New Religious Movements | The Canadian Encyclopedia


New Religious Movements

New Religious Movements

Cults or New Religions
The complexity of the subject has led scholars to abandon the popular term "cult" - which became associated with the 1978 People's Temple mass suicide/murders in Jonestown, Guyana; the Waco tragedy; the Solar Temple murders in Québec and Switzerland; and similar events worldwide - in favour of the more neutral term "New Religious Movements." In the sociology of religion terms like "church," "sect," "denomination," and "cult" have specialized meanings identifying specific types of religious movement.

The classic sociological definition of "cult" is a mystically oriented intellectual group. In theology cults are groups which deviate from traditional forms of Christian orthodoxy. Thus, while a sociologist might see the Quakers as a cult, traditional Roman Catholics sometimes argue that Baptists are members of a cult. During the 1970s the term cult was applied by the media to new religious groups such as the Unification Church and the Hare Krishna Movement.

Tragedies like the Jonestown deaths distort discussion about new religions because of the media attention they are granted. Few people realize that Jim Jones, the founder of Jonestown, was a well-educated ordained minister in the American denomination the Disciples of Christ. He was not a fundamentalist, as he is often said to have been; rather, he was a liberal theologian with socialist political beliefs whose denomination was in communion with the United Church of Canada. Similar misunderstandings about the reality of other controversial groups have led scholars to caution people about hasty generalizations and to advocate viewing each religious group in terms of its own history and practices.

In 1981 American sociologists David G. Bromley and Anson D. Shupe argued that most people react unfavourably towards the new religions because of "media hype," and that very few people actually join new religions which are generally quite harmless. About the same time Professor Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics showed that the very few people who visited the Unification Church headquarters in London actually joined the movement. In further studies, commissioned by the British government, she argued that what was true for the Unification Church was also true for most other groups in Britain.

In Canada sociologist Reginald Bibby discovered that in 1982 less than 1% of Canadians had even a passing interest in new religions. More significantly only a fraction of 1% were actually involved in such groups. Eleven years later Bibby reported that group involvement had not significantly changed, although he did report that 3% of Canadians expressed an interest in New Age and nondenominational spirituality.

When placed in sociological and historical contexts, most new religious movements appear far less strange than media portrayals. But because most Canadian provincial education departments exclude the teaching of religion from state schools many people have few resources upon which to base their judgements. As a result many groups are able to attract potential converts simply because they appear to be proclaiming something new and interesting when, in reality, their beliefs and practices are neither new nor particularly insightful.

The rise of new religions is not new. By examining the past we can better understand the present. Although groups such as the METHODISTS, MORMONS and SALVATION ARMY were once viewed as dangerous cults which faced strong opposition, they did not cause society to disintegrate and are now viewed with equanimity. It is also important to recognize the positive contribution groups like these made to society in terms of social reform and welfare. It also needs to be noted that most new religions have a global aspect and often introduce beliefs and practices from the non-Western world into Western society.

Canadian Membership Statistics

It is very difficult to give accurate membership figures for most new religions. The groups themselves, and their critics, both tend to exaggerate their numbers. Thus in the late 1970s Toronto Magazine claimed that there were 10 000 members of the Hare Krishna Movement in Toronto. The movement itself said that there were 5000 devotees. But when investigated by Daniel G. Hill for the Ontario Government he could only find 80 members. Today the movement, which in India is a highly respectable form of traditional religion, has several thousand members, most of whom are East Indian immigrants living in the Toronto area. Similarly in Vancouver the Hare Krishna Temple in Burnaby has become the focal point for a large number of East Indians who find in the movement an opportunity to continue traditional practices and piety. Other Hindu, Buddhist and Islamic groups, which once attracted converts from the Hippie movement, have also been transformed over the last decade into respectable congregations catering to traditional believers from immigrant communities.

One of the most confusing aspects of the study of new religions is the number of groups involved. Richard Bergerson counted over 300 new religious or parareligious groups in Québec, while Fred Bird found a similar proliferation of groups in Montréal. Joan Townsend in Winnipeg and Irving Hexham in Calgary also report a bewildering number of small groups, many of which have no more than a dozen or so members and last for short periods of time before dying out. As a result one must be very careful with books like Paul Kaihla and Ross Laver's Savage Messiah: The Shocking Story of Cult Leader Roch Thériault and the Women who Loved Him (1993). Shocking as the story is care must be taken not to generalize from instances of clear abuse such as this to all new religions.

Estimates for the number of Canadian converts who have joined the better-known new religions are: Hare Krishna, 300-400, with a large East Indian following of around 8000; Unification Church, 150-250; Children of God, 50-60; Scientology, 800 full-time members with around 12 000 people taking courses. In addition over 200 000 Canadian have been initiated by the Transcendental Meditation movement, although only about 1% continue to practise regularly.

Why Do People Join?

There are many technical theories about conversion to new religions. Some scholars posit social unrest while others stress religious factors such as dead orthodoxies in historic churches. The important point is to try to understand why a particular individual is attracted to a specific group. This can only be done through close contact with and careful listening to the potential convert. What matters is their own story. In general, however, new religions appear to provide meaning and purpose in life while taking seriously and providing a framework of understanding for vivid spiritual experiences.

Although, as Bibby points out, few Canadians are prepared to admit they are on a quest for meaning, most people wonder at some time or another about the purpose of life, and there is evidence to suggest that many people refuse to admit publicly that they are on such a quest, though there is evidence that as a group they are.

At the same time many people have vivid spiritual experiences including unusual feelings and sensations ranging from out-of-the-body experiences to ESP, mystical visions and premonitions, etc. In our secular society, both the quest for meaning and spiritual experiences are often dismissed as psychological problems. If, however, someone encounters a new religion during a period of questioning, or shortly after some vivid spiritual experience, then the sympathy shown by group members, and the answers provided by the group's teachings may be sufficient to cause them to join the group.

Generally, most members of new religions should be seen to be on a spiritual quest which leads them to experiment with a number of religious groups before joining a specific group. Why a person joins a particular group appears to depend on friendship ties rather than anything else. Thus, a person may be attracted to a group like the Unification Church because Unification theology explains a particularly vivid spiritual experience. But commitment to the church comes from a feeling of belonging and the bonds of friendship which are formed with existing members.

The Brainwashing-Deprogramming Controversy

One reason for media interest in new religions during the 1970s was the claim that they "brainwashed" their members. This claim was propagated by lurid autobiographical accounts, together with television and radio interviews given by people who said they had "escaped" from a cult. Theoretical support for these claims came from Flo Conway and Jim Siegleman's book Snapping (1978), which argued that personality change following conversion was evidence of brainwashing. The basis for their theory was William Sargent's book Battle for the Mind (1957), which sought to explain the effects of Billy Graham's Harringay Crusade in England in 1954. Thus, Conway and Siegleman made no real distinction between people who converted to the Unification Church or joined a local evangelical congregation.

In Canada Josh Freed's Moonwebs (1981), which became a television film, led credence to the claim that members of new religions were brainwashed and in need of deprogramming. This practice involved kidnapping members of unpopular religions and holding them prisoner until they renounced their membership in the group in question. Deprogramming was not limited to members of new religions. In the US it involved Anglicans, Baptists, Roman Catholics and members of political and social groups such as feminists. In short, it was used against anyone whose religion or lifestyle someone else, usually parents, thought was wrong. The practice was clearly illegal and had many implications for civil liberties.

University of Toronto psychiatrist Saul V. Levine made a study of deprogramming in his book Radical Departures (1984). He concluded that as a means of changing people's views it was not only a failure but positively dangerous. These conclusions were supported by other scholars who provided civil libertarians, religious leaders in established churches and members of new religions with evidence against the practice of deprogramming. As a result it gradually fell into disrepute.

Yet it cannot be denied that some people seem to join religious and similar movements as a result of group pressure and misleading information. It is also true that very small numbers of groups are positively dangerous. Therefore, the practice of "exit counselling" developed as a substitute for deprogramming. It involves therapy sessions and discussion rather than kidnapping and bombardment with negative information. The leading theorist of exit counselling is Margaret Singer, a retired professor of psychology from the University of Berkeley and leading figure in the American Family Foundation. With Janja Lalich she has written Cults in Our Midst (1995), which presents a strong case against certain forms of new religions and pleads the case that some members and ex-members need counselling.

Canada also has its share of anticult groups. Today the Montréal-based Cult Project and the Calgary-based Christian Research Institute are the 2 major organizations providing negative, but often useful, information about new religions. In addition to these organizations, which deal with new religions generally, there are also many, usually fundamentalist, "ministries" which specialize in "rescuing" people from specific religions such as Saints Alive, which targets the Mormons and Fundamentalists Anonymous. Criticism of organizations like these is found in Bromley and Shupe's The New Vigilantes (1980), which claims that such groups resemble the movements they claim to expose.

Identifying New Religions

Three main religious systems provide the basic ingredients for the majority of new religions. These are the Abramic, Yogic and Primal religious traditions.

New Canadian Religions

Over the years Canada has seen the growth of numerous indigenous new religious movements. Following the War of 1812 an Ontario-based Quaker sect, the Children of Peace, flourished until it finally died out in 1889. In the 1890s various Mormon groups moved to Canada to escape "persecution" in America and continue the practice of polygamy. Today, there are several fundamentalist Mormon groups of more recent origin in southern Alberta and parts of BC.

In the late 1920s the Aquarian Foundation was established in BC by the infamous BROTHER TWELVE. This was based largely on the teachings of THEOSOPHY and saw a spectacular rise and dramatic decline. As a result the group broke up in the early 1930s. Another BC group was the KABALARIAN PHILOSOPHY, founded in Vancouver in 1930 by Alfred J. Parker (1897-1964). This movement blends Eastern and Western forms of spirituality with numerology. It practices vegetarianism and physical exercises similar to Hatha Yoga. Another important BC group is the Emissaries of Divine Light, based at One Hundred Mile House. It attracts upper-middle-class followers and is essentially Yogic in orientation.

In Québec the Solar Temple combined occult beliefs with elaborate rituals to attract a wealthy and well-educated following before its tragic end in 1994. Two years later the matter is still under investigation by the police, although numerous theories about money laundering and the involvement with the drug trade abound. Another Québec-based group is the Apostles of Infinite Love, founded in the 1950s by a Roman Catholic priest, Gaston Tremblay. He broke away from the Roman Catholic Church when he claimed to be Pope Jean Grégoire XVII. In spite of a 2-year jail sentence for the forceable detention of 3 children, the group has built 30 monastic-type communities in Canada and the US. Controversy continues to surround this and other groups, especially as allegations of child abuse frequently emerge, but, as with the notorious Children of God, are rarely proven.

Although not founded in Canada the Children of God developed many of their distinctive features and created a negative image of new religions after a period of rapid growth in Vancouver, BC. Founded by David Berg, a Pentecostal evangelist, as a "Jesus Movement" in California during the late 1960s, missionaries were sent to Canada as early as 1968 and in 1971 the main body of the movement moved to Vancouver. Shortly after this move Berg changed his name to Moses David as a result of "revelations" which he claimed to receive from God. The group became increasingly deviant, especially in sexual matters, where its most infamous practice was "flirty fishing," or ritual prostitution as a means of conversion. Eventually the group divided into various colonies which went underground. They changed their name several times and currently use the name the Family. At its height the movement had over 8000 members; today there seem to be only few hundred worldwide.

Far less well known among the general public, but far more influential, was the LATTER RAIN MOVEMENT, which originated in North Battleford, Sask, in 1948. In fact, this may be the most influential Canadian contribution to modern religion. Essentially a PENTECOSTAL revival movement, Latter Rain spread from a Foursquare Gospel church through evangelical Christianity worldwide. Many contemporary practices of CHARISMATIC Christianity, such as "singing in tongues," gained popularity as a result of this movement, which produced hundreds of new independent Charismatic churches. Most of these have remained essentially orthodox, but some have developed unusual beliefs and practices.

Today in Canada, the most prolific of the new religions are continental in nature and not essentially Canadian. Evangelical and Charismatic groups which attempt to recreate biblical, or "New Testament," Christianity are the most common. An important feature of such churches is their global scope and willingness to adapt beliefs and practices from all over the world. One of the most successful of these movements is the Calgary-based Victory Church. It was originally founded in Lethbridge by George and Hazel Hill. Today it is a growing denomination with over 100 local congregations and significant international links. In 1995 the Victory Church movement, led by its Lethbridge congregation, successfully challenged the CRTC's ruling against religious broadcasting and is pioneering independent religious broadcasting in Canada.

Even more spectacular is the international impact of the Toronto Vineyard Church. Originally part of the California Vineyard movement, this Charismatic congregation experienced an outburst of "holy laughter" on 20 January 1994. This quickly became known as the "Toronto Blessing" and spread across the globe. In 1995 the usually conservative English weekly The Church Times could claim that 10% of all Anglican churches in Britain reported experiencing the "Toronto Blessing." Highly controversial, the laughing revival is the subject of several book and numerous journalistic articles.

New Age, the Mystical Movement and the Search for Individual Spirituality

Although group-organized new religious movements have gained notoriety, a growing number of people from young adults through to seniors are involved in individual quests for spirituality and healing and do not affiliate with such groups. These people constitute what the German sociologist Ernst Troeltsch identified as a "mystical movement." The term "New Age" has been applied to parts of this movement, but many people prefer not to use the label because of its pejorative connotations as a result of sensational press coverage and criticism by Fundamentalist Christians. Further, the movement defies definition because it lacks clear-cut parameters. It is best seen as a broad attempt at an overall social and spiritual paradigm shift. What we see today is not a "new" movement, but part of a much older esoteric tradition.

The term "New Age" dates back at least to 1906. It was used by Alice Bailey and others, influenced by Helena Blavatsky, in the 1930s. Overall, today "New Age" implies a strong occult focus, whereas many of the foci within the "Mystical Movement" are more broadly spiritual. These traditions draw upon many systems from Plato, through Swedenborg, New Thought, SPIRITUALISM, Theosophy and Westernized forms of Eastern mysticism. Canadian Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness (1901) was also an early forerunner of today's esoteric spirituality.

The "movement," or perhaps more accurately consensus, began to coalesce and grow in the late 1960s and the 1970s with the Human Potential Movement, Esalen workshops in California and interest in Eastern and North American and other native religious traditions. Baba Ram Dass's Be Here Now (1971), stressing transformation and Hindu mysticism, was seminal. In the early 1970s anthropologist Michael Harner began to teach generic shamanic techniques to Westerners in workshops for use in healing and spiritual quests (The Way of the Shaman, 1980), and Castaneda began his series of books about a sorcerer, Don Juan. Starhawk, whose real name is Miriam Simos, and others wrote about and practised a Goddess religion which promoted the growth of neo-paganism and modern witchcraft, usually known as Wicca. Marilyn Ferguson argued that a personal and social transformation was underway involving holism, a new world view and a paradigm shift. Only later did portions of the Mystical Movement crystallize in the popular media and general public awareness into the "New Age Movement," with actress Shirley MacLaine's January 1987 television version of her book Out on a Limb.

People involved with New Age thinking and practices draw on a wide range of interests such as astrology; magic; trans-channelling, which is a form of spiritualist mediumship; crystal healing; tarot card reading; meditation; out-of-body experiences; karma; reincarnation; Celtic and Druidic systems; North American and other native and non-native traditional religious systems; and ecological concerns. In using these traditions and techniques it is strictly "pick and choose." Some use magic, others do not; some are into tarot, or reincarnation, others reject them. Thus, while there is no general agreement among practitioners, a wide range of beliefs and practices are available to potential users.

At its most sophisticated, however, the Mystical Movement attempts to integrate modern scientific theories, including quantum mechanics, space-time physics, genetics, biology and neurophysiology, with mysticism to gain a broader, more holistic understanding of reality. Transformation, holism, the merging of science and religion are major themes. Involvement with nonbiomedical healing is prevalent at all levels of the movement through various kinds of spiritual healing such as laying-on-of-hands, and Reiki. More organized endeavours can be seen in such groups as the Calgary-based Wild Rose Clinic, which has a continental cliental and offers correspondence courses in traditional healing and herbalism.

If membership of new religious groups is small, interest in new forms of spirituality is slowly growing. Thus in 1990, 44% of Canadians claimed to have experienced God. Another 23% believed that they had made contact with the dead and over 59% claimed to have experienced some form of psychic activity. At the same time belief in astrology had dropped slightly, from 33% in 1987 to 32%. By 1996 the beneficiaries of this growing tide of spirituality seem to be not only the individualistic Mystical Movement and esoteric spirituality, but also established churches with long historical traditions, older sectarian movements such as the JEHOVAH'S WITNESSES, MORMONS, new Charismatic Christian churches like the Toronto Vineyard and the Calgary-based Victory Church Movement.

What is unique about the Mystical Movement and growing spirituality is its lack of a formal organization and the dissemination of its views through various media: books, magazines, videos, television programs, and most recently the internet. Spiritual and New Age literature can be found in most Canadian towns and the larger cities in regular book stores and libraries; larger cities usually have several bookshops devoted to New Age writings. In Winnipeg, for example, there are 4 specialty bookshops dealing in aspects of the Mystical Movement and esoteric spirituality. Two of these have been in extistence for at least 7 years. As a result the New Age and larger Mystical Movement are best viewed as a growing network of individuals who participate in varying degrees in an overall global belief system, rather than in terms of specific organizations or spiritual groups.

Canadians avail themselves of a variety of activities both in this country and in the United States. The Spiritual Science Fellowship, for example, was begun in Montréal by an educational psychologist, and by an Anglican minister, John Rossner. It holds annual conferences in Montréal and Minneapolis involving a variety of speakers, including Nobel Prize winners. Study groups in A Course in Miracles, spiritual development activities, workshops in tarot card reading, neo-shamanism, meditation and healing are widespread activities. People who attend such functions do not join a particular group or become members in an organization. Rather they are clients who receive instruction (occasionally there is a fee), which they can use in their own lives or occasionally as a basis on which to establish their own local practice or spiritual interest group.

Participants in such activities select what is relevant to their personal spiritual quest and then move on to other sources of enlightenment. As a result the individual's spiritual paradigm shares much of the overall mystical belief system; nevertheless, each person tailors their own system to his or her own needs and therefore creates a highly personal belief system. This mystical movement reflects Troeltsch's "secret religion of the educated classes," which is heterogeneous, draws from a myriad of spiritual sources, is deeply personal and lacks dogma, an institutional church, or priesthood, to mediate between the individual and the spiritual. Because those who develop and those who participate in the Mystical Movement are usually well educated members of mainstream society, the movement has the potential to make profound impacts on society and culture.



Many Canadian spiritualists attend "camps" in the US, where formal classes are held in healing, mediumship and aspects of the belief system, and a minister's or healing certificate may be obtained. It is primarily an urban, middle-class phenomenon. Spiritualists are not marginal to society, but participate actively in community affairs; their activities are tolerated by society and generally ignored by traditional churches. Women are equal with men and often take a lead in a spiritual activity. Children are not deliberately drawn into membership: it is necessary to keep a balance between the mystical and the real world, a distinction that might be difficult for a young child. Visitors are warmly welcomed, but no pressure is exerted to join the organization or to accept particular beliefs. Some spiritualists estimate that there were 800-1000 spiritualists in Canada in the 1980s, but only about one-third were active. Although there have been a number of important spiritualists in Canada, the most prominent was PM Mackenzie KING.


Authors contributing to this article:


Abramic religions are those religions which claim the patriarch Abraham as their common ancestor and include Christianity, Judaism and Islam.


Yogic religions are those religions which centre their devotion on the practice of yoga, or meditation, and find their origin in the religious traditions of India.


Primal religions are those religions, including North American native and African religions, which centre on fundamental religious experiences such as dreams, visions, out-of-the-body experiences and the intervention of ancestors in daily life. In Primal religions key individuals play a major role in mediating between this reality and the "next" or some alternate reality.

Using this simplified typology the Unification Church is clearly an Abramic type of religion. The Hare Krishna Movement is Yogic, while Scientology, with its emphasis on the role of founder Ron L. Hubbard as a spiritual mediator who discovered the "truth" about human existence, is a Primal religion. It must also be recognized that today many groups combine elements from all 3 types of religion. Thus the Unification Church includes in its practices both Yogic and Primal elements, while Scientology clearly draws some of its beliefs and practices from the Yogic tradition.

Further Reading