They are also interesting objects of study that tell us some significant facts about society as a whole (though we disagree and are exploring various options as to exactly what they tell us). However, we agree that the phenomena we have encountered in New Religions does not differ from the phenomena we have encountered in older religions and that in fact New Religions tend to copy and borrow from older religions and the culture at large. When we look at New Religions in light of African revitalization movements, Buddhist and Christian monastic orders, Christian missionary groups in the Third World, and the origins of now dominant religions, we see clearly the continuity of what we see in New Religions with religious phenomena in general. We also agree, that while we study New Religions utilizing a variety of methodologies, that we in fact use the very same methodologies that we have found useful in studying the other religions.

While viewing New Religions as valid and genuine religions, we recognize that like the older religions, they are made up of human beings and that both groups and their members are far from perfect. We note no level or pattern of condemnatory behavior in the New Religions that is not also present in the older religions. Some groups (both old and new) have been accused of illegal and violent activity and a few have had leaders and members convicted of such activity in a court of law. Where we see such activity, it is rightly to be condemned, and we have condemned it. However, we also know that only a small number of groups have had substantive accusations of either illegal or violent activity thrown at them, and even fewer have been found guilty in court. That a few cases have occurred is no reason to condemn or even suspect the great majority of groups.

Our real problem in New Religions studies is the basically "negative’ starting point; that is to say, the collection of New Religions we study are defined by what they are not rather than by what they are. They are all the groups that operate apart from the dominant religious culture, hence we are often at a loss to say anything meaningful about New Religions as a whole. Almost anything we say of a "positive" nature, i.e. about what New Religions are, is untrue. That is to say, a group is not considered a New Religion by any characteristic or collection of characteristics it possesses (charismatic leader, common spiritual exercises, common demographics, etc.), but by the characteristics it does not possess. It is first defined by the way it is outside of the "normal" cultural consensus. By that negative definition it becomes a New Religion and hence an object of our research. However, any individual New Religion we might look at differs from that consensus in very different ways (and hence looks very different) from the next New Religion we might decide to study. Try to imagine what common characteristics we could possibly assign to the Covenant of the Goddess, a Reiki healing group, and the Unification Church.

Like older religions, New Religions may be culture-affirming or culture-denying. New Religions vary from the strongly hierarchical to the anarchic. Some New Religions subordinate women while others champion women’s rights. Some NRMs are family oriented, other undermine the family at every turn. Some groups emphasize spiritual practices, other reject any need for them. Some groups are involved in making social policy, others want nothing to do with outsiders or secular social structures. Some groups are middle class and upwardly mobile, other reject any materialistic acquisitions.

New Religious Studies has tended to concentrate upon the "newer" movements, that is, those religions that have emerged (or been brought to our attention) in the West since the end of World War II, or more narrowly, since the 1960s. It has followed the gurus from India who have attempted to build following in the Anglo community while being little concerned with the growth of ethnic Hinduism. It has considered Christian groups rejected by Roman, Protestant and Evangelical groups because of strong doctrinal or behavioral differences. However, it has recognized older groups that are still outside of the cultural consensus (from Theosophy to Swedenborgianism) as rightfully objects of consideration.

Given that definition, there are at present in North America between 700 and 1,000 New Religions. Included in that number are metaphysical, communal, New Age, magical, mystical, millennial, and Eastern religions. There are about the same number in Europe, with more than 50% of the groups operating in Europe also operating in North America. The number of New Religions (in both Europe and North America) has steadily grown for more than fifty years and shows no sign of abatement. The number of New Religions would be different considering how many Christian groups (especially Adventist, Latter-day Saints, communal, and separatist Evangelical groups) were either included or excluded.

That there are no more than about 1,000 New Religions operating in North America means that the estimates of 3 to 5,000 groups that appears frequently in popular literature about "cults" are simply false. There is absolutely no evidence after a generation of study that suggests such a number, and it is difficult to take seriously those who continue to perpetuate such figures.

New Religions are also small relative to the host population. In North America the average New Religion still counts its members in the hundreds or thousands rather than the tens of thousands or the hundreds of thousands. To get large figures for membership, one must include the Latter-day Saints, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the whole collective of primary and secondary groups that constitute the New Age Movement. The LDS report 5 million members in the U.S., JWs report approximately one million and surveys show New Agers to be between 1 & 2% of the population--some 3 to 5 million. Surveys also show over 20% of the population as having practiced some form of meditation, and holding beliefs in reincarnation and astrology, though these characteristics do not carry particular information about group allegiances. Thus, claims that membership in New Religions constitutes 10, 20, or 30 million people are simple baseless exaggerations.

In the West, New Religions are overwhelmingly urban religions. While, New Religions will often establish a single rural center for a specific purpose (usually as a retreat or monastery center), almost all New Religious centers are found in urban/suburban complexes. New Religions must find their relatively few recruits from the urban mass. There are rarely enough recruits in the small towns and rural areas to build a significant group. New Religions grow by creating centers in one urban area after the next, often initially moving to different locations within a single urban area.

New religions direct their recruitment efforts toward one of two main groups, the 18 to 25-year-old young adult and the 35-40-year-old middle-age adult. The majority of recruits to New Religions will be persons in personal transition, either the transition from adolescence to adulthood, or the transition often called the mid-life crisis. [New Religions studies has tended to concentrate on the young adult groups, rather than the mid-life groups.]

Recruits to New Religions have been difficult to predict. Again we can say more about what we do not know than what we do know, having discarded a number of hypotheses over the last twenty years. People who join NRMs are drawn from all segments of society educationally, though different groups seem to appeal to the better educated. They also drawn from all segments of the dominant religious community in somewhat the same proportion that they exist in the population. Again different individual New Religions will often appeal to one religious group or another. For example, a disproportionate number of Satanists are former Catholics.

The major exception to the religious filter is seemingly Judaism. Most groups report a higher percentage of Jews than is generally reported in the larger population. These figures are somewhat deceptive as we use the term Jew to refer to two different phenomena. Only 50% of the ethnically Jewish community have even a nominal affiliation with a synagogue, i.e., the Jewish religion. Thus while Jews tend to be over represented in New Religions, only a minority of them converted from a religious background. They have a relatively low representation in new Christian religions (except for a few that target Jews (Messianic Judaism), but constitute as much as 25% of some Eastern groups. While most of these groups are small, and hence the actual number of Jews affected is a low number, it is noteworthy that a disproportionate number of people who are ethnic Jews become not just followers of but founders of New Religious Movements.

Continued attempts have been made to locate some pathology either in the process of selection of people who join New Religions, or in those who are members. To date, no evidence of abnormal psychological pathology or significant deviation from the cultural patterns psychologically has been documented in the New Religions. It is to be noted that all of the early claims of the presence of pathology within the New Religions were based upon observation of small highly selected samples of former members. However, now, after a generation of the proliferation of NRMs, we note that there is no broad demand for psychological assistance or any broad recognition of psychological defects in either members or ex-members of religious groups. The one exception is a low level of delayed stress syndrome among ex-members who were deprogrammed, but with the demise of deprogramming, those cases are also disappearing [8].

Testing the Truisms

Returning to the 1950s, we note that sociologists had suggested cults were ephemeral groups, lasting only one generation. We have now largely discarded that idea as we have documented the number of New Religions that have carried a vital life into the third and even later generations. Of the many New Religions, some do come and go, but those that die, do so quite apart from any consideration of the changes occurring due to the passing of the first generation. The majority of the NRMs that have experienced any success appear to be here for the foreseeable future.

The idea of New Religions being ephemeral phenomena was largely based upon the idea that they were built around a charismatic leader and that with the passing of the leader, the heart of the group was taken from it. The death of the leader has been pictured as being a devastating traumatic event. We now know that such is not the case. Founders are important to New Religions, especially in the first decade, but most leaders quickly turn to the problem of establishing an organization that can carry the group into the future long after the founder dies. Any religion that can last the lifetime of the leader, has a life far beyond that of the founder—while the founder’s death is a sad event, it is not a traumatic one. During the last decade we have watched as a number of groups have passed through the event of their founder’s death without missing a heart beat in the group’s life [9].

New Religions are founded by one person (or occasionally a small group of individuals). The first generation is one of rapid change as the groups grow, a mature ideology is developed, and immediate access to the founder is no longer possible. For some, this period of rapid change is one of experimentation as the founder tests new ideas, and at other times it is a matter of slowly teaching people who were raised in another religion or no religion, a completely new and foreign religious tradition. By the second generation, the period of change slows measurably, but never really stops. (This change factor, of course, makes our case studies quickly obsolete as descriptive of a group’s life.)

New Religions come in all varieties. They choose their basic perspective from one of the various existing religions, they create a conscious synthesis of two or more traditions, or, on very rare occasions, they propose an original religious myth. New Religions adopt a variety of different organizational models from the dictatorial to the loosely democratic, and all shade in between. They will often change through the first generation as the group grows, and theology matures, and as the transition to the second generation begins.

Groups vary widely in their approach to recruitment of new members. Some are evangelistic and use a spectrum of high-pressure recruitment techniques. Others have adopted a very low key approach that requires the potential recruit to obtain some of the groups literature and make the first effort at contact.

On Studying New Religions

As people who study New Religions, we generally seek some kind of "objective" perspective from which to work. We do so knowing that pure objectivity is a myth of our "positivist" past. We are now quite aware that we do our work in a fishbowl and that every word we write and every speech we give can and will be used against us in the ongoing public debate about NRMs. However, we do seek some distancing from the object of our research. Such distancing requires us to place out feelings about the groups aside. Negative feelings about groups may arise from our own religious (or irreligious) commitments, opinions about minority groups as disturbers of cultural order, or unfavorable impressions of group members we have met. Positive feelings may arise from our commitments to religious freedom for minority religions, initial favorable impressions of the members of the group, or our opinion favorable to religion in general. None of these feelings should create barriers to our research, however, we should be conscious of our own feelings and account for them in our research.

The complacency we might have harbored about our studies was challenged in the 1980s by the brainwashing debate. Through the 1960s we pursued the study of New Religions as the study of interesting and intriguing and quite harmless cultural artifacts. However, in the 1970s that view began to be challenged. Voices arose to suggest that the New Religions were not just different, they were destructive. Those same voices said that the studies of charismatic religious founders through the century had missed the mark. Such founders were not just religious innovators, they were evil power-hungry individuals. And finally, they suggested that the term cult, which we had discarded because of its derogatory connotations, was in fact a more appropriate term and should be retained.

By the end of the 1970s those voices had coalesced around the idea of brainwashing [10], the hypothesis that New Religions basically recruited people deceptively and involved them in a process of mind control that left them without the freedom to consider their choice to join, participate, or decide to leave. Through the early and mid-1980s, the idea of brainwashing was considered from almost every angle from jurisprudence to religious studies, from the psychological to the sociological [11]. It was initially attractive in that it seemed to offer a rationale for the seeming high levels of enthusiasm and devotion we encountered in some New Religions. However, for each phenomenon it seemed to explain, it failed to account for others.

For example, the brainwashing model tended to picture New Religions almost as a prison camp that grabbed and held members who could not leave. However, in looking at a broad range of new groups, including the more controversial ones, we found them to have quite porous boundaries. Only a very few of all of the people contacted ever attended group events and only a few of those ever joined. Quite apart from any outside intervention, half of those who joined would leave. Having pastored a local church, I can only imagine having to deal with a situation in which I could count on a 25% turnover in membership annually.

Possibly most crucial for rejecting it, the brainwashing hypothesis proved a dead end to research. The hypothesis offered a full and complete understanding of New Religions that was neither built upon empirical research nor offered any direction for further study. That is, it appeared to be a "scientific" hypothesis, but failed to deliver. As was true twenty years ago when it was rejected, the few remaining proponents of the brainwashing hypothesis have failed to bring forth any empirical data for its occurrence.

While this is not the place to rehash the brainwashing controversy, [12] we should note that by the mid 1980s we had rejected the idea of brainwashing, a fact documented in a set of documents issued by several of the academic associations most concerned with the debate, [13] and it was subsequently rejected by the courts [14]. The impact of that initial rejection has been that for the last fifteen years New Religion Studies has moved on from that debate and pursued its work quite apart from any notice of brainwashing theories. Second, on the legal front, the court has ruled against the practice of deprogramming and the major organization supporting it, the Cult Awareness Network.

With the proliferation of so many New Religions, something like a Cult Awareness Network could have provided a valuable service, and a structure that serves as a watchdog amid the plethora of different religious organizations could be helpful to us all. Those of us, my self included, who opposed the Cult Awareness Network did so on two grounds. We opposed the brainwashing hypothesis as articulated by Margaret Singer and the use of that theory in court to extract multi-million dollar judgments from minority religions. We have had no argument with other forms of social influence theories that reflected upon the intense pressures that some New Religions place upon their members as part of their indoctrination programs or the high-demand life that characterizes a few of the New Religions. Secondly, we opposed the practice of involuntary deprogramming, a cure that was worse than the illness it was designed to alleviate. We have no problem with what is generally termed exit counseling or other forms of non-coercive intervention by individuals challenging an individual’s affiliation to a New Religion. With deprogramming largely a thing of the past, and the Singer hypothesis put aside (though the French seem not yet to have understood this fact), there is the opportunity in the near future to open a dialogue on the larger issue of abuses that occur in high demand religious groups, both new and old, and how we might speak to the issues they raise.

The Future of New Religions Research

The "cult" debates aside, however, this symbolic new era we are entering also prompts us to look at the future directions of New Religions Studies. Where should we be going with our research? Allow me to venture several suggestions. Most importantly, we must adapt a more radical internationalization of our perspective. This decade has been characterized by the dialogue between European and North American scholars and an understanding of the unique situations underlying the growth of New Religions in Europe. The next decade should be characterized by our integration of data on the New Religious Movements that are sweeping across especially Africa and South America. There is a vast literature on New Religions in Africa published under the heading, ‘African Independent Church." However, in addition, Africa is now home to all of the "New Religions" we have come to know in Europe and North America from Sahaja Yoga to Scientology. In like measure, there are a host of unique New Religious Movements that have appeared in South America, most syncretistic movements that have emerged in the space between Roman Catholicism and North American Evangelical groups. Brazil, with its history of African indigenous religion and European Spiritism has offered a particularly rich environment in which New Religions could flourish. Over the next two years, we will have available to us a set of volumes that will offer basic information on the emergence of New Religious Movements on a country by country basis [15].

Second, we should develop a renewed focus upon new Christian movements. The rapidly expanding Charismatic movement is producing a fresh set of as yet unexamined phenomena from interesting theological divergences and the emergence of latter-day prophet-apostles to the merging of Pentecostalism with ind1genous religious practices. It should be remembered that is was the attempted deprogramming of a Pentecostal believer, a member of the United Pentecostal Church, that led to demise of Cult Awareness Network.

Third, we have neglected the New Religions in the Black community. With the exception of the Nation of Islam, we have done almost no exploration of African American participation in the large-older New Religions, missed the development of Afro-Cuban religions in Europe and North America, and failed to see the coming of African Independent Churches into England. In America, our literature is void of studies on the nontraditional New Religions operating in the black community.

Finally, during the next thirty years, what we have called the "New Religions" will become the commonplace. They have already found a permanent home on the religious landscape and have already become boring to the news media. The have gone through their baptism of fire, and are now mostly seen as minority, but nevertheless familiar, members of the larger religious community. This fact should alert us to two phenomena. We must watch as additional New Religions continue to emerge (a pattern that shows no sign of slowing). Then, the way that the older New Religions integrate their second and third generations will provide us a very different context for understanding the realities of emerging New Religious structures of the future.

Some of my colleagues in religious studies have complained of a sense of boredom. They tell me that nothing new has been said in their sub-discipline in recent years, even recent decades. We in New Religions Studies have no such problem. We have a monstrous landscape of unplowed pasture and new land coming into view with each acre that is cultivated. We can be secure in one fact, we will not run out of topics for our research in the lifetime of any of us here.


[1]The literature on New Religions is vast, however, a selection of basic volumes that represent the present scholarly approach to the subject might include: Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction (London: Her Majesty’s Stationary Office, 1989); John A. Saliba, Understanding New Religious Movements (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1995); Timothy Miller, ed., America’s Alternative Religions (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995); James R. Lewis, Cults in America: A Reference Handbook (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 1998); Lorne L. Dawson, Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1998); and Massimo Introvigne, Le nuove Religioni (Milano: Sugarco, 1989). A variety of additional titles, a few of which are cited below, could have been added to or substituted for items listed above.

[2]Two volumes basically document the new pluralism and the emergence of the many non-Christian religions in the United States: J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedia of American Religions (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 6th edition, 1998) and James R. Lewis, The Encyclopedia of Cults, Sects and New Religions (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press, 1998). Statistics cited in the text are taken from the former volume.

[3] The most important of the early counter-cult texts was the frequently reprinted volume by Jan K. Van Baalen, The Chaos of Cults (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1938, 27th printing, 1975).

[4] J. Milton Yinger, Religion Society and the Individual (New York: Macmillan Company, 1957): 154-55

[5] Helpful in defining what has been variously termed the Western Esoteric tradition or the Ancient Wisdom religious family are Antoine Faivre, Access to Western Esotericism (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1994); Antoine Faivre and Jacob Needleman, eds, Modern Esoteric Spirituality (New York: Crossroad, 1992); Wouter J. Hanegraaff, New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (Leiden: Brill, 1996); and J. Gordon Melton, James R. Lewis & Aidan Kelley, New Age Encyclopedia (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990).

[6] The modern esoteric community looks much different if one sees it on the one hand through cable television commercials for psychic readings and interest in the healing power of crystals or on the other, if one defines it by the lineage of thinkers such as John Rauchlin, Paracelsus, Jacob Boehme, René Guénon, Rudolf Steiner, and Frithjof Schuon, or even contemporary writers such as David Spangler, Willis Harman, or the Wiccan priestess Starhawk.

[7] Among the groups that have been placed upon the lists of "cult" are several new Christian groups, such as the Local Church, that originated overseas, that have been brought to American by immigrants, and continue an active evangelism program. Currently, a number of new African Independent churches are in process of establishing themselves in the African American community.

[8] The important debate on pathology in New Religions is summarized in James R. Lewis and David G. Bromley, "The Cult Withdrawal Syndrome: A Case of Misattribution of Cause," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 26, 4 (1987): 508-22.

[9] See Timothy Miller, ed., When Prophets Die: The Postcharismatic Fate of New Religious Movements (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1991). We have very few cases of the death of a leader seriously and negatively affecting the future of the group.

[10] Early proponents of the brainwashing hypothesis would include Paul A. Verdier, Brainwashing and the Cults (No. Hollywood, CA: Wilshire Book Company, 1977) and most prominently Margaret Thaler Singer, "Coming Out of the Cults," Psychology Today 12 (January 1979): 80.

[11] On the legal issues see James T. Richardson, "Legal Status of Minority Religions in the United States," Social Compass 42, 2 (1995) 249-64. A useful psychological approach was presented in Marc Galanter, Cults Faith, Healing and Coercion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989). An early sociological statement can be found in the award-winning volume by Eileen Barker, The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing (Oxford: Blackwell, (1984) and James T. Richardson, "A Social Psychological Critique of ‘Brainwashing Claims about Recruitment to New Religions, in David G. Bromley and Jeffrey K. Hadden, eds., Religion and the Social Order: The Handbook on Cults an Sects in America (Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, 1993).

[12] For those interested in understanding the controversy, a good starting point is David G. Bromley and James T. Richardson, eds., The Brainwashing/Deprogramming Controversy (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1983).

[13] Among the most useful summary of the issues concerning brainwashing is found in Dick Anthony, "Religious Movements and ‘Brainwashing’ Litigation: Evaluating Key Testimony," in Thomas Robbins and Dick Anthony, eds., In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Press, 1989).

[14] In the 1990 case, U.S. vs. Fishman, the primary exponents of the brainwashing hypothesis, Margaret T. Singer and Richard Ofshe, were not allowed to speak on the subject as the court ruled against the scientific credentials of the idea. Subsequently, when challenged, courts have regularly rejected such testimony.

[15] International Directory of the World’s Religions. Vols 1- . (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, forthcoming 1999).

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