THE BLOG
10/10/2012 10:49 am ET Updated Nov 25, 2012

Should We Fear Modern Religions?

Blended into the extraordinary mix of religious diversity in the U.S. are some modern religious groups that are not in any way tied to traditional Jewish or Christian scriptures, or any other long established religious traditions. They are entirely new. There are also some modern religious movements that have moved so far out of traditional scripture that they are hardly recognizable to many within their own traditional faith systems.

There are even a few religious movements that have sprung up out of works of fiction, such as The Church of The Flying Spaghetti Monster. This may seem a rogue mockery of all things sacred, but the church emerged for the sole reason that people wanted it to be real. Based on a funny book in 2006, by Bobby Henderson, The Gospel of The Flying Spaghetti Monster this church continues to gain momentum. Scientific American gave the book this review:

An elaborate spoof on Intelligent Design, The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is neither too elaborate nor too spoofy to succeed in nailing the fallacies of ID. It's even wackier than Jonathan Swift's suggestion that the Irish eat their children as a way to keep them from being a burden, and it may offend just as many people, but Henderson, described elsewhere as a 25-year-old "out-of-work physics major," puts satire to the same serious use that Swift did. Oh, yes, it is very funny.

While some consider these movements and "churches" irreligious affronts to the world's larger and longstanding faiths, are they any less valid than any other older faiths?

With no hoops to jump through to join, today The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster claims to have "millions if not thousands" of members.

Other groups have no central foundation, such as Jediism, which has only an orthodox code: There is no emotion, there is peace; there is no ignorance, there is knowledge; there is no passion, there is serenity; there is no death, there is the Force.

Is that really all there is to believing as a Jedi? Modern Jediists acknowledge that the film Star Wars inspired their religion, but insist there is more to their faith than depicted in the fictional work. Like an overarching religious umbrella, Jediism is said to focus on the principles common to many religions.

New age, positive thinking and other modern "spiritual" movements have captured the meditations of many who have read and now practice the "thoughts become things" principles of The Secret and other recent works. Since meditation on these aspirations is a key to achieving results, certain Christians tend to become very defensive and turf minded. Meditation and prayer tend to intersect in the great beyond. While the more open minded Christians can see a path or even a mental highway with different lanes for both prayers and meditations, some Christians feel that meditating on the positive, whether healing, economic or stress relief, is a true departure from their teachings to direct thoughts and prayers to "God" and not "the universe."

Dudeism, like Jediism, emerged out of a popular film. A few months back I enjoyed interviewing Oliver Benjamin, the founder of Dudeism, whose followers rally around the overarching messages in the movie The Big Lebowski. Dudeism is similar to Jediism in that the inspiration for Dudeism was a film, and there is a core belief system that emerges out of the film's concepts. Their relaxed, Dudeist way of life is an inspiration to many and a welcome relief to stressed out masses everywhere. Loosely related to modern Taoism or "Daoism," Dudeism is a modern path toward living in harmony. More than 150,000 people have become ordained Dudeist priests who can actually officiate weddings.

But just what is an invented religion? What if the author of a funny story or film was just having fun writing a story or screenplay and had no intention of starting a whole religious following? Do ideas sometimes get launched as simply fun and then take on lives of their own? Should we be careful about what we write for fear we will have millions of worshipers to lead and manage?

How seriously should modern religions be taken and do they even really mater? Should we feel threatened by them? Do they undermine the validity of our own faiths that we consider to be authentically endorsed by God? Are there commonalities between invented religions? Do they pose any harm? What happens when they start to gain momentum, money and power? Would people fight and lay their lives down for them? Are not all religions to some degree invented by people? Do we find ways of believing what we want to believe?

What are superheroes if not Gods in the imaginations of children (and some adults)?

Real or not, many emerging faith systems exist here among us, influencing us in some ways. To all those "witches" burned at the stake for the trumped up reasons they were, this might all seem like incredible progress.

Another possible bright side of having a variety of religions is lowered religious discrimination. Some of these modern religious movements are so perfectly strange they actually become a good yardstick by which we can measure religious freedom and tolerance. Perhaps, for example, we can argue that The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster's "pastafarians" actually help keep our country religiously free.

With Scientology in the spotlight again and with a Mormon candidate on the Republican ballot, many feel the need to ask what they should know about L. Ron Hubbard and Joseph Smith. Are these becoming perfectly valid, modern faiths with the passing decades or still considered highly fictional fantasy-like clubs or cults to be avoided?

Some fascinating answers to some of these big questions can be found by setting aside 25 minutes to listen to Professor Carole Cusack discuss the role of invented religions for a Religious Studies Project in association with the British Association for the Study of Religions. This is one quick way to gain a whole new appreciation for new religions and their role in the modern world.