New Religious Movements has come to be the accepted term for religious groups that are outside the mainstream. “New” is sometimes a misnomer, in that many of these traditions have roots in ancient faiths. The United States has been a fertile incubator for a wide variety of religious movements, particularly since the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished quotas based on national origins and resulted in the introduction of a range of religious beliefs. Sometimes, NRMs, as they are called, are suspicious or even dangerous in their goals or treatment of followers, but many times they are not. Some groups develop over time into religions that are accepted in the mainstream. New Religious Movements are a serious topic of study for hundreds of scholars.
TIPS FOR COVERAGE
Journalists should take great care with the word cult, a term that has come to be associated with religious groups with overly controlling leadership or dangerous practices. In some cases, the word cult fits, such as with Heaven’s Gate, whose members died in a mass suicide in California in 1997. However, the word cult has such negative meanings for most people that it should be avoided unless it is absolutely clear that it would not unfairly denigrate a group.
The word sect refers to a group that has broken off from another. Journalists should take care with this label as well and avoid it unless they are sure it fits.
Journalists who encounter unusual religious groups can easily consult with experts to find out whether they are part of a larger group or how the group’s beliefs and practices compare with other groups’. They should also be aware that just because a group sounds unusual doesn’t mean it is unique. A group called the Raelians falsely claimed they had cloned a human in 1997, inciting lead news stories across the country. The nation then learned that serious scholarly study of UFO religions such as the Raelians was, in fact, already taking place and that the Raelians were hardly the only group with such beliefs.