The Revitalization of Religions

As professor of American studies and of religious studies, I have specialized in the field of new religious movements. They are not a mere object of curiosity. To consider them as unusual phenomena popping up around or outside of mainstream religions would be a serious mistake. The religious landscape is continuously changing and the new religions of today may, in all likelihood, be the mainstream religions of tomorrow.

One of the theories that I have found most useful to understand the massive movement under way is the theory of the revitalization of religion by Anthony Wallace (1956): how in times of major cultural upheavals, new prophets or founders of spiritual systems will rise to offer solutions better adapted to the changing circumstances. We clearly are in a time of major cultural and social changes and religions react to such transformations by either losing strength or, on the contrary, by gaining ground over the others, if they have understood the real spiritual demands of people. Thus, some religions will appear and die, rapidly or not. New religions follow different patterns. Some are likely to disappear when their founder dies, some will do so rapidly, whilst for others it will take a long time. Others will grow and survive through centuries, a proof that they have been able to respond to spiritual needs on the long term.

Bible laying on top of an american flagshutterstock

When the Mormons appeared in the United States almost two centuries ago, who could have predicted that they would have today so many million followers around the world, and a state, Utah, in which they dominate today? No one, except maybe their prophet Joseph Smith. Some wanted them to disappear: the Governor of Missouri, at that time, even issued “Executive Order 44”, called the “extermination order”, because he directed that “the Mormons must be treated as enemies, and must be exterminated or driven from the State if necessary for the public peace”.

The Ahmadiyya Muslims offer another interesting example: from a small minority following Mirza Ghulam Ahmad in Pakistan at the very end of the 19th Century, they now number more than 10 million, despite strong persecution, which continue nowadays in certain countries. The story of the Baha’i follows the same trajectory: from intense persecution in their birthplace, Persia, to being a major international movement.

Much decried in some places, the Church of Scientology offers yet again a most interesting case study. In January 2019 (“The Visible Expansion of the Church of Scientology and Its Actors”, Journal of Cesnur) I published a paper on this Church, after having gained access to many of its facilities as well as its internal documentation at its headquarters in Hollywood. It is experiencing an impressive growth all around the world, and it’s clear that it is not going to vanish in the next century. With Scientology, I’ve discovered many phenomena that are very interesting for a scholar of religion. One feature that struck me is to see other religious groups adopting parts of Scientology to complement their own religion. I cover an example of this in my paper: “This study of the recent developments of the Church of Scientology was triggered my interest when I heard that the Druzes, in the North of Israel, were taking Scientology courses. Having spent time among the Druzes of the Chouf in Lebanon, I was most surprised to hear that such an ancient and secretive community, which parceled out rather sparingly the tenets and practices of its religion, could be open to another world view, one so totally modern and western. I also learned that Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, had followed Scientology courses and that several members, including high ranking ones, have done so too. I had studied the Nation of Islam in the 1980s and knowing their fierce cultural and racial separatism then, I was puzzled by such collaboration. After interviewing several members of the Nation of Islam – including high ranking ones – I discovered that Scientology had helped them overcoming their racial prejudice and worldview and I could also see the link with the ethical code promoted by Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam.

Marquee for the offices of the Church of Scientology located on 46th street in Manhattan, New York City near Times Squareshutterstock

What does that tell us? Why should we be learning more about new religious movements? Because as their predecessors did, they are contributing to the development of future trends, with worldviews that might seem unusual to older generations but are much more relevant to current one, they are regenerating actors, as Wallace explained.

All this does not imply that traditional religions are going to vanish. Catholicism, Islam, Protestantism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Judaism, etc., will continue to exist and might even experience some “renaissance” periods in the near future. But they have now to share the religious landscape with newcomers. As Belgian Cardinal Joseph de Kezel said recently: “It must be understood that Christianity was, for a long time, the cultural religion in Europe. Today this is no longer the case. And it would be dangerous to go back because it is always dangerous to have one religious tradition that obtains a monopoly. This is true for Christianity, for Islam…for any religion.” Throughout the ages, traditional religions have often been positive forces, bringing civilization and values, as well as hope for spiritual freedom. Of course, they also share some less redeeming features, and have been at times used by political forces to control and oppress populations. Nevertheless, we also need to open to and accept from newcomers in the field of religion.

It is not only that the future will be forged by the influence of some of these new religions, it is also the here and now, which already includes them in the religious landscape. They are here, they are acting and we need to understand them and to know more about them, if we want to avoid the mistakes of the past, when intolerance and bigotry brought the worst of us to power, and many to death. Also, we can remember what Gordon Melton said: “there are enough people nowadays to fill all the pews of a great variety of religions, so the more choices, the better for mankind…”

Professor of North American Studies at Bordeaux Montaigne University in France. She directs the Masters “Religions and Societies” and the Centre for Canadian Studies. She is a specialist in contemporary North American religions (including Mormonism and Amerindian Catholicism), their international locations and inculturation processes.