This concept refers to two separate religious phenomena. First, there are the new religions of aboriginal and tribal people in the Third World, which are the result of an interaction between local, indigenous religions and Christianity, and to a lesser extent Hinduism and Buddhism. Various terms have been given to such religions: messianic, nativistic, and revitalization religions. They are seen by anthropologists to be responses or adjustments by relatively powerless people to their social dislocation in the face of direct or indirect colonialism. They often borrow the radical theology of early Christianity to express a profound symbolic protest.
Second, there are new religions in the developed, industrial societies of the West, which are often associated with youth movements and the counter-culture. These are often syncretist, borrowing elements from many different religious and philosophical traditions. Sociologists have claimed that such religions satisfy the psychological and social needs of young people seeking a meaning for life which they cannot find in the mainstream religious traditions. Examples include the Divine Light Mission, Hare Krishna, the Unification Church, and Scientology. They are often termed ‘movements’ because they are looser and more diffuse than established religions and have some of the characteristics of a social movement.
Numerous typologies of the latter will be found in the literature. For example, in The Elementary Forms of the New Religious Life (1984), Roy Wallis offered a three-fold distinction which identified world-rejecting, world-affirming, and world-accommodating types. The first of these represent attempts to escape from the impersonality, materialism, bureaucratization, and individualism of modern life. The International Society for Krishna Consciousness, Children of God, and Unification Church (‘Moonies’) are cited as examples. By comparison, movements such as Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, and the Japanese Soka Gakkai claim to offer practitioners greater success in achieving goals already set by the status quo, including individual material advancement, psychological well-being, and social popularity: they are therefore world-affirming. Finally, innovatory religions with a world-accommodating orientation carry few implications either for individual conduct in, or for rejection of, the larger secular world, since their primary purpose is to provide stimulation for personal and spiritual experiences. Religions such as the Charismatic Renewal and Neo-Pentecostalism simply instruct adherents to live life (however it is lived) in a more enthusiastically religious manner.
Wallis's typology is, however, only one of many possible classifications. Some idea of the alternatives, and of the enormous literature now available on this general topic, can be gained from Thomas Robbins's lengthy bibliographical essay on ‘Cults, Converts and Charisma’, Current Sociology (1988). See also secularization.
http://www.inform.ac/infmain.html The official site of INFORM, providing sociologically informed material on new religions.