New Religious Movements

Fragmentation or Renewal?
By Hosam Tammam
A researcher of the Islamic movements- Egypt

" I am an historian, and I am quite careful when using slogans such as "the return of religion"- Mayer
There are different ways in approaching the so called "New Religious Movements". Some viewpoints de-evaluate the role and the influence of these movements while other views perceive them as phenomenal movements playing central roles.

The nature and the roles of these movements lie between these two extremist viewpoints. Moreover, the various categories and models of new religious movements should be considered in studying this issue. The relations between the state and religion as well as the cultural and political contexts create the characteristics of these movements across the different countries and religions.     

In this interview with Jean-Francois Mayer, we trace the emergence of the "new religious movements" term and its development. In addition, we shed more light on the possible influences and tensions between the old established religions and the new religious movements.


Tammam:- You are one of the prominent researchers in the field of the New Religious Movements Studies. How has the term of New Religious Movements emerged?  Do you consider it as an important effective term?


Mayer:- Anthropologists had already used the concept of new religious movements in previous decades. Similarly, the concept of "new religions" (shin shukyo) has been in use in Japan for many decades for describing a variety of modern movements, with roots either in Shinto or Buddhism, or syncretistic.

In the West, words such as "cults" or "sects" were primarily used until the 1970s. But they presented two problems. Firstly, while "cult" could be used for describing a new religious reality, "sect" was very much connected to a Christian context and a Christian understanding of religious life and religious organization: what was one supposed to do when dealing with movements coming from, for example, India or Japan, i.e. movements without any "genealogical" link with Christianity?

 Secondly, "sects" and "cults" tended to become loaded words in the context of the "cult controversies" in the West in the 1970s and 1980s. This posed a real problem for scholars: they were using these words as technical, more or less neutral terms; but ordinary people would associate them with very negative meanings, as describing allegedly "bad" or "dangerous" groups. This tended to create constant misunderstandings. While sociologists of religion may still use these words, the expression "new religious movements"—as a more neutral label—has gained wide circulation in scholarly discourse, and we see it increasingly being used by some media too.


Such new religious movements emerge not only from the West, or India, or Japan. In China we are witnessing the birth of a variety of religious movements as well.

Tammam:- Do you think that the term of "new religious movements" will continue to be a reliable valid expression of such a sophisticated phenomenon?

  Mayer:- Of course, "new religious movements" is not entirely satisfactory. Firstly, how long does a movement remain "new"? Then, it also puts together an amazing variety of unrelated movements, with their only common feature being the fact that they do not belong directly to one major, established tradition. On the other hand, the expression makes clear that these movements are relatively recent and that we are witnessing an incredible "religious creativity" in the contemporary world. This is obviously a sociological and historical approach: the view of the theologian and that of the believer may focus on other aspects. Since it is a very broad term, the concept of "new religious movements" can also be applied to new variations of traditional religions and newly emerging movements coming from established religions, but not necessarily breaking with them. While this is a slightly different meaning, it can be as legitimate as other uses.

 Actually, in cooperation with Algerian academics, the Religioscope Institute is planning to organize a conference in 2010 for the purpose of examining the different approaches of new religious movements, both in the Muslim Arab world and in the West. We hope that this can produce fruitful comparative approaches and make us all aware of the different perceptions that we might have when using that same expression. Moreover, it will be an opportunity to look at religious renewal and changes in different contexts.

Tammam:- Are we witnessing a "return of religion" phenomenon or the emergence of "new religious movements"?

Mayer:- I am an historian, and I am quite careful when using slogans such as "the return of religion", for the simple reason that religion has never disappeared from the scene, although the influence of secular and Marxist theoretical views had tended to make people believe that religion would decline and disappear. As we know, reality has contradicted such expectations, although it is true that many changes have taken place.

At the same time, I do not deny that various forms of religion or religious-inspired behavior have come once more to take on a greater role than—let's say—30 years ago.

Secularization has progressed in various ways and geographical areas, but this has not meant that religion went away! On the contrary, to some extent, the challenges of secularization itself may have encouraged some religious groups to become more active on the public scene.


Such new religious movements emerge not only from the West, or India, or Japan. In China we are witnessing the birth of a variety of religious movements as well.
Tammam:- What about the "new religious movements"?

Mayer: Regarding the emergence of new religious movements: yes, it is true. A large number of new religious movements have emerged and will continue to do so. This does not mean that they will replace traditional religions—many new religious movements remain statistically quite small. Some will also vanish with time. But this means that the variety of religions will continue to increase.

New religious movements have emerged at all times in history. But previous centuries were mostly not conducive to their development, since the principle of religious freedom was not widely accepted, and leaving one's original religion could have very serious social consequences. This is still to some extent the case in various parts of the world, but no longer in most of the Western world. Such new religious movements emerge not only from the West, or India, or Japan. In China we are witnessing the birth of a variety of religious movements as well. A case such as that of Falun Gong—which is not completely a religious movement, but which has many features of such a movement—is an illustration. Such movements will also appear in the Muslim world, although almost certainly with a degree of opposition.

A classic example of a new religious movement that emerged in a Muslim environment was the Baha'i faith, which was strongly influenced originally by millennarian Shia beliefs, but it has developed into a reality that can no longer be seen as just a branch of Islam, and has become something different, while claiming to incorporate previous religious beliefs.

Tammam:- How can we distinguish between the new religious movements from the traditional religions?

Mayer:-We should probably distinguish here between two types of new religious movements.

Firstly, there are groups that derive directly from an existing religious tradition and build upon it, claiming to have grasped the essence of this tradition and to have the best understanding of it.

If we take the context of Christianity and examples of "older" new religious movements, the Jehovah's Witnesses or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (more commonly known as Mormons)—two unrelated, quite different groups—claim to preach the true Christian message, and this is strongly what they believe, although such a claim is not accepted at all by traditional Christian churches. But they attempt to build partly on the same foundations as the other Christian churches, while being completely separated from them and having a different understanding of many aspects of the Christian faith.

Secondly, there are other groups that do not derive directly from an existing tradition, although they might draw elements from various pre-existing religions. This would be the case of several new Japanese religions, for instance.

Both a schism from a pre-existing tradition and a relatively new form of religious group may offer a challenge to existing religious institutions. In any society, there are people one might describe as "spiritual seekers" who are looking for other religious answers and practices. Conversions to a new religious movement can obviously result from a variety of factors, like any other type of conversion.

Tammam:- How do the old established religions interact with the new movements?


Basically, it is inevitable that new actors tend to change the status of any "game," and thus reactions are not unexpected. The specific type of reaction much depends upon the religious, social and political context of a country.
Mayer:- Regarding the reactions to new religious groups, they do not only come from older, established traditions. It is true that they may be tempted to protect their "religious market”: for instance, if you look at Central Asia, you see established religious groups (Muslims and Christians together) in many places taking stands against religious innovators, who are seen as creating trouble in the local societies.

In the West, interestingly, in some countries you see states reacting against some new types of religious groups as much as churches: for instance, in France and Belgium, you have state-controlled institutions in charge of monitoring the activities of new religious movements. This is not a policy followed by most Western countries, however, and it is strongly criticized by some advocates of religious freedom who are suspicious of state intervention in this field.

Basically, it is inevitable that new actors tend to change the status of any "game," and thus reactions are not unexpected. The specific type of reaction much depends upon the religious, social and political context of a country. In the United States, for instance, it is taken for granted that there should be a free market of religions, more or less immune to state intervention.

Tammam:- Can we consider Islamophobia and criticism of Islam in the West as part of the rising concerns against the new religious movements and sects in the West over the last two decades?

Mayer:- To some extent, it derives from similar perceptions: it is perceived as something unknown and potentially threatening. While it cannot be entirely equated, since Islam is also associated with fears about immigration as well as historical memories of clashes, it is true that patterns show similarities. It is true also that, in the post-9/11 context, "cult controversies" seem to have declined in the same proportion that fears about Islam have been growing.

For instance, in the late 1990s law-enforcement agencies in several countries were concerned about potential trouble coming from millennarian, "end-time" movements. In the early 2000s such interest from the same law-enforcement agencies seems to have been largely redirected to Islamic militants.

Several groups critical of sects have attempted to apply to jihadist militants the same type of approach that they had applied to "cults" (brainwashing, etc.). This has met with a limited level of success. I think that even if there are some similarities between high-demand, intense activist groups, we cannot simply transfer analysis of one type of group to another type.

Generally speaking, we cannot just simply see criticism of Islam and Islamophobia as an extension of cult controversies: some arguments are similar, some fears reveal similar patterns, but Islamophobia has its own roots too.

Tammam:- We can see an increase in fear of Islam, in the West, and a desire to re-attract the converts to Islam, who are seen as victims of brainwashing. Is Islam the new religious fear that succeeds the previous fear of the various sects in the West?  

Mayer:- With my experience and background in research on converts to new religious movement, I can definitely see some similarities. Conversion to Islam or to a new religious movement can be frightening for some people, since it gets linked with feelings of something sinister and possibly dangerous. From a wider perspective, I think that conversions can easily be felt as threatening, since they can be perceived as a kind of treason to one's original community. If a Muslim in Egypt or elsewhere were to convert to any other religious group, certainly a number of people would resent that too far and react with hostility. This is a much wider issue that would take too long to discuss here, but this is also why I think that research about contemporary reactions toward missionary activities and conversions is an important topic.

Let's face the facts realistically: in current times, with people traveling easily, with the Internet, with instant communication and access to a wide range of information, we will necessarily continue to witness more and more people converting from one faith to another. While it is understandable that believers in any religion feel that the conversion of one of their members to another religion as a loss, and while it is understandable too that they will try to convince people not to do it, this will happen again and again, creating tensions sometimes, but there is nothing that can be done to prevent it. Criticism of Islam in the West does not prevent people from becoming interested in Islam and converting, and the same can be said about other religions. For researchers of contemporary religion, this represents one more fascinating field of research: I myself have conducted quite a few interviews with converts to Islam, and it is very interesting to hear their stories.

Similarly, it has often been very interesting to hear the stories of converts to new religious movements. Whatever our own beliefs are, all these stories show the deep longing of human beings to find answers to fundamental questions about life.

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