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New religious movements, Religion and science, Syncretism (Religion), Michael Polanyi (1891-1976)


One significant but not widely appreciated impact of the “new religions” has been to reopen the question of the relation of religion to science. I speak of new religions in the sense defined by Needleman in his book by that title, that is, I am referring primarily to Eastern teachings which have gained adherents and cultural influence in the West over the past two decades. To some degree, certain of these religious systems can be viewed as encompassing “sciences” with well-articulated theories and powerful technologies, and it is this particular perspective on these religious movements which I would like here to explore. It may well be that the most substantial possibility of a creative dialogue between religion and science lies not in the encounter of the mainstream Western religions with science, which of course has a long history, but in the contemporary meeting of Western science with Eastern religion, in this ‘grand titration’– to use Needham’s expressive chemical metaphor – of West and East which is occurring in America today.

Many of these ‘new religions’ appearing on the America scene are, of course, nontraditional and new in the West but completely traditional and old in the East, for example, Zen, Tibetan Buddhism, and various schools of Yoga. Still, in their modern Western incarnations, these traditions are being altered, and so the appellation of “new religions” is in many instances appropriate. Some of these religions are Western, but not mainstream, such as Sufism, or trace their origins to the Western esoteric tradition, such as Kabbala or Steiner’s Anthroposophy. Some have Eastern and Western origins, and are essentially syncretic creations, such as the Arica school founded by Ichazo or the teachings of Rajneesh.

What would I like to explore in this paper is a conceptualization of spiritual disciplines (primarily but not exclusively Eastern) as sciences, and to use this conceptualization to probe into the similarities and differences between modern science and religious tradition and into cultural significance and possible future impact of the new religions.


Author's talk at the conference on "Other Realities: New Religions and Revitalization Movements," University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska, March 27-30, 1985.

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