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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Home

By Stephen Bales

Issue

This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the September 2013 issue of Choice (volume 51 | number 1).

Introduction

All religions are anchored in time and place.  Christianity began as a Jewish sect.  For the Chinese, Buddhism was once an exotic import.  The modern world, however, has seen a remarkable increase in the number of new religions, as well as the introduction of established faiths into societies in which they were previously little known or practiced.  This essay gathers the latest books on “new religious movements” (NRMs), which many define as movements emerging in the last couple of hundred years that differ from and are peripheral to long-established religions.  NRMs serve as a testament to the continuing vibrancy of humanity’s impulse to seek the spiritual.  The recent boom in religion, unfortunately, has been accompanied by misunderstanding, sensationalism, and, at times, persecution, as is evident in the debasement and frequent misuse of the word “cult” to describe new or unfamiliar religions.  “Cult” has become a pejorative term associated with brainwashing, authoritarianism, heresy, and physical and emotional abuse.  Some use the word to scare people, to maintain the political/cultural status quo, or to sell books and magazines employing polemical rhetoric against outsider religions.  Beginning in the last half of the twentieth century, religious studies scholars—indeed most reputable religion scholars of all stripes—have preferred the phrase “new religious movements” to identify recently born, alternative religions.  This essay will focus on NRMs and, to some extent, their antecedents and related entities such as conspiracy theories.  This essay also treats religions newly imported to a specific geographic area, in particular North America, as new religious movements.

As a rapidly maturing interdisciplinary academic field, religious studies has done much to improve the quality of discourse surrounding NRMs, providing a much-needed counterpoint to the voluminous amount of exploitative literature that has littered news racks and bookshelves since the 1960s.  This continuing trend of responsible scholarship is heartening.  Many religions once overlooked or subjected to polemical attacks or true-crime-style tabloid treatment now receive sensitive examinations from legitimate sociological, historical, theological, and psychological perspectives.  The existing literature related to NRMs is vast, with much gold and even more dross.  To serve researchers and librarians in this rapidly developing area, this essay brings together the best books on NRMs published for the first time, or presented as new editions, from 2002 to the present (with one exception).  As previously mentioned, NRMs are considered here as comprising new religions (including novel derivations of existing religions); and recently imported established religions, with an emphasis on North America and the Caribbean.  The essay begins with three sections titled “General Reference Works,” “Overviews of NRMs,” and “Anti-Cult Movements.”  The sections that follow are organized by the religious traditions from which specific NRMs originated or derived their inspiration.  These categories, while not comprehensive, address a variety of religious outlooks: “Asian Traditions,” “African Diasporic Traditions,” “Neopagan Traditions,” “Abrahamic Traditions,” and “Western Esoteric and New Age Movements.”  The final category before the conclusion is “Quasi-Religious Beliefs,” which focuses on those primarily secular groups that possess religious elements.  Potentially, NRMs may fall into more than one of these categories, but this essay attempts to identify the most representative category for each described work.

Before beginning, a summary of the classification of current NRM literature as a whole is appropriate.  Considering the multidisciplinary nature of religious studies, works on NRMs—though tending to appear in the Library of Congress Classification BL-BX range and the Dewey Decimal Classification 200s—are dispersed throughout the major library classification schedules.  Library collection builders, therefore, should remain attentive to those disciplinary areas typically considered as outside their purview.  Furthermore, NRMs are sometimes discussed in books not specifically devoted to new religions and often are included in works discussing broad religious phenomena and beliefs, established religious traditions, and religion from historical and geographical perspectives.  This essay includes these broader works when they are considered valuable to NRM researchers.  Finally, readers will note that quite a few of the included books are edited collections of essays.  The edited collection is a widely used vehicle for scholarly communication concerning NRMs and religious studies in general.


Stephen Bales is assistant professor and humanities and social sciences librarian at Texas A&M University.  He may be contacted at sbales@library.tamu.edu.