CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne
CESNUR (pronounced CHEZ-ner) has come to town.
It doesn't have the simplest acronym in the book, but then the topics tackled by the CESNUR (The Center for Studies on New Religions) are never simple. This year, after meeting in France and England over the last two years, the group has come to Salt Lake City for its 22nd annual get-together. And, as many have come to expect, the theme of the event is both intriguing and tricky — The Mainstreaming and Marginalization of Religious Movements.
After a friendly greeting from The Most Rev. John C. Wester of the local Catholic diocese — where he congratulated the group for being the kind of "serious people, thoughtful people, studious people who take time to learn about religion and what makes people tick" — the scholars and students got down to business on Thursday. The conference will run for three days at the Salt Lake City and County Building. And this year, along with discussions on topics ranging from "The Falun Gong Self-Immolation Video" and "Polarization of Civil Society in Turkey," CESNUR has been taking an in-depth look at the LDS Church and its evolving legacy. (For individual stories on the various LDS sessions, visit MormonTimes.com.)
To set the stage for the week, Eileen Barker of the London School of Economics, a linchpin for the organization, set down a model for the way religions go from being on the margins of society to being incorporated into the mainstream.
Religions are marginalized in two ways, Barker said. The religious group itself may put itself on the periphery, or society may relegate it to the edges. Eventually, through an evolution of membership and attitudes, the religions on the margin tend to work into the mainstream. And the mainstream is evolving as well, said Barker, since it is really comprised of what our friends, legislators, media outlets and others tell us.
"It's all about the process," she said.
New religions often begin with a charismatic leader and enthusiastic converts who see the mainstream as corrupt. Likewise, those in the mainstream distance themselves from the new movement through labeling, harsh generalizations, scapegoating and making assumptions. Boundaries are formed.
In time, the new religion begins to lower its guard, learning from its past missteps and growing more sophisticated. A new generation of believers arises, taking the once radical movement from an attitude of "we are so different" to "we are so ordinary — just like everyone else."
As the religion moves into the greater society, there will often be a fundamentalist backlash from members who cherish the "good old days" and try to restore the purity of the faith with new offshoots. At the same time, the new corps of believers who have come into the fold have different levels of commitment — from being on a mailing list to being both inside and outside the faith at various times.
With that model as a backdrop, the conference promises to foster not only new understanding, but some lively discussions as well.
CESNUR is independent from any religious group, denomination or association. It's international headquarters are in Torino, Italy.
For more information about the Salt Lake City program and other aspects of CESNUR, visit the Web site at www.cesnur.org.
The local conference is sponsored in part by the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah and the Office of the Mayor of Salt Lake City.