XXIX. The Ethos of Contemporary New Religions

Recent decades have seen the growth in number of both world-affirming and world-renouncing religions (and of others less readily categorized in these broad dichotomous terms). The world-renouncing religions have arisen in protest against what they have tended to see as the growing materialism, consumerism, and hedonism of western society. Some of them owe their orientations to the ascetic tradition of Christianity, others have found some affinity with environmental concerns, yet others have drawn on the same climate of mood that gave rise to the “hippy” culture of the 1960s. In contrast, world-affirming orientations manifest strong continuities with contemporary secular culture, and with some of the changed dispositions evident in twentieth-century Christianity. As religious concerns have shifted from the preoccupation with the afterlife, which was the dominant focus of Christianity in previous centuries, so new religious movements have also come to emphasize the idea of salvation in this world and in the present lifetime. Life-enhancement, the pursuit of happiness, the realization of human potential have become respectable and widely endorsed goals, and it is not surprising the new religions should have embraced them. In a world of scarcity, natural disaster, famine, and low levels of technology, religious asceticism was a congruous ethic. It complemented the needs of a producer society in which hard work and low returns had to be accepted, in which gratifications had to be postponed (often to a hypothesized afterlife) so that capital might be accumulated. But in a society oriented to consumption, in which technology has produced enhanced expectations of the wealth and benefit to be experienced, an ascetic ethic would run counter to the need to induce people to bolster the economy by spending, by seeking entertainment and material well-being. Just as the traditional asceticism of Christianity became outmoded, so the orientations of new patterns of religious spirituality came to reflect the new social ethos. The contemporary currency of hedonistic values in secular society has been increasingly reflected even in mainstream religion. The optimism and emphasis on unlimited benefit canvassed, outside the mainstream, by Christian Science, was followed, within the major denominations, by the advocacy of positive thinking by Norman Vincent Peale, a Protestant, by Monsignor Fulton Sheen, a Catholic, and by Rabbi Joshua Liebman. More recent decades have seen the development of Prosperity Theology as a legitimization of the benefits which Christians should expect from prayerful religion. Psychological techniques for heightened self-control, self-awareness, self-improvement, life-enhancement and a wider capacity for spiritual enrichment have become part of the repertoire of many religious movements as society has moved away from endorsement of sin-laden theologies that were once the central theme of Christian teaching.

XXX. Religion and Morals