Friday, June 18, 2010

Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements

Edited by Peter B. Clarke, 686 pages, Routledge.

Editor Peter Clarke points out that our anti-tradition, individualistic, internet age (what some call "post-modern") has led to the creation of countless new religious movements (NRMs). Traditional religions around the world are being uprooted because of aggressive capitalism, which radically re-structures societies. Religions are not geographically tied, as they once were, but have become global phenomena, meaning that everyone in the world has access to Islam, for instance. Previously, Islam was principally a Middle Eastern, African, and south-east Asian belief.

Japan's post-World War II society has produced many NRMs, mostly based on Buddhism or Shintoism, helping people in that country follow traditional beliefs and practices in the modern world. Many of these new movements were started by women, and followers typically feel strong ties to the leader, and venerate them after they die.

India's many meditation- or neo-Hindu-based religious movements often had much to do with the struggle over national identity occasioned by the British Raj. Many Hindus wanted to purify the old beliefs, or use them as a way to kick out the Brits.

The various entries also examine Western religious movements of the last 150-odd years, including the teachings of Carl Jung and their religious implications. He was drawn to many eastern mystical practices, such as yoga or the Chinese i-ching divination practice. Like most Western movements, Jung favored the individualistic over the societal, communal view.

The New Age movement and its predecessors in psychology, shamanism, and Western writings on eastern mysticism tended to emphasize individual empowerment and self-fulfillment at the expense of family, duty, and honor.

Some movements give traditional Christian language and symbolism new meanings. A Course in Miracles "uses traditional Christian language and imagery, such as Father, Son, Holy Spirit, truth, grace, and forgiveness, but modifies traditional meanings to fit an idealist, neo-Gnostic worldview."

The Encyclopedia of New Religious Movements includes entries on recent developments in old traditions. Thus Focolare and Opus Dei are included, though the entry for Opus Dei is, predictably, biased. Its bibliography only lists 1 book, by an author critical of the movement.

The encyclopedia is useful for those who want an academic approach to religion, though like any other undertaking nowadays, it has its biases.

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