Throughout the semester, we have examined the historical developments of the great world religions, often dating back thousands of years. This week, we will focus on religious movements and trends that have emerged within the last few centuries, as well as examining what our religious future might look like.
First, it’s necessary to talk about what constitutes a “new religion”: what separates a new religion from a branch or sect of a religious tradition? Nearly all major world religions started out as a variation on an extant religious tradition: for example, Christianity began as a Jewish sect called the Nazarenes (p. 489). These sects and reform movements become considered new religions when their beliefs and practices are sufficiently distinct from the tradition from which they originated (p. 489). These changes are seen as “errors” by the older tradition, too great to be reconciled (p. 489). Conversely, adherents of this new religious movement locate the errors within the original tradition, seeing their new movement as fixing these mistakes (p. 489). The text reviews two new religions that originated from Christianity in 19th century America, becoming sufficiently distinct from mainstream Christianity as to be considered new independent religions (p. 490). These religions are the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (also known as the Mormon Church) (pp. 490-491) and the Jehovah’s Witnesses (pp. 491-492). Another example of a new religion with non-Christian roots discussed in the text is the civil religion of Maoist China in the mid-20th century (pp. 492-493), which blended Confucian ideals with Marxist political philosophy (p. 493). Though the Chinese Communist Party persecuted religious adherents, marking themselves as distinct from the Confucian religious tradition, they used Confucian imperial doctrine to promote Chairman Mao as a “sage-philosopher leader for the nation” (p. 493).
Within this broad grouping of new religions is the sub-category of new age religions. Though the similar names of these two groups can be confusing, not all new religions are new age religions (p. 494). New age religions are characterized by their reflection of the new global consciousness that emerged in the post-World War II era as a result of new technology enabling “global mass media, international corporations, and global mass transportation” (p. 494). In this new era, world religions that were previously geographically restricted became accessible to all, leading to cultural pluralism within the same religious community (p. 495). New age religions often integrate diverse spiritual influences from both world religions and shamanistic traditions (p. 495). They also commonly integrate non-spiritual elements into their belief systems, integrating physics, psychology, technology, and other sciences (pp. 495-497). These beliefs and practices are often eclectic, chosen not because of religious tradition but because of their pragmatic function to the individual (p. 497). Some examples of new age religions discussed in the text are Theosophy (pp. 498-499), Scientology (pp. 499-501) and Baha’i (pp. 501-504)
One cultural factor driving the emergence of new age religions is the shift towards postmodernist thought, emerging in the postcolonial and post-World War II era. Jean-Francois Lyotard argued postmodernism was characterized by a collapse of metanarratives, the grand stories that gave each civilization its sense of meaning, purpose, and identity (p. 494). Metanarratives create a relationship of identity between religions and cultures, making a culture synonymous with its religion (p. 494); for example, referring to the Indian subcontinent as “Hindu civilization” (p. 494). With globalization, however, these metanarratives have collapsed: there is no one truth, but many relative and plural truths from which we must extract meaning (p. 494). This metanarrative collapse leaves many without a sense of meaning in life (p. 506); new age religions function to fill this vacuum (p. 494).
New age religions are not the only religious reaction to postmodernism, however. Fundamentalism seeks to preserve what is considered the sacred way of life against the threat of postmodern relativism (p. 506). This fundamentalism is not limited to religious adherents, however. To understand why, we must consider Jacques Ellul’s distinction between the sacred and the holy (p. 507). He argues that the experience of the sacred “leads to a view of society as an order that is itself sacred and must be protected from all profane attempts to change it” (p. 507). In this way, both secular and religious fundamentalists exist: secular fundamentalists seek to protect society from the influence of religion, and religious fundamentalists seek to protect society from the influence of secularism (p. 506). In contrast, Ellul states that the holy “calls into question the very idea of a sacred order” (p. 507) and aims to improve society in the name of a “higher truth and/or justice” (p. 507). This orientation toward the holy characterizes religious modernists, who use their religious beliefs in order to challenge societal norms (p. 507). Though labeled “modernists”, this orientation toward the holy as defined by Ellul has been seen throughout religious history: for example, Buddhism challenged Hindu societal norms (p. 507).
The final reaction to postmodernism discussed in the text is religious postmodernism, which believes that the “diverse spiritual heritages of the human race have become the common inheritance of all” (pp. 508-509). Religious postmodernism aims for the betterment of society through the “meeting and sharing of religious and cultural insight” (p. 509). It is this collaboration which the textbook suggests may be the future of religion, as it demonstrates that “religious pluralism does not have to lead to relativism” (p. 517). The work of Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. are highlighted as demonstrations of the power of this religious postmodernism (pp. 509-511). Both Gandhi and King studied the religious traditions that were not their own, gained wisdom from them, and returned to their own cultures and faiths, profoundly transformed (p. 511). Unlike new age religions, these men did not syncretize various faiths to create a new religion, but took the wisdom and insights from the metanarratives of different faiths to enrich their own (p. 511). Gandhi and King demonstrate the transformative power of postmodern relativism: counter to Lyotard’s assertion in the collapse of metanarratives as a destabilizing societal force (p. 494), their work demonstrates that the sharing of wisdom can lead to a “global ethic for a new age” (p. 511), in defense of human dignity across religions and cultures.
(As there are two faciliators this week, please pick two questions to answer!)
Do you find yourself aligned with fundamentalism, modernism, or postmodernism as a response to postmodern religious pluralism? Why?
Which of the new religions discussed in this chapter do you find most appealing? Explain.
There is some overlap between what are popularly considered to be “cults” and new religious movements. For example, Aum Shinrikyo and Scientology have been labeled, at different times and by different people, as both of these. In your opinion, what is the difference between new religious movements and cults? Is the difference purely semantic?