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Posted February 6, 2004

Book: The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements
Edited by: James R. Lewis
Oxford University Press, New York, pp. 544

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

When the public has taken note of New Religious Movements (NRMs), it has generally been because of sensational tragedies like those involving Heaven’s Gate or the Branch Davidians. The groups that have made the headlines, however, represent only a tiny fraction of NRMs, which are myriad, diverse, and multiplying exponentially.

New Religious Movements came into being as a distinct area of academic study in response to the explosion of nontradtional religious movements in the waning years of the Sixties counterculture. These movements initially attracted the attention of sociologists because of the controversy that arose in response to their expansion. Subsequently, many scholars of religion also began to turn their attention to NRMs. There are now several journals, an academic association (CESNUR), and a section of the American Academy of Religion devoted to NRMs.

The Oxford Handbook of New Religious Movements both covers the current state of the field and breaks new ground. Its contributors, drawn from both sociology and religious studies, are leading figures in the study of NRMs. The Handbook covers everything from the core topics that define the field — conversion, the brainwashing debate, the anti-cult movement, millennialism, and modernization – to NRM subfields such as neopaganism, satanism, and UFO religions. Taken together, the twenty-two essays in this Handbook — all specially commissioned for this volume — offer the most comprehensives and accessible overview of this growing field.

An excerpt from the Book:

While I am wary of posting overly speculative theories, it would seem that popular culture is a key reenchanting factor which may have a far more influential role in the shaping and dissemination of contemporary thought than is often acknowledged. Indeed, a similar thesis was hinted at over a decade ago by Campbell and McIver in their examination of cultural sources of support for contemporary occultism. The study demonstrates the integration of occultic worldviews within contemporary Western culture. By so doing the study goes some way to explaining why “ordinary” individuals in the West can develop a commitment to apparently obscure occult practices and beliefs. The point is that this is important when it comes to mapping the gradual shift from disenchantment to reenchantment.

Popular culture has a relationship with contemporary alternative religious thought that is both expressive and formative. Whether musical, visual, or literary, popular culture is both an expression of the cultural milieu from which it emerges and formative of that culture, in that it contributes to the formation of worldviews and , in so doing, influences what people accept as plausible. Although not discussing religion, Elizabeth Traube nevertheless makes the relevant point that it matters little whether media professionals are concerned with the construction of subjectivities or with the simple telling of pleasurable stories, because the stories themselves “are vehicles for constructing subjectivities, and hence what stories are circulated is socially consequential.” My point is simply that, whatever is intended by the producers of popular culture, there is little doubt that people are developing religious and metaphysical ideas by reflecting on themes explored in literature, film, and video games – which, in turn, reflect popular reenchantment and thus might be understood as part of a process of modern religious “deprivatization” (Jose Casanova). Moreover, it is not insignificant that producers of popular culture are increasingly interested in alternative religious and occult themes. As Campbell and McIver comment, “commercial interests dictate that the interests of the majority are catered for and hence the extensive treatment of occult themes is yet further testimony to a degree of popular commitment.”

While I am not claiming that this relationship with popular culture is a new development (for it clearly is not), the evidence seems to suggest that popular culture is both helping people to think through theological and metaphysical issues and also providing resources for the construction of alternative religious worldviews. Belief in astrology or in UFOs are good examples of popular commitment to such nonconventional, metaphysical themes. For example, there is evidence of a close relationship between the fact that, as John Saliba had noted, Western popular culture encourages “the idea that space people and/or invaders exist” and the fact that there are not only many people happy to entertain the existence of UFOs, but also many who are committed to notions of visitation, abduction, and related ideas. As Thomas Bullard comments, “Belief in UFOs was once an oddity, a badge of craziness in the routines of popular humour. But little by little this belief has become the norm, and nearly half of the population (of the US) now affirms that UFOs are real. In her intriguing book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outer space to Cyberspace, Jodi Dean argues for the existence of a close two-way relationship between popular culture and seriously held conspiracy theories regarding alien abduction. This rise of interest in UFO mythology and alien abductions is not only reflected in programs such as The X Files; it is also stimulated and shaped by such programs: “The X Files capitalizes on and contributes to pop-cultural preoccupation with aliens. “Apparently, significant numbers of Americans are convinced. In June 1997, 17 percent of the respondents to a Time/CNN poll claimed to believe in abduction.” Similarly, Peter Knight’s discussion of conspiracy culture notes that “more than a few X-Files viewers have come to take the show’s conspiracy and fringe-science revelation as fact.” UFO mythology has not only begun to have a shaping effect on Western plausibility structures, but it is clear, that it has been an important source of inspiration for numerous occult/metaphysical/New Age belief systems and that it is feeding into alternative spirituality more generally.

Table of Contents:

1. An introduction to new religions
J. Gordon Melton

Part I. Modernization and New Religions

2. Alternative spiritualities, new religions, and the reenchantment of the West
Christopher Partridge

3. The sociocultural significance of modern new religious movements
Lorne L. Dawson

4. Science and religion in the new religions
Mikael Rothstein

5. Virtually religious: new religious movements and the world wide web
Douglas E. Cowan and Jeffrey K. Hadden

Part II. Social Conflict

6. Violence and new religious movements
David G. Gromley

7. Legal dimensions of new religions
James T. Richardson

8. The North American anti-cult movement: vicissitudes of success and failure
Anson Shupe, David G. Gromley, and Susan E. Darnell

9. Something peculiar from France: anti-cult campaigns in Western Europe and French religious exceptionalism
Massimo Introvigne

10. Satanism and ritual abuse
Philip Jenkins

11. Leaving the fold: disaffiliating from new religious movements
David G. Bromley

Part III. Social and Psychological Dimensions

13. Psychology and the new religious movements
John A. Saliba

14. Millennialism
Richard Landes

15. The mythic dimensions of new religious movements: function, reality construction, and process
Diana G. Tumminia and R. George Kirkpatrick

16. Women in new religious movements
Susan J. Palmer

17. Children in new religious movements
Charlotte E. Hardman

Part IV. Neo-Pagans, UFOs, and Other Heterodoxies

18. Waiting for the “Big Beam”: UFO religions and “Ufological” themes in new religious movements
Andreas Grunschloss

19. Esotericism in new religious movements
Olave Hammer

20. The dynamics of alternative spirituality: seekers, networks, and “New Age,”
Steven J. Sutcliffe

21. New religions in East Asia
Michael Pye

22. Witches, Wiccans, and Neo-Pagans: A review of current academic treatments of neo-paganism
Stan Lee Reid and Shelly Tsivia Rabinovitch