April 22 2018

by Eugene V. Gallagher, Connecticut College and Benjamin E. Zeller, Lake Forest College

Topics falling within the category of “new religious movements” have become increasingly prominent in religious studies classrooms over the past few decades. Often tracking media coverage, students have particular interest in groups such as Scientologists, the Westboro Baptist Church, the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints and their Yearning for Zion Ranch, and various New Age gurus ebbs and flows, but their overall fascination with new and alternative religiosity has remained a common feature in our classrooms. Yet instructors face the question of how to translate student interest in these groups into actual student learning. While such a task falls most obviously on those teaching courses focusing on new or alternative religious movements, instructors teaching on a wide array of topics and multiple subfields may wish to engage students in the critical study of this topic.

by Catherine Wessinger, Loyola University New Orleans

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

I have been researching and writing about new religious movements (NRMs) ever since I unwittingly chose a new religions topic for my dissertation: the lifelong evolving millennial thought of the Englishwoman Annie Besant (1847–1933) who lived in India while serving as the second president of the Theosophical Society and carrying out numerous projects for social, educational, political, and religious uplift and reform. I have been teaching at Loyola University New Orleans for more years than I care to tell my students. There I have taught numerous sections of the course “Religions of the World.” I also teach “Women in World Religions,” “Women in Christianity,” as well as courses on Asian religions, millennialism, and New Orleans religions. I have been integrating what I have learned in new religions studies into these courses.

by Jeremy Rapport, College of Wooster

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

I am assistant professor of religious studies at the College of Wooster, a small, private, liberal arts college in Northeast Ohio. There I teach the course "New Religions and the New Age." The class is a part of our department's regular ; in fact the job description under which I was hired was written partly with this class in mind, and so I teach the class at least once per academic year, usually during the spring semester. The class is expected to enroll twenty students, although in the five times I have taught it at Wooster, it usually has between twenty-two and twenty-five students. It surveys major new and alternative religious groups and issues. As a 200-level class, it is open to nonmajors, and it also fulfills our "religious perspectives" general education requirement. All of this means, in effect, the class is introductory level, and for the most part I teach it as such.

by Marie W. Dallam, University of Oklahoma

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

From my earliest days of teaching, I have been a proponent of students thinking “outside of the box” about the types of sources they use for learning. While I am not typically a fan of popular online forums to which many students gravitate, I do think there can be real value in sources that are not of the strict academic-words-on-paper type. I often create assignments that require the use of both academic and nontraditional sources, such as events and site visits, and I include a component in which students reflect critically on the nature and value of all of their sources of information. This became more challenging for me when I left a major metropolitan area and began teaching in the small college town of Norman, Oklahoma, where the range of such sites is limited, as is student mobility. I had to find new ways to have students embrace unusual combinations of sources. The “mini review essay” discussed herein is one possibility for such an assignment. I designed it for an upper-level honors seminar on new religious movements (NRMs), a class of approximately twenty students, and I have been using it since 2010.

by Lydia Willsky, Fairfield University

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

For many undergraduates, engaging with the undefined and the ambiguous can be uncomfortable. It is far simpler when ideas or people fit into neat categories like “good,” “evil,” “true” or “false.” Yet reality is rarely this neat, particularly in the study of new religious movements (NRMs). This article presents a model of conscious course design focused on revising the narratives surrounding certain controversial NRMs and on creative alternative comparative contexts, both of which help to guide students away from a position of mutual exclusivity and towards the notion that the people involved in NRMs are neither wholly good nor wholly bad, but a mixture of both. I employ William Perry’s scheme of intellectual and ethical development to illustrate students’ progress from a “fully dualistic” point of view to a more relativistic, or less “mutually exclusive” worldview.1

by Megan Goodwin, Bates College

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

This article situates the teaching of new religious movements (NRMs) within the scope of scholarship on American minority religions. In the course that serves as my primary example, readings and class discussions considered 20th century NRMs in light of American enthusiasms for—and anxieties about—shifting attitudes toward race, gender, class, and sexuality, particularly since the 1940s. Assignments included unconventional approaches to working with primary sources and student creations of hypothetical new religions, contextualized within NRM members’ experiences of support and scorn by mainstream legal, media, and popular culture sources. Students noted key similarities in intolerant rhetoric toward American minority religions, examined challenges specific to radical religious innovation in an American framework, and challenged the primacy of “newness” in the study of marginal American religiosity.

by Carole M. Cusack, University of Sydney

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

Australia is a notably secular country. Only around ten percent of the population attends religious services of any kind, yet Christianity has a substantial role in public discourse (due in part to an unusually high number of practicing Christians elected to the three levels of government: local, state, and federal). RLST 2626, "Witchcraft, Paganism, and the New Age," is a second-year unit (taught over a 14-week semester) in the studies in religion major, and the course covers occult and esoteric religion (chiefly Western in origin) from the formation of the Theosophical Society in 1875 to the present day. It is necessary for students to understand that since White settlement in 1788, Christianity has dominated “religion” in Australia; Christian institutions are prominent in public life, and Christian doctrines and practices are the model for normative religion. Other religions are marginalised, whether Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, new religions, Indigenous religions, or esoteric traditions. Therefore, the unit’s content tends to be unfamiliar to students and has the potential to be controversial (as it includes Witchcraft, Paganism, New Age, UFO religions, Western New Religious Movements (NRMs) including Scientology, and esoteric practices such as Tarot and Astrology). One pedagogical strategy to manage the content is the use of legal materials such as government records, legislation, court judgments to demonstrate that “strange” religions and spiritualities can be framed to parallel the mainstream, established religions. Indeed, certain legal materials—the Constitution and case law, for example—refer equally to the Roman Catholic Church and to Jediism.

by W. Michael Ashcraft, Truman State University

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

In the fall of 1979, I was an MDiv student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and enrolled in a course taught by Dr. Bill Leonard entitled The Church and American Utopianism. One of the course requirements was a field trip on a Saturday morning to Pleasant Hill, a restored Shaker village near Lexington, Kentucky. I knew very little about the Shakers, and don’t remember being too enthused about the field trip, but once I was there I was overwhelmed by the reality of Shaker social life. The residential buildings had separate stairs for men and women. The dining room had tables for lots of people, and the kitchen was as institutional as antebellum culinary technology could get.

And then it hit me, hard: they lived this alternative lifestyle in the midst of an America that was heavily influenced by Protestant Evangelicalism, which did not approve of the Shaker way of life. How was it that these people could see such a countercultural arrangement as “normal?”

Snake handling at Pentecostal Church of God, Lejunior, Harlan County, Kentucky September 15, 1946

“Forum: Religion and the Biographical Turn.” 2014. Religion an American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation 24 (1): 1–35.

American Academy of Religion. 2008. “The Religion Major and Liberal Education — A White Paper.” https://www.aarweb.org/about/teagleaar-white-paper.

Ambros, Barbara R. 2015. Women in Japanese Religions. Women in Religions series. New York: New York University Press.

Bean, John C. Engaging Ideas: The Professor’s Guide to Integrating Writing, Critical Thinking, and Active Learning in the Classroom. 2001. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. 1980. “Outside the Mainstream: Women’s Religion and Women Religious Leaders in Nineteenth-century America.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 48 (June 1980): 207–31.

Barbara A. McGraw, Saint Mary’s College, California

Cover of Wendy Doniger's book, "The Hindus: An Alternative History"

“Banned!” read headlines last February when, after litigation under India’s blasphemy law, the publisher of Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History acquiesced to settlement demands to cease publication of the book. That decision set off a firestorm of words in India, where the politics of all things Hindu are fraught to say the least. The rhetoric here in the United States was just as disturbing—not lacking in accusations back and forth, as all sides took what was for them the high ground. Even when there is near unanimous agreement that blasphemy laws create more trouble than peace—and nearly all have difficulty understanding why India, the world’s largest democracy, still has blasphemy laws—our conversations in the United States in this arena were troublingly dissonant and uninformed.

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