Cults & NRMs: An RSP Remix, Part I [transcript]

Cults & NRMs: An RSP Remix, Part I

Podcast with Eileen Barker, Stephen Gregg, Susan J. Palmer, David G. Robertson, Tristan Sturm, and Joseph Webster (16 may 2022)

Interviewed by Andie Alexander and Allison Isidore

Transcribed by Jacob Noblett

Audio and transcript available at:


Cults, Discourse, New Religious Movements, RSP Remix, Violence

Andie Alexander (AA)  0:00  

Hello, listeners and welcome back to The Religious Studies Project. It’s Monday morning. So you know that means we do have a type of new episode for you, today. I’m Andie Alexander, and joining me today is Allison Isidore. And Allison, so we have another remix episode that we are publishing today, but this one is on cults and new religious movements. Can you tell us a little about what our listeners can expect in this episode?

Allison Isidore (AI)  0:31  

Yeah, sure. So, often students bring these assumptions about religion and cults to our average Religion 101 class, and they don’t necessarily understand the power of the word ‘cult’ when they use it. So this video is going to hopefully disrupt some of those assumptions students bring to the classroom.

AA  0:54  

Excellent, I can’t wait to hear it. Take it away.

AI  0:57  

What is a cult?

Eileen Barker (EB)  0:58  

Cults, technically, usually mean some kind of religious or non-religious movement that’s in tension with society in some ways; the classic division between the cult and the sect, which are in tension with society, and the denomination and the Church, which aren’t. Generally, in popular parlance, to say something is a cult means it’s a religion I don’t like, and it’s not really very much more than that. I mean, I often get asked, is it a real religion, a genuine religion? Or is it a cult? And you’ve just got to say, “Well, what do you mean by cults?” And one man’s or one woman’s cult is another person’s religion.

AA  1:37  

How did the term ‘cult’ evolve into ‘new religious movement’, and what exactly is new about new religious movements?

EB  1:46  

It started off as being either a cult or a sect using the old [Ernst] Troeltsch/[H. Richard] Neibuhr categorisation. That is a new-ish movement that was in tension with society—the kind of groups that Bryan Wilson, for example, wrote about. But first of all, as Wilson himself said, this was very much focused on Christo-centric religions, and didn’t really fit with some of the new, ‘new religions’. And secondly, it started, both cult and sect—sect in the French language—to have very negative connotations. And if you called somebody a cult, then that told the audience more about yourself—that you didn’t like them—than it told the audience about what the group or movement thought. 

EB  2:37

So we started in the 1970s, using the term ‘new religious movement’, but then there were problems because new, what was “new”? We were including Jehovah’s Witnesses, or immigrant groups that were new to a particular country but could have been around for decades or centuries, millennia even. And were they religious? Well, some groups like the Raëlians, which is a UFO cult, calls itself an atheistic religion. A lot of the groups don’t want to be called a religion. Transcendental Meditation has fought in the courts not to be called a religion so that it can teach in schools, for example, because of the United States’ First Amendment to the Constitution. And at the same time, Scientology, which lots of people would think was less obviously a religion, has fought to be defined [as a religion] so that it can get charitable status. So there are a lot of secular consequences quite apart from academic consequences.

AI  3:35  

Are cults inherently violent?

EB  3:37  

Absolutely not. A lot of the movements are actually pacifist, and they work hard for pacifism. And it’s very interesting that today, while this is being recorded, the Jehovah’s Witnesses are—perhaps it’s already happened—being threatened with entire extinction from Russia, because they are absolutely non-violent. They’re in prison in places like South Korea, because of their conscientious objection. They won’t kill. They are prepared to be killed. They were killed in Auschwitz, for example. Unlike the Jews and the homosexuals and the gypsies, who were going to suffer anyway, the Jehovah’s Witnesses could have said, “No, we’ll obey the state.” And they didn’t, they prefered to be killed rather than this, because they just refused to do certain things. And so, I mean, it’s not just that they’re not violent, they will work against sometimes, but of course, some are violent with a capital V.

Joseph Webster (JW)  4:35  

Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. Genuinely, I see nothing within millenarianism that makes it essentially violent. And, I think, the other important point to make is that not only do we other millenarian groups by often assuming that they are violent, but we normalise ourselves—the secular, the non-religious, the mainstream—as something that is somehow, essentially non-violent. So we make cults and sects and millenarianism essentially violent, and we make the mainstream somehow essentially non-violent. And I think both are completely false. The evidence just does not stack up.

AA  5:15  

How do discourses on violence constitute or reinforce the divide of ‘cults’ versus ‘religion’?

Tristan Sturm (TS)  5:23  

Interested in the way we’re using the word ‘violence’ here. I think we’re talking about overt, coercive types of violence. But I think discourse or language can be violent as well. I think certain, other small-v forms of violence take place as well, and they’re not exclusive or endemic to millennial movements; they happen in everyday life. And I’m speaking here of a kind of power that we exact and all sorts of things, and millennial movements, apocalyptic movements, are a different kind of normative discourse. And they challenge dominant normative discourses. In a sense, they’re kind of doing violence. They’re trying to change the way we think about the world. ‘Our’ normative way we think about the world is not the right way, it’s not the absolute truth; it’s ‘truth’ because more people believe it than often millennial and apocalyptic movements. So, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not a kind of violence that’s going on there, there is.

Stephen Gregg (SG)  6:18  

Because, of course, when we have crimes that are committed within a religious organisation, when that is a minority organisation, it somehow is reported or perceived in society differently to the majority. When, for example, I mean, we’re sitting in Ireland—on the island of Ireland, at the moment in Northern Ireland—we’re talking about Australia, between those two countries, and everywhere in between, we’ve had the Catholic abuse scandals, and yet the church seems to be continuing, strengthening in some parts of the world. 800,000 people came out to welcome the Pope in Dublin in the last week. There’s a different response, and that surely is about the social capital and the political capital these organisations have. Scientology doesn’t have that, it’s a minority movement, it’s easier to beat with a stick.

AI  7:07  

Why are people critical of cults or new religious movements?

Susan J. Palmer (SP)  7:11  

Well, so they’re just an idea that religion is… There’s a fear of what’s irrational, and it’s, they have this word in French, obscurantism. And so it’s a fear of the irrational, that which you cannot, which is non-empirical.

David G. Robertson (DR)  7:26  

Yeah. I always suspect all underneath these critiques, though, that even though you’ve got this supposedly strict separation of church and state, the idea there can be “wrong religion” suggests that there’s an idea of what “right religion” is. So that’s the kind of undercurrent that’s there all the time. If it’s all nonsense, why be so angry about it?

SP  7:48  

Well, the idea is that when people embrace irrational worldviews, you’re actually damaging their brains or their minds, undermining their mental health. 

DR  7:59  

Yeah, yeah. And we see that all the time in conversations about cults and, and other things. My work on conspiracy theories is exactly the same pattern of language, is that we’re talking about “beliefs”—and I’m doing the rabbit courts for the listeners who can’t see us—that we’re talking about, essentially, the question is, why do people do these weird things? That’s, it’s where you started. But it’s still the question that underlies, because it’s interesting to us as scholars, but we never do that question when we’re talking about Christianity. There’s nothing from a philosophical point of view, or Islam, for instance, there’s nothing philosophically more irrational about Christian beliefs than there is about the Nuwaubians or Scientologists, we’re just far more used to them. And there’s this power thing that says we can’t talk about those religions in the same way. Yes, but minority religions we can.

Citation Info: 

Barker, Eileen, Stephen Gregg, Susan J. Palmer, David G. Robertson, Tristan Sturm, Joseph Webster, Andie Alexander, and Allison B. Isidore. 2022. “Cults & NRMs: An RSP Remix, Part I”, The Religious Studies Project. Podcast Transcript. 16 May 2022. Transcribed by Jacob Noblett. Version 1.0, 16 May 20222. Available at:

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