© Thomas Hilgers
After years of thinking about traveling to Asia, you finally take the plunge. Following a tour of
the major cities of China, you are now in Vietnam on your own. During your first days there, you
explore Hanoi, a beautiful city of two-story pink and yellow buildings, red-pillared temples,
lakes, and large old trees. You visit its Confucian Temple of Literature, where a genial statue of
Confucius seems to focus its glass eyes directly on you. Afterward, you fly south to Hué,a
former royal city that sits beside the Song Huong River, whose slow-moving water is so thick
with brown silt that it looks like chocolate pudding. When you visit Hué’s square of old palaces,
you are amazed by the extent to which its royal enclosure was patterned after the Forbidden City
of Beijing. Clearly, you think, China has had a profound influence on Vietnam.
Eventually you arrive in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. In your hotel lobby, you see a
poster advertising tours to the underground tunnels at Cu Chi that were used by the North
Vietnamese soldiers during the Vietnam War. You walk over to talk with the agent at the tour
desk, and she tries to interest you in additional tours. “Have you heard of Cao Dai?” she asks.
You hadn’t till now. “It is a big religion here in Vietnam,” she explains. “Its cathedral is not far
from the tunnels, and there is a Mass every day at noon. Why don’t you go there, too?” At 11:30
the next morning, you arrive at Tay Ninh, a quiet town of yellow stucco buildings, gravel roads,
and people dressed in white. You can’t miss the cathedral; it is an immense yellow building with
two tall towers that face the main road. Upon entering the building, you are directed up a long
flight of stairs to a narrow visitors’ gallery that runs along three sides of the interior. Looking
down from the observation gallery to the front of the church’s interior, you see a huge eye
painted on a large blue globe that seems to hover in the sanctuary. Around you, decorative green
dragons climb tall pillars to the sky-blue ceiling. Just before noon, people dressed in robes of red,
blue, yellow, and white take their places in groups on the shining marble floor below. Chanting
starts. The service begins.
What, you wonder, does the large eye represent? What are the people chanting, and what is the
significance of the variously colored robes? Why are there Chinese dragons on the pillars inside
a building that looks like a Christian cathedral? Why do they call their service a “Mass”?
Origins of New Religions
One of the most fascinating things about religions is that, like all forms of life and culture, they
are constantly changing. Change occurs for many reasons. Sometimes followers of one religion
move to another culture, and their religion mixes with a locally established religion, thereby
producing a hybrid faith. Sometimes social problems lead to the emergence of a new religion,
one that helps people cope with the new social issues they face. Sometimes followers of an older
religion argue with each other and then separate, creating a new branch or, occasionally, an
entirely new religion. And sometimes individuals have life-changing insights, attract followers,
and create a new religion around themselves. We should recognize that many of the major
religions and denominations began in similar ways—as new, small, and sometimes persecuted
religious movements. In this chapter, we will look at some of the vital new religious movements
that are currently small but that might someday become venerable old religions, after growing
and changing for one or two thousand years. (The vitality of these new religious movements is
apparent from their many Web sites.)
In the religions that we examined in previous chapters, we sometimes saw the emergence of a
religious variant that was close enough to its origin to be considered a modern interpretation of
an older religion. As we learned, from Shinto emerged the New Religions of Tenrikyo and
Omoto; from Christianity, Mormonism and Christian Science; and from Buddhism, Soka
Contemporary Issues: “Cults,” “Sects,” and “New Religious Movements”
Because they are small and unfamiliar, new religious movements are often looked at
suspiciously. Critics may accuse them of hurting society or endangering their followers. The
words sect and cult are sometimes applied to these movements. The word sect (Latin: “to cut”)
usually has no negative meaning. But the word cult (Latin: “to cultivate”) brings to mind a
charismatic, overly powerful leader, docile followers, and separation from society.
We might recall that early Christianity was once viewed as a dangerous import into Roman
society and that Buddhism was once viewed as a dangerous import from India into China.
Because of the emotional overtones of some words that are used to describe small and new
religious groups, scholars now try to use emotionally neutral terms. One of the most common is
“new religious movement,” often referred to by its abbreviation NRM.
There are, however, some movements that emerge from one religion and take on such
independent forms that they ultimately constitute new, even if small, religions: Baha’i, which in
the nineteenth century grew out of Shiite Islam, is a good example. And then there are other
movements that emerge independently of established religions and eventually are recognized as
distinct religions; Scientology is an example of such a religion.
Quite often, a new religious movement is syncretic—a blend of religions. The Vietnamese
religion of Cao Dai, for example, blends Christianity with Buddhism, Daoism, and
Confucianism. Santería and other related religions, prominent in the Caribbean, mix Christianity
with elements from West African religions. We also see syncretism in religious movements that
have grown out of Shinto, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
In this chapter we will consider some of the most significant new religious movements, along
with a few older alternatives that are generating new interest. We will begin with religious
movements that share features with indigenous religions (Contemporary Paganism and the
Yoruba-tradition religions) and then proceed to religions that appear to have elements of Indian
spirituality (such as Theosophy and Scientology). Next, we will take a look at religions that are
close to traditional Chinese religions (Falun Gong and Cao Dai) and then end with religions that
have some roots in Christianity and Islam (Rastafarianism and Baha’i).
Contemporary Paganism: Wicca and Druidism
The past hundred years have seen both a great growth in world population and a depletion of
natural resources. As a result, many people sense an urgent need to reestablish harmonious
relationships with the global environment. At the same time, developments in genetics,
anthropology, and psychology have brought human beings to a clearer understanding of their
closeness to the animal world. Perhaps for these reasons, new religious movements that reclaim
ancient nature-based religions or that promote new environmental sensitivity are attracting many
followers. Some of these followers are reacting against the insensitivity to native cultures and
values that some mainstream religions exhibit. Others find the philosophies of these old-yet-new
religious movements to be more compatible with their views on various social issues, including
gender equality and environmentalism.
Contemporary Paganism is a general name for religious movements that attempt to return to
earlier, nature-based religions, primarily religions associated with early cultures of Europe.
Followers point out that the term pagan, although often used in a demeaning way to mean
“uncivilized” and “debased,” more properly refers to early, nature-based religions; they note that
the term pagan actually comes from a Latin term for “countryside” (pagus) and that the term was
used simply because nature religions lived on longer in rural areas than they did in cities.
Followers of Contemporary Paganism claim that when Christianity spread throughout western
Europe, older pagan practices did not entirely die out. At least some of the practices went
underground or took on a Christian appearance in order to survive.
Although small movements exist that attempt to re-create early Scandinavian and Germanic
religions, the most common forms of Contemporary Paganism look back to Celtic mythology as
their foundation. The best-known manifestation of the Contemporary Pagan movement is
Wicca.Wicca is an Old English word that suggests association with magic, separation, and
holiness. Its modern practitioners focus on Wicca’s practical uses by calling it the Craft.
Sometimes they also call their path simply the Old Religion.
Several strands or traditions of Wicca exist, but they agree on many points. Like many of the
world’s religions, Wiccans worship both goddesses and gods whose sacred imagery is rooted in
nature. Some Wiccans speak of multiple deities, while others prefer to speak of a single divine
reality that has male and female aspects and images. Some groups personify the female aspect of
the divine as “the Goddess” and the male aspect as “the God.” Wicca teaches that the divine
manifests itself in opposites that are reminiscent of yin and yang—dark and light, female and
male, and so on. Yet, as in Daoism, some traditions of Wicca give special emphasis to the female
aspect of the cosmos—perhaps because it has been underemphasized by some other religious
traditions. In Wicca, women play a prominent role as bearers of knowledge and as leaders of
For Wiccans both the moon and the sun are sacred symbols, and the Wiccan yearly calendar
receives its structure from their movement. Each year Wiccans celebrate the solar cycle by
keeping as many as eight seasonal turning points, called Sabbats, which include the solstices and
equinoxes. Wiccans celebrate the lunar cycle at the new and full moons. The times of the full
moon, called Esbats, are often marked by gatherings and ceremony. The seasonal festivals and
holidays indicate both turning points in the world of nature and changes in the inner world of the
practitioners. Regarding initiation and entry into higher levels of knowledge, Wiccan groups tend
to recognize three stages. The first stage is initiation, and at the second or third stage the
practitioner is considered competent to start an independent coven (worship group).
Contemporary Wiccans call themselves Witches, and they use this term for both females and
Rituals and Celebrations: The Contemporary Pagan Year
The contemporary pagan year is a cycle of eight celebrations.
Yule (December 2l)–midwinter solstice, when sunlight begins to grow stronger Imbolc
(about February l)–beginning of spring
Ostara (about March 2l)–spring equinox, named after the goddess of dawn
Beltane (May 1)–festival of fertility, probably named after the Celtic sun-god Bel
Litha (June 2l)–summer solstice and beginning of harvest
Lughnasad (about August 1)–celebration of the grain harvest, named “the games of
Lugh” after the Celtic god of music and play
Mabon (about September 22)–final harvest festival at the time of the autumn equinox
Samhain (about October 31)–end of old year, temporary return of the spirits of ancestors
Wicca has an ethical dimension. The primary commandment, called the Wiccan Rede (Middle
English: “advice,” “counsel”), is a gentle form of the Golden Rule. The Wiccan Rede is a rule of
tolerance: “An [if] it harm none, do what you will.” In other words, the individual is free to do
anything except what harms others. This command, though, includes not harming animals, and
many Wiccans are therefore vegetarians. It also prohibits harming the earth; thus Wicca has a
strong moral interest in protecting the natural environment. Another Wiccan moral belief is
expressed as the Law of the Triple Return. It states, “Whatever you do, good or bad, will return
to you threefold.” Wiccans believe that the energy that an individual sends out will return triply
to the sender—that deeds bring their own punishment or reward.
It is possible that some of the beliefs and practices of contemporary Wicca are genuinely old,
such as the rituals of Halloween and May Day. The anthropologist Margaret Murray (1863–
1963) provided strong evidence for the view that earlier forms of Witchcraft existed in Europe
up to modern times. Her book The Witch-Cult in Western Europe quotes extensively from early
sources in Latin, French, and English, written during the Middle Ages and Renaissance, that
testify to the presence of earlier forms of a nature religion akin to Wicca. Her later book, The
God of the Witches,establishes the same points in more approachable style. In the United States,
the Wiccan writer and political activist Leo Martello (1931–2000), whose work helped open the
way for the practice of Wicca in North America, traced his own knowledge back to ancient
practices of his Sicilian ancestors. 1
The midsummer sunrise at Stonehenge attracts Druids, Wiccans, and other followers of pagan
© Gideon Mendel/Corbis
Some scholars, however, argue that Wicca is an artificial, quite new creation, a “mythic
reconstruction.” They point to the work of three people who did a great deal to establish
contemporary Wicca: Gerald Gardner (1884–1964), Alex Sanders (1926–1988), and Doreen
Valiente (1922–1999; see Timeline 11.1). In writings and practice, these three recommended—
and often created—rituals, phrases, and other elements that are now part of modern Wicca. Yet
other commentators see these people as adapters of an older religious tradition who attempted to
bridge the gap between a rural culture and a modern, urban one.
Although Wicca is the best-known form of Contemporary Paganism, there are others.
Particularly popular in England is the Druid movement, which began in the eighteenth century as
an attempt to reintroduce the religion practiced in France and England by the Celts about two
thousand years ago. Early information on Druidic practice came from classical Roman literature,
mainly from the writings of the emperor-general Julius Caesar and the historian Tacitus.
Although Roman description of the Druids was undoubtedly colored by prejudice, its details
certainly portray some actual practices and events. In fact, archeological finds have confirmed
the truth of much early description.
Druids were an elite group of professionals who acted as judges, teachers, counselors, doctors,
and priests. Their preparation lasted up to twenty years before full initiation. They were
polytheists who worshiped about thirty major deities of nature and many lesser deities (about
three hundred names of deities are found in the remaining literature). The sun and fire were
important symbols of the divine. Druids conducted their services in groves of sacred oak trees; in
fact, although the exact origin of their name is uncertain, Druid is commonly thought to mean
Because so little is known of the ancient Druids, the modern Druid movement has not only had
to borrow from the data of literature and archeology, it has also had to rely on imaginative re-
creations of organization and ritual. The Druids recognize three paths of practice, which may
also be seen by some as stages of knowledge: bards, ovates, and druids. Modern Druids generally
follow the same eight-part seasonal calendar as the Wiccans; they also celebrate the period of the
full moon. Although Stonehenge in England predates the Druids, it is commonly associated with
the modern Druids, who use the ancient circular stone complex for celebrations of the summer
Timeline of significant events of alternative paths.
Religions of the Yoruba Tradition: Santería, Voodoo, and
When people from one culture enter another culture, they bring their religion with them. It
sustains them and provides a bridge into their new lives. Sometimes elements of the two cultures
mix in interesting ways. This is the case with the new religions that have their roots in the
indigenous Yoruba tradition of Africa.
As the Americas were being colonized, a large slave trade arose. Enslaved Africans, largely from
West Africa, were subsequently carried to South America, the Caribbean, and North America.
Among the descendants of these slaves, new syncretic religions emerged that blended elements
from indigenous African religions and the colonizers’ Christianity.
Of the West African religions that were brought to the New World, those of the Yoruba people,
who live in what is today Nigeria and Benin, were the most influential. (Other peoples whose
religions were influential during the colonization of the Americas included the Fon, Nago,
Kongo, and Igbo.) While Santería is perhaps the best-known religious movement to result from
the mixture of Yoruba religions and Christianity, Voodoo (Voudun) and Candomblé are also
prominent. These three related religions are sometimes referred to as religions of the Yoruba
These Yoruba-based religions are now several hundred years old, but for a variety of reasons
they are today the focus of renewed interest. One reason is that an influx of Cuban and Haitian
immigrants over the past thirty years has introduced these religious traditions to the United
States. Another reason is that many African Americans today are interested in exploring their
cultural and religious heritage. We should note, however, that there are significant historical
differences among the three religions. Santería was influenced by Spanish colonial Catholicism
and grew up in Cuba; Voodoo, influenced by French Catholicism, developed in Haiti; and
Candomblé, influenced by Portuguese Catholicism, developed in Brazil.
There is some disagreement about the names given to two of these religions. Although the term
Santería (“saint-thing” or “saint-way”) was originally a negative way of identifying the
movement, it is used here because most of the religion’s practitioners accept it and use it
themselves. However, the alternate name Lukumí or Lucumí (from the Yoruba language) is
gaining some acceptance. The word Voodoo comes from the Fon word vodun (“mysterious
power”), but because the word voodoo has taken on so many negative connotations, some
authorities prefer to use the word Voudun instead. In all three religions we find variations in
spellings of terms and of the names of gods.
A Cuban worshiper weeps over an image of BabalúAyé on the feast of Saint Lazarus.
Although the three religions are a mixture of native African religions with Roman Catholicism,
describing how elements have mingled is far from easy. Sometimes the terms syncretism,
synthesis, and symbiosis are used to describe the mixture, suggesting a happy blend of
complements; the environment within which these religions emerged, however, was one of
coercion and fear. Slaves were often forcibly baptized into Roman Catholic Christianity, and
African religious practice was suppressed—sometimes harshly.
Among the slaves, however, were many committed practitioners and even priests of the Yoruba
religions; as a consequence, their religious beliefs did not die out. In order to survive, the African
religions took on an appearance of conformity to Catholic belief and practice. On the surface,
devotees were venerating Catholic saints, but in reality they were using the images of the saints
as representations of their native gods. Raúl Canizares, a priest of Santería, describes the result
not as syncretism but rather as dissimulation, a term he uses to emphasize that the practitioners
often deliberately hid their beliefs and practices behind “masks”—especially behind the
veneration of saints. 3
We should not, however, overstress the aspect of dissimulation. It is possible that apparent
similarities in belief and approach between the Yoruba religion and Roman Catholicism
permitted syncretism. Both systems believed in a single High God, in supernatural beings who
mediate between God and human beings, and in the existence of spirits of the dead. Both systems
trusted in the power of ritual and made frequent use of ritual elements. Moreover, it was easy to
adapt the Catholic calendar of saints’ days to the worship of native African deities.
Women close their eyes and pray during a ceremony on Fet Ghédé, a Voodoo holiday
commemorating dead ancestors. Fet Ghédé is a national holiday in Haiti, where Voodoo, or
Voudun, has been actively practiced since French colonial rule.
© Les Stone/Sygma/Corbis
Although the new religions of the Yoruba tradition do believe in a single High God, they differ
from Catholicism in that the Yoruba God (as in many African religions) is in essence a neutral
energy that does not show personal interest in individual human affairs. Human beings must
approach the High God and can gain power only by contacting invisible supernatural beings,
called orishas. (In Santería, they are often called ochas; in Voodoo, they are called loa or lwa;
and in Candomblé they are called orixas.)
The orishas are sometimes called gods. They are appropriately likened to the gods of the Greeks
and the Romans because the orishas have individual humanlike characteristics. They may be
gentle, capricious, playful, or wise, and they like particular foods and colors. They are in charge
of certain aspects of nature (for example, oceans, plants, lightning), and they know specialized
crafts (such as metalworking). In order to make the orishas strong, to keep them happy, and to
extract favors from them, human beings have to keep them fed—and the orishas are not
vegetarian. When the orishas are interested in human contact, they may temporarily “mount” a
believer, who goes into a trance and magically “becomes” the god, often displaying his or her
personal characteristics. While there are hundreds of these gods in the Yoruba religion of Africa,
only about twenty are prominent in the Caribbean religions of the Yoruba tradition, and about a
dozen are particularly popular. We should also note the difference between orishas and Catholic
saints. Although both orishas and saints are prayed to in order to receive assistance with the
problems of life, it is clear that orishas are considered divine, whereas saints in traditional
Catholic piety are not.
Deeper Insights: Major Orishas of Santería
Santería worships deities called orishas (orixás, ochas). The most important orishas and the
dates on which they are celebrated follow:
Elegguá (Elegbara, Eshu)—god of beginnings, a messenger god; his colors are black and
red; his parallel saint is Saint Anthony (June 13).
Oshún—goddess of love and marriage; her colors are yellow and white; her parallel saint
is Our Lady of Charity (September 8).
Shangó (Changó)—god of lightning and storms; his colors are red and white; his parallel
saint is Saint Barbara (December 4).
Babalú-Ayé—compassionate god of healing; his colors are white and blue; his parallel
saint is Saint Lazarus (December 17).
Obatalá—god of intelligence; his color is white; his parallel saint is Our Lady of Mercy
Ochosí—god of the forest, who knows plants and animals; his color is purple; his parallel
saint is Saint Norbert (June 6).
Oggún—god of metalworking, patron of barbers and butchers, associated with war and
accidents; his colors are black and green; his parallel saint is Saint Peter (June 29).
Yemayá—goddess of the sea and protector of women, associated with coral and seashells;
her colors are blue and white; her parallel saint is Our Lady of Regla (September 7).
Oyá—goddess associated with high winds, who gives help to the dying; her colors are
burgundy and white; her parallel saint is Our Lady of Candelaria (February 2).
An individual is initiated under the protection of one of the orishas, who becomes the person’s
guardian deity. Priests perform initiations (a male priest is called a santero and a female priest a
santera). Above them are the high priests (in Santería called babalawos). Only men may become
high priests, although this tradition may be changing.
Services involve prayer, drumming, dance, offering of foods, and the descent of orishas. The
sacrifice of animals—mainly chickens, doves, and goats—is a part of some rituals. Although
many groups oppose Santería’s sacrificial practice, its legality has been upheld by the United
States Supreme Court (1993). In deference to the controversy, some Santería practitioners have
begun using alternative offerings (such as drink and dishes of food) as substitutes for animals.
In Brazil, Candomblé has been recognized as an official religion, with its headquarters in Bahía,
in northeastern Brazil. And because of widespread emigration from the Caribbean, Santería and
Voodoo are becoming known in some large cities of the United States, including Miami, New
York, and Los Angeles. Voodoo has long been a part of the history of New Orleans, and several
Voodoo museums exist in Louisiana. In addition to these three religions, related movements
have developed in Jamaica (Obeayisne) and in Trinidad (the cult of Shangó).
We turn now from movements rooted in indigenous religions to movements that draw upon the
traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism. The first new religious movement of this type that we will
consider is Theosophy. The term Theosophy means “divine wisdom” in Greek. In general,
Theosophy refers to mystical movements of all types, but it also refers specifically to a
movement, beginning in the nineteenth century, that attempts a synthesis of esoteric (hidden)
religious knowledge. The movement of Theosophy is eclectic. It shows particularly strong
interest in mystically oriented teachings from all sources—among them, Hindu Vedanta, the
Jewish Kabbalah, and Gnosticism.
The principal founder of Theosophy was the Russian writer Madame Helena Blavatsky (1831–
1891), who with several associates began the Theosophical Society in 1875. Two of her books,
Isis Unveiled(1877) and The Secret Doctrine (1888), were among the first works to popularize
among westerners significant elements from Indian thought, such as karma, reincarnation, yoga,
Blavatsky learned of these topics from her reading and travel, but she also claimed that she was
taught by “ascended masters”—highly evolved teachers. After time spent in the United States,
Blavatsky moved to southern India in 1878, where at Adyar, on the outskirts of Madras
(Chennai), she established her world center of Theosophy. She was ably assisted by Colonel
Henry Steel Olcott (1832–1907). Olcott was one of the earliest westerners to formally adopt
Buddhism, which he did in 1880. He wrote a Buddhist Catechism and worked in Sri Lanka to
revive and purify Buddhism there. Olcott stayed on in India while Blavatsky guided European
Theosophy from her center in London. After Blavatsky’s death in 1891, her work was continued
by Annie Besant (1847–1933) and Charles Leadbeater (1854–1934).
Madame Helena Blavatsky was assisted in her work by Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. Together
they established the Theosophical Society in India.
Theosophical Library Center
Theosophists have a wide range of interests but generally share a similar view of reality. One
premise, similar to Vedantist thought, is that all reality is basically spiritual in nature—that
visible matter is “condensed spirit.” Theosophists hold that the spiritual nature of reality can be
experienced and that training—especially in meditation techniques and in achieving trance
states—can make possible and can deepen that experience. Sometimes Theosophists say that
there are several increasingly spiritual levels of the human being (such as the astral body) and
spiritual aspects of all physical realities (such as auras) that can be seen at times. Theosophists
are interested in exploring what they believe are the little-known powers that lie hidden both in
the nonhuman world and in human beings, such as levitation and clairvoyance.
Blavatsky had prophesied that a “world teacher” would arise to lead the world to a new stage of
evolution. Leadbeater and Besant identified this person as a young man, Jiddu Krishnamurti
(1895–1986), whom they discovered in Madras. At first Krishnamurti accepted the role imposed
on him by the Theosophical Society and was trained to take over as its leader. However, he
eventually abandoned that role and began to teach that each person must be his or her own guru.
Despite his disavowals of spiritual leadership, Krishnamurti attracted a large following of
disciples. He created a center on a hilltop in Ojai, California, north of Los Angeles, where he
wrote and taught for many years. Today, the Krishnamurti Foundation runs a retreat center there
and continues his teachings through videos, books, and seminars.
Theosophy has undergone a series of splits. There has long been a rift between American groups
and the international society headquartered in India. Consequently, there are several branches of
Theosophy. The type of Theosophy that has been centered in India is naturally closer to Hindu
and Buddhist sources and interests. In contrast, Western Theosophy has a greater interest in
European and American thinkers and in scientific experimentation into claims of telepathy,
clairvoyance, and similar special powers.
In a photo from early in his career, philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti lectures to a crowd.
One influential branch of Theosophy is Anthroposophy (“human wisdom”). Its founder, Rudolf
Steiner (1861–1925), was a thinker who was born and trained in central Europe. Steiner began as
a Theosophist but broke away in 1909 and founded Anthroposophy in 1913. Influenced by the
works of German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, English naturalist Charles Darwin, and
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, Steiner developed his own theories of spiritual
evolution. Desiring to focus on practical means to achieve human wholeness and spirituality, he
began the first Waldorf school for the training of young people. Its curriculum encompassed not
only traditional academic matters but also agriculture, art, and interpretive dance, called
eurhythmy. Waldorf schools around the world still promote Steiner’s interest in the complete
development of the individual. Among Steiner’s many books are Philosophy of Spiritual Activity,
The Course of My Life, and The New Art of Education. 5
Contemporary Issues: Ecology and the New Religious Movements
Principles of ecology include restraint, recycling, respect for nature, ending pollution, protection
of species, and forestation. We find many of the same principles in some religious movements
that have emerged in modern times.
Among the most obviously connected with nature are Wicca and Druidism. They
envision the divine as the energy of the universe and see that everything has a right to
existence. These religions follow a calendar that respects the seasons. Primary to them
are the seasonal turning points that include Yule, May Day, and Samhain.
Theosophy emphasizes the interdependence of everything in the universe and holds that
all things share a divine nature.
The religions that came from Africa pray to gods of nature, such as Shangó, who is
associated with storms and lightning, Ochosí, god of the forest, and Yemayá, goddess of
Baha’i (discussed later in this chapter) teaches ideals that fit well with environmentalism.
Among them are a love of biodiversity; the belief that science and technology should
bring harmony between human beings and nature; a sense of nature as an expression of
God; sustainability; and a recognition that all is interconnected.
Shades of blue appear during moments of devotion.
Rudolf Steiner, speaking about human auras 4
A more recent offshoot of Theosophy is the Church Universal and Triumphant, begun by
Elizabeth Clare Prophet (1939–2009). Followers believe that the Church gains assistance from
the spirits of great people who help human beings from a realm beyond the earth. The Church
Universal and Triumphant blends elements from Catholic Christianity with Asian beliefs. For
example, it encourages the use of the Bible and the rosary, as well as devotion to the saints. But
it also teaches reincarnation and includes the Buddha, Jesus, and his mother Mary among its
Theosophy has had much greater influence than its small numbers might attest. Blavatsky’s
books have influenced other movements, such as New Thought, the Unity Church, and Christian
Science. Blavatsky’s openness to phenomena of many types has led to reputable investigations
by others into automatic writing (writing done in trance states), hypnotism, and the paranormal.
Modern Western interest in Hinduism and the whole New Age movement can be traced back, at
least to some extent, to the influence of Blavatsky and Theosophy.
Like Theosophy, Scientology has roots in Indian spirituality. L. Ron Hubbard (1911–1986), who
had initially made his name as an author of science-fiction books, founded Scientology as a
religion in 1954. Beginning as a human-potential movement in the early 1950s, Scientology
evolved quickly into the religion that is now called the Church of Scientology.
Hubbard created a system that he thought would help people clarify their understanding of the
human process of knowing. He created a hybrid name for this system, from scientia (Latin:
“knowledge”) and logos (Greek: “reason,” “understanding”). Scientologists think that if we can
come to understand the human process of perceiving and reacting to the world, we will be able to
see reality more clearly and respond to the world more rationally.
The underlying belief system of Scientology has parallels with many religions, but particularly
with Gnosticism and some schools of Hinduism. The Church believes that there is a spiritual
purpose to life, and it holds that the core of the human being is a soul or spiritual reality, which it
calls the thetan. According to Scientology, the thetan is in a state of imprisonment in the material
world, which is called MEST—an acronym for matter, energy, space, and time. (MEST recalls
the notion of samsara, found in both Hinduism and Buddhism.) The thetan, the immortal spiritual
being that is the core of each human being, longs for liberation.
Scientology has accomplished the goal of religion expressed in all man’s written history, the
freeing of the soul by wisdom.
L. Ron Hubbard 6
Although belief in rebirth was at first a minor teaching of Scientology, it soon began to assert
itself. People undergoing Scientology training spoke repeatedly of their need to overcome
difficulties that had harmed them in previous lives and whose injurious results continued on into
their present lives.
Scientology has made an effort to attract celebrities, as is evident in the name of the Scientology
Celebrity Centre in Los Angeles.
© Marianna Massey/Corbis
This notion is clearly similar to Indian teachings about karma and reincarnation. As mentioned
earlier, another similarity with Hindu and Buddhist world-views is the notion that the goal of
each individual human being is some type of psychological liberation that can be brought about
by insight. Although Scientologists do not use the terms moksha, nirvana, or enlightenment,
those ideas are strongly suggested.
Scientology presents a grand scheme of stages toward which the individual can aspire, each
representing a step upward toward increased understanding and liberation. The steps are shown
on an illustrated chart called the Bridge to Total Freedom—or simply, the Bridge. Scientology
offers techniques and books (such as Hubbard’s text Dianetics) to lead the individual upward.
The person at the beginning of the Bridge is called a pre-clear, and the person who has reached a
state of mental liberation (called clear) is known as an operating thetan (or OT).
Individuals may proceed along the path of mental liberation by themselves, using the books
provided by Scientology. Individuals are encouraged, however, to undertake the path of mental
liberation with the help of another person, a spiritual counselor called an auditor. The auditor
guides the less-experienced person by means of exercises, called processes, which make use of a
series of questions and mental images. The processes help the pre-clear learn new ways of
mental focusing. Together the auditor and pre-clear work to find blockages to the individual’s
growth. (These blockages, caused by earlier painful experiences, are called engrams.) Sometimes
the auditor makes use of an e-meter, an electronic machine that reads the galvanic skin response
of the pre-clear. The responses of the e-meter help detect blockages that can then be resolved.
Fees are charged for the auditing sessions and for advancing through the stages of the processes,
although service to the organization is sometimes accepted as a substitute for payment.
Processing can also be done for groups.
Scientologists insist that their religion can be practiced along with other religions and that it does
not displace them. Scientology centers, in fact, do not look like churches or temples; they are
usually office buildings located in urban areas. Nonetheless, the amount of time that followers
must devote to Scientology makes it difficult for them to practice another religion
Scientologists meet on Sundays for a service that includes a reading from Hubbard’s writings (or
watching a videotape of one of his speeches), a sermon by a minister on some point of
Scientology, a sharing of viewpoints, announcements, and a closing prayer written by Hubbard.
Ministers conduct naming ceremonies, weddings, and funerals. Scientologists keep some
religious festivals (such as Christmas) that appear in their surrounding society. They also keep
March 13 as a festival in honor of Hubbard’s birthday.
We now move to new religious movements closely related to traditional Chinese religions. One
of the youngest new religious movements was founded by Li Hongzhi (b. 1951), who was born
in China but currently lives in the United States. As a young man he began to practice and then
teach Qigong (“energy force”). Qigong (pronounced chee’-gong) is a system of exercises based
on Chinese martial arts that are thought to bring about increased health and strength. The
movement called Falun Gong grew out of Li’s interests in Qigong and in meditative practices;
and although it was not publicly initiated in China until 1992, it has begun to grow into a
worldwide movement. It is reminiscent of several strands of Chinese religious practice that we
have already studied, such as Buddhist meditation, Daoist physical exercise, and Confucian self-
Sydney’s Bondi Beach is the site for this dawn Falun Gong ritual.
The name Falun Gong literally means “law-wheel energy.” (We might recall that the eight-
spoked wheel is a Buddhist symbol and note that law is a synonym for Buddhist teaching.) The
falun is believed to be an invisible spiritual wheel located in the lower abdomen that can be
activated by a master. The falun, once it has begun to turn in one direction, is believed to draw
energy from the universe. Then, when the wheel turns in the opposite direction, it sends that
energy out in purified form through the body of the practitioner, bringing benefits to the
practitioner and to others.
Followers practice five series of physical exercises, done while standing and sitting. The
exercises are closely related to Daoist exercises and exercises associated with Chinese Buddhist
monasticism, and the names of the exercises borrow from Daoist and Buddhist terminology.
(Readers interested in knowing the names and details of these exercises can check Web sites for
Falun Gong or Falun Dafa, another name for the movement.) People who perform the Falun
Gong exercises believe that they gain not only health and strength but also paranormal powers,
such as physical invulnerability and the power to see and hear things at a great distance.
The practice of Falun Gong is currently banned in China (though not in Hong Kong). Some see
behind this prohibition a fear of repeating history, since Chinese history offers several examples
of religious groups that have destabilized governments. In response to the ban on their religion,
Falun Gong followers have attempted to bring attention to their religious position through a
variety of public demonstrations. Many of these demonstrators in China have been jailed.
It is hard to gauge the number of Falun Gong followers. Leaders of the movement claim that
there are as many as thirty million practitioners in China and in Chinese-immigrant communities
throughout the world. Critics, however, argue that the numbers are far lower.
Cao Dai (pronounced kao’-dai), another strongly Chinese religious movement, is one of the
world’s most unusual religions. It blends elements of Daoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, and
Chinese belief in spirits with Christian monotheism; it has a pope and an organizational structure
that is reminiscent of Catholicism; and it venerates among its many saints the English statesman
Winston Churchill, the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen, and the French novelist Victor Hugo.
The name Cao Dai is a title for God. Literally, it means “high palace” and is used as a title of
respect. According to followers of the religion, God revealed himself, beginning in 1921, to Ngo
Van Chieu (1878–1926?), who was the government prefect of a rural Vietnamese island. This
revelation occurred while Chieu was practicing spiritism (a ritualistic calling on spirits). After
praying for the ability to worship God in some visible form, Chieu repeatedly saw in the air the
image of a large eye. Chieu realized that this was God’s way of presenting an appropriate visual
symbol to represent himself. (This symbol is very common in European Catholic churches,
particularly in France. The eye is often enclosed in a triangle, a symbol of the Trinity. The same
symbol is also used by the Masons, a fraternal organization; through their influence it found its
way onto the back of the United States dollar bill.)
In 1924 Chieu went to Saigon, where followers who also practiced spiritism gathered around
him. Some of his followers repeatedly contacted what they believed to be the spirits of their
parents and ancestors. Increasingly, one spirit continued to manifest itself. That spirit revealed
itself as the Supreme Being. Chieu and the others, convinced that they were all the recipients of
some new divine revelation, joined forces and developed an organizational structure. In 1928
Chieu’s followers announced the new religion.
A primary teaching of Cao Dai is that all religions are based on revelations of God but that
earlier revelations have suffered from human misunderstanding. Cao Dai holds that God inspired
all the great religious founders and teachers and that God’s revelation, which has gotten
progressively clearer, has occurred in three great phases, or alliances.
The first period of revelation, called the First Alliance, came in the distant past, when mythic
figures (such as an early incarnation of Laozi and a legendary early Buddha called Dipankara)
brought divine revelation to the world. The Second Alliance occurred in that thousand-year
period of religious ferment that gave birth to Laozi, Confucius, Siddhartha Gautama, Jesus, and
Muhammad. The Third Alliance began in the nineteenth century, with the works of Victor Hugo,
Sun Yat-sen, and the Vietnamese scholar Trang Trinh Nguyen Binh Khiem, all of whom pursued
the ideals of justice and human liberation. The Third Alliance continued in the revelations to Ngo
Van Chieu and his followers, to whom God seemed to be speaking in the clearest way possible.
In Cao Dai belief, however, revelation has not ended. Cao Dai followers believe that the divine
realm continues to contact human beings through revelations both from God and from heavenly
Cao Dai tenets include belief in God the Father (Cao Dai), a celestial Universal Mother,
heavenly spirits, and souls of the living and the dead. Buddhist influence is apparent in a belief in
karma, reincarnation, and a state of liberation called nirvana. Buddhist influence is also evident
in much Cao Dai practice. For example, Cao Dai promotes the avoidance of alcohol and drugs,
of luxury, and of lies and hurtful speech. It also prohibits the killing of living beings, which is
expressed in the Cao Dai practice of a vegetarian ideal: regular believers are expected to abstain
from eating meat for ten days a month, and higher spiritual authorities are expected to maintain a
completely vegetarian diet. The influence of Confucianism is also apparent in many Cao Dai
virtues: self-cultivation, family responsibility, social harmony, and attention to duty. The
deliberate blend of religions is symbolized by the four colors of robes used at major services:
yellow for Buddhism (the original color of monks’ robes, symbolizing renunciation), red for
Confucianism (the color represents yang), and blue for Daoism (the color represents yin). The
pope, legislators, and ordinary laypeople dress in white.
Adherents of Cao Dai may follow a communal path of practice by attending services at Cao Dai
churches (services are held four times a day, every six hours, beginning at dawn), or they may
pray at individual home altars. Special services are held during a new moon and a full moon.
Believers of Cao Dai may also follow an individual path of self-perfection, which involves
meditation and breathing exercises.
Cao Dai is governed by a hierarchical structure reminiscent of Catholicism: it is led by a pope
and cardinals, and its headquarters, like the Vatican, is called the Holy See (the word comes from
the Latin sedes, “seat”). The center of the religion, along with its large cathedral, is located in
southern Vietnam in the town of Tay Ninh, just outside Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon). A center of
the Cao Dai religion outside Vietnam is in Garden Grove, California, in the Los Angeles area. A
new temple also exists in Sydney, Australia. There are about five million followers worldwide,
although most live in Vietnam or abroad in Vietnamese-immigrant communities.
Believers offer incense before the all-seeing Eye in the Cao Dai Cathedral of Tay Ninh, Vietnam.
© Thomas Hilgers
Rastafarianism, a religion strongly influenced by Christianity, arose in Jamaica in the 1930s. The
history of the island—held by the Spanish until 1655 and then by the British until 1962—is a
history of antagonism toward colonial power. Anticolonial feeling expressed itself in the
development of a distinctly local culture and a deliberately antiestablishment form of Jamaican
English; it also prompted the formation of communities of runaway slaves (and their
descendants), who left urban society to lead communal lives in Jamaica’s mountains. Ironically,
Protestant revivalism and Bible reading, derived from British Christianity, contributed to the
anticolonial feelings. Out of this milieu Rastafarianism emerged.
The most important early figure of Rastafarianism was Marcus Garvey (1887–1940). Garvey
was born in Jamaica and in 1914 organized there the Universal Negro Improvement Association
(UNIA), which taught a pioneering form of black pride. After a brief stay in the United States,
Garvey returned to Jamaica in the early 1920s to preach in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital.
Garvey taught that people of African descent were in a state of psychological and political
servitude in Jamaica; he preached that his followers in Jamaica—and others like them
elsewhere—should take pride in their African origins, rid themselves of their oppression, and
unite in a world federation. He longed for the day when African culture would be taught in
schools. To illustrate his ideas he wrote several plays, of which one was especially influential,
The Coronation of the King and Queen of Africa.
Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall soon stretch out her hands unto God.
Psalm 68:31 7
According to the accounts of followers, Garvey taught them to look to Africa for the crowning of
a native king who would be their redeemer. In a fateful twist of history, in 1930 a nobleman
named Ras Tafari (1891–1975) was crowned emperor of Ethiopia. (The name Ras is a title akin
to duke, and Tafari means “worthy of respect.”) The coronation ceremony in Addis Ababa was a
major event, attended by diplomats from many countries and widely covered in newsreels. Ras
Tafari took a new name when he became ruler of Ethiopia: Emperor Haile Selassie (“Power of
Ethiopia was already widely esteemed by Jamaicans as a great example of an ancient black
African kingdom that had remained independent. Many Jamaicans also accepted the belief of
Ethiopians that their emperor was descended from the biblical King Solomon and Queen of
Sheba. In addition, some Jamaicans began to believe that Haile Selassie was a new appearance of
Jesus—and that he was therefore divine (Haile Selassie, a devout Coptic Christian, did not share
these last beliefs).
Hope began to build in Jamaica that Haile Selassie would send ships to return black Jamaicans to
Africa. This hope grew stronger after 1938, when Haile Selassie founded the Ethiopian World
Federation and granted it five hundred acres of land in Ethiopia, intended for any people of
African descent who wished to resettle there. The great symbolic importance of Haile Selassie
was obvious when the emperor came to visit Jamaica in 1966: he had trouble leaving his plane
because of the enormous crowds that came to greet him.
Haile Selassie died in 1975, yet Rastafarians believe that he is still alive in his spiritual body.
Prayed to under the name Ras Tafari, he remains a symbol of liberation. His importance for
many Jamaicans both explains the name of the Rastafarians and makes understandable their
focus on him as a center of their religious belief.
Dry up your tears and come to meet Ras Tafari.
Rastafarian hymn 8
Rastafarianism is not a single, organized church; rather, it is a diffuse movement that continues
to produce new branches. Among its many off-shoots are the Rastafarian Movement Association,
the Ethiopian National Congress, and a more recent branch called the Twelve Tribes of Israel.
Despite differences among the various groups, several beliefs and practices have emerged that
are shared by most Rastafarians. The first shared belief is that there is one God, who is referred
to by the biblical name Jah(the name is related to Yahweh and Jehovah). A second common
belief is that Haile Selassie, called King of Kings and Lion of Judah, was (and is) divine. Third,
all Rastafarians believe that the Bible not only is the word of God but that it also has hidden
meanings that are important for people of African descent. These passages can particularly be
found in the Psalms and the prophetic Books of Daniel and Revelation, which speak of a
Messiah and a “golden age” in the future. Fourth, Rastafarians hold that people of African
descent—like the Israelites who were held in captivity for fifty years in Babylon—must seek
liberation from any society that oppresses them.
Some Rastafarians have made connections with Ethiopian Christianity, as in this baptism at an
Ethiopian Orthodox church in Kingston, Jamaica.
© Daniel Laine/Corbis
Although no longer living, reggae singer Bob Marley remains something of a Rastafarian
© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Rastafarianism at first was sharply racial, condemning white society (called Babylon) and
seeking emancipation from it. These sharp edges, however, have been softened over recent
decades as Rastafarians have sought to change society by entering government in Jamaica and
elsewhere; moreover, many whites have converted to Rastafarianism. Increasingly, Rastafarians
have begun to focus on the ideals of human unity and on harmony with the environment.
Representative practices have grown up over time, although their origins are debated. One of
these is the sacramental use of ganja (marijuana). The practice may have come from its use by
immigrants from India to the Caribbean. Rastafarians call ganja the “holy herb,” and they point
to several passages in the Christian Bible that they say refer to it. One favorite passage is taken
from the story of creation: “And God said, ‘Let the earth bring forth grass, the herb yielding
seed’” (Gen. 1:11). 9 Another describes a future “golden age,” when a river flows from the New
Jerusalem. On each side of the river God has planted trees with medicinal leaves, for “the leaves
of the tree were for the healing of nations” (Rev. 22:2). 10
Another Rastafarian practice involves allowing one’s hair to grow into long coils, called
dreadlocks. (In Jamaican English, dread has often been used as an adjective to mean “strict,”
“upright,” “righteous.”) Although this custom probably began as a symbolic rejection of
oppressive social norms, it has also been interpreted as adherence to scripture. The Torah
prohibits males from cutting their beards and side-whiskers (see Lev. 19:27), and it prescribes a
special vow that keeps a male from drinking wine and cutting any hair of the head whatsoever
(Num. 6:5). Biblical examples of people subject to this vow were Samson (Judg. 13:5), known
for his bodily strength, and John the Baptist (Luke 1:15), known for his strength of character.
Rastafarians, partially influenced by the dietary laws of the Hebrew scriptures, usually avoid
pork and shellfish (Lev. 11:7–12). They prefer food with no preservatives, additives, pesticides,
or herbicides. For health reasons, many Rastafarians are vegetarian—such as Ziggy Marley, Bob
Marley’s son, who has demonstrated on television how to make his recipe for “Rasta Pasta.”
Rastafarians have adopted the symbolic use of four colors: black, to represent people of African
origin; green, to represent the hills of Jamaica and hope for the future; red, to represent the blood
that was shed by martyrs for the cause; and gold, to represent Ethiopia, a focus of African pride.
This color scheme can often be seen in hats, shirts, and flags.
Elements of Rastafarianism have entered mainstream culture, particularly through music.
Following African practice, Rastafarians from the beginning used drumming for religious
purposes, but it was the development of reggae music and songs after 1960 that particularly
spread Rasta ideas and vocabulary. Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, and Bob’s son Ziggy Marley are
perhaps the best-known reggae musicians. (Bob Marley’s house, since his death in 1981, has
become a shrine.) The influence of this music has created a “reggae culture” (for example, in the
world of surfing) that is far wider than Rastafarianism itself. Rastafarianism and its influence
have spread throughout the Caribbean and to England, Canada, and the United States.
We end our examination of specific new religious movements with a look at a movement
descended from Islam. The origins of the Baha’i faith, another monotheistic religion, can be
traced to the Shiite Islam of Persia (Iran). We might recall that Shiite Islam sees divine authority
as residing in the line of Imams, the hereditary successors of Ali, who was the son-in-law of
Muhammad. Many Shiite Muslims believe that the last Imam did not die, but lives in another
realm beyond the earth, and that he will return. Many also expect that a messianic figure
(sometimes identified with Jesus) will appear on earth in the future.
This Shiite sense of expectation was the context for a nineteenth-century religious movement in
Persia. It grew up around a man named Siyyid Ali Muhammad (1819–1850), who declared in
1844 that he was the long-awaited Mahdi—the last Imam, returned to earth. He took a religious
name, Bab, meaning “gate” or “door,” and preached that there would soon arrive another
divinely sent messenger who would be of even greater stature and would bring full revelation
from Allah. That figure, he prophesied, would begin a golden age of unity and peace. Because of
conflict with orthodox Muslims, the Bab was thrown into prison and executed in 1850.
One of the Bab’s followers and a leader of the Babist movement was a young Persian aristocrat,
Mirza Husayn Ali (1817–1892), who later became known as Baha’u’llah(“glory of Allah”).
After the death of the Bab, Baha’u’llah was himself nearly killed by government authorities.
Instead of being executed, however, he was jailed in Tehran, in the notorious “Black Pit”—an
underground reservoir used as a prison. There he experienced several months of divine
revelations. After release, he was banished from Iran and began a life of exile, wandering in
many places, including Baghdad and cities in Turkey, Egypt, and Palestine. He continued to be
the focus of the Babist movement, and in 1863 he at last declared that he was indeed the
messianic figure whom the Bab had prophesied. He lived the last years of his life in Acre, near
Haifa, in what is today the west coast of Israel.
Baha’u’llah wrote innumerable letters to his followers and public letters to world leaders, such as
Pope Pius IX and Queen Victoria, outlining his practical ideas for a future of human harmony. In
his books, such as the Kitab-i-Iqan (“book of certainty”) and the Kitab-i-Aqdas (“book of
holiness”), he proposed the establishment of a world government. His ethical teachings are
summarized in a short work called The Hidden Words.
After the death of Baha’u’llah in 1892, his son, Abdul Baha (1844–1921), carried his message to
Europe and North America. His grandson, Shoghi Effendi (1897–1957), continued to lead the
religion and translated its scriptures into English.
The term Baha’i, which means “follower of Baha’u’llah,” was widely used during the lifetime of
Baha’u’llah. Muslims consider the Baha’i faith to be a heretical sect. Orthodox Muslims call
Muhammad the “seal of the prophets,” meaning that Muhammad was not only the greatest of the
prophets but also the last. They therefore do not accept that Baha’u’llah was a prophet, and
followers of the Baha’i faith in Iran—of whom about 350,000 still remain—have been severely
persecuted. The Baha’i movement, however, is now a separate religion, fully independent of
Islam, and has followers all around the world.
World unity is the goal towards which a harassed humanity is striving. Nation building has come
to an end. The anarchy inherent in state sovereignty is moving towards a climax. A world,
growing to maturity, must abandon this fetish, recognize the oneness and wholeness of human
relationships, and establish once for all the machinery that can best incarnate this fundamental
principle of its life.
Shoghi Effendi 11
The Baha’i faith is among the most universalistic of religions. While it retains its monotheistic
origins, the religion defines God and other religious realities in broad terms that are appealing to
a wide range of people. A major expression of Baha’i universalism is that Baha’is see all
religions as partially true, but also as separate elements of a great mosaic of divine revelation that
is still being shaped by God. Baha’is argue that all religious founders have offered some
revelation from God, but that earlier revelations have been tempered by the cultures and times in
which they appeared. For Baha’is, revelation is necessarily progressive, because human beings
continue to evolve in understanding. Baha’is believe that the revelations of Baha’u’llah, while
being the most advanced, nonetheless continue the revelations given to earlier prophets,
including Abraham, Moses, Zarathustra (Zoroaster), Krishna, the Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad,
and the Bab.
Baha’is teach that all religions, in some fundamental sense, are one, and Baha’is therefore look
forward to the day when divisions between religions will disappear. Although the writings of
Baha’u’llah are considered scriptural, Baha’is also read selections from the scriptures of many
world religions at their services. Baha’is not only strive for harmony among people of different
religious faiths, they also try to overcome the differences between religious and scientific
endeavors, which often seem to be at odds with each other.
Visitors line up to enter the Baha’i Mashriqu’l-Adhkar, the “Lotus Temple” in New Delhi.
© Dallas and John Heaton/Free Agents Limited/Corbis
Baha’i belief about the afterlife is reminiscent of other monotheistic religions, yet it is
deliberately left somewhat undefined—a fact that gives Baha’i wide appeal. Baha’is believe that
each individual has an immortal soul and that after death the soul can go on developing in realms
beyond the earth. They also speak of places of reward and punishment in an afterlife. When
Baha’is speak of “heaven” and “hell,” however, they explain that these are metaphors for
closeness to or distance from God.
Rather than focusing on an afterlife, Baha’is emphasize improving human life in this world.
Baha’is seek complete equality between men and women, an end to poverty, and education for
all. They work to end prejudice, and to accomplish this they not only allow intermarriage but
also encourage it.
Baha’is have a strongly international focus. They want to see the establishment of an auxiliary
world language—to augment rather than replace regional languages—for use in international
communication. On a very practical level, Baha’is are active supporters of the United Nations
and other organizations that, in their opinion, foster world harmony. Their ultimate hope is that a
single world government will supersede independent nations and thus make war impossible. And
although Baha’is do not become politicians themselves, they work in many other practical ways
to achieve their goals.
One unusual aspect of the Baha’i faith is its religious calendar, created by the Bab. It is made up
of nineteen months, each being nineteen days long (with four extra days added before the final
month). The last month of the year is a period of fasting, reminiscent of Ramadan in Islam, when
no food or drink may be consumed during the daytime. This period of purification lasts from
March 2 through March 20; the new year begins on March 21. The first day of each Baha’i
month is a time of meeting, prayer, and celebration.
Contemporary Issues: Humanism: A New Religion?
During the Renaissance (c. 1350–1600) an important movement emerged. Because it was
inspired by classical scholarship, contemporary science, and the quest for human betterment, it
came to be called humanism. The movement represented a sharp departure from the other
philosophical movements of its time, because it focused exclusively on the earthly concerns of
human beings and disregarded the supernatural. Drawing upon this earlier Renaissance tradition,
the modern movement of Humanism (also called Ethical Humanism) has been developing over
the last hundred years.
The main principles of modern Humanism are simple. The most recent Humanist Manifesto
describes the movement as a philosophy of life that, while rejecting supernaturalism, insists on
the ability of human beings to lead lives that are moral, personally fulfilling, and helpful to
others. Because Humanism gives special emphasis to social welfare, it has similarities with
socialism and secularism. Yet it is not a political ideology, and it openly considers various means
to achieve its objectives.
Because of its focus on practical issues and its disregard for the supernatural, some people debate
whether the movement should be called a religion. Humanism, however, does share certain
characteristics with religion. For example, some of its chapters perform weddings, funerals, and
other rituals common to religions. Also, like many religions, Humanism places great emphasis
on ethical standards, particularly those associated with the pursuit of social welfare.
Baha’is are not allowed to drink alcohol, and they are discouraged from smoking. In conjunction
with a belief in gender equality, Baha’i does not allow polygamy, but it does allow divorce.
Baha’i has no priesthood; it is governed by assemblies that operate on the local, national, and
international level. Followers often meet in each other’s homes. Each continent, however, has
one large templelike house of prayer, open to all, and more are planned. (The exotic, filigreed
North American house of prayer is in Wilmette, Illinois, in the suburbs of Chicago. It has fine
gardens and ponds. The Baha’i house of prayer in New Delhi, a totally unique building, is
shaped like a water lily.) All houses of prayer have nine sides; for Baha’is the number nine,
being the highest single-digit number, symbolizes completeness and perfection. The Baha’i
world headquarters and its governing body, the Universal House of Justice, are in Haifa, Israel.
There are about six million Baha’is worldwide.
New Religious Movements: a Special Role
In reflecting on the new religious movements that we have studied, questions naturally come to
mind. What traits make these movements attractive to people? What do they say about where
religion is heading in the twenty-first century?
One notable trait of these new religious movements is that they are still relatively small and their
members usually meet in small groups. Thus there is a strong sense of intimacy among members,
giving them a feeling that they have a function, that “everyone counts.” Members are also
attracted to belonging to a group with a unique identity and purpose.
A second notable trait is the role that women play in several of the new religious movements—a
role that many mainstream religions have blocked. Theosophy was cofounded by Madame
Helena Blavatsky, a self-confident, well-traveled woman who was a writer as well as an
organizer, and it was continued by Annie Besant, also a writer and organizer. Moreover, women
are the main practitioners of Wicca, and through it they worship the divine that is manifested as
the female and mother. In the Yoruba-based religions, female deities play a major role, and
worship of them is a significant part of the ceremonial life. Women play an important role, too,
in the organizations of several other new religious movements.
A third trait is the importance of an active devotional life. We especially find an emphasis on the
mystical element—the sense of union with something greater than oneself. This mystical element
is often assisted by music and dance that lead to trance states, or by meditations on a divine spirit
that everyone shares. The mystical orientation is strong in Wicca, in the Yoruba-based religions,
in Theosophy, and in Rastafarianism, and it is a significant part of Baha’i and Cao Dai.
Lastly, many of the religions present clear programs for self-development, which often involve
the body as well as the mind. In Cao Dai, self-cultivation is a major goal, and virtues are clearly
described. Anthroposophy has worked out a system of self-development that is meant to
complete the entire human person—physical, intellectual, and artistic. Followers of Falun Gong
use exercises in meditation and bodily motion to increase inner harmony and strength. And
Wicca encourages participants to imagine and work for practical goals that will enrich their lives.
The new religious movements fulfill human needs that may be unmet in the older mainstream
religions. They also tell us about larger trends in the future of world religions. They are,
consequently, a bridge to our discussion, in the final chapter, of the modern religious search.
Personal Experience: Celebrating the Goddess
“Do you want to talk about your future?” a young woman asked me from the roots of a large
banyan tree. I hadn’t seen her sitting there at a small table at the base of the tree. It was about
two weeks before Christmas, and I was walking quickly through one of the few leafy places left
in Waikiki, looking for some last-minute presents at the nearby booths that sold coral jewelry,
sarongs, aloha shirts, and carvings. “Would you like me to do a reading for you?”
A Tarot card reader in New Orleans helps a client understand his future.
© Ricardo Azoury/Corbis
I sat down, and she quoted me a price for my reading. She also told me her name—Diana—and
then asked me my name and the date and time of my birth. She laid down her bright Tarot
cards—first in intersecting lines, then a straight line on the side—and told me what she saw. She
interpreted the colorful images on the cards: a tower with a bolt of lightning, a knight on
horseback, an angel with two chalices, a hermit, two lovers, and a wheel of fortune. 12
“Now you might like to ask some questions,” she said. As I asked specific questions about my
work and my future, she turned over one additional card for each question and gave me her
interpretation of the cards. I liked her careful choice of words and her feeling for the symbolic
nature of the images on the cards. She clearly believed in what she was doing.
One of my last questions was about an aging relative who was terminally ill. “He is beginning to
feel terribly sick,” I said. “How long will he live?”
Diana looked at her cards. “Actually,” she answered after a long pause, “he is very strong inside.
He will die when he wants to.” It was an ambiguous answer, but a good one. Diana made me
think of a priestess at the oracle of Delphi, who was known to be equally adept at such answers.
At last we had gone through all my questions and all her cards. “Now I have a question myself,”
she said. “Would you like to come to a Yuletide celebration here in Waikiki next week?” I
answered that I would and asked if there was anything I could bring. “Oh, just some food,” she
replied, “but wear red or green for the celebration.”
A week later I was taking my shoes off (as we do in Hawai`i) outside the door of a ground-floor
apartment in a small building from the 1930s. Somehow the low-rise building had survived in the
middle of bustling, high-rise Waikiki. I’d brought sushi, wine, and a piece of mistletoe that I’d
seen for sale at the grocery store. As I lined my shoes up next to twenty other pairs of shoes and
sandals, I noticed that only a few were men’s.
Lady Diana welcomed me. (She had told me that this was her name as a high priestess of Wicca.
Her given name was Lorraine.) She wore a floor-length gold dress with long sleeves. She held a
child in her arms. Diana introduced me to her friends Isis, Aurora, Bridget, and at least a dozen
others. Most of them wore elaborate necklaces and dangling earrings. A few even wore tiaras.
The men, except for one named Thor, had less exotic names, but all wore red shirts.
I looked around. A five-pointed star, made of Christmas lights, hung on the wall near the
Christmas tree. A low square altar, covered in gold cloth, stood in the middle of the room, and on
it were a statue of a woman with a deer and another of a horned Pan figure, a small cauldron, tall
candles, and what looked like a fancy letter opener. A smaller round table next to the larger altar
was covered with about twenty vigil candles.
About two dozen silver goblets stood on a side table, and I added my bottle of wine to the other
bottles, some already open. People were eating and talking. Diana handed me a goblet of wine.
“Circulate,” she said.
After half an hour of socializing, Diana asked us to stand in a circle around the altars. The
women began a slow chant, which they repeated in a hypnotic way: “We all come from the
Goddess/and to her we shall return/Like drops of rain/flow into the ocean.” Carrying her child,
Diana went to each wall of the room, praying to the spirits of the four directions. She then circled
the room to enclose the group. We sat while Bridget and Isis enacted a short playlet about the
myth of Demeter and Persephone, Greek goddesses who went into the darkness of the
When the two women had finished, Diana spoke. “We are celebrating the winter solstice and
unite ourselves with this cosmic turning of time. The Christmas tree, the candles, and the
greenery represent the return of life and light. Like the sun, we also will grow in strength as the
She passed around a large goblet of wine, and each person put into it a bit of bread, as an
offering to the Goddess. Diana put it on the altar. Each person lit a candle on the smaller altar
and talked about hopes for the coming year. Then everyone joined hands and moved in a slow
circular dance around the altars. “Peace on earth, good will to all,” Diana sang during the dance.
At last Diana stopped the dance and asked everyone to sit again in a circle on the floor.
Diana now went to each of the four sides of the room to address the spirits of the four directions.
She spoke finally to the Goddess, ended the ceremony, and officially “opened the circle.” She
gave each of us a small cloth bag with instructions to write down our wishes for the coming year
on a piece of paper, to put the written wishes inside the bag, and to place the bag on our home
altar. Then, just before we left, Diana said a blessing: “May the circle be open but unbroken.
May the peace of the Goddess be forever in your heart. Merry meet, and merry part, till we
merry meet again.”
Isis, Bridget, and I left together. In the dim light just outside, my attention was devoutly focused
on my feet: I was afraid that I might trip. I looked down carefully at each crooked, mossy stone
of the uneven pathway, which was lined with ferns. When at last we reached the street, Bridget
said, “Look!” She pointed up. Isis and I looked upward, but I saw only street-lights, bright shop
signs, and the lighted upper floors of a condominium building. Then I saw what had caught her
eye. Overwhelmed by all the lights below, but still visible in the sky, shone a crescent moon.
Reading: Baha’I Prayer *
* General prayers, Aid and Assistance, p. 18, © Bahá’í International Community. Reproduced
Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i, wrote this prayer, full of ardent devotion. It is reminiscent of
the mystical poetry of several religions.
O Thou Whose face is the object of my adoration, Whose beauty is my sanctuary, Whose
habitation is my goal, Whose praise is my hope, Whose providence is my companion, Whose
love is the cause of my being, Whose mention is my solace, Whose nearness is my desire, Whose
presence is my dearest wish and highest aspiration, I entreat Thee not to withhold from me the
things Thou didst ordain for the chosen ones among Thy servants. Supply me, then, with the
good of this world and of the next. Thou, truly, art the King of all men. There is no God but
Thee, the Ever-Forgiving, the Most Generous. 13
1. The term_________________ is used to describe the mixture of various elements from
1. polytheism 2. imminent 3. transcendent 4. syncretic
2. __________________ is the best-known manifestation of the Contemporary Pagan
movement. It is an Old English word that suggests associations with magic, separation, and
1. Druid 2. Wicca 3. Voodoo 4. Santería
3. __________________ were an elite group of ancient Celtic professionals who acted as
judges, teachers, counselors, doctors, and priests.
1. Druids 2. Wiccans 3. Thetans 4. Orishas
4. ___________________, a religion that grew up in Spanish colonial Cuba, is a mixture of
Yoruba religions and Catholicism.
1. Santería 2. Theosophy 3. Scientology 4. Voodoo
5. ___________________, a religion that developed in French colonial Haiti, is a mixture of
Yoruba religions and Catholicism.
1. Santería 2. Theosophy 3. Scientology 4. Voodoo
6. __________________ shows a strong interest in mystically oriented teachings from all
sources—among them, Hindu Vedanta, the Jewish Kabbalah, and Gnosticism.
1. Santería 2. Theosophy 3. Scientology 4. Voodoo
7. __________________ was founded by L. Ron Hubbard. It holds that the core of the human
being is a spiritual reality, which it calls the thetan.
1. Santería 2. Theosophy 3. Scientology 4. Voodoo
8. In Falun Gong, the__________________ is believed to be an invisible spiritual wheel
located in the lower abdomen that can be activated by a master.
1. falun 2. gong 3. cao 4. dai
9. _________________ is the most important early figure of Rastafarianism.
1. E. B. DuBois 2. Martin Luther King Jr. 3. Marcus Garvey 4. Zaydis
10. The term Baha’i means follower of _____________________The Baha’i faith is among
the most universalistic of religions.
1. the Bab 2. Baha’u’llah 3. Baal 4. Babal
11. Review the new religions described in this chapter. Do you think there is greater emphasis
overall on a transcendent or an immanent understanding of sacred reality? (You may want
to review the definitions of “transcendent” and “immanent” in Chapter 1 to help explain
12. Imagine you have the opportunity to interview a member of any new religion described in
this chapter. Which new religion would you choose? What are two questions you would
especially like to ask?
Berry, Thomas. The Sacred Universe: Earth, Spirituality, and Religion in the Twenty-First
Century. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. Essays on the need for a new religious
responsibility to the earth.
Bowers, Kenneth E. God Speaks Again: An Introduction to the Bahá’í Faith. Chicago: Bahá’í
Publishing, 2004. The story of Baha’u’llah and the Baha’í faith.
Bui, Hum Dac, and Ngasha Beck. Cao Dai: Faith of Unity. Fayetteville, AR: Emerald Wave,
2000. A thorough introduction to the religion.
Cowan, Douglas, and David Bromley. Cults and New Religions: A Brief History. Oxford:
Blackwell, 2008. A survey of eight new religions, including Scientology, Wicca, and the
Cunningham, Scott. Wicca: A Guide for the Solitary Practitioner. Minneapolis: Llewellyn, 1993.
A how-to guide for the practice of Wicca, with information on holy days, ceremonies, altars, and
Horsley, Kate. Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel.Boston: Shambhala, 2002. A novel that
describes the life of a woman in Ireland circa 500 CE, who trains as a Druid priestess before
converting to Christianity and becoming a nun.
Ownby, David. Falun Gong and the Future of China.New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.
A description of Falun Gong as a continuation of Chinese practices for health, with an
explanation of governmental opposition.
The Believers.(Director John Schlesinger; Orion.) A Hollywood film set against a background of
Santería practice in New York City.
Beyond the Red Wall: The Persecution of Falun Gong.(Director Peter Rowe; CBC.) A
documentary about Kunlun Zhang, an artist and professor at McGill University, who was jailed
for nearly three years in a Chinese labor camp because of his participation in the Falun Gong
I Married a Witch.(Director René Clair; Warner.) An elegant classic, one of the first Hollywood
films to mention witchcraft.
The “Kitchen Goddess”: The Reemergence of the Village Psychic (Films Media Group.) A look
at modern divination and healing as practiced by members of Wicca and the users of Tarot,
astrology, and palmistry.
Rebel Music: The Bob Marley Story. (Director Jeremy Marre; Palm Pictures.) A documentary
profile of the legendary reggae singer and Rastafarian.
The Spiritual Quest of Generation X. (Films Media Group.) An exploration of the role of
spirituality in the lives of young people and their movement toward New Age religions.
The Truth Within: Towards a New Spiritual Utopia.(Films Media Group.) An examination of
New Age religious movements, including interviews with Huston Smith, Marilyn Ferguson,
Thich Nhat Hanh, and Sheikh Abd al-Wahid Pallavicini.
Voodoo and the Church in Haiti. (Director Bob Richards; CustomFlix.) A documentary that
examines the religious fusion of Voodoo and Christianity in Haiti.
The Best of Pagan Song.(Serpentine Music Productions.) A compilation of devotional songs
from the Contemporary Pagan movement.
Falun Dafa Practice Music.Music to be played while performing Falun Dafa meditation and
exercise (available at Falun Dafa Web site: www.falundafa.org).
Goddess Chant. (Ladyslipper.) Ritual chants to the Goddess by the Wiccan priestess Shawna
Rhythms of Rapture: Sacred Music of Haitian Vodou.(Smithsonian Folkways.) A recording of
ceremonies contrasted against performances by Haitian artists whose music is influenced by
Sacred Rhythms of Cuban Santería. (Smithsonian Folk-ways.) A recording of Santería
drumming and singing recorded in several Cuban provinces.
The Spiritual Roots of Reggae.(Deja vu Italy.) The music of Count Ossie, the legendary
Jamaican drummer and bandleader, who first introduced Rastafarian elements into Jamaican
State of Mind Music. A collection of songs and poems set to music written by L. Ron Hubbard
(available at Scientology bookstores and on its Web site: www.scientology.org).
Covenant of the Goddess: http://www.cog.org/. The official Web site for an international
organization of Wiccan congregations and individual practitioners, offering information about
religious beliefs and practices.
Rastafarianism: http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/rastafari/. An easy-to-understand source
of information about Rastafarian history, beliefs, practices, and holy days.
The Witches’ Voice: http://www.witchvox.com/. An educational networking Web site that
provides news, information services, and resources for Pagans and Wiccans.
In Cao Dai, one of three periods of special divine revelation.
“Human wisdom” (Greek); a movement that grew out of Theosophy and emphasizes
education and other practical means for spiritual development.
In Scientology, a counselor who, through a series of questions, works to guide a person to
“Door,” “gate”; a prophet who was the forerunner of Baha’u’llah, the founder of Baha’i.
Baha’i (bah-hai’ or bah-hah’-ee)
A modern monotheistic religion that grew out of Islam and emphasizes unity and equality
of individuals, cultures, and religions; a follower of the Baha’i religion.
“Glory of Allah” (Arabic); the founder of Baha’i.
A first-level initiate in Druidism; also, a follower of a path in Druidism.
In Scientology, a diagram of the stages toward personal liberation.
The syncretic religion of Brazil that blends elements of Portuguese Catholicism and
Cao Dai (kao’-dai)
“High palace”; a syncretic religion that began in Vietnam and that blends Confucianism,
Daoism, Buddhism, and Catholic Christianity.
Church Universal and Triumphant
A religion that unites elements from Theosophy and Christianity; also referred to as CUT.
In Scientology, the state of mental liberation; the person who has achieved mental
liberation; also referred to as operating thetan, or OT.
A general name for several movements that attempt to reestablish a pre-Christian
European nature religion; also called Neo-Paganism.
The long coiled hair worn by some Rastafarians.
“Oak-tree wisdom”; a Celtic priest of two thousand years ago; a follower of the modern
re-creation of Druidism.
In Scientology, an electronic machine that reads galvanic skin response; sometimes used
to assist the auditing process.
In Scientology, an experience of earlier suffering (even from a past life) that keeps a
person from relating healthily to the present.
“Equal night” (Latin); the two days of the year, in the spring and autumn, when the hours
of daylight and nighttime are equal.
In Wicca, the time of the full moon, often marked by a meeting or ceremony.
“Good rhythm” (Greek); a type of interpretive dance utilized in Anthroposophy as a
technique for spiritual growth.
“Law wheel” (Chinese); an invisible spiritual wheel, believed by followers of Falun
Gong to spin in the abdominal region, distilling and spreading energy from the universe.
“Law-wheel energy” (Chinese); a modern Chinese religion that uses meditation and
physical exercises in its practice.
loa (lwa) (lwah)
A deity in Voodoo.
In Scientology, an acronym for matter, energy, space, and time; the world of time and
space, the world in which spirits must live.
In Santería, any deity.
In Scientology, a fully liberated person; also referred to as OT or clear.
A general name for a deity in the Yoruba-tradition religions.
A female deity in Santería who is associated with love and marriage.
A second-level initiate in Druidism; also, a follower of a path of Druidism.
In Scientology, a person who is not yet spiritually liberated and who is just beginning to
undergo the auditing process.
“Energy force” (Chinese); a type of martial art that is thought to increase health and
Ras Tafari (rahs tah-fah’-ree)
The original name of Emperor Haile Selassie, often used by Rastafarians to emphasize
his religious significance.
A religion that began in Jamaica in the 1920s to emphasize African pride; it considers
Haile Selassie (Ras Tafari) to be divine.
“Advice,” “counsel”; a term used in Wicca to describe its maxim that an act is allowable
if it does no harm: “An [if] it harm none, do what you will.”
One of eight seasonal turning points marked by Wiccans and Druids.
a priestess of Santería.
“Saint-thing” or “saint-way” (Spanish); a Yoruba-based religion that developed in Cuba
and was influenced by Spanish Catholicism.
A priest of Santería.
“Knowledge-study” (Latin and Greek); a modern religion that promotes a process of
focusing thought and clarifying life goals.
Shangó (Changó) (shahn-goh’)
In Santería, a popular god associated with lightning and powerful storms.
“Sun-stands” (Latin); the two days of the year, at midwinter and midsummer, when the
season begins to reverse itself.
“Divine wisdom” (Greek); an eclectic movement, particularly influenced by Hinduism,
that focuses on the mystical elements of all religions.
In Scientology, the human soul.
A religion that developed in Haiti that blends elements from French Catholicism and
A Contemporary Pagan movement that seeks harmony with the forces of nature and
worships both the female and male aspects of the divine.
Religion Beyond the Classroom
Visit the Online Learning Center at www.mhhe.com/molloy6e for additional exercises and
features, including “Religion beyond the Classroom” and “For Fuller Understanding.”
Experiencing the Worlds Religions. Tradition, Challenge, and Change, Sixth Edition
Chapter 11: Alternative Paths
ISBN: 9780078038273 Author: Michael Molloy
Copyright © McGraw-Hill Company (6)