World Religions 13: New Religious Movements

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This week, we are going to examine a variety of New Religious Movements, or NRMs.  This is a relatively new term within academics.  Most members of the traditions we will be discussing do not view their traditions as ‘new’, but rather the truth or fulfillment of the old and standard traditions.  Why, then, the need for the new term?

The 1960s were a turbulent time in American culture.  Many old standards of American culture were being questioned, including religious traditions.  The 60s, 70s and 80s all saw a rise of independent religious groups that had new messages and beliefs.  Many from mainstream America labeled all of these groups as “cults”.  The world ‘cult’ means simply ‘group’, but we all understand what is implied by the use of the term.  There are some groups who did use spirituality in abusive ways at this time, but the label was being used by traditional Protestant Americans for any new religious tradition at a time when new cultures were strange and scary.  For example, the practice of devotion to an Indian guru became quite popular in the 60s and 70s, but most of us would not call this a ‘cult’ today.  Rather, we would apply the negative label to any group that seemed to abuse its participants and not to any group strange to mainstream Protestantism.  In response to this situation, scholars of religion in academics came to use the term ‘New Religious Movement’, or NRM, to refer to any new developing religious tradition.

It is debatable how ‘new’ a tradition has to be to qualify as an NRM.  Some scholars say that any development since Protestant Christianity qualifies.  Others say the term should only apply to groups that have arisen in the last 200 years.  Yet others say that the term should only apply to groups originating after WWII (the last 60 years).  I am going to talk about several groups that have arisen in the last 200 years, including Mormonism, Unitarianism and Baha’i as NRMs for the purposes of our study.

Needless to say, there is a wide variety of NRMs across the globe.  Some NRMs arise from major world religions that we have studied such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity and Islam (examples include Mormonism and the Nation of Islam).  Other NRMs take bits and pieces from many religions and see themselves as part or fulfillment of the older traditions (examples include Unitarianism, Baha’i, 5 Percent Nation, and Rastafarianism).  Still others do not see themselves as a part of any older religious tradition (examples include Scientology and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster).

We are going to examine briefly a wide variety of these traditions, including Mormonism, Unitarianism, Baha’i, the Nation of Islam, the Five Percent Nation, Rastafarianism, New Age Spirituality, Neopaganism, Falun Gong, Scientology, and the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

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Mormonism

The Mormons are an offshoot of Christianity who believe themselves to be the restorers of the true but lost and distorted Christian tradition (as do the Unitarians who we will look at next).  While Mormons do believe that Jesus Christ is God and the source of salvation, Mormons are a feared and despised group among American Protestant Christians, many of whom do not consider Mormons to be Christians at all.  Mormons have indeed been taking much heat lately, such as a roasting by South Park long before Proposition 8 and the recent election.  On a side note, I hope many can see that the newspapers are blaming Mormons, Catholics and Black Americans for the ‘Yes’ on Prop 8 (No to Gay Marriage), when in fact it is the majority of Californians, predominantly mainstream Protestants, who must have voted for the proposition.  Yes, Mormon money from out of state can be scary, but this is an easy way to blame a feared minority group, one that mainstream Protestants in particular fear, rather than to own up to the fact that the state of California itself voted for the proposition.  This diverts attention and hate of progressives to the Mormons, a minority (along with Catholics and Black Americans), rather than have us examine mainstream attitudes and problems with our culture as a whole.

Much of Mormon belief coincides with mainstream Christian belief, but there are several major exceptions.  Mormons believe that the Book of Mormon is a new Gospel, another text that is the word of God, that was revealed to their prophet Joseph Smith (published in 1830).  Getting into the plot of the book would take a long lecture in itself, but one of the major points is that God is believed to have brought a new covenant (remember Judaism) to the Americas long ago and now with the Mormons that covenant will be firmly founded.  Mormons believe that there are new revelations to come, and thus ‘God is still speaking’ (a major catchphrase of liberal Protestant Americans right now, some of whom use the punctuation mark of the comma as a symbol of their movement to indicate that revelation and interpretation in the Christian tradition is still ongoing in opposition to fundamentalists and ‘literal’ interpretation of the Bible).  Mormons believe that one should worship one god (monotheism very much like Islam), but that the individual can worship God however, wherever and whenever they see rationally fit.  Another major difference between Mormonism and traditional Christian theology is that Mormons do not believe that humans are tainted by Adam and Eve’s original sin, but rather each individual is merely punishable by God for their own sins.

The Mormons had a rough time in their early history, persecuted in most of the places they tried to settle while heading out West.  Finally they settled next to the Great Salt Lake in what was to become Salt Lake City, the capital of Utah.  They had violent problems with Native Americans and Western settlers passing through.  Mormon chronicles present the Mormons as the victims, while other accounts blame the Mormons (knowing human affairs, there were likely jerks on both sides.  After a particularly violent encounter with settlers the Union Army of the United States was marching on Utah to attack the Salt Lake community when it was recalled because of other pressing matters (the civil war was beginning to arise).  The United States made an agreement with the Mormons: give up polygamy (the practice of marrying several women to one husband), quit the violence, and we will leave you alone.  The Mormons agreed.  To this day, there are deep splits in the Mormon community between groups who refuse to give up polygamy in deference to the state, and others who believe that polygamy is wrong.  Thus, today the Mormon Church does not support polygamy, but there are splinter groups (famously featured on the recent show, Big Love).

One of my favorite moments in Mormon history is the day when Joseph Smith went before the people and said God told him there should be no more Coffee, Tea or Tobacco use period.  To this day, Mormons abstain from caffeine and nicotine.  The following two weeks must have been pretty rough all around.

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Unitarianism

The Unitarians have a long and complicated history, originating believe it or not in Transylvania.   There are a variety of Unitarian groups, some more conservative and others more liberal.  Conservative Unitarians believe that all religions are worship of the one true monotheistic God, but the Bible and Jesus hold special importance as to the example to follow for one’s daily life.  Liberal Unitarians are far more open to varying beliefs, not even requiring their members to believe in God or any particular source of revelation.

Unitarians generally believe that Christianity is good but not the one true religion and that Jesus is a prophet and example to follow but merely a man and not identical with God, rejecting the Holy Trinity doctrine of Catholics and Protestants.  This was the original Arian Heresy that Constantine and others in the early formation of the Church made sure to marginalize with their selection of the four gospels.  The gospels that were selected for the Bible identify Jesus with God as identical in the trinity.  After Constantine, most Arians in the general area fled to Africa and parts of Asia.

Most Unitarians believe that Jesus and other prophets did not come to bring people a specific religion but to unite everyone together regardless of their traditions.  Thus, they see their own religious tradition as the true fulfillment of the prophets’ wishes and the will of God.  Sufi mystics in Islam likewise see themselves as devoted to the “religion of religion”, embracing the inner truth of God in any culture encountered.  Unitarians also tend to believe that all scripture and texts are susceptible to human error in the translation and transmission, and that science and religious devotion are fully compatible.  Several famous Unitarians include Newton, Emerson, Susan B. Anthony, Charles Dickens, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

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Baha’i

Founded by the prophet Baha’u’llah in 1800s Persia, Baha’i is very much Unitarianism arising not from Christianity but Islam (though as noted the Sufi mystics were on the same page hundreds of years earlier).  Baha’i teaches that all of the world’s religious traditions form one chain of evolution.  Since God is so glorious that he can not be comprehended by the human mind, the series of prophets and religions serves as the continued manifestations of God for the good of humanity.  This is the “endless covenant” with God, as opposed to the Judaic or Christian covenants that God made with specific peoples.

Just as Islam had a similar set up in basing itself in Judaism and Christianity, Baha’u’llah pronounced himself to be a prophet of God and declared the need to unify all of the religions of the world into a single practice.  While Mohammed believed himself to be the final prophet of the series, Baha’u’llah merely claimed to be not the last but merely the latest, the next not to come for at least another thousand years.  Baha’i teaches equality (gender, race and economic), world peace and the compatibility of science and religion.  Followers of Baha’i must pray each day and are not allowed either intoxication or gambling.

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Nation of Islam

The Nation of Islam was founded in Detroit in 1930 by Wallace Fard Muhammad as a offshoot of Islam that speaks directly to black people living in oppression in America.  Most Muslims do not consider the Nation of Islam to be Islam at all, though the Nation of Islam does preach and practice most Muslim traditions.  One of the founders early followers was Elijah Mohammed, who wrote Message to the Blackman in America, considered to be one of the movement’s central texts.  The most famous member of the Nation of Islam is Malcolm X, who for a time was the central speaker and figure of the movement.  Today the movement is headed by Louis Farrakhan, who has indeed made many controversial statements.  One such statement, calling white people ‘blue-eyed devils’ got much negative attention in the press.  Farrakhan argues that white Americans may not be devils by nature but they have clearly played the part well.  It is my personal opinion that the media like to point to Farrakhan’s statements as racist and anti-Semitic, but again this is finding a scary minority group to blame rather than addressing the problems in society as a whole.

The Nation of Islam preaches that the suffering and slavery of black people in America is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy (remember Exodus), and that black people were the original race from which all of the human races descend, the seed of Abraham with whom God made his covenant.

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Five Percent Nation

The 5 Percenters, Five Percent Nation or Nation of Gods and Earths is an offshoot group from the Nation of Islam that formed in Harlem (1964) just after the assassination of Malcolm X.  This group has been particularly popular in Hip Hop culture, especially on the East Coast where it originated.  The 5 Percenters get their name from the Nation of Islam doctrine that 5% of the human race are enlightened and see the ignorance of the remaining population.

The group believes that every man, particularly the black man, is a god, and every woman is an earth (remember the sky father, earth mother duality from our earliest shamanism lectures).  When in a Wu-Tang or other East Coast rap song you hear members refer to each other as ‘God’, they are openly expressing their affiliation with the Five Percent Nation.

In a way that I particularly love, 5 Percenters believe that all messages from prophets have been distorted over time, and it is up to each individual to study many cultures and traditions to find the inner truth for themselves.

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Rastafari (Rastafarianism):

Many are aware of this culture through Reggae music.  “Rastafarianism” is the name given to the movement by academics and scholars, while the community shuns this academic-speak for the traditional label “Rastafari”.  Consider that Jain adherents are “Jains”, not “Jainists”.  Rastafari is a title of the Emperor Selassie I which means something close to “living spirit”.  Thus, Rastafari address with the name the living spirit which is in each individual and the cosmos as a whole.  This can be seen in the expression “I and I” used to refer to the self and God/living spirit/cosmos as one and the same in the person who is speaking (heard often in Reggae music).

Believe it or not, there are scholars in Religious Studies departments who debate the details of the West-African Ganja Complex, a real academic concept.  Scholars have determined that the culture of wearing dreadlocks, drumming, chanting and passing ganja (marijuana) in a circle originated in India but passed to West Africa long before Europe became powerful enough to take West Africans from their homes and enslave them in the Americas, including Jamaica (a major British plantation site).  The debate has to do with what aspects of the whole culture complex came when and how from India to Africa.  The Rastafari Movement came to celebrate this cultural complex as a religion merged with ancient Ethiopian Christianity and Baptist Protestant Christianity that came through Baptist missionaries.  For this reason, Rastafari always quote the King James version of the Bible (which Baptists use), as can be heard in Reggae music lyrics.

Ethiopian Christianity and Judaism are fascinating cultures that thrived in Ethiopia since the early days of each tradition.  According to the Bible, Queen Sheba of Ethiopia had a child with King Solomon, cementing a Solomonic line of Ethiopian Kings.  The colors used in Ethiopic Christian art are primarily Red, Gold and Green.  When Ethiopia became the first African nation to gain independence from European powers, they used the colors for the Ethiopian flag.  Other African nations followed Ethiopia when they became independent, and the colors have remained a proud symbol of Afro-centric thought and culture.  Rastafari get these colors from this route.

Marcus Garvey was an early figure celebrated by Rastafari, but he was not a Rasta himself.  He was a Jamaican, but worked in New York trying to get some, not all, American black people to travel back to Africa to help Africa become a federation of nations and thus a world power economically.  Marcus Garvey believed that until Africa became a world power, black people would be mistreated across the African Diaspora (the spread of black people across the Atlantic by the European slave trade).  Garvey was jailed for his views in a trial that is now regarded as clearly unfair and manufactured.  He had purchased some ships and titled them the Black Star Line, a mode of transportation for black people to and from Africa.  The court of New York charged him with defrauding black people of money, arguing that he never intended to set up the ship line, then took the ships from him that he did buy when they found him guilty of fraud.

The Rastafari movement itself started in an interesting way.  In Africa, there had been small groups who had organized calling themselves Nyabinghi in opposition to European colonialist tyranny.  An agent for the Italians, who wanted Britain to become worried about loosing Jamaica to insurgent groups, planted a false newspaper article in a prominent Jamaican newspaper warning that Nyabinghi groups had migrated to Jamaica and were setting up plots to overthrow the British authorities.  No sooner was the article printed, (I love this, human nature itself) black Jamaicans started looking to join up with the underground groups that did not know did not yet exist in Jamaica.  The groups that gathered together to bridge this gap drew heavily on Marcus Garvey’s writings, Baptist Christianity, and the West African Ganja Complex as Afrocentric culture, creating in the 1940s the beginnings of Rastafari.  Drawing also on the writings of Leonard Howell, they began wearing dreadlocks, smoking ganja as a sacrament and worshiping the Emperor of Ethiopia as an incarnation of God.

Rastafari reject society as ‘Babylon’, the place in the Old Testament where the Jews were kept in captivity by King Nebuchadnezzar.  Rastafari do not use credit cards or checks, because they see this as violating the OT law ‘Do not borrow nor lend’ as well as part of the system of Babylon’s oppression.  Do not forget that the European slave traffic was not only possibly the largest deportation of people in history so far, but a large part of Europe becoming wealthier than the rest of the world in the 1600s and 1700s.

Rastafari have an Afro-centric reading of the Bible and biblical history, arguing that Moses and others must have been black people if the text is true as written (remember, Moses grew up in Egypt as part of the Pharaoh’s family without anyone noticing).  Like the Nation of Islam we read about last week, there is a range of attitudes towards race in the Rastafari community.  Some groups believe that black people are the supreme and true race.  Others, equally prominent, believe that all racism is oppression, and aids the system of Babylon.

The two ceremonies of Rastafari are Groundations and Reasonings.  Both involve the ritual circular smoking of ganja.  At a Groundation, this is accompanied by drumming and traditional songs or chants, while at a Reasoning it is accompanied by argument over ethics, politics, and other topics for debate and discussion.

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New Age Spirituality

New Age culture is quite varied and diverse, without any ‘orthodoxy’ or central institutions.  It is also very eclectic, drawing on many cultures and traditions to create an open mix and match of spiritual practice.  Typically, varieties of Shamanism the world over (particularly Native American and Australian Aborigine) are mixed with Indian cosmology (past lives and Nirvana as release/enlightenment that we saw all the Indian religions share), Egyptian and Greek mystery religions, European Neo-Paganism (next up) and other sources.

The 1960s were a spiritual awakening for many in America and Europe.  People began experimenting with many things, including religious cultures that had been seen as scary and “heretical” in earlier decades.  With the end of the 60s, the 70s saw the rise of New Age spirituality as a culture and lifestyle.  It flourished particularly in the 80s around bookstores and journals dedicated to the new cultural synthesis.  I need not mention that the Bay Area and particularly Berkeley are a world center of this cultural movement.  While the culture passed somewhat by in the 90s, it remains a thriving limb of the political left and counter culture today.

Often, beliefs center on astrology, psychic ability, and spiritualism.  Spiritualism, as you may recall, was a phenomenon of the late 1800s and early 1900s in which people tried to contact spirits in séances and use Ouija boards to contact the sprits beyond.  New Age spiritualists combine these practices with systems of spirits, angels and gods from many systems, including UFOs, a particularly modern addition.  Some believe these beings to be genuine, others merely psychological.

If you want to read more, try the ever interesting Nothing in this Book is True, but it is Exactly the Way Things Are by Bob Frissell.  In this book, he examines many popular figures of the New Age movement including Drunvalo, the former Berkeley Physics graduate student who renamed himself Drunvalo and now believes he is in contact with beings from Saturn who built the pyramids for the Egyptians and claims to have had visions of the Flower of Life and all the long lost Egyptian space-travel wisdom.  Note that none of this is the Egyptian wisdom we read for class.

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Neo-Paganism

The word ‘Pagan’ comes from Latin and was used to refer to the ‘uncivilized’ tribes in the countryside.  While many Neo-Pagan groups believe themselves to be simply reviving long lost European tribal religious cultures, Neo-Paganism is in fact a New Religious Movement.  While Blavatsky’s Theosophy movement and Crowley’s OTO were early forerunners in the revival of European witchcraft, it was in the wake of the 60s and New Age culture that Neo-Paganism arose as a proud and open culture.  Because European tribes often left only runes as isolated but mysterious written records of their cultures, since the 60s a major New Age affiliated group has arisen that identifies primarily with the revival of these cultures through witchcraft and the ‘secrets of the runes’.  In this sense it is an attempt to return to European Shamanism, but it is often practiced in the mix-match way of a New Age group due to the lack of sources and diversity of leaders.  Often it uses Greek sources (not the ‘pagan’ countryside), and sometimes even throws UFOs into the mix (certainly not the ‘pagan’ countryside).

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Falun Gong

Many of you have probably heard about Falun Gong through the recent controversies in the news about its suppression by the Chinese Communist government.  In fact, the Chinese government originally helped foster the group as a modern substitute for older spiritual practices that the Chinese people were not giving up.

Falun Gong was founded by Li Hongzhi in 1922 as a set of meditation exercises.  For centuries, sets of exercises beneficial to the energy or chi of the body and mind have been traditional practices in China, associated primarily with the Daoist and Buddhist religions.  Much of the theory of these earlier sets is identical with the theory behind the practice of Falun Gong, but instead of the old religious terms, scientific concepts of energy and healing are used instead (very much as Scientology does with Pschology terms, we will see in a bit).  In a sense, Falun Gong imports the ideas and theory of chi exercises into a form that could be tolerated and then supported by the government.  Falun Gong is thus a newly fashioned substitute for Tai Chi and other self-cultivation practices.  At first, the government supported the new alternative as well as many other and similar systems.  Li Hongzhi rose in the movement as Falun Gong gained popularity, and he personally won awards from the Communist Party for his efforts.

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Why then do we see news stories about crack downs?  The movement, which had gained great popularity from students to the elderly, began to split between what can be called the naturalists and the super-naturalists.  We have already seen that an endless tension one finds in religion is that between the world and the other (often upper or inner) world.  The government was happy to support the system as a naturalist practice of meditation and exercises for health as Communism traditionally preaches the material here and now, but many Falun Gong practitioners began taking the theory in a very spiritualist and Mahayana Buddhist “salvation for all sentient beings” direction.  One could say that the practice regressed back to earlier forms of Buddhism and Daoism, but we can also see it as a whole new development that is similar to the past.  Thus, the government is today cracking down on the super-naturalists, arguing that they are taking money for spiritualist services which is fraud under the law.  Because the government has deemed spirits and psychic abilities (like New Age in the 60s) to be false by science/modern reason, it is fraud to take money from an individual by telling them these beings are real.

Scientology

Like Falun Gong, Scientology has been in the news lately.  Recently, an internet group called ‘Anonymous’ has been targeting this group with protests.  Anti-Scientology protesters say that the group is a cult (in the negative sense described at the start of last week’s lecture), that they do not let individuals contact non-members and they carry out harassment against their enemies and members who leave the group.  In addition, South Park did an episode making quite a bit of fun of Scientology (as they also did recently with Mormonism).  I have also seen Scientology book that argues they have been under consistent surveillance and harassment by the United States government.  As I said before, there are likely jerks on all sides, but it is important to remember that we need to pay attention to the consequences of what the majority of our society does and not focus our attention on enemies, either external foreign groups or internal minority cultures.

Scientology was created by L. Ron Hubbard in 1952 as an expansion of his personal self-help system Dianetics.  As with some New Age authors and Falun Gong, Scientology uses newer scientific (specifically, psychological) terms and speech to structure systems similar to those we have studied before.  In fact, to me Scientology in its introductory level seems very similar to Jainism.  The idea is that one has lived many past lives before, and one has become bound up in fear and misplaced desire that one needs to clear up, and thus be “clear” in the Scientology terminology.  For this purpose, Scientologists undergo analysis and tests as a therapy patient would to progress.  However, similarl to New Age, Falun Gong and other systems we have seen take off from older traditions, Scientology claims that the older system is wrong and must be replaced.  Scientologists use psychological terms and practices, but argue that the practice of psychology, specifically psychiatry and the administering of drugs to treat mental conditions, is wrong and abusive.  Here is where we can see a complex situation of human truth: on the one side, the Church of Scientology, and on the other, the Medical and Pharmaceutical industries, each with their own (likely similar) reasons to be ‘the answer’ to the problems of the human mind (even though we still have little idea how the mind or thought works).

One problem is that Scientology has many layers to its teachings, some things not told to members until they have been well in for years.  Like the Catholic Church was charged by Protestants in 1500s Europe, many have pointed to a potential ‘pay for merit’ scandal that could be going on here.  The teachings of Scientology also include, as have New Age etc., ideas of UFOs and other lives before and after this life.  I watched a DVD myself (a copy of a 1960s tape) in which L. Ron Hubbard himself says that his research team recently discovered scientific evidence for a life after death.

Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster

Recently, a student from another class of mine directed my attention to this group.  While they are not a strict or respectful ‘religion’, we have seen many groups flourish in similar ways and this one is a new sort of thing fueled by the internet.

I am sure that you are all aware of the controversy of teaching Evolution or/and Intelligent Design in schools.  Part of this debate hinges on what one considers ‘science’.  It is easy to argue that in fact ANY system of thought is a ‘science’, a system of seeing things similarly, a system of theories gathered together as a human culture and enterprise.  While I share this view, I am also a big fan of the theory of evolution, which I like to apply to human cultures.  Proponents of teaching Intelligent Design beside Evolution as an ‘alternative’ have argued that Intelligent Design is, like Evolution, a theory, and thus also a ‘science’.  Unfortunately for these proponents, this opens the door for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

Founded by Bobby Henderson in 2005, the FSM (Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster) offers another, admittedly humorous, theory to the pair as another ‘science’ that must be legally taught alongside Intelligent Design.  The Kansas State Board of Education had ruled that Intelligent Design could be taught as a scientific theory as long as religion was removed.  Thus, a school could teach that an intelligent being might have, theoretically, created and designed the universe, but could not teach what specific being created and designed the universe.  Bobby Henderson realized that this left the door open to claim any random thing had designed the universe, and ones beliefs are still in accord with the theory.  He then sent an open letter to the Kansas State Board of Education, arguing that a Flying Spaghetti Monster had created the universe, and that FSM had a right, as a theory, to be taught equally alongside Evolution and Intelligent Design.

The other major belief of Church members or ‘Pastafarians’ as they alternatively call themselves, is one that I admire from a logic standpoint.  They argue that global warming and other problems have increased as the number of pirates have decreased.  Thus, to save us all from global warming, we must dress and talk like pirates.

As I need not mention, this is not a religion as much as a parody of fundamentalism.  However, considering that the group has been quite successful on the internet and gathered many ‘followers’, if they can be called that, it is interesting to see the same social forces that drew all of the traditions of the world together at work on the internet drawing together the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.  If you are not easily offended by the sacrilegious, you can easily find their website.

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