Nonka Bogomilova

 The Arrival of New Religions in Bulgaria after 1989


      “Long before the time of the "velvet" revolution, timidly but unretreatably there came new religious cults, Protestant churches crowded in, talks began about occultism, mystics, irrationalism. The powerful wave of young counter-culture, started long ago from the West, tiredly broke into the stone pier of the "socialist" outlook of the East.

     Instead of the merciless rational dissection of nature in biology, chemistry, geography textbooks it offered the picture and music of bound with Man Cosmos. Instead of happiness in the unknown future it carried the spiritual prescription for Paradise – here and now. At the place of the formal collectivity of public organizations it offered intimate "brotherhood" bound by the spiritual relations. It replaced the exhausted myth of belonging to the vanguard of the human history by belonging to the community of the "initiated", "God's elect", "lighted up"; it saved from solitude and the unbearable thought about death.

    And the Body – unnoticed, offended, lined-up body, with the constantly scolded by the ideology senses, could turn into a language for communication with the Sacred, into a particle of the Divine Cosmos, into a healing power. And all that in most of the cases – through a mediation, sermon, orders of one "most chosen of God", "omnipotent", because he has incarnated the energy and power of the ruined, but extremely necessary authorities: the authorities of the Parent, the Teacher, the Ideologist.

    The proclaimed new democratic values – pluralism, freedom, and democracy – gave a new chance for a "quest" and "offering" in the field of New Religions. All former values, idols, symbols have been ruined and the phenomenon of spiritual tabula rasa has been reproduced. Upon it ardent missionaries write down their "only" and "sacred" truth. Young souls emigrate to cultures and values created in distant latitudes and in foreign cultural spaces; they pray with provincial reverence before the idols of the strange and unknown temples..." [1]

 That was an introduction of a paper of mine, published six years ago in a Bulgarian intellectual newspaper. This paper expressed more emotions than a rational reflection on the phenomenon; more intuitions than analysis. Of course, that fact was a result of both the spirit of time then – more passions and less feeling of reality, and the lack of clear socio-cultural knowledge about New Religions. The past years are not enough time regarding possible crucial evolution of the research attempts, but they are enough either to confirm, or to reject some of the above expressed intuitions.

 The present paper will be framed on the following problem directions:

  1. Cultural-historical and statistic information about New Religions in Bulgaria, about their legal status[2].

  2. The Bulgarian type of acceptance of the new religious formations and expectations connected with them:

    a)     among their members;

    b)     within Bulgarian society;

  3. Which points of the Bulgarian experience confirm or vary the main directions of the analysis within the West European and American research traditions.


1. Cultural-historical and Statistic Information; Legal Status

 All of the three main streams of the Christianity exist in Bulgaria now. The Eastern Orthodoxy is a "traditional religion of the Republic of Bulgaria" according to our new Constitution; Muslims are about 13% of the Bulgarian population; Catholics and Protestants are about 1%[3]. The surveys of the authoritative Bulgarian-British sociological agency announced 51% religious people in Bulgaria in general in July 1997[4].

The Protestant Churches in Bulgaria could be presented mainly according to two notions: traditionally formed and new ones, usually called "sects". The traditional Churches are denominations, established in Bulgaria at the end of the last century as a result of the activity of foreign missionaries. The most stable of them, which possess a national structures and legal status are: Methodists, Congregationalists and Baptists. About 20 varieties of those main directions of Protestantism have a legal status and they number over 20000 members.

An absolutely new phenomenon in the Bulgarian religious space are the new spiritual associations of believers, often defined by the mass media and by the public opinion as "sects". Their origin is varied: some of them originate of small, closed groups, which existed illegally during the communist time. Others unite young people disappointed by the traditional Protestant denominations. There are absolutely new organizations, established by foreign missionaries. Here are some of them acting especially in Sofia and in some big Bulgarian towns as Varna, Plovdiv, Russe, Stara Zagora: "Truth from Zion", "Soldiers of Christ", "Church of Jesus Christ of Last Days Saints" (Mormons). The Mormon Society has a few branches in Sofia and structures in two big Bulgarian towns.  Years ago they numbered about three thousand members, now – about 1000. Structures of "Jehovah's Witnesses" and of the "Unification Church" act without legal registration in Bulgaria. Missionaries of the "Family" developed some activity seven years ago, but without great success.

       Adherents of some non-Christian religions established their organizations during last 5-6 years: "International Society for Krishna Consciousness", "Bahai's religion", varieties of Yoga, etc. "Bahai's religion" and "Krishna" have a legal status. A sociological survey of NOEMA agency, representative for the adult Bulgarian population showed about 1% adherents of the New religious sects and movements.

Here I would like to mention a specific Bulgarian non-traditional religious society, called "White Brotherhood". It is based on Peter Dunov's doctrine, which came into being at the beginning of our century. It is based on Christian ideas interpreted in an original way as well as ideas, borrowed from occultism, theosophy, Indian religious-philosophical thought, the Bogomil's heretic movement. The ideas of Dunovism are known in Europe, South America, USA, Japan thanks to Bulgarian emigrants, as well as by means of connections with the Esperanto movement, Vegetarian and Ecological movements. Dunov says the aim of Christianity is not to prove the existence of God, but to create connections among all souls, to create conditions for developing the Spiritual in every person. Love is the main principle of the World, it is God. Love is interpreted as mutual respect, doing good to others; it is also love for God, Whom Dunov understands as mystic intuition. The institution of "fraternity" is an optimal variant of human co-existence. Dunov's idea about the Slav's mission in the world history connects it with the following features of the Slav character: religious feeling rather altruistic than fanatic, hidden spiritual forces which remain undeveloped due to the historical fate. This moment explains the attractiveness of the doctrine to Bulgarians living abroad and even in general to the Slavs who have left the frames of their natural historical region[5].


      The past ten years are not enough for analyzing some stable tendencies concerning new religious societies in Bulgaria. Nevertheless we could outline some evolutional trends. New religious movements and sects flourished intensively in the first years after the anti-totalitarian revolution – about 11 years ago. The allowed religious freedom, the clash of the communist ideology and the high degree of the emotions and passions within the social psychology caused that process. Of course, the number of the Eastern Orthodox believers increased too[6]. Most of the above mentioned New Religions came in Bulgaria at that time. Some of them gradually limited their activities (the "Family", the "Unification Church"). Others, as "Jehovah's Witnesses", for example, stabilized and intensified them.


2. The Bulgarian type of acceptance of New Religious Formations and the expectations, connected with them

       I fully agree with the idea of Jean-Francois Mayer, that the research of the formation and evolution of the new religious societies in a single European country could throw light on the understanding of the phenomenon as a whole[7]. Detailed and complete new sociological surveys of that phenomenon do not exist in Bulgaria now. Nevertheless. enough materials are available – results of inquiries, of research observations and conversations with the movements members, publications in mass media and in the Academic magazines. These results confirm to a great extent the main conclusions of many known European and American researchers about the socio-cultural origin and functions of New religious movements, societies, sects. I would mention here only some of them: "All New Religions, out of necessity, offer something unavailable in older religions. Basically, they offer a surer, shorter, swifter, or clearer way to salvation"[8]; "Both the temporary flourishing of these New Religious Movements and the reciprocal formation of the ACM are most immediately rooted in specific aspects of expending contractualism in the years following the Second World War. There was a sharp increase in the prevalence, scale and concentration of corporate-bureaucratic organization; the normative primacy, accorded to voluntarism, rationality and autonomy in social relations..."[9]; the New Religious Movements are a "product of a normal cultural activity"[10]. These conclusions are to a great extent true for the Bulgarian situation.

Indeed, the totalitarian state organized and stimulated the processes of modernization connected with the developed technologies, the intensive urbanization and industrial development[11]. There were processes of bureaucratization of the political and economies spheres; of rationalization and secularization of education and culture[12].The moral authority of the private spheres – family, ethnos, religion decreased; the institutional authorities – state structures, etc. – have been hypertrophied. So, among the main motivations to participate in the New Religions, their members show: longing for valuable communication, based on the moral relationships, filled with love, sympathy, mutual understanding and help – features lacking in school's, institute's, party's types of communication.

The family – one of the most stable institutions in the Bulgarian history and a traditional bearer of deep moral and existential values – had exhausted its vital energies as well as its emotional and educational resources. The statistics showed that the number of divorces and the demographic collapse of the Bulgarian society had reached dangerous points[13]. In the New Religions people, especially young people looked for an eternal normative archetype of the social commonwealth – the affective potential, the ecstasy of communication.

In the Bulgarian society now prevail communitarian, group social values. The modernization process, directed by the totalitarian state did not allow development of individuality, of individual self-consciousness. The sociological surveys showed that the great part of the Bulgarians give preference to communitarian values as equality, state protection, traditional cultural models, rather than to individual enterprise and wealth[14]. That fact explains to a great degree the stabilization of such New Religions as the "Mormons" and "Jehovah's Witnesses", which respect community, cooperation, and communication. And at the same time – the failure of "New Age" and "Scientology"[15], which give preference to and respect individuality. As far as the influence of the latter’s on Bulgarian elite philosophical and cultural consciousness is concerned, I would say that their place is occupied to a great extent by the Russian religious philosophy from the end of the last century – Berdjaev, Solovjov, Dostoevski, Florenski, etc. Having created a peculiar transmission between the dogmatic Orthodoxy and the philosophical, literary and cultural consciousness of their time, and having proposed original versions of religious existentialism along with a new eschatological perspective, these ideas today complement the palette of the "imported" colors in the Bulgarian cultural consciousness. They project the exotic character of the Eastern mysticism along with an anti-institutional longing for spiritual community with personal, unique, directly individual attitude towards God and feeling of Election and Supremacy of the Orthodox world[16] /16/. In this way the Russian religious philosophy replaces some eschatological and individualistic messages of the New Religions.

Another motivation for membership in the New Religions is the lost charismatic aureole of the traditional and institutional authorities – parents, teachers, and ideologists – in the result of their involving in the anti-vital energies of the totalitarian process. The search, the longing for charismatic authority is a powerful archaic archetype (which is being revitalized now in the Western Europe too). In Bulgaria its influence is stronger because of powerful patriarchal background of the Bulgarian culture and mentality, which attributes importance to such specificities of authority as: power, protection, father's type of love[17]. So, a particular projection of the powerful archetype "father – children", "parents – children" is transferred to the relationship leader – members of the new religious societies. That fact is favorable mental background for manipulation of the members by the leader. These cases are strongly criticized by the Bulgarian public opinion.

The intensive starting of some New Religions in Bulgaria was stimulated both by the situation of anomie and desacralization of the past and at the same time – by lack of doctrines and ideas, sacralizing the present. The Bulgarians lost their supporting points both of the social and of the individual biographies. The Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which has been for many years capsulated and alienated from actual social problems, could not show new spiritual roots[18]. This situation of anomie after the "velvet" revolution was "Golden century" for New Religions. Their ideas about resacralization of present, about forthcoming God's Kingdom, about God's elected members attracted schoolboys, students, workers, and intellectuals.


3. Some "Paradoxes" of the Bulgarian Public Acceptance 

of the New Religions

         The first Paradox: The changes associated with spiritual, economic, cultural, political freedom, which allowed freedom to New Religions became their very competitor, rival regarding proclaimed values. Our society now tries to remake, to refresh its main spheres through new persons, faces, ideas, new style of communication and action. The former bureaucratized, alienated institutional structures are now filled with passions, emotions, they became a scene of innovation and rivalry; restore the ecstasy of communication. Of course, that process could hardly be evaluated only in optimistic way. It seems to me that the perspective of the development of New Religions in Bulgaria will depend on the eventual success of those social changes.

The second paradox: New Religions themselves revive institutional social structures, because involuntarily they unite the society in emotional commonwealth, based on the powerful archaic archetype – enemy archetype, stimulated strongly by mass media. The sociological inquiries showed that the percentage of the persons who absolutely negate New religious movements and sects is bigger among those who are neither members, nor have relatives members. The members of New Religions are absolutely unknown to them, empirically unidentified. They are only part of the aggressive social mythology The very members of the New Religions view them with ambiguity: 45% of the members evaluate the influence of New Religions on them as "negative" and 10% as "positive". Among non-members the percentage is the following: 67% - "negative" influence; 2% - positive influence. The cases of real manipulation, financial aspirations, lobbying etc. among New Religious Movements and Sects endow that social mythology with empirical validity[19].

Another fact, which in Bulgaria gives anti-cultist emotions additional energy, is related to the foreign leadership of the most of the New Religions. The foreign missionaries are usually viewed as an anti-national, anti-patriotic phenomenon. The possible failure of economic transformations in Bulgaria (projected in many directions by foreign experts) would add to anti-cultist passions new powerful energy.

As an academic, citizen, Bulgarian and parent – roles, which I try to harmonize – I would support the following idea and attitude towards the New Religious Culture: its long-lasting development in the West showed at least two things: Firstly, that it is a symptom of processes and trends of social communication and institutions which destroy the particular for each society measure, harmony of individual and social, of emotional and rational, of everyday life and its elite forms, of power and love in family and in society; Secondly, that the New Religions themselves could hardly propose models of communication and spirituality with, on the one side, a long-lasting social validity (Bromley and Shupe), and, on the other side, an organizational incarnation of the proclaimed ideas (the so-called ambiguity, or contradiction of their ideas and their actions, widely discussed among researchers)[20]. Maybe the existence of this “New” Religions, accompanying all human history, would be better viewed as a motive, as a stimulus to a merciless cultural self-analysis of society and individual, as an institutionalized and marginalized rebellion-longing for the lost charm of human commonwealth.




[1] N. Bogomilova. The Season of Crossroad Questions, in: Az-Buki, February, 1991.

[2] Sources of data: Department of Ecclesiastical Matters of the Council of Ministers; The sociological surveys and inquiries, carried by the Committee of Youth and Children (Bulgaria), S. Langova and G. Manev, Youth and Sects.

[3] Relations of Compatibility and Incompatibility between Christians and Muslims in Bulgaria. Sofia, 1994, p. 215.

[4] BBSS - on TV magazine “Social Barometer”.

[5] M. Lycheva. Peter Danov's Doctrine and the Indian Philosophy and Religion, in: Filosofski Alternativi, Sofia 1994, N 3, pp. 118-123 (in Bulgarian).

[6] N. Bogomilova. The Sacred, the Time and the Everyday Consciousness in Eastern Europe, pp.130-135 in: Il tempo e il sacro nelle societa post-industriali, Milano, 1997.

[7] J.-F. Mayer. L'évolution des nouveaux mouvements religieux: quelques observations sur le cas de la Suisse. in: Social Compass, 1995, vol. 42, N2, p. 184.

[8] B. Wilson. Religious Sects. A Sociological Study. London, 1990, p. 205.

[9] D. Bromley and A. Shupe. Anti-cultism in the United States: Origins, Ideology and Organizational Development. in: Social Compass, 1995, vol. 42, N2, p. 224.

[10] J. Gordon Melton. The Changing Scene of New Religious Movements: Observations from a Generation of Research. in: Social Compass, 1995, vol.42, N2, p. 267.

[11] 11. G. Naidenov. Origine et essence des sociétés "socialistes". in: La Bulgarie: une transition menacée. Neuchâtel, 1996.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Statistical Monitor, Sofia, 1988, pp.180-188 (in Bulgarian).

[14] I. Katzarski. La démocratie moderne sur le territoire bulgare. in: La Bulgarie: une transition menacée. Neuchâtel, 1996, pp.98-110; NOEMA, Monitor of Public Opinion, July, 1993, (in Bulgarian).

[15] N. Dimitrova, L. Latev. New Age. Mythology of Postmodernity. Sofia, 1994 (in Bulgarian).

[16] A. Losev. Solovjov and His Time, Moscow, 1990 (in Russian); A. Suhov.  Russian Philosophy, Moscow, 1989 (in Russian); N. Berdjaev. The New Middle Age, Moscow, 1992 (in Russian), a. o.

[17] N.Todorova (Bogomilova). L'Ortodossia in Bulgaria oggi. Atese e realta, in: Religioni e Societa N25, Anno XI, maggio-agosto 1996, Torino, pp. 75-78 (in Italian).

[18] Ibid.

[19] E. Barker. Plus ca change..., in: Social Compass, vol42, N2, 1995, pp. 165-181; M. Introvigne. L'évolution du "mouvement contre les sectes" chrétiennes 1978-1993, ibid., pp.237-249.

[20] Ibid.