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Article

Rebecca Moore

Although new religions have a reputation for being intrinsically violent, research shows that they are no more aggressive than the world’s major religious traditions. Memes in popular culture tend to stigmatize adherents of these marginalized groups because of their unusual clothing, habits, lifestyles, and beliefs. Rather than employing the neutral term “new religious movement” (or NRM), journalists and others often use the pejorative label “cults.” Nevertheless, violent outbursts involving members of NRMs have exploded at moments of crisis—or perceived crisis—throughout history. Scholars attempting to identify the factors involved in these eruptions have determined that external as well as internal elements dynamically collide to create conditions that precipitate violent outcomes. Internal causes may include apocalyptic beliefs, charismatic leadership, and social encapsulation. A few groups may develop a worldview that justifies, or even welcomes, the use of violence; they may stockpile weapons for self-defense or develop plans to prepare for a final reckoning. External influences include provocative, aggressive, or combative actions by government authorities prompted by news media and cultural opponents comprising family members and professional anticultists. This outside pressure may trigger violent measures within the group, as leaders and members tighten social controls, quash dissent, and demand unquestioning loyalty in the face of opposition. Since violence is a social relationship in which the actions of each opponent serve to shape the responses of the other, destructive interactions with new religious groups are not inevitable. They may be forestalled when dangerous situations are adequately identified and intelligently addressed through careful investigation, patience, and well-managed negotiations.