An Evolutionary Model for New Religious Movements

I proposed a few days ago that all religions begin as new religions. Let’s look at more details about how that happens.

Many people suspect that any new religious movement (NRM) is probably antisocial in some way, or that the very existence of a NRM is evidence of some sort of social pathology. This tendency often results from assuming a “Golden Age” model of religion: once upon a time God or the Gods handed down the perfect religion to mankind, and everything has been downhill ever since. In this sort of Platonic model, perfection is changelessness; hence any change must be away from the original perfection. Obviously, a NRM is a change, and so it must be for the worse.

There is an old joke about a borrowed vase. A man is hauled into court, charged by a neighbor with breaking a borrowed vase. In his defense, the man argues to the judge, “Your honor, I want to make three things clear. First, I never borrowed the vase. Second, it was already broken when I borrowed it. Third, it was in perfect condition when I returned it.”

This joke is really about the psychology of denial, and it applies to the study of NRMs as follows.
First, a person who assumes a Golden Age model of religion will tend to deny the existence of NRMs, and will surely resist the idea of purposely going out to look for them: “people don’t purposely start new religions; they’re just being immoral; you can’t study something that no one is doing.” That is, there are no organized phenomena to study; there is only random noise. That is, I never borrowed the vase.

Second, confronted with sufficient evidence of the existence of a NRM, the person will deny its importance: “that’s not a real religion; it’s a parody of religion; only a few nuts believe in that; that’s all just superstition, occultism, bad mental health; there’s nothing there worth studying.” That is, something is going on, but it is not religious. That is, the vase was already broken.

Finally, when it becomes obvious that the NRM will not go away, that it is performing some useful social functions—this is usually just about when people stop calling it a cult and start calling it a church—then our person will want to argue that the NRM is merely a minor variation on the mainstream religion, or on some long-known and well-understood religion. That is, there is nothing new here to study. That is, I returned it in perfect condition.
Notice another assumption implicit in these last two stages: if it’s religious, it can’t be new; if it’s new, it can’t be religious.

Current liberal, mainstream Christian thought understands “church” to be not a collection of persons who have acquired special privileges, but rather a missionary enterprise: “our primary purpose is to carry the message to those who still suffer,” for example. But as a missionary, I will run into other churches, other religions, not merely old established ones, but new ones. If I have dualistic tendencies, I will be tempted to attribute these new religions to the forces of evil—as the early Church fathers did—but such a position cannot be maintained very long. These NRMs do work, they do their members much good, by ordinary standards; and much creativity has gone into establishing and maintaining these new religions. Now, Christians cannot attribute such goodness and creativity to the forces of evil: that would be Manichaeism, not Christianity. A strict monotheist must believe that all good things, all creativity, come from the one source of goodness, that is, the one God. Hence these other religions must be gifts of the same Holy Spirit that has created and maintained his or her own church. But this creates a dreadful problem: if the revelation to my church was complete, why is the Spirit creating other churches?

Having contemplated that argument, perhaps we can leap to the realization that our problem lies precisely in assuming that there is something wrong with NRMs as such. But what if there isn’t? What if the creating of new religions is a normal function of human social life? If it is, what is it good for? Obviously I cannot answer such questions by means of a classical, Platonic model of a sort long banished from the natural sciences and many of the social sciences. Instead let us consider a more modern model for understanding NRMs, specifically, an evolutionary model. Let us therefore quickly review how biological evolution works.

First, there is a source of change, which creates variations in the characteristics of offspring, so that some of them will differ from their progenitors in one or more ways. We know now about genes and mutations; Darwin did not have that advantage.

Second, most mutations—changed characteristics—are harmful or useless; they don’t make the offspring more likely to survive. But one of every so many mutations is helpful: the offspring with the resulting characteristic has a little bit better chance to survive and to reproduce than its peers have.

Third, if the population remains in the same environment, descendants of the individual with the helpful characteristic will slowly increase as a percentage of the overall population.

Fourth, however, if the characteristic enables individuals who have it to survive in a new (nearby, etc.) environment, in which individuals who lack the characteristic cannot survive, then descendants of the former will populate this new environment exclusively. This new environment is what we now call an “ecological niche.”

Fifth, when descendants of a common ancestor have acquired so many divergent characteristics that they can no longer interbreed and produce fertile offspring, then they are considered members of separate species.
To the preceding, let me add two philosophical or theological observations.

First, there is no evidence of spontaneous generation. As far back into the past as we can look, living creatures are spawned only by other living creatures. (I am not here trying to deal with the problem of how this process got started.)

Second, those who wish to preserve the role of God in all this can easily do so. Modern liberal theologians believe that the first three chapters of Genesis were intended to be teaching stories, theological statementa, not a biology textbook. These chapters assert that God created all things and all life, including human life; they were not intended to give details of how he did it. Hence one can suppose that biological evolution is the process that God created in order to create life. One need not suppose that God created the universe, then had to interrupt himself in order to invent human beings.

That, in an outrageously oversimplified form, is the theory of evolution and some of the theological issues it touches on. Let’s apply it to the question of NRMs and see what happens.

First, there is a source of new religions in human creativity. In this sense, every tiny new sect, of a few people, is like a creature with a mutated gene. I don’t have to explain how this creativity works, anymore than Darwin needed to know about genes; I merely need to point out that the behavior exists.

Second, most new religions, like most mutations, don’t have much survival value, and in fact most don’t survive very long. But one of every so many NRMs does have survival value: it meets the needs of its members a little bit better than any of the other possible choices does.

Third, so long as a NRM continues to meet people’s needs at least as well as the other available religions do, it will continue to survive and grow.

Fourth, however, if the NRM is meeting needs that the other religions are failing to meet, then it will probably grow rapidly, at the expense of those religions. This is the equivalent of exploiting a new ecological niche. In fact, because humans operate cognitively, perception of needs that are not being met is, of course, a major reason for the creating of a NRM. To be able to perceive an unmet social need and propose creative solutions that would meet it, a person does have to have special talents. Such talents have traditionally been considered to be gifts of the Spirit and part of the gift of prophecy.

Fifth, when two religious movements have diverged so much that their members no longer celebrate festivals on the same dates, then they are considered members of separate churches. (But notice that choosing a date for a festival different from that of the others is an effect of a schism, not a cause.)

To the preceding, let me add two philosophical or theological observations.

First, there is no evidence of spontaneous generation. As far back into the past as we can look, religions are spawned only by other religions, that is, by humans with religious beliefs. Again, I am not here trying to deal with the problem of how this process got started, but we have archaeological evidence of religious behavior from tens of thousands of years ago, perhaps before we had finished evolving into this species of Homo sapiens. It seems relevant that new religions are often—perhaps usually—begun with the idea that they are merely reforms of an older religion; that is, they claim to be that older religion, only a better version of it. I don’t think anyone has understood the reasons for this pattern.

Second, for those concerned to preserve the role of God in all this, I still think there is no problem. If one can suppose that biological evolution is the process that God created in order to create life, then one can just as easily suppose that social evolution is the process that God created in order for us to acquire law, order, religion, community, and other social goods. If God did not need to interrupt his creating of the universe in order to invent human beings, then we also don’t need to suppose that He created us as culture-bearing social creatures, then had to interrupt himself in order to create churches and religions.

For Pagans, please just remember to substitute “the Gods” for “God” in all of the preceding.

  • Dave Burwasser

    It takes a certain flexibility in one’s model of God to keep God in biological evolution. I spent one week each for twenty consecutive summers in the company of people making a particular effort to do just that, at the Institute on Religion in an Age of Science.

    I also encountered the opposite on an email round-robin about evolution and creation, in the wake of the 1999 “Intelligent Design” blow-out. This guy would write to liberal Christian ministers who support evolution and say, in effect, You are not doing your job, which includes telling your parishioners that God had a purpose for them before the world was created. How can that be if you and your parishioners are the product of a random process?

    So, delightful as I find your evolutionary approach to NRMs, I can see limits to the audience who will agree.

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  • AnantaAndroscoggin

    @ “A strict monotheist must believe that all good things, all creativity,
    come from the one source of goodness, that is, the one God. Hence these
    other religions must be gifts of the same Holy Spirit that has created
    and maintained his or her own church.”

    Reading the Malleus Maleficarum, one finds constantly repeated declarations that devils (evil) are incapable of doing anything to any human being until the Roman Catholic God gives it his permission. Continuing the idea that evil doesn’t actually have much power on its own — but shooting themselves in the foot regarding the ongoing idea in the book that none of the Witches they were condemning had any power of their own either. I suspect that’s why the “witches familiar” was invented, as being the actual “do-er” of magical evil deeds under the direction of the “witch.”

    Reading this article, I suddenly had the thought that the present-day Anglican/Episcopal church is going through the described stage of final separation into two quite distinct “species.” The two incompatible parts of it ‘cleaving unto’ their own religious Roman Catholic “kind,” and the newer “kind” of the more liberal Episcopal church.


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