Why Are There No New Major Religions?

(Paul Spella / The Atlantic)

The story of one imprisoned prophet illustrates the difficulties of getting a “baby religion” off the ground.

Cipinang prison stands like a huge fortress in East Jakarta, its massive walls and guard towers separating the city’s bustling traffic from the criminals held within its gates. I visited in March, sitting at a noisy mess hall filled with hardened, tattooed Indonesian prisoners who greeted their wives and children with hugs and pats on the head. The prison is known for housing many of the country’s most notorious drug criminals and convicted terrorists. But across from me sat a trio of prisoners in bright orange fatigues charged with a different crime entirely: daring to start a new religious movement.

The leader of the group, Ahmad Mushaddeq, a broad-shouldered man with bright gray eyes and a winning smile, is a former national badminton coach turned preacher. In the late 1990s, he said, it was revealed to him that he was the son of God. His followers proclaimed him to be the prophet to succeed Muhammad, sparking a new religious movement based on his teachings, which was eventually called Millah Abraham. The new faith was adopted mainly by disenchanted Muslims. It spread quickly across Indonesia and Malaysia to more than 50,000 followers, according to the group. Mushaddeq’s followers also established a parallel back-to-the-land social movement, called Gafatar, which promoted organic farming and agricultural self-sufficiency, considered by Millah Abraham to be two of the real-life applications of their vaguely New-Age faith.

As strange as Millah Abraham’s beliefs may seem, scholars of religion say the group is simply in the early stages of a process nearly as old as humanity: starting a new religion.

“Often cults are seen as aberrations, or a psychological phenomenon. Psychologists would see cult leaders as having delusions of grandeur. But I see them as something different—as baby religions,” said Susan Palmer, a sociologist and scholar of new religions at Concordia University in Montreal. “I think people are unaware how many of them there are, how constant they are.”

Al Makin, an Indonesian scholar of new religions, estimates that Indonesia alone has seen over 600 new religious movements in its modern history. In this regard the archipelago is hardly unique: New religions spring up regularly in the United StatesCanada,Russia—everywhere government authorities are flexible enough to allow them.

And like many other new religious movements, Millah Abraham is dreaming big, with hopes to supersede Christianity and Islam as the dominant Abrahamic faith. Millah Abraham’s followers believe that every Abrahamic faith, from Judaism onward, is fated to lose its way, becoming corrupt and power-hungry, until eventually it is succeeded by a new prophet who will restore the original Abrahamic relationship to God. Followers of Millah Abraham believe that the near-constant wars in the Middle East are just one indication that Islam has fallen and it is Mushaddeq’s turn to continue the eternal cycle and establish the next iteration of Abrahamic faith. In the same way that Judaism was succeeded by Christianity, and Christianity by Islam, Islam is to be succeeded by Millah Abraham.

Though its prophet is in prison, it’s still possible Millah Abraham will succeed in becoming a globally influential faith. There have, after all, been unexpected successes before. “If we had been observers of the religious scene in the year 50 AD, I wonder if we would have bet on that small religious group in the corner of the Roman empire,” said Jean-François Mayer, a Swiss scholar of new religious movements, referring to ancient Christianity. Still, he acknowledges that the odds appear to be very much against Millah Abraham, even without persecution from the Indonesian government.

Not since the angel Gabriel visited Muhammad in a cave around 610 AD, informing him that he is God’s prophet, has there been a new globally influential religion with hundreds of millions of followers. Though the world’s religions are very dynamic, and major faiths continue to shift and evolve in ritual and doctrine, the world today is dominated by the same four faiths that dominated the globe a millennium ago: Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam. According to a 2012 Pew study, 92 percent of religiously affiliated people around the globe belong to one of these four faiths.

While some relatively recent faiths have succeeded in recruiting millions of followers—such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (Mormonism), Scientology, and Baha’i—their numbers of adherents are dwarfed in scale by these earlier four. The Baha’i, for example, are a relatively numerous recent faith with an estimated 7 million adherents. That sounds impressive, but it still means that just 0.1 percent of humanity has joined Baha’ism—and the faith has been around for 150 years (since 1863).

Faiths, of course, don’t have to be numerous to deliver spiritual sustenance to their followers, or even to be influential, as Judaism (a religion of 14 million) shows. Still, the small scale of new faiths over the past 1,500 years since Islam raises a question: Why, if creating new faiths is an inextinguishable feature of the human condition, have new religions had such limited recent success?

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SOURCE: The Atlantic
Jon Emont

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