Rodney Stark and William Bainbridge:
"The Future of Religion" (UC Press, 1986)

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I found this book extremely interesting to explain the popularity of Artificial Intelligence and the Singularity in an age in which religions seem to be on the way out.

While it seems natural to think that science is slowly eroding the appeal of religion, this book (as well as Daniel Bell's "The Winding Passage" of 1980) shows that we live in an age that lends itself to the establishment of new religions. They don't deny the process of secularization but they show that it comes with two parallel processes, one of religious revival and one of religious innovation. The total amount of religion remains the same. The book defines religions as organizations primarily engaged in providing general compensators based on supernatural assumptions. The "supernatural" need not be a god: Buddhism, for example, doesn't have a god. There are at least three dimensions to the religious world: the otherworldly, that offers intangible rewards to the poor, the worldly, that offers tangible rewards to the powerful, and the universal that binds together both the powerful and the powerless. The universal often succumbs to the inevitable tension between the worldly and the otherworldly, and that's the source of new sects. Churches become increasingly worldly and eventually those who can only aspire to the unworldly dimension (the poor who don't benefit in this world) are attracted to a new sect that pledges to restore the unworldly dimension. The difference between church and sect is that a church accepts the social order while the sect rejects it. Sects are schismatic groups, groups founded by a leader who used to be a member of another religious organization. Sects are religious from the start. Cults grow independently of existing religious organizations; i.e. cults introduce novel compensators. Stark and Bainbridge argue that too little attention has been devoted to cults which are instead a major factor in the emergence of new religions. In 1985 Stark and Bainbridge found that 75% of all cults were born after 1950.

There are different theories on why individuals invent new cults: mental illness, business plan (or sexual privileges) or just group interaction (the "subcultural" movements, like gangs and like the Peoples Temple of Jim Jones).

The book shows that religious innovation is rampant in the Western states, from Alaska down to California, where church membership is very low. Nonetheless, all the main cults that you can name were founded on the East Coast: the Church of New Jerusalem, followers of the Swedish medium Emanuel Swedenborg, formed in 1817 in Boston; in 1849 the three sisters Leah, Maggie and Kate Fox launched the fad of seances (i.e. spiritualism) near New York (Walt Whitman, socialists and utopian communes adopted spiritualism at the turn of the century); Christian Science (the Church of Christ Scientist), founded in 1879 by Mary Baker Eddy , who was a student of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby in Maine, who was in turn a student of Mesmerism (Franz Mesmer); Theosophy, founded by in 1875 in New York by Helena Petrovna Blavatsky; the Ancient and Mystical Order of the Rosae Crucis, a Rosicrucian secret society modeled after the Freemasons founded in 1915 in New York by Harvey Spencer Lewis and May Banks-Stacy; Scientology, founded in New Jersey in 1954 by Ron Hubbard. The 1893 world parliament of religion in Chicago imported several cults in the USA, notably Baha'i. The following year Thornton Chase, originally a Colorado Swedenborgian, became the first Bah 'ˇ convert in the Western world. Originally, the West Coast ruled only in the field of UFO cults. By the 1980s Christian Science's leading state was California, followed by Oregon and Washington, Theosophy's leading state was Washington followed by California, the leading state of the Baha'i faith was again California (Thornton Chase had moved to Los Angeles in 1909) followed by Oregon. And one of the largest new religions in the world, transcendental meditation, started out in California (in 1965 when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi founded the Students' International Meditation Society in Los Angeles, followed in 1966 by the Hari Krishna movement founded in New York by A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada). Many of the psychedelic movements born in California mutated into religious movements. Timothy Leary founded "exo-psychology" and Richard Alpert became a Hindu guru, Baba Ram Dass.

Trivia: a 1926 census showed that most cult members were women, and, in fact, women had founded several of these successful cults.

Magic is something altogether different. Magic is a substitute for science and has to compete with science, as Bronislaw Malinowski showed in Magic, Science and Religion" (1948). Magic is typically left outside churches: a priest would not read the palm of the devout or attempt to cure an illness. Priests and magicians belong to different spheres. When religions, under pressure by their members, incorporate magic, they lend themselves to the most powerful attack by science: science can prove them false. You cannot prove that Allah does not exist, but you can easily prove that levitation is a scam.

No religious organization can sustainably market itself to all the members of society because it runs into contradictions that eventually lead to the creation of new sects. The history of Christianity is a history of schisms precisely because it tried to be "universal" and persecuted all other supernatural practices, from magic (witch hunts) to heresy (persecution). The Catholic church tried to institutionalize sects with the establishment of monastic orders.

Writing a decade before the World-wide Web was born (and two decades before Facebook was born), Stark and Bainbridge show that religion is a social rather than individual phenomenon. Human societies have become so large that a new religious movement needs to grow very rapidly in order to establish themselves before they die out and that seems possible only if the new movement can exploit an existing social network. Social networks play a fundamental role in recruitment to cults, sects and religions. Religious movements offer otherworldly "compensators" to their followers but also worldly compensators, and the social bonds constitute a major one. On the other hand, the search for meaning (the "theological" aspect) is far less important. Sociologists have traditionally overrated the human propensity to theological and philosophical thinking. They have "overintellectualized" humankind. Most people are far less influenced by "meaning systems" than by what their social network does. In order to achieve exponential growth, the new religious movement must succeed with mainstream society, not only fringe elements. Historically, new religious movements spread first among the educated elite. This seems hard to believe because the educated elite tends to be less religious than the less educated masses, i.e. more secularized, but Stark and Bainbridge show that secularization is precisely the condition required for religious innovation. People who already belong to a religious movement are unlikely to shift to another one. For example, 19th century spiritualism spread initially among socialists and intellectuals who were not religious at all. Stark and Bainbridge point out the "overrepresentation" of Jews in modern cult movements and they explain it as a consequence of the rapid secularization of Judaism. Note: Ray Kurzweil was born to secular Jewish parents.

Given the appeal of "religious innovation" to the secularized elite, and the fact that science has not solved the fundamental problems of humanity (the meaning of life and eternal life), Stark and Bainbridge easily predict that "religious innovations will have significant influence in the coming years". Secularization is the primary engine of sect and cult formation.

It is precisely the success of science in explaining so much of what past religions claimed as supernatural that has created a tension between the individual's visceral will to live forever and the acquired knowledge that the supernatual cannot help. It is precisely the success of science in demolishing the traditional religions that is creating the need for a new religion. This new religion needs to be more "scientific". Maharishi Mahesh Yogi claimed that transcendental meditation was a scientific method for personal improvement. Psychoanalysis has been presented as scientific ever since Freud.

There aren't many precedents to this book. Emile Durkheim's "The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life" (1915) was the pillar of sociological studies on religion. James Frazier's "The Golden Bough" (1922) was the pillar of anthropological and ethnographic studies on religion. Bronislaw Malinowski's "Magic, Science and Religion and Other Essays" (1948) is the classic on magic. Norman Cohn's "The Pursuit of the Millennium" (1961) is the classic on revolutionary messiahs. Bryan Wilson's "Magic and the Millennium" (1975) is a classic study on the dynamics of cults, sects and churches.

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