This journal (formerly Religion Today) emanates from King's College, London, supported by an international editorial board that is on the whole distinguished. It is "an international journal which ... publishes articles which are concerned with current developments in new religions, esoteric movements, established religions, traditional sectarian movements, and religion in Eastern Europe''. Each issue contains five or six major articles with occasional conference reports and research notes, book reviews and sometimes a review article. The design is attractive and easy to read, with occasional photographs and diagrams.
The question is, do we need a journal specially dedicated to the study of "contemporary religion"? This vague, catch-all title is predicated on the assumption that a new, important and influential religious trend - usually described equally vaguely by some such phrase as "New Age religion'' or "New Age spirituality'' - has become discernible in much of the world, manifesting in a variety of ways and interacting variously with more established religions. This trend is characterised as individualistic, based on personal experience, often immanentist and optimistic about human development, and only lightly linked to organised religion, which it regards as preoccupied with external ritual and institutionalisation. Its roots supposedly reach back, in Europe, North America and parts of South Asia (in particular, India), to the latter half of the 19th century, a period of vigorous colonial expansion or consolidation.
It can be shown that such a movement does indeed exist, and that it has had and is likely to continue to have an important bearing on religion in the world. In other words, there does seem to be a need for a journal of "contemporary religion'', in which sustained and ongoing study of this phenomenon is undertaken. The question now becomes: is this journal a suitable forum for such study?
The contributors are invariably academics, mainly from North America and Europe. The style ranges from the homely, almost chatty at times, to the more formal. The articles, however, are on the whole scholarly and, as advertised, treat of a wide range of subjects, from the Brahma Kumaris to Sahaja Yoga, from the "Toronto Blessing'' to the nature of fundamentalism, from "The Protestant eruption into modern Brazilian politics'' to "Deconfessionalisation in the Netherlands'' (in the last three decades or so). There are fieldwork reports, ethnographic accounts, and historical and conceptual studies. The standard of research and analysis is what one would expect from a good academic journal.
If there is a weakness, it is to be found in the reviews section. The good news is that reviewers are drawn from a large pool of scholars, but the not-so-good news is that the number of books reviewed in each issue is small and selected, apparently, on a somewhat arbitrary basis. For instance, should general introductions to religion and the study of comparative religion appear in such a section? But perhaps policy is still being formulated in this respect and will become more focused in due course.
On the whole, then, the journal is a valuable research tool and source of new knowledge for scholars, teachers and others interested in studying the phenomenon of contemporary religion. With nothing really comparable available in the field, it is highly recommended.
Julius Lipner is lecturer in Indian religion and the comparative study of religion, University of Cambridge.
Journal of Contemporary Religion (three times a year)
Editor - P. B. Clarke
ISBN - ISSN 1353 7903
Publisher - Carfax
Price - £120.00 (institutions) £28.00 (individuals)
Pages - -