New Religious Movements And Interfaith Dialogue

Dr Gordon Melton

Dr Melton is considered America's senior scholar in the field of new and unconventional religions, having studied them for more than twenty-five years. In this article, he discusses religious dialogue in terms of the consequences of today's multicultural and multi-faith world. Although ISKCON does not represent a new religion, it does experience similar cultural, religious and sociological reactions. This paper provides a valuable insight into the issues and concerns surrounding interfaith dialogue.

Future historians will surely place the rise of the numerous new and unconventional religious movements high on any list of important changes in the religious situation in the West in the latter half of the twentieth century. Literally thousands of religious groups are now building their communities of faith in every part of the world. While some which broadly fall under the label 'new religions' have traditions which reach back into the nineteenth century (or even earlier), most were formed this century and had their greatest success in the last generation. The Unification Church, the Jesus People Movement, the Church of Scientology and the Nation of Goddess Worshippers are just some of the groups which become controversial in the sixties and seventies, in addition to numerous guru-orientated Hindu and yoga groups which proselytise members from European and North America young adults. Also included are those nineteenth century groups such as Theosophy, Christian Science, Spiritualism, Vedanta, the Baha'i Faith and New Thought, which have expanded around the world, together with the Western occult tradition which has found its most expansive expression in what is termed 'the New Age movement'.

More than any other factor, the emergence of all these different religious communities symbolised the quantum leap in pluralism experienced globally. This is the result of the rapid improvement in communication and transportation which began with World War II and facilitated the mass movement of ideas and peoples from one country to another. Concurrently, the overthrow of colonialism, the fall of Marxist Communism and the rise of great urban centres have conspired to create a new climate of freedom which has significantly weakened governmental power to enforce religious conformity.

In practical terms, this new pluralism means that in every metropolitan centre in the world (except in the few remaining countries with stringent legal restraints), literally hundreds of religions representing views and following practices in sharp divergence from those familiar to the parent culture have been joined by revivalistic movements (offering fresh, innovative approaches to the older religious forms) and a few new ones (such as New Thought and Baha'i), creating what at first sight might appear to be a chaotic religious environment.

Most countries are considering, or have considered, the legal implications of the religious transformation within their cultures which is tied to the influx of religious teachers and diverse religious perspectives from all over the world. The emergence of new religious movements in any one country is but a single aspect of a spreading transnational worldwide culture which includes multinational corporations (Coca-Cola, McDonalds), global information systems (CNN) and media superstars (Michael Jackson).

From a national perspective, much of the controversy is fuelled by the lingering fantasy that some semblance of religious homogeneity is necessary and desirable for the survival and strength of a nation, or the notion that a strong religious establishment promotes morality and piety more effectively than religious pluralism. Within the past generation, this controversy had become focused around individuals from a nominally religious family who not only adopted an intense religious life but often a career within a religion both unfamiliar and unacceptable to the rest of the family.

The controversy surrounding religious pluralism would seem to be a natural priority on the interfaith community's agenda. Rather than the abstract and idealistic (and thus often irrelevant) dialogue which frequently constitutes such interactions, the new religions provide an opportunity to explore unfamiliar territory and resolve significant conflict.

The older interfaith leadership, which has done so much to ameliorate the centuries-old Jewish-Christian tensions, has been very slow to open dialogue with the new religions and has often tried to wash its hands of the whole issue by creating arbitrary definitions which push these 'new' religions outside of the religious community. By doing this, the religious community simply abdicates leadership and ignores the problems which must be overcome in the next generation if interfaith dialogue is to be something more than the private consultations of a few powerful religious administrators or the theorising of religious studies pundits.

The views expressed in this paper have been developed and refined over the past year, during which time I have had the opportunity to participate in a series of dialogues in San Francisco which have involved a variety of representatives from both 'old' and 'new' religions. It has been an enlightening experience and has confirmed my belief that there is a lot to learn from such dialogues. However, it is no easy task bringing people together, and a series of challenges were faced in producing the small degree of success achieved in this endeavour.

Challenges to be faced

Bringing new religions into the dialogical situation initially forces a reappraisal of some perennial problems. For example, every issue under discussion eventually leads to the basic theological differences concerning the nature of truth, religion and revelation. The dominant Western religions have generally assumed the existence of a personal deity who reveals the ultimate Truth in the form of many truths which can be (and usually are) written down in a book. Eastern religions, on the other hand, have tended to find Truth revealed in the mystical experience of union with the Divine, from which one can derive lesser truths about spiritual life. In other words, Western theology insists there is only one true way whereas Eastern theology sees most religious paths as leading to the same goal.

The challenge facing interfaith dialogue is the construction of a common language to facilitate discussion, and resolution, of these difference. The ever-present temptation is to ignore the problem and allow two exclusive circles of conversation to emerge. The inclusion of new religions in such dialogue intensifies this problem in that the majority of them have been imported to Europe and North America as a result of the massive influx of Asians into the West since World War Two. Once limited to college world religion classes or scholarly conventions, East-West religious dialogue is now at such a fundamental level that even parents find their basic theological perspectives called into question by their offspring.

New religions call attention to old religious conflicts

An important issue for the West is the tendency of 'new' religions to highlight the way in which, historically, Christian establishments have used the coercive power of the state. The nature-oriented pagan groups speak of the great witch-hunts of the early modern era; Hindu, Buddhist and African groups still sting from the imposition of Christianity by colonial governments; Native Americans recall the denigration of their traditionalist faiths and Jewish groups voice concerns about anti-Semitism. The contemporary presence of non-Christian religions within a traditionally Christian culture is forced home each time a nominally Christian family discovers a new Buddhist, Hindu, Moonie or Scientologist sitting at the dinner table initiating a discomforting dialogue on the shortcomings of the Church in relation to its religious neighbours.

New religions force consideration of ongoing religious polemics

Every religious community justifies its own existence by negative references to the larger religious environment, falsely characterising competing religions and hiding behind stereotypes which may be carried from generation to generation. In the West, the presentations of Jewish, Roman and Greek religions in the Christian New Testament have become the basis of the most extreme stereotyping of other faiths. Muslims are also creating awareness of the ubiquity of negative images of Islam in contemporary society.

Once new religions are included in interfaith dialogue, religious alliances based upon the demonisation of religious 'outsiders' are no longer possible. In the last generation, new religions were the object of the most vicious characterisations and stereotyping since the Nazi propaganda against the Jews and that of Stalin against Eastern Orthodoxy. This stereotyping, similar in nature to older terms such as 'infidel' or 'heretic', has centred on the word 'cult', a depersonalising label that strips new religions of their status and banishes them to the edge of society confined to religious 'leper colonies'. With the inclusion of new religions in interfaith dialogue, there are no 'cults' left.

New religious movements also question the attempts of governments and national cultures to identify themselves with a single religious community from which either the majority, or a significant minority, of the public have withdrawn their support. In their diversity new religions have challenged the whole approach to religion of terms of majorities and minorities, in which the great virtue has been the condescending toleration of the minority by the majority. They offer an alternative image of the world, based on a global religious diversity, in which every community is a minority. The great religious virtue has now become religious freedom.

New challenges teaching new duties

Apart from the perennial difficulties underlying interfaith dialogue, new religious movements bring their own particular problems to the dialogical situation. For example, they usually come into discussions with a vocal challenge to the religious status quo. It is a fact that many of the recently formed religions were founded either to meet a need that, in their perception, the older religions have neglected (spirituality) or to correct a perceived wrong which the older religions are perpetuating (racism, sexism). Thus they arrive at the dialogical situation with a lengthy agenda of real or imagined, stated or unstated, grievances. Uncovering these grievances and placing them on the table is integral to any dialogical process participated in by new religious movements. These stereotypes often rest upon strongly charged emotions resulting from intense experiences of individuals who have converted to a new religion from the more traditional one into which they were born.

Occasionally, new religions even go so far as to question the very nature of religion itself. They act as innovative religious gestalts, re-organising spiritual life in unique, and often unfamiliar, ways. Due to the legal implications of being called a 'religion' - or the attempts by the more well-established religious bodies to serve as a canon by which the nature of religious life is to be measured and defined - many new religions actually deny their religiosity. They consider the term 'religion' to represent everything which they want to leave behind, be it a sophisticated and dehumanising organisational structure, an imposed statement of creed, an enforced moral code or mandatory services of worship.

New religions often have a very narrow focus on the basic vision or truth in response to which they were founded. This can present its own problems, especially amongst first generation members of the group, and will frequently lead to a period of separatism in which the group explores its own truth and concentrates its efforts on attracting new members. During this formative stage new groups may avoid interfaith dialogue altogether, lacking the self-critique and re-evaluation that is integral to this process. Attacks from the media, rival groups or former members will compound this reluctance to participate, as the group will understandably be reluctant to expose itself to the possibility of further criticism arising from this dialogue.

Critics of new religions have often complained that there is no point in attempting dialogue with them as they are only interested in converting non-believers to their faith. However, those of us who have had experience with such groups have found that that the overwhelming majority are only too eager to participate and those that have gone through a period of separatism soon come out of it.

Those new religions which have expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue generally lack a language in which to discuss many of the interfaith issues. They have been slow to develop either a broad theology or a systematic ethical stance, and have yet to explore the implications of their basic religious vision. Time must therefore be allotted for new religions to consider the logic of their situation in the light of the vision they espouse.

Anti-cult bigotry

By far the most significant obstacle to interfaith dialogue is not found among those enunciated above. For dialogue to proceed, participants must confront the vicious anti-cult bigotry which has permeated our culture during the last twenty years. Spread by what has become an international counter-cult network, propaganda about cults has created an intense, emotionally-charged, negative image about new religions, especially the more controversial ones. So pervasive is that image that many people otherwise committed to interfaith dialogue and who have themselves repeatedly experienced the destructiveness of popular negative stereotypes, have refused to participate in interfaith dialogue if one or more specified groups are present. Even members of the less controversial new religions have been hesitant to make contact with representatives of more controversial groups.

The anti-religious views promoted by organisations such as the Cult Awareness Network (CAN) and its sister organisations around the world, present a significant challenge to the religious community as a whole. They have had measurable success in muddying the waters of religious understanding and further dividing an already dangerously fractured religious community. From the its formation in the seventies - under the name Citizens Freedom Foundation - to the present day, CAN has maintained a systematic, worldwide attack on new religions. Their methods include the kidnapping and forced deprogramming of members, promotion of oppressive anti-religious legislation, attempts to have courts and law enforcement agencies intervene in members' civil liberties and the advocacy of the pseudo-scientific concept of 'destructive' mind control'. It also added a new tactic recently, encouraging people associated with CAN to make false reports on child abuse against members of new religions. Whilst most of their efforts have ultimately failed CAN has, however, succeeded in creating a popular image of the new religious movements as 'destructive cults', and in its promotion of this view has found an ally in a sensation-oriented press.

There are now anti-cult organisations operating in every state of the US, every province in Canada, every country in Europe and South Africa and even in Australia and Japan. These groups have persistently distorted the public's understanding of new religions. They have employed all the classic techniques used in the past to discredit Semitism and Catholicism, yet few leaders within the interfaith community have openly questioned these tactics. The elimination of anti-cultism - which I believe to be a major obstacle to creating a parliament of religions - should be on the agenda of every interfaith group in the world.

The assets of new religions

While there are a number of impediments to initiating an interfaith dialogue which includes the new religions, it should be noted that they do bring with them some unique assets. Firstly although they have been the object to persecution themselves they have not similarly engaged in this practice. Whilst this is probably due to their never having been aligned with governmental power, it nevertheless means they do not have to work through an agenda of old animosity, and thus dialogue can quickly proceed to immediate human concerns. At the same time, as the present victims of discrimination, they have vivid experiences to relate of the effects of such action and the manner in which is distorts their appropriation of spiritual life.

Secondly, many of the new religions have originated at points of convergence between the older religious communities, especially Christianity and Eastern religions, and attempt to combine elements from two or more of the more traditional faiths in creating a new gestalt. Some of this syncretism comes from visionary leaders who, having been raised in one tradition, appropriate insights from another. More often, though (as vividly illustrated by the Baha'i faith or the Unification Church), a new religion is built around the vision of a universal faith which transcends the tribal, national or ethnic identifications frequently associated with the older traditions. Therefore, it would seem that members of new religions have much to share about the possibility of reconciling some of the seemingly irreconcilable differences experienced by the older faiths.

Thirdly, because of their recent origins new religions usually concentrate on present problems and emerging opportunities which the older religions (in expending a considerable amount of energy preserving their traditions) often neglect. For example, new religious movements have shown an interest in the latest findings and trends in psychology; they are ready to take the lead in discussions on the nature of personal religious dynamics and the effect of different religious practices in promoting a sense of the presence of the transcendent. Not having accumulated a list of regulations based upon the problems encountered in the past they are ready to engage in an open-ended exploration of contemporary ethical issues, bringing new awareness which forces a reconsideration of more established wisdom.

Spiritual environmentalism

As a direct response to the concerns of the pluralism created by the new religions, in February 1992 a broadly based group of leaders from both the newer and older religions established quarterly meetings in San Francisco (which are still being held today). As an experiment, the group began to test a relatively mew format for interreligious dialogue termed 'spiritual environmentalism', the intention being to nurture a new climate of openness.

Spiritual environmentalism builds upon several foundational considerations. Firstly, it assumes that the radical pluralism now being experienced will continue to increase worldwide for the foreseeable future, therefore ensuring no one religion will be able to dominate the public sphere. Thus, the diversity integral to the contemporary situation can either be used as an excuse for greater social division or as a trumpet call to engage in mutual action to solve problems and work together for the common good. Since we show no signs of moving towards a universal religion - and it seems utopian to search for one - the group has raised the possibility that meeting around individual faith commitments might provide a starting point for understanding and trust that will, on the one hand, allow us to stop hurting each other in the name of religion and, on the other, to actively co-operate in building a better social context.

Secondly, spiritual environmentalism assumes that none of us, including the most dedicated and faithful of scholars, can become familiar with all species in the religious garden. However, we can ensure we fully understand a representative sample and make it our business to get to know, on more than just a superficial level, a variety of individuals who will commit their lives to a religious vision far different from our own, Such familiarity in the present provides a reservoir of experiences that reduced fear and prevents initial pre-judgements when encountering other new religions in the future.

Thirdly, spiritual environmentalism rejects the premise that if people of differing religious beliefs and practices simply engage in dialogue, broad areas of agreement begin to emerge and some commonly agreed principles and bases for tolerance and accord suddenly appear. Such agreements might indeed be possible if I talk as the member of one group with a member of a single other group, but experience has shown that whatever accord I reach with that group becomes a bone of contention when I speak to another group.

Fourthly, spiritual environmentalism suggests that little is to be gained from formal discussions of theological differences except for the opportunity to broaden understanding and appreciation of the world in which others live. Rather, our time together is more profitably spent searching for elements of our shared social life which make it possible for each individual to survive, pursue those benefits which are the gift of the world to humanity and explore those conditions which allow each religious community to express its version of spiritual life and to share these experiences with the larger human family.

For spiritually-minded people, the search for the common good begins in the centre of our faith life. It begins in taking the risk of exposing to public scrutiny those aspects of our commitment which gives us vitality and makes our faith so attractive that we are determined to spend our entire life within it. It starts in articulating a vision of the divine life and a sharing of our experience of it. We have found that when we share what we most essentially believe, what we do to bring into consciousness the presence of the divine in our life and what happens to us as a result of these experiences, it creates an atmosphere of intimacy and respect in which discussion of even bitter differences can proceed without disruption. Once one is able to honour the other who is different, then the way is opened for a mutual search for the common good. We have also discovered that there is one thing that distinguishes someone who has experienced the divine however inarticulate they may be - they ultimately want the best, not just for their particular community but for the whole human family.

A road of change

In good humour, but with all seriousness, I warn all who would join in this type of dialogue that they put their self-identity at risk. Merely listening to an individual of a different faith talking about their experience of the transcendent and the conclusions they have drawn from that encounter, invariably changes one. If you have found salvation in Jesus Christ, if you have submitted to Allah, if you have altered your consciousness in meditation, if you have unravelled a koan or had your kundalini awakened, the sharing of another person's spiritual experienced provides new information of great interest, albeit it comes from outside your own religious community. To engage in dialogue means you now encounter your neighbour's religion, not as new information to be studied and codified, but as a appealing approach to the divine that at the very least commands respect for the follower. It will be very difficult to speak evil of a different religious group after speaking of your life with God to a member of that group who has, in turn, shared with you their own experiences of the transcendental realm and the events which changed their life. It will be difficult to dismiss a group which may at one time appeared odd or unacceptable, after you have heard the testimony of its mature practitioners.

In conclusion, I offer up my group's experiment for whatever benefit it might bring and invite others to initiate the sort of broad dialogue we have experienced. The rules are simple, though commitment in time and energy are high. The risks are very real but the potential benefits are equally great. We have no doubt that interfaith dialogue is crucial to the survival and understanding of humankind and it our hope that the energy expended in coming together as we are doing will, in the short term, heal the social wounds in our own neighbourhoods and, ultimately, profit the world in ways which at present we cannot perceive.

Presented at the Parliament of World Religions, Chicago, August 1993.