A guide to “new religions”

Most Unitarian Universalist ministers get four weeks of study leave each year. I’m taking a week of my study leave through Wednesday, March 2, to work on a couple of writing projects. But this also means I have a little time to catch up on my reading list.

At the top of my pile of books right now is New Religions, A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge, and published in 2004 by Oxford University Press. There are entries on some 200 new religious movements, as well as essays on relevant topics like “Contemporary Sufism,” “Fundamentalisms,” and “Astrology.”

I’m especially fond of the overall organization of the book, which groups new religious movements together based on the traditions out of which they have grown. Thus there are sections on new religious movements with roots in Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Zoroastrianism, Indian religions, religions of east Asia, indigenous and pagan traditions, western esoteric and New Age traditions — and, best of all, new religious movements which have roots in modern western cultures. In this last section, you’ll find entries on “Thee Church ov Moo,” Scientology, and the aforementioned essay on fundamentalisms.

You’ll find the Swedenborgians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Christian Scientists included in the chapter on new religious movements with roots in Christianity. However, Unitarian Universalism is not considered a new religious movement. No real surprise — from the point of view of sociology or comparative religions, we Unitarian Universalists look very much like mainline Protestant denominations.

This could be a useful book for Unitarian Universalists, especially those of us living in regions where the Christian conservatives dominate. Read this book to get a precise definition of what a “cult” is, so that next time someone tells you your Unitarian Universalist church is a “cult,” you can explain why that is not true — and furthermore, why we are not even a new religious movement.

(By the way, there’s an essay in the book on “Prosperity Theology” as an alternative spirituality — guess Rick Warren isn’t quite as mainstream as some had hoped.)