One of the remarkable things about religion is its tremendous variability. Throughout history, literally hundreds of different religions have formed thousands of denominations.
Today, new religions are created at an ever-increasing pace — possibly hundreds a year. The modern world has been described as the age of new technologies, but it could just as easily be viewed as the age of new religions.
Recognizing this trend, historians of religion are focusing increasingly on what are called “New Religious Movements” (NRMs), in an attempt to create explanatory models describing how religions form, spread, decline and eventually disappear. Although NRMs are often considered insignificant, it’s important to recall that all of today’s great world religions began as NRMs.
A number of factors contribute to the vibrancy of modern NRMs. One important element is the impact of modern Western technologies, institutions and values on traditional peoples of the developing world. Pressured by colonialism and imperialism, traditional peoples often react to the West by creating NRMs in an attempt to balance the new and the traditional. Scholars estimate that more than 10,000 such NRMs may have formed in the developing world in the past century, totaling more than 12 million members.
But the religious impact of modernity affects more than traditional peoples in the developing world. There are at least 2,000 NRMs in the West. (Since most NRMs are informal and ephemeral, exact numbers are difficult to come by.)
Many scholars credit the rapid expansion of NRMs in part to the failure of traditional religions to give answers to the new problems of the modern world. Over the past few centuries, the rise of secularism and the separation of church and state in the West laid the basis for the rise of NRMs. The old ties binding Western religion, language, state and culture have been permanently severed, creating true freedom of religion for the first time in world history. And, in this new religious environment, NRMs thrive.
NRMs are enormously diverse. Some reject the secularism and materialism of the modern West. Many are opposed to institutional religions, seeking complete spiritual independence. Individuals can now create completely idiosyncratic religions of a single member. Syncretism — the merging of different religious beliefs and practices into a new synthesis — is widespread among NRMs. Many claim to have rediscovered lost ancient wisdom, ranging from the true nature of ancient Christianity to revived worship of the gods of antiquity in Neopagan and occult movements. Many NRMs are millenarian, forming communities in anticipation of an imminent apocalypse or other supernatural intervention like the Maya 2012 prophecies. Others are utopian or communitarian, rejecting the evils of modern society in hopes of creating new ideal communities.
Many people, dissatisfied with their society’s own traditional religions, have turned to the traditional religions of foreign cultures, which are often viewed as more exotic or mystical. Thus, Asian religions have made significant inroads into Europe and North America. Although such Asian religions are often thousands of years old in their own right, they seem “new” when transplanted to the West and thus function socially as NRMs. In the process of transplantation, their beliefs and practices are usually transformed, sometimes almost beyond recognition.
The modern world is also one of increasing globalization. As literacy, travel, communication and immigration become easier, religious ideas spread more rapidly than ever before. The Internet is also fast becoming a major mechanism for global proselytism. Whereas we in the West often view this as facilitating the spread of Christianity into Africa and Asia, in reality we could just as easily describe its impact in terms of the spread of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam to Europe and North America. Indeed, we will soon reach the point in the United States where there are more Muslims than Jews.
Most new religions are small and ephemeral, often lasting only a few years and seldom surviving the death of their founders. A few contemporary NRMs flourish, however, creating stable institutions and communities that lay the foundation for future growth.
Many scholars believe that the most successful New Religious Movement of the past millennium has been The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, now numbering more than 15 million members. Should current growth trends continue, its membership could near 100 million in the coming century. If so, the Latter-day Saints are poised to become the first new world religion since the beginnings of Islam some 14 centuries ago.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation, and blogs on Patheos. Among other books and articles, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” They don't speak for BYU.