A New Religion Handbook

Understanding the New Religions, edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker (Seabury, 1978, 314 pp., $17.50 hb, $8.95 pb), is reviewed by Erling Jorstand, professor of history and American studies, Saint Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.

In all the discussion today about cults, sects, Asian religions, and new consciousness, many questions arise. Are these really a cohesive movement? Are they merely a fad, or are they a trend, signaling some profound transformation of religion in America? The answer to these questions from the editors and 26 contributors to this work is a resounding yes, they are a cohesive movement; no, they are not a fad; yes, they may well be a harbinger of things to come, although that is not certain.

This book grew out of a national conference on the study of the new religions held in Berkeley, California in 1977. The topics covered, often by some of the best-known American scholars, discuss the history, nature and significance, and phenomenology of these new religions. At no one point do the contributors attempt a straight-out definition of “new religion”; the reader must piece that together from a many-sided examination. However, Barbara Hargrove comes very close to a working definition, asserting that, first, these are “new,” that is, unusual and exotic, at least on the American scene. They are usually eclectic, “borrowing from a wide variety of traditions into a common theme.” Second, they are unexpected, signifying a change of direction, reversing the present trends, and moving toward something new. To Hargrove this is all the more surprising in the 1970s when so many pundits had surrendered to secularization. Third, all new religions contain familiar elements, but “the total ...

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