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Nordic network for information and research on new religious movements and new spirituality
New religious movements have since the 1970’s constituted a major academic multi-disciplinary research field. The field includes phenomena of various kinds such as The Hare Krishna Movement or the Church of Scientology that emerged in the West mainly during the 1960-70’s, but it includes also the more diffuse and less organized so-called New Age phenomena that primarily developed from the 1970’s onwards.
Further, also alternative spirituality from a historical perspective such as for instance the Theosophical Society from the end of the 19th century is included. Included are also new religious expressions within established religions as well as new religious phenomena in non-western contexts. Religion is a dynamic phenomenon which is constantly evolving through interaction with other cultural and social factors. This is especially true in our globalized world where “new” phenomena or new mixtures continuously emerge.
The academic research on new spirituality has over time changed and developed. During the 60’s and 70’s several studies on conversion to and apostasy from the organized new religious movements were conducted (see Richardson 1978, Barker 1984, Wright 1987, Bromley 1988) as well as case studies of specific movements where historical perspectives were high-lighted (see Wallis 1977, Rochford 1985, Knott 1986, Thompson and Heelas 1986).
From the 90’s onwards, the less organized so-called New Age phenomena have emerged more and more into focus (see Hanegraaff 1996, Heelas 1996, Hammer 1997, Frisk 1997). In recent years, several more independent research fields have developed. Western esoterism has developed into an independent research field (see Faivre 1994), so has neo-paganism (see Harvey 1997). Research on so-called “spirituality” is carried out in different locations and many studies on this theme have been conducted (see Sutcliffe 2003, Heelas and Woodhead 2005). Alternative spirituality outside the Western context is also being adressed (see Stalker 2008).
The Swedish network FINYAR (Association for Information and Research on New Religious Movements and Alternative Spirituality) formed in 1997. The aim was to promote academic research on new religious movements and alternative spirituality and to spread academic information on these phenomena. The network worked well for some years, with at most around 30 engaged academics in Sweden from different disciplines such as comparative religion, sociology of religion, psychology of religion, sociology and political science. Due to a series of unfortunate circumstances (illness) the activity came to a standstill in the early 2000s and has, due to lack of time and resources, not regained the vitality of the late 90s. Junior researchers within the field of alternative spirituality often have no contact with the network and several senior researchers have left due to retirement.
We now want to form a new network for academic research on alternative spirituality, this time including not only Sweden but also the Nordic countries as international contacts become increasingly important. In Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland there are many senior as well as junior researchers who conduct studies on alternative spirituality from a variety of disciplines. The distance between different disciplines, universities and countries is still prevalent and most researchers have no contact with others. The Nordic countries (including Swedish-speaking Finland) constitute a common language and cultural area and a Nordic academic interdisciplinary network of researchers on alternative spirituality would be of great value. One can imagine future joint projects and various kinds of intellectual exchanges.
Further an inventory on the Nordic research on the subject is much needed as well as identification of the research front and discussions on how we can proceed together in the future in fruitful ways. There are also plans to establish a Nordic academic journal on alternative spirituality tied to the network. AURA: The Nordic Journal for the Study of New Religious Movements will be published at the end of 2009, editors professor Olav Hammer, Syddansk Universitet, Odense, and professor Liselotte Frisk, University of Dalarna, Falun.
The specific objective of the network funding is to, in 2012, publish an anthology which identifies the Nordic research front concerning the academic study of alternative spirituality and which discusses this from a historical as well as from a future perspective, as well as its relation to the international research front. To do this we need to:
• bring together junior as well as senior researchers from various disciplines who research topics related to new religious movements and alternative spirituality in Sweden, Denmark, Norway and (Swedish-speaking Finland)
• bring together key individuals within the network in meetings to discuss and substantialize the network’s further activities, and exchange information and identify ongoing and planned research connected to the field of alternative spirituality
• develop the network’s web page in order to take advantage of IT technologies by for instance having a discussion forum and features that enable people to quickly find scholars on the subject of interest
• promote contact with similar networks in other countries