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NEW RELIGIONS AS GLOBAL CULTURE: The Sacralization of the Human
Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe
Copyright 1997 - Irving Hexham & Karla Poewe
Published by Westview Press, Boulder, Colorado, 1997
224 pages, 6 x 9
ISBN 0-8133-2507-2, MAR 1997. $55.00, #40.95, CAN$79.00, hc.
ISBN 0-8133-2508-0, MAR 1997. $15.95, #10.95, CAN$22.75, pb.
From the back cover of New Religions as Global Cultures
"In this strongly recommended and well-balanced
study, Irving Hexham and Karla Poewe provide a much needed general
survey of the plethora of contemporary new religions. The authors
do what others often neglect. By setting new religions within
a broad cross-cultural context they assist the reader in recognizing
the underlying similarity of concepts that are developing throughout
the world to create distinct global cultures. The book will be
a useful tool for anyone beginning an examination of new religions."
Joan Townsend, Department of Anthropology, University
"The combined anthropological, sociological,
and literary skills of the two writers have given us an illuminating
and accessible survey of the appeal and effects of this century's
new religions. Learned in substance, shrewd in judgment, and simple
in expression, this is a highly recommended resource for all students
James I. Packer, Systematic Theology, Regent College,
"The authors have spent years examining new
religious movements. They are fully aware of the immense variety
of groups and know the factual and moral complexities involved
in characterizing them. They wrote this book for students ...
they [are] highly respected social scientists ... Thus they do
not write about cults because they find them entertaining or because they are attracted to their messages or lifestyles. They write
about them because they think the topic of new religious movements
Department of Sociology, University of Washington
Some sample sections:
From the Preface:
The book is written for a specific task with a particular readership in mind. It is designed to help students and anyone interested in religion to understand new religions from an interdisciplinary and global perspective ...
From chapter one:
Monism, for example, is loosely used as a bogy word. No one seems to realize that depending on one's definition Christianity can be seen as a form of Monism because it claims all things are created by One Being: God. For example, the orthodox Calvinist Gordon H. Clark wrote "actually Christianity is more successfully monistic than Neoplatonism was. God alone is the eternal substance, the independent principle; apart from the creation of the world nothing exists besides him" (Clark 1957:231).
Thus, in taking a strong stand against the use of certain words such writers do not seem to recognize that many of the alternatives they prefer are equally problematic. This is a particular problem for orthodox Christian writers. For example in rejecting monism many writers identify Christianity with pluralism. In doing so they fail to recognize that pluralism was promoted by Bertrand Russell in his rejection of Christianity. Russell says he embraced pluralism because "the universe is all spots and jumps, without unity, without continuity, without coherence or orderliness" (Russell 1931: 98). Is this what Christians mean by pluralism?
From chapter two:
Contrary to popular opinion neither the research of Weber nor of Troeltsch was motivated by abstract intellectualism. Behind them lay a passionate commitment. Both recognized that Germany and German Christianity faced grave dangers. Thus, Troeltsch argued that on the one hand the old "system of absolute establishment" which created a monopoly situation through the close union of Church and State was dead. On the other hand an American or French style of "disestablishment" was seen by Troeltsch as unGerman. This left a "system of mixed establishment" as the only viable option (Troeltsch  1991:109-117).
In particular Troeltsch hated American style free churches which he saw as "based on Baptist and Puritan ideas ... a democracy that is as individualistic as it is egalitarian, and on an enlightened relativism" (Troeltsch  1991:111). First, Troeltsch didn't think it possible to transplant American ideas to Germany. Second, he was very worried about the fact that under the American system "orthodox" groups, which he argued were always strong among the laity, dominated churches. In his view this orthodoxy was dangerous because it rejected "scientific education." In making this comment he seems to have meant German higher criticism of the Bible (Troeltsch  1991:112) ...
From chapter three:
New religions complicate this picture ...new religions, despite their globality, must fragment existing traditions, recombine with others in new ways, and yet remain true to a very old and very local folk religion. The nineteenth century German anthropologist, Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) said that folk religions arise everywhere from the deep yearnings of people. We are in the presence of just this phenomenon, for new religions, authenticated by specific local folk religions, are a response to the deep yearnings of urban sophisticates for global folk religions. Their world view aspects, and the newness of their recombination, make any one new religion a global culture ...
Our understanding of the global nature of new religions came about as a result of empirical research in Africa. While living in the black township of Katatura, Namibia, in 1981, Karla Poewe observed that Black religious movements prided themselves in having global links which they saw as a source of inspiration. At the same time Irving Hexham was working in South African archives on the Afrikaner visionary Johanna Brandt (1876-1964) whose books The Millenium (1918) and Paraclete, or Coming World Mother (1936) talked about such things as he coming Age of Aquarius and feminist spirituality. Like the African prophets Poewe interviewed, Brandt treasured her global vision and contacts with America and Germany through theosophical type of organizations. These empirical observations made us aware of the role played by global visions of individuals intent on creating their own new religions. Later, in 1987, we began to develop our own theory of global cultures while researching new religions and Charismatic movements in South Africa ...
From chapter four:
At the heart of many religious movements, particularly new religions, lie Aprimal experiences@- unexpected vivid encounters that are considered to be other than Anormal.@ Such experiences take many forms. Above all, they not only shock those who experience them but also bring about a change in their attitude toward the material world. Social scientists like Stark and Bainbridge recognize the importance of such experiences, but concentrate on quantifiable sociological aspects of conversion (Stark and Bainbridge 1985:85-89).
Likewise, Eileen Barker's truly excellent The Making of a Moonie: Choice or Brainwashing (1984) provides a mass of information about the sociological dynamics of conversion to the Unification Church. Yet, in this pioneering book Barker makes no mention of individual conversion accounts involving primal experiences. It is our argument that contemporary religious conversion, whether it is to a church, sect, cult or new religion, cannot be understood without taking into account the central role of primal experiences ... On the basis of numerous interviews and published accounts we believe that primal experiences play a crucial role in the creation of new religions, the conversion of members to new religions, and in their religious lives thereafter. Naturally, people join new religions for many reasons, for example, peer pressure or to escape unhappy home situations. But, the core group of converts always report vivid proleptic experiences which compel them to see the world and their lives in a new way and to make practical changes accordingly ... Primal experiences involve such things as dreams, visions, voices, tongues, spiritual healings, a sense of presence, notions of destiny, fate, sightings of ghosts, inexplicable spiritual phenomena, and ...
From chapter five:
Industrial society has no body of shared beliefs, no common mythology. Its members hold onto a collection of disconnected beliefs and are vaguely familiar with fragments of many myths. The advantage that some new religions have in this situation is that they possess powerful integrated mythologies sanctioned by, and sanctioning, primal experiences.
The mythologies of new religious movements are created out of numerous disjointed myths found in society generally. By weaving these unrelated myths into coherent wholes, new religions create a sense of continuity with the past. Through the use of traditional myths, they are able to give themselves an apparent historical depth that legitimates their claims to be the carriers of a high culture. If we are to appreciate how myths are used by leaders and followers of new religions, it is important that we reflect on the function of myth in society ...
Probably the most influential area for the growth of a personal myths is in the realm of health and healing. Healing Myths are diverse stories about Aspiritual,@ Aholistic,@ and other alternative forms of healing experienced by specific individuals. They cover a vast range of beliefs, from traditional Christian ideas about prayer to the use of psychic powers and Scientology. Many involve claims of miraculous healing, but because the existence of spontaneous remissions and other natural healing processes occur, it is impossible to verify such claims. Nevertheless, so great is the appel of alternative therapies that growing public demand has led to changes in the law which allow alternative practices to flourish (Coker 1995:17). Surveys show that in 1992, 26% of people in Britain and 60% in Germany used some form of alternative medicine (Coker 1991:19).
Of course we must differentiate myths of healing from genuine alternative medicines and traditional, non-magical healing techniques ...
From chapter six:
At first glance it might appear that there are hundreds if not thousands of religious traditions in the world. But upon closer examination, we see that all of the world's religions fall into the categories of two major traditions. We call these traditions Yogic and Abramic. The best-known religions of the Yogic tradition are Jainism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Those of the Abramic are Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. We use the term AYogic@ because the practice of yoga represents the strand of this complex tradition that most influences new religions in the West. The term Abramic has been used to describe Judaism, Christianity, and Islam because these religions trace their origins to Abraham. The discussion of Yogic and Abramic beliefs that follows is aimed at producing a typology for understanding new religions in Western societies. It is not meant to be a description of Apure@ or historic versions of world religions ...
All those who write about yoga maintain that serious meditation requires a guide, or guru. Yogic practices produce trances or similar psychological states that could easily harm the uninitiated without the protection of one who is more experienced.
The guru is a person who has already been initiated into the spiritual world and is therefore able to help the uninitiated. Eliade hints at the historic relationship between the yogic tradition and shamanism but never really examines the role of each character in detail (Eliade 1969:318-326). Peter Brent gives a more vivid account of gurus in his book Godmen of India (Brent 1973). He shows that the guru demands an inflexible relationship in which his disciples surrender totally to his authority. Gurus teach and facilitate. They have gone before and experienced the terrors of psychological disorientation that meditation can bring. In the language of Yogic religion, the guru encounters spiritual beings, battles demons, and embraces gods. Each guru shares a tradition with other gurus and none speaks for him- or herself. Each guru has his or her own guru, living or dead, so that a succession of teachers share esoteric knowledge and communicate ancient techniques of psychic manipulation ...
The question of authentic leadership and religious authority is clearly important in judging new religions. Religions of the Yogic tradition revere gurus who gain complete authority over their disciples. Abramic religions have no gurus. Instead, they have the institution of the prophet. A prophet differs from a guru in that the prophet simply declares the Word of God.
Prophets are not held to be gods or to share in the essence of God or even to lead the way to God. They simply serve to remind people of God's Word. Traditionally, prophets take existing revelation and apply it to particular situations, in the process reminding the people of their failures and calling them to restore their relationship with God. Historically prophets never develop new doctrines or techniques for attaining salvation. They simply apply existing knowledge and allow their words to be tested against the Scriptures.
Throughout the Bible the testing of prophecy is an important theme. Prophets are called to conform to God's revelation, and the conclusions they draw from particular passages must be fulfilled if their words are to be regarded as authentic. Unlike the guru's teaching, which is tested only by experience, the prophet's teaching is tested by experience, Scripture, and history. In many new religions, however, the office of prophet ...
From chapter seven:
So far we have argued that the new mythology predisposes individuals to accept the validity of their own primal experiences. At the same time, primal experiences give the mythology a life of its own and often cause people to seek such experiences for themselves. But, to gain and sustain membership new religions need to add an intellectual element. This doctrinal dimension provides members with a cognitive resource that allows them to integrate their experiences and mythologies into a living community. The doctrines of new religions are created by adapting teachings from historic religious traditions. These teachings are integrated into an interpretive framework that explains the relationship between myth and experience in specific ways ....
We would do well, then, to start our effort to understand new religions by exploring the perspective of individual experiences and quest for personal reorganization. Our studies of the life histories of shamans, diviners, Aprophets,@ and members of new religions have led us to the conclusion that the structures of their personal lives are remarkably similar. Our studies indicate that regardless of where these Aseekers@ or religious practitioners livedCin Africa, Japan, China, Siberia, America, or anywhere else and regardless of the era in which they lived, they all have very similar life histories. This structural similarity holds up despite differences in idiom, imagery, and cultural contexts. And, significantly, these life histories frequently contradict traditional sociological analyses of both the new religions and their adherents. We suspect that the constancy in personal lives of these individuals, despite the variety of cultures in which they live and the variety of social scientists who observed them, has something to do with the structure of the human psyche ...
From chapter eight:
As we have noted, the idea of enlightenment and the sense of a radical break with past history are key to the notion of modernity. The sense of a break with the past is very evident in the contrast between today's popular attitudes toward the Ahere and now@ and those of former generations. Until the last two decades of the eighteenth century, most people in our culture viewed the past with a sense of loss. European schools taught the works of classical Greek and Roman authors, and only the most optimistic educators dared to hope that their generation might attain the heights of achievement of classical civilization. Scarcely any thought was given to the possibility of surpassing the ancients ...
The change of attitude toward the past and the future was parallelled by a profound but little recognized change of attitude toward religion in general and Christianity in particular. Prior to the nineteenth century, Christians identified with the wisdom of the ages and claimed the heritage of Roman civilization. Christians were able to argue that the Romans were the most advanced people on earth and that at the height of their achievements they had chosen Christianity. If Christianity was good enough for the advanced and sophisticated Romans, it should surely be adequate for less advanced and more barbaric peoples.
Miracles, prophecy, and a host of other beliefs that modern people find problematic were not an issue for our ancestors. Indeed, Christian apologists freely appealed to miracles and prophecy as evidence for the truth of Christianity. In the period from the fall of Rome to the nineteenth century, very few people questioned the essential claims of the church. Such sceptics as did make their presence felt were generally considered misfits who were objecting to the whole trend of European civilization. If the Romans could accept the validity of miracles, then how could less-educated people with a lower level of scientific and technological skill possibly doubt them?
All of this changed in the nineteenth century. The intellectual doubts of a few individuals in the eighteenth century became a torrent of scepticism as ordinary people experienced the impact of technological change in their daily lives.
Suddenly progress made the Greeks and the Romans appear ignorant and pre-scientific. We became more aware of their superstitions and irrationality. The conversion of Roman civilization to Christianity was no longer considered remarkable; it simply confirmed the credulity of ignorant people. Religion was, in other words, old fashioned. For the first time since the conversion of the Roman empire, Christians found themselves on the defensive ...
From chapter nine:
... we want to close this book by addressing the question, "how dangerous are new religions?" Earlier we referred to a Court Case in Berlin, Germany, where various groups including the Hare Krishna Movement and a local Christian Charismatic Church were described as potentially dangerous. We also drew attention to the growth of new religions in Germany and the German anti-cult movement with its network "cult experts" (Kl`cker and Tworuschka 1994; Haack 1993). In particular, we mentioned the concerns of the Berlin-Brandenburg Cult Expert the Rev. Thomas Gandow ... it is important to admit that he has a point when he draws attention to the German past and the dangers of National Socialism. It should also be noted that Dave Hunt and Constance Cumby mentioned the Nazis in their attacks on contemporary religions. The problem with these comparisons is that they cast a very wide net. In other words, they tend to include all new religions which are automatically seen as proto-Nazi movements.
Such sweeping condemnations are clearly wrong. Most new religions are genuine expressions of spirituality which grow out of profound spiritual experiences (Wiesberger 1990). Whether their spirituality is self indulgent or philanthropic, mature or immature, sensible or unintelligent, is another matter. What is important is that both founders and followers are inspired by real religious concerns which have nothing to do with the Nazis.
The biggest problem, we see, with new religions is that, because they are new, they often lack the built in safeguards which established religions have developed over time. Of course, this criticism can also apply to sects. When a Buddhist, Hindu or Islam sect is transported to the West it loses contact with the culture that nourished it. Consequently, it can easily go astray and act as though it has no roots ...
The Nazi example, therefore, is not unimportant. To most people outside of Germany the Nazi movement is an example of a political ideology gone mad. It was that. But, as George Mosse pointed out in the early 1960's the Nazi movement was inspired by various new religions and, at its core, was deeply religious, but violently anti-Christian (Mosse  1981). Of course, for most Germans, National Socialism was a political movement that claimed to be able to solve the problem of unemployment and end the Great Depression. But, the SS were almost totally adherents to a new German neo-paganism (Borst 1969) ...
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