The major difference between “old/established” religions and “new” religions lies in the name. However, it is not to be found strictly in the chronological position of the two in the temporal sense, but rather in the stage of development. Thus, when we call Buddhism an “old” religion, although the tradition is indeed millennia old, we are primarily referencing its advanced developmental stage, characterized by organization, hierarchy, rules and codes, as well as wide social acceptance. The above devices generally emerge to fill the vacuum created after the founder’s death, who provided the driving force of the nascent religious movement. All religions begin as new religions. All religions face competition from rival movements. As these religions grow “old” they must either adapt to changing social conditions or face replacement by a “new” religion that better addresses the issues of the day. Adaptability characterizes most successful religions. If “old” religions are adaptable and familiar, “new” religions are full of zeal. “New” religions, by their mere existence, challenge the established authority of “old” religions and implicitly dare the established religions to return to the zeal that existed when they were “new.” Therefore, the key difference is not to be found by linear plotting of religions in chronological order on a timeline, but in understanding the cyclical progression of religious development. The “old” religions are “new” religions that have survived the competition.

Stages of Religious Development

Since the development of religions does not proceed along a linear axis, but in a more circular manner (perhaps the image of a spiral is more apt to illustrate the concept than a closed loop), stages of development can be as many or as few in number as one wishes. However, for comprehensibility’s sake, organization into three stages seems sufficient. Broadly speaking, the stages consist of beginning, acceptance, and utility.

The first stage is the inception of the religion. Many of the attributes of new religions in Japan reflect this stage. The charismatic founder, direct access to personal spiritual attention, and active engagement in social issues can be found with equal readiness in early Christianity and Buddhism, as in Tenrikyo and Aum Shinrikyo. This early stage can also feature persecution. Acceptance—the second stage—is characterized by the societal consideration of the religion as acceptable, or even preferable to existing systems. The belief system solidifies at this stage, but persecution may still surface. The third stage—utility—is characterized by the use of the religion to prop up the social order.

Of course the above view is rather basic. The actual development is complexified by existence of competing “unorthodox” sects and ancillary movements, as well as beliefs of the common masses which may not follow ecclesiastically-prescribed orthodoxy. For the purposes of this paper, particular attention will be paid to Aum Shinrikyo, since it provides a glimpse into what can be called a “failed” religion. Failed religions are those above-mentioned sects that have not survived the competition from what are now the “established” religions.

The Case of Aum

Aum Shinrikyo fits comfortably into the stages outlines above. However, its development was stunted in the first stage, cut short by the sarin attack in 1995. Shoko Asahara, as religious leader, emerged in a time of so-called spiritual decline of 1980s Japan (Shimazono, 19; SJT, 1120). This was a time of great material wealth in Japan, but the idea of spiritual degeneration has provided fertile ground for religious leaders in the past. Jesus of Nazareth preached in a time of nationalist unease over the Roman occupation of Israel, broad messianic sentiments, and dissatisfaction with the pharisaic leadership of the Hebrew faith, which was seen as politically in bed with Roman occupation forces. Later, Martin Luther responded to a similar belief of spiritual corruption in the world, and specifically the church. The Buddhist concept of mappo, the decline of the dharma, has fostered the development of new schools like Nichiren’s and Shinran’s (SJT, 294; 213).

Movements that develop in response to a decadent age tend to appeal to people disenchanted with the society at large; this holds as true for Aum as for Christianity, and even the nationalist Shinto movements of the bakumatsu period. There is a common, but fallacious, belief that such religious movements primarily appeal to the least fortunate of society’s members. The wide confusion over well-educated people like Murai Hideo joining Aum is based on this mistaken belief. One need not be destitute in order to hate the world. In the afterword of Underground, his exploration of Aum, Murakami Haruki remarks insightfully about these well-heeled world renunciates: “it wasn’t in spite of being part of the elite that they went in that direction, but precisely because they were part of the elite” (Murakami, 361). Most of Murakami’s Aum-interviewees, whether elite or not, tended to share feelings of isolation, no sense of belonging, and emotional—and sometimes physical—fragility. Aum gave them a sense of purpose and belonging.

Aum never advanced to the third stage of religious development, but if a Gedanken experiment be permitted, what would happen provided the following three things were accomplished. First, if Aum had not carried out gross criminal acts; the sarin attack, the Matsumoto attack, and the Sakamoto murders. If Aum had continued upon a steady track until Asahara’s death and a transfer of power occurred. Finally, if Asahara’s teachings were recorded into scripture, with the necessary tempering of apocryphal tones, and the group had continued to exist as a Buddho-yogic sect, would Aum not eventually become an “established” religion like any other? Aum’s case provides a glimpse into the dynamic governing failed religions, like those of various Gnostic sects that competed with Christianity, or the Japanese clan rites that were overshadowed by Ise-centric Shinto.

The above thought experiment makes sense intuitively, however the particular historical context cannot be ignored if accuracy is desired. The current information age enables the dissemination of data at a pace people could hardly fathom even a century ago. Education levels are higher, and populations not only have access to a vast web of data, but also the means to interpret and comprehend it. This situation creates a double-edged sword for new religious organizations. On the one hand, they can more efficiently recruit new members, in terms of logistics. Preaching throughout the cities can be supplemented by an internet presence and wide distribution of brochures. On the other hand, mass media commands an immense power to direct public opinion. A number of negative news stories can spell a rapid reduction in converts, and shift the general consideration of the religion by the public into a negative direction. Negative publicity can thus drastically hamper the religion’s progress, as Aum’s example demonstrates (Reader, 62; Shimazono, 35-6).

Related to the above contemporary realities is the awareness of historical precedents. After Charles Manson’s The Family murders in 1969 and the 1978 Jonestown People’s Temple murder-suicides the public grew increasingly critical of new cultish movements[1]. The US federal response to the Branch Davidians in Waco in 1993 reflects a general anti-cult attitude. In the words of Winston Davis, “Messiahs are seldom original thinkers,” and in this age of information the validity of these words becomes readily observable (Reader, 65).

Finally, following the Enlightenment and the move towards a rationalistic, empiricist understanding of the world, science and observable/verifiable phenomena undermined the worldview of religion and faith/mysticism. In the past, religion has provided a number of services to the faithful that modern science has supplanted, namely the explanations of everyday phenomena. This process can be seen clearly in the history of Japanese religion. Buddhism was incorporated into the Japanese religious fabric not only because it came from China, regarded as an advanced civilization, but also because of a perceived medical efficacy. Indeed, Yakushi Nyorai, the Medicine Buddha, was one of the most popular deities in medieval Japan (SJT, 105). If, during the Tokugawa period, Buddhism came to be seen as a funeral religion, it must be conceded that up until that point it was primarily a healing religion. Medicinal arts were a major source of income for Shugendo and Onmyoji groups as well. Thus, even as the shogunate was drawing its final breaths, it was settling disputes among various sects over rights to healing elixirs (Hayashi). However, by the Meiji period modern medicine proved more efficacious.

Japanese religions exude a particularly utilitarian tendency. Thus, when Buddhist healing appeared to be effective, people turned to Buddhists. When modern medicine was perceived as effective people turned to doctors in lab coats. However, there are things that science could hardly replace. Science is not good at giving people peace of mind, nor can science provide a sense of tradition. By its nature science is always revising its previous findings, formulating new hypotheses, and presenting possible paradigm candidates that alter the scientific understanding of the physical world (Kuhn). If science honored tradition the way religions do, phlogiston would still be believed to be responsible for combustion. Science does not do rites of passage, like birth, marriage, and funeral ceremonies. Therefore, while science has taken the place of religion in certain arenas, it will not likely replace religion altogether, for it cannot satisfy all aspects of religion. An obvious example is that science deals specifically with this physical world, and is therefore worldly. Many religious movements are specifically oriented to renouncing the world, like monastic traditions of major religions as well as new movements like Aum. Religion can thus serve as an escape from the world, an escape from science. Science can hardly escape from itself.

Therefore, currently we are seeing, and it is likely we will continue to see in the near future, a development of religions along two paths. The first must accept the new role science is playing in the modern world. This group includes both the attempts of “established” religions to better adapt to modernity, and new religious movements that present a vague spirituality without world-denying elements. The second is generally characterized by a fanatical tilt, and rejects not science per se, but the secular world, which is considered corrupt and polluted. This group includes movements like Aum (Reader, 93; Shimazono, 28).

Returning to the earlier thought experiment we can say that even if Aum had followed the three ifs outlined above, it is questionable whether it would be accepted as just another religion given the discussed current historical context. However, it would not be completely outlandish to suppose that Aum could have associated itself with a more established religion along the way, similar to the association of Soka Gakkai with the Nichiren sect. Soka Gakkai falls more in the first category of vague spirituality than in the world-renouncing category two. Category one religions tend to be more successful because it is easier for them to gain acceptance from society, and societal acceptance (step two of the above three-step theory) is a crucial element in a religion’s survival. Asahara seemed to be keenly aware of this need of societal sanction, and used the media to that purpose (Reader, 72-3; Shimazono, 38-9). Naturally, however, it is difficult to gain acceptance from a society that is renounced and denounced as essentially evil (Shimazono, 36).

The Question of Violence

One of the most striking characteristics commonly associated particularly with the second group of new religious movements is the willingness by members of the religion to commit acts of violence. Charles Manson, Jonestown, Waco, Order of the Solar Temple, Aum, Heaven’s Gate, Movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God, and even groups like al-Qa’eda all display a remarkable affinity for violence. However, we must keep in mind that new religious movements are not unique in resorting to violence. Consider the violence of “established” religion like the Crusades and Inquisition of the Roman Catholic church, the warrior monks of medieval Japan, the State Shinto militarism of WWII, and the more modern “ethnic cleansing” in Bosnia (which was primarily a conflict between Serbian-Orthodox and Muslim populations of the region), are fitting examples.

It is important to notice the blurred division between religion proper and state polity in the last two examples. This is important because the two belong to the same category of institution. Harold Lasswell once described politics as the process of deciding “who gets what, when, and how.” If we follow this definition, all institutions can be said to be inherently political. Violence can simply appear as the “how” in Lasswell’s formulation. But if new religions are no more violent than “established” religions have been, certainly religions in general do not hold the monopoly on violence. The names of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot are enough to prove the point that secular violence is just as potent, wartime actions of any national government can be observed as further proof. Institutional violence, then, is not so much a product of a religious faith, but rather of absolute certainty in the correctness of one’s actions. In this sense new religions do not differ from established ones nor, for that matter, from other institutions like national governments. If the Aum members involved in chemical attacks were just following orders, what separates them from the Nazi soldiers who offered up the same defense at Nuremberg?

If religions are approached as institutions, it is easy to see the difference between “new” and “old” religions in the view of “new” religions as fledgling institutions. They are the Silicone Valley start-ups to Microsoft’s established presence. Established religions, like established institutions enjoy the benefits of social acceptance, and some new religions in Japan, like Soka Gakkai, have begun their entry into stage two of religious development outlined in the beginning of this paper (SJT, 1119). The case of Aum Shinrikyo is particularly intriguing in the context of religious development because it offers a Petri-dish example of a religious group that did not make it in the Darwinian sense. Failure to gain public acceptance pounded the nail in Aum’s coffin, and the horrific violence perpetrated by its members will for a long time provide hindrance to recruitment. Aum killed over a dozen people and injured thousands more, but ultranationalist Shinto also engendered domestic terrorism, and the Japanese military offensive spurned on by State Shinto imperialist ideology is responsible for far greater destruction (Skya, 229).

It is not violence per se that separates Aum from established institutions; public acceptance serves precisely that role. Though it is too early to say what will come of Aleph, the post-Asahara incarnation of Aum, it is interesting to note its progress along a well-traveled path. Recently the group splintered, with Aum’s old PR man, Joyu Fumihiro, leading a nominally anti-Asahara faction (Japan Times). This follows the classic scenario of a power struggle within a group to fill the void left by the founder. Disagreements between Apostles Paul and James, between the Mahayana and Theravada factions, between Sunni and Shia, all serve as models for this development. Although Aum will never again exist, an incarnation of it as Aleph, Hikari no Wa, or under some other name may well gain in membership in the future. Even in this age of information, people still have short memories.

See Further

Japan Times. “Joyu-led splinter cult raided, Aum guru images found.” May 11, 2007. http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/nn20070511a6.html

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. 2nd Ed., revised. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Lasswell, Harold D. Politics: Who Gets What, When, How. New York: Whittlesey, 1936.

Murakami, Haruki. Underground: the Tokyo gas attack and the Japanese psyche. Alfred Birnbaum and Philip Gabriel, trans. New York: Vintage, 2000.

Skya, Walter A. Japan’s Holy War: the ideology of radical Shinto ultranationalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009.


[1] By “cultish movements” I simply mean those small, exclusive, communal movements with a charismatic leader.