The emergence and rapid growth of many new religious movements since the 1940s has caught the attention of the public, media and academia alike and has been the source of interest, fear and controversy.
Sects and cults have many definitions depending on the user's frame of reference. Beckford describes cults as "...relatively small, new, and unconventional religious groups...", whilst other people's perceptions of cults are far more negative. A popular concept of a cult is one of groups that are to be avoided, hated and feared and they are therefore a social problem. They bring up images of destructive doomsday religions and thus groups thousands of New Religious Movements in the same category as the small minority of groups that have been the cause of suicides and murders.
Leo Pfeffer once said, "...if you believe in it, it is a religion or perhaps 'the' religion; and if you do not care one way or another about it, it is a sect; but if you fear and hate it, it is a cult." The term "New Religious Movements" (NRM's) has been used to replace the terms sects and cults as it is a more neutral term. There is no one, generally accepted, current definition for New Religious Movements.
While there have been many new religions coming into being throughout history, there has been an upsurge in their numbers since the Second World and especially during the 1960's and 1970's and it is these that are included here in the term "New". Some NRM's may be unique while others may have developed from other more established religions. Some of these "new" groups were established much earlier but have only become better known in more recent years. Globalization and the internet have no doubt played a major role in the visibility of NRM's.
Many of the groups included in this term may not be regarded as religious by some, but are included here as they deal with ultimate questions such as those regarding the meaning of life, and how to find purpose in life. This means that groups that do not believe in a deity or in the supernatural are also included under this definition, such as the various human-potential groups.
The word "movements" denotes groups, but also indicates the changes that have taken place in the spiritual world. Some see these changes as a re-awakening and a movement of more people towards the spiritual, which represents a positive step in mankind's development while others see it as a move away from the traditional religions which is negative as it is a move away from God and good, towards the Devil and evil. Perhaps it is the interaction between these two views that fuels the continued movement and search for what is 'right'.
There are a number of such diverse groups included under the heading of NRM's that it is impossible to give an accurate description of NRM's in general. Groups vary from the benign to the odd, the bizarre and the scary. NRM's can evolve from many different sources such as philosophy, psychology, science, other religions and...