Findings & Footnotes- June 2018

  • Placed under the editorship of the well-known and prolific Italian scholar Massimo Introvigne (Center for Studies on New Religions, CESNUR), Bitter Winter is a new, free online magazine on religious liberty and human rights in China that was launched in mid-May. Its content is available in English, Chinese and Korean. Concerns about the fate of harshly persecuted new religious movements (NRMs), such as the Church of Almighty God (CAG), seem to have played a role in launching this new website, described as “a cooperative enterprise by scholars, human rights activists, and members of religious organizations persecuted in China.” The CAG has indeed replaced Falun Gong as “public enemy number one” among NRMs in China, Introvigne said to the Italian daily La Stampa (May 14). But the content is not limited to such movements. So far, the publication has featured items on the Catholic Church and on Islam.

    While information on the obstacles and repression faced by mainline religions in China is often available from other news sources, both secular and religious (e.g. the Catholic news agency Asia News,, news sources on NRMs in China are less commonly available, unless some spectacular event occurs. Content is limited due to the fact that the website has only been online for a few weeks, but provided that Bitter Winter manages to keep up its pace in publishing daily news, it might turn into a useful resource for drawing the attention of scholars or journalists to topics of interest in the field of Chinese NRMs. This is no longer a fringe issue of interest merely to small circles of experts. On the one hand, China has become a country of vibrant religious creativity, some of which is getting exported beyond its own borders. On the other hand, members of movements such as the CAG are fleeing persecution in China and are applying for asylum in Western countries in growing numbers, thus raising questions for agencies dealing with such requests—and there might be similar waves linked to other NRMs in the future. For more information, visit:

  • Religion and Modernity: An International Comparison (Oxford University Press, $125), by Detlef Pollack and Gergely Rosa, represents an ambitious attempt to chart religious change throughout much of the world and develop theories that take these variations and different contexts into account. The book’s major case studies serve as examples of different patterns of belief and belonging evident today, though they are mainly from Western and Christian contexts (with the exception of South Korea). West Germany is studied for its moderate level of religious decline and “dechurchification”; the Netherlands as a case of “religion in free fall”; Russia as a case of apparent religious revival; Italy and Poland as European exceptions of religious vitality; and the U.S. and South Korea as outliers to the secular European patterns. Throughout the European case studies, the authors argue that individualized and alternative forms of spirituality and hot spots of evangelical growth are unlikely to compensate for substantial decline in the social significance of religion in these countries. There is little discussion of the revival of nationalist and populist currents in these countries or the growth of Islam and the implications these developments may hold for the social significance of religion.Only in Poland and Italy is there enough of a “sacred canopy” of strong institutions and ingrained beliefs and practices that create religious vitality (and, interestingly, individualized beliefs), and even here there are signs of decline. Pollack and Rosa argue that the American case is more an exception for its relatively high rates of religiosity than—as some social scientists have argued—Europe is for its secularization, but they also see the process of secularization as underway in the U.S. as religion becomes more a source of social division than integration and advancement. They add that if the values of “self-realization, confidence, tolerance, the equality of men and women, preservation of the environment, and moral and sexual freedom” are increased by economic growth in the U.S., “then this also helps to weaken religious ties.” The authors stress that they eschew a single universal theory to explain all the changes documented in their book, but they tend to see growing pluralism, autonomy of individuals and spheres of life, and resulting modernization, as pointing to the declining social importance of religion. On the last page, they plainly state that those who reject the secularization thesis ignore empirical data in favor of intellectual fashion.
  • Today’s plethora of video media, ranging from streaming TV and cable to You Tube and vlogs, has unintentionally created new opportunities for religious and spiritual expression, and nowhere is this more evident than on reality TV shows, according to the new book Religion and Reality TV (Routledge, $39.95). The book, edited by Mara Einstein, Katherine Madden, and Diane Winston, widens its own scope of interest by also examining shows that are only implicitly religious, ranging from makeover TV shows to The Apprentice, seeing them as extolling a new post-recession American civic religion based on capitalism, individualism, self-help and the prosperity gospel (and indeed being a precursor for the religious enthusiasm surrounding Donald Trump). But even setting aside these more interpretive chapters, there is more than enough to mine from the explicitly religious shows, including Sister Wives, Preachers of L.A., All-American Muslim, Answered Prayers, various shows on the Amish, and several paranormal reality shows.While much is made by contributors about how these shows are staged along the lines of dominant class, race, and gender divisions, the productions themselves illustrate broader trends in religion and the media. A chapter on “vlogs” of Mormon and evangelical home and family life suggests how reality TV-style media has been domesticated, as these families produce, edit, and distribute these videos on You Tube from their homes to a large fan base, who often interact with the “stars” through social media. The drama and theatrics that are the draw of reality TV are also clearly apparent on religious reality TV, with such shows as All-American Muslim whipping up righteous indignation between evangelical and progressive Christians over the cancellation of the show due to supposed Islamophobia. Other chapters look at how Mormon-based polygamy was cast in a respectable “Methodist” manner, hinting at its growing acceptance, and how evangelical themes of deliverance and exorcism are featured in the many reality TV shows about hauntings, as traditional ghosts are now replaced by demons.
  • Massimo Introvigne’s new book The Plymouth Brethren (Oxford University Press, $24.95) looks at an influential movement/denomination with roots in the 19th century that has largely slipped below the radar of many scholars of new religious movements. Recent events and legal cases involving the Brethren and religious freedom, namely their operation of schools around the world and the familiar charges of cult-like behavior and mind control (resulting in the UK challenging the group’s status as a charitable organization in 2012), have pushed this obscure movement into the spotlight. Introvigne, an Italian specialist on new religious movements, makes it clear that even apart from the current controversies, the Brethren have had wide influence beyond their numbers, especially in their emphasis on biblical prophecy (such as teachings of the premillennial return of Christ), as well as their also unheralded social ministries. Introvigne’s work is mainly one of history and taxonomy as he traces and delineates the large and dizzying number of schisms and new formations of Brethren groups over the past century. He argues that Brethren factionalism, often over fine points of doctrine, leadership disputes, and their degree of separation from the world and other Christians, fills “ultrafundamentalist,” “fundamentalist” and “conservative” niches as these groups move between retrenchment and mainstreaming (seen most clearly in the “open Bretheren,” who are closely aligned with evangelicals).Introvigne devotes the rest of the book to examining why the stricter groups, known as the “exclusive Brethren,” have come under fire in Europe, the UK, and Australia for alleged authoritarian tendencies, sexual abuse, and “mind control” when they have rarely faced such charges in the past. Introvigne argues that the anti-cult movement is facing a crisis as its old targeted movements have either declined (such as the Unification Church) or withstood such attacks (in the case of the Church of Scientology), and that it has therefore sought new culprits, namely such separatists as the Brethren, while aligning itself with liberal secularist groups. So far, the accusations against the Brethren have not been proven, and Introvigne’s own investigation of Brethren schools finds little there that would alarm anyone familiar with conservative Protestant education. He concludes that it is the Brethren’s practice of separation (from “heterodox” believers and “compromisers,” as well non-believers) that will arouse suspicion in societies showing high degrees of openness and relativism, with religious freedom often hanging in the balance in such encounters.
  • Although published in 2017 by a small Danish press (and overlooked by RW), American economist Robert Nelson’s Lutheranism and the Nordic Spirit of Social Democracy (Aarhus University Press, 240 KR), deserves more attention for its bold attempt to extend Max Weber’s Protestant-ethic thesis beyond the confines of capitalism and Calvinism. Nelson, who is most well known for his writings on the theological and religious meanings in economics and environmentalism, argues that the welfare state in Scandinavia is more the product of an implicit Lutheranism than a secularized, post-Christian culture. He acknowledges that Lutheranism itself has been secularized and liberalized in Nordic countries, but he joins other scholars who have recently been asserting that there is a “Lutheran ethic” that has influenced a whole range of beliefs and practices, involving attitudes toward the poor, work, social solidarity, and governance, that have shaped these societies differently from those with Catholic and Calvinist influence. For instance, Lutheran teachings tended to hold a “critical” attitude toward the poor and poverty, in contrast to the hostile attitude of Calvinism and the affirming stance of Catholicism. This belief created a strong pro-work ethic even while regulating free-market capitalism with ethical standards and moral considerations not seen in Calvinistic countries (and quite different than Weber’s Protestant ethic).But Nelson’s study stands out in treating “modernized” Lutheranism as still being a significant factor in the contemporary differences between Scandinavia and other countries—a thesis that might surprise Nordic people themselves. He writes that “despite their outward religious skepticism, the Finnish and other Nordic country majorities of the population are still Lutheran at their core. But their deep Lutheran convictions—often unknown to them—have taken new forms that might be described as a ‘modernized Lutheranism,’ or…perhaps it should be called a ‘secular Lutheranism.’… [This is] a severe modern case of religious confusion, actual Christian belief embedded in and justified by arguments supposedly based in science and sometimes overtly professing an antagonism to Christianity.” This religious confusion might be seen in the fact that although about 80 percent of their incomes go to paying taxes, Scandinavians still show an unusual enthusiasm for work. “If Nordic workers behaved according to the standard economic assumption that rational individuals pursue their self-interest, the economies of Nordic countries might collapse for lack of a labor force,” Nelson writes. He speculates that “rather than being motivated by economic reasons, work in Scandinavia is more like the fulfillment of a religious calling.”The “less happy” social influence of Lutheranism is reflected in Scandinavians’ deference to authority and in their system of social control, which can be seen in everything from their low speed limits (actually observed by drivers) to their wide acceptance of eugenics in the early 20th century (scientific authority replacing political authority in this case). Nelson concludes that the secularized faith of social democracy that replaced traditional Lutheranism is now fading in the twenty-first century as Nordic solidarity has eroded under globalization and the resulting economic and identity problems. Any attempt to address the “intellectual and religious dimensions of social democracy may require a willingness to come to terms with some of the illusions of social democracy, including its outward rejection of religion (in any explicit form) as a central element of public discourse.”