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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Overviews of NRMs

By Stephen Bales

Overviews of NRMs

Often the overviews of NRMs are monographs that survey several new religions or discuss NRMs in the context of broader religio-cultural phenomena.  Many multiauthored collections of essays further demonstrate the depth of scholarship, range of important questions, and variety of methods found in the study of new religious movements.  Few of these books are comprehensive in their coverage, and they tend to focus on the most visible NRMs—those movements that appear frequently in the news.  The authors presented below, however, oftentimes use these exemplar NRMs to draw effective conclusions concerning the nature and function of NRMs in a more general sense.  Overviews of NRMs tend to fall into two categories: works that explore the impact of the movements on a global scale; and works that focus on the movements’ activity within a particular culture or society, with most of the latter books concentrating on NRMs’ operations in Western countries.

“Panoramic” is an apt adjective for describing the scope of the current publishing milieu surrounding NRMs, with many recent books approaching the topic from a global perspective.  Christopher Partridge’s edited New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities is possibly the most panoramic, readable, and aesthetically pleasing treatment of these movements to have been published in the last decade.  Partridge organizes NRMs by the tradition from which they arise; for example, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each have their own sections.  For each, general overviews of related NRMs are followed by detailed treatment of prominent sects, organizations, and principal beliefs.  A considerable number of quality treatments of NRMs as global phenomena are available.  Controversial New Religions, edited by James R. Lewis and Jesper Aagaard Petersen, is typical of the many edited collections of scholarship devoted specifically to NRMs.  The religions covered in books such as this tend to be those most visible in popular media outlets.  In this volume, each chapter is a case study of an individual group.  A similar survey edited by Lewis is The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements.  Like most Oxford handbooks, this one is both topically broad and intellectually deep, featuring a variety of substantial review articles.  Another overview of NRMs, and one that may appeal to those seeking a more introductory text, is Elijah Siegler’s New Religious Movements.  Siegler organizes his book around broad sociocultural themes (as opposed to the typical method of creating categories based on originating traditions).  Chapters include “NRMs as Modern Heresy” and “NRMs as Asian Missions to the West.”  Siegler examines multiple NRMs to illustrate these themes.  The Cambridge Companion to New Religious Movements, edited by Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein, is a cutting-edge collection that gathers the most recent research concerning NRMs in the twenty-first century.  Typical of the fine publications of Cambridge University Press, this book is written by authorities on new religions, many of whom are the authors of other works in this bibliographic essay.  Essays range from general overviews of typical phenomena found in new religions (e.g., charismatic leadership) to surveys of NRMs in geographic areas such as Russia and Africa, and in-depth examinations of individual NRMs like the Sathya Sai Baba movement.

Several useful sociological treatments of NRMs on a worldwide scale are available.  Lester Kurtz’s Gods in the Global Village: The World’s Religions in Sociological Perspective, in its third edition, is an accessible primer for students and laypeople, and a valuable refresher for professional religion scholars.  Gods examines how religions operate in an increasingly connected world, as well as how new movements interact with more entrenched faiths.  Similarly, Peter Clarke’s New Religions in Global Perspective: A Study of Religious Change in the Modern World analyzes NRMs as organic functions of modern, pluralistic societies.  The first part of Clarke’s book discusses how NRMs have responded to and interacted with modernity, and describes how broader elements of culture have reacted to these movements.  Parts two through five detail how NRMs in specific geographic regions act dialectically with culture and existing religions.  Another collection, New Religious Movements in the Twenty-First Century: Legal, Political, and Social Challenges in Global Perspective, edited by Phillip Charles Lucas and Thomas Robbins, collects essays about worldwide NRMs.  It is also organized by geography, with the final portion of the book dedicated to a theoretical analysis of religions in the first years of the twenty-first century.  This book is particularly useful for those seeking the latest scholarship on religious violence in the post-9/11 world.

Those looking for books about NRMs on a global scale will find that reliable primary source material can be difficult to locate.  A Reader in New Religious Movements, edited by George Chryssides and Margaret Wilkins, is an eclectic collection of several groups’ original literature in English or English translation.  The major documents of ten prominent movements are organized in thematic chapters such as “Origins and Founder-Leaders,” “Key Writings and Scriptures,” “Societal Issues,” and “The Ultimate Goal.”  The concluding section offers primary source materials published by organizations such as the World Council of Churches and the American Family Foundation.  These respond to or comment on the beliefs and activities of NRMs.

As noted at the beginning of this section, many overviews of NRMs deal with groups in a particular country or region, with the bulk of recent English-language books focusing on a Western milieu.  For an engrossing survey of alternative religions in the United States as seen through the lens of William James’s seminal The Varieties of Religious Experience, read J. C. Hallman’s The Devil Is a Gentleman: Exploring America’s Religious Fringe.  Hallman’s style is lively but scholarly, and he illustrates his writing with many interesting anecdotes.  Perhaps the most comprehensive general examination of American NRMs is Eugene Gallagher and William Ashcraft’s edited Introduction to New and Alternative Religions in America.  This five-volume collection covers most aspects of NRMs in the United States.  Each volume addresses a major area of study, e.g., Asian traditions and African Diasporic religions.  For a briefer introduction to NRMs in Western culture, see Douglas Cowan and David Bromley’s Cults and New Religions: A Brief History.  Cowan and Bromley examine eight controversial religious movements, including the Branch Davidians, Heaven’s Gate, and the Family International, drawing conclusions about shared features of NRMs in the West.  The case studies share similar structures. The chapter on Heaven’s Gate, for example, first describes the religion’s central ideas and then analyzes a particularly thorny issue, i.e., coercion, which the mass media has linked to the movement.  The final chapter, “Rethinking Cults,” argues that NRMS should be viewed as “experimental faiths,” offering a means for understanding the sociological implications of religion as a larger phenomenon.

Works Cited