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New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study
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Print Publication Date: Feb 2011 Subject: Religion, Sociology of Religion Online Publication Date: Sep 2009 DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199588961.013.0041
New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study David G. Bromley The Oxford Handbook of the Sociology of Religion Edited by Peter B. Clarke
Abstract and Keywords
One’s sense of the level of impact made by New Religious Movements (NRMs) and New Spirituality Movements (NSMs) on contemporary thinking about and practice of religion and spirituality differs. Seen from the perspective of South Asia and parts of East Asia, it is clear that so called neo-Hindu movements and lay Buddhist movements have greatly in­ fluenced these regions. NRMs and NSMs have also impacted on the study and teaching of religion. This article discusses some of these issues. Limiting the discussion to the West, it traces the development of the emerging specialisation of New Religious Studies (NRS), which offers a multi-disciplinary approach to the phenomenon of New Religion and Spiri­ tuality. One of the scholarly merits of this discipline is that it provides space in research and teaching for topics which have hitherto been marginalised, the focus having been on the more dominant forms of religion and spirituality.
Keywords: New Religious Movements, New Spirituality Movements, New Religious Studies, spirituality, neo-Hin­ du movements, lay Buddhist movements
THE study of new religious movements (NRMs) is emerging as a new area of specializa­ tion within the study of religion. New Religions Studies (NRS) has its roots in a variety of disciplines: anthropology, history, psychology, religious studies, and sociology. NRS arose in response to the appearance of a cohort of NRMs during the 1960s and 1970s and to the existence of a cohort of scholars with more sophisticated theoretical and methodologi­ cal tools for studying the movements, a combination that did not previously exist. NRS has produced a substantial corpus of scholarship on the NRMs that became so visible and controversial in the West beginning in the early 1970s (Bainbridge 2007; Bromley and Hadden 1993; Dawson 2006; J. R. Lewis 2004; Robbins 1988; Saliba 1990); there has been less work connecting the contemporary expressions of new religion to other historical pe­ riods or cultural contexts (Jenkins 2000; Clarke 2006). Therefore, the analysis presented here is based on the contemporary cohorts of NRMs in the West.
Given the proliferation of scholarship on NRMs, it is not surprising that the question of the significance that these movements have for the study of religion has been raised. In­ deed, it might be, and has been, argued that NRMs are of relatively little significance.

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Most have not achieved substantial size relative either (p. 724) to mainline religious groups or to a number of new religious movements in other parts of the world. No group in the current cohort of movements appears poised to become a major force in the reli­ gious economy of any Western society. The movements have drawn converts largely from young, well-educated, middle- and upper-middle-class individuals; other segments of the population have been much less responsive to their appeals. Even among young adults, only a small minority of individuals actually experimented with any NRM, and in the vast majority of cases these periods of experimentation were quite brief. NRMs have had their greatest success in urban rather than rural communities; in the United States this has been primarily in cities on the East and West coasts. Elsewhere their impact has been rel­ atively minor. Further, the time period during which most NRMs drew substantial num­ bers of converts was limited and linked to specific socio-historical events.
If NRS is not to be simply the study of religious exotica, the study of NRMs must be linked to the larger project of understanding religion as a social and cultural form. It is equally true that the study of religion cannot be simply the study of established religion that has become accommodated and institutionalized. The study of new religion consti­ tutes a means of illuminating the origination of religious groups and the dynamics of their development. Two major points of connection between the study of religion and the study of new religion are what the study of new religions can reveal about the larger social or­ der and what the study of NRMs can reveal about the origination of religion. There has been considerable discussion and debate on the first issue, principally around the rele­ vance of NRMs for understanding macro-social processes, most notably secularization and globalization (Beckford 1992; Beyer 1994; Dawson 1998; 2004; Robertson 1985). While NRMs do provide some clues about those two macro-processes, it is unlikely that data on these groups will resolve either debate. The case for NRS needs to be made in terms of what the study of NRMs itself can contribute to the study of religion. In this es­ say, therefore, I shall address the less explored issue of the importance of the study of NRMs for understanding the origination of religious organization.
All contemporary religions were new religions at some time, and NRMs are significant with respect to religion because they offer insight into how new forms of religion emerge and develop. The vast majority of scholarship on religion centers on religious traditions that originated centuries or millennia ago, making it problematic to ascertain how these traditions survived and developed during their early histories, before they successfully became integral parts of their respective social orders. Contemporary NRMs offer the op­ portunity to observe the social construction of religion as it is occurring. I shall argue that NRS contributes to the understanding of religion in several ways: illuminating the distinguishing characteristics of various types of new religion, connecting the emergence of new religion to various types of social dislocation, providing a more complex and nu­ anced understanding of religious conversion, identifying the challenges (p. 725) attending the formation of new religious groups, and clarifying the role of oppositional groups in the survival and development of new religious groups.

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Conceptualizing New Religion The issue of how to define and identify different forms of religious organization is one that has been central to the study of religion. Dating to the work of Weber (1949), Troeltsch (1931), and Niebuhr (1929), and followed by the work of Johnson (1963; 1971), Yinger (1970), and Stark and Bainbridge (1979), among others, the most influential dis­ tinction has been between church and sect, with the later additions of denomination and cult. This distinction has been problematic for religion scholars for some time, both theo­ retically and empirically, but the church-sect typology continues to be widely employed in discussions of different types of religious organizations. Scholars in NRS have not found this classificatory system helpful in defining new religions, as none of these terms cap­ tures either the commonality or the diversity of NRMs. In particular, neither the concept sect nor cult, either in its sociological or popular culture usage, corresponds to the char­ acteristics of NRMs. As a result, the study of NRMs offers an occasion for rethinking types of religious organization and delineating their characteristics. While the primary fo­ cus has been on defining NRMs, there are broader implications for conceptualizing other types of religious organizations as well.
Several scholars have offered perspectives on how NRMs might best be delineated. Two different approaches have been adopted. Barker (2004) argues for social characteristics that NRMs exhibit: movement members are first-generation, that is converts; converts produce a high level of enthusiasm and radicalism within the movement; movements ap­ peal to individuals in specific locations within the social order, rather than having general appeal; movements are organized around a leader with charismatic authority; movements are typically regarded as deviant, or even dangerous, by the host society; and movements typically undergo constant and rapid change during their early histories.
Melton (2004) and I (Bromley 2005) both take a more relational approach, focusing on the religious group-societal relationship, which also incorporates other religious group forms in a comparative framework. Melton defines new religions as those that are “unac­ ceptably different” from the established religious bodies and identifies a number of char­ acteristics (aggressive proselytization, rejection of core theological tenets of established religious groups, non-conventional sexual practices, illegal conduct, violence, alternative health and healing practices) that are likely to lead to assessments of unacceptability. I di­ vide religious groups (p. 726) into four types based on their degree of social and cultural alignment with the dominant religious groups in the social order under analysis. From this perspective denominations are those socially “settled” (Swidler 1986) or priestly (Bromley 1997a) religious groups that are socially and culturally aligned with other estab­ lished institutions and are accepted as legitimate representations of the dominant reli­ gious tradition (s). Sects are religious groups that lay claim to and are recognized as de­ riving from the dominant religious tradition culturally, but have established independent, prophetic organizational auspices. Ethnic churches are priestly religious groups that are socially settled and accommodative to established religious groups but represent other cultural traditions. New religious movements are neither socially nor culturally aligned with the established traditions; their mythic systems and organizational forms both chal­

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lenge established religion. It is this latter group that has been the primary focus of NRS and that provides unique insight into the formation of new religion by virtue of creating both cultural and social forms de novo. The characteristics that Barker enumerates are consistent with new groups that have no cultural or social ties to established religious groups.
Conceptualizing religious groups in this way both expands the number of types to include ethnic religious groups and creates a single axis (alignment) for relating the various types. Although the characteristics of each type have yet to be delineated, each is likely to be distinctive. For example, sectarian groups typically recruit adults from the parent tradition, while at least the current cohort of new religions has drawn more broadly from an array of religious traditions. Ethnic churches usually reflect the parent religious tradi­ tion culturally and the ethnic community socially. This expanded typology also broadens the traditional sociological conception of cult so that cults become one possible form of new religion. Once the range of religious forms is acknowledged, it becomes possible to understand better the different factors that lead to their formation. The origination of sectarian groups tracks most directly to tensions within established churches, which, in turn, may reflect specific organizational tensions or tensions with the larger social order. To the extent that the latter is the case, sectarian cohorts can be the focus of analysis. The emergence of ethnic churches is clearly linked to the existence and size of ethnic populations, and hence to factors such as immigration, governmental regulation of reli­ gion, and cultural homogeneity. New religions appear to be the product of social disloca­ tion that results in individuals distancing themselves from existing social and cultural arrangements and becoming available for recruitment to alternative religious auspices. If the conditions that produce new forms of religion vary, it follows that the numbers of each type of religion group appearing at any given time will also fluctuate. The current debate over whether there are periods of greater and lesser formation of new religious movements, for example, may be partially resolvable by distinguishing and counting dif­ ferent types of groups. There is no particular logic to arguing for or against the appear­ ance of new religion overall when the factors leading to different types of new religion
(p. 727) may be quite distinct. Finally, distinguishing types of religious groups is compati­ ble with the widely accepted assertion that churches are groups in low tension and sects are groups in high tension with the prevailing social order (Johnson 1971; Stark and Bain­ bridge 1979), but allows greater specification of the kind and level of tension. In modern, Western societies, at least, ethnic religious groups typically do not arouse organized op­ position so long as they remain within their ethnic community niches. It is the attempt to extend their influence outside these boundaries that is most likely to produce a control response. Sectarian religious groups are most likely to engender tension with their par­ ent tradition, but may also precipitate conflict with other major institutions to the extent that their educational practices, child-rearing practices, and medical practices clash with those of established institutional norms.
The issue of how to conceptualize different forms of religious organization has been a seminal one in sociology and religious studies. The traditional church-sect typology ac­ knowledged only one type of new religion. The addition of the concept “cult” did not ade­

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quately incorporate the range of non-sectarian alternatives. Reconceptualizing the con­ cepts of church and sect, adding ethnic religious groups and the broader category of new religious groups, and linking them through a single dimension provides one way of ad­ dressing the long-standing conceptual challenges.
NRMs and Social Dislocation The study of when NRMs emerge contributes to an understanding of the relationship be­ tween religion and the larger social order. Religion constitutes a means of constructing transcendent meaning systems that authorize activities and relationships in the everyday world and create for adherents a sense of empowerment and control. The kind of stability to which established religion contributes is most likely in a society in which the institu­ tional order possesses cultural legitimасу and institutional effectiveness (Lipset 2003). For some period of time societies may endure conditions in which institutional solutions to life problems are effective even if they lack a legitimating cultural framework or if they possess legitimacy while lacking effectiveness in dealing with those problems, ultimately, however, the erosion of either legitimacy or effectiveness undermines societal stability. New religious groups offer insight into the conditions under which legitimacy and effec­ tiveness have eroded and new systems of meaning and social organization are sought.
(p. 728) In attempting to account for the emergence of new religious groups, one of the most common explanations is “some acute and distinctively modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation” that in turn leads to individuals “responding by searching for new structures of meaning and community” (Robbins 1988: 60). There appears to be general agreement on the historical dislocation that gave rise to the current cohort of NRMs. A major structural transition was under way as the burgeoning opportunities for professional/managerial employment in rapidly expanding governmental and corporate organizations following the Second World War led to the increased necessity of both educational credentialing in the middle classes and constraining rational/legal bureaucratic organization of those occupational opportunities. Beginning in the 1950s youth began encountering problems of making the transition from childhood to adulthood. There was also growing disillusionment with racism in the United States and the sometimes violent resistance to the Civil Rights movement (Friedenberg 1965; Gitlin 1987; Kenniston 1971). Opposition to increasingly regimented higher education, restrictive drug laws, systemic racism and sexism, and, most significantly, the Vietnam War fueled the emergence of the youth counterculture and protest movements. The rapid growth of the Baby Boom Generation on college campuses provided the recruitment base for those social movements. However, while the counter­ culture served as a means of distancing oneself from conventional society, it never of­ fered a viable long-term way of life for its supporters, and also met with determined resis­ tance from established institutions. As countercultural cohesiveness began to decline, particularly when the Vietnam War no longer served as a catalyst for protest, experimen­

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tation with NRMs became one avenue through which some members of the countercul­ ture continued the protest (Kent 2001).
Theoretical approaches to understanding dislocations during this historical period have emphasized either its cultural dimension or its social dimension. Robert Bellah (1976) and his student, Stephen Tipton (1982), are representative of the cultural perspective. They argue that the moral crisis during this era involved a repudiation of the two dominant ele­ ments of American culture through which individuals constructed moral meaning: utilitar­ ian individualism and biblical religion. Bellah argues that the American civil religious myth has been eroded, leading to a crisis of moral meaning and a variety of attempts to create new mythic systems. Tipton argues that youthful protesters have rejected utilitari­ an culture and its central values (power, money, technology) in favor of expressive culture values (self-actualization, interpersonal love, and intimacy). By joining NRMs, young adults resolved the historic tension between utilitarian and expressive culture by combin­ ing religious moral authority with the project of individual self-development.
One of the most developed statements of social dislocation has been formulated by James Hunter (1981). Drawing on the work of Peter Berger (1967), Hunter (p. 729) regards NRMs as a protest against modernity. There has been an erosion of traditional social or­ der, he asserts, with the contemporary world becoming divided into public and private spheres. The public sphere (governmental, legal, corporate institutions) is highly rational­ ized, impersonal, and bureaucratically organized, which undermines any sense of person­ al uniqueness and increases the individual’s sense of vulnerability and expendability. By contrast, the private sphere (intimate, friendship, familial, and spiritual relationships) has been progressively de-institutionalized. The result is that the most central emotional rela­ tionships in people’s lives have become unstructured, leaving individuals confronted with an overwhelming array of choices. New religious groups reduce the corrosive feelings of uncertainty and anxiety and offer their members a heightened sense of psychological sta­ bility and well-being by grounding their identities in a sacred order.
Arguments based on some concept related to social dislocation present а number of theo­ retical and empirical problems and are often criticized. There is a variety of related terms —contradiction, tension, social/cultural turbulence, crisis, upheaval, malaise, and anomie —that are often freely invoked in a global fashion without empirical connections to the emergence of new movements and without reference to the different theoretical tradi­ tions from which these concepts derive. Used in this way, arguments based on these con­ cepts are difficult either to prove or to disprove. If social dislocation is defined in struc­ tural terms, some type of dislocation can virtually always be identified, which makes dis­ confirmation problematic. It is equally hard to confirm dislocation arguments given the difficulty of convincingly creating a macro-micro link that connects structural conditions and individual-level responses. As a result, dislocation-based arguments often appear to be a convenient way to avoid incisive theoretical analysis.
At the same time, dislocation arguments appear to be integral to explanations of the emergence and nature of new religion (Barkun 1974; Cohn 1961; Eister 1974; I. Lewis

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1971; McFarland 1967; Wallace 1956). For example, in addition to theories of NRM origi­ nation reviewed previously, explanations of the distinctive qualities of NRM myths are of­ ten linked to narrative innovation that addresses the failure of existing narratives to pro­ vide individuals with a meaningful symbolic orientation. One characteristic of charismatic authority that is typical of NRMs is the capacity of the charismatic leader to address the sense of dislocation that adherents are experiencing and provide authorization for an al­ ternative path. Influential theories of conversion also stress the importance of some type of dislocation as precipitating the process of shifting loyalty from one social network to another and as creating a pool of available recruits. Most ethnographies of NRMs implic­ itly or explicitly reference some dislocation as a starting point in accounting for NRM for­ mation and appeal.
Given the importance of theories of dislocation in accounting for the origination of NRMs, it becomes important to provide more adequate empirical anchors to ground the argu­ ment. Analysis of contemporary NRMs suggests means of (p. 730) identifying such empiri­ cal anchors. These include describing the religious econоmу in which NRMs appear, spec­ ifying the temporal markers that frame the designated historical period, and linking fac­ tors leading to the emergence of NRMs to related changes in established institutions.
A successful dislocation argument must incorporate a full description of the religious economy in which NRMs emerge: that is, the demand, supply, and control components of the historical situation. To begin, the argument must specify the identity and location of those open or motivated to reorganize identities and loyalties. The literature on NRM for­ mation has not only identified young adults as the general population most receptive to NRMs, but has also noted gender variation in the appeal of various groups within the young adult population, age gradations among young adults by group (communal groups drawing younger individuals prior to labor market entry and New Age therapeutic groups drawing somewhat older individuals), and specific historical events that were the source of NRM appeal for young adults. Of course, demand was increased by virtue of the excep­ tionally large pool of young adults that coincided with the period of dislocation. With re­ spect to supply-side issues, the available evidence indicates that the concept of “new reli­ gion” must be interpreted flexibly in understanding the relationship between dislocation and NRM formation. In the case at hand, entirely new groups were formed during a peri­ od of dislocation, but it was also the case that preexisting groups suddenly gained popu­ larity as a result of recruit availability, immigrant groups that arrived for unrelated rea­ sons gained popularity in part because they offered a critique of the dominant culture, and an array of other groups (communes, intentional communities, and quasi-religious groups) broadened the range of available outlets for disenchanted young adults. In other words, a variety of groups not only formed directly in response to the dislocation but also became responses to it and therefore became part of the NRM cohort. Finally, the argu­ ment must identify social control mechanisms that may or may not be available to contain the formation of new groups. NRM research has emphasized the importance of immigra­ tion law changes in producing the influx of Asian religious groups, the demise of the in lo­ co parentis principle by which colleges and universities had extended familial control dur­ ing the transition from adolescence to adulthood, legal and constitutional constraints on

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governmental control of religious groups, and the tension facing families as they attempt­ ed to maintain family solidarity while simultaneously encouraging individual autonomy, voluntarism, and self-directedness for young adults. All of these factors suggest a com­ plex, mediated model of dislocation-religious movement formation.
An empirical anchor for the temporal dimension of a dislocation argument also needs to be established. The historical events marking both the beginning and the ending points of the dislocation period must be identified. In the case of contemporary NRMs, the begin­ ning point has been reasonably well tracked in (p. 731) terms of the simultaneous increase in the number of available religious groups and potential recruits as well as a decline in the availability and attractiveness of corresponding political groups. The ending point, at least of high growth rates, has been linked to the decline of countercultural activity. The findings on this point are rather dramatic as groups for which the most complete informa­ tion is available, and particularly the communally organized groups, began to experience a sharp decline in recruitment rates by the late 1970s.
A particularly important way of supporting the dislocation argument is to demonstrate al­ ternative responses to the same structural conditions. NRMs have responded to an in­ creasingly modern, secular environment by resisting these structural changes, on the one hand, or accommodating them, on the other hand. For example, Wallis’s (1984) influential movement typology juxtaposes “world-affirming” and “world-rejecting” movements, with both types constituting responses to the same social “world”. In a similar vein, I (Bromley
1997c) treat adaptive religious movements and transformative religious movements as al­ ternative responses to historically rooted tensions between contractual and covenantal forms of social relations. In analogous fashion, the dislocations giving rise to NRMs can be linked to corresponding trends in established religious groups. There is considerable evidence that liberal mainline churches have contributed to incr

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