Religious Movements

Have you ever wondered how people in society decide to align with particular religious movements

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Table of contents

    Religious movements can vary greatly from each other, depending on a number of factors. This includes the ways they emerge, the number of followers they have, and the beliefs they promote.

    • We will look at a list of religious movements.
    • Then, we will discuss the causes of the rise of religious movements.
    • We will consider examples of religious movements in details.
    • We will mention the characteristics of New Religious Movements.
    • Finally, we will look at social and religious reform movements.

    List of religious movements

    The largest religious organisations in the Western world, like the Christian Church, transformed and split into smaller denominations and sects due to several religious movements.

    Religious movements are social movements that aim to alter existing religious organisations or establish new religious groups.

    New religious movements (NRMs) of the 20th century have resulted in the emergence of entirely new cults, such as the Church of Scientology, or the Unification Church.

    Causes of the rise of religious movements

    Religious movements often emerge during periods of rapid social change and find a following among marginalised groups of society. Rapid social change causes increased distress and insecurity for marginalised people, so they look for ways to deal with these new struggles and voice their needs.

    Religions gain followings because they provide both practical and psychological support for people's social, cultural, and economic problems.

    Examples of religious movements

    There are many types of religious movements. We can differentiate between them according to their causes, means, and effects.

    Endogenous movements

    Some religious movements develop to improve the internal structure of a religious organisation. They are known as endogenous movements, and they usually cause schisms, which break the existing religion into smaller sects.

    The Great Schism of 1054 was when Christianity split into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. The Reformation of the 16th century is another example of when Western Catholicism split into Roman Catholicism and Protestantism.

    Further schisms split both the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Church into numerous smaller sects and religious groups.

    Religious Movements, Statue of Martin Luther, StudySmarterFig. 1 - Martin Luther's work was responsible for the Protestant Reformation.

    Exogenous movements

    Other religious movements aim to change the external environment around the organisation. They are called exogenous movements.

    Jihad in Islam calls 'true' believers to protect the religion from non-believers. In the late 20th century, religious movements played a crucial role in the liberation from Communism of various Eastern European countries.

    Generative movements

    Finally, there are religious movements that aim to introduce a completely new religion - these are known as generative movements.

    After the European conquest of the New World, Christian missionaries introduced (and often imposed) Christianity on indigenous cultures. In another example, the Church of Scientology was founded in America by American science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in 1954.

    We will now go through the different types of religious organisations and movements and consider their features.

    Religious organisations

    Religious organisations are public or private organisations built around a religious ideology. They differ according to their size, inclusivity, interpretation of faith, and the level of commitment they require from their members.

    The four main categories of religious organisations are churches, sects, denominations, and cults.

    Religious charity organisations' goal is to provide economic, psychological, and medical support to those in need.

    Religious environmental organisations are non-profit organisations that belong to churches and sects and focus on environmental issues.

    Visit Religious Organisations for more information.

    Characteristics of New Religious Movements (NRMs)

    The aim of NRMs is to establish completely new religions. There was a sudden expansion of NRMs in the 1960s, most of which emerged in America but gained a global following.

    Roy Wallis (1984) distinguished three different NRMs according to their relationship to the outside world.

    World-rejecting NRMs

    • These have very clear notions of 'God'.

    • They hold critical views of the outside world. Members have little contact with their former lives, and they often live in communes.
    • Society generally has a negative view of them. World-rejecting NRMs are often accused of brainwashing their members.
    • Examples of world-rejecting NRMs include the Manson family, and the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON, also known as Hare Krishnas).

    World-accommodating NRMs

    • These NRMS often emerge from existing churches or denominations.

    • They neither accept nor reject the outside world - the focus is on religious rather than worldly matters.

    • Their followers usually live conventional lives.

    • One example of a world-accommodating NRM is the Neo-pentecostalist group (it broke away from Catholicism).

    World-affirming NRMs

    • They are normally tolerant towards other religions and organisations.

    • These accept the world as it is, but offer knowledge and techniques for a better life experience.

    • They lack conventional religious practices such as communal worship.

    • They are often referred to as cults.

    • Examples of world-affirming NRMs include Scientology and groups that practise Transcendental meditation.

    New Age Movements (NAMs)

    NAMs emerged in the Western world in the 1980s. People started to step away from traditional religions and their doctrines and began to look toward a New Age of spirituality.

    NAMs are very diverse and eclectic. Their main teaching is that spiritual awakening can be reached through individual experience, through the exploration of the self.

    NAMS frequently involve crystals, meditation, psychic experiences, belief in UFOs, and belief in Earth mysteries.

    New Age Movements covers this topic in more detail.

    Social and religious reform movements

    Reform movements aim to improve the social and political setup of a community. The goal of a social and religious reform movement is the improvement of the structure and social influence of one religious organisation.

    Let's look at an example of a social and religious reform movement.

    The social and religious reform movement in 19th century India aimed to alter dangerous religious practices, and eliminate superstitions and social evils from Indian society.

    Educated intellectuals organised themselves to collectively put an end to, among other things, female infanticide, child marriages, polygamy, and animal sacrifice. The promotion of Western education and the education of young girls helped to remove religious traditions that oppressed women.

    The most important social and religious reformers of India included Raja Rammohan Roy, Henry Vivian Derozio, Keshab Chandra Sen, and Iswar Chandra Vidyasagar.

    Religious Movements, Rural classroom with children, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Education played a crucial role in the social and religious reform movements of 19th century India.

    Researching religious movements

    In the 19th century, Social Darwinist sociologists like Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch dealt with questions around the emergence and spread of religious movements.

    In the 1960s, many new religious movements appeared, which increased sociologists’ interest in the subject. Researchers wanted to find out how these new religious movements organised themselves, what social-psychological causes lay behind their rapid expansion, and what the main points of conflict were between the new and the old religious traditions.

    Religious Movements - Key takeaways

    • Religious movements aim to alter existing religious organisations, or establish new religious ones.

    • Religious movements often emerge during periods of rapid social change and find a following among marginalised groups of society.

    • Religious organisations are public or private organisations built around a religious ideology. The main types of religious organisations are churches, sects, denominations, and cults.

    • There was a sudden expansion of NRMs in the 1960s. Most of the NRMs emerged in America, but gained a global following.

    • The social and religious reform movement of 19th century India aimed to alter dangerous religious practices, and eliminate superstitions and social evils from Indian society.

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    Frequently Asked Questions about Religious Movements

    What are religious movements?

    Religious movements are social movements that aim to alter existing religious organisations, or establish new religious groups.

    Why do people join new religious movements?

    Religious movements often emerge during periods of rapid social change and find a following among marginalised groups of society. Rapid social change causes increased distress and insecurity for marginalised people. They look for means to deal with the new struggles or to simply voice their needs. Religious movements provide both practical and psychological support for people with their social, cultural, and economic problems.

    What are examples of religious movements?

    An example of endogenous religious movements is the Great Schism of 1054: Christianity split into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.


    An example of exogenous religious movements is the active practice of religious traditions, which played a crucial role in the acceleration of liberation from Communism in Eastern Europe.


    An example of generative religious movements is the emergence of the Church of Scientology in the mid-20th century.

    What are New Religion Movements?

    The aim of NRMs is to establish completely new religions. There was a sudden expansion of NRMs in the 1960s, most of which emerged in America but gained a global following. 

    How do new religion movements arise?

    Religious movements often emerge during periods of rapid social change and find a following among marginalised groups of society. Rapid social change causes increased distress and insecurity for marginalised people, so they look for means to deal with these new struggles or voice their needs. 


    Religions gain followings because they provide both practical and psychological support for people's social, cultural, and economic problems.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    What kind of religious organisation is the Catholic Church?

    What kind of religious organisation is Pentecostalism?

    Methodism does not allow women to become ministers. True or false?

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