Articles Religious Studies

What are New Religious Movements and Modern Religions?


Image: Leili Egea

Most of the world’s major religions evolved out of the ancient civilizations and often have their foundations in the folk traditions that preceded them. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, for example, trace themselves back to the stories of Noah and the Flood, long before any Middle Eastern civilizations. Various branches of Hinduism are based upon beliefs that predate Indian civilization.

Over time new religious religious movements and break away sects emerged: Jainism and Buddhism from Hinduism, Confucianism and Daoism from indigenous Chinese religious beliefs. More recent religious movements, which denote religions of a more contemporary origin (post the 1500s) have also broken away from other religions. Such would include Sikhism breaking away from Hindu and Islamic beliefs, and Mormonism and Jehovah Witness from Christianity. Both Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses hold to the divinity of Christ as do Christians, although many of their other beliefs separate them for mainstream Christianity. Tenrikyo, a recent Japanese religious movement, has similarities to both Buddhism and Shinto, while the Hare Krishna and Transcendental Meditation movements derive from Hinduism. As a result, it is sometimes challenging to determine whether a breakaway group is a branch of an older religion, or a completely new religion itself.

There are cases of syncretic religions which are a merger of two religions that have evolved, especially among displaced or oppressed people. Africans, for example, taken to the Caribbean as slaves were forced to adopt the Christianity of their masters, but did so alongside beliefs they brought from their homelands. This resulted in creole faiths, of which Voodoo and Rastafarianism are two well-known examples. Rastafarianism is a Jamaican religion which grew out of the Black Consciousness movement. It constructed a mythology around the Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia, a country Rastafarians consider to be Judah. In Pacific regions where westerners exerted influence, various traditional folk religions emerged, such as the Cargo cult which emerged on underdeveloped island nations such as Fiji, New Guinea, and Vanuatu. Other new religions begun with the goal of either uniting all religious faiths or recognizing the validity of other beliefs and embracing them in their own faith. These include the Baha’i (established in Iran, 1863), Cao Dai (founded in Vietnam, 1926), and Unitarian Universalism (formed in the United States, 1961).

Moreover, fascination with mysticism and mystical enlightenment manifested the Hasidic movement in Judaism, Sufism in Islam, as well as several recent Christian charismatic denominations. Some have taken to historical neopagan religions, such as Wicca, while there have also been religions emerging out of loosely science based beliefs, such as Scientology. Often charismatic leaders stand behind the founding of these new religious movements and they typically claim divine revelation. Others have dismissed these movements as “cults,” which attempt to give power and glory to their leaders.

Recommended Readings

Ambalu, S. 2013. The Religions Book. p. 294-295.

Smart, N. 1998. The World’s Religions. p. 474-546.

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