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then they become the prophets and teachers who we identify as religious leaders. This is particularly so when they organize their followers and impose disciplines on them. Thus, in the case of Christianity, it is sometimes argued that the founder was not Jesus, who was a Jewish rabbi, but Paul, who was a preacher, leader, and organizer. The same was true of Gotama the Buddha. According to the Jataka Tales, his followers founded Buddhism after his death in the course of sessions in which the bhikshus met and chanted his teachings in order to preserve them. Mohammed, however, did found Islam as an organized movement; Nanak founded Sikhism, and Baha’ullah founded Baha’i. Zoroaster was not an organizer, and did not have a Paul, so there are fewer Zoroastrians today than adherents of any of the other world religions.

Some occultists, however, do deliberately start religions: Madame Helena Blavatsky, for instance. She founded Theosophy, which the American Census of Religious Bodies (1936), an official publication of the United States Government Printing Office, lists as a recognized religious body. This, however, is an exceptional situation. Most European and North American occultists, indeed, are Christians or Jews who also have esoteric beliefs and occult practices. This is true of the vast majority of New Agers. In 1990, the United States census bureau recorded only 1200 people who listed “New Age” as their religion of choice. Yet, as we know, there are hundreds of thousands of Americans who regularly read their horoscopes, consult tarot readers, have their palms read, or attend practitioners of holistic medicine. The latter is often bound up with the occult. For these reasons, it may be more accurate to speak of “spirituality” and “the spiritual” when discussing esotericism and the occult than to speak of religion.

As an example of the problems encountered in differentiating religion and spirituality, I might mention a Unitarian church which I founded in Northport, Long Island, in 1947. The church survived, was moved to the nearby city of Huntington, and is now a large flourishing institution with an imposing bulding and a large congregation. I note in the bulletins that the auxiliary organizations include a “Pagan Circle.” While this might startle orthodox Christians, it is by no means unusual for Unitarians. This denomination, though of Protestant origin, evolved into a liberal religious fellowship based on individual freedom of belief. While most Unitarians tended to be humanists when I was active as a Unitarian minister, those who are so today are mainly of my generation or only a little younger. Present-day Unitarians devote much more attention and discussion to “spirituality.” While this leads some to explore facets of Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and others of the world religions, many are interested in the esoteric and the occult. Indeed, the formerly rationalistic emphasis in Unitarianism has given way to emotional and intuitive emphases which are consistent with present-day concerns. The so-called “Pagan Circle” in the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Huntington are people who are drawn to Wicca, to the Goddess movement, and to other such phenomena generally classed as “pagan.”

New Age – Is It a Religion?

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