Sects These Days

fisherreligionNew Religious Movements (NRMs) have long fascinated me. As a natural historian, looking back over where we’ve been has been my usual source of orientation. The idea that a new religious truth could emerge used to strike me as unlikely, especially in the western hemisphere. All major religions of ancient times have come from Asia. (I’m using “major” here only in terms of numbers, not importance.) I wasn’t sure if Mary Pat Fisher’s Religion in the Twenty-first Century was going to be about those traditional religions or NRMs. Both, it turns out. This little book, spun off of a bigger book, looks at very brief histories and contemporary expressions of traditional religions as well as some newer expressions of the spiritual quest. As such, it really doesn’t strive to reveal too much that’s new, but I found it interesting nevertheless.

To begin with Fisher reveals a bit of her own spiritual journey. This may be the first time I’ve ever read of a major textbook author (her larger world religions books are bestsellers) admit to having had a near death experience (NDE, as long as we’re using abbreviations). I know for a fact that Fisher is not the only academic to have experienced such, but trying to get anyone to admit as much requires, well, the confidence of a bestselling textbook, I guess. The fact is, human beings have a spiritual sense. Even academics. It can be effaced, sublimated, buried, or neglected, but it is there. There’s no other way to explain the persistence of religion. Even Nones, to update the discussion a little, often list themselves as spiritual, but not religious. It is part of the human condition, and it is well worth trying to understand.

This little spin-off text, at seventeen years old, does look a bit dated. Some of the predictions for the then coming new millennium were a touch optimistic. I suppose that’s the danger of any description of contemporary developments. Interfaith dialogues and initiatives, I suspect, still continue although we hear little of them. We continue to use religions as a way to divide between insiders and outsiders. Although our common yearning for spirituality has great potential to bring people together, historically it has wrenched them apart. I’m not sure that this particular book by Fisher is still available any more. Or it may have been updated. As one who tends to look back over history, however, I find the optimism refreshing. Perhaps as we continue to struggle with what it means to be human we will come to realize that religion is about what is inside, not out.

4 responses to “Sects These Days

  1. What do you think of the many odd religions that have arisen in recent history?

    There are such things as Scientology and Religious Science. I briefly went to a church of the latter variety when I was a kid, part of my New Though upbringing. Fortunately, I didn’t experience the former. Even more fascinating, the UFO religions have proliferated and even Scientology involves alien races (see: Christopher Partridge and Gregory L. Reece).

    Carl Jung thought UFOs symbolically represented something new emerging within the human psyche. There is much speculation about what UFOs are and mean. But in Fortean studies, those like Jacques Vallée have pointed out that alien abductions follow closely the pattern of fairy/demonic abductions and shamanic experiences, maybe implying a deep pattern within the human psyche.

    I’ve always liked the idea that new religions often won’t initially appear as religions. I came across that idea in how the very idea of ‘religion’ didn’t emerge until around the Roman Empire, as I recall. A new religion will likely present itself as simply an explanation of reality and will use the dominant paradigm of the place and time, in our case that means science. Even many Christians have sought to reformulate their theology according to a more modern understanding.

    I think I told you in a comment elsewhere that I don’t see religion as waning. It seems to me we are in a transition period. The new religions forming will likely go as unnoticed as did the earliest small sects of Christians, no one even bothering to write about them in government and historical records. To find new religions, we’ll have to step out of our preconceptions about what religion should look like.

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    • There are lots of things going on here. I’ve actually read some of Partridge’s and Reece’s work, and I have a couple books on UFO religions on my shelf. I’ve read a few on Scientology and other NRMs as well. I don’t think religion is waning either. I think most academics think it is, but many of them don’t get out much.

      The word “religion” does indeed derive from a Roman concept. Many specialists suggest, however, that the idea of religion is even more recent than that—it comes from Christianity (largely in Europe) encountering other belief systems and requiring a concept to explain this. Whatever the origin of the word, NRMs will continue to appear, and fascinate.

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    • Kind of an extreme way to confirm a couple of observations you made, including that religion isn’t waning: the constitution written by the Occupation for Japan after World War II has very strong language about freedom of religion. Indeed, once a religious group has obtained a license from the government, it pays no taxes and only its most flagrant crimes are ever investigated or prosecuted. I was astonished to learn that Japan has **hundreds of thousands** of NRMs, and that their combined membership exceeds the national population, since people are members of more than one. I got wind of this through the History of Japan podcast (episode 51)—that lecture and a few minutes of googling “weird Japanese cults” was more than enough for me to confirm that NRMs aren’t going away.

      (And although the world has changed much since then, they could still provide a window into the times when today’s old religions were themselves NRMs.)

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      • You’re absolutely right. Religion, as studies have shown repeatedly, is essential to being human. Those who deny its importance are partially blinkered by the fact that we don’t have a solid definition for “religion.” The number of NRMs worldwide is truly astounding, especially given how technically oriented Japanese and American (as well as many European countries) have become. Instead of people dropping religion, they’re inventing new ones. Here in the US they often coalesce around movies like Star Wars or Avatar. Religion is not going away, but it is transforming.

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