The sciences have achieved great cultural prestige in modern society and scholars of religion have come to see this increasingly reflected in new and alternative religions.
To begin with definitions, a “new” religion is religious group, movement, or tradition that is organizationally and symbolically recent in its emergence. Alternative religions are those that are socially and culturally misaligned in the sense of being fringe groups typically perceived as unusual and weird by mainstream traditions and general society. Alternative and new religions are not necessarily the same although they can overlap (often new religions are also alternative, for example). Given its special power, new and alternative religious movements have sought the authoritative mantle of science. According to James Lewis science functions as a “legitimating factor” for new religious movements,
“[A]ny religion that claimed its approach was in some way scientific drew on the prestige and perceived legitimacy of natural science. Religions such as Christian Science, Science of Mind, and, of course, Scientology claim just that” (1).
Benjamin Zeller opines similarly that “Science is one of the dominant forces in contemporary society and lends credibility to any enterprise that somehow can claim to be scientific, as late night television advertisements so aptly reveal” (2).
Some of these religions have also challenged normative Western approaches to science which might, for example, take the form of a systematic fusion of science and religion and metaphysics. Science is employed extensively by many members, leaders, and founders of these religious traditions within their practices, for identity purposes, legitimization, and rhetoric. Zeller has looked at this phenomenon in a special issue for the journal Nova Religio dedicated to exploring alternative religions and reveals the tendency for these movements to engage science in two ways:  they invoke it as a means of claiming legitimacy; and/or  they challenge normative (Western) approaches to science (3). Several alternative and new religions we shall briefly look at evidence these responses.
New Age Spirituality
Several scholars on the New Age movement such as Wouter Hanegraaf, James R. Lewis, and John Gordon Melton have noted the prevalence of scientific or pseudo-scientific discourse within this rather loose and eclectic tradition. Hanegraff highlights the high regard for science as “one of the notable characteristics of New Age thinking” and argues that New Age practitioners employ science simultaneously to “legitimate a spiritual worldview” as well as “attack the existing scientific consensus” (4). It is unsurprising that proponents and devotees within this tradition use science to gain legitimacy, although New Age devotees also use science to critique science, specifically the traditional academic notion of science which is empirical and naturalistic.
A number of scholars, among them Christopher Partridge, John Saliba, Bryan Sentes, and Susan Palmer, have provided insightful data on the fascinating alternative phenomenon of UFO religions. Partridge highlights UFO religious movements to be “physicalist religions” that range from possessing “modern, secular, scientific worldviews” to “religious, usually theosophical worldviews” (5). Many of these alternative groups combine scientific, religious, and Theosophical elements, and “to one degree or another, they claim to offer a ‘scientific’ belief system.” According to Zeller, UFO religions also challenge the meanings of conventional science by claiming the mantle of science as well as disputing its traditional definition and meaning (6). Raelianism is a good example of this tendency.
Scholars of Western Esotericism, which excludes the New Age movement, have also revealed the significant impact of science on the development of this alternative tradition. According to Antoine Faivre, the Esoteric tradition is a collection of “esoteric sciences, namely alchemy, astrology, and magic” (7). Esotericism, he observes, takes much from theology, enlightenment science, renaissance romanticism, and classical philosophy. Both Faivre and Jacob Needleman observe the place of science in historical and contemporary Esotericism, especially in terms of alchemical esotericism (8).
According to Scott Lowe and Kathinka Frøystad, Indian new religious movements, Transcendental Meditation and modern Indian New Age movements respectively, attempt to embrace the power of contemporary science while at the same time uphold indigenous Indian scientific and spiritual positions (9). Lowe argues that Transcendental Meditation intentionally subordinated Western science to Indian Vedic science. Transcendental Meditation’s founder, Maharishi Yogi, adopted an absolutist interpretation of the Vedas which are, on his view, factually inerrant, divinely inspired, and the eternal source of all true knowledge about the universe. In fact, they are more complete and accurate than modern scientific theories whereas the laws of nature are synonymous with the ancient deities mentioned within them. In other words, natural laws are in fact the gods of the Rig Veda (10). Regarding the Indian New Age movements Frøystad observes how science has been used as rhetorical tools to “rope in” outsiders, rather than as an ideology at the very heart of its religious movements.
Not included in Zeller’s primary article, one might want to add the Church of Scientology that fuses spiritual metaphysics with pseudoscience. The founder, in the form of Lafayette Ron Hubbard, intended to present Scientology as a legitimate science, although it later transitioned to a religion with its own theology. Scientology came to include notions of a Supreme being, a soul, thetans, an afterlife, which it interlaced with pseudoscientific concepts of dianetics, auditing, and engrams (11).
In Mainstream Religions
Although the above-considered religions are new and alternative traditions we also find strong attempts to invoke science (either as a means of claiming legitimacy or to challenge normative science) within mainstream religions. In Christianity, there have been attempts to gain scientific legitimization by seeking to compromise the religion with material fact (12). Vernon Bates examines this in five Christian traditions to develop within the twentieth century: modernism, neo-orthodoxy, neo-evangelism, evangelicism, and Fundamentalism, all of which found themselves existing within an increasingly secularized world providing challenges to their faith. Mainstream religions have also spawned creation science movements. Islamic creation science, like Christian creation science from which it borrows much, strongly opposes evolutionary theory, preferring to see God as having created human beings and other animals separately. Christian creationism goes further to claim that God created the Earth and the universe only a handful thousand of years ago. Applying these creation movements to Bates’ insights, these would reflect the “fundamentalist” position where the greatest possibility exists for conflict to occur between accepted material fact and a strict literal interpretation of religious texts (13).
Tying these strands all together, Benjamin Zeller concludes,
“The use of science in the rhetoric of the new religious movements considered here reveals just how fluid the nature of science is, and how its “fundamental assumptions”… are neither agreed upon nor always in keeping with the normative views of professional scientists or academics. Science means different things to different members of a movement. All of the individuals, groups and movements examined in the articles in this issue of Nova Religio claim to be in some way scientific, and all insist that science not only failed to threaten their religious perspectives, but supported them. In this regard, it makes little sense to discuss how science challenges religion, but instead how religious individuals deploy alternative meanings of science to support their religious positions” (14).
1. Lewis, James. 1993. Legitimating New Religions. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press. p. 93.
2. Zeller, Benjamin. 2011. “New Religious Movements and Science.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 14(4):4-10. p. 6.
3. Zeller, Benjamin. 2011. Ibid. p. 7.
4. Hanegraff, Wouter. 1995. New Age Religion and Western Culture. Netherlands: BRILL. p. 62.
5. Partridge, Christopher. 2003. “Understanding UFO Religions and Abduction Spiritualities.” In UFO Religions, edited by Christopher Partridge. London: Routledge. p. 21.
6. Zeller, Benjamin. 2010. Prophets and Protons: New Religious Movements and Science in Late Twentieth-Century America. New York: New York University Press. p. 117-162.
7. Faivre, Antoine. 1994. Access to Western Esotericism. Albany: State University of New York Press. p. 8.
8. Faivre, Antoine., and Needleman, Jacob. 1992. Modern Esoteric Spirituality. New York: Crossroad.
9. Lowe, Scott. 2011. “Transcendental Meditation, Vedic Science and Science.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 14(4):54-76; Frøystad, Kathinka. 2011. “Roping Outsiders InInvoking Science in Contemporary Spiritual Movements in India.” Nova Religio: The Journal of Alternative and Emergent Religions 14(4):77-98.
10. Yogi, Maharishi. 1967. Maharishi on the Bhagavad-Gita. p. 199.
11. Miller, Russell. 1987. Bare-faced Messiah, The True Story of L. Ron Hubbard. London: Michael Joseph. p. 151.
12. Bates, Vernon. 1981. “Christian Apologetics as Legitimation.” Humboldt Journal of Social Relations 8:80-93.
13. Bates, Vernon. 1981. Ibid. p. 86-88.
14. Zeller, Benjamin. 2011. Ibid. p. 8.