New religious movements have become big business, raising questions about their methods of recruitment, financial practices, and legitimacy. A new religious movement (NRM) is a spiritual or religious group that has emerged relatively recently and is unaffiliated with an established religious organization. Contemporary times find many NRMs growing at a fast rate. Such expansion could even be characterized as that of a growth industry, where an organization is in demand, expanding at a faster rate than the overall market. NRMs have become quite popular, no longer localized to a particular place or limited to a specific group of people. As people seek answers to their ultimate questions today, they have instant and equal access to NRMs (as much as to mainstream, established religions) through the Internet and mass media. As a result, the demand for information, materials, and contact with, by, and about NRMs has led to a flood of information, products, and services. From training seminars to collections of crystals, from red string Kabbalah bracelets to Scientology stress tests, memberships in and books and articles about new religious movements are on the rise.
I. What Is a New Religious Movement?
II. Who Joins and Why?
III. NRMs and the Courts
IV. Recruitment, Financial Practices, and the Business of NRMs
V. NRMs versus Sects
What Is a New Religious Movement?
The term new religious movement arose as a designation for the many new religious organizations that formed in Japan after World War II. At that time, new religious freedoms and social upheaval provided fertile ground for such groups. The term was later used to describe other emergent religious groups around the globe.
The U.S. Immigration Act of 1965 lifted immigration restrictions from Asia, opening the doors to Asians, Asian religions, and their teachers. Groups such as the Unification Church (Family Federation for World Peace and Unification—popularly known as the Moonies) and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON—popularly known as the Hare Krishnas) attracted largely young, white, middle-class disciples. Asian religious groups provided responses to their problems that were different from mainstream U.S. traditions and became popular and controversial for this very reason.
The innovative and turbulent 1960s and 1970s also gave rise to other groups. While some employed more secular, psychological, and scientific methods and ideas, as in the case of the Church of Scientology, others drew on ancient or hidden traditions, as in the cases of the Covenant of the Goddess and the Order of the Solar Temple.
Other groups that had emerged in earlier times were also considered alongside these newer sects, and they, too, posed an alternative to mainstream U.S. religion. Some provided Christian alternatives, such as Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism). Others emerged from African (La Regla de Ocha—Santeria) or Native American (The Native American Church) beliefs and practices.
Scholars debate how “new” a movement has to be to constitute an NRM. While some would date a contemporary NRM to as early as the 19th century (such as the Baha’i Faith), others would argue that a new religious movement should have emerged no earlier than several decades before the present. Regardless, NRMs are not new in the sense that they pop up out of nowhere or within a spiritual vacuum. Some groups are centuries old or at least can trace their foundations or belief systems to ancient times. Indeed, NRMs often draw heavily on past revelations or traditions to authenticate their message. For example, Wicca claims an ancient past and lineage to distant pagan systems.
NRMs are often not religious in the traditional Western sense of maintaining belief in a named deity or deities, viewing core principles as stemming from a written text, or holding that faith is bound to ritual practices undertaken in an institutional setting. The Church of Scientology, for example, has specifically denied the label religion and instead emphasized its role in facilitating and maximizing personal development. The Self-Realization Fellowship, though it comes from a Hindu context, similarly does not require religious conversion or depend on any specific religious beliefs. Indeed, many groups have avoided the label religion, because it is understood as connoting the very thing that they originally found problematic and the very thing that their new adherents are seeking to abandon.
NRMs are widely categorized as movements because the term covers a wide range of organizational structures. Movements are generally fluid, but some new religious movements are highly organized and stratified.
New religious movements are sometimes called cults. While the word cult refers to a religious system of rituals, practices, and the people who adhere to it, the term today often carries a negative connotation of a controlling, distorted, even dangerous religious group. The term new religious movement is therefore a more neutral way to refer to a wider phenomenon of emergent religious /spiritual groups. Every religion is at some point new, and NRMs are composed of many different groups with widely divergent perspectives. While some new religious movements can indeed be dangerous to their adherents and to the general public, they are not all so. Nevertheless, until NRMs gain the acceptance of mainstream society, establishing the legitimacy of a new religious movement is often a sketchy proposition.
Who Joins and Why?
New religious movements vary widely in their beliefs and practices; however, such groups often represent alternative worldviews and practices vis-a-vis the mainstream, and they often offer distinct responses to the problems of their day. The answers they provide often seem more adequate to followers than those of the older, established traditions. Given widespread disillusionment with many established religious traditions, whether owing to scandals or to perceived backwardness, NRMs can offer attractive alternatives to the mainstream.
New religious movements in the United States are comprised largely of white middleclass young people—but not exclusively so. Groups recruit from the middle and upper classes. Adherents’ families are generally well educated and financially stable. Many are in college or are college educated. They come, in other words, from mainstream society. Nevertheless, people attracted to NRMs are largely dissatisfied with mainstream religion and society, are interested in religious /spiritual matters, and are actively seeking individually and independently for fresh answers to their life questions. Seeking to “find themselves,” people attracted to new religious movements want alternatives to the familiar, structured establishment of belief and practice.
It is often the case, too, that the downtrodden or less well-off find satisfaction in the pursuit of new religion. Certainly this is the case among many adherents of the Christian Identity movement, which overlaps in its tenets with radical antigovernmentism, racism, militarism, anti-intellectualism, and other such themes. Rejection of economic disparities similarly plays a part, too, whether formally stated or not, in the beliefs and activities of such groups as the Nation of Islam. And many Rastafarians and followers of Native American Religion are among the most economically challenged peoples in the country, even as they seek solace in rooting themselves in their cultural traditions. (Some observers, in fact, would count these last two faiths as no longer new religions but relatively well-established ones.)
Whatever their economic status, people in search of answers to their personal and social problems will often find complete solutions in new religious movements. The strong community identity these movements typically provide will give a sense of security and stability; the communal cooperation they offer will supply a sense of common goals for life-building; the discipline in practice they usually demand will cultivate a sense of self-mastery and knowledge; and the recruitment and financial activities they sometimes require can serve to build self-esteem.
NRMs and the Courts
While many countries grant their citizens religious freedom, conflicts between religion and the state are inevitable and can become more intense in the case of new religious movements—precisely because they engage in practices that many mainstream secular and religious people may find problematic.
New religious movements are often accused of harming or endangering adherents. Court cases have alleged that these movements inflict psychological and /or physical trauma or death. The practices enumerated include kidnapping, brainwashing, mind control, sexual abuse, alienation, harassment, and threats to families.
Charges of endangerment and violence have also been leveled at the criminal level. The mass murder–suicide in Jonestown is one example. Another well-known example occurred in 1984, when members of Rajneeshpurum near The Dalles, Oregon, sought to poison (via salmonella-laced food) people in the local populace who opposed the group’s presence. In 2008, there were charges that children of members of the polygamist Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas were being brainwashed and abused—charges that later proved unfounded. And in 2010, members of a Michigan Christian Identity group known as the Hutaree were charged with sedition and other crimes for seeking to overthrow the government.
Another major legal issue for NRMs has to do with their status as religious entities and their financial activities as related to that status. Tax exemption for religions and nonprofit organizations is granted in many countries, the United States included. Here, the question involves whether particular new religious movements qualify as protected religions and the legality of particular financial practices. An important issue raised in court cases is when an NRM becomes a legal religious entity. This is difficult to determine, because these movements are not typically organized according to traditional Western understandings of a religion, nor do they always behave like one. Courts have to discern whether a group is a smokescreen for illegal activities, such as a convenient means to qualify for tax exemption. Some new religious movements are indeed quite wealthy and run businesslike organizations, leading to questions about whether they are legitimate religions.
The Church of Scientology has been under constant scrutiny for this very reason. The church has had trouble with the Internal Revenue Service and was involved in a 10-year legal battle with the Food and Drug Administration over controversial medical practices. It took 48 years for New Zealand to formally recognize (in 2002) the Church of Scientology as a legal religious entity. Although Russia refused to re-register the church as a religion under the country’s new laws on religion in 1997, the case was eventually taken to the European Court of Human Rights (Church of Scientology Moscow v. Russia), which sided with the church. In its decision of April 7, 2007, the Court found that the church was a religious entity entitled to the freedoms of association and of religion. The Italian Supreme Court ruled in 2000 that, while Scientology is indeed a religion—and therefore tax exempt—its drug-addiction program, Narconon, is not tax exempt. The Charity Commission of England and Wales rejected the church’s application to register as a charity (giving it tax exemption like other religious entities registered as charities). Scientology was rejected as a religion, because British law requires a religion to include belief in a Supreme Being that is expressed in worship. Scientology is also involved in legal cases in other countries, such as Germany, where it is not accepted as a legitimate religion and instead is seen as a dangerous cult.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1989 that Church of Scientology members could not deduct auditing and training courses from their federal income taxes. Such courses, though integral to church membership, and costing thousands of dollars, are payment for services, and not free church contributions. Auditing is the main practice in Scientology for the practitioner to gain control of the mind and achieve the state of Clear. Although the church argued that auditing is a religious practice for achieving enlightenment and is comparable to the concept of tithing in other religious groups, the Court ruled that auditing is instead like church counseling, medical care, or other kinds of religiously sponsored services.
Other new religious movements have had similar troubles. Reverend Sun Myung Moon, founder of the Unification Church, was convicted by the United States on tax evasion charges prior to the group’s recognition as a tax-exempt organization. Pagan and witchcraft groups have, not surprisingly, been challenged on their status as well. While U.S. courts generally recognize such groups as religious, the Supreme Court of Rhode Island revoked the Church of Pan’s status, because the church’s activities were entirely environmental in focus. In such cases, mainstream religions can also get involved; for legal issues involving new religious movements have implications for all religious groups and their practices.
Recruitment, Financial Practices, and the Business of NRMs
Recruitment and solicitation of funds have been particularly controversial for new religious movements, particularly their common method of public solicitation. Solicitation at airports and other public grounds has been banned in some places, because it is argued that these practices are a public nuisance, or even deceptive. For example, ISKCON members were arrested in 1987 in West Virginia for allegedly soliciting money for their community under the false pretense of feeding the poor.
Critics of NRM solicitation practices argue that groups use deceptive practices like misleading donors and recruits on how the money is spent, who the specific group is, or what membership entails. Nevertheless, new religious movements do not have the forum that established religions have for gathering members and funds. Thus, public solicitation is often the most efficient way of getting the message out. Other groups organize side projects and products, establishing quasi-businesses; selling paraphernalia, vitamins, or self-help books; offering cheap labor; designing Web sites; and so on. These practices are necessary for survival, but they also lead to questions of authenticity, legitimacy, and legality.
While some NRMs deny the material world and the accumulation of wealth (for themselves and their adherents), others either embrace it or at least teach that both are possible. Th us, some new religious movements have been extremely successful in gaining financial capital. One way to do this is by targeting mainstream businesses. Through workshops, special seminars, and self-help books, some NRMs have found success targeting business professionals.
Organizations that offer seminars to train businesspeople have proliferated since the 1970s. These training seminars teach businesspeople techniques of management, developed out of their own beliefs, methods, and practices. For example, the World Institute of Scientology Enterprises offers programs for businesses, teaching them management practices developed from Scientology founder, L. Ron Hubbard; the Osho movement, founded by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, offers Results Seminars; and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation offers master’s degrees in business administration at its Maharishi University of Management.
New religious movements also recruit from among the general public. The Church of Scientology offers personality, stress, and IQ tests. Marketed products, Internet sites, and self-help books are all ways that individuals can take advantage of the offerings of NRMs. Through all of these, the exploration and experimentation in the self allows new religious movements to spread their message and grow.
Seeking prosperity for oneself and one’s organization seems counter to the traditional notion of religions as not-for-profit and on individual disciples focusing on their own inner spiritual life. Yet many groups who support these kinds of business practices focus on the holism of life. If the divine is in all things, the material world is not in distinction from the spiritual world. Th us, self-empowerment leads to life empowerment, which leads to financial empowerment.
NRMs versus Sects
Overlapping with the concept of new religious movements is the concept of sects. The latter type of organization is generally seen as an off shoot of an established religion. In some cases, however, it is debatable whether a group is best viewed as a sect or as a distinctly new and different take on an old set of beliefs. For example, in the United States, among the fastest growing religious groups are churches belonging to a version of Pentecostalism that devote themselves to the so-called doctrine of prosperity. This doctrine claims that God provides material wealth to those he favors. Th us, by accruing money and worldly goods, the believer demonstrates the he or she is among the select. Beginning in the mid-20th century under a comparatively mild-mannered version promoted by Oral Roberts, and then extending into a range of popular televangelist programs in the latter part of the century, the prosperity gospel has since become a profitable industry for those who oversee it (primarily, the pastors of mega-churches and their media enterprises). The issue has become contentious enough that, at the end of 2007, Senator Charles Grassley opened a congressional investigation targeting a number of high-profile wealth gospel preachers. (As of mid-2010, the investigation remains open.)
As movements grow and organize themselves, they naturally seek to attract followers, sustain themselves, and increase their influence. This requires that new religious movements finance the spread of their message. Thus, charges of financial impropriety and exploitation of vulnerable people who are seeking alternatives in their lives are inevitable. To combat these charges, NRMs must prove that they are legitimate. To do so, they often point to experiential proof, revelation, and ancient wisdom in establishing their legitimacy. While new religious movements proliferate, they often rise and fall fairly quickly. Only time will tell whether the new religions of today will become the mainstream religions of tomorrow.
Tracy Sayuki Tiemeier and Michael Shally-Jensen
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