“New Religious Movements” as an Interpretive Category

Typically, when we think of New Religious Movements (NRMs), our gaze is directed to the relatively small number of traditions that cluster at the fringes of the contemporary religious landscape (e.g., the Church of Scientology, International Raelian Religion, Heaven’s Gate, Unificationists, the Family), and the equally small fraction of scholars dedicated to their analysis. The seemingly marginal nature of both groups might lead some observers to wonder whether such scholarly efforts are at all worthwhile.

Of course, NRM specialists have begun to make the argument that the emergence of new movements is by no means peculiar to the 20th century Western context, as is sometimes assumed.  J. Gordon Melton’s 2007 article, “The New New Religions,” for example, draws upon cross-cultural analyses in suggesting that, where religious experimentation and innovation are permitted and protected, new movements flourish. More broadly still, scholars in a variety of related fields have for some time held that, in constructing our religious/cultural worlds, everyone “picks and chooses” from available resources, assembling more or less coherent wholes in bricolage fashion. If so, then perhaps we should regard the category “NRMs” as pointing not so much to a subject matter (i.e., a discrete cluster of modern-day religions) but as an interpretive lens that could potentially be applied to a wide range of religious activities.

Toward what might such a lens direct our gaze? Toward the historical emergence of distinct religious constructions. Toward creativity, innovation, the unsettling of established structures, the creation of new practices, webs of meaning, and social relations. But scholars already study these things under different groupings, it could be objected. True, but there might be something especially helpful in explicitly privileging these interpretive dimensions. Such a perspective might help, for instance, to level the taxonomic playing field: imagine reading the historical development of Protestantism (or any tradition) as a series of NRMs. So doing may create different data, privilege different sub-categories and explanatory theories, and ultimately illuminate things we did not see as well previously. More, it cuts across, and thus questions, facile distinctions between a cultural “mainstream” and “margins.”

All of this is to suggest a methodological, rather than an ontological, reductionism, for the purposes learning to read religious production in new and interesting ways. Obviously, like all interpretive strategies, the NRMs rubric is likely to obscure, and even distort, our view of things if left unqualified. I am reminded here of Diana Eck’s otherwise interesting book, A New Religious America, which leaves the reader with the distinct impression that the American religious landscape is awash with mosques, temples, ashrams, etc., when in fact such communities represent a very small fraction of that landscape. The NRM category could engender similar distortions of scope, rendering religious histories as the vast sweep of creativity and innovation, with little to say of stability over time and the conservation of tradition.

Still, if interpretation (like comparison) is not so much a matter of discerning “how things are,” but rather “how they might be plausibly construed,” then it may well be worthwhile to ask, “how might religious production be plausibly construed through the NRM prism?”

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