New Religious Movements
New religious movements are forms of religion that were founded after roughly 1800. Sometimes the date is 1900 or 1950, but I will soon explain why this is not necessary. NRMs are frequently called “cults” by adherents of older religions or atheism, but the term “cult” is of course imposed from without and thus utterly insufficient to describe what an NRM means to its followers.
Study of NRMs is important, not because they are new and people need to be “protected” from them, but for the simple reason that we have more written sources about religions founded in the 19th century and afterward than we do for ancient religious movements. That’s right: the only distinguishing feature, in cultural studies, between an NRM and an old religion is that the NRM is better documented.
NRMs are no more dangerous to an individual’s livelihood than any other religious movement in human history. That is to say, they range from extremely dangerous to perfectly harmless, but the dangerous ones tend to peter out of their own volition or morph into something else. Take Dianetics/Scientology, for example. Before it attracted outside interest from journalists and the anti-cult movement, it had already developed several protestant movements called Synergetics, Idenics, and the Free Zone. Anti-cultists would say that as a religion it is unprecedented in its use of copyright and libel laws to suppress dissent, but in reality the means of dissent have become more sophisticated as well: past religious movements did not have to deal with secret texts being distributed anonymously on the Internet.
Keep in mind that a cult, that is to say a movement to avoid, can take a religious, political, scientific, social, or even economic form. Cult practices are by no means confined to religion.
The most extreme NRMs will shut out all outside input such as the natural world, mainstream society, and friends. All activities that must be performed with the organization’s approval, in a manner which shuts out all unapproved influences. Members usually accept this as a way to cleanse themselves of worldly corruption, but it leaves them incredibly vulnerable to doing things they would not rationally approve of.
Two practices that are truly unique to cults among all radical organizations are intimidation and forced confiscation of property or money. Taken loosely, both elements of this definition indict many corporations as cults. That is something interesting to chew on.
Social differences from the “norm” are not a good way to define a cult because they are simply extreme forms of religious behavior in general. That doesn’t mean that all religions are cults! By that standard, Internet forums like FreeRepublic are cults too. Normal people who act like cultists most likely have some other kind of problem.
Morally unacceptable practices: cannibalism, ritual abuse, murder, pederasty.
Disconnect, or cutting oneself off from rational minds outside the cult.
Forbidding members from reading, listening, or viewing non-cult media.
Preventing members from leaving the cult.
The formation of compounds, places where cultists gather and wall themselves off from the world.
Generally speaking these are all bad things and a freethinking member of a religious or secular organization should aim to rid themself of these practices.
The most painful practices for one to endure are not the ones which seem cultish and creepy, but the ones which seem sincere, and are seen as “sticky” aspects of an NRM once an individual leaves the movement. Therefore an improper emphasis has been placed on the following practices in anti-cult literature, and they are not true social symptoms.
Lovebombing. Members of a cult are reminded how much its members care for them to prevent them from leaving. But lovebombing may be sincerely motivated by a desire to help the member; it doesn’t necessarily spring from desire to control.
Example: Alcoholics Anonymous employs “lovebombing”, but it is now quite an old organization and the claim that this is employed as social pressure to do anything other than stay off the bottle can be safely ignored.
Specialized cult vocabulary. A true cult symptom is talking about it all the time. But giving things nicknames doesn’t necessarily mean you are brainwashed.
Example: The language of the New Testament (“turn the other cheek”, etc.) was originally exclusive to those creepy Jewish cultists, but eventually became part of the culture at large without damaging humanity.