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New Religious Movements

Course Code: HUMS 1173
Faculty: Humanities & Social Sciences
Department: Humanities
Credits: 3.0
Semester: 15
Learning Format: Lecture, Seminar
Typically Offered: TBD. Contact Department Chair for more info.
course overview

The mainstream religions are what most people are familiar with yet they only represent a part of the ongoing religious quest in North America. There is vibrant activity in alternative forms of spirituality as displayed in new religious movements. This course will explore some of these dissenting movements in an historical context, from those arising in the 1800's, others associated with the sixties counterculture, to those popular today. Topics discussed will include cult theory, the rise of New Age spirituality, Wicca and related earth-based spirituality and their roots in paganism, Spiritualism, New Thought teachings and the 60s counterculture. The question looked at is whether these alternative movements are better suited to, and reflective of, the current social situation than the mainstream religions and what that may tell us regarding the future of religion in a post-modern society.

Course Content

Instruction in the course will include areas such as the following:

  1. An overview of sociological, psychological and anthropological definitions and theories regarding “cults” and an overview and assessment of various theories regarding “conversion.”
  2. An historical overview of the first dissenting movements in North America (e.g., Unitarians and Transcendentalists), the role of Swedenborgianism and Mesmerism, the rise of Spiritualism, Theosophy and the New Thought movement, and how they all play an important role in contributing to alternative religions and a certain metaphysical perspective found to be prevalent among them.
  3. An overview of how various eastern religions and eastern thought in general came to the West and their ideological contribution to alternative religions.
  4. The rise of the sixties counterculture and its receptivity to, and role in, popularizing various groups and the ideology associated with various alternative religions.
  5. A discussion of the roots of contemporary Wicca and neo-paganism in gnosticism and western esotericsm at large, as well as their contemporary expressions
  6. A critical analysis of how the current popularity of New Age, Wicca, the “pop” psychology and metaphysical teachings of various best-selling authors represent the most recent expressions of the continuing evolution of the alternative religious tradition in North America.
  7. An analysis of whether these new religious movements reflect and consequently are better adapted to the current social context than mainstream religions with an evaluation of the benefits and pitfalls stemming from this.
  8. A consideration of the congruency among various new religious movements due to historical influence; and how these religions may reflect the social context. One can observe how these historical and social factors shape religion at both an ideological and institutional level.

Methods of Instruction

The course will employ a variety of instructional methods to accomplish its objectives, including some of the following:  any combination of lecture and seminar where parts and/or entire classes may be devoted to formal lectures or to informal discussion of lecture material or assigned readings; there may be student presentations on particular subjects or assigned readings; there will be some videos and perhaps one or two field trips.

Means of Assessment

Evaluation will be based on course objectives and will be carried out in accordance with Douglas College policy.  The instructor will provide a written course outline with specific criteria for assessment during the first week of class. No one evaluation component may exceed 40%.  

Any possible combination of the following which equals 100%:

In-class tests, short written assignments  20% - 50%
Class presentation, essays, final exam  30% - 60%
Instructor's general evaluation
(e.g., participation, class attendance
   0% - 20%

Learning Outcomes

At the conclusion of this course the successful student will be able to:

  1. Explain and critically evaluate the nature of cults/new religions and the processes of recruitment in the light of various sociological and psychological theories.
  2. Explicate an historical overview of the various ideologies and movements that serve to inform various new religious movements.
  3. Critically analyse how the salient features of various new religions reflect historical, sociological and psychological adaptations to the ever changing human environment.
  4. Demonstrate an ability to contrast and compare the distinctive features of new religious movements with those of the mainstream religions, noting the role historical, sociological and psychological factors play in shaping religious ideology and institutional structures.
  5. Formulate their own conclusions regarding how the on-going religious question of humanity mirrors social and cultural trends and how it may be evolving in the decades ahead.

curriculum guidelines

Course Guidelines for previous years are viewable by selecting the version desired. If you took this course and do not see a listing for the starting semester/year of the course, consider the previous version as the applicable version.

course schedule and availability
course transferability

Below shows how this course and its credits transfer within the BC transfer system. 

A course is considered university-transferable (UT) if it transfers to at least one of the five research universities in British Columbia: University of British Columbia; University of British Columbia-Okanagan; Simon Fraser University; University of Victoria; and the University of Northern British Columbia.

For more information on transfer visit the BC Transfer Guide and BCCAT websites.


If your course prerequisites indicate that you need an assessment, please see our Assessment page for more information.