Sunday, December 14, 2014

"What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?"

Time for another blast from the past. This is a repost from earlier this year (Feb. 3, 2014). The most basic underlying assumptions behind the academic study of so-called "new religions" are highly questionable. For example, most so-called "new religions" in Japan, where the field originated, turn out to be not "new" at all, but simply syncretic repackagings of Buddhism, Taoism, Shinto, etc. And it also turns out that the oldest "new" religions in Japan are now about 200 years old - much older than many prominent modern Christian sects. More importantly, however, is the original assumption that the appearance of "new" religions is some kind of signal of societal breakdown. In fact, as J. Gordon Melton discusses below, in any truly free society, religious experimentation is to be expected -- and wherever the continuous appearance and thriving of "new" religions is not found, then this can be interpreted as a sign that the society in question is lacking in the religious freedom department. 

One of the leading scholars in the field of so-called "new religions studies", J. Gordon Melton,  published a truly remarkable paper back in 2007. In his New New Religions: Revisiting a Concept, Melton first gives a very helpful overview of the whole field of "new religions studies", starting from the study of shin-shûkyô in post-war Japan, up through the latest developments in the post-New-Age "Next Age" movements in America and Europe, and the "new new religions" (shin-shin-shûkyô) phenomenon in Japan.

Having laid this groundwork, Melton then goes on to discuss how, in his view, the field of "new religions studies" is now "being challenged at its very core". The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand there is the practical issue of "new religions" scholars justifying their continued existence in the face of many and varied territorial threats to the field. Among these threats are the active, and often very effective, resistance of major Christian and Jewish groups to the denotation of any of their coreligionists as followers of a "new" religion. Another threat comes from rival sub-specialties devoted to the study of Esotericism, Buddhism and Hinduism. A closely related threat is the dying down of the moral panic of the 80s and 90s over "dangerous cults", that, while it lasted, helped to give the impression that the study of "new religions" was serving some broader purpose in helping to alert and arm society against potentially dangerous religious elements (while simultaneously, although to a lesser extent, allowing some scholars to pose as high-minded protectors of "new religions" from slanders and misrepresentations).

But the second threat to "new religions studies" is far more worrisome, or at least should be to anyone involved in the field. For, as Melton states rather plainly, the whole theoretical basis for the study of "new religions" is highly questionable, and that might be putting it too diplomatically. As Melton explains, the field of "new religions studies" started out guided by the assumption that the appearance of "new religions" was somehow inherently problematic. That is to say, "new religions" scholars were posing the question: "What was wrong that people were turning to new religions?" This question was based on the assumption that "new" religions do not tend to occur in societies that are stable and secure, and/or that individuals who are well-adjusted do not get involved with such things as "new religions".

One major problem with the whole "new religions" paradigm and its underlying assumptions is that what scholars had labeled as "new religions" turned out to be, on closer inspection, simply repackagings of religious ideas and practices that are not "new" at all. By the 1990s this had become painfully obvious to those who were studying the phenomenon of "new religions" in Japan, which is where it all started. Another problem was that, as the 20th century was drawing to close, the original "new" religions of Japan were far less "new" than they had been at first. Moreover, a whole new crop of "new" religions was appearing under very different circumstances, and scholars felt compelled to dub these "new new religions". On top of this, it was now recognized that there had been at least two other phases of "new religions" prior to the end of World War II, so that a total of four distinct phases of "new religions" were now recognized in Japan, with the oldest of these "new" religions being over two centuries old!

By 2007 Melton had come to realize that the emergence of "new" religions must be seen as a normal, continual process in human societies. "New" religions appear in good economic times, and bad economic times; during times of war, and times of peace; during times of social upheaval, and during times of relative social stability. For example, Melton points out that more "new" religions came into existence in the U.S. during the 1950s than during the 60s and 70s!

Meton's conclusion demonstrates that true scholarship requires not just intellectual curiosity, but intellectual courage as well. For he concludes that instead of asking what is wrong with the societies in which "new" religions arise, and/or with the individuals who take part in them, scholars must turn the question on its head and ask: "What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?" And Melton goes even further and asserts that "The production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society."

Here is how Melton himself puts it in his words in the conclusion of his paper:

Let me suggest one insight that comes from my reconsideration of the idea of new new religions. In the 1990s Japanese scholars divided their history into several periods, a format quite understandable in light of the dramatic change in 1945: the Meiji Era (1868–1912); the post-World War I period to 1945; the post-World War II period to 1970; and the time of the new new religions. In examining each of these periods,it can be seen that new religions were produced. If we break down these eras into decades or even shorter periods, we find that new religions were forming in each and every period. In good times and bad, socially turbulent times and relatively calm times, new religions were founded and experienced ups and downs.

Simultaneously, the same occurred in the West. We can document the steady rise of new religions country by country, and how in each country the founding of new religions is directly related to a relatively limited set of factors: the level of religious freedom (which has varied immensely across Europe); the size of the country’s population; and the percentage of the population that is urbanized (that is, the existence of centers of high-density populations). It is of more than passing interest that relative to the population, in the United States more new religions were founded in the 1950s than the 1960s or 1970s. It should concern us that attempts to project the increase of new millennial movements in the 1990s fizzled, and that actually there were far more millennial expectations alive in the 1970s than at the end of the millennium.

Thus we come to a significant hypothesis: The production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society. It may be that the type of new religions may change from era to era, but the production is fairly steady relative to population and urbanization. The emergence of new religions seems to be one sign of a healthy and free society, and we can now see everywhere that the slowing of the process of the formation of new religions occurs only where the suppressive powers of the state are called to bear. This view of new religions represents a significant change from how we viewed them just a generation ago. In the West, we began the enterprise of studying new religions by trying to explain their emergence: What was wrong that people were turning to new religions? Now we ask the opposite: What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent? In every such case, we find that the state imposes severe penalties on anyone who chooses to join a new religion.

The situation of state repression actually supplies us with an amazing amount of material concerning how people who found and join a new religion discover the various strategies, apart from adopting a wholly clandestine existence, to get around the law. For example, one sees a group of new religions, especially Esoteric groups, defining themselves as “not religion.” Other groups will develop variations on accepted religious practices and limit meetings to the facilities of an older religion—a strategy alive and well in many Muslim countries. Additionally, one sees new religions emerging as special interest, social betterment, or community service organizations—a widespread phenomenon in the People’s Republic of China where there are only five officially recognized religions.

In the end, a reconsideration of the concept of “new new religions” again informs us of the reason it fell by the wayside as an operative concept. Whichever group of religions are labeled the new new religions are already in the process of becoming the older new religions and being replaced by still newer new religions. That is simply the process within a dynamic social setting. This insight now sets a new agenda for us.

We understand that when people are in a free social context, some will form and join new religions. But why will those few particular people form a new religion, and why will others choose to join it? What kind of categories are best for understanding the process: social, psychological, para-psychological, economic, historical ...divine? Once formed, what will happen to the new religion? Will it survive to a second generation? Is knowledge of those religions that died out important? Will the new religion join the religious establishment or remain in the fringe? Will it remain local or become international?

There is still a large untouched program for research for new religions studies, and it may just be that new new religions will be our best asset in moving it forward.


TABLE: Japanese "New Religions" founded since 1925 with membership (as of 1990) of 500,000 or more, according to Shimazono, Susumu (2004): From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press. pp. 234-235. For context, the total population of Japan in 1990 was estimated at about 123 million.

Sōka Gakkai 1930 17,736,757  Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871-1944) and Toda Jōsei (1900-1956)
Risshō Kōsei-kai 1938 6,348,120  Naganuma Myōkō (1889-1957) Niwano Nikkyō (1906-1999)
Bussho Gonenkai Kyōdan 1950 2,196,813  Sekiguchi Kaichi (1897-1961) Sekiguchi Tomino (1905-1990)
Perfect Liberty Kyōdan 1946 1,259,064  Miki Tokuharu (1871-1938) Miki Tokuchika (1900-1983)
Myōchikai Kyōdan 1950 962,611  Miyamoto Mitsu (1900-1984) 
Honbushin 1961 900,000  Ōnishi Tama (1916-1969) 
Sekai Kyūsei-kyō 1935 835,756  Okada Mokichi (1882-1955)
Seichō-no-Ie 1930 838,496  Taniguchi Masaharu (1893-1985) 
Ōyama Nezunomikoto Shinji Kyōkai 1948 826,022  Inaii Sadao (1906-1988) 
Nenpō-shinkyō 1925 807,486  Ogura Reigen (1886-1982) 
Reiha-no-Hikari Kyōkai 1954 761,175  Hase Yoshio (1915-1984)
Shin'nyoen 1936 679,414  Itō Shinjō (1906-1956)
Zenrin-kyō 1947 513,321  Rikihisa Tatsusai (1906-1977)
Sūkyō Mahikari 1978 501,328  ---
Byakkō Shinkō-kai 1951 500,000  Goi Masahisa (1916-1980)