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New Religious Movements: The Current Landscape (September 2013): Quasi-Religious Beliefs

By Stephen Bales

Quasi-Religious Beliefs

This category includes works about recently created subcultures or organizations that, while not overtly religious, incorporate religious or spiritual elements into their belief systems.  Such quasi-religious assumptions attest to the continuing power of humanity’s mythological thinking and illustrate that, although many see the modern world as moving steadily toward the secular, the sacred never wholly disappears.  Instead it sublimates to varying degrees, as is evident in modern ideological systems such as fan culture, quasi-scientific fields, and conspiracy culture.  The Handbook of Hyper-Real Religions, edited by Adam Possamai, collects essays about the sanctification of popular culture.  This book demonstrates the degree to which ideas of the sacred and spiritual have permeated the ephemera of modern life and the extent to which humans invest their interests and passions with metaphysical importance.  Chapters discuss the religious aspects of entities such as Star Wars, vampire novels, and The Matrix (the movie) fandom.

The infusion of spiritual thought into modern science/pseudoscience has resulted in UFO-centered movements.  Alien Worlds: Social and Religious Dimensions of Extraterrestrial Contact, edited by Diana Tumminia, investigates UFOlogy as religion.  The book provides insight into UFO “science,” myth, folklore, and religious experience.  Another recently published book about this fascinating subculture is E. T. Culture: Anthropology in Outerspaces, a multiauthored collection of essays, edited by Debbora Battaglia.  Chapters illustrate the UFO community’s faith characteristics with discussions about UFOlogy’s occult aspects, the Raelian movement, and even the Klingon language.  In Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred, Jeffrey Kripal views various beliefs in paranormal phenomena and the leading figures behind those beliefs from a religious studies perspective, relating ideas of the sacred to entities such as telepathy, UFOs, and conspiracy theories.

Of particular interest to this essayist are the religious aspects of conspiracy thinking.  Conspiracy theories, like NRMs, are arguably a product of the postmodern age.  Often endemic to small, fringe, and radical groups, conspiracy theory culture is, as a result, sometimes encountered in NRMs like the Christian Identity movements and New Age groups.  Rigid beliefs in entities such as global conspiracies and secret cabals have in themselves warranted study as instances of religious thinking.  Conspiracy Theories, edited by Paul McCaffrey and part of H.W. Wilson’s “Reference Shelf” series, gathers articles from major news publications on conspiracy theories.  It is an excellent introduction to this fascinating topic from wide-ranging points of view—from skeptic to true believer.  Jovan Byford provides an academic analysis in Conspiracy Theories: A Critical Introduction, wherein he approaches conspiracy culture using a critical/cultural theoretical standpoint.  In the process, Byford offers a deep analysis of what conspiracy theories mean, giving insight into the connections between religion and paranoid beliefs.  Finally, Freemasonry, itself a perennial target of conspiracy theorists, is a social organization that incorporates esoteric knowledge, rituals, and symbols into its practices.  Olaf Kuhlke’s Geographies of Freemasonry: Ritual, Lodge, and City in Spatial Context examines the concept of sacred space in Freemason practice.  The book is a window into how secular groups form communities and share understandings of the sacred.