Do people in the U.S. tend to be drawn to NRMs for different reasons than people in, say, Africa?
On the surface, maybe, but I'd say that at root what draws people to new religious movements is what I've just described—that high-octane sense of passion and community. And what keeps them there is pretty much the same everywhere, too, I think—the simple and obvious fact that they work, in terms of how they allow individuals to function in society. The African example is a good one. I was told repeatedly as I reported my article that new religious movements, particularly Christian ones, are extraordinarily popular in Africa, and that this is in large part due to the fact that these movements are now trans-national. A lot of Africans have to be very mobile in search of work, and these new trans-national movements allow them to feel at home and part of a larger community whether they're in Ghana or Botswana.
You describe the sociologist Rodney Stark's rational-choice theory of religion as one of the primary ways that people are theorizing about religion today. According to this theory, you write, "in a free-market religious economy there is a healthy abundance of choice (religious pluralism), which leads naturally to vigorous competition and efficient supply (new and old religious movements). The more competition there is, the higher the level of consumption." This would seem to mean that we should get fewer new religions—and perhaps slower evolution of established religions—in countries with repressive regimes. Does this seem to be the case?
Well, I would suspect that no matter where you are you'll find people coming up with new religious movements, but I do think it's fair to say that these new movements can't succeed very well if they're politically persecuted in their early stages. One theory has it that Christianity survived and thrived in the Roman empire because initially it was considered just too marginal to pay much attention to. There was the occasional Christian thrown to the lions or something, but in the larger picture—which at the time involved all sorts of cults and movements from all over the Roman empire—Christianity just didn't seem like much of a political threat. Rodney Stark cites the strength of a religious "free market" in order to explain the odd paradox that the United States is a pretty fervently religious country even though its constitution explicitly sets up a wall between religion and politics.
What do you see as the future for a big religion like Islam, which in some ways seems resistant to change and slow to evolve?
I think the idea of Islam as an unchanging monolith is a very misleading one. Islam is full of variety and schism and factionalism—which is another way of saying it's still full of life, notwithstanding the contemporary focus on the static and uncompromising vision of bin Laden and his crew. It's hard to imagine that Islam won't play a major role in the world for centuries to come. What's interesting, actually, is to think of groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and the Taliban and al Qaeda as new religious movements themselves—each one emerged in the twentieth century, after all. If they conform to what scholars have learned about the emergence and evolution of new movements, either they'll wither away or they'll become more and more mainstream, which will mean that they'll evolve ways of more peacefully coexisting with society. And if they enjoy a measure of success in the meantime, perhaps that will lead to a pendulum swing toward new movements in Islam. I've recently seen reports, for example, that Sufism is undergoing a bit of a revival. And I was interested to learn in researching my piece that there's also a major new schismatic Islamic movement known as the Ahmadi movement, which is only a little more than a century old, that was created by a "successor" prophet to Muhammad. It's based in Pakistan, claims to have millions of members, and seems to have global reach. Right now the groups suffers considerable persecution and is banned from making the pilgrimage to Mecca, but one could make the case that the Ahmadis are a bit like Islamic Mormons, practicing a divergent yet culturally continuous brand of religion—and that precisely because of that, and despite the "heresy" of their new beliefs, they have a reasonable chance of success, at least in the religious free market.