New Religious Studies: Then, Now and Tomorrow – a guest blog post by Benjamin Zeller

Today we are very honoured to have a guest blog from Benjamin Zeller, co-editor of the The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements with George Chryssides.  This blog post was first presented as a conference paper at the 25th Anniversary Inform Conference in London at the beginning of February.  When I listened to Ben’s paper I was struck by how clearly and succinctly he got into some of the issues in New Religious Studies as it is now.  But I was also struck by how well he highlighted some of the trends that will impact New Religious Studies, and of course academics wanting to work in this field (like me…), in coming years.  I hope you find it as interesting and stimulating as I did (feel free to thank Professor Zeller in the comments section and I’ll pass it on):


“When I first decided to focus my academic research on new religious movements (NRMs) I was a graduate masters student at Harvard Divinity School. I crafted a list of the major scholars working in the field with whom I might consider studying for my Ph.D. I wanted to both stay in the United States for funding reasons as well as within the discipline of religious studies where I was most comfortable, as opposed to politics, sociology, or legal studies. Imagine my chagrin when I discovered that almost none of the American religious studies scholars with whom I shared common research interests in the study of NRMs worked in departments with viable doctoral program. (Thankfully, there were a few.) I contrasted this with friends and colleagues in the study of the Buddhism, Christian Patristics, or Hebrew Bible, all of whom seemed to have an embarrassment of riches in their choices of doctoral programmes to which to apply. I will briefly return to my own experience later in this paper, but it serves as a frame, showing the way in which the study of NRMs in the American academy is both peripheral and in some ways unique.

The academic study of new religious movements in the U.S. context has undergone a remarkable transition over the past three decades. With origins in the sociological study of religion, the main researchers are now institutionally located within religious studies departments. Yet at the same time, several forces have resulted in the study of NRMs becoming diffuse throughout religious studies, rather than solidifying as a mature subfield. This results in both a concentration of scholars within religious studies departments as well as a diffusion of such NRM scholars across different subfields of religious studies.

Here I consider the reasons for this transition, the underlying economic and social factors, and the ramifications for how scholars research and write on NRMs. Effects have been both positive and negative, with a plurality of approaches and methodologies now characterizing the study of NRMs, but simultaneously a centrifugal effect. The impact of these various developments for how scholars write about NRMs is profound, as these authors’ location shapes their approaches, topics, and perspectives.

The Origins of the Field

            The origin of the field of the study of new religious movement is beyond the scope of this paper, though as George D. Chryssides and I have noted in the introduction to our Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, the study of NRMs in the Anglophone world emerged primarily from the sociological models of Weber and Troeltsch, and ethnographic work in the 1970s.[i] A rising numbers of American sociologists of religion in the 1970s came to focus on the study of NRMs, including David G. Bromley, Anson D. Shupe, Jeffrey K. Hadden, Thomas Robbins, Robert W. Balch, and James T. Richardson, among others. Certainly non-sociologists, such as historian Robert Ellwood, psychologist Dick Anthony, and archivist J. Stillson Judah were involved in the early days of the study of NRMs in the United States, but overall the field originated and remained housed within departments of sociology.


                                                                                   The 1960s and 1970s…

This had obvious effects on the research agendas and written studies of NRMs. By the mid- to late-1970s, American sociologists of religion with interest in NRMs produced a flurry of ground-breaking articles published in the most important social scientific journals, including American Sociological Review, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Sociological Analysis, and American Behavioural Scientist. The majority of these first publications focused on sociological typologies, theories of social or religious deviance, models of sectarianism, and the study of social processes such as conversion, socialization, and apostasy. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, one could safely speak of the study of NRMs as no longer an emergent field, but one quickly establishing itself as a subfield within the heart of American sociology.  

The authors of the majority of these studies based their work on either ethnography or surveys. Obviously such choices emerged from their training in departments of sociology, and in emphasizing these qualitative and quantitative methods, they followed academic norms appropriate to the sociology of religion. This clearly had an impact on how they wrote, resulting in tightly focused studies delving into one or several social dynamics of new religions. This research broke new ground particularly in the study of conversion and socialization, and today—nearly forty years later in some cases—we still cite these studies as formative. (For example, John Lofland and Rodney Stark’s “Becoming a World Saver” article, a study of the Unificationist Church published in 1965, is still one of the most frequently cited studies on religious conversion.[ii]) Yet their tight focus on matters sociological had other results too. As my friend and colleague Robert W. Balch wrote of his research into the new UFO religion that would come to be called Heaven’s Gate:

‘When I lived with the group in 1975, I was so absorbed by the minutia of everyday life that I didn’t think much about its beliefs. They were simply a given. Although I recognized that the belief system shaped and constrained members’ actions, I, like other sociologists, was more concerned with the actions themselves than with the beliefs on which they were based.’[iii]

That is to say, the focus of sociologists of religion on social forces resulted in studies with obvious lacunae, such the study of groups’ theologies, rituals, mythological structures, and historical contexts.

One cannot ignore the social milieu of the researchers themselves, namely the infamous “cult wars” of 1970s America, featuring deprogrammers, concerned parents, anti-cult organizations, and Evangelical Christian missionaries on one side; and the proponents of individual new religious movements, civil liberties, and youth culture on the other. Sociologists of religion found themselves in the middle. Researchers soon found themselves co-opted and relabelled as “anti-cultists” on the one hand, or “cult apologists” on the other. Because sociologists of religion came to dismiss the various models of brainwashing as invalid on empirical grounds, many found themselves accused of supporting the NRMs they were studying. This story has been told before and told well, but I raise it to emphasize that this context affected how these sociologists wrote about NRMs.[iv] With new religions accused of abusive recruitment and socialization techniques, scholars focused on such issues. Such topics therefore became the mainstays of research on NRMs.

The Shift to Religious Studies

The decade after this—the mid 1980s into the 1990s—witnessed an academic shift as increasing numbers of researchers trained in the interdisciplinary field called religious studies took an interest in the study of new religions, while simultaneously interests among American sociologists shifted in new directions. The effects of this transformation led to new topics, methodologies, and approaches represented in the academic writing about new religious movements.

Religious studies draws from multiple disciplines, including sociology, anthropology, history, theology, ritual studies, area studies, gender studies, and media studies. The field came of age in the United States during the 1960s from a confluence of factors: increasing student interest; the growth of the secular academic interest in religion rather than theology; legal recognition by the Supreme Court in 1963 that the First Amendment’s prohibition against religious establishment permitted the academic study of religion in state-sponsored universities (Abington v. Schempp); and increased funding from both private and public educational institutions for the study and teaching in this new field.

The 1960s religious counterculture, but even more so the 1978 Jonestown deaths, drew increased attention from scholars in the inchoate religious studies field to the topic of NRMs. The 1984 founding of a program unit focusing on NRMs within the American Academy of Religion, the national professional association and guild for religious studies, represented the at least begrudging acceptance of the study of new religions as a subfield, though those involved recall that not all scholars were convinced of the legitimacy of this new endeavour.[v] Subsequently an increasing number of American religious studies scholars began to look to the phenomenon as an area of research.


The AAR Conference

The AAR’s institutionalization of NRM studies into the New Religious Movements Group represented a sea change in the field of the study of new religions. As a standing program unit, the NRM group could include calls for papers alongside those of other program units such as those focused on study of major world religions, systematic theology, or comparative religion. The subfield coalesced within this program unit, and the success of the program unit led directly to the creation of the field’s new journal, Nova Religio: Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, in 1997.

In terms of effects on writing the scholarship of NRMs, the creation of the program unit and journal cannot be overstated. Previously, religious studies scholars interested in the topic published under more general interest journals, such as the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Journal of Religious Ethics, or Church History. Yet these journals had no particular interest in the study of NRMs, and few such studies appeared on their pages. Most of the other journals in religious studies focused on denominational groups or theological movements well outside the realm of NRM studies. Despite this, the AAR group created an academic community in the United States wherein scholars of NRMs in the religious studies field—including historians, theologians, comparativists, and anthropologists as well as sociologists and social psychologists—could cohere. Nova Religio subsequently created a written forum wherein such scholars could write for each other as well as a general audience, and develop more cohesion as a subfield within religious studies.

Simultaneous to the rise of religious studies, sociologists of religion began to turn to other topics during the late 1980s and 1990s. The rise of Evangelicalism and the Religious Right, increasing religious tensions within the political sphere, and immigration captured increasing interest among American sociologists of religion. Between 1970 and 1975, the leading American journal for the sociology of religion, the JSSR published 12 articles on NRMs. From 1975 to 1980, it published 19 articles, and from 1980 to 1985, 22 articles. Yet from 1985 to 1990, it published only 13, from 1990 to 1995 only 9, and from 1995 to 2000, only 8 articles.[vi]

The shift of interest from sociologists to religious studies scholars resulted in obvious changes in how NRMs are studied, with an increase of focus on cultural, theological, and historical issues. One can look to the articles published in the first five years of Nova Religio for evidence of this transformation. The journal published a mix of articles using historical, textual, and gender studies approaches as well as sociological ones. Importantly, Nova Religio moved away from quantitative studies, and the social scientific research it publishes far more often is qualitative in nature. While JSSR and similar social scientific journals continued to publish quantitative studies on NRMs, albeit in lesser numbers, Nova Religio’s focus on qualitative social scientific and humanistic research resulted in two developments: a proliferation of diversity of approaches to the study of NRMs, but also a decline in the number of quantitative studies of the topic. This first effect has been a boon. From my perspective, the second has become a problem.

Economic and Institutional Factors

One direct effect of the increasing shift to a religious studies perspective among scholars working on NRMs has been the bifurcated existence of many of these scholars. While NRM studies has become a bona fide and accepted subfield within religious studies, it is nevertheless not one of the major subfields within the field. Such major subfields are generally limited to Biblical Studies, Ancient Mediterranean religion, Islamic Studies, South or East Asian Religions, North American Religions, and Medieval Religions. More recently Religion & Culture (i.e. critical theory) has been added to this list of usual subfields, at least in some quarters.

The lack of inclusion of NRM Studies within the list of the major subfields has a very real effect: graduate departments organize faculty and students within these subfields, and institutions hiring scholars and researchers look to fill positions in accordance with these subfields. Of the major graduate institutions producing scholars in religious studies, none has “New Religious Movement Studies” as an organized subfield. As a result, graduate students seeking to study NRMs or faculty wishing to train graduate students fit themselves within one of the existing subfields, generally either North American Religions, Asian Religions, or Religion & Culture. As a result, the current generation of scholars focusing on NRMs lives a bifurcated academic existence, defining themselves always as two things: scholars of NRMs as well as scholars within another subfield.


Wearing more than one hat at a time can be tricky… [ed.]

This of course has repercussions. On the positive side, NRM studies is not ghettoized and becomes integrated within broader academic conversations. Researchers writing on NRMs write for broader audiences, and engage in conversations with scholars well outside the subfield of NRM studies. This increases academic diversity and breadth of research topics and approaches. One finds articles on NRMs published in journals focusing on Asian religions, North American religions, and cultural studies, for example. Yet at the same time, this acts as a centrifugal force on the study of NRMs themselves, with colleagues spending half or more of their time engaged in the professional obligations, networking, and research of their “other” subfield.

The exclusion of NRM studies from the list of major subfields in religious studies has had another direct effect. Though some graduate programs have in recent years transitioned to interdisciplinary approaches, eschewing official subfields altogether, this is not the case in terms of the way that most colleges and universities hire their faculty. The life of the mind may be lovely, but scholars of NRMs need to eat, and they need jobs. There are no jobs in the study of NRMs in religious studies departments in the American academy, or at least there are none that are defined as such. American scholars studying NRMs hold chairs in Christian studies, Asian religious studies, comparative religion, theology, history of religions, and numerous other subfields. Because tenure-track lines are few and academic administrations seldom willing to create new ones—in fact, recent years has witnessed such lines decreasing in number—there is little possibility of this changing. As a result, junior scholars interested in new religions must market themselves as working in other subfields in order to secure funding and jobs.

An examination of the job announcements advertised through the American Academy of Religion—the major “job board” on which employers in religious studies advertise—from recent years illuminates precisely this problem.[vii] In the 2012-2013 year, only 3 of 160 available fulltime positions in religious studies innumerated NRMs as the among the desired possible fields of study. These three jobs—one in church history, on in North American religions, and one in Chinese religions—all listed NRMs among possible areas of focus, alongside numerous other possibilities. None gave priority to the study of new religions as particularly desirable.[viii] Looking to the previous academic year, 2011-2012, the same pattern is evident. Of the 163 advertised jobs, only 1 job, in Chinese religions, included “popular folk sects and new religious movements” among the desirable areas of research expertise.[ix] Because of the difficulty in accessing archived job advertisements, it is quite difficult to look earlier than this, but anecdotal evidence suggests that from as early as 2006 the same pattern was evident.[x]

None of this is to say that specialists in NRMs did not receive new jobs during these years. Many—including myself—did. Yet these American scholars of NRMs must by the nature of their positions define themselves as something other than specialists in new religious movements. They must teach classes outside the subfield of NRM studies, and must advise and work with students in far different subfields. This has real effects on how they (we) research and write about NRMs.

Predictions for the Future

            All this being said, what predictions might one offer for the future of the study and writing of NRMs in the American academy? First, one must recognize field-wide and industry-wide transformations. The overall trajectory in American higher education has been toward contingent faculty, a euphemism for part-time adjuncts. The plight of adjuncts was recently highlighted in a New York Times article, “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty,” one that focused on the economic plight of highly-trained individuals working without benefits, health insurance, or promise of future employment for the equivalent of two-thousand pounds a course.[xi] This problem affects every academic field, though humanities and social science departments face special burdens. The increasing number of NRM scholars who must work as contingent faculty rather than fulltime results in such scholars having less time to engage in traditional academic research. They are ineligible to apply for many grants and fellowships, and they are disadvantaged in those for which they are able to apply. The paucity of funding means such scholars are less likely to engage in immersive ethnography, quantitative studies, and longitudinal work. While the AAR and related scholarly organizations have made efforts to develop models of non-traditional scholarship, the basic fact is that the professional study of religion in the United States assumes a tenure-track model, and those positions are becoming fewer and fewer. NRM scholars will continue to face that hurdle. The longterm effects are—to be honest—unclear.

[i] George D. Chryssides and Benjamin E. Zeller, Introduction to The Bloomsbury Companion to New Religious Movements, Chryssides and Zeller, eds. (London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 4-5.

[ii] John Lofland and Rodney Stark, “Becoming a World-Saver: A Theory of Conversion to a Deviant Perspective,” in American Sociological Review 30, no. 6 (1965): 862-75.

[iii] Robert W. Balch, Foreword to Benjamin E. Zeller, Heaven’s Gate: America’s UFO Religion, (Forthcoming from New York University Press).

[iv] For details on the positions of scholars in the “cult wars,” see Benjamin Zablocki and Thomas Robbins, eds., Misunderstanding Cults: Searching for Objectivity in a Controversial Field (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2001).

[v] I am thankful to Timothy Miller, who spoke to me about this history.

[vi] In my assessment of whether journal articles considered the topic of NRMs, I defined NRMs quite liberally.

[vii] My data on advertised jobs derives from an archive I have kept of advertisements on the American Academy of Religion’s job board. Since the AAR removes advertisements after the institution’s paid advertisement period ends, no proper archive exists, though most of these positions are also archived on the Academic Job Wiki, available at;; and

[viii] In addition to looking for any mention of the terms NRM, new religion, or new religious movements, I also looked for references to emergent or alternative religions. Of note, during this period there were no job advertisements that indicated interest in sub-specialities within NRM studies, such as the study of contemporary paganism, esotericism, or Pentecostalism, though four additional advertisements included Afro-Caribbean religions as among possible areas of interest.

[ix] None listed Afro-Caribbean, Pentecostal, Pagan, Esoteric, or other subspecialties within NRM studies.

[x] I base this latter statement on my own archive, which is incomplete from 2006-2011.

[xi] Rachel L. Swarns, “Crowded Out of Ivory Tower, Adjuncts See a Life Less Lofty,” New York Times, January 20, 2014, A11.

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