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Science and Religion in the New Religions

Abstract and Keywords

This article demonstrates how religion is propagated through a scientistic strategy or discourse, and how religion, not science, is in control. Scientistic religious groups, however, are not “paradoxical”—what they have accomplished is simply an expanded usage of a traditional religious strategy. Traditional religions are able to interpret any event, place, individual, object, or subject according to religious standards. Within the fabric of any given religion, everything in the world can be understood and measured along specific mythological or ritual paths. Scientistic religions have simply added the phenomenon of science to this capacity. By embracing science, which is basically a secular discourse, a number of new religions have overcome one of the paradoxes of the modern world, that is, the parallel existence of two mutually incongruous epistemological systems—science and religion.

Keywords: science, religion, paradoxes, religious strategy, scientistic religions

In a 1993 article, “New Religions, Science, and Secularization,” sociologist of religion William S. Bainbridge concludes that the scientific community knows surprisingly little about what he terms scientistic cults. “Extensive scholarship is needed on these paradoxical groups,” he says (Bainbridge 1993: 292). Unfortunately, this is still quite true even if most scholars probably would hesitate to proclaim the religions in question “paradoxical,” and even if the scientific element in the belief systems of these groups only represents a part of their theological and mythological make-up. In general, our understanding of new religions and cultic groups has increased tremendously during the past decades, but much work needs to be done in order to fully understand how new belief systems develop, and, in this connection, how the relation between science and religion actually works in these movements. It is hardly enough to conclude that secularization, and thus the development of a thoroughly nonreligious worldview, is only a tendency and that religion is still alive and kicking.

In the following, reference will be made to a number of relevant scholarly contributions and a few suggestions for further research will be offered. The scholarly literature in this field of research is, however, surprisingly meager, even now some 10 years after Bainbridge's seminal article. Though many religious texts are easily available—some claiming to be scientific, others dissociating themselves from science—only a few in-depth studies of this phenomenon have appeared. Of course, historical studies on the relation between science and religion during (p. 100) the scientific community's formative period have been produced, and a great number of philosophical contributions discussing the relation between different kinds of knowledge have been published. However, usually the focal point is quite different from what is needed with respect to new religions.

A Brief Overview and Some Examples

Science and religion often collide. In the modern industrialized world where science has gained the highest momentum, this is especially apparent, not least in the case of new religions. However, the contemporary existence of two very different worldviews (stereotyped as “the scientific” and “the religious”) does not mean that they function in isolated realms. It is true, of course, that some people deliberately avoid religion as an element in a secular lifestyle, and that others (presumably, very few) reject science altogether as ungodly and irrelevant. Nonetheless, for the vast majority, religion and science are two different modes of observing the world, two different ways of approaching existence that may well work together. Not every aspect of religion is based on irrational belief, and scientific speculation will often leave the safe harbor of rationality in order to explore and develop. Further, studies of human psychology reveal that quite different ways of understanding are usually simultaneously at work in the cognitive apparatus. Indeed “religion” and “science” are both human products created by the same kind of brains and bodies, even if the conditions for the two realms vary greatly.

The relation between science and religion, therefore, is not simply a question of pro and con. Rather, the science-religion debate is usually a question of how two very different epistemological systems are being balanced in complex psychological and social contexts. According to David J. Hess, this field can be described as a “boundary-work,” a kind of negotiated cultural field where different groups and systems position themselves. “In short, scientific boundaries are recursive, nested, and multiple; there are scientificity layers that become clearer as one unfolds levels of skepticism and ‘pseudoscientificity’ both within and across discursive boundaries. Boundary-work, therefore, is going on in all directions, not just in the direction of orthodox science toward religion and ‘pseudoscience’ ” (Hess 1993: 145–146).

This is not to say that science and religion go hand-in-hand with no difficulty or that they occupy parallel social or cognitive realms. On the contrary, quite often they certainly do not. What we need to observe is the impressive willingness (p. 101) and ability to seek some kind of understanding between science and religion on the part of most religious individuals, and thus, within most religious groups—not least the new religions of today's world. As pointed out by James Lewis, however, not only new religions of the present, but new religions since the beginning of the so-called modern era have consciously related to science and technology in their quest for explanations and practical solutions.

This aspect of our cultural view of science shaped the various religious sects that incorporated “science” into their names. In sharp contrast to traditional religions, which emphasize salvation in the afterlife, the emphasis in these religions is on the improvement of this life. Groups within the Metaphysical (Christian Science-New Thought) tradition, for example, usually claim to have discovered spiritual “laws,” which, if properly understood and applied, transform and improve the lives of ordinary individuals, much as technology has transformed society. (Lewis 2002: 3)

The notion of spiritual laws, Lewis explains, is taken directly from the “laws” of classical physics. As an example of how such groups “viewed themselves as investigating the mind or spirit in a practical, experimental way,” Lewis quotes Ernest Holmes's classic New Thought text Science of Mind from 1926: “As soon as a law is discovered experiments are made with it, certain facts are proved to be true, and in this way a science is gradually formulated; for any science consists of the number of known facts about any given principle … This is true of the Science of Mind. No one has ever seen Mind or Spirit, but who could possibly doubt their existence?” (cited in Lewis 2002: 3).

In this connection, however, it is important to notice that “science”—not to mention the concept of “scientism”—is no single and therefore easily defined category. It is, for instance, important to distinguish between the self-confident scientism among academics in the scientific community and what Mikael Stenmark has dubbed “academic-external scientism” within the broader society. Considering the new religions, it is, no doubt, the last type that becomes relevant, even if “academic-internal scientism” occasionally occurs (Stenmark 1997). What we are dealing with is a popular nonexpert understanding of scientific method and results. This concept of “science” in the new religions, consequently, is not the same as the concept of “science” in science's traditional habitat.

In the following, however, it is not suggested that the new religions have been more successful than religions at large in establishing a working relationship with science. Very often, if not always, the religiously inclined use of science, in old as well as new religions, cannot live up to ordinary scientific standards. It is, as we shall see, religion, not science, which defines the standards in the interaction between the two systems in the modern context of the new religions: Science, in the scientific sense of the word, has been largely substituted by a mythological rendering of the same concept. The reason for this balance of power is quite (p. 102) obvious. Religion has the ability to transform science into something useful for its purpose, while science usually is deprived of the possibility of transforming religion into something scientifically meaningful.

The present situation is not new, although the religions in question are. Since the days of the Enlightenment and the breakthrough of philosophical humanism in opposition to religion, most religions in the Western world have been forced to justify their positions against science or, indeed, to seek some kind of understanding with science. In this respect, the new and emerging religions of contemporary Western society are challenged to the extreme. Science has become fundamental to virtually all walks of life, and it seems almost impossible to imagine new religions that do not engage in some kind of discussion or interaction with science and technology. The old religion-science debate wherein rationalism contested “myth and magic” has, in certain ways, been left behind. There is no longer an “either-or” situation. Rather, most new religions consider themselves scientifically based and it has become commonplace to include science in the mythological stew.

The reason behind this development seems quite obvious: No religion of the modern world will successfully be able to claim authority without some kind of scientific legitimization. In the words of theologian Derek Stanesby: “Today natural science rules as queen over all and is commonly accepted as the supreme source of all knowledge. The table has turned. Contemporary religious thinkers now tend to take the authority of science for granted and they try to match their theology to the prevailing western scientific tradition” (Stanesby 1985: 2).

However, when comparing the situation of presecularized society to that of today, a remarkable structural resemblance is noted. In the seventeenth century, when the foundation of modern science was laid, science had to justify itself through the theology and mythology of the religious establishment. Today, religion faces the same challenge: It very often has to justify itself through the dominant contemporary system of understanding that is science, or at least, to prove itself worthy of attention by arguing against science. Therefore, it is no surprise that modern religious movements will frequently align with science in different ways, by using scientific language, for instance, even if the content of the belief system is far from scientific (Ellwood and Partin 1988: 14), or by proclaiming some kind of balance between science and religion in this or that belief system.

Above all, it must be recognized that the relation between science and religion is primarily determined by the general power structures of the society in question. Where science occupies a dominant position (which is the case in the industrialized world), religion has to align with science to some degree, or at least to express an attitude toward science. Where science holds a more remote position, this is not a demand, and religion may develop with no scientific reference at all. A number of new religions such as the Baha'i faith, the Theosophical Society, TM, ISKCON, and others, provide good examples for the present. In every case, (p. 103) principles for the adaptation of scientific perspectives into religious systems are largely determined by religious standards.

Some Brief Examples

A number of principles espoused by Baha'is (attributed to the religion's founder Baha'u'llah), for instance, include “the harmony of science and religion.” The idea is that “a well-educated religious community will be able, independently, to undertake intellectual enquiry and distinguish truth from error” and, for instance, evaluate scientific claims in light of religious belief. Thus, in accordance with Darwinism, Baha'is believe that species do evolve, but it is denied—quite contrary to scientific findings—that human beings evolve from a lower species (Chryssides 1999: 251). The adaptation of the scientific position is, it appears, limited to areas that are theologically acceptable. The outcome of the interaction between Baha'i theology and scientific positions on biological evolution, therefore, is determined by religious boundaries. It is not the result of negotiation between two equal adversaries.

Similarly, Theosophists will refer to the second paragraph in the Theosophical Society's bylaws as an important ideal that supports the true religious understanding of the world. Theosophists are inspired to “encourage studies in comparative religion, philosophy and science,” but these principles will only apply to a certain extent. Indeed, the cofounder of the Theosophical Society, H. P. Blavatsky, was not unconditionally happy with science even if, in general, science is embraced in her teachings. In The Secret Doctrine, she wrote, “The divergence of scientific options is so great that no reliance can ever be placed upon scientific speculation,” thus emphasizing that religion, not science, is at the heart of things (Hammer 2000: 22). This attempt to balance the religious use of science is rather important, not only to Theosophy, for the principal problems seem to be the same everywhere, even if the religions in question may vary considerably.

Trying to reinforce Unitarianism as a religion with popular appeal, in 1991 a group of Scandinavian Unitarians formulated 13 theses regarding their beliefs. One important paragraph reads (translated from the Danish): “We aim at harmony between religious, philosophical and scientific understandings” (Bovin 2000: 102). “Harmony” means that no single component (religion, philosophy, or science) should outweigh the others. This means that science is welcomed, but only so far as it is interpreted and used along religiously and philosophically relevant (and thus ideologically acceptable) paths. The harmony sought after by the Unitarians, consequently, presupposes that the different components (religion, philosophy, and science) can be balanced to form some kind of equilibrium. This means that religion should acknowledge a scientific challenge, but it certainly also implies a (p. 104) development the other way around. Thus, the principle question becomes: How much can science lend to religion without giving up being scientific?

More recent new religions with very different belief systems agree. According to George King, the founder of the Aetherius Society (a Theosophically based group with a special focus on Cosmic Masters on other planets), there are numerous indications that there is a “religious dimension to science” and that “the two [science and religion] no longer are separable” (King 1996: 19). The meaning is clear: No science can stand alone. It needs religion to make it meaningful. Conversely, no religion is meaningful if it is not “scientific,” he claims. Introducing George King's religiously determined science, his close associate and disciple, Richard Lawrence, writes:

After 1800 years of science accepting the Aristotelian concept that Planets were embedded in a crystalline sphere which moved in a uniform circular motion around the Earth, scientists such as Galileo, Newton and Kepler started to understand concepts of planetary motion, the laws of gravity and so on. Once their discoveries were accepted, so the religious and scientific establishments and the views of modern thinking people changed.

The same could be, and I believe, will be true in the new millennium. Sir George King could be likened to Aristarchus of Samos in being centuries ahead of his time. As with Aristarchus, orthodoxy has rejected his views, but a change will come as it always does. The new millennium will see science and religion draw closer together and Spiritual Science, now being championed by Sir George and a few others, will eventually emerge as the established approach of the Aquarian Age. This time, however, it should not take 1,800 years. (King 1996: 17–18)

Transcendental Meditation (TM), which basically builds on Hindu monism, holds a similar position, even if the strategy and image of the organization is very different. The founder and leader of the group, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, claimed in 1968 that everything he says will be scientifically verified as science matures (Rothstein 1996: 39). In this case, religion comes first, and it is believed that science will gradually reach the same epistemological level. When that happens, science apparently becomes bearer of the same knowledge as the Hindu sages. In fact, this means that science does not reveal anything new but merely confirms what, according to TM, was already known by the enlightened masters of a remote past, or by the secluded sages in the Himalayas of the present. The role of science is to reinforce what is already acknowledged in a strictly religious context.

Members of the Raelian religion see things differently, but their conception of science is nevertheless determined by the group's religious understanding. According to the prophet Rael's followers, he has been informed of everything he knows by a race of hyper-intelligent, scientifically advanced beings (known as the Elohim) from a distant planet. Fundamental to Rael's belief system is the notion (p. 105) that biblical religion, in fact, reflects a misconceived scientific project. Christian and Jewish theologians have not been able to interpret the texts correctly, but thanks to Rael's meeting with the Elohim, accurate knowledge is now available. They have explained to him how, due to a lack of intellectual understanding among humans, religious mystification came to cloud what was actually a scientific, highly technological project: the creation of life on Earth, including human life, by the Elohim. The Raelians do not dismiss “spirituality,” but it is always emphasized that “the religious” must be understood through scientific rationality and that “the spiritual” basically is a materialistic category, a product of the physical mind.

What is celebrated and praised in the Raelian religion are creatures of a different race, but certainly biological entities, and the kind of fulfillment sought is primarily physical or material. To the Raelians, science is the way of the supreme beings, and therefore, in itself an attractive path. However, the science of the Elohim is not of this world. It is a mythological science—a science fiction—even if inspired by earthly, mundane science in a great many ways. “Science,” in this situation, is a prefiguration of a science yet to come—a kind of extrapolation or projection of the science of the present into a mythological realm of the Elohim. In the words of Bryan Sentes and Susan Palmer, Raelianism “replaces the supernatural with the extraterrestrial and technological in order to demystify and demythologize [religion], simultaneously (if unconsciously) mythologizing and ideologizing science and technology” (Sentes and Palmer 2000: 86).

At other times, however, the concept of science is quite different. For instance, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON; also known as the Hare Krishna movement) dissociates itself from traditional science by claiming that science is, in fact, not scientific at all. Real science, it is claimed, is contained in the Vaisnava-Bhakti theology as laid out by the organization's founder, Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.

In fact, ISKCON forces us to play with words: The usual meaning of the word “science” is abandoned, and a new usage of the word is introduced. In speaking of a “higher-dimensional science,” a real science, ISKCON wants to pave the way for a modern, yet literal, understanding of the Puranic cosmography and myths. For instance, one of ISKCON's leading intellectuals, Sadaputa dasa (Richard Thompson), has argued that scriptures talking about multiheaded gods or a flat earth are literally true, but that an understanding that transcends normal conceptions and the ordinary senses is presupposed on the part of the reader. His argumentation involves the notion of higher dimensions, and thus, a higher-dimensional science. His argumentation—religious argumentation—cannot, therefore, be advanced unless modern science is questioned at the same time. Linking his religiously based higher-dimensional science to the ordinary science, Sadaputa dasa says: (p. 106)

Modern cosmology may seem superior to its Vedic counterpart if we stick to the assumption that reality is limited to what ordinary human beings can perceive, using either their unaided senses or mechanical instruments. However, if the Vedic idea of higher realms of existence is even approximately correct, then it becomes clear that the modern scientific approach has caused us to focus our attention uselessly on relatively unimportant aspects of the universe. From this point of view, the technical sophistication of modern astrophysics appears more as an impediment to the attainment of knowledge than as an example of great scientific progress. (Thompson 1989: 21)

ISKCON maintains that science has not yet reached a genuine or true understanding of the universe, let alone a correct description. Compared to, for instance, TM's idea of science and scientific achievements, the difference is very clear. As it appears to TM, science has, in fact, reached, or is just about to reach, final truths and genuine cosmological descriptions. TM claims to prove what the physicists are assuming by offering the experience from “transcendental consciousness” as a means for empirical verification. ISKCON still awaits substantial scientific results and will undauntedly present the Vaisnava-Bhakti theology as the only fulfilling and comprehensive description and analysis of the universe. Only if science is willing to broaden its view and engage in close cooperation with higher-dimensional perspectives may it develop into something meaningful and truly useful, ISKCON asserts (Rothstein 1996: 132f).

Similarly, Christian groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and other maximalist organizations claim that science will never be correct or “true” as long as it is based on nonreligious method and theory. On the contrary, the starting point of any legitimate exploration of the world has to take the Christian dogmas into account.

In general, however, it is the science-embracing attitude that dominates the ideological and theological scene of the new religions (we shall return to some of the examples mentioned above later, including the science-rejecting perspective). A final perspective at the fringe of what we normally term religion, though, also needs to be mentioned: the secularist use of science within religion-like groups such as La Vey–inspired Satanism. According to James Lewis, the ideology of the Church of Satan is based on a secularist appropriation of modern science in the sense that it is essentially an “anti-theology” based in a secular “worldview” derived from natural science. Other groups, says Lewis, have “modeled their approach to spirituality after the methods of science” while La Vey's ideology, which programmatically counteracts Christianity, can, in itself, be understood as a secular product (Lewis 2002). This perspective, however, remains rare and typical only for ideological or semireligious groups that do not entertain notions of the supernatural.

In the remainder of this chapter, the relationship between science and religion in the new religions will be discussed within two different but associated frameworks: (p. 107) First, the meeting of religion and science is described and analyzed as an expression of syncretism, that is, as a merging of two different belief systems. Second, the deliberate integration of science and religion is discussed as a discourse strategy with clear missiological dimensions. Finally, a cognitively based explanation for the popularity of scientific religion is suggested.

Science and Religion: Syncretism

Syncretism is understood to be the process of two or more religious systems growing into one another, thus forming a new religious body of some kind, sometimes even new religious organizations. However, the nature of religious integration may vary significantly. On occasion, different belief systems are completely integrated into one another (one example is the Afro-Brazilian cults such as Macumba or Candomblé, which involve Catholicism and West African religion), while at other times, syncretism may constitute a religious partnership with no consistent merger (as with the relation between Shinto and Buddhism in Japan). Sometimes syncretism constitutes relations between complete wholes, but more often perhaps, relations are established between particular components in different religious systems and the ongoing construction of religious worldviews takes another turn. At other times, however, a religious body may consolidate itself by deliberately disregarding other religious constructions, thus fertilizing what is significant to itself while ignoring or counteracting foreign religious concepts and social systems. In doing so, however, the officially disregarded religious traditions are, in fact, being considered, and cultural and religious change will inevitably occur. Elsewhere, with reference to ISKCON, I have termed this process “negative syncretism” (Rothstein 1996).

Both possibilities are, as indicated earlier, seen in the new religions. Considering one well-known taxonomical principle regarding the new religions, this is no surprise at all. According to Roy Wallis's classic typology, new religions will typically position themselves in one of three possible sociological relations to the surrounding society: They may be “world affirming,” “world rejecting,” or “world accommodating” (Wallis 1984). By affirming or accommodating science, some new religions seek societal recognition of a sort, while others, by rejecting science, seek to occupy another sociological position. In any case, the construction of the new religion's belief system takes place in interaction with the surrounding society, which reminds us that the development of religious beliefs is highly influenced by the societal context of the religion in question. Even if questions of epistemology are at the heart of the science-religion relationship, social relations between (p. 108) the majority and various minorities is very often what triggers syncretistic developments.

The formative process of new religions almost inevitably includes syncretistic developments, and often science is one of the more significant components. The merging of religious and scientific systems may thus be understood along exactly the same lines, that is, as the merging of two or more religious systems. What should be expected, therefore, is the same kind of development—or at least similar developments—as we find when two different religious systems amalgamate. Science is neither religion nor a belief system, but science represents an epistemological framework with certain parallels to religious systems: Religion, as well as science, offers comprehensive descriptions and interpretations of the world. This is not the place, however, to discuss definitions of religion and science, even if the differences are important. All we need to stress here is that religious understandings of the world imply socially constructed superhuman agents, and scientific worldviews do not (Jensen and Rothstein 2000).

This also clarifies a crucial point, which (however similar in other respects) makes the merger of science and religion different from the merging of two religious systems: Religious systems that blend together may well support one another, but when science is embraced by religion the usual outcome is only relevant to religion. Put candidly, science rarely reaches out for religion, while religions in the modern world, to a considerable extent, have sought an alliance with science. This is probably true of all religions, but certainly not least the new religions or imported (and thus new in the local environment) religions. For instance, the well-known scholar of Buddhist traditions, Christmas Humphreys, speculated in 1968 that a particular Western form of Buddhism was to be expected sometime in the future. He did not suggest any specific kind but found it likely that the Buddhist doctrines would form some kind of unity with Western science: “There is no reason why it should not grow happily alongside, and even blend with the best of Western science, psychology and social science, and thus affect the ever changing field of Western thought.… Just what it will be we do not know, nor does it matter at the present time” (Humphreys 1968: 80 as quoted in Chryssides 1999: 223).

Humphreys turned out to be right. Obviously, no single Buddhist tradition has won the hearts of people in the West, but a number of different Buddhist schools, some of them quite new, have contributed to the present state of religious pluralism, and some of them are explicitly seeking to blend with science. George Chryssides, discussing matters pertaining to this question, also points to the fact that the Dalai Lama is a strong representative for the idea that Western science and philosophical Buddhism go hand-in-hand. In fact, some years ago the Dalai Lama made his position on this subject very clear: “If there is inconsistency between the sacred texts and modern science, the sacred books have to be rewritten” (Bang 1989: 202). (One should remember, though, that “modern science” is a very (p. 109) broad category and that the Dalai Lama probably would hesitate to acknowledge every contemporary scientific statement.)

As indicated above, the explanation for this development is obvious. Science has become a central element in the way modern humans think, and any religious system will build on, or at least relate to, already existing cultural resources, including intellectual resources. Consequently, the use of science in religious constructions is not simply a matter of missionary strategy, as is sometimes implied. Missionary endeavors may well be at work, but in a more general sense, science meets religion because they are brought together by creative religious minds or—conversely—science is rejected or transformed because religious minds find it unfit for a given religious project.

In the following, the susceptibility to syncretistic developments with science is briefly discussed with regard to two specific religions, TM and Scientology.


How did TM's Advaita-Vedanta-based belief system become entangled with science in such an intimate way? From a sociological point of view, it has been suggested that science, at a certain time in the history of the TM movement, became an attractive partner. In earlier phases of the organization's development, other things had been in focus, but while attempting to accommodate the demands of modern Western society, TM embarked on a new journey and gradually changed its image. Leaving the hippie or countercultural period behind, TM was now seeking new social alliances. But perhaps another perspective is of more importance in order to understand why TM took such a decisive scientific turn: the basic structure of the TM belief system. As briefly mentioned above, TM builds upon a rather traditional Advaita-Vedanta ideology wherein impersonal divine forces (with brahman as the most important concept) rather than personal gods govern the universe. Together with ideas derived from Sankhya philosophy, TM's belief system—the Science of Creative Intelligence—relies on distinct and recognizable patterns of enumeration and methods of enquiry. With an emphasis on the equilibrium of the three gunas, the monistic idea that matter is one and that the evolution of a number of things out of that matter is understood as causation, it forms a structural parallel to modern scientific thinking. It is this structural coincidence that leaves TM with good opportunities for a syncretic development with science (as we shall see further below, this structural parallel also paves the way for a systematic discursive usage of science in TM's self-promoting strategies). As indicated previously, ISKCON's situation is precisely the opposite since the nucleus in Vaisnava-Bhakti theology is the notion of a very personal, very concrete (p. 110) physical god, the individual known as Krishna, which is structurally incompatible with the basics of modern scientific thinking (Rothstein 1996).


The word “science” appears in the very name of the Church of Scientology, and indeed, this religion is, in many ways, based on notions and behavior derived from different scientific realms. Scientology considers itself to be scientific in the sense that all religious claims can be verified through experimentation, and it is believed that the logos of Scientology was derived through in-depth scientific methods. In this case, the experimentation is auditing therapy, a procedure that is basically ritual time travel back through the individual's former incarnations. The belief system of Scientology is heavily influenced by Freudian psychology, various inspirations from Eastern religions, and science fiction. The most important soteriological function, auditing, is carried out by means of an electronic device, the so-called E-meter, which is believed to register different kinds of problems that are preventing the thetan (a concept somewhat comparable to “soul”) from evolving spiritually. At the same time, the founder and illuminated ideal of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, is portrayed as the ideal “scientist” or “researcher.” He is believed to have “discovered the truth of the Scientology religion,” much in the same way as scientists may discover truths about nature. As Scientologists see it, Hubbard never received revelations. Rather, through meticulous studies and thanks to his outstanding scientific genius, he found “the truth” himself. Consequently, the fact that this truth is presently available is the result of a scientific discovery on the part of the brightest and most important human being who has ever lived. This does not mean that Scientology is deprived of what is normally attributed to the category of religion (the cult of L. Ron Hubbard alone makes Scientology quite like a number of other religions). It simply reveals that Scientology, as a religion, was conceived during a period in modern Western history wherein technology and science were gaining more and more influence. In order to articulate Scientology's positions with some effect, Scientologists have embraced science and thus transformed science into something else—religion.

To some extent, Scientology actually grew out of science or at least a scientific ambition. From a historical point of view, Hubbard started out as the designer of a new psychotherapeutic system, dianetics, which he emphatically promoted as scientifically valid. Members of the general scientific community, though, felt differently, and Hubbard was forced from the conventional scientific path (Refslund Christensen, forthcoming). It is possible, therefore, that Scientology, as a soteriological religious system, owes its existence partly to this conflict with the conventional scientific community that made it impossible for Hubbard to continue (p. 111) as he originally intended. In fact, it may be the poor scientific standard of the alleged science of dianetics that led Hubbard to modify his system into a religion. Analyzing this process, historian of religions Dorthe Refslund Christensen has shown that the belief system of Scientology has become increasingly more self-referential, thus detaching itself from external influence. Scientific contributions normally refer to competing theories, and above all, empirical facts, but Scientology's frame of reference is almost exclusively the statements and positions of the organization (or belief system) itself.

This situation left Scientology in a very favorable position: While any scientific argument has to stand up to certain criteria, religious statements are, in principle, totally independent. Therefore, in Hubbard's case, leaving the realm of science in favor of the realm of religion made room for the further development of Scientology. The fact that Scientologists consider their religion scientifically valid has little to do with science and everything to do with religion. Science and religion have not formed a new synthesis. Rather, science has been changed into an integral part of religion. In this sense, the syncretistic belief system of Scientology represents no actual epistemological equilibrium. The merging of science and religion (including the pseudoscientific aspects of science fiction) turns out to be a religious venture.

Scientism as Discourse Strategy

Exploring the discursive mechanisms in New Age religion, historian of religions Olav Hammer sees the religious use of science as an important element in a strategy of legitimacy. Scientism, he says, is a mode of solving the dilemma between rational science and religion where “scientific inquiry—provided it is interpreted correctly—serves to prove the validity of the religious point of view.” Thus, the scientific perspective is only one among several modes of solving the dilemma but probably the most convenient at this point in history. The absolute rejection of science on religious grounds has little to offer modern people, nor has the priority of “revelation” to meticulously established knowledge through experimentation. The “Two Worlds” approach, in which religion is seen as “wholly other” and thus utterly incommensurable with science (and, Hammer adds, therefore immune to attacks from it), also has its shortcomings in a cultural environment where both (science and religion) have something to say (Hammer 2001: 203).

In choosing the scientific position, the new religions try to benefit from religion as well as science. Discussing the Esoteric Tradition of Europe and the New Age movement that arose from it, Hammer sees the use of contemporary science primarily as a powerful source of legitimacy. Science cannot be escaped; therefore, (p. 112) rather than contest it, esotericists and partakers in the New Age vision embrace it by reinterpreting the concept for religious purposes. The scientistic understanding insists that science and “spirituality” are two sides of the same coin, and that good scientific arguments exist for accepting clairvoyance, healing, levitation, revelation, and many other traditional religious components. In doing so, says Hammer, the “intellectual and ethical import of science is judged against preexisting normative standards” (Hammer 2001: 203).

As we have already seen, in similar ways, the more institutionalized new religions have also used science as a way of attaining legitimacy. In each and every case, scientistic discourse is part and parcel of a religious project. One example among the many available is the discourse found among the residents of Damanhur, a gnostic-like movement near Turin, Italy. Along with several other components in this group's extremely diverse belief system, “the science of Selfica” is propagated as one of the more central features. In a book written by one of Damanhur's very enthusiastic supporters, Jeff Merrifield, Selfica is described thusly:

Selfica is an ancient science based on the most basic form in our universe: the spiral. It was known to the Egyptians, the Celts and the Arabs, who used it up until the eighth century BC, and has been developed at Damanhur for over 20 years. It is the practical use of spirals and metals to concentrate and direct vital energies. The practical objects that are developed from this science are called Selfs. They are frequently constructed out of gold and silver, because these are the best conductors, but copper and brass are also used. (Merrifield 1998: 233)

Another Damanhur resident is quoted:

Selfs are subtle beings. They have an existence. They have different forms because they have different functions. The simple ones, those that use metals, copper mostly, rather than alchemical liquids, range in function from amplifying the aura of a person to increasing the sensibility and perceptions, from regulating the immune system to helping the memory, or, for houses or motor vehicles, balancing the environment. (Merrifield 1998: 234)

It is obvious that the Damanhurians' “science of Selfica” is incompatible with the principles of conventional science. Nevertheless, it is precisely science that is used as the discursive path when the notion of Selfica is propagated. At the same time, the example reveals another typical feature of this kind of religious argumentation pointed to by Hammer: Credibility and legitimacy is aimed at by ascribing the religious knowledge (in this case the knowledge of the Selfica) to ancient times. By rooting religious representations in the remote past it attains an aura of “tradition” and “originality.” In this way, the religious rhetoric among most new religions makes use of the oldest as well as the newest (science) and places the group itself at the mediating point. Being rooted in the oldest wisdom, (p. 113) and being in alignment with the most recent, gives the religion in question a favorable position in guiding people's lives.

But examples could be chosen from virtually any of the scientistically inclined new religions. One particularly good example is TM's institutionalized alignment with science, which was reinforced in the late 1980s and is still expanding. TM claims to be scientific in every way, but the organization's rhetoric will always place “Vedic science” above “modern science.” However, as a discursive strategy, “modern science” will always be used in TM as the vehicle of “Vedic science” whenever the belief system is presented to people outside the organization's inner movement. An example: From the Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa, a journal was launched in 1987: Modern Science and Vedic Science: An Interdisciplinary Journal Devoted to Research on the Unified Field of All Laws of Nature. “The Unified Field” was, at that time, one among several “Grand Unification Theories” that claim all the natural forces (electromagnetism, weak interaction, strong interaction, and gravity) and particles of nature to be united in “Superunification,” thus suggesting a basic unity in the cosmos. This idea that everything emerges from a common field, shares, as we have already seen, distinctive features with basic assumptions of the TM Advaita-Vedanta-related belief system. On the cover of one issue (Vol. 2, No. 1, 1988), the intention of the journal is described:

Exploration of the Unified Field of all laws of nature is at the forefront of contemporary scientific research. This journal is devoted to research on the Unified Field and its applications for the benefit of mankind. It draws upon a new technology for investigating the Unified Field that combines the approach of modern science and ancient Vedic science as brought to light by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Modern science has arrived at an increasingly comprehensive and unified understanding of the laws of nature. Most recently, theoretical physics has identified a unified structure of natural law on the most fundamental distance scale of nature. In super-symmetric quantum field theories, this boundless and all-pervading “Unified Field” is described as the self-interacting, self-sufficient, and infinitely dynamic source of the physical world. All the force and matter fields that comprise the universe have their basis in it and sequentially emerge from it through a self-interacting dynamics by which this Unified Field gives rise to all diversity. In discovering the Unified Field, physics has glimpsed the unified structure of the entire universe.

In terms of discourse, the strictly religious is covered by the scientific. The actual reason for dealing with these questions is not directly addressed, but later in the same text it is revealed that “Maharishi has revitalized and reinterpreted [the ancient Vedic tradition] in the form of a modern systematic science [and] made available a technology … by which anyone can effectively investigate the Unified Field of all laws of nature on the level of direct experience of consciousness.”

(p. 114)

The terminology is still academic and scientific, but “the modern systematic science” remains an Advaita-Vedanta philosophy in the Shankara tradition, and the technology mentioned covers various types of traditional meditation rituals. This is not to say that the scientism of TM's belief system makes it less religious or less genuine. What is implied is simply that science is introduced more as a missionary device than is admitted by the organization. In general, scientism as a discursive strategy is one of the most typical features of TM and related religious movements; partly for missionary reasons, partly because modern religions need the support of science in order to appear trustworthy and rational to a modern audience.

A Psychological Theory

Relating the use of science for religious purposes to the general cultural context is, of course, important. New religions in a modern context cannot escape the challenge of science, which means that the surrounding cultural milieu is of great significance. However, this does not necessarily explain why the religion-science cocktail seems to work quite well in many new religious groups. An entirely different approach, namely that of cognitive psychology, may suggest an additional explanation.

According to anthropologist Pascal Boyer, an important feature of religious ideas and experiences is that they entertain “counter-intuitive” elements. These elements transcend ordinary intuitive ontologies, that is, universally acknowledged ideas of the world and the categories that structure it. Transcending ordinary intuitive ontology, says Boyer, makes these elements excellent tools for thought and reasoning. Because such ideas are what Boyer calls “attention demanding,” people are able to remember a myth or another type of sacred narrative or statement better than mundane or ordinary descriptions of “ordinary things.” On the other hand, no religious system is entirely composed of counter-intuitive elements. On the contrary, according to Boyer, most religious systems will primarily rest upon an intuitive ontology of the world and the counter-intuitive or “supernatural” dimensions will, in fact, be few. Some kind of ontological balance is needed, and too strong of an emphasis on counter-intuitive representations may prove fatal for a religion's discourse.

The cognitive categories that structure the ideas of the world, whether shared collectively or upheld by an individual, cannot be too attention-demanding. However, it is precisely the attention-demanding, counter-intuitive elements that make dynamic meaning in specific situations possible. For example, the Christian narrative (p. 115) of Jesus' conviction and crucifixion displays no significant counter-intuitive dimensions, but decisive counter-intuitive elements are added in the subsequent myth of the resurrection (Boyer 1994a and 1994b). In terms of contemporary new religions, for instance, it is quite unchallenging to note that the Reverend Sun Myung Moon was born in Korea in 1920, but once we are told that he is the “Master of the Second Coming,” and that his place of birth is the cosmic spot where God is fighting Satan most intensely, new and crucial dimensions are added to the story of this individual. Similarly, it is not at all strange to meet people who arrive in a vehicle from another place, but when the person is a Cosmic Master, the vehicle a flying saucer, and the other place the planet Venus, important counter-intuitive dimensions transform the otherwise normal situation into something special.

If the science-religion problem is analyzed according to Boyer's theory, it is possible to identify science as the necessary counterbalance to a belief system's strictly counter-intuitive elements. Arguably, scientific perspectives may often be unintelligible to the average person, but it is recognized that science aims at explaining the empirical world in naturalistic, rationalist, and nonsupernatural ways. But religion moves in very different ways. When religion is wrapped in science, as is the case of scientistic belief systems, an influx of “intuitive ontology” takes place in a predominantly counter-intuitive (i.e., mythological) belief system, and a balance is reached.

The myth of the UFOs and their occupants is a good example. To a certain extent, flying machines and creatures from distant places are understandable within scientific boundaries. However, at a certain point, flying machines and creatures may transcend what science can relate to. Their empirical status (they belong to the realm of myth) makes them irrelevant to science. The mythic “reality” of the alien crafts and their occupants, however, are given some kind of credibility because the narrative of UFOs systematically employs pseudoscientific terminology and pseudoscientific frames of reference.

Conclusion: Making Science Sacred

The examples above, including the psychological theory, not only show how religion is propagated through a scientistic strategy or discourse but also reveal how religion, not science, is in control. Scientistic religious groups, however, are not “paradoxical,” as Bainbridge would have it. What they have accomplished is simply an expanded usage of a traditional religious strategy. Traditional religions are able to interpret any event, place, individual, object, or subject according to religious (p. 116) standards. Within the fabric of any given religion, everything in the world can be understood and measured along specific mythological or ritual paths. Scientistic religions have simply added the phenomenon of science to this capacity. By embracing science, which is basically a secular discourse, a number of new religions have overcome one of the paradoxes of the modern world, that is, the parallel existence of two mutually incongruous epistemological systems—science and religion.

It is quite obvious that the merging of science and religion in these examples only happens because religious people wish to pursue religious goals. Scientific perspectives that may question such religious interests are therefore noticeably absent in the scientistic belief systems. Science is not simply “science” to these groups. “Real science” is that which, one way or another, may support the specific religious claims and interests of the group in question. It is also worth noting that “the religious” is never made mundane in its meeting with science. To a certain extent, Sentes and Palmer are correct when they claim that “new religious movements arising within the context of the contemporary developed world, whose sources of revelation are extraterrestrial, spontaneously take their space-age deities to be merely natural or immanence rather than supernatural or transcendent, precisely because they exist within the horizon of our post-modern condition, i.e., within the horizon of the death of God” (Sentes and Palmer 2000: 86).

However, the kind of “immanence” or “naturalness” we find in such cases is far from what is normally understood to be “of this world.” It would be more correct to say that the scientistic new religions have reversed the usual conceptualization in such a way that the extraordinary “out of this world” phenomena are being described and interpreted as natural and rational elements in human life. “The death of God” is a rumor but certainly not a fact, if, of course, “God” is taken to mean any notion of the supernatural.

The syncretistic process characteristic of the scientistic approach of new religions primarily transforms science and technology and bestows it with a new ontology, a new kind of meaning. It becomes sacred. This is perhaps the most important aspect of the science-religion problem pertaining to the new religions: The conspicuous ability to subject science to religious interpretation and use.

Perhaps this capacity on the part of the new religions is a significant feature of the dynamics of so-called postmodern culture. The religious revival need not be a counter strike against science, as for instance, the creationists' campaign against the theory of biological evolution. The new and emerging religious consciousness will probably more often overcome the challenge of science by enveloping scientific perspectives into a basically religious belief system. We should not ignore the possibility that scientists in the future, more often than at present, will have to defend their positions and argue against myth, miracle, and magic. A paradoxical helping hand offers itself in this connection: When the prophet Rael (p. 117) encountered the leader of the race of space beings that allegedly have created life on Earth in their laboratories, he was told that “humanity's objective is scientific progress” (Vorilhon 1986: 27).


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