New Religions, Science, and Secularization


William Sims Bainbridge

Religion and the Social Order, 1993, Volume 3A, pages 277-292.
Science and Secularization
Chance, Necessity, and Chaos
Pseusoscientific Cults
Transcendental Meditation
The Committee for the Future
Experimentalism: Faith in the Future


Although the literature on new religions is quite extensive, very little of it bears on either secularization or science, and thus this paper cannot be a straightforward review of previous work. Indeed, we have no choice but to be exploratory, even experimental. I will alert the reader to literature worth consulting, but the exploratory nature of most past work on the topic demands many fresh studies both of greater scope and deeper analysis. While I will suggest some tentative answers, we are still in the process of discovering the key questions.

I think the most important questions are three. First, how does the advancement of science affect existing religious traditions? While some scholars believe that a truce has been achieved between science and religion, the evidence remains strong that traditional religion is seriously eroded by science. Second, how does secularization affect new religions? Perhaps secularization defeats all kinds of religion, the new as well as the old, but Rodney Stark and I have repeatedly argued that the decline of old religious traditions clears the spiritual marketplace for the rise of new ones. Third, can new religions achieve a mutually supportive relationship with science? For ordinary mortals to benefit from the intellectual accomplishments of science, they must be packaged in attractive cultural symbols, such as those of religion, but the faith of religion and the skepticism of science appear mutually contradictory.

Our society is quite ambivalent toward science, and the actual influence of scientific findings of this century on our culture appears to be slight. For example, the basic ideas of quantum theory and relativity are actually quite simple, but probably because they contradict mundane ideologies about the world, very few people are familiar with them. Thus, the impact of actual modern science on religion has not been felt yet, and scholarship on it is of necessity speculative. I have chosen to focus this paper on the potential of science to spawn new religions, illustrated with examples of some admittedly limited scientistic cults of today, supplemented with a vision of a future cult that might be far more successful.

Science and Secularization

Few civilizations across the sweep of human history have possessed organized science. In turn, the ancient Egyptians, Babylonians, Chinese, Greeks, and Arabs indulged for relatively brief periods in scientific exploration, but it was in Western Europe that science established itself as a permanent societal institution. While many theories have been proposed to explain this, the particular character of European Christianity, especially Protestantism, has been cited as a possible cause (Westfall 1958; Merton 1970; White 1978).

Religion of certain kinds may encourage science. Polytheism believes that capricious forces act at whim, thus rendering natural phenomena inscrutable, while monotheism considers nature to operate in accordance with a coherent set of laws. Protestantism demands that each individual find his or her proper relation to God, and natural theology suggests that revelations beyond those contained in the Bible can be read in the book of nature. As recently as the middle of the nineteenth century, Americans were bombarded with essays that published the latest findings of science in Christian bindings, on the premise that greater knowledge of God was gained with the data from empirical research (e.g., Miller 1858).

However, science has been widely seen as the opponent of religion (White [1896] 1978), at least from the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species in 1859. Many people today assume that religion and science have achieved a truce, each relegating certain territory to the other. But sociological data show a robust negative correlation between exposure to science and religiousness (Stark 1965), and both cults and sects often battle the institution of science (Harrold and Eve 1987). Most scientists, of course, work on very limited questions having little direct implication for human views of existence. But the greatest theories and discoveries of this century have the most profound implications for religion, in particular contradicting tenet after tenet of traditional Christianity.

Science must proceed from the assumption that phenomena are lawful and regular. Thus, while there is room to assert that God established the laws, he is not permitted to intervene in events. As science explains phenomena, the scope for an active God contracts, and both scientists and the public may extrapolate that the true scope of divine action is nil. Glock and Stark (1965) argue most forcefully that the social sciences present an especially sharp challenge to religion, offering deterministic explanations of human behavior, even of ethics and religion itself.

Conventional theories hold that secularization is an unstoppable process of weakening of religion in general, as other societal institutions take over its functions, under pressure from science both, directly through challenges to faith and indirectly through technological and economic progress that reduce the need for religion (White 1959; Wallace 1966; Wilson 1975; Fenn 1978; Martin 1978). Stark and I have offered an alternative (Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 1987; cf. Hammond 1985). We argue, first of all, that secularization is not a new process, having always affected religious organizations most closely connected with the secular elite. Second, we note that science and technology have not solved the key problems of human existence, and thus the emotional and social need for religion is as strong as ever.

Our model is a cycle of secularization, revival, and religious innovation. Religious organizations close to the elite accommodate themselves to the secular culture, and thus lose their roots in the supernatural. Intense sects, born out of opposition to the elite, are capable of providing hope and comfort in the face of death and deprivation. Some of them will gain popularity and move toward the centers of power, thus becoming victims to the same secularization that gave them room to expand. Over the very long run, entire religious traditions become discredited, and they will be replaced by entirely new traditions created by religious innovation - as classical paganism was replaced by Christianity. Science accelerates the process of secularization, thus speeding the decline of established religious traditions. But this does not lead to the end of religion in general, because new religions can arise more rapidly, including some that draw upon science for their metaphors and inspiration.

Although the findings of scientists may contradict the dogmas of priests, there remains some question whether the general public really knows much science and is thus directly influenced by it. McCloskey (1983) has reviewed a number of studies that show that many people do not understand even the most elementary principles of Newtonian physics. Research by Lightman, Miller, and Leadbeater (1987) revealed not only that many Americans are ignorant of basic principles of astronomy but also that they are resistant to some scientific findings. For example, the idea that the universe is expanding fills many people with dread, apparently because they long for stability, and rejection of this scientific finding is greatest among church members.

Chance, Necessity, and Chaos

Traditional science contradicts religion both in its determinism and its rejection of causes that cannot be seen and measured. But a new school of thought in science does something very different. It regards natural processes as a combination of chance and necessity, with the former holding priority over the latter (Monod 1971; Eigen and Winkler 1981). Indeed, in its extreme form, the new science considers necessity - natural laws - as merely big accidents. Thus the school of thought could be called Stochasticism, the view that chance rules all. I must stress that few practicing scientists concern themselves with big issues, the overwhelming majority focusing on tiny research questions, and Stochasticism has little influence as a school of thought. Yet its principles can be found in practically all of the natural sciences, and they present such a powerful attack against traditional religion, that they are a cultural phenomenon of potentially the greatest possible importance.

In his presidential address to the Paleontological Society, Gould (1988) argued that many of the trends discerned in the fossil record were the result of mere chance operating within a few relatively meaningless limits. For example, speciation may operate most rapidly for physically small organisms with short reproduction times and restricted geographic ranges. Given a structural limit to how small the organisms can be, random drift in the accidental emergence of a new species will thus produce an increase in the average size, generating the illusion of a meaningful evolutionary trend toward large animals, such as happened with horses. The line of evolution leading to human intelligence may have been equally accidental.

Gould quickly embraced the astronomical explanation of the death of the dinosaurs, when it was first proposed. In fact, many leading paleontologists currently accept the catastrophist view that several mass extinctions in the past history of the Earth were caused by sheer accidents, whether impact from a comet or asteroid, massive vulcanism of terrestrial origins, or some other essentially meaningless event. The rise of mammals, and thus our own evolution, was apparently made possible by the demise of the dinosaurs, and thus we owe our own existence to a chain of meaningless accidents.

Recently, theorists and mathematicians working in many of the natural sciences have become interested in chaos (Mandelbrot 1983; Hao 1984; Gleick 1987). Many recursive mathematical functions that appear to describe the behavior of physical systems have no simple solutions and exhibit what is called deterministic chaos. That is, the only way to model the physical system is through a set of formulas that must be calculated repeatedly, the output of one calculation becoming the input for the next. Over many iterations, even very tiny errors in physical measurement or mathematical calculation can explode to dominate the results. Even though in principle the results are strictly determined, they are effectively indeterminate. Interestingly, Homans (1967) long ago argued that this was true for most sociological processes.

The very existence of the universe may be a chance event. According to quantum theory and some experiments performed by nuclear physicists, subatomic particles may briefly come into existence spontaneously, participate in nuclear reactions, then disappear. A portion of the modern thinking related to this surprising conception is Heisenberg's uncertainty principle that sets definite limits on how much we can know about subatomic events (cf. Wilbur 1984). Some theorists have gone so far as to suggest that our universe is one such random fluctuation in nothingness, merely much larger that the ones physicists have been considering (Tryon 1973; Wheeler 1980; Gott 1982).

In 1930 and 1931, Kurt Gödel published a series of short mathematical papers that showed formal logic has inescapable limits (van Heijenoort 1967, pp. 592-617). In particular, he demonstrated that true statements exist which cannot be formally deduced from a given set of axioms, and that rich deductive systems cannot be proven to be internally consistent. Nagel and Newman (1958, p. 101) caution, however, that Gödel's proof should not be construed as an invitation to despair or as an excuse for mystery-mongering.

Western religions conceive of the universe and all its parts as consciously created by the deity, according to a coherent plan. Thus we have an instinctive picture of the universe as a blank slate until someone writes on it. The alternative view is that absolute chaos is the natural state, and existence represents a partial suppression of this chaos. Put simply, anything can happen unless it is prohibited by a natural law. Gödel's analysis suggests that there are limits to what can be logically prohibited, and thus it allows the existence of a universe made from chance and shaped by necessity.

But where does the necessity come from? If there is no law-giver, who writes the laws of nature? The anthropic principle has been proposed as the answer (Carr and Rees 1979; Gale 1981; Leslie 1982; Barrow and Tipler 1986). The laws of nature are finely adjusted so that life and intelligence are just barely possible (Henderson 1913, 1917; Davies 1982). Even slight changes in some basic physical constants would render biology impossible, for example. However, these facts do not prove the existence of a God. Only in a universe that had these favorable qualities could intelligent beings like ourselves ever evolve and begin to ask questions about their environment. One can imagine random events producing an infinite number of wholly separate universes, or a vast multidimensional gradient in which the physical constants vary to every extreme over vast distances, and only in the accidentally propitious locations will life and intelligence evolve. The apparent goodness of the universe is thus merely a selection effect, determined by the fact that only such a nice universe can ever be observed, because other less favorable universes will never produce observers.

This aleatoric, anthropic argument may or may not be true, and it may not even be testable. But it is connected to theories and findings in many of the sciences, and it poses a direct challenge to any religion that postulates a single, loving God who establishes a meaningful world for humans to inhabit.

Pseudoscientific Cults

Cults based on pseudoscientific doctrines go back at least two centuries to Mesmerism (Darnton 1970). Several include the word science in their names: Christian Science, Divine Science, Religious Science, and Scientology. Science may encourage the birth of new religions partly because it provides a rational basis for belief in new possibilities of all kinds, including consciousness beyond our world. Melton's Encyclopedia of American Religions (1978) lists thirteen flying saucer cults (cf. Festinger, Riecken, and Schachter 1956; Lurie 1967; Balch and Taylor 1977).

One of the chief channels of communications through which science reaches the general public is science fiction (Bainbridge 1986). Many stories directly concern religion (e.g., Burroughs 1918; Leiber 1943; Miller 1960; Herbert 1965), and others provide supposedly scientific explanations for supernatural phenomena like telepathy or teleportation. Among real cults influenced by science fiction is the neo-pagan Church of All Worlds, which drew inspiration from the Martian religion described in Heinlein's novel, Stranger in a Strange Land (1961).

The Star Wars trilogy, by Lucas (1977, 1980, 1983), is a complete mythology for a new pseudoscientific religion. It concerns the maturation of Luke Skywalker under the tutelage of two Jedi Masters, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda, who teach him the ways of The Force, an energy field unconsciously created by living things that binds the galaxy together. Three characters in the first installment of Star Wars separately call the doctrine of The Force and its Jedi Masters a "religion," and the supernatural elements are clear. When killed by the evil sorcerer, Darth Vader, Obi-Wan discorporates, guiding Luke through a telepathic link. Yoda is sufficiently adept to levitate heavy objects by power of mind alone; Vader can strangle a man at a distance with a mere gesture, and Luke quickly learns to target nuclear weapons by pure intuition. At the very end, Luke sees the departed souls of his father and mentors, as the galaxy prepares to enter a golden age of peace and harmony, led by a new Jedi religious order.

But this is fantasy, and our culture has not yet spawned really successful scientistic cults. The uneasy relationship that exists between a pseudoscientific cult and real science is illustrated by three very different groups: Transcendental Meditation, Scientology, and the Committee for the Future. Important themes illustrated by these three are the risk a cult takes when it asserts claims contradicted by current scientific knowledge, and the problem of maintaining a strong central authority in the face of the democratization typically caused by scientific freedom.

Transcendental Meditation

The Asian religious cult that achieved the greatest American popularity and has made the strongest claim to scientific status is Transcendental Meditation (TM). Founded by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an Indian who boasts a background in physics, this cult claims to be a non-religious and scientifically based technique for improving mental functioning but was in fact a diluted version of standard Hindu religion. A million Americans and thousands of Canadians and Western Europeans learned the meditation technique in a few sessions at their local TM center, but most probably quit practicing it soon afterward (Bainbridge and Jackson 1981).

Before the cult's most rapid growth, the journal Science and the respected magazine Scientific American both carried articles contending that Transcendental Meditation produced a new state of consciousness (Wallace 1970; Wallace and Benson 1972), and several popular books presented TM as a valid branch of psychology (Forem 1973; Bloomfield et al. 1975; Denniston et al. 1975). While we cannot be certain that the scientific imprimatur boosted TM's popularity, the cult energetically sought the status of science in its publicity and founded Maharishi International University in Iowa to promote cult doctrines under the label "Science of Creative Intelligence." But before long, essays debunking TM's scientific claims began to appear (Pagano et al. 1976; White 1976a, 1976b; Allen 1979), and the collapse in new membership undoubtedly reflected a loss of public credibility if not in professional scientific support.

Transcendental Meditation did not die, however, but evolved into an obviously religious movement organized in many small, cohesive cells. During its most rapid growth, the cult had announced the intention of initiating all of humanity, asserting that if everyone practiced TM all social problems would be solved. By 1973, a supposedly scientific principle that came to be known as "the Maharishi effect" had been announced: if one-tenth of a population practiced TM, their influence would have a calming and strengthening effect on society at large, for example ending war. When recruitment dropped and ten percent seemed out of reach, the figure was revised first to one percent, then to one-thousandth.

In recent years, TM advocates have bombarded the scientific journals with articles asserting that marked benefits to society occur whenever the square root of one percent of the population meditates at a given moment, a number that can be achieved by the remaining cultists, via telepathic influence. I happen to have reviewed (and rejected) one of these articles for a major sociology journal, as has a close colleague who shared his impressions with me. By 1990, the statistical methodology had become quite complex, often using techniques unfamiliar to sociologists, and both the lack of adequate controls and the use of elaborate transformations of data before analysis leaves the reader somewhat bewildered but thoroughly suspicious. My colleague told me he rejected the article he reviewed primarily because it postulated no plausible mechanism by which the effects could have been produced by meditation. Despite such rejections, the cult continues to seek the label of science.


Scientology has claimed to be "the first religious technology," and a sympathetic observer called it "a technological religion" (Braddeson 1969). Its creator was L. Ron Hubbard, a science-fiction writer. Founded in 1950 as Dianetics, a new science of the mind (Hubbard 1950a, 1950b), Scientology kept its self-definition as a science when it quickly transformed itself into a religion. By 1954, Hubbard was issuing B.Scn. (Bachelor of Scientology) and D.Scn. (Doctor of Scientology) degrees. Scientology claims the power to transform members through a series of mental exercises (Malko 1970; Cooper 1971; Wallis 1976; Miller 1987). The recruit is told he or she can attain the levels of spiritual advancement called clear and OT following a precise set of scientific procedures.

Advanced Scientologists come to remember their previous incarnations, and in one set of 42 case reports, 17 had been on other planets (Hubbard 1958). As proof of its scientism, the cult is fraught with quantification schemes, such as the tone scale. Zero means physical death. The emotional levels of ordinary humans reach from 0 to 4, while Scientology adepts supposedly achieve as high as 36. Much of the language is scientistic. For example, the term mass is used extensively, but with reference not to a quantity of physical matter but to the emotional "weight" of ideas and feelings.

The cult is famous for using an E-Meter (Electrometer) electronic device in its psychoanalysis-like healing sessions, a simplified "lie detector" that registers changes in the subject's galvanic skin response. On the one hand, the E-Meter is said to be an advanced technological device, the development of which strained technology to its very limits. But on the other hand, E-Meters are unimposing instruments. The Mark V model that I obtained came in a modest wooden case, with electrodes made from ordinary tin cans. I found a way to hook the E-Meter into a microcomputer, so that its readings would be displayed as dynamic bar and line graphs, but the public relations director of the local Scientology church found this technological advance somewhat threatening.

I have heard many conventional sciences ridiculed by Scientologists. For example, I was told that history is obsolete, now that Scientology has proven the existence of past lives and shown how to help anyone recall his historical and prehistorical incarnations. Hubbard himself blamed his "learned schoolmates, the atomic scientists" for having given man his "gravespade," the atomic bomb: "Materialistic science, operating on the premise that man came from mud only, that the mind is a queerly erroneous stimulus-response mechanism, that the human soul is a delusion, that God was a myth of some aberrated Mesopotamian, has presented us at last with the immediate and real threat of man's extinction as a species" (Hubbard 1951, vol. II, p. 242).

The slogan "100% Standard Tech" demands that Scientologists follow Hubbard's instructions precisely, applying each of the therapeutic rituals exactly as Hubbard designed it. Thus, research is thoroughly discouraged. The authoritarian nature of Scientology causes some members to break with it and form their own, freer cults (Horner 1970; Bainbridge 1985), and it prevents any collaboration between Scientology and real science (Bainbridge 1987).

The Committee for the Future

The daughter of a wealthy toy manufacturer, CFF founder Barbara Marx, frequently experienced bouts of depression and anomie (Hubbard 1971). Spending her junior year of college abroad, she met Earl Hubbard, an artist who told her he was "in search of a new image of man commensurate with our new power to shape the world" (Hubbard 1971). They married and retired to a life of raising children and living off the benevolence of Barbara's father. When the children were grown or in the custody of her housekeeper, her anomie and longing for transcendence reasserted themselves. A love affair with Dr. Jonas Salk, which Barbara described as "a constant torture," partial estrangement from her brother and sisters, and a difficult period with Earl laid the basis for an emotional experience which she calls her epiphany. In February 1966, she took a walk, wondering what to do next:

I asked myself. what do we have to announce of comparable concreteness to the birth of the Christ-child? I walked on 'auto-drive" around the hill at our home in Lakeville, lost in thought, unaware of time. Then the answer came in a flash: what we have to announce is, precisely, a birth. A new child is born: mankind. Our birth had been heralded by the wise men of the ages -- we are one. But until our nervous system linked up to create a common awareness, a consciousness of ourselves as a whole, we were prenatal, growing in the womb of history. Now we're born into the universe, awakening to ourselves, seeking our role in universal affairs. The commandment was so clear: "Go tell the story of the birth of mankind!" I felt transfigured by this awareness (Hubbard 1976, pp. 90-91, emphasis in original).

Awakening as if from a trance, she ran across the hill, tears streaming from her eyes, thankful that her prayers to become like the saints and gurus had been fulfilled, possessor of a new state of consciousness and a sacred mission. Her first practical task was to edit a book out of Earl's philosophical ramblings about the future of humanity in outer space (Hubbard 1969). She interpreted her epiphany as one of Maslow's (1970) peak experiences, established a personal friendship with Maslow, and energetically developed a number of other relationships with uninhibited intellectuals who possessed grand images of the future.

She does not footnote in her autobiography all the intellectual influences that shaped her thinking, but among the participants in CFF activities was anthropologist Roger W. Wescott of Drew University, who wrote a book extrapolating the future of human evolution toward divinity:

Man himself, of course, is "the divine animal." But he is so only when viewed in such long-range perspective that "the human condition" is seen as a brief, if painfully obtrusive, transition from man's beast-like origins to his godlike potentialities. In this perspective, the Christian concept of God the Son and the Jewish concept of the Son of Man are telescoped, yielding a hopefully fruitful hybrid: God the Son of Man (Wescott 1969, pp. 14-15, emphasis in original).

In 1970, Barbara announced the birth of an organization to promote her grand goals: "We, The Committee for the Future, believe that the long range goal for the mankind should be to seek and settle new worlds. To survive and to realize the common aspiration of all peoples for a future of unlimited opportunity, this generation must begin now to find the means of converting the planets into life support systems for the race of man." One of her first recruits was John Whiteside, a former Air Force information officer who designed a conversion ritual called Syncon. The name stands for synergistic convergence, an amalgam of concepts drawn from Buckminster Fuller (1970) and Teilhard de Chardin (1964). Syncon was a convention format, designed to bring participants together over a few days of intensive social interaction. Before a syncon, each participant would sign up for one of several task forces, each of which would plan the future of some sector of civilization, such as technology, social needs, government, production, environment, or space. Several hours would be spent in vigorous brainstorming about a particular topic, then task forces would be combined in pairs, for example giving the environment and space people the assignment to find the common ground uniting their fields. This was done in a physical space, called the wheel, in which seminar rooms were separated by folding walls that could be removed. Then, an "all walls down" ceremony brought everyone into a single group that would proclaim the unity of their consciousness that a marvelous future could be created. The final moment of a syncon had a powerful religious quality, with singing and such expressions of joy as a snake-dance around the segments of the wheel.

The CFF was both less successful and less authoritarian than either TM or Scientology, and one suspects that lack of strong leadership contributed to its collapse. Several specific projects failed, including a plan to buy a leftover Saturn V rocket for a private expedition to the Moon. After participating in a syncon, potential recruits were left without any continuing way to be involved. Several better-organized small cults began attending the syncons, seeking recruits of their own. Perhaps in its vagueness, the CFF presented no challenge to conventional science, and it drew upon a flourishing underground tradition that sought to find a wider spiritual meaning in science. Ordinary citizens want to feel that the universe is meaningful, and a cultural niche undoubtedly exists for a better-organized movement to mediate between science and religion.

Experimentalism: Faith in the Future

As every student of new religions knows, the Experimentalist Church was founded by Anson MacDonald, an electronics engineer with the space program. Experimentalism was first introduced as a new science, through the aegis of the Institute for Spiritual Exploration (ISE, pronounced ice), and only later transformed into a church. ISE was founded on January 1, 2000, and The Experimentalist Church on January 1, 2001. Thus the mix of science and religion that is Experimentalism has a millennial quality, born at both the popular and the calendrical beginnings of the new millennium. The cult's familiar symbol, of course, is the letter X, representing eXperimentalism, eXploration, and the unknown.

Originally named Don A. Stuart, Anson MacDonald experienced a transformational experience after years of frustration attempting to contribute to the space program (MacDonald 2020). His first job in the 1970s was on a NASA project to place a powerful radar in orbit around Venus, to chart the geological features of the planet through its dense atmosphere. When that was canceled, he drifted from job to job for five years, in the burgeoning microcomputer industry, before gaining employment with NASA again. Colleagues joked that he was jinxed, because project after project was canceled out from under him: two separate attempts to develop an upper stage for the Space Shuttle, a probe to Halley's comet, and the SETI-X multi-channel high-sensitivity receiver intended to search for radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations. His autobiography states that throughout the 1990s, feelings of personal inadequacy and hatred of humanity grew. Then, in the deepest pit of suicidal despair, he experienced Aricibo.

Aricibo is a remote valley in Puerto Rico containing a large radio telescope, where MacDonald had been sent to install some equipment, just as Congress cut funding for the SETI project once again. While he was a highly talented engineer, who could have found employment almost anywhere, his entire identity and self-esteem were invested in spaceflight, and the psychohistorian Paul French (2026) has argued that MacDonald was on the verge of a psychotic break, when he stepped out on the vast, bowl-shaped antenna of the telescope, ringed by rugged hills that could only dimly be seen in the midnight darkness of December 31, 1999.

In retrospect, we can see where MacDonald got the pieces of his great idea. His commitment to colonization of the galaxy dates from early adolescence, when he was a fanatical science fiction reader, but his professional career had given him a deep understanding of what would actually be required to accomplish this transcendent goal. Those five years wandering from one foundering software company to another had given him both experience programming video games and contact with the idea that human beings' psyches could be measured. At one point he had been hired to write a people-matching program for a dating service, and another time he was part of a team producing educational psychology software. There is reason to believe that in youth he attended one of Barbara Hubbard's syncons, and speculation persists that he may have tried Scientology and experienced E-Meter auditing.

It is quite certain, however, that MacDonald was greatly influenced by the anthropic argument as presented in The Anthropic Cosmological Principle, by Barrow and Tipler (1986). MacDonald went a step further than Barrow and Tipler, deciding that the universe was created by us, through our act of observing it. Teilhard de Chardin had written about the omega point, a spiritual goal equivalent to God, standing at the end of time or outside of material existence altogether. MacDonald substituted the omicron point, standing in the very middle of time, at the moment when an intelligent being first asked why the universe was conducive to his own existence, and realizing that only in such a universe could the question be asked. From the beginning of time up to the omicron point, chaotic processes generated a vast range of conditions, only one of which would produce intelligence. At the omicron point, The Key Observer appeared, entirely by chance, and by asking and answering the great question of existence he would act as the pivot of universal history. After the omicron point, The Key Observer would lead other intelligent beings on a quest to realize their greatest potentials and bring all the universe into their grasp.

Through Barrow and Tipler, MacDonald had also learned of John von Neumann's idea that robot spacecraft could be sent to distant stars where they would build copies of themselves to be sent onward to still other stars. When planets capable of supporting life were found, the probes would construct people from samples of human DNA, who would establish colonies. To this, MacDonald added the astonishing plan of giving these manufactured people the memories and personalities of members of the Experimentalist movement. Thus, he promised a new kind of immortality (MacDonald 2002). Much of the Experimentalists' energy is devoted to recording themselves by a variety of means, in hopes that centuries hence they could be brought back to life on distant planets. The rest of their energy supports projects designed to further the space program and build a world capable of launching von Neumann probes.

Initially, MacDonald's followers were mainly elderly people frantic for any possibility of immortality and ambitious young intellectuals of a somewhat obsessive sort. At first, they worked with every existing psychological questionnaire, which MacDonald incorporated into an elegant set of computer programs. For hundreds of hours, each member would sit at a computer, answering questions that flashed on the screen, building up a vast file of data that supposedly captured the person's psyche in a manner that could be sent to the stars and used to bring him or her back to life.

Then around the year 2005, MacDonald had a series of four insights that gave his movement much wider appeal. First, he introduced a number of recording techniques based on social interaction in sessions reminiscent of group therapy, adding measurement of the individual's social psychology and far more exciting to the members than merely answering written questions. Second, members were subjected to many highly intense experiences, from the sensual to the adventurous, so that their emotional reactions could be tested. Third, Experimentalism began to claim that all the testing actually improved its members in their current lives, transforming them into superhumans. Fourth, the most advanced members began reporting clairvoyant glimpses of the planets they would live on in future lives, and this was taken as proof both of the ultimate success of the movement and of the superiority of these members (MacDonald 2011).

There is no evidence that MacDonald had ever studied the sociology of religion, but perhaps instinctively he understood how to build a cult. Members were drawn into powerful social relationships with each other, emotionally dependent on the local congregation and perceiving everything that happened in terms of the shared ideology. The extreme hostility the cult suffered around 2020 probably strengthened it still further. Not only were several members killed by mobs, but data archives were also destroyed. The Experimentalists considered this even worse than murder, because they believed a person was immortal so long as his or her data were preserved.

An accommodation was achieved greatly by geographic separation. Few Experimentalists live near big cities, today, unless one counts the industrial complexes they have built for themselves in several remote areas. A substantial fraction of the world's science and engineering is done by the few million members of the movement, and with the decline in prestige of science and invention, they have become a pariah caste, living apart from ordinary people but in a symbiotic economic relationship with society. They talk a good deal about a coming dark age, in which they will preserve learning and prepare the way for a new civilization that will eventually colonize the galaxy. Sociologists of religion must recognize the substantial success of this deviant cult, both in terms of membership size and the capacity to defend their subculture against erosion from secular society.


The brief descriptions of scientistic cults offered here are but hints of the extensive scholarship needed on these paradoxical groups. Research like that done by Alan Lightman on public acceptance of contemporary science is also essential, and it is surprising that we know so little about this important topic at present. We would benefit also from increased attention to new schools of scientific thought, especially those, like the diffuse aleatoric-anthropic movement, that span several sciences.

The effect of scientific advancement on existing religious traditions is probably limited by the fact that ordinary citizens are insulated from science, yet faith is being eroded gradually by the scientific approach to knowledge, emerging scientific discoveries, and the popularization of past science. Novel faiths that take account of science may not be as vulnerable to such erosion, and they may benefit from the unrealized hopes spawned by the advance of science. Some new religions draw their metaphors from science, but it remains highly uncertain whether they can resist the debunking effect of scientific scrutiny while creating a cultural climate conducive to further scientific advancement.

It is time to move beyond mere observation of scientistic cults and use the knowledge we have gained of recruitment strategies, cultural innovation, and social needs to create better religions than the world currently possesses. At the very least, unobtrusive observation must be supplemented by active experimentation. Religions are human creations. Our society quite consciously tries to improve every other kind of social institution, why not religion? Members of The Process, founded mainly by students from an architecture school, referred to the creation of their cult as religious engineering, the conscious, systematic, skilled creation of a new religion (Bainbridge 1978). I propose that we become religious engineers.

Sociologists in most other fields are not shy about undertaking work that has practical implications. Our colleagues struggle against poverty and injustice, seek the best social environment for industrial production, and intervene in political battles. Sociologists of religion are among the most ethical and high-minded of scholars, and there is no reason why they should not apply their knowledge to the creation of new religions. The world needs them. We have roles to play as consultants to existing new religions, helping them solve problems that our research has permitted us to understand. But we must also be prepared to launch new cults of our own invention, a task I admit that is both hazardous to one's own welfare and outrageous in the eyes of people who refuse to admit that all religions are human creations. But it is far better for honest religious engineers to undertake the creation of new religions for sake of human betterment than to leave the task to madmen and wealth-hungry frauds.

Eventually, our civilization will have to come to terms with the astonishing truths about the universe discovered by science. Scientists have not yet completed their task, yet rough outlines of the final answers are becoming clear. And they are not pleasant. From the perspective of old faiths and the pre-scientific culture that still dominates human judgment, these answers seem quite unacceptable. The picture of the universe that is emerging is one lacking a creator, dominated by chaos, just barely able to sustain intelligent life in one, tiny comer of its vastness. Beyond whatever we can accomplish by our own efforts, there is no hope.

We can choose to ignore the answers when scientists finally offer them, and we can ultimately abolish science. Or, we could seek ways to humanize science, in part by creating religions based on the truths discovered by the scientists. I refer to religions, in the plural, because a healthy civilization of the future will need several very different faiths, suited to different population groups and competing in a free marketplace of transcendent ideas. I offer Experimentalism as an example of what one, particular religion of the future might be like. We need the greatest possible diversity.


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