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Conversion-Religious Change Challenge of NRM

Cultic Studies Journal, 1991, Volume 8, Number 2, pages 91-103

Conversion, Religious Change, and the Challenge Of New Religious Movements

Johannes Aagaard, Ph.D.

Aarhus University

Aarhus, Denmark


Conversion in the biblical sense is concerned with a change in faith and one's personal relationship with God.  It is a personal experience.  Religion is the orientation, the code, that undergirds cultures.  Religious change refers to the process by which this underlying code is altered.  Religious change and conversion are related but distinct.  Contemporary culture is undergoing a marked religious change in the direction of the "Pacific paradigm," a trans-syncretism that fuses eastern mysticism and western capitalism.  Traditional churches are largely unaware of this shift and are derelect in their duty to challenge the new religious movements (NRMs) that represent the paradigm.  Those who do challenge it -- the "anti-cult movement -- tend to focus on illegal and evil deeds of NRMs, rather than their creeds.  Scholars who form an "anti-anti-cult movement," however, also pretend to credal neutrality.  

Professor Kirsten Haastrup, "Mission and Murder:  The Christianization of Iceland in the Year 1000" (Jordens Folk, 1987), concludes:

        Religious change in the year 1000 was something entirely different from conversion from one faith to another.  It was not the Christian message that was the central theme in the religious change.  It was rather the recognized need for a new "code."  The new era was colored by the Christian world view much more than the faith.  (p. 75)


The distinction between religious change and conversion has much significance as a model for understanding Europe and North America in the 90s.  While conversion in the biblical sense is concerned with a change in faith and one's personal relationship with God, religious change is a process which revolves about the "decoding" of existence, that is, with cosmology.  Cosmology in this sense is not a matter of science or knowledge as much as a question of explaining and interpreting the world (however, cosmology often professes to be a kind of science).

Conversions occur at any time, but when they take place in a time of cultural transition to a new era, conversions as religious transformations become decisive acts.  This happens when two cosmologies are in conflict and one overcomes the other.  During such a movement a change in the understanding of life's meaning takes place, and this change will color a personal conversion in a decisive way.  The conversion includes a change in one's whole religious outlook and not simply a personal conversion.

One should not assume that a certain number of conversions gradually create a religious change and the adoption of a new code, nor that religious change is the precondition for conversions.  The two are related but distinct phenomena.

The religious change of a human grouping -- i.e., a culture, whether it includes a whole people or a local community -- is a very complex process, and on a large scale it is not carried out consciously.  This does not mean that it happens without awareness, but it is not necessarily understood as religious change, for its simple elements are not seen as part of the whole to which they belong.

A religious change deals specifically with that orientation without which people cannot live.  When a culture loses its orientation and is confused about its values it has little chance to survive unless it is buttressed by very strong external supports.

All cultures are religiously oriented but not in the same way.  Even ostensibly secular cultures, e.g., Communist Russia, have religion in the sense described here.  The various religions are the expression of the common cultural orientations which hold together human life.  Religion holds together that social totality of which the religion is registered only as a part.  For this reason one religion confronts another just as one society confronts another.

Thus, society has religions.  Individuals, however, are religious.  It is "my religiosity," but it is "our religion."  When confusion arises in a society, so that it is disoriented in its understanding of life, then it loses its religion; yet the members of society are still religious, though there may be much vagueness about the significance and meaning of that religiosity, for the significance and meaning of religiosity derives

from a religion.

Religion then, is something we have in common, but religious is what a person is as a human being.  Secularization may be understood as the disorientation which arises when a particular religion loses its grip on people and becomes subordinated to a secular cosmology.  Secularization and religion, however, by no means necessarily contradict each other. Indeed, one can find religious forms of secularism, such as Communist  Russia, in which all religion was branded as an opiate for the people while communism became more and more cultic and of the nature of a religion.

If a society has many different religions within its borders, this will not only lead to rivalry and the possibility of mutual antagonism; it can at its worst lead to religious war.  Attempts at neutralization, however, may also occur, and a "civil religion" may arise and combine elements of the various competing religions in a sort of secular, ersatz religion. This appears to have happened in the United States, for example.

Pseudoreligions in Competition with Traditional Religions

More passionate and confrontational than civil religions are the secular, pseudoreligions of nazism, fascism, and communism.  These ideologies have developed as systems that appropriate, or seek to appropriate and mold, the citizens' religiosity in competition with traditional religions.  Their dismal failures are interesting.  In the long run, after the orchestrated parades are over, they become so boring that they can no longer inspire, much less attract to themselves the people's true religiosity.

In part, their failure results from their lack of concern regarding the individual's need to understand the meaning of life.  Only genuine and honest religions have dealt with the problem of the meaning of life in

such a way that the religious passion expresses itself in a full interpretation of life and death.

Humankind has three great problems:  death, love, and boredom.  Only religions which take all three seriously can make a go of it.  The secular, pseudoreligions are bankrupt because they provide inadequate explanations for death, do not stimulate love, and do stimulate boredom.  Indeed, boredom is perhaps the most serious illness which can attack a culture.  When time becomes something that one "kills," then the culture itself is moribund.  Religions, on the other hand, are largely concerned with making life exciting, attractive, and fanciful.

Through love people affirm the values and rules that give a necessary orderliness to human life.  Love says "this is worth defending."  Morality elucidates the rules needed to defend that which is loved.  The eternal conflict between religion and sexuality, therefore, is not by chance.  Sexuality, though having an intrinsic value of its own, is the most conspicuous and pervasive moral factor that can threaten the orderliness required to defend that which is truly loved.  Religion, consequently, must attend to sexuality and place it in its proper context.

Through its interpretation of death, religion defends the culture's values against the ultimate threat.  Without a satisfying religious explanation, death  thrusts the abyss of absurd emptiness in our faces.  The fundamental question becomes not how to live but rather, as Camus stated in his essay, "The Myth of Sisyphus," whether to live:  "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide"  (Camus, 1955, p. 3).  A culture cannot survive long if its primary concern is whether or not survival is worthwhile.  By finding meaning in death, religion endows life with significance.

The meanings put forth by different religions -- their models for addressing death, boredom, and love -- vary greatly and may come into opposition.  Thus, within a given cultural system the once regnant model may lose its power and a new model gain in power as people reevaluate their ways of dealing with death, boredom, and love.

The New Age Movement

The World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago in 1893 can well be taken as the beginning of the world wide expansion of Neo-Hinduism (Vivekananda), Neo-Buddhism (Anagarika), and Theosophy (Annie Besant).  From 1893 these three movements have grown as part of the same New Age Tree, The Tree of Knowledge, or Gnosis.  This New Age Tree of Knowledge (or New Age Movement) has become, with the decline of the secular pseudoreligions, the primary challenge to traditional religion in western culture.

Of the three, Theosophy in various forms -- including Anthroposophy, The Wisdom of Martinus, Alice Bailey, Elizabeth Claire Prophet, Ananda Tara Shan (The Rosegarden), Benjamin Creme, etc. -- seems to be the common denominator of most the New Age groupings.  The theosophical paradigm seems to constitute in some way a synthesis of what one could superficially call East-West spirituality or Neo-Gnosticism.

What is a Paradigm Shift?

In connection with the New Age a lot is said about the new paradigm shift.  But very little is explained about its content.

Paradigm is another term for pattern.  It is used in grammar, indicating, for example, the pattern of verbs.  Language, of course, is built up around various paradigms, and therefore all communication in words are paradigmatically determined.

When we apply the notion of paradigm to that of cosmology, we must conclude that new patterns can make a substantial difference in the content and form of a culture's basic ways of communicating.

Paradigm shifts are not necessarily for the good.  They can represent a degeneration or an improvement, although most shifts involve both.

A Historical Approach

One can approach the paradigm shift historically.  Cultural and religious paradigms come into existence as a result of intercommunication, of mutual influencing of cultures and religions.  Thus, early in history rivers were very important, for they were the major "roads" when boats were the major means of transport.  Not only the Nile, Euphrates, and Tigris, but also the Indus, Ganges, and Donau, and the Rhine, Tiber, and Thames were such major "roads" of communication and mutual influence.  Important cultures and religions centered on such rivers, each with its own paradigm.

When the Mediterranean sea became a means of transport, a very important culture and religion developed around this sea.  The Roman civilization and the Roman Catholic Church was the paradigmatic result, the Mediterranean paradigm.

Later -- after the Reformation -- the Atlantic Ocean became the means for the development of mainly Anglosaxon culture and Protestantism.  This Atlantic paradigm became -- and still is -- the major source for the international society that is the paradigmatic base for nearly all people today, at any rate in principle.  Civil rights, human rights, the claim for justice and a new world order:  these are all expressions of the Atlantic paradigm.

Another paradigm, however, is coming into being.  We can call it the Pacific paradigm, for it combines East Asian cities, with their millions of inhabitants, and the western part of the American civilization, most

notably California, a state crowded with Christian names but now a melting pot of syncretism, a new metropolitan.

The Pacific Paradigm

The Pacific ocean -- with Hawaii in the middle -- is the new center of power in the world.  A new republic of grand cities (a metropolistan) is coming into being, beyond all national boundaries and beyond all

political control.

From its Pacific base, this new culture is spreading all over the world.  It can be characterized as a mixture of the light from the East and the enlightenment from the West.  It comes into being as a fusion of the

light of mysticism with the enlightenment of rationalism.  The result of this fusion is not yet clear, but it seems to be a sort of "trans-syncretism," in which a strong holistic trend brushes aside classical eastern religions as well as classical Christian faith.  In fact, however, this holism is monism, and it is much closer to its Hindu-Buddhist-Occult roots than to its Christian origins, in which personal engagement is at the heart of life.

A red thread in this new trans-religion is its emphasis on divinisation.  Man has become his own divinity, or is able to become so.  Human beings are all gods and goddesses in process.  "There is no other god than man" echoes through most of the thousands of new religious movements all over the world.  This hubris has also come to mean that anything which is possible is also necessary.  If a euphoria is possible, then it must be tried out.  There are no limitations to human capacity.

This mental attitude, of course, has external consequences.  In many ways it fits in well with capitalism, which had its birth during the Atlantic paradigm but has come of age during the first period of the Pacific paradigm.  Both models of capitalism are characterized by belief in the limitless nature of man.  In the Atlantic version of  Capitalism, a lonely hero works his way through all sorts of trials on a road to the stars.  In the Pacific version of capitalism, success is more communal, epitomized by the multinational corporation with its anonymous top.

The various religious models of the Pacific paradigm -- often related to forms of Neo-Hinduism and Neo-Buddhism and mediated by various forms of theosophy and occultism -- have arrived in the West, where they have adopted a communal, multinational approach.  Although in their first generation, during which a charismatic guru is usually at the top, these groups are not anonymous, after the guru's death a camarilla takes over, and the conversion to anonymous multinationals is complete.

It is interesting to examine what happened to the Godmen from Asia.  They came barefoot and simple-minded, accustomed never to touch money and women.  In a short time, however, they were swallowed up by the market mechanism and consumerism of the West.  They certainly looked for and developed disciples, but the disciples, who had imbibed the principles of capitalism, also made their gurus.

The transformation of the godmen into moneymen was swift and effective, for the market had already been created by Christian salesmen, the rightist fundamentalists with whom they began to compete for money, influence, and souls.  Thus, the high tide of the Pacific paradigm has, ironically, incorporated the waning Atlantic paradigm to accommodate to the possibilities of the new world marketplace.

This new religiosity came as a surprise for most people.  They had settled down to the belief that the time of religion had ended and the time of secularism had arrived.  Yet suddenly, religion flared up unexpectedly.  The simple fact is that this new boom in religion has not come about in spite of secularization, but because of secularization.  As noted earlier, secular models -- whether civil religion, fascism, or communism -- do not adequately address death, love, and boredom.  The new religious movements have stepped into this void.  But they also are failing.  They too are pseudoreligions.

Many specialists in religion do not recognize these counterfeits for what they are.  They seem to assume that all expressions of religion are genuine, that counterfeits do not exist.  Tell that to an art specialist who has to own up to buying a counterfeit painting!  Counterfeits do exist.  And learning to distinguish the genuine from the fake is a challenge that offers true religosity and true religion an opportunity for renewal.


The quotation with which we began this essay dealt with Iceland in 1000 A.D.  If we should apply it to Europe and North America in the year 2000, it might read as follows:

The religious change to an oriental religiosity in the year 2000 was something quite different from conversion from one faith to another.  It was not the content of the Hindu-Buddhist faith that was central in the religious change.  It was rather the recognized need for a new code.  The new era was marked by the oriental world view much more than by faith.

With this understanding of what is already happening in 1991, but which may well find its culmination at the end of this decade, we can explain why so many deny the confrontation between Christianity and Hinduism-Buddhism.  They do not experience it as a question of their faith.  They see it rather as a question of a new world view, and for them it has nothing to do with religion or faith or conversion.

This skewed understanding obviously has nothing directly to do with conversion.  The pioneers in the coming religious change have no desire to undertake a conversion to Hinduism-Buddhism.  They do not wish to become Hindus or Buddhists, much less to be considered Hindus or Buddhists.  Many of them, indeed, wish to stay in the Church and be reckoned as Christians.  Some believe, furthermore, that they have become better Christians by accepting the new world view.

The distinction between religious change and conversion is the key to the situation, for in 1991 a comprehensive religious change in Europe and North America is undoubtedly taking place, yet there are only a limited number of conversions to oriental religiosity.  Moreover, the content of the religious change is discussed in terms of a new vision of the world.

The process of religious change is most apparent in the religious education in schools.  A debate has been set into motion by a group of educators who have undergone religious change, even though they have not been converted to anything at all.  Of course, they will not admit this, for it is characteristic of the process of religious change that it is not recognized.  There are, nonetheless, some prominent representatives of the process who honestly admit that there is a "conspiracy" (see Ferguson, 1980), but most do not see it and participate unknowingly.

This fundamental recoding stems from a tolerance that is so absolute it becomes intolerant.  The underlying premise of the recoding is that in the religious world all religions have the same goals and all are true.  Those who disagree with this assumption of absolute tolerance -- those who believe that in the arena of religion, as in other arenas, there is the good and the bad, the best and the worst -- are not tolerated at all.  Their critique of religion is rejected by the proponents of "tolerance" as intolerance.  Therefore, they cannot be tolerated!

The process of religious change, which initially and primarily functions as a cosmological recoding, is decidedly neither neutral nor objective.  It operates in close relationship to the limited number of converts, who in fact guide the process and function as catalysts.  A comprehensive and popular conversion and the consequent establishment of a Hinduist-Buddhistic religion in the western world will depend on the progress of the process of religious change.  This progress in turn will depend on the progress of the process of individual conversion.  The two have a reciprocal relationship:  more religious change makes individual conversion easier; more conversions make religious change easier.  Nevertheless, the two processes are also independent in that each is also influenced by other, distinct factors.

Responses to New Religious Movements

To date the progress of religious change has occurred in a consistent and determined way.  This progress results in large part from the inability of the old religion's representatives to notice it.  The progress of religious change also results from the churches' systematically separating themselves from popular religiosity.  Their unwillingness to be the force that forms popular religiosity enables others to take up the unfulfilled task.

Indeed, popular religiosity has developed a resentment toward the churches which have abandoned it, and toward Christianity in general.  Individuals whose religiosity is free of ties will inevitably seek a religion which can give their "free-floating" religiosity meaning.  Oriental religion seems able to do this, first and foremost because of its vision of the world, its cosmology.

This word refers to giving the cosmos an explanation and interpretation that are not intrinsically present in it.  Cosmology is a comprehensive system of symbols which gives structure and order to the meaning of existence.  In order to work, this system requires a conscious development of rituals and symbols that people can use in their religious search and experience.  This new code for the understanding of the world and human existence is what people seem to find to some degree in the new religious movements.  Even though these new codes may be contorted and unbelievable, they are nonetheless better than the disorientation and bewilderment of living without meaning and direction.

That churches currently relate to the present processes of religious change and conversion with almost total incomprehension and passivity -- resentment even -- is unfortunate.  The possibility of revitalization, however, presents the churches with an opportunity.  They must first seriously attempt to understand the historical movement of which we are a part.  History moves and we with it.  It acts on us whether we like it or not, whether we realize it or not.  We are not able to stop it.  But we can at any rate re-act more or less responsibly, depending upon the clarity of our analysis and interpretation of historical data.

When in the middle of the next century some historian gives an account of the last part of the twentieth century, one chapter title could well read like this:  "The period when the most decisive religious change took place, without the churches noticing it."  But it could also read like this:  "The period when the most decisive religious change took place, and the churches finally came back to reality."

Whether or not Christianity successfully meets the challenge of new religious movements will depend upon how it responds.  It must confront the new paradigms directly at the core credal level, not merely at the superficial behavioral level.  Unfortunately, in most western countries the major criticism of new religous movements comes from secular organizations that ignore the credal question.

Many of the people supporting such organizations are relatives of cultists and former cultists.  These organizations understandably tend not to care much for the subtleties involved in differentiating NRMs.  

They also tend to respond negatively to research about NRMs, because researchers, especially sociologists, do not generally stand up against cults, but "set the truth question aside."

Parents organizations, however, also tend to set the truth question aside, for they consider the cults only as arenas of exploitation having no genuine religious characteristics.  To ask the truth question in relation to NRMs would, for them, be as phony as to ask the truth question in relation to the Mafia.

In fairness to the parents organizations, it should be noted that they do not operate as religious bodies and do not deal positively with religion as a common option.  They have no alternative stand of their own.  So of course they do not ask the truth question, even though many members are often Christian or Jewish, although some seem to be decidedly anti-Christian or anti-religion.Parents organizations will say that they do not care about "creeds," only about "deeds."  They will let people believe what they prefer.  Only when the creed is turned into wrong deeds are the parents organizations

expected to react.

Although it may be necessary for organizations whose only common ground is the most elementary standards of human rights to adhere to the "deed-not-the-creed" philosophy, this view does not hold water intellectually.  Should the world not have cared about Hitler's Mein Kampf because that book was part of his creed?  The evil deeds of the concentration camps were already in the creed, which, consequently, should have been taken seriously.

One has to understand that a creed is a deed.  And if one wants to stop evil deeds, one has to react against evil creeds.  But that makes an alternative creed necessary!  That is where the parents organizations get into real trouble.  And the best of them are struggling with that problem, for it is the problem of their own identities.  Are they only united because of a common negation?  If so, then there is a serious problem.

First-Amendment Neurosis

In the marketplace the only goal that matters is to "get the organizations roaring along."  Success, and success only, matters.  Make money and make more money.  The means are secondary.  The only check is the law, and even that can be evaded, for every man has his price.  Ethical standards are considered as relevant for a businessman, including a religious businessman, as for a bulldozer.

We have now become so accustomed to public-relations manipulations and sales tricks in even religious matters that very few of us protest the many perversions of religions which appear and appeal.  Even clearly illegal practices are tolerated and critical voices silenced.

The term "permissive society" is normally applied to the sexual state of affairs.  It is in fact even more serious.  We have become a permissive society concerning the misuse of other persons' souls.

Mind-bending and soul-killing take place all over, and yet there are no laws against it.  Under the cover of religious freedom a deadly permissiveness has crept in.

This is especially so in the United States, where the "First Amendment" is used to support all manner of evil exploitation in the name of religion.  Anyone who pretends to be religious or runs something even faintly related to religion is considered virtually outside the law.  The worst aspects of Medieval ecclesiastical policy in Europe has, for all practical purposes, come back to the United States:  the contention that religions are exempted from the claims of law.

The Scholarly Approach

Research on NRMs has become a force in itself.  Sociology of religion, psychology of religion, history of religion, etc., all share in a general attempt to collect data and clarify, analyze, and understand the NRMs as factual contemporary expressions of the religious search of mankind.

In this attempt there is a general tendency to "set the truth question aside," for taking a stand concerning the truthfulness and reliability of NRMs would impair the "objectivity" and "neutrality" of the scholarly projects.  This scholarly detachment is sometimes taken to an extreme, so that even value statements must be forsaken.  Thus, for some scholars there seems to be the same value in Catholicism as in Scientology, in the Quakers as in Ananda Marga.

Is this posture not an expression of naive and positivistic methodology?  Is such supposed neutrality and objectivity anything but a dream?

This dream sometimes turns into a nightmare when the "neutral" and "objective" scholar turns against the parents organizations and attacks them for going up against the cults.  The simple fact of being against cults and working in anti-cult organizations seems to be objectionable when seen from the "neutral" and objective" scholars' own presuppositions.

But this sort of scholar is in trouble.  In his or her neutrality, the role of an anti-anti-cult agent takes over the role of the scholar.  One cannot uphold neutrality by negating an anti-attitude.  Minus against minus gives a plus, i.e., a factual standpoint -- a creed.

The anti-cult movement is in trouble, but the anti-anti cult movement is in even more serious trouble by its lack of identity.  Show me your hand and I shall tell you who you are.  If you have no hand, you are nobody!

Methodologically, this tends towards science for science's own sake, and that is of course "old hat."  Like it or not, scholars too are part of the game.  To pretend to stand aside having no creed of their own is a form of cheating.

Thus, the anti-cult movement and the anti-anti-cult movement seem to have one important point in common:  they will and must evade the truth question.  They will not look at creeds, for that will force them to take up the age-old question:  what is truth?  To answer that they would have to take theology seriously.  And in their confused cultural state, they seem to behave as though that were somehow against the First Amendment.


Camus, A.  (1955).  The myth of Sisyphus and other essays.  New York:  Vintage Books.

Ferguson, M.  (1980).  The Aquarian conspiracy:  Personal and social transformation in the 1980s.  Los Angeles:  J.P. Tarcher.

Haastrup, K. (1987).  Jordens Folk (The People of the Earth), No. 4.


Johannes Aagaard, Ph.D. is a Professor at the Institute of Missiology and Ecumenical Theology, Faculty of Theology, Aarhus University.  He is also President and Chairman of The Dialogue Center, Denmark.