New religious movements

23.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

New religious movements (NRMs) are groups that appeared no earlier than the middle of the 19th century and have significant differences in their system of beliefs compared to “traditional” religions.

Researchers are unable to say exactly how many such organisations are scattered across different countries. Probably there are thousands of such groups. As of 2012, the total number of adherents of new religious movements in the world exceeded 100 million people.

The main reasons for the emergence of new religious movements and sects  

According to researchers, the proportion of supporters of new religious movements in the modern world is highest in India, South Africa, Japan, China, the United States, the United Kingdom and countries of the Caribbean. There is an assumption that this is due to the large spread of indigenous folk cults, which then “evolve” into separate religious movements. But their adherents in no state make up the majority of those who profess traditional religions.

New religious movements

According to historians, the main reasons for the birth of new religious movements are:

  • social, economic and political instability in the country
  • the isolation of people from church traditions
  • the weakening of historical churches and their missionary structures
  • the spread of youth subcultures disillusioned with other forms of “rebellion”

Whatever the reasons for the formation of NRM, their number is continually growing. This is not only about developing countries, where primordial religious traditions dominate, but also in locations with a high standard of living.

The Charismatic movement, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Falun Gong are the largest NRMs today.

Features of new religious movements and cults

According to official data in 2011 about 20 new religious movements were operating in Russia. But according to many researchers, the real number is more likely to be several hundred. A few organisations like to operate openly, but one of the main signs of new religious movements is that many of them function “underground”, promoting their beliefs to the people and recruiting more and more adherents.

Features of new religious movements

Researchers also include the following features of the new religious movements:

  1. A short period of existence.
  2. A small number of adepts.
  3. Religious syncretism, which includes elements of teachings from other religions.
  4. The dominant role of the leaders of the organisations, who often proclaim themselves deities or disciples.
  5. The desire to change the existing social and political system in a particular territory.
  6. The instability of the worldviews of adepts, when they “rebuild” the existing NRM into an organisation with completely different beliefs.
  7. A missionary focus, often turning a regional movement into an international one.
  8. An instability of the composition and constant rotation of adepts.

Leaders of a few modern new religious movements agree with the characteristics that researchers attribute to their organisations. For example, supporters of Neo-Paganism insist on the original traditional nature of their beliefs, denying the fact that their organisations have absorbed elements of other world religions. While other NRMs even draw ideas for their teachings from films, for example Jediism, followers of which believe in the reality of owning the Force from the fantastic Star Wars film. Such movements that “glorify” fictional characters (including from films) include Dudeism and the Church of the SubGenius.

The opinion of religious scholars that the beliefs of some NRMs are radical is increasingly finding evidence. Some organisations in their teachings call for the change of the political system or the attitude of the population to national minorities. And not always peacefully. Such sects include the White Brotherhood and the Nation of Islam.

Classification of new religious movements

Not only are the features of new religious movements controversial, but also their classification. These groups are difficult to attribute to one separate category. Most often there are mixed types of new religious movements, which have absorbed the main characteristics of the “neighbouring” sects.

Classification of new religious movements

At the moment, there are many different classifications of NRMs. One of these classifactions was developed by A.L. Dvorkin, a researcher of modern religious sectarianism. He thinks that the new religious movements include the following types of organisations: pseudo-Christian, “New Revelations”, “Eastern” teachings, New Age, Neo-Paganism, Satanism and Luciferianism.

Pseudo-christian (neo-christian)

Adherents of Christian denominations in their teachings refer to the Bible as the main source of sacred texts. But adherents of sects often change certain fragments, interpreting them in their own way to attract new supporters.

Neo-Christianity includes the following religious groups: New Apostolic Church, Mormons, Church of Christ, Charismatic Movement.

New revelations

Supporters of the movements can keep elements from traditional religions in their creeds, but they, according to researchers, often serve only as a “decoration”. Adherents often promote completely new ideas (sometimes radical), which are not in the scriptures.

The sects of the New Revelation include the following religious groups: White Brotherhood, Unification Church, Mother of God Community, Aum Shinrikyo, the Church of the Last Testament.

Eastern teachings

The movements trace their ancestry back to the East, “modernising” various variants of Hinduism and Buddhism. Often in these religious groups, there are elements of occult practices.

The following religious groups can be attributed to the pseudo-East NRMs: Divine Light Mission, International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Brahma Kumaris, Ananda Marga, Agni Yoga.

New age

These movements are mainly occult in nature. They focus on developing paranormal and psychic abilities in adepts. Supporters of such sects often preach magical teachings and practices, and can also use theses about a certain “synthesis of all religions”.

NRMs of the New Age group are represented by a wide variety of organisations, the doctrines of which have neither rigid formulations nor mandatory rituals.

The following religious groups can be attributed to the New Age movements: New Era, New Thinking, Age of Aquarius, Living Ethics, Academy of Frontal Problems, Neo-Vedanta.


These movements advocate the revival of traditional beliefs that operated before the adoption of a particular world religion by the local population. The teachings are based on harmonious interactions with nature and society. Concerning the object of worship, Neo-Paganism can act as Polytheism, Pantheism, or even Monotheism. In almost all teachings there is a creator God.

Some researchers conditionally divide Neo-Pagan NRMs into two groups: Slavic and non-Slavic. Slavic Neo-Paganism includes the Circle of Pagan Tradition, Veles Circle, the Native Ukrainian National Faith, Great Fire, Yarila’s Arrows and Ivanovtsy. The following organisations can be attributed to non-Slavic paganism: Forn Sidr (Denmark), Romuva and Dieuturi (Baltic States), Hellenism (Greece), Wicca (UK).

Satanism and luciferianism

Adherents of these movements deny the existence of God and worship evil forces. Many researchers agree that the beliefs of such groups can threaten human life and health. In the image of Satan, followers of the sects see both a real being and the embodiment of all the bad in man.

Satanism is represented by the following organisations: Children of Satan, Black Lodge, the Chosen Ones of Satan, Satanic Reality.

New religious movements are very diverse both in their ideology and activities. They often cause a hostile reaction from representatives of traditional beliefs. However religious scholars call for a distinction between “healthy” and “unhealthy” NRMs, stating that all religions were once “new”, which did not prevent some of them from becoming traditional over time.