The Demise of Religion offers scholars of new religious movements a theoretical toolbox for analyzing the nexus of factors that contribute to the decline and end of these groups. Drawing critical attention to an understudied aspect of new religions’ lifecycles, the volume’s contributors reflect on internal difficulties and external oppositions that are faced while raising questions of legacy and persistence.

Sidestepping debates regarding religion’s demise, the volume focuses on individual religious organizations to demonstrate demise’s frequency as “part of ordinary religious history” (4). To conceptualize such occurrences, the editors present nine analytical categories in which decline can occur, including endogenous issues (such as failed prophecy) and exogenous factors (such as government policy). The book’s contributors efficiently demonstrate how these forces impact and exacerbate one another, coalescing to catalyze demise. Even seemingly straightforward ends are revealed as multifaceted processes of internal difficulty and external pressure. Erica Baffelli’s chapter on Aum Shinrikyō’s termination following the group’s 1995 attacks on Tokyo subways, for instance, places the attacks in a trajectory of declining membership, police raids, absentee leadership, government legislation, and doctrinal/ritual dysfunction.

There is some predictability to the religions examined and the conceptual categories applied. The predictability of topics like the Family International’s struggles in the wake of child sexual abuse investigations, however, does nothing to diminish the contributors’ deft analyses and insightful findings. In fact, it seems that the most challenging question to answer is not how or why new religious movements end, but when it is appropriate to label one as having ended. Joel Robbins begins his chapter on indigenous Urapmin religion in Papua New Guinea by asking “How do we know when it makes sense to declare a religion officially dead,” and his query echoes throughout the book (31).

Contributors repeatedly refer to organizational schisms, theological adaptations, and renovations of religious function when plotting end dates of new religious chronologies, complexifying demise. Alastair Lockhart explains that the trust of the Panacea Society continues applying the group’s resources to philanthropic ends even though the Society’s final member died in 2012. Eileen Barker aptly demonstrates the Family International’s steep decline but notes that the group persists as an online community. Michael Stausberg’s chapter on Rajneesh’s seemingly unequivocal closure of Rajneeshpuram in 1985 concludes with a coda: Rajneesh—re-branded as Osho—re-opened his ashram at Poona in 1989. Only groups referenced as ending by “direct actions of the state” and “mass murder, mass suicide, or a combination of both” escape the slipperiness of ascertaining expired status (170, 176).

These persisting traces of ostensibly defunct new religions showcase The Demise of Religion as a tool for interrogating the ways that these groups respond to contextual pressures utilizing an ever-changing pool of political/cultural mechanisms and sentiments. The Family International’s retreat to online existence, the Panacea Society’s afterlife as philanthropic trust, and Rajneesh’s revival as Osho all demonstrate the creative adaptations that comprise new religious existence. In this sense, the book investigates the mechanics of new religious change in addition to decline.

The Demise of Religion is a robust contribution to new religions studies. The book effectively deploys a broadly applicable set of analytical categories to examine how these movements end without encouraging single-variable analyses or creating formulaic depictions. Moreover, the array of organizations covered speaks to this approach’s versatility. Beyond elucidating specific groups’ terminations, each case study showcases and broadens the editors’ arsenal of endogenous and exogenous factors that contribute to decline. In doing so, the volume establishes a theoretical foundation for normalizing new religious decline and fall, pointing the way for future studies of new religious demise.

Kristian Klippenstein
Independent Scholar