Conference Contribution Details
Mandatory Fields
Brian Bocking;
Alternative spiritualities, the New Age and new religious movements in Ireland
Catholicism as a New Religious Movement
NUIM Maynooth
Oral Presentation
Optional Fields

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?