Freedom for me and, perhaps, you – but surely not them? Attitudes to new religions in contemporary democracies


  • Eileen Barker London School of Economics



religion, new religious movements, religious freedom


Throughout history, new religious movements (NRMs) have been treated with suspicion and fear. Although contemporary democracies do not throw members of NRMs to the lions or burn them at the stake, they have ways and means of making it clear that pluralism and freedom of religion have their limits. The limits to pluralism are evident enough in countries such as Saudi Arabia or North Korea that have regimes stipulating that citizens must adhere exclusively to their one and only True religion or ideology. Limitations to pluralism have also been manifest in countries such as Northern Nigeria, Sri Lanka or Myanmar (Burma), where terrorists have used violence to eliminate religions other than their own. Even otherwise peaceful democracies – that have signed the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the European Convention on Human Rights, and other statements affirming freedom of belief (and non-belief) for all – can discriminate against religions, especially the new religious movements in their midst, and this they do in a variety of ways [Richardson 1994; Lindholm 2004;

Kirkham 2013]. This paper outlines, from the perspective of a sociologist of religion, some of the ways in which such attitudes toward, and treatment of, NRMs can demonstrate more subtle, but nevertheless marked and serious limitations to freedom, even in societies that pride themselves on their progressive and inclusive approach to diversity.


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