Beliefnet
Excerpted from the February 2002 issue of the Atlantic Monthly with permission.

Religion didn't begin to wither away during the twentieth century, as some academic experts had prophesied. Far from it. And the new century will probably see religion explode--in both intensity and variety. New religions are springing up everywhere. Old ones are mutating with Darwinian restlessness. And the big "problem religion" of the twenty-first century may not be the one you think.

A Theodiversity Sampler

The variety of flourishing new religious movements around the world is astonishing and largely unrecognized in the West. The groups that generally grab all the attention-Moonies, Scientologists, Hare Krishnas, Wiccans-amount to a tiny and not particularly significant proportion of what's out there. Here are just a few representatively diverse examples of new movements from around the world:

The Ahmadis (Official Site)

A messianic Muslim sect based in Pakistan, with perhaps eight million members in seventy countries, the Ahmadi movement was founded by Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a Punjabi Muslim who began receiving divine revelations in 1876. "In order to win the pleasure of Allah;" he wrote, "I hereby inform you all of the important fact that Almighty God has, at the beginning of this 14th century [in the Islamic calendar], appointed me from Himself for the revival and support of the true faith of Islam" Ahmad claimed to have been brought to earth as "the Imam of the age today who must, under Divine Command, be obeyed by all Muslims." Members of the movement are considered heretics by most Muslims and are persecuted accordingly. They are barred entry to Mecca. In the Ahmadi version of religious history Jesus escaped from the cross and made his way to India, where he died at the age of 120.

The Brahma Kumaris World Spiritual University (Official Site)

A prosperous ascetic meditation movement based in India, with some 500,000 members (mostly women) worldwide, the group was founded by Dada Lekh Raj, a Hindu diamond merchant who in the 1930s experienced a series of powerful visions revealing "the mysterious entity of God and explaining the process of world transformation." Its establishment was originally rooted in a desire to give self-determination and self-esteem to Indian women. Members wear white, abstain from meat and sex, and are committed to socialwelfare projects. They believe in an eternal, karmic scheme of time that involves recurring 1,250-year cycles through a Golden Age (perfection), a Silver Age (incipient degeneration), a Copper Age (decadence ascendant), and an Iron Age (rampant violence, greed, and lust-our present state). The group is recognized as a nongovernmental organization by the United Nations, with which it often works.

Cao Dai (Official Site)

A syncretistic religion based in Vietnam, with more than three million members in fifty countries, Cao Dai combines the teachings of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, and also builds on elements of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Geniism. The movement was formally established in 1926, six years after a government functionary named Ngo Ming Chieu received a revelation from Duc Cao Dai, the Supreme Being, during a table-moving seance. The movement's institutional structure is based on that of the Catholic Church: its headquarters are called the Holy See, and its members are led by a pope, six cardinals, thirty-- six archbishops, seventy-two bishops, and 3,000 priests. Cao Dai is elaborately ritualized and symbolic-a blend of incense, candles, multi-tiered altars, yin and yang, karmic cycles, seances for communication with the spirit world, and prayers to a pantheon of divine beings, including the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Quan Am, Ly Thai Bach, Quan Thanh De Quan, and Jesus Christ. Its "Three Saints" are Sun Yat-sen; a sixteenth-century Vietnamese poet named Tang Trinh; and Victor Hugo. The movement gained more adherents in its first year of existence than Catholic missionaries had attracted during the Church's previous 300 years in Vietnam.

The Raelians (Official Site)

A growing new international UFO-oriented movement based in Canada, with perhaps 55,000 members worldwide, primarily in Quebec, French-speaking Europe, and Japan, the group was founded in 1973 by Rael, a French race-car journalist formerly known as Claude Vorilhon. Rael claims that in December of 1973, in the dish of a French volcano called Puy-de-Lassolas, he was taken onto a flying saucer, where he met a four-foot humanoid extraterrestrial with olive-colored skin, almondshaped eyes, and long dark hair. The extraterrestrial's first words, in fluent French, were "You regret not having brought your camera?" On six successive days Rael had conversations with the extraterrestrial, from whom he learned that the human race was the creation (by means of DNA manipulation) of beings known as the Elohim--a word that was mistranslated in the Bible as "God" and actually means "those who came from the sky." Past prophets such as Moses, the Buddha, Jesus, and Muhammad had been given their revelations and training by the Elohim, who would now like to get to know their creations on equal terms, and demystify "the old concept of God" To that end the Raelians have raised the money to build "the first embassy to welcome people from space." (Originally Rael was told that the embassy should be near Jerusalem, but Israel has been less than cooperative, and a recent revelation has led Rael to investigate Hawaii as a possibility.) Rael has also recently attracted international attention by creating Clonaid, a company devoted to the goal of cloning a human being.

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