CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

 The Future of Religion and the Future of New Religions

by Massimo Introvigne

On June 15-17, 2001 the Axel and Margaret Ax:son Johnson Foundation organized its yearly Engelberg Seminar in Avesta/Engelsberg (Sweden) on "The Future of Religion". The Seminar was attended by a selected group of religious scholars, diplomats, international businesspersons and journalists. Among those who presented papers were sociologists Paul Heelas and José Casanova; historians Antoine Faivre, Gilles Quispel and Elaine Pagels; theologians Harvey Cox and John F. Haught, historian of literature John Farrell; psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton; diplomat Rolf Ekéus; Islamic scholar Whitney S. Bodman; and new religious movements scholar Massimo Introvigne, whose paper is enclosed in a preliminary version (not to be quoted without permission). In addition, panel discussions took place, including one on fundamentalism introduced by panelists Massimo Introvigne, Robert Jay Lifton, John Farrell, Whitney S. Bodman and Rolf Ekéus.

 It is somewhat ironic that, at a conference on the future of religion, a paper should be devoted to a category which is being slowly dismantled, and may have, as such, no future. Since the early 20th century, new players were recognized as significant in an increasingly deregulated Western religious market, where few states would protect the monopoly of an established religion. Since statutory protection against heresy may no longer be invoked, mainline Christians substituted the old label, "heresy", with new ones such as "cults" or "sects" (the latter more used as a derogatory term in languages other than English), implying that the newer religions were harmful to society in general. A whole counter-cult Christian literature flourished, followed much later into the 20th century by a secular anti-cult literature, claiming that the newer religions were harmful to mental health and public order. Social scientists started devoting serious attentions to these newer religions in the 1960s and 1970s. They refused to jump on the counter-cult and anti-cult bandwagon, and started looking for a different terminology. British sociologist Eileen Barker popularized the use of "new religious movements", a value-free term much more palatable to scholars than "cults" or "sects". Later, "new religions" was also used in order to designate the largest and most established among the newer religions, most of them tracing their origins in the 19th century, such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Scholars did welcome these terms, and almost unanimously adopted them in order to avoid the derogatory words "cults" and "sects": but there was never a real agreement on definitions and boundaries. Some would only include 20th century groups, some also the "new religions" founded in the 19th century. Some would use only chronological criteria, others (including the undersigned) preferred a doctrinal paradigm, speaking of "new religions" and "new religious movements" only when theology exhibited a radical departure from mainline Christianity, or from the less easily defined mainline Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. Sub-categories were introduced. In Japan, where the term shin-shukyo ("new religions") had been adopted by scholars with a similar rationale, in order to avoid the derogatory shinko-shukyo ("newly born religions", i.e. religion with no tradition), a distinction had to be established between the older and larger shin-shukyo and the post-World War II shin-shin-shukyo ("new new religions"). Intractable problems emerged: are Pentecostals part of the new religious movements? What about the indigenous Pentecostal movements founded in Latin America, Africa, and Asia? Should theology or behavior rule? What about the African initiated churches (once called African independent churches)? Are there new religious movements arising from Islam? Some of the movements concerned objected that "new religious movements" or "new religions" may simply be a polite synonymous for "cults" or "sects", something at any rate different from "respectable" religions. In the 21st century, several voices in the increasing debate, whilst defending the ground against an increasingly criminological use of "cults" and "sects" by government anti-cult crusades in countries such as France, Russia, and China, propose to simply abandon the terms "new religious movements" and "new religions", and to rather discuss "families" of religious and spiritual groups, emerged. Both J. Gordon Melton’s Encyclopedia of American Religions and my own Encyclopedia of Religions in Italy switched to this approach. Although being the managing director of something called the "Center for Studies on New Religions" and an active member of the "New Religious Movements Group" of the American Academy of Religions, I have my own doubts that these categories do indeed have a future. They will stay with us for a while, and remain necessary in order to oppose counter-cult and anti-cult bigotry. They may eventually disappear, however, and this is why I would rather discuss here the future of a larger religious scenario, whilst making room there for what many still call new religious movements or new religions.

Social scientists in general, and scholars of religion in particular, are normally very reluctant to make predictions. In his brilliant and self-apologetic book Fire from Heaven (Reading [Massachusetts]: Addison-Wesley, 1995), theologian Harvey G. Cox not only admits that most predictions in his religious 1965 best-seller The Secular City (New York: Macmillan) were wrong, but argues that sociologists are to blame for having led him into temptation. On the other hand, the fact that so many predictions of the 1970s about religion in the year 2000 were wrong may offer a ray of hope. In fact, whilst most predictions were certainly wrong, some nonetheless just happened to be right. A number of religious trends were noted in the 1970s. Some were red herrings, whilst others have continued through the present day. By learning from the mistakes of religious scholars of the 1970s, we can at least hope that we will make different mistakes and offer predictions which will not be immediately dismissed as patently irrelevant.

Looking ahead to the year 2000, scholars in the 1970s made three kinds of religious predictions, none of them entirely wrong, yet all somewhat misplaced. Firstly, sociologists (although more in Europe than in North America) regarded secularization as the most relevant religious scenario for the end of the century. The process which started with the Enlightenment would, they said, continue, i.e. religion would become less and less relevant. Some (a minority) even ventured to predict extinction as religion's evolutionary destiny. Many more predicted that, by the year 2000, religion would be much less relevant than it was in 1970, let alone in 1950. In the late 1990s, a sociological consensus emerged suggesting that, stated in these terms, the secularization theory was wrong. A number of American sociologists, particularly those promoting rational choice theories, concluded that secularization was simply a European error, a parochial generalization of a situation affecting only half a dozen European countries (France and Germany in particular). Secularization theories remained popular in Europe, although there too some regarded them as little more than the wishful thinking of secular, anti-religious, sociologists. Indeed, in quantitative terms, secularization theories were certainly wrong. Statistically, a number of tests would later prove that religion is more prevalent in the year 2000 than it was in the 1970s. The number of persons calling themselves "religious" is on the rise in almost all countries of the world (including the Western world). Media coverage of religious phenomena is also increasing, as was also the case in the 1990s, as is evident in the international fame and prominence accorded to religious figures and movements, from Pope John Paul II to the Dalai Lama, from Islamic fundamentalism to Protestant Evangelicalism. It is, however, also true that at the end of the 1990s cooler tempers prevailed, at least in the academic study of religion. It was no longer fashionable to simply call secularization theories false. It was suggested instead that only quantitative theories of secularization were wrong. There was no less religion, but rather a different kind of religion. Religion, for all its prominence in the media, had become less influential in determining moral and political choices, both for individuals and nations (particularly in the West and in Japan). Paradoxically, religion had become more prominent and widespread, whilst at the same time less relevant. In other words, qualitative theories of secularization may still have a point. The great religious reversal of the 1990s, while increasing the "quantity" of religion in society, actually failed to significantly change its "quality".

Since religion’s return to prominence in the 1990s will be hard to surpass in the next decades, there is no reason to predict that this trend is likely to be reversed within the next decades, and I will offer here some tentative speculations about what may happen within the next twenty years. While there is no way of knowing the details, it is safe to predict that qualitative secularization will still exist in the 2010s. Religion will remain important both in society and in the media, but most crucial cultural and political decisions will not be determined by it. For example, it is unlikely that the foreseeable growth of individual religious opposition to abortion and gay rights will translate into effective organizational efforts and determine major changes in legislation, either in the United States or in Europe. We are told that in Islamic countries there is no qualitative (nor, of course, quantitative) secularization, but this, in turn, may also be a mistake. Fundamentalism is a complicated phenomenon, combining political and religious themes, and may not, of itself, lead to increased piety. Rulers and politicians may continue to pay lip service to Islam, while in fact manipulating faith for purely political purposes (although, of course, there is no clear distinction between religion and politics in Islam).

A second prediction of the 1970s was that there was no way organized religion could avoid decline. In Europe (as opposed to other continents), many believe that this prediction was less wrong than the more general one on quantitative secularization. After all, while the number of persons defining themselves as "religious" increased almost everywhere, the number of those attending a religious service on a weekly basis decreased considerably in most European countries (although the trend has been slowly reversed in Italy in recent years). The growth of religiosity has not meant a growth of religion. If true, this would be a peculiar European phenomenon (extending to a couple of large non-European countries, i.e. Canada and Japan). It is a more or less well-known fact that religion (and not only religiosity) is growing, although under very different conditions, in Asia, Africa, the Asia-Pacific area, the United States, and Latin America. Cox’s book Fire from Heaven suggests that European statistics may be wrong, failing as they do to include (just as American church attendance statistics did in the 1960s) hundreds of independent conservative, evangelical and fundamentalist Pentecostal churches, as well as Catholic charismatic organizations. Pentecostals and charismatics in general in the world number roughly 400 million. Scholars of Pentecostalism are quite bold in predicting half a billion Pentecostals by the year 2020, or even by the year 2010. For a number of technical reasons, Pentecostals are not easily counted, and this may explain discrepancies in the available statistics. In this respect, some predictions of the 1970s turned out to be accurate. There were those, in fact, who predicted that conservative churches would grow, while liberal churches would decline. One model was Dean M. Kelley’s 1972 book Why Conservative Churches are Growing: A Study in Sociology of Religion (reprint: Macon [Georgia]: Mercer University Press, 1988). Contrary to popular media wisdom, Kelley predicted that everywhere in the world fundamentalist and conservative religion, mostly preaching a strict moral code, would grow. Churches, Kelley said, did not keep people by adopting more liberal moral standards. Liberals, in fact, would applaud, but not join, them, and conservatives would leave. On the other hand, in an increasingly liberal society, conservatives (of which there is never any real shortage) will be happy to join a stricter form of religion. This is, of course, true in Islamic countries, but has also been true within Judaism, Hinduism, and Christianity as well. Rather than a general decline in organized religion, we have seen instead a simple move from liberal to conservative (and fundamentalist) forms of organized religion. Following scholars of Pentecostalism and fundamentalism, we may perhaps venture to predict that this trend will, if anything, be accelerated in the next decade or so. Surprisingly, fundamentalists (including radical Islamic groups) and conservatives have been much quicker in seizing the opportunities of globalization and new technologies. Radically conservative groups operate some of the best-developed global networks and Internet presence. In fact, their growth has been halted only by political obstacles, including discriminatory legislation against minorities (in some Latin American countries) and outright persecution in the Communist world. Because these obstacles may gradually be eroded (although, as of the year 2000, they are still strictly enforced in China), conservative groups may grow at a surprising rate. No scenario of religion in the 2010s could claim credibility, which does not include, among the most prominent players, conservative charismatic Catholics, Pentecostal protestants, independent fundamentalist churches, Hindu nationalists, Islamic fundamentalists, Orthodox and Hasidic Jews, as well as similar global conservative movements. Since all societies also harbor a liberal element, certain forms of religion adapted particularly to post-modern liberal feelings will also prosper. A case in point is the global Buddhist movement Soka Gakkai which, having completed its transition to a genuinely modern or post-modern spirituality, will very probably continue to grow. It is also possible that, by the year 2020 or so, liberal splinter groups will have separated themselves from the Roman Catholic Church and other denominations over issues such as abortion, gay rights, or feminism. Such groups, should they succeed in establishing themselves, will surely attract a disproportionate media attention, although their membership totals will remain comparatively small. Large liberal denominations (such as most mainline Protestant churches in Europe) will probably continue to decline.

A third prediction advanced with some caution in the 1970s and with much more boldness in the 1980s was that, as mainline churches supposedly declined, almost all countries were ready for an explosion of "cults" or "sects". This prediction was both right and wrong. It was right in terms of the number of "new religious movements" which may be included in lists or inventories. There are several thousands of them in North America, Europe, the Asia—Pacific region, Latin America, and many more still in Africa. The predictions were also wrong, however, because, while the number of movements is increasing, there is no evidence that membership totals are also growing. New and alternative religious movements represent less than 2% of the population in most countries of the world, with the exception of some African countries and Japan. Some "old" new religions, such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Mormons, enjoyed spectacular growth in the 20th century. Rodney Stark, one of the few sociologists of religion not afraid to make long-term predictions, has predicted a Mormon boom in the first decades of the 21st century. This may well be true, but even if the 10 million strong Mormon Church doubles its membership, it will remain a comparatively minor player when compared to one billion of Catholics or one billion of Moslems. There is every reason to believe that the Darwinian struggle for life among new religious movements will continue into the next two decades. Some, unheard of in the year 2000, will emerge into sudden prominence, but will not be able to remotely challenge the largest religions from a statistical point of view. Some will undoubtedly still provoke human tragedies, such as acts of terrorism or "mass" suicides. These tragedies, which will continue to occur, episodically, among small groups of a few hundred to a few thousand members, will be statistically almost irrelevant (although, of course, very relevant for their members and innocent victims). States regarding secularism as a value to be preserved at all costs will also continue to raise the flag of "dangerous sects" (France) or "evil cults" (China, Russia), in order to enact measures aimed at controlling conservative or "irrational" religion in general. These measures may be adopted by both democratic and non-democratic states, the operative word being their militant secularism, rather than their commitment to democracy (or lack thereof). Although individual movements (such as Falun Gong in China or the Jehovah’s Witnesses in France) will continue to be targeted for years to come, countries adopting discriminatory or anti-cult measures against religious minorities will find themselves under increasing scrutiny by international organizations. The first decade of the 21st century will see the implementation of laws conferring to the United States a mandate to monitor religious liberty throughout the world (just as they try to watch human rights in general). International religious liberty laws are extremely popular in the United States, and it is more than likely that any Republican or Democratic administration will sustain them, no matter how unpopular they may be in some Western and Eastern European countries, or in China. The United States will also try to protect forms of religion and religiosity accepted or tolerated in North America, but regarded as suspiciously bizarre (or excessively money-oriented) elsewhere. International pressure will probably lead to the demise of official hostility against religious minorities, "cults" or "sects", in most countries of the world; although France's massive anti-cult bureaucracy may be the last one to go. Another factor leading to this demise will be the simple observation that anti-cult measures are rarely effective: extreme conditions, perceived as persecution tend to reinforce religious movements rather than undermine them. All this, however, will not lead to an extraordinary explosion of "cults" and "sects" in the next decades. Thousands of new religious movements will continue to compete for the allegiance of a comparatively small percentage of the population prepared to join them.

In conclusion, I (and, I believe, many colleagues in religious studies) look forward to seeing religion, and particularly "new" religion, strongly represented, both in unorganized and organized forms, in 20 years from now. By that time, religion may well be even more prominent in the media than it is today. Media coverage and empirical reality will probably be different, too, insofar as the media will give more attention to liberal denominations and clerics than their continuing decline would probably deserve. The media machine will also spotlight a sustained growth in conservative and fundamentalist religion of all varieties. Some "old" new religions, such as the Mormons or the Jehovah’s Witnesses, will probably grow enough to be acknowledged as part of the mainline. Other "new" new religions will emerge - while others will disappear - their total membership remaining but a small percentage of the total general population. Pentecostalism, charismatic Catholicism, and globalized Islam are much more likely to be among the ultimate winners. Official and governmental hostility to religion, including minority religions and "cults", will become a less significant phenomenon. Religionists will be very happy to look back and be able to confirm that rumors of the death of God were indeed grossly exaggerated. As in the year 2000, however, they will again be unable to control the global orientation of world culture and society, because competition arising from more secular factors and forces will remain as strong as ever.

On the other hand, all these predictions may simply have been proved wrong, yet another confirmation, if one is needed, that the study of newer forms of religion is just about the least boring of all academic disciplines, precisely because of religion’s inexhaustible capacity to surprise even its most astute observers.


 [Massimo Introvigne is managing director of CESNUR (Center for Studies on New Religions) in Turin, Italy. He has lectured extensively on the history and sociology of religious movements, and has given seminars and courses in a number of academic institutions (most recently at the Pontifical Athenaeum Queen of the Apostles in Rome). He is the author of thirty books in Italian (some of them translated into English, French, German and Spanish), and of more than a hundred chapters and articles in numerous international scholarly publications.]

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