Dr. J. Gordon Melton, Director
The Institute for
the Study of American Religion

Religious pluralism is the great fact of religious life as the twentieth century comes to a close. Appearing in the nineteenth century, pluralism has blossomed in this century as a major item in the larger agenda for the rights and liberties of human beings. And religious liberty is among the best indicators of the general state of human freedom in any given society.

The growth of religious diversity has been allowed by the separation of religious structures from state control and favoritism. In turn the emergence of diversity has called into existence the secular state which can establish a rule of law while serving as a mediating force allowing different religious groups to exist side by side as neighbors. In an open society, religious differences can become the occasion for intimate dialogue, increased appreciation for one’s own spiritual life and awareness of the diversity of human existence, rather than turned into an excuse for hostility or an agenda for misunderstanding and irrational hatred.

The growth of pluralism has been accelerated in the late twentieth century as communication and transportation have improved. In the last century, the Christian movement introduced most varieties of Christianity into the traditional religious cultures of Africa, Asia and the Middle East. Since World War II, massive migration of people into the West has brought every conceivable form of Eastern religion into Europe and North America. At the same time the telephone, television and the personal computer have transferred the wisdom of experience of each particular culture (including its spiritual resources) into the homes of people around the world. Today, except in those few remaining places where laws inhibiting religious liberty are enforced, all modern urban centers, from London to Nairobi, from Tokyo to Rio de Janeiro, are home to significant minority communities of the world’s religions.

The rise of religious pluralism has itself forced us to revise much of what we have believed about the social role of religion, especially its supposed necessary function as a cement holding the peoples of a nation together. Nations can be just as easily held together by their mutual desire for freedom and the good life it brings than by any need of sameness in culture and faith. We have now seen nations quite capable of existing in secular and multi-faith environments, and we have seen the social disruption that can occur when governments attempt to impose a religious uniformity upon peoples who have developed high expectations for personal freedom.

At the same time, our attitudes about new religions, largely developed from a perspective of commitment to the older religious communities, have had to undergo a significant change especially as Western religious establishments have faced a severe decline in public confidence and allegiance. A generation ago, we thought of the older religions as the repositories of time-tested truths destined to remain from generation to generation, while new religions were seen as ephemeral affairs. The latter were dismissed as small, shallow personal cults built around charismatic figures and destined to die with the passing of the founder. But as new religions, from the Bahá’í Faith to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, have emerged and not only survived their founder but have gone on to become international religious communities attracting millions of faithful, we have seen the impulse to produce innovative religious forms as part of the natural ongoing social life of all peoples. People are constantly producing new forms of piety, reviving and giving new life to forgotten structures, developing personal variations on spiritual life and founding new religious organizations. Many of these forms become institutionalized as local variations within larger religious communities, revitalization movements, somewhat invisible private expressions of communal rituals and additional competing denominations and religious groups.

In the following essay, Bryan Wilson, the acknowledged dean of the study of new religions, provides a clear and concise overview of the development of a tolerant society and of the nature of the religious diversity which has emerged hand-in-hand with it. In the West, the rise of diversity has been accompanied theologically by a reevaluation (and discarding) of some claims for uniqueness formerly espoused within the Christian community, a process largely dictated by the expanding awareness of the world’s religions. Within Christianity, generations of theological battles have produced several thousand denominations and a seemingly endless set of variations in theology, organizational forms, church life, worship and ethical commitments. As we compare Christianity to different religious communities, we soon become aware that the differences between theologies and styles of ritual within Christianity are almost as great as the differences between Christian thought and worship and those of other faith communities.

Also, as Wilson notes, and a generation of court tests verify, a major challenge to religious toleration is an expansion in our understanding of the phenomena and communities we can rightfully list under the term “religion.” Few today would banish Hindu and Buddhist groups to the outer darkness. Some of the newer emergent religions have had to contest for the right to exist as religions. Newer non-theistic and human-centered faiths amply illustrate that religion can and does exist even without any acknowledgement of a deity or revealed truth.

Finally, Wilson also implicitly argues that our ignorance of the diversity which probably already exists in our neighborhood is itself a great barrier to the spread of toleration and the extension of religious freedom. We tend to appreciate the familiar and to find reasons to denigrate those who follow practices we find different and whose inner logic we do not comprehend. We find it easier to caricature another’s religious life than expend the energy to locate aspects of resonance and appreciation.

Thus this essay is offered by the Institute for the Study of American Religion as an initial orientation map to the world of religious expression that surrounds each one of us. It provides some badly needed non-judgmental handles with which we can begin to understand the nature of different religious groups and spiritual communities, even those not mentioned nor singled out for discussion by name below, be they old established churches or modern new faiths.

J. Gordon Melton
Institute for the Study of American Religion
May 1995

The Institute for the Study of American Religion was founded in 1969 as a research facility on religious groups and organizations in North America. In the 1990s, as some consensus on the integration of our knowledge on new religions has occurred, it has extended its area of concern to Europe, Africa and Asia. It supports the American Religious Collection at the Davidson Library of the University of California-Santa Barbara and publishes a variety of reference books and scholarly monographs on different religious groups and phenomena.

I. Human Rights & Religious Freedom