Tag Archives: new religious movements

Religion vs. spirituality revisited

I’m working on this week’s sermon, which will focus on “new religious movements.” As I did some reading to prepare, I found an interesting passage in the book New Religions: A Guide: New Religious Movements, Sects, and Alternative Spiritualities, edited by Christopher Partridge (Oxford University Press, 2004), that has helped me to clarify the difference between religion and spirituality.

In his introductory essay, Partridge takes some time to distinguish between religious movements, sects, and alternative spiritualities — and I found his definition of the latter to be particularly helpful:

The term ‘alternative spirituality’ has been included because not all the articles in this volume discuss beliefs and practices that can be described as ‘religious’. Arguably, one of the more significant developments in particularly Western religious adherence is the emergence of private, non-institutional forms of belief and practice. The sacred persists, but increasingly it does so in non-traditional forms. There is, as the sociologist Grace Davie has argued, ‘believing without belonging’. More specifically, it can be argued that much of this believing without belonging should be defined as ‘spirituality’ rather than ‘religion’. There is in the West, for example, a move away from traditional forms of belief, which have developed within religious institutions, towards forms of belief that focus on the self, on nature, or simply on ‘life’. While there may be particular traditional teachings that are valued by the individual seeker, or particular groups to which the individual belongs, generally speaking there is a suspicion of traditional authorities, sacred texts, churches, and hierarchies of power. There is a move away from a ‘religion’ that focuses on things that are considered external to the self (God, the Bible, the church [and maybe Truth and Goodness?]) to ‘spirituality’ — that which focuses on ‘the self’ and is personal and interior….[pp. 16-17]

Reading this, it struck me that ‘believing without belonging’ is one of the major challenges faced by any institutionalized religious movement today. It also fits in with my observations:– many newcomers to the congregation I serve have little idea of how institutionalized religion works; they are sometimes suspicious of institutionalized religion; and they are often wary of committing themselves to a religious institution.

Christopher Partridge continues his definition of “alternative spiritualities” by saying this:

While the term ‘spirituality’ in this volume often has a particular reference to the ‘turn to the self’, it is also used of religious reflection that, strictly speaking, refers to more than this. For example, much contemporary feminist and eco-feminist spirituality cannot be considered as principally a ‘turn to the self’ and, indeed, is often developed within a particular religious tradition. Hence, when the term ‘spirituality’ is used of such developments it is used in a broader, less precise way, which merges with what might be understood as a ‘soft definition’ of religion. …[Some] Christian spiritualities discussed in this volume seek to overturn the distinction between the spiritual and the non-spiritual and understand spirituality to be a quest for full humanity that embraces the whole of the created order. Perhaps spirituality can be understood as a path that, while focusing on the self, seeks to extend to all life and certainly beyond the bounds of institutional religion. [p. 17]

While I’ve always felt a little queasy about “spirituality” as the term is usually used, I could definitely be an advocate of spirituality as a quest for a full humanity that gets individuals to embrace all humanity, all living beings, indeed all of life. At the same time, I’m all too aware of the pressures of mass culture that don’t allow us time or place to engage in spirituality — and that time/place is exactly what institutionalized religion (especially a local congregation) can provide.

Celebrity Scientology

Yesterday’s New York Times reported that Tom Cruise has been “raising eyebrows” with his recent behavior — said behavior including his active promotion of Scientology. Supposedly, movie studio executives had to endure a four-hour promotion of Scientology in order to be able to talk contracts with the star. And Cruise was allowed to have a tent promoting Scientology on the set of his most recent movie, “War of the Worlds,” even though no one else was allowed to promote their religions on the set.

But the Times missed the juiciest bit about Cruise’s recent promotion of Scientology, a new religious movement founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard. The Times noted that Cruise has publicly criticized actress Brooke Shields for taking anti-depressants to help her with post-partum depression. But we had to turn to yesterday’s Chicago Tribune for the direct quotes, and Ms. Shields’s response.

In a conversation with Access Hollywood, Cruise said Shields was “irresponsible” for taking meds to help with her depression, saying, “When someone says it has helped them, it is to cope. It didn’t cure anything. There is no science. There is nothing that can cure them whatsoever.” No, says Cruise (who must believe he’s some kind of expert on the subject), women should use exercise and vitamins to cure postpartum depression — and presumably, though this was left unsaid, he was hinting that Shields would have been best to join a local Church of Scientology.

The Tribune quotes Shield’s response from a recent issue of People magazine: “Tom should stick to saving the world from aliens and let women who are experiencing postpartum depression decide what treatment options are best for them.”

Ms. Shields was perhaps snarkier than she needed to be. I’d put it this way. Good manners dictates that Cruise may try to convince other people in private to give up modern medical science in favor of his religious alternative, but he may not go around making snide remarks in public about people who choose to follow other paths. Religious tolerance in our society depends on such good manners. I hope Tom Cruise learns some good manners, and learns that religious tolerance requires each of us to maintain good manners in public at all times.

Insider’s tip — and more on new religious movements

First, the insider’s tip for those of you who are part of the Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva — don’t miss this weekend’s worship service. I think you’ll enjoy what Lindsay and I have put together. Oh, and I’d recommend Saturday evening because — no, I won’t say any more because that will spoil the surprise.

As for new religious movements, I found a delightfully snarky article from “Lingua Franca” that reveals how scholarship in new religious movements can be quite profitable for the scholars involved. You’ll find it at this online site for new religious movements.

Scroll down and look for the article by Charlotte Allen. Turns out some anti-cultist scholars pocket big money for serving as expert witnesses, and some of those who champion religious tolerance and acceptance for new religious movements are getting funded by the Unification Church and Scientology.

There’s also an excellent article on the same page by John Chryssides which attempts to come up with a good definition of “new religious movement,” and which uses Unitarian Universalism as an example of a movement that has been accused of being a new religious movement, but which is not. Since “new religious movement” is the politically correct term for cults, that means we’re not a cult. How about that.

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.)