Whilst it is generally the case that greater hostility is often provoked by heretical sectarians than by those with whom no vestige of common faith is or has ever been shared, and in particular, that erstwhile co-religionists who have broken away experience the greatest opprobrium, none the less, contemporary society has also displayed remarkable and persistent intolerance towards some of the new religions that have emerged since the end of the Second World War. Whilst some of these movements may be grouped by broad “family resemblance”, radical differences are discernible among others. Sociologists have sought to establish some broad categories, less by virtue of shared bodies of teaching than by the similarity of the goals, assumptions and perspectives which different movements embrace. They have summarily and broadly distinguished between movements that are described as “world-affirming” from those that are “world-renouncing”. World-affirming movements are those which respond positively to the existing secular culture, and which offer to their adherents the prospect not only of spiritual blessings, but of material and psychic benefits by way of enhanced emotional security, therapy, heightened competence, and social and perhaps also economic success. World-renouncing movements, in contrast, seek, as far as practicable, to withdraw their members from any sort of involvement with the wider society and the secular culture, and offer prospects of reward either in the withdrawn community or in blissful afterlife(s), or sometimes in both. These broad categories do not, of course, do justice to the subtleties of any one movement’s theories or practice, but they do make evident a basic dichotomy of orientation among the several hundred new religious groups to be found in contemporary western societies.
These two fundamental orientations are not new in the history of religion, as is apparent from even a cursory acquaintance with, on the one hand, the goals of magical systems, and on the other, the ascetic world-renouncing ethic of mediaeval Catholicism or, in variant form, of seventeenth-century Calvinism. Both orientations can be found in contemporary mainstream Christianity, although world-renunciation has lately given place to a stronger current of a world-affirming ethos. Yet, despite orientations that they sometimes share with established religion, new movements of both tendencies have suffered opposition, hostility, harassment and even persecution in recent decades. Because, in the one case, they often differ so radically in matters of organization, monotheistic commitment, the character of worshipful practices, among other things, they are readily accused of not being religious at all; or, in the other case, because their religion persuades adherents to withdraw from ordinary secular involvements or to engage in esoteric mysticism, they are seen as enemies of society.