by Gustav Niebuhr ("The New York Times", December 25, 1999)
National polls report that 19 in 20 Americans affirm a belief in God, and 4 in 10 claim to attend religious services regularly. But aside from revealing that religiosity runs higher in the United States than in most other economically developed nations, these polls don't say much about what people actually believe.
A growing number of scholars have begun to fill in the gap, however, working in an unconventional academic specialty they call new religious movements. This emerging field has not only attracted traditional religion experts but also psychologists, anthropologists and literary critics. It has even brought forth a separate study group within the American Academy of Religion called the New Religious Movements Group, for scholars interested in the topic.
The new field covers a broad band of beliefs and organizations outside the more familiar Christian and Jewish institutions, ranging from the exotic (spiritually oriented U.F.O. devotees) to the well-established (the Bahais), from the marginal and tragic (the suicidal Heaven's Gate group) to the large and upbeat (the evangelical Promise Keepers men's movement).
It is "a growth industry in the academy," said Phillip C. Lucas, an associate professor of religious studies at Stetson University in De Land, Fla. Mr. Lucas considers this an era of intense religious activity. Technology, especially the Internet and the ease of airline travel, has reduced both time and space, he explained, allowing people a wider access to beliefs and religious systems. ("So we can learn about Tibetan Buddhism, Shintoism or feng shui by surfing the Net," he said.) "One of the fascinating things about being a student of this field is there really is a paradigm shift going on."
Although new faiths are often summarily dismissed, yesterday's new religion may be today's powerhouse. Consider the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Mormons, which began with a handful of people in an upstate New York village in 1830 and now counts more than 10 million members worldwide.
William Ashcraft, a professor of religious studies at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., said that most new-faith adherents see themselves as set apart from the surrounding culture. "Scholars have come to think of these groups as anybody who is alternative to the mainstream," he said.
Brenda Brasher, assistant professor of religion at Mount Union College in Alliance, Ohio, said, "I even put the Promise Keepers under that heading as a new religious movement, because it literally is, it emerged in the 90's. Even though it's out of a dominant tradition, the movement itself is new."
Mr. Ashcraft and Ms. Basher are coordinators of the New Religious Movements Group, which has held sessions on Christian Science, New Age beliefs, goddess worship, the Hare Krishnas, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon's Unification Church, new Hasidic groups, conversion, women's roles and attitudes toward violence.
Like most experts, however, they don't use the word cult. "Practically every religion we know of is labeled a cult in some country," Ms. Brasher said.
These scholars say it is not possible to tell the full history of American religion by focusing solely on Protestant churches, Roman Catholicism and the main branches of Judaism.
After all, the rise of new religious groups, the black Muslims for example, reflects tensions in society at large, resulting in pressures that make many people more receptive to ideas outside the established faiths.
The United States, home to an ethnically diverse population and the idea that a person can always begin again, has gone through spurts of new religious activity. One occurred in the second quarter of the 19th century after the Revolutionary War generation had died and new technologies like canals and railroads were reshaping American life.
The era included the heyday of the Shakers, a group then regarded as heretical because members believed Christ would take a female form at the second coming. That period also saw an surge in evangelical activity, the establishment of communes like Brook Farm in Massachusetts and the Oneida community in New York, and the rise and collapse of a movement around William Miller, a Bible student who repeatedly predicted the world's end in 1843-44.
More recently, the cultural upheavals of the 1960's helped diminish the social taboos against religious experimentation. As Mr. Lucas explained, "There is far less stigma attached to searching outside the mainstream when it comes to one's own religion." And today, new technologies are once again causing upheavals in American life. "I do think it's easier to be involved in a new religious movement now because of the Internet," Ms. Brasher said. "Geography is no longer destiny. It's easier for small religious groups to form. They've got a medium through which they can encourage each other."
Scholars whose research puts them in contact with new faiths can share their work in a new journal, Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions, which is edited by Mr. Lucas. The current issue has five articles on the relationship between scholars of new religions and law enforcement agents. One discusses how scholars warned the F.B.I. not to exert heavy pressure on a group called the Freemen during its three-month standoff with federal agents in Montana in 1996.
"We advised that it would be counterproductive to take aggressive action against an apocalyptic group" that was "expecting conflict," writes Catherine Wessinger, a professor at Loyola University in New Orleans.
The standoff ended peacefully, in contrast to the fiasco that ended the clash between the Branch Davidians in Waco, Tex., and agents of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco in 1993.
Although experts point out that new religions vary widely, they do concede that those bitterly hostile to society have a potential for violence, like Aum Shinrikyo, the Japanese group that used poison gas in the Tokyo subway, or Jim Jones's People's Temple, which engaged in a mass suicide in the jungles of Guyana. They argue that a better understanding of these groups' beliefs may help government agencies deal peacefully with them, avoiding encounters that can lead to loss of life.
But containing violence isn't the only motive for the fascination with new religious movements. Many scholars argue that these groups are often the purveyors of more widely accepted ideas.
"In the alternative religions of today," Ms. Brasher said, "could be our habits and cultures of tomorrow. Some of those are very exciting and some of those are quite scary."
The Oneida community, for example, pioneered the concept of equality in work between men and women, and the Seventh-day Adventists pushed the case for healthier diets.
Citing a more modern instance, Mr. Lucas credited a small group, the Holy Order of MANS (which has since become affiliated with the Eastern Orthodox churches) with establishing shelters for victims of domestic violence in the early 1970's, before the idea caught on widely. He added that new religious movements in general had long provided more openings for women to be leaders.
And Mr. Ashcraft said the Shakers made a case for celibacy as an alternative at a time when the dominant Protestant culture viewed marriage and family as an imperative.
"Religion is the expression of humanity trying to make sense of the world," Mr. Ashcraft said. "I guess to me that's the reason I'm interested in new religions. I'm interested in how it is that people coming out of the same social context as the rest of us march to the beat of a different drummer."
"Does it indicate the way we might be going?" he asked. "Because often these groups are trendsetters."
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