Harm and New Religious Movements (NRMs) Some Notes on a Sociological Perspective

Harm and New Religious Movements (NRMs): Some Notes on a Sociological Perspective

Eileen Barker, Ph.D.

London School of Economics

This material was originally prepared for a presentation at AFF’s annual conference, June 14-15, 2002, at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Orlando (FL) Airport.


This article relates the methodology of sociology to the question of harm in new religious movements (NRMs). It describes the kinds of questions sociologists of religion are likely to ask, the methods they use to study NRMs, and the characteristics of NRMs that may predispose them toward situations in which harm might ensue. It is because sociologists are as concerned as any other citizens about the consequences of human actions that they are anxious to develop and use the most reliable means they can for investigating and trying to understand the processes that can lead to individuals, families, and/or society being subjected to harm.

Sociologists who study new religions/cults/sects are trying to find out what these movements are like — what they believe, what they do, how they organize themselves, how they interact with the rest of society, and so on. They do not orient their research toward looking specifically at the harmful or the non-harmful aspects of the movements, but the harmful and non-harmful aspects will form part of their overall description, which they try to make as reliable and objective as possible.[1]

Sociology as the Study of Society

Sociology is a scientific discipline insofar as it follows particular methodologies (such as the systematic use of comparison), but the very nature of society means that sociology cannot be scientific in the same sense as the natural sciences can be.

Society is full of apparent contradictions not found in the natural world (except at the cutting edge of theoretical physics). It (society) is a reality insofar as it confronts us as individuals — we have to take it into account — and to that extent, it has an objective “out there” existence. But it does not exist except insofar as individuals recognize it — it has to be mediated through individuals — and to that extent, it is subjective and, in the philosophical sense, idealistic. The reality of a society (and sub-groupings) is always to some extent shared, but it is never completely shared (we all have slightly different visions of reality). This means that society will be characterized by more or less stability, but also that there is always some change as society is mediated through individuals.

Thus, there are regularities that social scientists can investigate, but these regularities are relative to space and time, unlike the regularities (laws) investigated by natural scientists: Water boiled at much the same temperature and pressure in fifth-century China as it does in Florida in the twenty-first century; but the social role of women or the cultural values upheld by religion were not the same in fifth-century China as they are in twenty-first-century Florida.

Society consists of a structure (patterned interactions between individuals and institutions), and it embodies a culture (what passes for knowledge of the world, including knowledge of how we ought to act).

Society has properties that are not reducible to individuals — that is, society both enables and constrains the individual. The differences in our visions of reality are to some extent systematic differences, depending on our interests — with what questions we are concerned. For example, elderly women will tend to see the world from a different perspective than that from which young men see it.

Sociologists will be interested in the world in a way that differs from that of a psychologist or mental-health practitioner. There will be some overlap, but at the same time, the professionals from the respective disciplines will all select some characteristics and ignore others.

The social scientist investigates

patterns of interactions between people and what factors or variables “go with” or are unconnected with each other;

how we “cut up” the world, remembering that concepts, and the boundaries that define them, are both necessary and arbitrary.

The sociologist of religion is concerned with questions such as

Who believes what?

Under what circumstances do they come to believe their beliefs?

What are the consequences of believing in a particular worldview and of belonging to a particular religious institution — what actions follow, and what are the consequences of such actions for themselves and others?

What kinds of structures (institutions) do different religions have?

How do these structures/institutions interact with other (religious and secular) institutions?

But the sociologist of religion is not concerned with (as opposed to concerned by) questions such as

Is this theology true or false?[2]

Is this religion a “real” religion?[3]

Is this religion/action good or bad?[4]

However, the sociologist of religion can address questions about beliefs, reality, and morality in the form of hypothetical statements such as the following: If by X (“religion”/“good”) you mean Y, then Z is/is not X. For example,

If, by religion, you mean holding a belief in God, then (Buddhism) is not a religion.

If, by good, you mean reading the Bible every day, then Pagans are not good.

If, by bad behavior, you mean having sexual intercourse with someone to whom you are not married, then Osho lovers (Rajneeshees) have frequently indulged in bad behavior.[5]

Thus, while “harm” is not a concept that sociologists normally use, this does not mean that they may not be interested in studying actions that they or others consider harmful. When doing so, they will

operationalize and/or particularize harm (that is, define it so that it can be recognized by empirical means);

investigate instances of the phenomenon, and attempt to assess the variables/factors associated with these;

describe who attacks, influences, and/or affects whom, and how and with what consequences;

try to contextualize the processes involved, and situate the actions within a wider social context.

Sociological Methods

Sociologists use a variety of techniques, preferably in conjunction with each other, in their research. These techniques include the following:

In-depth interviewing on a random-sample basis — The random sample is a technique for ensuring that each member of the “population” under investigation has an equal likelihood of being selected (rather than just interviewing persons whom the leaders wish to be interviewed). These interviews help to provide an overall understanding of individuals, and variations in their perspectives of the situation.

Interviewing of selected informants in key positions and/or with particular knowledge or expertise — These could be leaders of the movement or people outside the movement (relatives, ex-members, media, etc.), for, if one is to build up “a picture of the pictures” of the social reality that is being studied, it is important to understand the movement from a variety of perspectives, which, themselves, need to be understood as part of the ongoing process of the situation.

Observation of what actually goes on in the movement — This is another very important method that complements the information gained by interview. It not only allows the sociologist to see how different individuals behave in a social situation (which is not always how one would expect from information gleaned in an interview), but also allows him/her to observe some of the group properties that are not reducible to individuals — authority structures and communication networks being but two examples.

Questionnaire surveys of either the entire membership or a random sample — These allow the researcher to chart various characteristics about the social group as a whole. At a fairly basic level, particular variables, such as the proportion of those who were brought up Catholic, can be gauged. But at a more sophisticated level, one can use statistical techniques to calculate whether, or to what extent, a Catholic background is a factor in predisposing people to join the movement, or whether related factors, such as migration and/or church attendance, might be more important than Catholic teachings per se.

Control groups are an important part of any scientific study. They enable us to test the extent to which a particular variable might be related to another variable. For example, we might notice that several members of a movement suffer from a cold during the winter months. If, however, we know that a similar proportion of non-members of the same age in the same location also suffer from colds during winter months, we are unlikely to think that there is something special about being a member of the movement that is responsible for the affliction.

The control group can also alert us to the danger of mistaking visibility for statistical significance. For example, perfectly accurate reports may appear in newspapers declaring “Cult member commits suicide.” If one sees, say, three reports of such events over a short period of time, it is natural that one begins to wonder what it is about the movement that leads to such tragedies. It needs to be recognized, however, that “Baptist commits suicide” is unlikely to make the headlines. It just isn’t “news” in the same way. What the social scientist will do is to compare the rate of suicide in the movement with that of members of the general population of the same age and socio-economic background; and then, if it is found that the rate is lower in the movement, the question might become “What is it about the movement that stops individuals from committing suicide?”

It may well be that the movement attracts people who are less likely to commit suicide — or there could be several other reasons to explain the difference in the rates. But at least the question will have been raised, rather than the study taking for granted that membership in the movement is likely to lead to suicide.

There are, of course, numerous problems associated with sociological investigation — problems of access, or of working out when information is being withheld or one is being deliberately deceived; the interference of one’s own subjective prejudices; and so on. But numerous techniques have been developed to increase awareness and to reduce potential distortions of such problems.

New Religious Movements

Although it is possible that the most important thing that should be said about new religions is that one cannot generalize about them, there are certain characteristics that the movements are more likely than older religions to have, just because they are new; and some of these characteristics can predispose new religious movements toward situations in which harm might ensue. For example,

the new religion will have a first-generation membership of converts, and converts tend to be far more enthusiastic, even fanatical, than those born into a religion;

the wave of new religions that became visible around the end of the 1960s tended disproportionately to attract young persons with few responsibilities, and the movement did not have to cope with dependents in the form of either children or the elderly;

many of these young converts were, however, placed in positions of responsibility for which they had little or no experience;

the founder has frequently wielded some kind of charismatic authority, unbound by rules or tradition, and thereby has been unpredictable and unaccountable to anyone except, perhaps, God;

new religions often, although by no means always, have a dichotomous world view, seeing the world in them/us, godly/satanic, good/bad, before/after terms; and

as history has shown throughout the ages, the very fact that a new religion is offering an alternative set of beliefs and practices means that it is likely to be viewed with suspicion by other members of the society in which it emerges.[6]

Such characteristics of new religions can, by themselves, account for a number (although by no means all) of the reasons that “cult-watching organizations” concerned with the harm that arises out of new religions arose from the 1970s onward. Indeed, it would have been more surprising if such organizations had not emerged, and, in turn, become one of the factors that sociologists have had to take into account in their attempts to describe and understand the so-called “cult scene.”

Concluding Comments

It must be stressed that, despite what some people assume, nothing about the sociological perspective means that we as sociologists are not worried about the tragedies that have occurred within movements — on the contrary, it is because we are concerned that we are anxious to use the most reliable means we can for getting to the cause of actions and increasing our understanding of the processes that go on in society.

And it was such a concern that led me to the founding of INFORM in the late 1980s. This charity, supported by the British government and mainstream churches, aims to disseminate information that is based as far as possible on the methodology of the social sciences. In this way, the hope is to overcome some of the ignorance and misinformation that has been disseminated by the movements and others, such as the more sensational media, or through the over-generalization by well-meaning persons of particular stories that are of a genuinely appalling and/or tragic nature.

Of course, neither INFORM nor the sociological perspective holds a magic wand. We certainly do not believe that we have — or ever can have — all the answers. We do, however, believe that we have a perspective that can contribute to the amelioration, if not the eradication, of harm in the context of new religious movements.

Relevant Publications

Barker, E. (1983). Supping with the Devil: How Long a Spoon Does the Sociologist Need? Sociological Analysis, 44, 197-205.

Barker, E. (1987, June). Brahmins Don't Eat Mushrooms: Participant Observation and the New Religions. LSE Quarterly, 127-152.

Barker, E. (1989). New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO.

Barker, E. (1993). Charismatization: The Social Production of an Ethos Propitious to the Mobilization of Sentiments. In E. Barker, J.T. Beckford, & K. Dobbelaere (Eds.). Secularization, Rationalism and Sectarianism (pp. 181-202). Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Barker, E. (1994). But Is It a Genuine Religion? In A. L. Greil, & T. Robbins (Eds.), Between Sacred and Secular: Research and Theory on Quasi Religion (pp. 97-109). Greenwich CT & London: JAI Press.

Barker, E. (1995). The Scientific Study of Religion? You Must be Joking! Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 34, 287-310.

Barker, E. (1995). The Cage of Freedom and the Freedom of the Cage. In E. Barker (Ed.), LSE on Freedom (pp. 103-118). London: LSE Books.

Barker, E. (1998). Standing at the Cross-roads: The Politics of Marginality. In D.G. Bromley (Ed.), The Politics of Religious Apostasy. Greenwich CT & London: JAI Press.

Barker, E. (1999). Taking Two to Tango: The New Religious Movements and Sociology. In L. Voyé & J. Billiet (Eds.), Sociology and Religions: An Ambiguous Relationship. Leuven: Leuven University Press.

Barker, E. (2001). INFORM: Bringing the Sociology of Religion to the Public Space. In P. Côté (Ed.), Frontier Religions in Public Space (pp. 21-34). Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press.

Barker, E. (2002). Watching for Violence: A Comparative Analysis of the Roles of Five Cult-Watching Groups. In D.G. Bromley & J.G. Melton (Eds.). Cults, Religion and Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Barker, Eileen, & Mayer, Jean-François (Eds.). (1995). Twenty Years On: Changes in New Religious Movements. London: Sage (Special Edition of Social Compass 42/2).

[1] By objective, I mean related to the object of study (the movement) rather than the beliefs/values/opinions of the subject doing the study (the sociologist).

[2] Sociologists might or might not have a religious belief of their own, but their personal beliefs ought not to affect their descriptions of religions that they are studying.

[3] Sociologists do, of course, have to use words such as religion as tools and data in their work, but this does not mean that they grant an ontological, Platonic status to such concepts.

[4] This does not mean that they might not decide to study a particular phenomenon because they are worried about the harm that is involved — merely that this concern should not affect the investigation beyond prompting it to take place.

[5] Obviously, this can verge on the ridiculous if one were to say, “If you consider mass murder a bad thing, then the Manson Family was not a good group.” However, the point is that the sociologist’s task would be to describe and attempt to explain the (harmful and non-harmful) actions without adding his or her own theological or moral evaluation, rather than merely to label the group as a destructive cult.

[6] Of course, it also has to be recognized that, with the arrival of a second and subsequent generations, and the death of founders, these characteristics are liable to change quite radically within the space of a few decades.