On 16 April 2020, The New York Times ran an article titled “Inside the Fringe Japanese Religion That Claims It Can Cure Covid-19.” “Happy Science,” the article continues, “which boasts millions of followers, is led by a man who channels Buddha (and Jesus and Freddie Mercury) and says he can defeat the coronavirus. For a fee.”1 The reporting was basically critical, juxtaposing the founder’s wealth with his belief in UFOs, his spirit-channeled publications, and the organization’s claims that its prayers are capable of curing the coronavirus. But this was not the first time that “Happy Science” (幸福の科学, Kōfuku no Kagaku, also known as “the Institute for Research in Human Happiness”) had attracted public controversy. Since its rise to national prominence in Japan in 1991, Happy Science has drawn significant critical coverage both domestically and then internationally. It has been accused of being a fraud, a pyramid scheme, a “pseudoscience,” a “pseudo-religion,” a superstition, and repeatedly by members of the international press, a “cult.”2 Yet, by some measures it has also been incredibly successful, boasting 12 million followers with branches in 86 countries.3

By way of background, according to the group’s official account, Happy Science began on 23 March 1981 when a recent Japanese college graduate Nakagawa Takashi had an unusual experience, in which he suddenly “sensed an invisible presence” that wished to communicate with him by way of automatic writing. The presence revealed itself to be a famous thirteenth-century Buddhist monk named Nikko. Soon, Nakagawa exchanged automatic writing for channeling and began receiving spiritual communications (霊言, reigen) from increasingly important entities including the Buddha, Jesus, Socrates, Nostradamus, Margaret Thatcher, and ultimately the supreme deity itself who was revealed to be “El Cantāre” (literally “the singer” in Spanish).4 Nakagawa formed a small study group to discuss these revelations and research human happiness. From the beginning, Nakagawa emphasized the “scientific” (科学) nature of his movement and its connection to the lost spiritual technologies of Atlantis, Mu, and various ancient aliens. By 1991, Nakagawa, now renamed Ōkawa Ryūhō大川隆法, was claiming to be the incarnation of El Cantāre and his organization’s membership was only growing.5 At the very least, two of Ōkawa’s books, The Great Warnings of Allah (Arā no dai-keikou) and The Terrifying Revelations of Nostradamus (Nosutoradamusu senritsu no keiji) had become Japanese best sellers. Although there is some evidence that the group’s membership peaked in the mid-1990s, it seems to be still going strong, and they have formed a political party that has managed to have some (albeit very small) electoral successes.6

Here is the thing—in many respects Happy Science is a typical contemporary new religious movement, but it highlights in stark contrast the main themes we aim to explore in this special issue of Nova Religio. Many new religious movements claim to occupy a hybrid position between religion and science. In addition to Happy Science, one might think paradigmatically of Scientology, Christian Science, Raëlism, and Heaven’s Gate, but also many others. One might ask therefore—why are so many new religious movements drawn to this particular conjunction? This becomes even more puzzling when one recognizes that this hybrid position is particularly fraught. Intersections of religion and science are policed both from the side of traditional religious authorities and typically by scientific elites, but also by journalists, pundits, and the popular press. So why are so many contemporary movements drawn to this position? The case studies presented here go some distance in answering this question on a closer scale of analysis, but the broader theoretical framework that contextualizes our collective efforts has been provided by Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm.

Since 2012, Storm has been working to challenge the putative binary between religion and science by introducing a third term—“superstition”—into the model. Succinctly put, since the formation of the modern categories, “superstition” (typically identified with magic) has often been seen as both the false double of “religion” and a crucial enemy of scientific truth. By way of explanation, genealogists of “religion” have located the category’s formation in two key binaries. Peter Harrison and others have called for religion and science to be considered together.7 Serge Margel and Michel de Certeau have emphasized the dialectic between religion and superstition—on top of which, de Certeau has noted that science formulates through rhetorical opposition to superstition.8 Insofar as the secular claims to be a political instantiation of scientific modernity, it too produces “superstition” as its opposite. In summary, different scholars have focused on the historical construction of the ideas of religion, science, and superstition and have in each case emphasized that the categories are contingent and formulated in a binary opposition. Storm has suggested that in some respects all of these scholars are right, but they have each only described part of the system.

Following from this, in The Invention of Religion in Japan (2012) and The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity and the Birth of the Human Sciences (2017), Storm attempted an intervention in this line of theorizing by suggesting the value of looking at it in terms of a trinary system. Instead of binaries, he argued that early modern European thinkers produced (and then globalized, largely colonially) a historically contingent trinary formation in which religion is negated by superstition, which is in turn negated by science.9

It was Storm’s further contention that tracing the genealogy of the notion of conflict between religion and science provides clues to both the appearance and occlusion of enchantment. While he explains disenchantment on many levels, Storm suggests that one of the factors that renders magic both attractive and repellent is the reification of a putative binary conflict between “religion” and “science,” and the development of a “third term” (superstition, magic, and so on) that suggests either where they overlap or where they cancel-out.10

Looking at it temporally, European thinkers often characterized modernity in terms of a rejection of “superstition” or in terms of a grand civilizational progress from “magic” to “religion” to “science.” This schema was globalized insofar as they often regarded their non-European contemporaries as “backward” for their belief in magic or superstitions (even as many Europeans themselves believed in spiritualism, ghosts, witches, and the like). This paradoxical emphasis on how modernity should be disenchanted even as belief in enchantment proliferated is what Storm refers to (and elaborates) as “the myth of disenchantment.” In his 2017 book Storm made this argument:

The myth of disenchantment has two contradictory functions. On the one hand, it serves as a regime of truth, submerging the paradigm of modernity deeper into the core of the human sciences and producing various attempts (legal, pedagogical, colonial) to disabuse the other of superstitious thought. On the other hand, it is self-refuting, producing the very thing it describes as endangered, animating occult revivals, paranormal investigations, and new attempts to spiritualize the sciences. For this reason, it meets the needs of different constituencies, including those who want to banish magic and those who aspire to reinvigorate it.11

All that is to say, once “religion” and “science” are formulated as opposing discursive terrains, religion-science hybrids become both threatening and appealing. They are appealing because they suggest the possibility of healing the two (notionally) opposed domains of religion and science. They are threatening because they suggest pre-hybrid and therefore supposedly premodern systems. What is more, the policing of emergent hybrids, for example their negation as “cults” and “pseudosciences,” reinscribes the purity of the presumptive binary opposition that otherwise stages their very emergence.

An additional layer here is that hybrid beliefs and practices so designated have historically been deemed unworthy of serious scholarly attention. There seemed to be something contaminating about taking too seriously putative pseudosciences, pseudo-religions, or superstitions. For those of us in the humanities and social sciences who take seriously and attempt to understand those who believe beliefs that are deemed unworthy of belief, then, the tacit motto espoused by disciplinary gatekeepers would seem to be: “don’t.”12 While this has changed somewhat with the development of the new religious movements subfield, as exemplified in no small measure by the existence of this journal, this background prejudice nevertheless endures in many sectors of the academy.

The articles presented here have their beginnings in a workshop we organized in the spring of 2018, “Beyond Disenchantment: Theorizing Science, Technology, and New Religious Movements,” which was hosted by the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams College. Participants included Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm, Shannon Trosper Schorey, Grant W. Shoffstall, and Benjamin E. Zeller. Shannon gave an excellent presentation on the Missionary Church of Kopimism, but was unable to contribute an article to this special issue. Therefore, we solicited an article from Torang Asadi.

In the first article, Jason Ānanda Josephson Storm takes as his point of focus the case of Ernst Haeckel (1934–1919), the German zoologist, evolutionary theorist, and one-time pupil of Charles Darwin. A figure of international renown, Haeckel is credited with having named thousands of species and is furthermore known for coining the term “ecology.” Haeckel was also the chief architect of the German Monist League (Deutsche Monistenbund), otherwise known as Monism (Monismus), an explicitly Darwinian movement that was intended to establish a “naturalistic faith,” a scientific new religion. Haeckel, as Storm demonstrates, appealed to the presumptive conflict between science and religion, leveraged this conflict up against the specter of disenchantment that emerged in the wake of Darwin, and ultimately used it to promote Monism, a (re-enchanting) religion-science hybrid, to stand in the place that religion was expected to vacate. Storm’s treatment of Haeckel and Monism as such clearly demonstrates the core aspects of his trinary theoretical model: the conjoined nature of disenchantment and (re)enchantment; the production, elaboration, and purification of religion-science hybridity; and ultimately the need to account for and theorize the nebulous “third space” that is both the product and negation of the presumptive purity of concepts reflected in the tendency to model “religion” and “science” as essentially opposed domains.

Following from this, the focus of Torang Asadi’s article is firmly nested in the hybrid space of the third term as theorized by Storm. Pairing ethnography with archival research, Asadi offers two case-based accounts of energy healing, the premiere regime of New Age healing, as practiced, elaborated, and consumed in the San Francisco Bay Area. Asadi locates her cases in the arc of the much longer historical trajectory of American metaphysical religion.13 Within this trajectory, she highlights those (re)enchanting moments of encounter between the spiritual and the technoscientific, wherein technoscientific developments stoke reflections on health and bodily potential; find traction and intermingle with spiritual imaginaries; and ultimately eventuate in the production and circulation of cosmologies concerned with techniques of healing. One is moved to think here of the place of telegraphy in giving rise to the Spiritualist imaginary; the rootedness of Theosophical notions of the aura and etheric body in ether physics; the enmeshment of the radio with mind-cure and the New Thought movement; and the cybernetic underpinnings of transpersonal psychology and Dianetics. Asadi’s case studies bring into focus important consequences of a more recent encounter in this vein—that between New Age metaphysical spirituality and the internet. Asadi demonstrates, for instance, that Bay Area practitioners of energy healing have come to act upon perceived similarities between cyberspace and the spiritual realm—between data and spirits, signals and energies—which in turn has led them to “incorporate the internet into their bodily practices in both real and metaphorical ways.”14 More fundamentally, however, she shows how the internet has reshaped New Agers’ cosmology and conceptions of the human body by reframing the material world as driven by ([re]enchanting) digital code.

The next article by Benjamin E. Zeller takes up one of the most recognizable occupants of the hybrid third space as theorized by Storm: ufology. There is, of course, a sizable academic literature on the apparent hybridity of the UFO subculture, especially in terms of how UFO religions such as the Unarius Academy of Science, Heaven’s Gate, and Raëlism make direct appeals to science, promoting their claims under the sign of science. However, far less has been written about self-described scientific ufologists who collect data on UFOs and UFO sightings, employ scientific research methodologies, and subject their claims to hypothesis testing. To this point, Zeller turns his attention to MUFON, the Mutual UFO Network (formerly the Midwest UFO Network [est. 1969]), a near-ideal typification of “disenchanted ufology.” Through an in-depth textual analysis of one hundred issues of the MUFON UFO Journal (1976–2007), Zeller finds that the purported distinction between enchanted and disenchanted variants of ufology falls into disarray. To put it a bit differently, just as UFO religions slip into a scientific register, Zeller demonstrates that disenchanted ufology slips into the enchanted realm against which it is defined, consolidated, and promoted under the sign of science.

Finally, Grant W. Shoffstall’s article takes up cryonic suspension (“cryonics”), the practice of freezing the deceased in hopes that scientists will eventually develop the technology required to facilitate their future revival and rejuvenation. Cryonics is commonly presented as a predatory scam targeting the elderly, sick, dying, and otherwise gullible with the false promise of a this-worldly technological resurrection and afterlife. As Shoffstall demonstrates, however, characterizations of cryonics as fraudulent are often flanked by charges of deviance from both religious and scientific domains. Cryonics, that is to say, while it tends to be read as fraudulent, is often read as such in two ways at once—as fraudulent science, a “pseudoscience,” and as fraudulent religion, a “cult.” Enrolling this dual-designation as evidence of religion-science hybridity, Shoffstall locates the emergence of cryonics in the wake of post-Darwinian speculations about alternative evolutionary pathways and the potential to remake human life. As a hybrid practice carried out in anticipation of a salvific (hybrid) technoscientific future, the act of freezing renders concrete a set of “[beliefs] that should not be believed”15—namely, that freezing damage is reversible; that the frozen dead are not really dead. By destabilizing culturally legitimated definitions of life and death, living and dead, Shoffstall demonstrates that cryonics’ hybridity places it in conflict with certain scientific truths and authorized forms of religiosity, provoking the negative function of Storm’s third term. The result is dual designation, which supports Storm’s observation that religion-science hybrids stand to be policed by the same presumptive opposition between “science” and “religion” that stages their very emergence.

Thanks are owed to the Oakley Center for the Humanities and Social Sciences at Williams College for funding and organizing the original “Beyond Disenchantment” workshop that gave rise to this special issue. Special thanks are owed to Jana Sawicki, Krista Birch, and all those who participated in “Beyond Disenchantment.”


Sam Kestenbaum, “Inside the Fringe Japanese Religion That Claims It Can Cure Covid-19,” New York Times (16 April 2020).


See Stephen Delahunty “I went to see Margaret Thatcher’s ghost be summoned to solve Brexit,” Dazed Magazine (16 September 2019); Sylla Saint-Guily, “Happy Science is the Laziest Cult Ever,” VICE (3 October 2012); David McNeill, “Party offers a third way: happiness,” The Japan Times (4 August 2009); Yonemoto Kazuhiro and Shimada Hiromi, Ōkawa Ryūhō no reigen: shinri hyakumon hyakutō (Tōkyō: Jikku Shuppankyoku, 1992). For some scholarship on Happy Science, see Trevor Astley, “The transformation of a recent Japanese new religion: Ōkawa Ryūhō and Kōfuku no Kagaku,” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies (1995): 343–380; Erica Baffelli, Media and New Religions in Japan (New York: Routledge, 2016); Tsukada Hotaka, Shūkyō to seiji no tentetsuten: hoshu gōdō to seikyō itchi no shūkyō shakaigaku (Tōkyō: Hatsubai Kyōei Shobō, 2015); Shimazono Susumu, Posuto modan no shinshūkyō: gendai Nihon no seishin jōkyō no teiryū (Tōkyō: Tōkyōdō Shuppan, 2001); and Franz Winter, Hermes und Buddha: die neureligiōse BewegungKōfuku no kagakuin Japan (Wien: Phd LIT, 2012).


This is according to their official magazine so the numbers should be taken with a grain of salt. See Gekkan kōfuku no kagaku (July 2010). For context, see Tsukada, Shūkyō to seiji no tentetsuten.


Baffelli, Media and New Religions in Japan.


Astley, “The Transformation of a Recent Japanese New Religion,” 352.


Tsukada, Shūkyō to seiji no tentetsuten.


Peter Harrison, The Territories of Science and Religion (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).


See Michel de Certeau, “What We Do When We Believe,” in The Signs, ed. Marshall Blonsky (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1985), 192–202; Serge Margel, Superstition: L’anthropologie du religieux en terre de chrétienté (Paris: Galilée, 2005).


See Jason Ānanda Josephson [Storm], The Invention of Religion in Japan (University of Chicago Press, 2012) and Jason Ā. Josephson-Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment: Magic, Modernity, and the Birth of the Human Sciences (University of Chicago Press, 2017). Some of what follows appears in both.


Josephson Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment, 13.


Josephson Storm, The Myth of Disenchantment, 309–310.


See Monica Black, “The Supernatural and the Poetics of History,” The Hedgehog Review (Fall 2011), 73–74.


Catherine Albanese, A Republic of Mind and Spirit: A Cultural History of American Metaphysical Religion (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2007).


Torang Asadi, “Cyberbodies: The New Age and the Internet,” Nova Religio 25:2 (2021).


Josephson Storm, “The Superstition, Secularism, and Religion Trinary: Or Re-Theorizing Secularization,” Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 30, no. 1 (2018).