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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Anti-Cult Movements

By Stephen Bales

Anti-Cult Movements

NRMs qua “other,” that is, as extracultural, counterhegemonic, or alien phenomena, have long served as catalysts for misunderstanding and fear among members of dominant cultural groups, resulting in reactionary anti-cult movements and a large body of anti-cult literature.  A classic example of this still popular approach to writing about NRMs is the biased, sensationalistic Larson’s New Book of Cults, in a revised edition, authored by evangelical broadcaster Bob Larson.  This encyclopedia negatively presents the “cultic roots” of many major world religions (though noticeably leaving out Christianity, which arguably began its existence as a Jewish “cult”).  Most of the book consists of dozens of polemical attacks against religious groups, including typical targets (e.g., astrology, Hare Krishnas) and “cults” such as the Unitarian Church, martial arts, yoga, and Baha’ism.

Fortunately, the scholarly community counteracts such works with a body of literature examining anti-cult movements as phenomena.  This scholarship offers temperate analyses of the books that feature unwarranted attacks against NRMs.  A good introduction to the sociological study of NRMs, the second edition of Lorne Dawson’s Comprehending Cults: The Sociology of New Religious Movements investigates how NRMS form and how they attract members.  The book also includes chapters that work through three major negative perceptions held by the general public concerning NRMs: that their members are brainwashed, that they encourage sexual deviance, and that they encourage violence.  Such views are often perpetuated by groups that adhere to mainstream religious beliefs.  Psychology of Religion, edited by Justin Barrett and now in its third edition, is a four-volume collection of essays that addresses many questions about the intersection between organized religion and psychology, with essays covering concepts pertinent to anti-cult movements and scares, as well as the varieties of religious prejudice.  Douglas Cowan’s Bearing False Witness? An Introduction to the Christian Countercult is a detailed investigation of the psychology of Christian Evangelical groups that attempt to thwart the activity of perceived “cults” from an oppositional Christian perspective.  For analysis of both sides of the issue, see Legitimating New Religions by James R. Lewis.  He examines strategies that NRMs use to mainstream themselves as well as the ways in which anti-cult groups try to delegitimize the same groups.

Political entities, even national governments, have targeted NRMs and attempted to curtail their activities through judicial means.  Regulating Religion: Case Studies from around the Globe, edited by James Richardson, examines state repression of NRMs.  Each case study investigates actions taken by government toward NRMs in a country or a small group of countries that share cultural relationships or geographic proximity.  Not all of the case studies are horror stories, and some essays provide examples of tolerance and social justice.  Several books provide detailed coverage of individual countries’ anti-cult or inconsistent responses to new religions.  The second edition of New Religious Movements and Religious Liberty in America, edited by Derek Davis and Barry Hankins, deals with, among many other topics, understanding how NRMs reflect the developmental experiences and cultural structures found in traditional American religions, the construction of NRMs by American media and law enforcement, and the troubled relationships between NRMs and First Amendment protections.  Susan Palmer’s The New Heretics of France: Minority Religions, la République, and the Government-Sponsored “War on Sects,” examines how the French government’s excessive response to new religions has resulted in violence toward groups such as the Scientologists and the Raelians.  For a detailed case study of anti-cult repression in China, see David Ownby’s Falun Gong and the Future of China.  Ownby explores how NRMs, even those related to apparently innocuous practices like qigong, can be perceived as challenges to the political status quo.

At times, however, criticism of the activity of NRMs is warranted, especially when violence is used by religious groups as a tool for coercion.  For an analysis of violence in NRMs, see James W. Jones’s Blood That Cries Out from the Earth: The Psychology of Religious Terrorism, which explores violence in movements like modern Islamic fundamentalism, Christian millennialism, and the syncretistic Japanese movement Aum Shinrikyo.  Another recent analysis of religious violence, The Fundamentalist Mindset: Psychological Perspectives on Religion, Violence, and History, edited by Charles Strozier, David Terman, and James Jones, offers essays on violence in the modern fundamentalism movements found in major world religions.  The volume deals primarily with modern expressions of Christianity and Islam, but also with emerging groups such as neo-Nazi organizations.