Inform
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Inform

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Inform

Inform (an acronym of Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) is an educational charity that exists to provide information about minority religions and spiritualities that is as accurate, up-to-date, and evidence-based as possible. Inform seeks to make academic research more widely and publicly available and responds to enquiries from a wide constituency, including government bodies, the media, former members, the relatives and friends of current members, and more. The charity fosters direct contact with representatives of minority movements as well as their critics and detractors; it also maintains a large network of academics and other specialists who can provide information and advice about particular movements.

Inform was founded by the sociologist Professor Eileen Barker (b. 1938), OBE, FBA, at the London School of Economics in 1988. Based on her research with the Unification Church, Barker felt that harm was being caused by both a lack of information and misinformation about what were, at that time, relatively new religious movements to the United Kingdom. Barker’s seminal study is The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? (1984), which won the 1985 Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Her life’s work has been to promote accurate information obtained from social scientific methodology on religion, for which she has received numerous other awards (Beckford and Richardson 2003). Inform’s start-up funding was provided by the UK Home Office and it continues to be supported by a mixture of government and charitable commissions, grants and private donations.

Prof. Eileen Barker. (With permission of Inform.)

Inform moved to the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King’s College London in 2018. In 2020, Barker stepped down from active involvement as director and Dr Suzanne Newcombe, one of the authors of this article, took on the responsibilities of director. Dr Sarah Harvey (also an author) serves as the senior research officer for Inform, which involves responding to enquiries and producing commissioned reports; she has worked with Inform for over two decades.

The early work of Inform focused on the research and provision of accurate information on groups popularly considered ‘cults’ or ‘sects’ (Barker 1989, 2006, 2011). However, moving into the twenty-first century, Inform’s remit has broadened towards providing accurate, contextualized information on a wide range of minority religious and non-religious movements. Inform does not define too precisely the terms ‘minority religions’ and ‘spiritualities’. They are used to provide a common-sense starting point to cover what others have called ‘cults’, ‘sects’, ‘new religious movements’, ‘non-conventional religions’, ‘alternative religions’, ‘spiritual movements’, ‘esoteric movements’, and ‘self-religions’. The majority of enquiries received at Inform are, in fact, about new movements within ‘mainstream’ religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Sikhi traditions).

Inform maintains an inclusive database—any movement or group that broadly considers questions relating to meaning and purpose to life can be included. Although this database must be understood as always incomplete and provisional, it might be the largest source of information on contemporary minority religions. As of November 2020, the database had 5,112 individual group entries. The primary focus is on groups that are in some way new to Britain since World War II; however, a number of nineteenth-century sects and global movements are also included. The database has 2,372 entries categorized as minority religions and their affiliates, 1,468 as organizations, 213 as old or established traditions, 80 as nineteenth-century sects, and 244 as ‘cult-watching groups’ (which provide, variously, information, advice, warnings or theological criticism against minority religions, depending on their perspective). The database also categorizes movements according to religious tradition. The majority have their roots in Christian traditions (1,887), but there are also a significant number with non-religious (425), ‘New Age’ (412), self-improvement (300), Islamic (249), political (244), Buddhist (218) or esoteric (209) traditions.

Inform has had a long-standing interest in apocalyptic and millennial movements. The years leading up to 2000 and 2012 were particular points of activity for Inform as the charity’s information, advice, and commentary were sought by a wide range of enquirers. These included various types of government body concerned about what these dates might mean for believers and the wider public, as well as media, other academics, and students. Of the movements on the database, 213 are tagged as having significant millennialist elements in their doctrine (broadly understood); the vast majority of these entries can be related to Christianity (75 percent). The remaining 25 percent are spread across a broad range of traditions, with New Age as the second biggest category at 9 percent. The database also uses a tag to denote whether these millennial movements have an element of significant female leadership –having been either founded or subsequently led by a woman; 12 percent of the millennial movements have this tag.

In addition to responding to individual enquiries, Inform actively disseminates information in a number of ways. Day-long public seminars are held every year that bring together a variety of speakers on a particular theme related to minority religions. These seminars differ from academic conferences (although Inform does also organize large, international conferences) in that at least one member of a minority religion and one detractor are invited to speak, and participants include members, former members and relatives, and anyone else with an interest in the subject. This forum hence provides a unique opportunity and a safe space for participants to exchange information of both practical and theoretical use alongside others with whom they might be in tension.

The Routledge-Inform Series on Minority Religions and Spiritual Movements is a series of fifteen books (with a further two forthcoming) that bring together the papers presented at Inform seminars, supplemented with further academic chapters. Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist (2013), edited by Sarah Harvey and Suzanne Newcombe, included papers from two Inform seminars: ‘New Religions and Prophecy’ (2008) and ‘Prophecy in the New Millennium’ (2012). Dr Harvey and Dr Newcombe have given numerous talks on prophecy and millennial movements over the years and, together with other Inform colleagues, have worked with the Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements on creating profiles of individual millennial movements.

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References

Barker, Eileen. 1984. The Making of a Moonie: Brainwashing or Choice? Oxford: Blackwell.

Barker, Eileen. 1989. New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction. London: HMSO.

Barker, Eileen. 2006. ‘What Should We Do about the Cults? Policies, Information and the Perspective of INFORM.’ In The New Religious Question: State Regulation or State Interference?, edited by Pauline Côté and T. Jeremy Gunn, 371–95. Brussels: Peter Lang. Retrieved from: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/50880/1/Barker_What_should_we_do_2006.pdf.

Barker, Eileen. 2011. ‘Stepping Out of the Ivory Tower: A Sociological Engagement in “The Cult Wars”.’ Methodological Innovations Online 6 (1): 18–39. Retrieved from: http://eprints.lse.ac.uk/50872/1/Barker_Stepping_ivory_tower_2011.pdf.

Beckford, James A. and James T. Richardson, eds. 2003. Challenging Religion: Essays in Honour of Eileen Barker. London: Taylor & Francis.

Newcombe, Suzanne and Sarah Harvey. 2013. Prophecy in the New Millennium: When Prophecies Persist. Farnham: Ashgate.



© Sarah Harvey and Suzanne Newcombe 2021

Article information

Suzanne Newcombe and Sarah Harvey. 2021. "Inform." In James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart (eds.) Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. 19 January 2021. Retrieved from www.cdamm.org/articles/inform.

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144,000

144,000 refers to a belief in an elect group, often at end times or in an imminent transformation of the world. The usage typically derives from the book of Revelation. In Revelation 7:1–8, 144,000 refers to the twelve tribes of Israel who have the seal of God on their foreheads. They are also presented as virgins, blameless, ‘redeemed from the earth’, and expected to sing a new song at Mount Zion (Revelation 14:1–5).

Apocalypticism

In popular usage, 'apocalypticism' refers to a belief in the likely or impending destruction of the world (or a general global catastrophe), usually associated with upheaval in the social, political, and religious order of human society—often referred to as an/the 'apocalypse'. Historically, the term has had religious connotations and the great destruction has traditionally been seen as part of a divine scheme, though it is increasingly used in secular contexts. See the Apocalypticism article for a more detailed discussion.

Armageddon

In popular use, ‘Armageddon’ involves ideas of great cataclysmic events or conflict. The term has long been used to refer to a future battle or ongoing war at the end of time or civilization, whether understood generally as a cataclysmic final battle or specifically as a battle at a place called Megiddo (a location in modern Israel), or a more flexible understanding of Megiddo as a coded reference to an alternative location. ‘Armageddon’ derives from the book of Revelation where it appears just once (Revelation 16:16) with reference to the location of a great cosmic battle associated with the end times. See the Armageddon article for a more detailed discussion.

Beast of the Apocalypse

In popular terms, the 'Beast' or the 'Beast of the Apocalypse' refer generally to a violent and destructive creature that emerges at end times. Such understandings of an end-time beast or beasts derive from the book of Revelation (also called the The Apocalypse) and its long and varied history of interpretation. Revelation refers to 'beasts' on different occasions, including beasts in opposition to God: one emerging from the sea or a pit (Revelation 11:7; 13:1; 17:8; cf. Daniel 7), one from the earth (Revelation 13:11), and another scarlet in colour (Revelation 17:3). The beast from the earth is also associated with the number 666 (alternatively: 616) (Revelation 13:18) and Revelation 19:20 claims that the beast will 'thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur' (New Revised Standard Version).

Eschatology

‘Eschatology’ concerns the study of end times and is derived from the Greek term ἔσχατος (eschatos), meaning ‘final, ‘last’, ‘end’, etc. Eschatology is a label that can incorporate a cluster of related beliefs which differ according to tradition (e.g., end of the world, resurrection, regeneration, Day of Judgment, Antichrist).

Kingdom of God

In the Bible, the ‘Kingdom of God’ (sometimes synonymous with the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’) refers to notions of ruling and kingship which are often understood to have a spatial or territorial dimension, whether in heaven or on earth. According to the book of Daniel, such ‘kingdom’ language is used to describe the claim that God rules the universe eternally (Daniel 4:34) but will also intervene in human history to establish a kingdom for his people (Daniel 2:44). According to the Gospels, Jesus predicted the coming Kingdom of God or Heaven and these predictions have been influential in the history of speculations about end times or the benefits of the kingdom being experienced in a present time and place. Across different traditions, such language has also been used to describe communities deemed holy or places deemed sacred, as well as being understood with reference to personal or ‘spiritual’ transformation.

Messianism

Messianism refers to ideas about a redeemer figure or figures who transform the fortunes of a given people or the world as a whole. The term ‘Messiah’ is derived from the Hebrew משיח (mashiach), meaning ‘anointed one’. In the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, it is a term used to denote people such as kings, priests and prophets anointed to carry out their duties on behalf of God. In early Judaism, the term took on a more precise meaning as a future redeemer figure, including a king in the line of David. New Testament texts made such clams about Jesus where a Greek equivalent of the Hebrew, Χριστός (christos), became part of his name: Jesus Christ.

Millenarianism

In popular and academic use, the term ‘millenarianism’ is often synonymous with the related terms ‘millennialism’, ‘chiliasm’ and ‘millenarism’. They refer to an end-times Golden Age of peace, on earth, for a long period, preceding a final cataclysm and judgement—sometimes referred to as the 'millennium'. The terms are used to describe both millenarian belief and the persons or social groups for whom that belief is central. ‘Millennialism’ or ‘chiliasm’ are chronological terms derived from the Latin and Greek words for ‘thousand’. They are commonly used to refer to a thousand-year period envisaged in the book of Revelation (20:4–6) during which Christ and resurrected martyrs reign prior to the final judgment. More recently the terms have been used to refer to secular formulas of salvation, from political visions of social transformation to UFO movements anticipating globally transformative extra-terrestrial intervention. See the Millenarianism article for a more detailed discussion.

Prophecy

‘Prophecy’ can be broadly understood as a cross-cultural phenomenon involving claims of supernatural or inspired knowledge transmitted or interpreted by an authoritative recipient, intermediary, or interpreter labelled a ‘prophet’. The term is also used in a more general and secular way to refer to individuals who simply predict or prognosticate future events, or those leading principled causes or in pursuit of a particular social or political vision without any special association with inspired or supernatural insight. The language of ‘prophet’ and ‘prophecy’ in English derives from the Greek προφητης (prophētēs) found in the Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and in the New Testament. See the Prophets and Prophecy article for a more detailed discussion.

Son of Man

‘Son of man’ simply means ‘man’ in biblical Hebrew and Aramaic and is a title for Jesus in the Greek New Testament. While the ancient idiom is gendered, some scholars prefer to bring out the generic implications and reflect inclusive language today in their English translations (e.g., 'son of a human being', 'son of humanity'). The phrase sometimes took on a more titular function before Jesus because of the book of Daniel. In Daniel 7, Daniel is said to have had a vision of four destructive beasts representing four kingdoms and who stand in contrast to a human-like figure—‘one like a son of man’. The ‘Ancient of Days’ then takes away the power of the beasts and Daniel sees ‘one like a son of man’ approaching, ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’ (Daniel 7:13; New International Version). Daniel 7 claims that this ‘son of man’ figure will be given ‘authority, glory and sovereign power’, ‘all peoples’ will worship him, and his kingdom will be everlasting. The precise identification of the ‘one like a son of man’ in Daniel 7:13 is not made explicit and there has been a long history of identification with a variety of candidates in apocalyptic and millenarian movements, sometimes without reference to the book of Daniel.

Zion

‘Zion’ is an alternative name for Jerusalem and the ‘city of David’ (2 Samuel 5:7; 1 Kings 8:1; 1 Chronicles 11:5; 2 Chronicles 5:2), though it is also used with reference to Israel. Zion can also refer to ‘Mount Zion’, a hill located in Jerusalem which was the site of the Jewish Temple (destroyed 70 CE) and is the site of the al-Aqsa Mosque. Zion and Mount Zion are sometimes interpreted as coded references to an alternative geographical location or to something ‘spiritual’ and otherworldly. In some religious traditions, Zion plays a central role in expectations about end times or the benefits associated with end times being fulfilled in the present.