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Re-framing the History of New Religious Movements: Dominant and Non-Dominant Religions in the Historical Imagination

Panel Chair: Michael Driedger | Friday, August 28, 3:30-5:30 p.m. | Venue

This panel addresses basic methodological questions in the study of New Religious Movements (NRMs). While diversity of methods characterize this field, scholars in it tend to assume that NRMs are groups that have emerged in the “modern” era and can be distinguished from traditional world religions (for example, see George Chryssides, The Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements, 2nd edn, 2012). The four panelists address the field’s basic assumptions, including the relationship between definitions and chronologies. The panelists’ purpose is to consider whether such assumptions are helpful or whether they, in fact, inhibit understanding of both historical cases and contemporary religious movements. We expect one outcome of the panel to be a theoretical contribution to broader discussions of “radical” religion and concomitant social and intellectual processes.

Herbert Berg

The study of Islamic origins and Nation-of-Islam-ic origins: Chronocentric biases and normative claims in the modern and pre-modern dichotomy

When examining the formation of the Nation of Islam, scholars need not be “impartial” or “courteous.” One need not even consider it a religion. The opposite approach is demanded in the study of Islamic origins; scholarship that does not conform to the basic narrative provided by Muslim tradition is strongly criticized. I argue that the distinction between these modern and pre-modern religions is chronocentric one. The NOI is new, Islam is older (though it was once just as new). The strangeness of NOI’s myths differs from its precursor only in familiarity, which is merely a variation of chronocentrism. This false dichotomy between modern and pre-modern religions assumes that the chronological priority of a traditional world religion gives it a normative priority. Maintaining this dichotomy requires scholars to make a judgment outside of their purview: to decide which religions are real (usually, the old ones with contemporary adherents) and which are not.

Sita Steckel

Re-evaluating religious movements of the Middle Ages

The term “religious movements” was firmly established in the study of high and late medieval Christianity by Herbert Grundmann’s 1935 study. Viewing orthodoxy and heterodoxy as relational ascriptions instead of intrinsic qualities of religious attitudes led him to view the new religious orders and new heretical movements of the high Middle Ages as closely related. The relational nature of heterodoxy/orthodoxy (or church/order/sect) ascriptions is broadly accepted by now. Yet the study of orders and heresies is still almost completely segregated within Medieval Studies, obscuring the nature of overarching dynamics. Furthermore, Grundmann’s perspective saw religious movements as transitional high medieval phenomena, though many similar phenomena appear during the Late Middle Ages and Reformations (usually studied as “reforms”). Using the example of the mendicant orders, the paper attempts to sketch a broader model of recurring waves of religious transformation instead, and tries to pinpoint dynamics and elements of “radicalization”.

Andreas Pietsch

The Family of Love as a sixteenth-century new religious movement

As has been shown by Goertz, the currents of the Reformation can be described as “religious movements”. Yet attempts to categorize them typically view them in hindsight: Movements which were not gathered into larger denominations are viewed as “radical,” quite independently of their actual character. Where modern research followed contemporary labelings, groups defining themselves as Catholic, such as the “Family of Love,” were seen as “sects.” This leads to an overall view of “churches” as static and “new movements” as dynamic. Taking up the categories used to describe NRMs, the paper argues that radicalizations should instead be studied across the modern categories of “church” or “sect” instead. It takes into account that many sixteenth-century movements were highly text-oriented and driven by reception processes: The texts produced by the Family of Love seem to have appealed to readerships within the established church as well as regional networks and small, sect-like communities.

Johannes Wolfart

Increasing religious diversity: A study in contemporary mythology

Many states are currently developing and implementing policy in conformity with expert academic advice on “religious diversity”. Preferred academic consultants insist that polities favoured by global migrants are challenged by unprecedented levels of such religious diversity. Clearly, such historicist conceits have their political uses, but do assertions of a quantitatively different - and radically so - religious diversity stand up to intellectual scrutiny? What basic definitional presumptions vis-à-vis religious integrity or homogeneity (i.e., non-diversity) do they entail? What basic assumptions about the differences between past and present do they make? This paper proposes that a meaningful measure of “religious diversity” as a historical property must attend to the experience of religious difference. It concludes that in this regard early modern polities were no less “challenged” than their fully modern successors.


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