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13.3.03

Two houses down from where I live is the Massachusetts headquarters of Eckankar, which Ethan describes as "like Scientology, only not as successful." From my brief online acquaintance with it, it seems like a fairly typical New Age religion. One of the defining features of New Age religion seems to be its radical syncretism. This is often encapsulated in its leader's spiritual heritage, as New Age leaders claim that they are the latest (and greatest) of a line of prophets that includes most of the major religious leaders of history -- Abraham, Zoroaster, Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad, etc. The idea is that all these religions, at least in their true form, share the same underlying spiritual truth.

It seems that we can classify religions' attitudes toward other faiths into four main types -- absolutist, relativist, syncretist, and situationist. Absolutist is the best known (due to Christianity's long history of rigid and strict absolutism), and often when we describe a belief as "religious" we are accusing it of being absolutist. Absolutist religion asserts that there is One True Faith, which is the same for all people, and all other belief systems are at best mistaken and at worst pernicious. Note that absolutist religion need not be intolerant. America's founders formulated the idea of religious freedom based on a form of absolutism that said that, while there is One True Faith, it is inappropriate to coerce others into following it.

Relativist religion says that all faiths are equally valid. Few people take a fully relativist approach, though the accusation of relativism is often thrown against syncretists, situationists, and tolerant absolutists. Relativism is most often promoted by religions that find themselves on the outs in society, and therefore turn to relativism to shield themselves from criticism.

The third type, syncretism, is where New Age religion falls. Syncretism denies the differences between religions, arguing that they are all valid because they share a spiritual core. In essence, syncretism claims that there is one true religion, but everyone already practices it.

Situationist religion is where I would place myself. Situationism says that there is a true religion (or at least that some religions are more true than others), but that the true religion may be different for different people. The correctness of a religion is not an absolute quality, but rather a function of the particular personal characteristics and context of the believer.It differs from syncretism because it maintains that there are meaningful differences between religions, and from relativism because it's possible to make a wrong choice.

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