Having laid this groundwork, Melton then goes on to discuss how, in his view, the field of "new religions studies" is now "being challenged at its very core". The challenge is two-fold. On the one hand there is the practical issue of "new religions" scholars justifying their continued existence in the face of many and varied territorial threats to the field. Among these threats are the active, and often very effective, resistance of major Christian and Jewish groups to the denotation of any of their coreligionists as followers of a "new" religion. Another threat comes from rival sub-specialties devoted to the study of Esotericism, Buddhism and Hinduism. A closely related threat is the dying down of the moral panic of the 80s and 90s over "dangerous cults", that, while it lasted, helped to give the impression that the study of "new religions" was serving some broader purpose in helping to alert and arm society against potentially dangerous religious elements (while simultaneously, although to a lesser extent, allowing some scholars to pose as high-minded protectors of "new religions" from slanders and misrepresentations).
But the second threat to "new religions studies" is far more worrisome, or at least should be to anyone involved in the field. For, as Melton states rather plainly, the whole theoretical basis for the study of "new religions" is highly questionable, and that might be putting it too diplomatically. As Melton explains, the field of "new religions studies" started out guided by the assumption that the appearance of "new religions" was somehow inherently problematic. That is to say, "new religions" scholars were posing the question: "What was wrong that people were turning to new religions?" This question was based on the assumption that "new" religions do not tend to occur in societies that are stable and secure, and/or that individuals who are well-adjusted do not get involved with such things as "new religions".
One major problem with the whole "new religions" paradigm and its underlying assumptions is that what scholars had labeled as "new religions" turned out to be, on closer inspection, simply repackagings of religious ideas and practices that are not "new" at all. By the 1990s this had become painfully obvious to those who were studying the phenomenon of "new religions" in Japan, which is where it all started. Another problem was that, as the 20th century was drawing to close, the original "new" religions of Japan were far less "new" than they had been at first. Moreover, a whole new crop of "new" religions was appearing under very different circumstances, and scholars felt compelled to dub these "new new religions". On top of this, it was now recognized that there had been at least two other phases of "new religions" prior to the end of World War II, so that a total of four distinct phases of "new religions" were now recognized in Japan, with the oldest of these "new" religions being over two centuries old!
By 2007 Melton had come to realize that the emergence of "new" religions must be seen as a normal, continual process in human societies. "New" religions appear in good economic times, and bad economic times; during times of war, and times of peace; during times of social upheaval, and during times of relative social stability. For example, Melton points out that more "new" religions came into existence in the U.S. during the 1950s than during the 60s and 70s!
Meton's conclusion demonstrates that true scholarship requires not just intellectual curiosity, but intellectual courage as well. For he concludes that instead of asking what is wrong with the societies in which "new" religions arise, and/or with the individuals who take part in them, scholars must turn the question on its head and ask: "What is wrong in some societies where new religions are relatively absent?" And Melton goes even further and asserts that "The production of new religions is a normal, ongoing process in a free society."
Here is how Melton himself puts it in his words in the conclusion of his paper:
- Looking at the category of new religious movements: http://usreligion.blogspot.ca/2013/12/looking-at-category-of-new-religious.html (A recent paper that takes a look back at Melton's 2007 paper.)
- New new religions: revisiting a concept: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/nr.2007.10.4.103 (Melton's original paper)
- McCarthur and the Missionaries: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3637830 (A highly illuminating article, referenced by Melton, looking at the, in the end extraordinarily ineffectual, alliance between Christian missionaries and the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers in occupied Japan.)
- International Society for the Study of New Religions: http://www.observatoire-religion.com/2011/07/study-of-new-religions/ ("The first professional membership organization for NRM researchers.")
TABLE: Japanese "New Religions" founded since 1925 with membership (as of 1990) of 500,000 or more, according to Shimazono, Susumu (2004): From Salvation to Spirituality: Popular Religious Movements in Modern Japan. Trans Pacific Press. pp. 234-235. For context, the total population of Japan in 1990 was estimated at about 123 million.
|Sōka Gakkai||1930||17,736,757||Makiguchi Tsunesaburō (1871-1944) and Toda Jōsei (1900-1956)|
|Risshō Kōsei-kai||1938||6,348,120||Naganuma Myōkō (1889-1957) Niwano Nikkyō (1906-1999)|
|Bussho Gonenkai Kyōdan||1950||2,196,813||Sekiguchi Kaichi (1897-1961) Sekiguchi Tomino (1905-1990)|
|Perfect Liberty Kyōdan||1946||1,259,064||Miki Tokuharu (1871-1938) Miki Tokuchika (1900-1983)|
|Myōchikai Kyōdan||1950||962,611||Miyamoto Mitsu (1900-1984)|
|Honbushin||1961||900,000||Ōnishi Tama (1916-1969)|
|Sekai Kyūsei-kyō||1935||835,756||Okada Mokichi (1882-1955)|
|Seichō-no-Ie||1930||838,496||Taniguchi Masaharu (1893-1985)|
|Ōyama Nezunomikoto Shinji Kyōkai||1948||826,022||Inaii Sadao (1906-1988)|
|Nenpō-shinkyō||1925||807,486||Ogura Reigen (1886-1982)|
|Reiha-no-Hikari Kyōkai||1954||761,175||Hase Yoshio (1915-1984)|
|Shin'nyoen||1936||679,414||Itō Shinjō (1906-1956)|
|Zenrin-kyō||1947||513,321||Rikihisa Tatsusai (1906-1977)|
|Byakkō Shinkō-kai||1951||500,000||Goi Masahisa (1916-1980)|