New Religious Movements: 6 Characteristics

Basic PowerPoint Presentation, designed for whole-class use, that identifies Barker’s 6 characteristics of New Religious Movements.

The concept of New Religious Movements was initially developed, by writers such as Eileen Barker (1999), to reflect a general unease and dissatisfaction with the contemporary usefulness of the “sect – cult” distinction.

More-specifically, the argument in favour of a looser way of categorising a variety of new religious groupings is based on the claim that their increasing diversity of what are conventionally labelled “sects” or “cults” makes it difficult to maintain both a clear theoretical and empirical separation between the two:

• Theoretically, such is the overlap between sects and cults the distinction “on the ground”, when studying their activities, is less than useful. Woodhead et al. (2005), for example, in their ground-breaking study of religion and spirituality in Kendal, identified “two domains”: the Congregational, consisting of a range of churches and denominations and the Holistic – a wide variety of spiritual practices and beliefs they categorised in terms of their ease of access for potential practitioners: from the low access requirements of yoga (you can simply turn up to class and practice it, with or without any accompanying spiritual content) to the high access requirements of something like Paganism that involves a certain level of commitment in terms of its beliefs and practices. In this sense, therefore, “New Religious Movement” simply becomes a kind of generic term for a range of religious organisations that don’t fit easily into the church or denomination category.

• Empirically, evidence derived from the study of different religious groups and movements suggests they are both increasingly sophisticated in the way they recruit and retain members and internally diverse in terms of how they operate. One reason for this is that globalisation – particularly but not exclusively in the form of the Internet and social media – has allowed new religious movements to diversify in terms of both what they offer to potential and actual converts and how they offer it. Scientology, for example, has been particularly sophisticated in this respect, marketing itself by forging many different types of relationship with members through a wide range of media, old and new.

In addition, there are huge organisational and behavioural differences within categories like ‘sect’ and ‘cult’: they’re not simple, homogeneous, classifications and it may be more useful to reflect their multi-layered diversity by being more selective in how we categorise them.

As well as questioning what the categories “sect” and “cult” denote – the supposedly essential features by which they can be differentiated – Barker also suggests we need to consider how these labels have increasingly acquired particular, frequently pejorative, connotations in both the media and wider society: the term “cult”, for example, has, she argues, come to have almost a wholly-negative meaning, “often implying bizarre beliefs, sinister and deceptive practices, mind control or psychological coercion and, perhaps, sexual abuse and violent tendencies”.

In this respect, Barker argues the sect – cult distinction should be replaced by a much-looser form of categorisation, namely New Religious Movements, “defined as groups which have become visible in their present form since the Second World War, and which are religious in so far as they offer an answer to some of the ultimate questions traditionally addressed by mainstream religions: Is there a God? What is the purpose of life? What happens to us after death?”.

To help students get to grips with what Barker identifies as 6 major characteristics of New Religious Movements I’ve bundled them together in a simple PowerPoint Presentation.

The Presentation

The Presentation is purposely formatted as a list, both because I happen to like lists – they can be simple, evocative and memorable – and also because if you’re using the PowerPoint Presentation for whole class teaching (as an introduction to NRM’s for example) all you really want to do is introduce the key ideas and concepts that you can then elaborate in whatever way you want. The list format also has some further strengths:

• where it simply identifies a range of key ideas, it represents a handy note-taking device.

• it discourages “simple copying”. If you present students with too much information they spend their time copying rather than listening and contributing.

• it’s a simple device for information-building. If you identify key ideas these can then be elaborated, examples can be introduced and the “lack of information” invites further development.

Expanded Characteristics

Speaking of which, if you need a bit more information about each of Barker’s characteristics (aside from her notes I’ve added to each slide), the following may help:

1. Converts: With ‘new movements’ many recruits will be first-generation converts; they were neither born into the religion nor have a family history of involvement. ‘Early adopters’ tend to be committed, highly enthusiastic and, in many cases, proselytizing – keen to sell their movement and convert others to their faith (groups like Scientology and Hare Krishna use a variety of techniques to spread the word, from street selling to mail drops to social media).

2. Membership: Recent (post-1970) NRMs attract young, middle-class recruits in disproportionate numbers to other religious organisations. This is partly because the young, in particular, are more open to – and desirous of – new experiences, but also because this age group is more likely to be targeted for recruitment by NRMs. Older individuals who may be set in their (religious / non-religious) ways may simply be much harder to attract. The young are also much less likely to have a range of cultural baggage (from a family of their own to a mortgage…) that might inhibit their ability to join or their commitment once joined.

3. Leadership: Many NRMs are led by a founder with the charisma to attract followers in the first instance, something that often gives such movements an autocratic, rather than democratic, structure. A leader may control all, some or very little of the day-to-day life of converts, but a significant number of NRMs have the characteristics of a total institution, which Goffman (1961) defines as “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society for an appreciable period of time, together lead an enclosed, formally administered round of life”.

Unlike some other total institutions, such as prisons, an important characteristic of NRMs is their voluntarism. This relates to how people make choices about their behaviour and, although, as Francis and Hester (2004) note, choices are always made against a social background that gives them meaning and context, converts may consciously choose to become part of a total institution for many different reasons. One of Cimino and Lattin’s (Shopping for Faith, 2002), respondents for example, told them: “If all the gospel of Jesus Christ is going to do is change my Sunday schedule, then I’m not interested. I want something that is going to change my finances, my sex life, the way I work, the way I keep my house and the way I fix my yard.”

4. Creed: NRMs normally promote a particular version of ‘truth’ that is more dogmatic, certain and less open to questioning and revision than the ‘truths’ promoted by their older counterparts.

5. Identity: A sharp distinction is invariably made between ‘Us’ (the movement’s members) and ‘Them’ (non-members or unbelievers), partly on the basis of the certainty and truth underpinning the faith of members. This concept of group and, by extension, individual identity is based on a distinction between the members’ sense of:

self (who they are, what they believe and so forth),

and their perception of

the Other (people who are ‘not like us’).

In this respect, a sense of ‘Ourselves’ as ‘homogeneously good and godly’ is arguably
sustained by a sense of ‘Others’ as ‘homogeneously bad’.

6. Antagonism and suspicion between a particular NRM, wider society and other religious organisations is a final characteristic of some, but not necessarily all, movements. This follows, perhaps, because an important way for an NRM to both carve out a clear identity in an increasingly crowded ‘religious marketplace’ and maintain a strong sense of self once a niche has been created is to, in Old Religious Movement terms perhaps, ‘demonise your competitors’.

Finally, keep in mind Barker’s observation that these characteristics are not intended to be necessarily exhaustive or definitive. Rather, they reflect the idea there are general “characteristics which tend to be found in any movement that is both new and religious’.


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