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New Religious Movements: A Factor of Division or Unity? PDF Print E-mail

Jacques Hostetter
Free University of Brussels, Belgium

delivered at the
International Coalition for Religious Freedom Conference on 
"Religious Freedom and the New Millenium"
Berlin, Germany, May 29-31, 1998

I would like to preface by giving three remarks. I will not be the first one to tell you that old Western civilization from Judeo-Christian origin is being shaken by a big wave. All of its institutions are trembling, whether the family, school, or churches.

The great philosopher and sociologist Reynald Aaron is just waking me up to the fact that the present world is facing tremendous troubles. He sees in the great difficulties that have been taking place in the 20th century, an essential factor for this particular problem. All known civilization, he wrote, lived within the unity of one religion. They shared a collective faith, but Western modern civilization has lost this religious consensus. As the millennium ends, the institutional churches are showing evidence of malaise and decay.

I ask myself whether the new religious movements may provide a new chance to recover the lost unity through dialogue and encounter. I would like to tell you why, in my view, the new religious movements are indeed making a contribution to unity.

First, the incalculable number of articles and books on these different religious movements surprises me, considering that, if we look at the details, they affect a very small part of the population. Considering the size of the threat described by the media, are these movements a real danger? I would be the first to denounce manipulation by a guru that creates weakness. I will fight against undemocratic practices. However, is there sufficient cause or concern to pass legislation on these issues at the end of the century?

Above all, I am not interested in acting in place of those institutions that have traditionally governed spiritual life. Each report that speaks about abuses, discusses practices which vary little from the practices of the traditional religions. From this point of view, the emergence of new spiritual viewpoints is making a valuable contribution to religion and philosophy, which promotes tolerance and new vision. There is a famous saying, “I may not agree with what you think but I will fight for you to be able to express your ideas.” I think that all of us, coming from different opinions, want to express this reality.

I can understand why some parents are upset, and speak out when their children come under the influence of a guru, or join a sect. Nevertheless, we have to be careful not to be intolerant, or to rush to judgment based on preconceived ideas or abusive stereotypes.

It is in the nature of pluralism to respect minorities. We defend this concept in Western countries, and thus we should respect and defend new religious movements that have been implanted in our countries. It is, in fact, the attitude and reaction of established religious movements, which gives rise to great concern about whether or not everyone will have the right to choose his or her religious belief for themself. Just as Nero took the torch to oppose free thought, and fell from that action, I think that, happily, the appearance of the new religious movements is at the point of working in favor of religious tolerance. My assertion is that syncretism appears to promote new spirituality and to permit rejuvenation.

On Monday, I will visit a center of the Baha’i faith in Israel. This is an example of the type of new religious movement, which seeks to find the positive value in each religion, and brings together beliefs without distinction of race or sex. This movement presents principles and actions that lead to universality: assistance for the poor, the importance of education to end violence and intolerance, and rejection of despotism, seeking to create for humankind a peaceful and agreeable environment. It seems to me that I can see the same elements within the Unification Church. The term unification is especially timely and pleasant. We see a demonstration of it in this meeting that we are attending today.

Obviously, we should not be naive. Within new religious movements, there are examples of division, family drama, and other problems, even those who are calling for a resurgence of fascism and totalitarianism. However, I do not want to finish on a pessimistic note, because it seems to me that the rise of new spirituality is, above all, positive and is leading us in the right direction.

I will just now state the last conclusion, which for me could be the subject of a new conference. Contrary to traditional religions, in which it is normal to conceive of society as the particular society in which they have developed, certain new religious movements, more in harmony with the modern world, allow a bigger place for the equality of women. If this tendency becomes more concrete, without a doubt, this will constitute progress, especially in the relationship between man and woman, between parents and children, and within the family, and the trend will improve.

Blaise Pascal wrote that we can have new opinions without disregarding old ones, and without ingratitude, because of the knowledge and the life that the old ones have given us. Having come to the level to which they have brought us, the least effort that we make can help us to go higher, and from there we can discover new things which it was impossible for those who preceded us to foresee.

Of course, in this passage the great philosopher Pascal is speaking of scientific progress, but in my opinion this consideration applies to spirituality too. Just as there is scientific progress, so also, there is spiritual progress, and it is a mistake to desire stability of belief in the form it has taken in order to maintain power. In the Protestant milieu, I hear three words which one can appreciate: reformata, siempre reformata. The road that engaged the reformers, the humanists, and the free thinkers is not a smooth road. It is a road full of difficulties, where it is necessary to explore the themes of religion and philosophy, which are the basis of thought.

It is not necessary to be a prophet to predict that the future belongs to new spiritual and philosophical conceptions, not to old ones. Effectively, the dogmas of the school of Trent and of the Vatican have not fulfilled the spiritual aspirations of youth. We can retain those elements that are vital and helpful in traditional religions, and in the currents of scientific belief, but we are also called to affirm our march to build a more ideal, tolerant, and free society.