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New Religious Movements Considered Likely to Last

This article, "New Religious Movements Considered Likely to Last," was published in The New York Times, June 22, 1977, in New York, New York, U.S.A.

Special to The New York Times 

BERKELEY, Calif. - There are signs here and elsewhere across the country that the youth-oriented religious sects that sprang into existence a few years ago are gaining a foothold for an enduring future. 

The emergence of a wide assortment of spiritual movements, from Eastern religions to "Jesus" people, has been the principal feature of a resurgence of interest in religion among America's young people. Many movements, demanding intensive commitment, have evoked strong criticism from parents and public officials who believe the freedom of group members may have been violated. 

After nearly a decade of this ferment, the underlying question is whether these new groups will last. The answer appears to be that most of them though faced with high attrition rates and continuing obstacles to survival, have retained a small but sufficient core of devoted followers and are acquiring the resources needed to continue their work. 

Court Battles 

Among the most significant indications of this preparation for the long haul is the increasing willingness of sect members to seek legitimacy for their religious commitment through the courts. 

At least six lawsuits have been instigated against "deprogrammers" who removed followers from their sects and tried to dissuade them from returning. The plaintiffs include members of Hare Krishna, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon and The Way. 

The largest suit, a $9 million claim, has been filed by 20-year-old Wendy Hollander, a member of the Moon church, against seven persons. She charges that she was taken from the church in Barrytown, N.Y., by her parents and subjected to 86 days of programming against her will. 

"Members of these groups are asking the system to support them." said Jeremiah Gutman, Miss Hollander's lawyer and head of the privacy committee of the American Civil Liberties Union. "They have gone from defensive thinking toward taking the offense.

'Feature of Profound Change'

The new religious groups are raising fundamental cultural and legal questions that are attracting growing attention from scholars. 

"The new religious movement, in its broadest sense, can no longer he taken as a transitory cultural aberration." Prof. Jacob Needleman of San Francisco State University said last week, "but rather as a central feature of the profound change through which the American civilization is now passing.

Dr. Needleman spoke at a national conference on the new movements, held at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. 

His view was shared by most of the 35 sociologists, theologians and journalists at the conference, One of the purposes of the four-day gathering was to muster support for a proposed center for the study of new religions at the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine theological schools. 

Goals of Research 

The center would be the first of its kind in the United States, and could help provide information on the origins, growth and character of dozens of religious groups. 

One of the principal aims of its research would be to sort out fact from popular fiction about such groups and to measure their impact on other institutions. Until now,, scholars say, little has been learned about most of the sects, partly because they have only recently been seen as important cultural factors. 

Academicians disagree as to how great that impact has been. But most who have studied the question concur that the groups signify deep longings for meaning and a search for a more satisfactory sense of self. They also appear to represent serious challenges to Western thought that have caused many people to turn away from material gain, competition and the success ethic. 

Peace and Power 

Prof. Frederick Bird of Concordia University in Montreal, who has studied followers of new groups for several years, told the conference that their "appeal relates to the fact that participants find that ritual practice provides the self with a validating experience and self protecting armor against the exigencies of internal and external threats.

Theodore Roszak, the historian and author, said he believed that the new movements reflected a deep desire for transcendence and posed critical opposition to modern secular humanism. The lesson taught by this "religious renaissance," Professor Roszak said, is that "we can use its conception of human potentiality to challenge the adequacy of our science, our technics, our politics.

Those groups to whom these functions are ascribed represent a highly diverse variety of cults, meditation centers, rural communes, loosely organized associations and highly structured churches. However, if religion is defined as any cluster of values around which people shape their lives, a growing number of Americans appear to he taking part in one movement or another. 

Findings of Poll 

According to a Gallup survey last fall, 12 percent of those polled indicated that they had participated in one of several groups. The largest number, 4 percent or a projected 6 million Americans, had been involved with transcendental meditation. Next was yoga with 3 percent, or a projected 5 million, followed by charismatic renewal, 2 percent or 3 million; mysticism with the same number; Oriental religions, 1 percent or 2 million projected. 

The heaviest concentration of participants was in the 18-to-24 age group. 

Outsiders have shown by far the greatest concern about the high-intensity groups such as the Unification Church and Hare Krishna. 

Preliminary studies of both groups, including the most extensive survey, by Prof. Stillman Judah of the Graduate Theological Union, show a small core membership (about 3,000 in the case of the Unification Church) and a small though steady growth rate. 

The dropout rate is high among these groups. Professor Judah and Professor Bird have both surveyed youth populations and discovered that of all those who had had some contact with a new religious movement only 25 percent were still involved. In Professor Judah's sample, 55 percent of those in the Bay area had been involved less than a year. 

But through persistent evangelistic efforts, these groups are winning new converts and attaining fiscal stability. For example, according to Professor Judah, the Unification Church expects to discontinue street sales of candy and other items in three years, hoping to have become totally reliant upon businesses by then. And Hare Krishna is said to be planning a new incense factory in Mexico to supplement its businesses in this country. 

If historical patterns prevail, even the most controversial movements may find greater acceptance in America's religious pluralism. Much the same process of harsh criticism and later toleration has followed such groups as the Mormons, Christian Scientists and Jehovah's Witnesses.

Religious Myths 

But in the interim, said Harvey Cox, a Harvard theologian, many of these groups will bear the brunt of certain "myths" believed by the religious and cultural majority. Professor Cox identifies four such myths throughout history toward new groups: that they are subversive, that they encourage sexual perversion, that they refuse to tell the truth about themselves and that they employ means of duping followers. 

The vigor and general acceptability of the new movements vary greatly. But whatever the response, scholars generally agree that the old and the new religions in this country have begun to influence each other and will continue to do so. To a degree out of proportion to their relatively small numbers, the groups are causing organized religion to do considerable thinking about their mission and purpose. 

Professor Roszak said that the outcome of the struggle by new religions would be of immense consequence.  

Photo: Hare Krishna followers parade on the street - the dropout rate is high but there is a slow though steady growth rate among the small membership. 

Reference: The New York Times, Berkeley, USA, 1977-06-22