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Contemporary Religious Movements

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will examine some popular contemporary religious sects and movements. We will identify their origins and central tenets and analyze their place in society.

Religious Liberty and Religious Sects

As Americans, we are fortunate to live in a country where religious liberty thrives. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states that the government shall not prohibit individuals from practicing the religion of their choice freely -- or choosing not to practice a religion at all. The words are probably familiar to many of us. They read: ''Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...'' Because of America's religious liberty, all kinds of religious groups, sects, and movements exist in contemporary American society. In this lesson, we will be looking at some of them.

Before we do that, though, let's quickly define a few terms. We need to understand that religions are different from religious sects or religious movements. Religions are broad systems of belief, usually grounded in a belief in the supernatural. Popular world religions include Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, among others. Within these religions, there exist religious sects, movements, and cults. Cults are discussed in another lesson, but basically, a cult can be thought of as a religious sect containing deviant teachings that contradict the accepted doctrines of that religion. Cults also usually have a charismatic leader who claims to have access to special supernatural knowledge. Religious sects and religious movements are splinter groups, or schools of thought within a religion. Let's look at some popular contemporary religious sects and movements. Oh, and for the purposes of this lesson, ''sects'' and ''movements'' are used more or less interchangeably.

Popular Contemporary Religious Movements

In addition to mainstream Christian denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, etc.), some less mainstream religious sects spring from Christianity. Mormonism, officially known as the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints is a religious sect that was founded by Joseph Smith in the 1820s. Smith claimed to have a vision in which an angelic being revealed to him the location of golden tablets containing sacred text. Although Smith refused to let anyone see the golden tablets, he claimed to have translated them into a text that became known as the Book of Mormon. Among other themes, the Book of Mormon details Jesus Christ's interaction with the Native American tribes of North America following his resurrection. Smith's followers eventually settled in Salt Lake City, Utah, a city that to this day has a strong Mormon presence. Mormons believe that Jesus Christ and Satan are spirit brothers, and some Mormon fundamentalists also support the practice of polygamy (the taking of more than one wife).

The founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith.
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Jehovah's Witnesses are another popular religious sect. Perhaps you have driven past of one their worship centers, called ''Kingdom Hall''. The Jehovah's Witnesses originated in the 1870s. They believe the destruction of the world, after which they will bring the Kingdom of God to the earth, is imminent. The Jehovah's Witnesses do not believe in the orthodox Christian view of the Trinity, instead holding that Jesus Christ is inferior to God the Father and is a created being (by God the Father). Jehovah's Witnesses are known for their door-to-door evangelism, not celebrating Christmas, Easter, and other holidays, and their rejection of blood transfusions.

A Kingdom Hall in Sweden.
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Before we go any further, we need to define a term. Up until now, these religious sects have been tied to Christianity. Now, we're going to look at some that are tied to pantheism. Whoa! What is pantheism, you ask? Pantheism is the belief that the universe and ''God'' are one in the same, so nature, and everything in nature, is more or less divine. Now that we have that down, let's move on.

You might associate Scientology with the actor Tom Cruse. He is probably the most famous adherent to this religious movement. Scientology, or the Church of Scientology, was founded in 1954 by L. Ron Hubbard. It is not based on Christianity, but on a secular-pantheistic framework. Scientologists believe that human beings are eternal alien souls who are trapped in physical human bodies and need to find or ''unlock'' their true spiritual nature. Critics of Scientology argue that it is a commercial venture rather than a religious movement; however, in many countries, the organization has tax-exempt status.

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