Teaching New Religious Movements

Teaching New Religious Movements

Teaching New Religious Movements

Teaching New Religious Movements


Since its inception around 1970, the study of New Religious Movements (NRMs) has evolved into an established multidisciplinary field. At the same time, both the movements and the scholars who study them have been the subjects of intense controversy. In this volume, a group of senior NRM scholars who have been instrumental in the development of the field will offer pivotal essays that present the basics of NRM scholarship along with guidance for teachers on classroom use.

The book is organized topically around subjects that are both central to the study of NRMs and likely to be useful to non-specialists. Part I contains examinations of the definitional boundaries of the area of study, varying disciplinary perspectives on NRMs, unique methodological/ethical problems encountered in the study of NRMs, and the controversies that have confronted scholars studying NRMs and the movements themselves. Part II examines a series of topics central to teaching about NRMs: the larger sociocultural significance of the movements, their distinctive symbolic and organizational features, the interrelated processes of joining and leaving NRMs, the organization of gender roles in NRMs, media and popular culture portrayals of the movements, the occurrence of corruption and abuse within movements, and violence by and against NRMs. Part III provides informational resources for teaching about NRMs, which are particularly important in a field where knowing the biases of sources is crucial.

With its interdisciplinary approach, the volume provides comprehensive, accessible information and perspectives on NRMs. It is an invaluable guide for instructors navigating this scholarly minefield.


J. Gordon Melton

Just what is a “new religion”? In the middle of the twentieth century, scholars assumed that cults were small, somewhat ephemeral religious groups that were headed by a charismatic leader and that advocated decidedly different teachings from those predominating in mainstream society. As they began to turn their attention to the groups that had been called cults, scholars found a host of problems with those assumptions. For example, they learned that some groups were quite large international bodies and that some “new” religions had been around for a century or more (Nelson 1969). Scholars encountered a variety of new religions that were teaching exactly what the mainstream religious community affirmed (Tony Alamo Foundation) but still found themselves prominent on lists of cults. They also observed groups that suddenly changed their status and moved relatively quickly from being a new religion to one with social acceptance (Worldwide Church of God, Soka Gakkai) or vice versa (Branch Davidians).

There was equal ambiguity about what was meant by charismatic leadership, which led to a variety of leadership forms with the same designation. For example, charismatic leadership sometimes has meant simply (1) self-asserted leadership (the method used by most religious founders) as opposed to institutional appointment after having met various qualifications; (2) the demonstration of various skills and traits that make one especially attractive to the public, as demonstrated by leaders such as Billy Graham or Desmond Tutu; or (3) the distinctive or supernatural attributes that believers ascribe to an individual that allow a leader to be set apart and assigned a special new role in the cosmos. Such charismatic leaders might be regarded as an avatar, a satguru, an end-time messenger, a spiritual . . .

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