(This is the second in a series of three posts, the first is here)
Over the last five years I’ve looked at a lot of different religions, from the big ‘world religions’ to small new religious movements. They are very different, spanning a huge range of ideas about God and about the human condition; and with a huge diversity of spiritual practices and rituals.
But there is also a unity among them as well. But its not quite Karen Armstrong‘s unity, nor the kind of unity that lends itself to a definition. in fact I’m not even going to attempt to define what a religion is, because as I said in part one, that’s a fool’s errand.
It is a unity of texture: they all seem to work in a similar way. They stress belonging, dividing people into us and them; they provide processes to engender feelings of profundity; they tell a story of the cosmos and show how you fit right in it; they rehearse their own importance and supernormal potency; they answer unanswerable questions; and they empower those who pull the strings. Notice I’ve not said anything here about God. God is very important to some faiths, but the character and identity of ‘God’ is not significant in many other religions. What unifies religions is what they do for the people involved with them.
Other things have these features too. Things we’d not normally describe as a religion. The book “The Culting of Brands” (Atkins 2005), looks at the co-opting of religious zealotry for consumer brands such as Harley Davidson and Apple. They are religion-like, I think, but it may not be very helpful to talk of them in that way, because they are also “Brands”, and that word is more expressive of their character.
Another religion-like-thing I’ve come across, which seems to me more usefully seen as such, are self-help organizations.
Let me give one example (not to pick it out as being special, just to be concrete). Landmark Education Trust puts on a whole series of personal and business development courses. Its initial offering is called “The Forum”. In the Forum, participants are hothoused in a series of very emotionally intense lectures and interactions, where they are encouraged to look at their own behaviour critically. Participants are encouraged to see themselves in archetypal terms, to make breakthroughs by abandoning unhelpful stories about themselves (called “rackets” in the Landmark jargon), and to put right their relationships with others (known as “integrity”). As evidence of a participant’s transition to a no-nonsense, can-do, person, they are encouraged to bring others to future Landmark events. The inbuilt evangelism and the emotional intensity of early sessions, lead to it being labelled a Secte or cult and having to close in France, Belgium and Sweden.
As I said, I don’t want to pick on Landmark, it is not a religion (much less a dangerous cult, in my opinion). But I would call it a Quasi-Religious Movement (QRM, or ‘quirm’ for short). It stresses community; it pities those still trapped in their rackets; it tells stories of its supernormal potency (look at the website for examples); it tells a story of how humans function (not a cosmological story, in this case) and fits you right into it; it answers unanswerable questions; it gives processes that devotees can use to feel like they’ve made profound connections with others; it has an evangelical mandate and sees itself as an important transformative force in the world.
We can come up with some fancy rationale for labelling anything a QRM based on those criteria (as we can make an argument for why a table is really a chair, if we just use the ‘criteria’ of what makes a chair). I am not trying to do that, I am instead stating that parts of it work and feel like a religion. Something picked up by the French and Belgians (even if they do have a hair trigger). It is misleading to call Landmark a religion, I think, but I seeing it as a QRM helps us be honest about its religion-like aspects.
There are other things that I’d want to label QRMs: some conspiracy theories, some alternative medicine modalities. And — as I’ll discuss in the final part of this post (with various qualifications) — Atheism and Skepticism.
Atkins, Douglas. The Culting Of Brands. Portfolio, 2005.