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Asian Religions in the West: Their Attitude Towards Dialogue and Pluralism - Reinhart Hummel

Are the new religions from Asia able to engage in real dialogue with other views of life?

What are their attitude towards religious pluralism?

by Reinhart Hummel


In this article, we are not talking about a Hindu and Buddhist presence which arose through migration, but about New Religious Movements of Hindu and Buddhist origin. These are the Indian guru movements, Buddhist communities and Lamaistic centres etc.; in other words, traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that turned to mission and have been penetrating the West for about a hundred years and have assumed organized forms. We must also consider new religions of Asian origin, above all from Korea and Japan. The first step is to identify the movements concerned. How do they relate to their parent religions and to their new religious environment? In connection with the conflicts created by their acitivities I shall reconsider the vexatious problems of terminology. I then want to examine the stance adopted by these New Religious Movements towards religious pluralism, taking the example of the Unification Church and the Indian guru movements. Finally, I shall ask how far the New Religious Movements are able to enter into constructive dialogue. I shall essentially restrict myself to a descriptive treatment of the subject, although on the question of dialogue with the New Religious Movements I do not want to completely withhold my own opinions on the matter.

The encounter with New Religious Movements

The collective term “New Religious Movements” is so broad that the question of the Church maintaining a dialogue with them touches on various problem areas of theology. Some of the New Religious Movements come within the field of interconfessional, others in that of interreligious dialogue. As for esoteric and occult movements, which see themselves as bearers of a science, (whatever their definition of science may be) and the broad range of psycho-groups, they are more likely to be placed in the field of dialogue with secular society. But these attempts at classification have their limits in the case of mixed religious-secular forms such as the Bhagwan movement and Transcendental Meditation. Scientology is in many respects in a class of its own. Thus, we see that the dialogue with the New Religious Movements, which is the object of my remarks here, would have to take place in a variety of different theological contexts.

The dialogue with New Religious Movements of Christian origin, which is not dealt with in this paper, can proceed from common starting points: belief in Jesus Christ and recognition of the Bible, etc. But internal proximity does not necessarily make dialogue easier. The fraternal strife over interpretations of the Bible, and generally over a group’s legitimacy as Christian, can be particularly fierce.

The dialogue with New Religious Movements which have evolved from one of the major Asian Religions (Indian guru movements, Buddhist and Lamaistic groups etc.) should really draw on the results of the interreligious dialogue and could even be a component of that exchange.


Dialogue and missionary effort

However, many of them are outside or at least on the periphery of the dialogic consensus already reached in discussions with Hinduism and Buddhism. For reasons which I want to analyze later, these movements do not tend to enter into dialogue with their religious environment but prefer mission and proselytizing. ISKCON and TM even do mission in their land of origin, India. These New Religious Movements are sometimes controversial in their parent religions; this is especially apparent in the case of the guru movements in India. Such tendencies make clear that the missionary era has not simply been superseded by the era of dialogue. Rather, both eras overlap. In other words, the encounter between the religions is currently taking place in the form of both dialogue and mission, whereby the New Religious Movements present a special and frequently sectarian form of this persistent missionary religious confrontation.

The dialogue with new religions active in the West is faced with very different types of problems. The Rissho-Koseikai, for example, is a dialogue-oriented, Buddhist-inspired new religion committed to working for peace, whereas the activities of Mahikari and the Unification Church lead to considerable problems in the West.

In both categories, i.e. the New Religious Movements of Hindu and Buddhist origin and the new religions, there are typical lone wolves which reject any association with other religions in the West or in their countries of origin. Contact with movements of Western origin or of predominantly Western character can be even more difficult. In the case of Bhagwan Rajneesh, for example, the public presentation of the movement’s ideas included the sweeping abuse of all religions and the telling of dirty jokes about the Pope. As for Scientology, it is all too easy for outsiders to appear on the list of “enemies”.


Potential for conflict

Seen as a whole, the neo-religious scene in the West is a result of religious imports, almost entirely from Asia. Many of the New Religious Movements from Asia have reached Europe via the United States – an additional alienating factor, even taking into account our cultural similarities. Some aspects of Transcendental Meditation and other Indian groups that bother the Europeans do not derive from the Hindu roots but from American utopian rhetoric and have had to be “de-Californianized” for European consumption. The majority of New Religious Movements in the West suffer from the stigma of being culturally alien. Consequently, attempts at dialogue can easily come under fire from critics of such groups.

Instead of asking about the origin and religious specificity of the New Religious Movements, we can pose the question of their potential for conflict. The answer reveals common features that cut right across the three categories described above. In all three we find movements in which the missionary zeal degenerates into unscrupulous proselytizing designed to create a state of outer and inner dependency by employing unacceptable techniques and unethical methods. In such cases, the religious or ideological content, irrespective of how sophisticated it may be, is completely subordinated to and instrumentalized by economic interests and the pursuit of power. However, one must also sound a note of caution: parents’ organizations sometimes tend to lump time-honoured techniques for altering consciousness (taken from the Asian religions) together with unethical methods of conversion and to malign all techniques as brain-washing and psychomutation, etc. The abuse of individual freedom and personal responsibility does not always arise from evil intent; it also derives from the deeper respect for the group typical of Asian thinking or from other alien cultural forms and insufficient inculturation in the Western context. It is disturbing to see, however, that the mistreatment of children – i.e. mistreatment in terms of modern standards – also takes place above all among marginal groups in the Christian sphere.


Terminological problems

New Religious Movements differ not only in terms of origin and religious character, but also with respect to their potential for conflict. All these cross-cutting distinctions are reflected in the use of different terminology. The concept of “New Religious Movements” is as universal as it is meaningless. Some groupings without any recognizable religious content like to be subsumed under this label so that they can take unfair advantage of the freedom of religious protection.

When people come to our offices and describe their conflicts with a particular neo-religious group, they ask us how we would classify it. We cannot fob them off with the answer that the group concerned is one of the New Religious Movements. When we are frequently asked, “Is it a sect?” (of a destructive cult or a youth religion), people want to know about the potential for conflict that requires a judgment, and this is precisely what the term New Religious Movement avoids. In our counseling and educational work there is a legitimate need for judgmental terminology, just as there is also a legitimate need in the interreligious field to use the most neutral terminology possible. Nor can one rule out, as illegitimate, the need for theological terminology to specify closeness or distance from the traditional Church. The need for purely descriptive and for normative terminology are in irreconcilable conflict with each other and this conflict cannot be resolved in favour of one or the other. However, the temptation to pass sweeping and unjustified judgments must be resisted. The fact that the terms “sect”, “youth religion” and “cult” have not disappeared from the debate is to do with their normative function. This function is often denied. In reality, however, such concepts are certainly not, at least in popular usage, neutral categories of the science or sociology of religion.


Conflict-prone movements

That is why I have long been arguing that we should speak of a large circle of New Religious Movements and, within this, of a smaller circle of conflict-prone or conflict-causing religious movements. This is not another sociological category; what is meant is movements around which conflicts, which could in principle occur anywhere, build up to a particularly large extent. It is a pious illusion to believe that one could simply remove such judgmental terms from circulation. Even the most wonderful term is like a bag which, given time, takes on the smell of its content. Any conceivable term used to cover groups of the Scientology variety will inevitably start to stink after a while. Ultimately this will harm also those New Religious Movements which, despite occasional tensions with their environment, do make an effort to overcome conflict. I would therefore like to argue that we should permit different terminology for the different approaches in our dealings with New Religious Movements (through academic religious studies, church theology or local counselling work etc.), while at the same time being conscious of the respective function of the concepts used.

In this situation, it is quite useful in the United States, for instance, to employ the concepts of “sect” and “cult” in areas of the sociology of religion (e.g. in Stark/Bainbridge). Here, a “cult” is distinguished from a “sect” by the fact that the former is located outside the religious-cultural mainstream. In this context the word “sect” has much the same associations as the German Sondergemeinschaft, a separate and special (Christian) community, whereas cult refers to a New Religious Movement of non-Christian origin. The German word Sekte clearly has a different connotation by focusing on a group’s opposition to the dominant main Churches, rather than merely its separateness.


The stance towards religious pluralism

The main difficulty for any potential dialogue with New Religious Movements is that many of them have placed the removal of religious pluralism on their own agenda and expect the Churches to play the role laid down for them in this drama. Of course, there are also movements with a fundamentalist-exclusivist attitude which usually behave polemically towards religious competitors. The founder of ISKCON, Swami Prabhupada has even called the Shankara followers “scoundrels”. The “Prophetin der Jetztzeit” (Prophetess of Nowtime) in Würzburg and her “Universelles Leben” (Universal Life) group (once the Heimholungswerk Jesu Christi) define themselves completely in terms of their differences with the Churches. Buddhist groups generally see themselves as part of the Buddhist ecumenical movement and maintain an irenic relationship to those of a different faith, although they do not show much enthusiasm for dialogue. Those who are primarily interested in going their own way do not like to spend much energy on defining their relationship to the religions and Churches. It is beneficial that some of the more radical Buddhist organizations in Germany (like some Karma-Kagyü groups) are participating in inner-Buddhist dialogue and have to listen to criticism from their own co-religionists.


Apparent inclusivist attitudes

Many New Religious Movements are, however, marked by inclusivist attitudes. They appeal to people’s ecumenical yearning and present themselves as the key to overcoming religious diversity. (This trend began in the last century with the emergence of the Baha’i.) The claim to universality is certainly a reason for their attraction: those who join them have the treasures of all religions at their disposal; they are disponsed from the “heretical imperative”, as P.L. Berger has called it. Many of these New Religious Movements set up organizations and hold congresses which have the objective of unifying the world’s religions.

It is no doubt widely known just how much effort and money is put into such projects by groups like the Unification Church. According to the teachings of the “Divine Principle”, the unification first of the Churches and world Christendom, then of all religions and finally the ideologies, forms part of the final drama in which Rev. Moon is to be revealed as the Messiah and “Lord of the Second Coming”. Moon is the centre around which everyone is supposed to gather, whereby deceased religious leaders will descend to Earth and lead their followers to unification and to the “Dispensation of the Second Coming” by acts of inspiration and appropriate messages.

A number of Moon-inspired organizations staged inter-religious and “intra-religious” conferences which were intended to culminate in 1993 in the centenary celebration of the “Parliament of World Religions” in Chicago: a “Council for the World’s Religions” has been established to enable “ecumenical movements” to develop in all world religions. Now that the anti-communist theme of the Unification Church has been exhausted, the inter-religious theme is being emphasized all the more strongly.


Exclusive claims

The invitation to outsiders to participate in the work of overcoming religious pluralism is so bound up with the invitation to recognize Moon as the returned Messiah and Lord of this unification process that mission and dialogue, as defined by the Unification Church, is always talking about itself and its own mission. However, the fascination of inter-religious contact still tempts theologians to skate on this inter-religious thin ice.

As for the New Religious Movements from India, it is generally known that neo-Hinduism of the type formulated by Sri Ramakrishna and Swami Vivekananda has drawn up its own neo-Vedantic concept for overcoming religious pluralism. Among the Indian Guru-movements this inclusivist stance is frequently bound up with the exclusive claim that their own Guru represents the religious synthesis in his person or that their own meditation technique constitutes the mystic primal knowledge of mankind on which all religions are based. (Some of these movements committed to unity have been accredited as non-governmental organizations at the Economic Council of the United Nations and are keen to use this status as legitimation.) The “Perfect Masters of the Age” from the tradition of Sant Mat allow Jesus to be seen as the master of his time, but claim the master role for themselves in today’s world. Almost all of them have created forums for inter-religious encounter and strive to attract renowned representatives of the religions and Churches to such meetings.


“Sai Baba so loved the world...”

Other Gurus are regarded by their followers as avatares. i.e. manifestations of divine descent. The followers of Sathya Sai Baba even go so far as to paraphrase John 3,16: “For Sathya Sai Baba so loved the world that he gave a son, Jesus Christ, into the world ...” All these Guru Avataras and Living Masters represent a type of post-Christian saviour with a claim to finality.

When seeking a dialogue with the New Religious Movements one must therefore expect to meet with two responses: on the one hand with conscious self-isolation and the rejection of all forms of dialogue or at least great reservation; and on the other hand, with nothing less than a greed for dialogue, which is connected with the notion that the overcoming of religious pluralism is one’s own special cause and with the search for suitable platforms for propagating that cause. The pluralism of religions then culminates in a pluralism of ecumenisms, their mutual competition in a contest for the better way and the broader vision for realizing the religious unity of mankind. Knowing how to deal with this is an important challenge for the future. Careful thought must be given as to how one can avoid being misused by others. For example, when one creates a forum which others use to advertise their organizations, or when one attends forums which others have set up to propagate their organization. In any case, should the Church decide to open up dialogue with the New religious Movements, it must counter the danger that it will end up entering into a dialogue with those organizations from which the Church can and should learn least of all. It is disturbing to think that initiatives towards dialogue all too easily result in talks with, of all people, the Scientologists and Moonies.


Are they able to participate in dialogue?

There are justified doubts about the ability of New Religious Movements to conduct genuine dialogue. The limits to their openness to dialogue soon become apparent if we base our assessment on the (admittedly very demanding) “dialogue-decalogue” proposed by Leonard Swidler and his ten rules.

On rule 1: The compulsive sense of mission shown by many New Religious Movements allows no space for the need to learn from others, which constitutes an essential prerequisite for dialogue.

2: Authoritarian structures do not permit internal dialogue within a movement, and this is an essential prerequisite for outward dialogue. In a dialogue with New Religious Movements the Churches must certainly avoid limiting themselves to talks at the leadership level, leaving the membership largely cut of from contacts with outsiders and under the complete control of its leaders.

3: Tactical requirements play a dominant role in many New Religious Movements and rule out complete honesty. The image presented to the outside world is frequently at odds with an organization’s internal view of itself. The dialogue partner must therefore call into question the public image, even if this stands in contradiction to the spirit of dialogue as defined by rule 8. In the present situation the Churches certainly cannot dispense with apologetics vis-á-vis New Religious Movements. Even at a later stage there will probably have to be a combination of apologetics and dialogue.


The need for practice

5 and 6: In many New Religious Movements the (negative) image of the Churches is so firmly established that in the foreseeable future one cannot expect to see the willingness to correct wrong positions that is absolutely essential for dialogue.

7: The recognition of the other as equal could hardly be guaranteed by either side in the dialogue with New Religious Movements. The Churches would have to accept a situation in which, for example, the ISKCON representative always tried to find a pedestal to speak down from. The Churches and individual Christians should not refrain from bearing witness to their own faith when encountering the New Religious Movements and their followers. In the context of this encounter, abandoning one’s mission would be understood as tacit recognition of the claims to finality and absoluteness advanced by a particular New Religious Movement.

9: Above all, the over-identification with one’s own cause and organization which predominates in many New Religious Movements will have to be reduced and space will have to be created for an objective self-critical attitude towards one’s own movement if a fruitful dialogue is to come about.

10: The willingness to experience the other’s faith from within can hardly be expected from movements which imagine themselves in possession of the primal experience of all religions, including the experience of the Christian faith. Their claim to understand Christianity better than the Christians makes a dialogue more difficult.

The New Religious Movements’ ability to enter into dialogue cannot of course be determined from the outset in a sweeping manner, but will have to be tested in particular cases. Moreover, since openness to dialogue can hardly develop without the practice of dialogue, it may well be sensible for the Churches to take the initiative in the hope of encouraging long-term developments within the New Religious Movements. In this way, a dialogue with the New Religious Movements can contribute towards pacification in a field which has already seen many conflicts.



1: In the case of New Religious Movements from Asia, these are either Hindu or Buddhist traditions having turned missionary for new religions from Japan and Korea, more or less assimilated to Western needs. These New Religious Movements are a special form of the continuing missionary encounter of religions and as such must be taken seriously.

2: The extent of the potential for conflict presented by these New Religious Movements varies greatly. An important factor here is insufficient or unsuccessful assimilation to the West.

3: The value-free concept of “New Religious Movements” cannot fulfill all the different functions required of terminology in the academic, ecclesiastical-theological and counselling approach to dealing with these movements. Judgmental terminology also has its justification. Above all, we must acknowledge the existence of conflict-causing religious movements within the wider spectrum of New Religious Movements.

4: The self-perception of the New Religious Movements of Asian origin ranges from fundamentalist-exclusivist to more inclusivist claims to bring salvation. Whereas the Buddhist communities generally perceive themselves as part of the Buddhist ecumene, the founders of new religions and guru movements are frequently viewed by their followers as redeemers with a claim to universality and as fulfillment or embodiment of religious unity.

5: With mission and dialogue closely connected, these New Religious Movements use their own organizations and outside forums to propagate their concept of religious unity. In their efforts to promote dialogue in this the Churches have to deal with a pluralism of ecumenisms and must not allow themselves to be misused.

6: Most New Religious Movements have only a limited capacity for dialogue. This is primarily due to a lack of ability to exercise self-criticism and to develop any critical distance. Moreover, their authoritarian structures often rule out internal dialogue within the group. Nevertheless, under certain circumstances the practice of dialogue initiated by the Churches can help develop the ability to enter into dialogue and contribute to a pacification process in this controversial area.

7: Under no circumstances should a dialogue with the New Religious Movements be limited to the leadership level; it must also reach out to as many of their followers as possible. In dealing with the New Religious Movements and the challenges they present, apologetics, mission and dialogue all have a legitimate place and should not be presented as alternatives.


Reinhart Hummel

was born in 1930. After an education in Theology he became pastor for a congregation in Northern Germany and later a leader of a theological college in Kotapad in India. In 1979 he began teaching Religion and Missiology at the Heidelberg University, and in 1981 he became the leader of the Evangelische Zentralstelle für Weltanschauungsfragen in Stuttgart. His published writings are mainly on Eastern religions, new religious movements, reincarnation and New Age.