What is a 'cult', and how are they generally perceived? How does one distinguish between new religious movements and cults? And what's at stake in that distinction? Tune in to learn more with Eileen Barker and Chris Cotter!

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About this episode

Although “cult” and “sect” are used as technical terms in religious studies, in their popular usage, “cult” tends to refer to a New Religious Movement [NRM] or other group whose beliefs or practices are considered reprehensible. Since such pejorative attitudes are generally considered inappropriate for the academic study of religion, scholars have tended to adopt the nomenclature of NRMs to refer to “a wide range of groups and movements of alternative spirituality, the emergence of which is generally associated with the aftermath of the 1960s counter-culture” (Arweck 2002:269). In this interview with Chris, Emeritus Professor Eileen Barker (LSE) takes us through the academic study of NRMs from the 1960s onwards, engaging with the particular challenges and successes which have been encountered by academics in the field, and reflecting on some of the more colourful aspects of this area of research.

Eileen Barker OBE, FBA, is Emeritus Professor of Sociology with special reference to the study of Religion at the London School of Economics. She has been researching minority religions and the responses to which they give rise since the early 1970s. Her study of conversion to the Unification Church for her PhD, led to an interest in a wide variety of movements, and she has personally studied, to greater or lesser degree, over 150 different groups. She has over 300 publications, translated into 27 languages. She travels extensively for research purposes, particularly in North America, Europe and Japan, and, since collapse of the Berlin Wall, in Eastern Europe and, more recently, China. She was the first non-American to be elected President of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

She is also the founder of INFORM (Information Network, Focus on Religious Movements), an independent charity that was founded in 1988 with the support of the British Home Office and the mainstream Churches. It is based at the London School of Economics. According to Inform’s website, “the primary aim of Inform is to help people by providing them with information that is as accurate, balanced, and up-to-date as possible about alternative religious, spiritual and esoteric movements.”

Among Professor Barker’s publications, the following may be of interest (those which are open-access are indicated with an asterisk):

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What should we do with the study of new religions?

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