As Bob Towler once
remarked, the problem with new religious movements (NRMs) is that most of them
are not new, not religious or not movements. We have to ask why the label has
stuck for so long; perhaps because it is attractive to different constituencies?
`New¿ suggests novelty and potential disruption (hence media interest); the term
`religious¿ raises questions of authenticity and stirs theological curiosity
and the notion of a `movement¿ carries the promise of sociological
significance. The study of NRMs may itself be seen (to use an agricultural metaphor) as a New Academic Field
(NAF), whose appearance 40 years or so ago signalled (to use a visual and
postcolonial metaphor) a new direction for the scholarly gaze within the study
of religions. This deliberate redirection of attention was away from
`established¿ religions, conceived of as fixed reference points which had already
received much academic attention, towards marginal cults. Initially, NRMs were
regarded as important only for the sociology of religion. Partly as a result of
their study, but more so because of global socio-religious changes over the
last decades, NRMs are now regarded as significant on all fronts (not only
theoretically, but legally, economically, morally, institutionally, medically, theologically,
ethically, etc.). Yet with their imputed
propensity to be disruptive, innovative or transformative they are still widely
construed as different from `mainstream¿ religions. Why? Is it because of their novelty, their
religiosity, their social manifestation or some other characteristic?
As the Conference
prospectus puts it, ¿the religious landscape of the island of Ireland
has transformed dramatically¿. So indeed has the academic landscape. As the
study of NRMs became `mainstream¿ towards the end of the 20th
century, what was once a NAF became a WAF (a Well-established Academic Field).
However, the conceptualisation of its object of study, the NRM, has hardly kept
pace. To quote the present conference¿s call for papers, ¿The
"newness" of any movement or group, and the "New Age"
classification, are of course both often strongly contested, but are used here
for practical purposes¿. The `newness¿ debate
arises because hardly any NRM - so-called by the academic community - actually regards
itself as novel; many indeed claim to be the old or original, while religions
like Buddhism and Islam are classified by scholars as `new religions¿ in the
Irish transnational space, despite their lengthy histories. Included in the conference¿s definition of NRM
for practical purposes are ¿religious groups and movements¿ which have .. flourished in Ireland after 1945¿. This must include
`mainstream¿ Catholicism, professed by up to 95% of the population and Catholicism
is also of course a significant strand within Christianity, the largest of the
transnational religions alongside Buddhism and Islam. Catholicism in Ireland today attracts
much controversial media attention, it is seen as potentially disruptive, even
fundamentalist, it constitutes a movement and it occupies the same turf as the
other religions that this conference will be examining.
Within the long
list of meanings of `new¿ in NRM can be found `an old religion in new
circumstances¿. This paper is not a descriptive study of contemporary Irish
Catholicism (which others know far better than I) but a contribution to the initial
conceptualisation of the field of study of NRMs/New Age in Ireland, marked
by this important conference. It asks: what happens when we look at Catholicism
with new eyes, as a New Religious Movement?