Defining Cults and NRMs

What is a CULT versus a New Religious Movement?

New Religious Movements can be defined as religions that society considers non-conventional.  Through-out history, religious groups were developed by means of tradition and followed a religious rational.  The NRMs are formed by people wanting to leave traditional faiths behind in order to develop or follow a new religion.  New movements are developedbecause of people’s desire to view themselves or society in a new way.
(Beckford p. 26-27, Weber p. 46)

A religion’s legitimacy may be based on legal, traditional or charismatic
grounds.  Well known religious groups such as the Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists at their beginnings, were labeled “emergent or alternative religions” and were grouped with “sects, cults, and psychogroups.”(Beck p. 26, Weber p. 46, Daschke & Ashcraft p. 1-2)

Legal recognition has been achieved by past religious movements by collecting and
paying taxes and requiring military service. Because the public fears what they cannot see, NRMs are encouraged to send their children to public schools and have an open door policy concerning their religious services.  Also lessening the wariness of concern is NRMs that do not proclaim the ability to miraculously cure sickness and disease. (Beckford p. 28)  By following these guidelines NRMs are shown a greater tolerance than
those religious movements that seek shelter from the public eye.

Emerging religions distinctly differ from traditional grounds of legitimacy.  Through traditional grounds, obedience is to the person who occupies a position bound by tradition.  (Weber p. 46)  The authority is placed in the position and not the person.  (Dawson Crises p. 81) Examples of traditional grounds of authority would be the Pope, cardinals and the Dahlia Lama.  NRMs seek to create a new “religious world”
by manufacturing a revised version of history, offering new ideals, habitation,
objects of authority and communication. (D&A p. 10-13)  They are formed on adaptations of traditional religions to satisfy people’s wish to view society and the world by
untraditional means.  (Dawson Comprehending p.60)

A common characteristic NRMs share is a charismatic leader.  People are drawn to a person who has charisma and the leader uses this natural ability to attract and gain followers.  Because “charisma can only be awakened and tested, and cannot be learned or taught” the leader is believed to be chosen by a higher power for their position.
(Weber p. 58)  Leaders of this type tend to be volatile and in essence, cause their institutions to be unstable.  It is necessary for the leader to carefully balance their actions to establish and reinforce their authority.  (Dawson Crises p. 85)

Daschke and Ashcraft compared NRM to earthquakes in their book.  It is an excellent way to view religion as a whole because all religions were formed in this fashion.  There was a sudden shaking by an idea or belief and that caused a reaction and this was the ground-breaking period of a religious moment.  Five typologies were introduced to define the qualities of religious groups.

A “new understanding” is formed, opening or awakening people to new thought.  People
tend to live life focusing on the negative aspects they have encountered.  A promise of a better life through religion can be an attractive offer.  A future of harmony in the spiritual life, free of errors they made while on earth, is available.  This life is available to
anyone, at anytime, by simply accepting this new understanding.  A NRM may seek out the young, mentally impaired, low income, troubled or isolated people offering a solution to their miserable existence. (Dawson Comprehending p.49, 61)  A charismatic leader could use charm to recruit members by making them feel “special” or chosen to receive this chance at a new perspective on life.

The second typology was “new self” that lends human-beings to seek growth as a new
type of person.  A person who desires to remove the negativity from their life and forgive themselves for their mistakes has to let go of the “old self” from the past and be able to focus on their future.  With the goal of spiritual perfection, humans develop their faith in a therapeutic way, learning as they grow, to become better people.  The followers of a faith offer support, education and release of past suffering.  A NRM gains credibility as
people shed their old ways and grow into their new selves.  Testimony of followers to new recruits will focus on how this movement has greatly improved the quality of their life.

Followers who leave the group may cause problems as inside information is passed on to
“outsiders” causing the charismatic leaders authority to become unbalanced and
questioned.  This may lead to violent behavior by the leader and/or the group’s members.  The leader may choose to relocate to a more secluded area causing tension within the group.  Outside pressure from anti-cult groups always cause turmoil within NRMs.  (Bromley p. 1,2,5,7)

The third typology was the offering of a “new family” setting.  The world is full of unhappy families.  A person who is miserable with the family they were born into may find a “new family’ highly appealing.  These “new families” may replace a person’s nuclear family. In exchanging a traditional family for fellow members of a religion, a new type of family structure is developed creating a greater sense of community. (Dawson Comprehending p. 51)  The leader of the group may be viewed as a mother or father figure,
fellow members as brothers and sisters and the young as “everyone’s children”
completing the new family setting.

The fourth typology was a “new society” for the newly formed families.  By gathering all the families in one place, a society is formed encompassing the accepted social and moral values of the group.  The group focuses on improving their society’s quality of life as a whole and working to develop it to perfection.  Pamphlets proclaiming the
“miracle” of The Peoples Temple, distributed by leader Jones, described family
life as a rare opportunity for “deep relationships” to all who joined them in
Jonestown. (Smith p. 116)  The desire to achieve a utopian life on earth is powerful in motivating the religious followers to uphold high ethical standards and social relations.  This can cause the group to appear zealous during and after seeking new members into their society.

Encompassing the first four typologies was the fifth, a “new world.” This will be the
apocalyptic transformation of the earth.  The followers of a religious movement view this as the final step of their faith.  Judgment is passed on human-kind and for those who believed in and understood the previous four typologies; their reward would be an ever-lasting life either on Earth or in heaven.  This “end of time” scenario is believed to be
the moment when the good people are sorted from the evil.  NRMs have made the error of announcing the day the world will end.  When the Day of Judgment passes with no changes on earth, the followers of this leader feel doubt.

The definition of NRMs as “alternative religions” seems vague, but applying
religion to Daschke and Ashcraft’s typologies does clarify how and why new
religions are formed.  The drawback to these typologies could be misunderstanding or misinterpreting their meanings.  NRMs that have questionable recruiting methods or membership guidelines will continue to exist.  Using these typologies while studying
religions can be a guide in understanding NRMs.


  1. Thank you for reading my essay

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