One of the ever-present religious realities is the fact of transformation. Cultural climates and conditions change and so do the symbol structures that accompany them. Religion is not exempt from change; indeed, new religious expressions constantly arise. Some of them rise to become entirely new religions. Christianity, Buddhism, and Islam are all successful examples of the rise of new religions. Zoroastrianism is an example of a once new religion that over spilled the boundaries of its cultural borders, exercised a major influence upon other religions, and has since lapsed into relative obscurity. Such things happen in the life cycles of religion. New religions may arise because of calamities within culture and tradition, a sense of the powerlessness of the old ways, or a striving for more inspirational patterns of progress. Perhaps a new revelation has arisen from within the old ranks or an old paradigm has infiltrated to a new generation from outside, but it carries with it the fresh vibrancy of immediate relevance. The scenarios are perhaps myriad. But the case becomes manifest when the old patterns no longer hold sway over the minds and lives of some people within a tradition. The only way they can continue is to leave the homeland of their tradition to pioneer into often-exotic terrains of experience and meaning. There is nothing automatic about the process; sometimes it is a matter of very subtle conditions. Timing, charisma, personalities, historical conditions, and shifting paradigms all play a part.
- Though neither to be taken as definitive nor as "classic textbook" scenarios, it is nonetheless helpful to look at some "ideal types" of new religions.
- One such type is found within the category called "Reactive Movements". These are movements characterized by their reaction to social or political stress. The Mansren-Koreri movement, often referred to as the first modern "cargo cult," is similar to many Melanesian patterns. It is a reaction to western domination in which the natives believed that their exploited goods would soon be returned by a hero from the golden age aboard elaborately stocked cargo ships. (In some cases, airplanes have been expected.) In 1886 one of the indigenous prophets predicted that such a ship was on its way and that it was no longer necessary to attend crops or pay taxes.
- The Ghost Dance movement among Native Americans in the 1890s displays a similar pattern. In this case it was expected that the whites would disappear and the buffalo would return as a result of dances calling back the ancestors.
- Other "ideal type" movements are referred to as "Accommodationist Movements". These religions combine the introduction of a strong extraneous tradition with a cultural/religious pattern that eventually reasserts itself via accommodation. An example of this is the Kimbanguist Church in Zaire. Baptist missionaries converted Simon Kimbangu, but after a time of internship, he recalled a childhood vision and became an independent prophet. He is deemed by many to be a special prophet of Christ to the Africans.
- Third among the "ideal types" are "Spirit Movements." These movements recognize connections and continuities of being between humans and otherworld beings such as "angels, ghosts, ancestors, nature spirits, and the like." A prime example of this is Spiritualism, which involves communication with the dead, often through a medium. In the United States, the movement began in 1848 with the two daughters of farmer George Fox. By the 1850s it had become quite vogue.
- Some New Age movements have kept this trend alive through the practice known as channeling, though the entities channeled are not limited to ghosts but may include extra-terrestrials among other types.
- A very wide category that encompasses many new religious movements is to be found in "New Revelation Sects." This is a sect that seeks to maintain adherence with the religion in which it finds its basis yet nonetheless augments it and deviates from it by a new revelation. Christianity was such a movement within its parent Judaism.
- Mother Anne Lee, the founder of the Shakers, was proclaimed to be the Second Coming of Jesus in female form.
- The Children of God (more recently called the Family of Love) and the Mormons haveboth experienced varying degrees of popularity.
- The Bahai founder, Bahaullah, was originally based in Shia Islam but claimed to be the fulfillment of all the monotheistic religions.
- The Falun Gong in mainland China has aroused much attention, fervor, and persecutions in promotion of its claims.
- A fifth category is found in "Import Religions." These movements are essentially missionary endeavors that have successfully implanted from their mother soil to become established as viable alternatives elsewhere. The Hare Krishna and the Nichiren Shoshu of America (NSA) movements exemplify this type.
- A sixth type is a form of nostalgia for paradise called "Golden Age Movements." These movements hark back to a time prior to the dominance of the present traditions. Two such movements, which often intertwine, are the Feminist Spirituality Groups ("the Goddess Movement") and the Neo-Pagan Groups. The idea here is that prior to the Patriarchal Revolution everything was harmonious, egalitarian, and artistic.
- The seventh and last type comprises "Hybrid Religious Movements." These movements have distilled aspects of mainstream world religions into indigenous forms of shamanism. Examples are Voodou, Umbanda or Candomble, and Santeria, which blend Roman Catholicism with African religions. Other ways to classify religious movements are as Millenialist (or Milenarian); Healing; Prophetic; Communalist; Mystical; Initiatory; Devotional; and/or Philosophical. The distinctions between sociological terms like sect and cult are subtle and should be dispensed with care.
- This brief survey of new religions barely scratches the surface. The spectrums of diversity have become like inseminating seeds in the mobile winds of our contemporary pluralistic global culture. There are little-known Chinese new religions, better known Japanese new religions, and hundreds of new religions in the United States and Europe. There are even new religions in Islam. There are a number of new religions in India such as are represented by the Brahma Kumari movement, which allows only female leadership, and the Sai Baba movement which is blossoming worldwide. Latin America has them by the score and Africa is said to have over eight thousand.
- There are some general features that are likely to be found in new religions. In terms of "theoretical" features, new religions will generally articulate themselves in the terms that are understandable to ordinary people still within the old paradigm. However, there will undoubtedly be spins on the old paradigm that shift it towards a more relevant or philosophically esoteric bent. An example is found in the eastern religions that use western theological categories such as God but with a more impersonal slant as appropriate to Brahman or the Dao. Another common feature is to invoke the great ethereal chain of being between the finite and the infinite, between the human and the transcendent (such as in Spiritualism). They generally offer new and counter cultural alternatives to the existing structure of society, either of a progressivist/reform or of a purist/reform agenda.
- In terms of "practice", new religions tend to offer a simple new key that is guaranteed to access sacred reality or to tap into creative ceremonies of empowerment. Such practices must offer immediacy and spiritual, if not material, efficacy.
- The "sociology" of new religions must be sufficiently powerful to override the traditional patterns of cohesion such as family and community. Often a highly charismatic leader functions like a new father and the group becomes what anthropologists call a fictive kinship group, characterized by mutual support and the electricity of being the elect.
- Another sociological pattern radiates out from an inner circle of devoted adherents to a peripheral community who participate through the books, tapes, films, videos, seminars, and workshops hosted by the core community.
- Thus new religions can exercise indirect influence on the mainstream through alternative currents. Many members of traditional churches, for example, attend yoga classes or lectures advocating meditative relaxation, or other techniques not found in the mainline tradition.