John L. Crow
In his 2007 essay, “New New Religions: Revisiting a Concept,” J. Gordon Melton asked again, “What are we studying?” After looking at the changing field and the subject of investigation, he asserted that new religions are mostly, “new representatives of some of the older religious traditions that exist as minorities in the West.” He goes on to claim that “the production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society.” I read this essay a few years ago, but in rereading it for the class, I began to wonder if his conclusion ultimately announced the end of the subdomain of new religious movements? As these minority traditions become less of a minority, do they cease being New Religious Movements?
One question I often ask my colleagues when discussing the category of New Religious Movements is why do traditions such as Spiritualism and Theosophy remain categorized as “new religions,” even though they are 130 to 160 years old, while more recent traditions, such as Pentecostalism, are not considered New Religious Movements, but new iterations or formations of previous, older traditions? It is because they are derivations of majority traditions. Clearly the “newness” of the tradition is not really the issue, despite the name of the sub-discipline. Instead the traditions that fall into New Religious Movements signal a kind of distance or deviance from an imagined norm. Thus the invocation of the variegated scale leading from church to cult.
In looking at the traditions on my syllabus and the issues that they raise, I must be honest, I did not really find any point that made them particularly different from other more commonly studied religious traditions. Issues of leadership, violence, children, gender, and so much more that arises in the context of New Religious Movements can be found in so many other traditions that are outside the context of NRMs. Even the issue of mass suicide, the much pointed to episodes of Jonestown, the Branch Dravidians, Heaven’s Gate, etc. can, perhaps, be compared to the ongoing mass suicides found in other traditions, such as forms of Islam where practitioners use explosives instead of Flavor Aid in their so-called revolutionary acts.
I am well aware of the previous need and history of the category and sub-discipline. The study of New Religious Movements served an important purpose, brought many aspects of ignored religious traditions to light, and helped change perceptions inside and outside the academy about minority traditions. That said, I wonder if its usefulness has diminished. There are already enormous vested interests for the sub-discipline to continue, and even grow. There are specialists in the category; programs, book series, and whole careers based on its existence and perpetuation. I am well aware of this, as I am within the system that perpetuates the sub-discipline. After all, I am teaching a NRM class next semester. But I think it is useful to occasionally stop and take a larger view of our academic investments and academic domains and ask larger questions. Has NRM served its usefulness? Is it time to just absorb the traditions and methodology into the larger purview of religious studies and/or sociology of religion, opening up opportunities for investigation that has generally been ignored? Or does the field of NRM studies serve a very important, and vital role to the domain of religious studies and the sociology of religion? Do NRMs point to new and important aspects of the phenomenon of religion that other domains and methodologies miss?
I am curious as to what others think. What do you think the role of NRM studies is or should be? How does it compliment other disciplines? Should it be continued and expanded? How do NRMs fit into your classes, if at all, and how do they relate to ARH? I am very interested to hear your thoughts.