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New Religious Movements

5. NRMs and Society II: Brainwashing and the “Cult Wars”

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About this Lecture


In this lecture, we think about the “cult wars” – the battle to shape perceptions of the NRMs between anti-cultist, scholars, and the movements themselves in the late-twentieth century, focusing in particular on: (i) the debate around brainwashing as a key site of the cult wars; (ii) the emergence of anti-cult organisations in the 1970s; (iii) state responses to NRMs, notably the harsh measures introduced in Russia and China; (iv) counter-cult religious organisations; (v) the development of scholarly networks, such as Professor Barker’s INFORM, founded in 1988; (vi) the decline of the cult wars in the 2000s as popular attention shifted to radical Islam and issues in mainstream religions.


In this course, Professor Eileen Barker (London School of Economics) explores the characteristics of New Religious Movements (NRMs) and their relationship to wider society. In the first lecture, we look at terminologies associated with new religions, including issues with the term “cult”, problems around defining a religion as “new”, and Professor Barker’s preference for “first-generation movement”. In the second lecture, we consider some common characteristics of first-generation movements, in terms of their beliefs and composition and their frequent exposure to persecution. In the third lecture, we think about how NRMs change over time, particularly as they become second-generation movements, and the internal and external factors which influence this. Next, we consider NRMs’ relationships with wider society, such as their portrayal in the media, the emergence of anti-cult activism. In the fifth and final lecture, we look at the “cult wars” between anti-cultists, scholars, and the movements themselves.


Professor Eileen Barker is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the London School of Economics. She is a leading expert on New Religious Movements (NRMs), founder of the Information Network Focus on New Religious Movements (INFORM), and author of The Making of a Moonie (1984), a foundational text in the study of new religions. Her recent publications include Reactions to the Law by Minority Religions (2021, as co-editor) and Revisionism and Diversification in New Religious Movements (2016, as editor).

Cite this Lecture

APA style

Barker, E. (2021, September 20). New Religious Movements - NRMs and Society II: Brainwashing and the “Cult Wars” [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Barker, E. "New Religious Movements – NRMs and Society II: Brainwashing and the “Cult Wars”." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 20 Sep 2021,

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