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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Abrahamic Traditions

By Stephen Bales

Abrahamic Traditions

The Abrahamic religions—most prominently Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—are those faiths that trace their origins to the Israelite prophet Abraham.  Christianity and Islam have been particularly successful at seeding NRMs, possibly due to both religions’ emphasis on proselytism, amenability to change, and syncretism.  According to historian of religion Olav Hammer, the persona of Jesus Christ, among the best-known figures in world religion, has influenced numerous religious faiths.  Alternative Christs, edited by Hammer, collects different interpretations of Jesus across history, cultures, and geography.  The Jesus of several NRMs is represented, along with Christ as found in Mormonism, theosophy, UFOlogy, and New Age interpretations.  Derivations of the Jesus persona, e.g., “Master Jesus of Venus,” illustrate the constantly evolving nature of the concept of God.

In Christianity, Protestantism has been an especially fertile ground for NRMs.  J. Gordon Melton’s edited Encyclopedia of Protestantism has entries concerning prominent Protestant NRMs and the figures important to these movements.  Global in scope, the encyclopedia is particularly strong concerning American/Western Protestantism.  As a reference tool, Melton’s encyclopedia gives historical and cultural context for Christian-derived NRMs, while displaying the tradition’s heterogeneous nature.  Heterogeneity, however, has led to conflict.  Although many Christian offshoots (e.g., Mormonism and Christian Science) have achieved a degree of mainstream acceptance, others, like the Unification Church and the Family International, remain on the cultural fringes.  Gordon Shepherd and Gary Shepherd’s study of the Family International, Talking with the Children of God: Prophecy and Transformation in a Radical Religious Group, is a case study of how a “heretical” Christian religion evolves over time.

Islam, like Christianity, is a world religion with a long history, millions of adherents, and many derivative religious groups.  Two recent subject encyclopedias detail not only orthodox Islam, but its various offshoots and factions.  The two-volume Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, edited by Richard Martin, covers the multifaceted nature of modern Islam, including the convergence of the religion with socialism, NRMs like the mystical Iranian Shaykhiyya, and “anti-cult” movements like the anti-Baha’i Hojjatieh Society.  The two-part Encyclopedia of Islam in the United States, edited by Jocelyne Cesari, focuses on Islam in the United States.  Volume one includes entries dealing with American NRMs like the Nation of Islam, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, and the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order.  Volume two collects primary documents from the leaders of American Muslim groups, many of which developed in the twentieth century.

Considerable literature concerning Islamic NRMs deals with the recent fundamentalist and jihadist movements.  Global Salafism: Islam’s New Religious Movement, edited by Roel Meijer, presents the doctrines, worldview, and global activities of the Salafi and Wahhabi Muslims.  Modern Islamic movements also include progressive and moderate NRMs.  One such group is the Gülen movement, originating in Turkey in the 1980s.  Gülenism is a social/civic movement within mainstream Islam that advocates ideas like the separation of church and state and interfaith dialogue.  It is also notable for the high level of organization and commitment found among its members, which has resulted in the epithet “cult” being used against it.  Helen Rose Ebaugh studies Gülenism in The Gülen Movement: A Sociological Analysis of a Civic Movement Rooted in Moderate Islam.  Ebaugh considers the elements that account for the movement’s popularity and rapid expansion.  Baha’ism, another Islam-derived NRM, emerged from Shi’ite Islam in the mid-nineteenth century and has since become unique in that it maintains the inherent truth of all major religious religions.  Two recent books encapsulate this thriving religion.  Bah’u’llah: A Short Biography by Moojan Momen is more than a biography of Baha’i’s major prophet; it gives a history of the religion as well as concise summaries of Baha’i’s major tenets.  Peter Smith’s An Introduction to the Baha’i Faith is a deeper analysis of these tenets that details Baha’i beliefs, practices, and key texts.

Modern religious Satanism, most often associated with the work of Anton Szander Lavey, is nontheistic, with many Satanists instead being post-Nietzscheans who embrace a philosophy of radical individualism.  But followers of the “Left Hand Path” are included in this section because this movement developed largely as a response or reaction to the major Abrahamic faiths.  Although most of the early writings about Satanism are sensationalistic, the last decade has seen several quality analyses.  Chris Mathews’s Modern Satanism: Anatomy of a Radical Subculture explains Satan as a concept, covers the founding and development of Laveyan Satanism, and assesses the religion’s place in civil society and culture.  Contemporary Religious Satanism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Jesper Aagaard Petersen, approaches Satanism from a global perspective, with chapters devoted to, among many other milieus, Satanism in Estonia, the black metal music scene, and Satan in cyberspace.  Finally, among the most fascinating Abrahamic NRMs is Rastafarianism, which shares much common ground with Judaism and Christianity.  Originating in Jamaica, the Rastafarians consider themselves to be a lost tribe of Israel, and worship the late Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie as their messiah.  Noel Leo Erskine’s From Garvey to Marley: Rastafari Theology is one of the most complete scholarly analyses of this religion, examining it from its beginnings through its late-twentieth-century renaissance and expansion.