Books lists exotic, obscure faiths
"A number of them are very shallow, religiously off base and don't offer members anything beyond friends to get together with."
- Rev. J. Gordon Melton
NEW YORK (AP) - The "religions" of America have become a vast, miscellaneous swarm, ranging from the historically rooted faiths to the new and strangely exotic ones.
Among the many peculiar brands;
The "Discordian Society" worshipping Eris, the goddess of chaos, and dedicated to anarchy; the "Psychedelic Venus Church" idolizing drugs and sex; the "Never Dies" who maintain they are endlessly reincarnated with their same identities.
"I haven't verified whether they've been able to pull that one off," says the Rev. Dr. J. Gordon Melton, a United Methodist minister who is probably the most widely and directly informed expert on the nation's modern religious potpourri.
"We've got all kinds," he says. "A lot of them have been hidden."
He's spent the last 16 years in research, mingling with witches' covens, combing occult publications and ads, checking out Satanists, Druids, Flying-Saucer believers and others around the country, gathering facts about their lifestyles, organizations and ideas.
It's like "detective" work, he notes in the foreword of his two-volume, 1,200-page "The Encyclopedia of American Religions," published this spring by McGrath Publishing Company, Wilmington, N.C.
The compilation, the most comprehensive, modern summary yet amassed of religious groups in this country, their concepts and methods, deals with 1,203 of them, five times more than the 223 listed in standard directories.
"I count better," says Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Evanston, Ill. "Basically, I just got out there and looked for them and found them."
Of the total, he says more than half, about 700 to 800 of them, have been started since 1965, mostly in the early 1970s, with the rest being mainly in the Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish traditions.
The regular bodies, as well as. the unfamiliar ones, are included. Of the little known, unconventional groups, he said in an interview:
"A number of them are very shallow, religiously off base and don't offer members anything beyond friends to get together with. Most of these will die out.
"There's very definitely some deception in some of them, but it surprised me there's not more of it since it's such a lucrative field. So many people are gullible and have never worked through their dependency problems."
However, Melton, 36, who also is pastor of Evanston's Emmanuel United Methodist Church, takes a carefully objective position in his descriptions of the various groups, avoiding any personal evaluations or condemnations.
"It's not my business to try to downgrade any of them," he said. "I tell their story straight, letting any 'badness' surface just in the facts: The people in them are mostly sincere, devoted and have their own 'trips."'
He said a "new push" of religious proliferation characterized the early 1970s. Such periods occur cyclically about every 25 years, he said, typically accompanied by economic pinch, high birth rates and in the wake of social stresses, such as the late 1960s.
But the latest surge of religiosity now has passed, he said, and most of the new groups stopped growing about a year ago, with many of them declining.
For example, he said the Children of God has dropped from nearly 5,000 down to about 600, and now resorts to so-called "flirty fishing" by which its women use sex to recruit new members.
He said the Divine Light Mission, once with about 10,000 followers, now is down to about 2,000, following the split between its young founder, Maharaj Ji, and his mother in 1975, while Hare Krishna has leveled off at about 5,000.
Transcendental Meditation has declined precipitously, he said, to about a tenth of its former monthly business, and now has resorted to claiming it can produce "levitation" - physical rising in air.
"But its very expensive," he says, costing about $5,000 to $6,000. "Some people see these claims as a fund-raising gimmick."
He said that among the most publicized groups, Sung Myung Moon's Unification Church, sometimes called "Moonies," is about the only one still growing, possibly because of the news attention to it.
Asked whether he considered some groups authoritarian when dominated by a single leader, he said "I tend to classify it a danger signal."
However, Melton, who is on close conversational terms with leaders of many of the groups, shuns any specific criticism of them saying he wants "to make sure the … marketplace of ideas remains open."
"The problem is that when a group has no tradition or history, it has no safeguard against being exploited and made subject to capricious whim," he said.
However, he said some groups, such as Moon's Unification Church, are gradually accumulating a "corpus of tradition" - writings and resources - which can serve as a brake against any flagrant deviation from it.
"Many of the new religions have been thoroughly defamed and lied about," he said. "The climate is such that their very existence is being attacked, No doubt some of them use heavy indoctrination, but the alleged brainwashing is a bunch of tommyrot."