New religions are flourishing around the globe, contrary to expectations of academicians who thought religion would wither in the 20th century.

“The fact is that religion mutates with Darwinian restlessness,” wrote Toby Lester, senior editor of The Atlantic. His article “Oh, Gods!” is the cover story in the magazine’s February 2002 issue.

The world is much more than the “few well-delineated and static religious blocs: Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and so on,” Lester wrote. “New religions are born all the time. Old ones transform themselves dramatically. Schism, evolution, death, and rebirth are the norm.”

“The variety of flourishing new religious movements around the world is astonishing and largely unrecognized in the West,” wrote Lester.

Seven new religions were identified as representative of this diversity. One was the Ahmadis, a messianic Muslim sect with 8 million members who are considered heretics and barred from entering Mecca. Another was the Toronto Blessing movement known for services with uncontrollable laughter.

Searching for an answer to why new religious movements succeed, Lester turned to Rodney Stark, a comparative religion and sociology professor at the University of Washington.

“The main thing you’ve got to recognize is that success is really about relationships and not about faith,” Stark old The Atlantic. “What happens is that people form relationships and only then come to embrace a religion.”

Stark identified “a serious concept of God” and giving members “things to do” as other reasons for success.

A major reason was the “rational-choice theory of religion.” Lester explained Stark’s controversial model as one in which “people act rationally in choosing their religion. … [T]hey make a constant cost-benefit analysis … about what form of religion to practice.”

Religion makes up the product side, while followers represent the consumer side, Lester said. “The more competition there is, the higher the level of consumption,” he said. Consequently, people change brands (religions).

Lester also noted the shift in the Christian world from the northern hemisphere to the southern one.

“No longer does Christian missionary activity flow primarily from the developed countries of the North to the developing countries of the South,” Lester wrote. “The course of missionary activity is also beginning to flow from the South to the North.”

For more insight into the explosion of new religions in the 21st century, read Lester’s article in The Atlantic Monthly which is available at most bookstores.

Also look for The Atlantic Monthly online at

Share This