“Quo Vadis” the Scientific Study of New Religious Movements?




The study of new religious movements has been developing in recent decades in an intellectual context in which both religion and its scholarly investigation appear to be more significant and more controversial than seemed to be the case in the earliest decades of SSSR. The present paper recounts the main themes of early work on nrms in the 1970s and 80s and subsequently explores three current areas of conceptual ambiguity and/or intellectual ferment and conflict. Key contemporary issues represent 1) The Boundary Problem or what is a “new religious movement”?; 2) The growing salience of the analysis of catastrophic episodes of mass violence_involving nrms; and 3) Recent claims to the effect that scholars in the sociology of religion and religious studies who do research on nrms have been led by their strong ideological commitment to the defense of religious liberty to take up a defensive attitude toward controversial “cults” to a degree which has undermined objectivity.