A new religious movement (NRM) is a faith-based community, or ethical, spiritual, or philosophical group of recent origin. NRMs may be novel in origin or they may be part of a wider religion, such as Christianity, in which case they will be distinct from pre-existing denominations. Scholars studying the sociology of religion have almost unanimously adopted this term as a neutral alternative to the word "cult". They continue to try to reach agreement on definitions and boundaries.
An NRM may be one of a wide range of movements ranging from those with loose affiliations based on novel approaches to spirituality or religion to communitarian enterprises that demand a considerable amount of group conformity and a social identity that separates their adherents from mainstream society. Use of the term is not universally accepted among the groups to which it is applied. NRMs do not necessarily share a set of particular attributes, but have been "assigned to the fringe of the dominant religious culture", and "exist in a relatively contested space within society as a whole".[3 ]
The study of New Religions emerged in Japan after an increase in religious innovation following the Second World War. "New religions" is a calque (word-for-word translation) of shinshūkyō, which Japanese sociologists coined to refer to this phenomenon. This term, amongst others, was adopted by Western scholars as an alternative to cult. "Cult" had emerged in the 1890s,[3 ] but by the 1970s it had acquired a pejorative connotation, and was subsequently used indiscriminately by lay critics to disparage groups whose doctrines they opposed. Consequently, scholars such as Eileen Barker, J. T. Richardson, T. Miller and C. Wessinger argued that the term "cult" had become too laden with negative connotations, and "advocated dropping its use in academia."  Instead, especially in the sociology of religion, (but also in religious studies), scholars use "new religious movement". Some still use the term "cult" for groups they believe to be extremely manipulative and exploitative.
A number of alternatives to the term new religious movement are used by some scholars. These include: alternative religious movements, (Miller) emergent religions, (Ellwood) and marginal religious movements (Harper and Le Beau). 
Although there is no one criterion or set of criteria for describing a group as a "new religious movement," use of the term usually requires that the group be both of recent origin and different from existing religions. Debate surrounds the phrase "of recent origin": some authors use World War II as the dividing line after which anything is "new", whereas others define as "new" everything after the advent of the Bahá'í Faith (mid-19th century). Some scholars also have a more restricted approach to what counts as "different from existing religions". For them, "difference" applies to a faith that, though it may be seen as part of an existing religion, meets with rejection from that religion for not sharing the same basic creed or declares itself either separate from the existing religion or even "the only right" faith. Other scholars expand their measurement of difference, considering religious movements new when, taken from their traditional cultural context, they appear in new places, perhaps in modified forms. Examples of these kinds of "new movements" would be the Western importation and establishment of Hindu or Buddhist groups.
NRMs vary in terms of leadership; authority; concepts of the individual, family, and gender; teachings; organizational structures; etc. These variations have presented a challenge to social scientists in their attempts to formulate a comprehensive and clear set of criteria for classifying NRMs.
Generally, Christian denominations that are an accepted part of mainstream Christianity are not seen as new religious movements; nevertheless, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Jehovah's Witnesses, post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism, Christian Scientists, and Shakers have been studied as NRMs. Some evangelicals consider these groups to be cults because of believing their theologies to be unconducive or preventive of salvation according to the teachings of the Bible. There are also examples of groups such as the Seventh-day Adventist Church and even tent revivalists being characterized as cults, generally by other evangelicals who are hostile to their proselytizing efforts.
NRMs are diverse in their beliefs, practices, organization, and societal acceptance. Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe have consequently proposed that there are NRMs, particularly those who have gained adherents in a number of nations, which can be understood as forming global sub-cultures.
In general, the number of people who have affiliated with NRMs worldwide is small when compared to major world religions. However, the diversity of NRMs has seen the emergence of different groups in Africa, Japan, and Melanesia. In Africa, David Barrett has documented the emergence of 6,000 new indigenous churches since the late 1960s. In Japan a number of NRMs based on revitalised Shinto belief, as well as neo-Buddhist and New Age groups, have emerged, some of which originated in the late Nineteenth century in the Meiji Era and others in the aftermath of World War Two.
Around twenty-five percent of the world's distinct cultures are found in Melanesia, spanning the island nations from Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji. It was here that the phenomena of Cargo Cults were first discerned by anthropologists and religious studies scholars. The Cargo Cults are interpreted as indigenous NRMs that have arisen in response to colonial and post-colonial cultural changes, including the influx of modernisation and capitalist consumerism.
At the time of their foundation, the religious traditions considered "established" or "mainstream" today were seen as new religious movements. For example, Christianity was opposed by people within Judaism and within the Roman culture as sacrilege toward existing doctrines. Likewise, Protestant Christianity was originally seen—and is still considered by some today—as a new religious movement or breakaway development.
In similar fashion , some of the contemporary naturalistic religions (naturalism) have evolved out of traditional Christianity and Judaism via process theology or using the term ‘God’ as a metaphor. Others have emerged via a dominating scientific perspective or by atheistic rebellion to the established beliefs of their culture. Still others have added a religious ingredient to their humanistic thinking. Most of these see the ritual/spiritual aspects of religious practice as necessary for broad adoption by many people. Examples are Religious Naturalism, Scientific Pantheism, Religious Humanism and some liberal Unitarians, Quakers, Rastafarians and Jews.
According to Marc Gallanter, typical reasons why people join "cults" include a search for community and a spiritual quest. Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge, in discussing the process by which individuals join new religious groups, have even questioned the utility of the concept of conversion, suggesting that affiliation is a more useful concept.
Jeffrey Hadden summarizes a lecture entitled "Why Do People Join NRMs?" (a lecture in a series related to the sociology of new religious movements, a term Hadden uses to include both cults and sects) as follows:
According to Eileen Barker, the greatest worry of potential harm concerns the central and most dedicated followers of a new religious movement. Barker mentions that some former members may not take new initiatives for quite a long time after disaffiliation from the NRM. This generally does not concern the many superficial, short-lived, or peripheral supporters of an NRM.
According to Barret leaving can be difficult for some members and may include psychological trauma. Reasons for this trauma may include: conditioning by the religious movement; avoidance of uncertainties about life and its meaning; having had powerful religious experiences; love for the founder of the religion; emotional investment; fear of losing salvation; bonding with other members; anticipation of the realization that time, money, and efforts donated to the group were a waste; and the new freedom with its corresponding responsibilities, especially for people who lived in a community. Those reasons may prevent a member from leaving even if the member realizes that some things in the NRM are wrong According to Kranenborg, in some religious groups, members have all their social contacts within the group, which makes disaffection and disaffiliation very traumatic.
According to F. Derks and J. van der Lans, there is no uniform "post-cult trauma" of people leaving NRMs. While psychological and social problems upon resignation are not uncommon, their character and intensity are greatly dependent on the personal history and on the traits of the ex-member, and on the reasons for and way of resignation.
Sociologists Bromley and Hadden also note a lack of empirical support for claims by opponents of supposed consequences of having been a member of an NRM and substantial empirical evidence against it. These include the fact that the overwhelming proportion of people who get involved in NRMs leave, most short of two years; the overwhelming proportion of people who leave of their own volition; and that two-thirds (67%) felt "wiser for the experience."
NRMs based on charismatic leadership often follow the routinization of charisma, as described by the German sociologist Max Weber. In their book Theory of Religion, Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge propose that the formation of "cults" can be explained through a combination of four models:
An article on the categorization of new religious movements in U.S. print media published by The Association for the Sociology of Religion (formerly the American Catholic Sociological Society), criticizes the print media for failing to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of new religious movements, and its tendency to use popular or anti-cultist definitions rather than social-scientific insight, and asserts that "The failure of the print media to recognize social-scientific efforts in the area of religious movement organizations impels us to add yet another failing mark to the media report card Weiss (1985) has constructed to assess the media's reporting of the social sciences."
Criticism of some new religious movements, a subset of which are often described by their critics as being "cults," has been a contentious issue with both sides sometimes using epithets such as "hate group" to describe the other side. Disaffected former members, stating that they are seeking redress for perceived wrongs or looking to expose perceived wrongdoings, have, in turn, had their motives called into question. They have themselves come under attack for allegedly using methods themselves that have been characterized as polemic, hostile, and verbally or emotionally abusive. Critics, both those who are ex-members and who aren't, have had their character and credibility impeached. The Church of Scientology, in particular, makes a practice of investigating its critics and publicizing any past crimes or wrongdoings.
CESNUR’s president Massimo Introvigne, writes in his article "So many evil things: Anti-cult terrorism via the Internet", that fringe and extreme anti-cult activism resorts to tactics that may create a background favorable to extreme manifestations of discrimination and hate against individuals that belong to new religious movements. Critics of CESNUR, however, call Introvigne a cult apologist who defends harmful religious groups and cults. Somewhat in concurrence with Introvigne, professor Eileen Barker asserts in an interview that the controversy surrounding certain new religious movements can turn violent by a process called deviancy amplification spiral.
Aspects of the guru-shishya (teacher-disciple) tradition are commonly brought forward in disputes related to asserted abuse of authority by gurus and spiritual teachers of new religious movements.
In a paper by Anson Shupe and Susan Darnell presented at the 2000 meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, they affirm that although the International Cultic Studies Association ( ICSA, formerly known as AFF or American Family Foundation) has presented "slanted, stereotypical images and language that has inflamed persons to perform extreme actions," the extent to which the ICSA and other anti-cultist organizations are hate groups as defined by law or racial/ethnic criteria in sociology, is open for debate.