III. The “New Religions” and the Study of Religion

The second half of this century has seen the emergence of a host of “new religions” in North America and Europe. In the public media they were often called “the cults” and included such groups as Hare Krishna, 3HO, the Unification Church, Transcendental Meditation and Scientology. When the “new religions” attracted the attention of the public media it was usually in relation to sensational claims that members of the new religious communities were not there by choice but had been “programmed” or “brainwashed.” Such claims have been the subject of scholarly investigation (Eileen Barker, The Making of a Moonie, Oxford, 1984) as well as a number of governmental inquiries (Hill Report on “Mind-Development Groups, Sects, and Cults in Ontario,” 1980). Such responsible scholarly and governmental inquiries have found no grounds for such charges, but such prejudicial images still persist.

When scholars of religion turned to the study of the “new religious communities” in the 1960s and 70s, they made several observations that are worth noting here. These studies continued into the 1980s and 90s and extended the investigations to other parts of the world.

Many of the “new religions” were not really “new” but just new to North America. For example, the Hare Krishna movement is often regarded as a “new religion”/“cult,” but it was in fact only “new” in North America. It is a community of long standing in India and has its origins in the life and work of the 15th century Hindu reformer, Caitanya. It has been a continuous presence in India since that time, but only came to North America in the 1960s. The same is the case for a number of other new religious movements that have their origins in Eastern Hindu, Buddhist, and Sikh traditions.

A smaller number of the “new religions” have their origins in the recovery of forgotten or neglected aspects of older religious traditions, often the mystical and meditative dimensions of the Muslim, Jewish, and Christian faiths. For example, Canada’s first “deprogramming” case involved a young woman, a graduate of the University of Waterloo, who had joined a Catholic charismatic community in Orangeville, Ontario.

Many of the “new religions” have emerged from the encounter of missionary Christianity or missionary Islam with indigenous traditions in Africa and Asia. When these groups have come to propagate their faith in North America, this has been viewed with alarm since many of the beliefs of the newer communities are considered “heretical” to the older denominations. Some of these synthetic movements, like the Unification Church, have their origins in the Christian missionary world but incorporate elements of the indigenous or traditional religions as well as “new revelations.” An analogous case is the Bahai tradition which emerges out of the Islamic tradition but incorporates a “new revelation.”

Some of the new religions were generally “new,” for example, Scientology and the Prosperos. (See Robert Ellwood, Jr., Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1973.) Yet we find, even in these cases, a rejection of absolute novelty when, for example, L. Ron Hubbard declares that Scientology is “a direct extension of the work of Gautama Siddhartha Buddha.” (Volunteer Minister’s Handbook) Thus, even in these cases, there are elements of belief, practice, inspiration, or ritual that have antecedents or parallels in older and/or other traditions.

The “new religions” presented phenomena to the scholar of religion that challenged some conventional academic notions, but no scholar of religion, to my knowledge, had any doubt that in the “new religions” we were dealing with religious phenomena.

Historians of religion remind us that “new religious movements” are always emerging. For example, historians pointed to 19th century America as a century in which “new religious movements” sprang up all across the country, or to 20th century Japan especially after WWII where a similar phenomenon was observed. Most of the 19th century American cases were variant readings of Christianity, but “new” nonetheless. (See Mary Farrell Bednarowski, New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America, Bloomington, IN: 1989.) There were Shakers and Quakers, Mormons and New Lights, Oneidians and New Harmonians, and a thousand others. In the Japanese case, most of the new religious movements had their roots in Buddhism, the most well known is Sokka Gakkai. This led these same historians to make the following correlations: (i) that while new religious movements are continually emerging, they generally have a very short life. Emerging around a charismatic or prophetic or revelatory figure, they often disappeared within 2–3 years. And (ii) the some few that did endure came to be recognized as fully legitimate religious traditions. Consider, for example, the Mormons, Church of Christ, Scientists, and Seventh-day Adventists, all of whom were widely attacked when they emerged in the 19th century, but are now considered “legitimate” religious communities. The Bahai community is a non-North American example of this same phenomenon as is Sokka Gakkai in Japan with its Buddhist roots.

Sociologists of religion also made an important observation when they observed that one of the differences between earlier new religious movements and those of the later 20th century in North America was their social location. New religious movements typically emerge among the most marginalized and disadvantaged sectors of society. This phenomenon one would easily recognize if one were to walk through the ghettos of urban America (or the favelas of Latin America, or the squatter towns that ring the cities of Africa) or visit the rural poor: there one would discover a host of religious groupings that are not familiar. But in these social locations, not much attention is given to them. The new element in the religious movements of the late 20th century is that they attracted a different social class: youth from middle and upper-middle classes. (See Bryan Wilson, The Social Impact of New Religious Movements, New York, 1981.) It is easy to imagine middle or upper-class parents becoming distressed when they learned that their 25-year-old son who had graduated from Harvard was now following a Korean messiah, or that their 24-year-old daughter who had graduated from the University of Toronto was now singing and chanting “Hare Krishnan” at the airport. But we know historically—e.g., St. Thomas’ parents held him captive for a year when he wanted to become a Dominican, then a new religious order—that such responses often occurred when adult children embrace new or unconventional religious traditions. The young adults attracted to the popular new religions of the 1960s and 70s were neither poor nor marginalized. They were from the middle and upper-middle classes. Moreover, these movements were usually much smaller than media accounts suggested. In Canada, for example, memberships in many of the new religious communities numbered in the hundreds or thousands rather than the tens or hundreds of thousands often alleged by opponents of these newer communities. Some groups in Canada, however, had larger memberships.

The “new religions” presented phenomena to the scholar of religion that challenged some conventional academic notions, but no scholar of religion, to my knowledge, had any doubt that in the “new religions” we were dealing with religious phenomena. Whether or not it was “good religion” or “bad religion” was often a matter of considerable public debate, but scholars of religion never doubted that it was religious phenomena that we were encountering here. (See J. Gordon Melton, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America, New York, 1986 and The Encyclopedia of American Religions, Detroit, 1989, which includes the “new religions.”)

IV. Is Scientology a Religion?