We are indebted to Professor Eileen Barker, Founder and Director of INFORM (the Information Network on Religious Movements) and her team of researchers, for providing this new material in response to requests from RE teachers and pupils. INFORM can be contacted via www.inform.ac
Why Study Beyond the Big Six Religions
But exploring new and other minority religions (including those within broader traditions) does not only improve students’ religious literacy, it can also play a significant role in increasing the understanding of key issues relating to religion more generally. For example, processes involving the origins, development and decline of religions are more easily recognised in new religious movements than in major traditions or organisations; studying new religions offers a good opportunity to examine the role of choice and change in religion; and phenomena such as extremisms are readily observable both in the new religions in the reactions to them.
1. Only a small minority of people reporting they have no religion are atheists; many describe themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’ and embrace various beliefs and practices to be found in the so-called ‘religious supermarket’.
2. 1. Students are concerned that they hear a lot of stereotypes in the media and in some of their learning. They want to know what’s real.
2. They think that learning about religion and belief is becoming more and more relevant because they see more of it, and what they see is more diverse.
3. Almost all emphasise the role of learning about religion and belief in order to engage positively with diversity.
5. Almost all want to learn about a wider range of religions and beliefs and are worried that many students learn about only one or two traditions.
6. Students really enjoy learning about real ‘lived’ religion, especially through thinking about religion and belief controversies. https://www.gold.ac.uk/media/documents-by-section/departments/research-centres-and-units/research-units/faiths-and-civil-society/REforREal-web-b.pdf
4. There are, for example, around 400 schismatic Mormon groups, Shields, S.L. 1990. Divergent Paths of the Restoration. Independence, MO: HeraldHouse
5. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.
6. 1. Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.
2. Freedom to manifest one’s religion or beliefs shall be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order, health or morals, or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
7. See Article 29 of the UDHR and clause 2 of Article 9 of the ECHR (quoted above)
8. Defined by Ofsted as: democracy; the rule of law; individual liberty; mutual respect for and tolerance of those with different faiths and beliefs and for those without faith.
Western scholars of religion have distinguished between four ‘ideal types’ of religion.  The exact emphases vary from scholar to scholar, but the model distinguishes between ‘church’ and ‘sect’, which consider their religion uniquely legitimate, compared to the ‘denomination’ and ‘cult’ which have a more pluralistic outlook. It also typifies the ‘sect’ and ‘cult’ as being (unlike the ‘church’ or ‘denomination’) in tension with society.  The ‘sect’ is often depicted as a schismatic group that emerged from a more established religion, while the ‘cult’, is characterised as a more innovative group, frequently focused around a charismatic leader. 
Using these types, one might compare the Church of England as a ‘church’ with Methodism as a ‘denomination’, Jehovah’s Witnesses as a ‘sect’, and an assortment of movements, such as Scientology, as a ‘cult’. The types can serve to illuminate process whereby a sect might split away from a church, but after some time become more accommodating to and accommodated by society through a process called ‘denominationalisation’. It might be noted that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons) can be classified as a Church in Utah, a denomination in England and a sect in Russia.
Minority religions could, by these criteria, be classified as a denomination, sect or cult. However, in popular usage the terms cult and sect have come to mean little more than a religion the speaker does not like, and which is associated with a number of negative generalisations. To label a group a ‘cult’ can suggest its members believe and do things no ‘normal’ person could believe or do, and it has frequently been assumed members could not have converted of their own free will, but must have been subjected to ‘brainwashing’ or mind-control techniques.
This negative image of a cult has been exacerbated by some tragic and widely publicised occurrences, such as the suicides and murders of over 900 followers (including more than 200 children) of Jim Jones’ People’s Temple in the Guyana jungle in 1978. Later horror stories have included the release of deadly sarin gas in the Tokyo underground in 1995 by Aum Shinrikyo, the 9/11 bombings in 2001 of the Twin Towers by Al Qaeda and, most recently, the terrorist attacks of ISIS and other groups.
But such examples represent only the tip of a very large iceberg. Inform holds information about over 5,000 different religious organisations, more than 1,000 of which are currently active in the UK.  A considerable majority of these were unknown in the West before World War II and are, therefore, sometimes referred to as new religions, although many had existed for centuries in other parts of the world.
In an attempt to research and describe minority religions from an objective perspective which did not start from an assumption that they were ‘bad’, scholars now prefer to use the term ‘new religious movement’ (NRM) to describe what others might refer to as cults or sects. There is, however, no generally agreed definition of an NRM (just as there is no generally agreed definition of ‘religion’). Some refer to NRMs as religions that have appeared in the West since the mid-twentieth century; others mean a religion in tension with society, however old it might be. Another approach is to define NRMs as religions that have a predominantly first-generation membership. This has such advantages as (a) being relatively easy to identify without assuming other characteristics, (b) being applicable at any time or place (so the disciples of Jesus as described in the New Testament, were first-generation members of the NRM Christianity), and (c) highlighting the changes that take place if and when the first generation gets replaced by second and subsequent generations.
But however they are defined, there are three things one can say about NRMs: first, one cannot generalise – they can differ from each other in every conceivable way; secondly, they perform few, if any, actions that have not been performed by older religions; and thirdly, if one wants to understand NRMs, one cannot look at them in isolation from the rest of society.
That said, however, there are certain characteristics that one might look for in a first-generation religion. First, by definition the membership consists predominantly of converts, and converts tend to be more enthusiastic than those born into their religion. Secondly, they are disproportionately drawn from an atypical section of the population – this might be the politically oppressed, e.g. white middle-class adults (such as Unificationist converts) or young, unemployed black men (such as the Rastafarians). Thirdly, there is frequently a founder/leader who wields charismatic authority over his or her followers, and is thereby unbound by rules or tradition and likely to be unpredictable and unaccountable to anyone. Fourthly, at least some NRMs tend to have relatively dichotomous world views, with very clear boundaries being drawn between, for example, right and wrong and ‘them’ and ‘us’. Fifthly, NRMs are frequently treated with suspicion or fear. And sixthly, NRMs tend to change more rapidly and radically than older, more established religions.
9.A useful tool for comparative purposes, the Ideal Type is not ideal in an evaluative sense, but defines a phenomenon by accentuating certain aspects in ways rarely found in reality. Weber, Max. 1949. The Methodology of the Social Sciences. Editors E.A. Shils and H.A. Finch. New York: Free Press.
10.McGuire, Meredith B. 2002. Religion: The Social Context. Belmont CA: Wadsworth, Pp. 151ff.
11. Stark, R., and W.S. Bainbridge. 1996. A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers.
12. Inform http://www.inform.ac is an educational charity founded in 1988 with the support of the British government and mainstream Churches to provide up-to-date, reliable, evidence-based information about minority religions.