Russell T. McCutcheon in 1997 demonstrated that the arbitrary and Eurocentric construction of “religion” as a category sui generis provided a fatal foundation for Religious Studies as a discipline. Others argued that we would do much better if it instead were approached from a purely Anthropology and Sociological point of view. Around the same time Timothy Fitzgerald argued that even the so-called study of comparative religion and phenomenology of religion (a disguised form of liberal ecumenical theology) in fact hands the discipline to theology.
Others like Olav Hammer in “Claiming Knowledge” 2001 (his assessment of the secularization that took place in new, so called Esoteric and New Age traditions), proposed a theory of discourse. Or what he described as the analysis of publicly communicated constructions and what they are trying to say, to look at the contexts and pragmatic options that are necessary to understand what a text is all about.
Historians and sociologists by then had indeed demonstrated that belief in God, religiosity, and church attendance have all steadily increased over the past two centuries during the rise of modernity.
But as for the term ‘New Age’ itself, just like the term ‘Gnostic’ it rather was a designation by its opponents rather than what the individuals under investigation called themselves. For example the Christian philosopher John Cooper in Religion in the Age of Aquarius, 1971 to give one example.
Others like Sean McCleod in “Making the American Religious Fringe (2004) suggested that “large news and general-interest magazines like Time, Newsweek, Reader's Digest, and Life consistently labeled religious groups mainstream or fringe in ways that symbolically reproduced and legitimized inequalities of race and class in the postwar United States.” (p. 191)
This argument seems largely convincing considering that during the turbulent 1960’s the Lutheran Church in Sweden was not much affected by rebellious youth culture or the fall of foreign governments; the Church of England was anemic whether the radio is playing the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.
And in the USA contrary to ‘New Age’ urban myths, from 1963 to 1976 the Southern Baptist Convention grew by 2.5 million members, while Unitarians saw their ranks bulge by 30 percent (from 147,000 to 191,000 members), and Catholics by 15 percent (from 43 million to 49.5 million) this no doubt exceeds the percentage of population growth during the same period. In a 1973 study conducted in San Francisco, for example, only one percent said they knew a lot about Hare Krishna while 61 percent knew nothing; three percent knew a lot about Zen Buddhism, 27 percent knew a little, and 70 percent knew nothing; only 8 percent had participated in yoga, 5.3 percent in TM, and 2.6 percent in Zen. Instead, what happened is that traditional religious cultures evolved just enough to survive and outlive their would-be competitors. Or Jews, who had already undergone profound changes earlier in the century under Reform Judaism, and whose essence was more cultural than religious.
In fact ‘New Age’, is not a religion because it is not embodied in a social institution, and if anything it manifests itself as a multiplicity of individual “spiritualities” hence Paul Heelas in the UK termed it “holistic spirituality’ when he observed during a survey in Kendal/England 2000-2002 that increasing numbers of people preferred to call themselves `spiritual' rather than 'religious'. And this (the same in other countries in Europe, see Andrew M. Greely “Religion in Europe at the End of the Second Millennium” 2003) has markedly decreased Church attendance. But Heelas also added that congregations in the USA fare better.
And further confirms that: “there is a much larger and more organized constituency in the USA dedicated to the maintenance of life-as values and - correspondingly - more life-as job, to perform. This seems evident first in relation to national and civic values and roles (membership of congregations is still widely assumed to be a part of good citizenship), and second in relation to family values and gender roles (hence the central importance given to these matters by many campaigning Christian groups, and the intensity of Christian concern” (Heelas/Woodhead “The Spiritual Revolution” 2005, p.175)
Another approach has called the same NRM’s (New Religious Movements) or Alternative and “Emergent Religions” a term I personally prefer. They are considered to have certain characteristics in common if merely based on the fact that that they are new, but also that they will owe at least something to the religious traditions from which they emerge or better to say from the environment where this particular synthesis is inspired by. And one should also ad that a functional definition is based on what a religion does for an individual or group (such as providing meaning), whilst a substantive definition is based on what the religion is (such as a set of beliefs about superhuman beings).
And although Gordon Melton in contrast makes an oversymplistic proposition out of the suggestion they could be partially rooted in a specific Religion. I produce the following list for the sake of information only. Followed by an attempt to characterize what some of so called ‘New Age’ religious ideas’ are trying to say.
As a consequence of their newness ‘Emerging Religions’ are sometimes greeted with a certain antagonism because older religions are more integrated in their respective society’s. For example research has shown that those NRMs that have most frequently been accused of employing brainwashing techniques, those who use such terms tend to be concerned about the content of the beliefs and practices that the convert adopts, rather than the methods by which the convert arrives at those beliefs.
Of course there are also those that Weber, termed "world-rejecting movements." However the majority of NRMs do not indulge in criminal behavior. And members of traditional religions have equally fallen afoul of the law, like recent allegations of child abuse brought against clergy is one example. But where individual members of the Anglican communion in the UK have expressed antagonism, some even leading anticult and counter cult groups, the Church of England as an institution for example has not expressed antagonism but has supported the dissemination of an academic approach to understanding NRMs. See Eileen Barker, "Why the Cults? New Religions and Freedom of Religion and Beliefs," in Facilitating Freedom of Religion and Belief: Perspectives, Impulses and Recommendations from the Oslo Coalition, ed. Tore Lindholm, Bahiyyih Tahzib-Lie and Cole Durham (2005). It might, however, be noted en passant that not unlike the war between Catholics and Protestants., the Church of England also was responsible for the bloody persecution of other faiths, most notably Catholicism, when it was relatively new, having been established, disestablished and re-established by kings and queens during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Alternative Religions with Roots in Christianity
The Exclusive Brethren (1847)
The Christadelphians (1848)
Christian Science (1881)
Jehovah’s Witnesses (1881)
Unity School of Christianity (1891)
The New Apostolic Church (1906)
Shembe, The Nazareth Baptist Church (1911)
(Oneness) Pentecostalism (1913)
Iglesia ni Cristo (1914)
The Zion Christian Church (1924)
Aladura, The Church of the Lord (1925)
The Worldwide Church of God (1933)
The Celestial Church of Christ (1947)
Brotherhood of the Cross and Star (1950s)
Unification Church (1954)
The Way International (1955)
Peoples Temple (1955)
The Branch Davidians (1959)
The Jesus Movement (1960s)
The Family (Children of God) (1968)
The Holy Order of MANS (1968)
The Jesus Fellowship (Jesus Army) (1969)
The Word of Faith Movement (1974)
Creation Spirituality (1977)
International Churches of Christ (1979)
The Embassy of Heaven Church (1987)
Alternative Religions with Roots in Judaism
The Lubavitch Movement
Reconstructionist Judaism (1935)
Alliance for Jewish Renewal (1962)
Humanistic Judaism (1965)
The Havurot Movement (1973)
Gush Emunim (1974)
Alternative Religions with Roots in Islam
Order of Dervishes (1704)
Haggani Nagshbandi (1880s)
The Baha'l Faith (1844)
Shadhili-Akbari Sufi Order (1890s)
International Sufi Movement) (1923)
The Nation of Islam (1931)
Sufi Order International (1960s)
Nuwaubian Nation of Moors (1965)
Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship (1971)
Religions with Roots in Zoroastrianism
Ilm-e Khshnoom (1907)
Alternative Religions with Roots in Indian Religions
The Swaminarayan Movement (1802)
The Radhasoami Tradition (1850s)
Ramakrishna Mission (1897)
Meher Baba Movement (1923)
Self-Realization Fellowship (1925)
Church of Absolute Monism (1927)
The Brahma Kumaris (1936)
Hao Hoa (1939))
Church of the Shaiva Siddhanta (1949)
Satya Sai Baba Society (1950)
Muttappan Teyyam (1950s)
Ananda Marga (1955)
Transcendental Meditation (1957)
ISKCON: Hare Krishna Movement (1965)
Osho Movement (1966)
Western Buddhist Order (1967)
Krishnamurti Foundation (1968)
3HO Foundation (1969)
Mother Meera (1970s)
Sahaja Yoga (1970)
Elan Vital (1971)
Sand Asoke Movement (1973)
New Kadampa Tradition (NKT) (1976)
Dhammakaya Foundation (1977)
Mata Amritanandamayi Mission (1981)
Shambhala International (1992)
Nichiren Shôshû (1253)
Aum Shinrikyô (1986)
Kôfuku no Kagaku (1986)
Suma Ching Hai (1990)
Falun Gong (Falun Dafa) (1992)
Alternative Religions with Roots in Indigenous Traditions
Druidry (18th century)
Santerra (19th century)
Candomblé (19th century)
Heathenism (20th century)
Native American Church (1918)
Church of All Worlds (1968)
The Covenant of the Goddess (1975)
The Fellowship of Isis (1976)
Alternative Religions with Roots in Western Esoteric Traditions
Grail Spirituality (19th century)
Neo-Templar Orders (19th century)
Theosophical Society (1875)
Golden Dawn (1888)
Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO) (1903)
Anthroposophical Society (1912)
Society of the Inner Light (1922)
Gurdjieff and Ouspensky Groups (1922)
Arcane School (1923)
Emissaries of Divine Light (1932)
'I AM' Movement (1934)
School of Economic Science (1937)
Silva Mind Control (1944)
The Church Universal and Triumphant (1958)
Findhom Foundation (1962)
Movement of Spiritual Inner Awareness (1971)
Servants of the Light (1972)
Share International (1972)
Christian Gnostic Church (1972)
Order of the Solar Temple (1973)
A Course in Miracles (1976)
Fiat Lux (1980)
Impersonal Enlightenment (1988)
Temple of the Vampire (1989)
Jasmuheen and the Breatharians (1990s)
Church of Scientology (1954)
The Aetherius Society (1954)
Unarius Academy of Science (1954)
The Synanon Church (1958)
The Raëlian Religion (1974)
Heaven's Gate (1975)
Landmark Forum (1985)
Church of MOO (1990s)
Chen Tao (1993)
Case Study: Do alternative-‘New Age’ Hold on to their Promises?
First starting with Paul Heelas’s highlighting Holism as an important aspect of the new Spirituality. The holism professed in much of alternative- the planet we live on, between mind and body, between spirit and matter. Traditional Christianity, in this view, emphasizes the difference between the transcendent creator God and us, and focuses on our inferiority. Materialistic science, on the other hand, is atomistic in its approach, reducing everything to blind matter.
Holism may be a convenient term to label the rejection of contemporary mainstream values but is too indistinct a concept to form the basis for a common worldview. As a simple analogy shows, holism can be constructed on the most diverse underlying premises. Even such an utterly nonreligious philosophy as Marxism is in a sense holistic, since it sees the human condition as inextricably interconnected with the physical, social, and economic constraints of the environment. At the same time, this form of holism is built on a materialistic ontology. New Agers base their holism on a worldview that is very different.
A common creed in New Age literature is that any situation in which we find ourselves is the effect of our way of thinking. In the early 1970s, the American medium Jane Roberts began publishing books said to be channeled from the spiritual entity Seth. According to the Seth books, we literally create our own reality by means of our thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs. Everything we experience is a projection of our own inner world. Negative thoughts engender negative conditions in life. Once we realize this, we can begin to create the world we like:
If you are in poor health, you can remedy it. If your personal relationships are unsatisfactory, you can change them for the better. If you are in poverty, you can find yourself surrounded by abundance. The world as you know it is a picture of your expectations. The world as the race of man knows it is the realization en masse of your individual expectations.
Similar ideas have reached a mass audience through one of the modem classics of the New Age movement, A Course in Miracles.1 Compared with the Seth material, the idealism of A Course in Miracles is even more pronounced. Not only is the basic "stuff' of the cosmos immaterial-the Course also builds on the emphatic denial of the existence of anything else than God and love.
Literally everything we perceive in our familiar, everyday world is illusory. We believe that we live in a world in which people are separate from each other and in which suffering, sorrow and enmity abound. In reality, none of this truly exists; the entire world as we perceive it is a gigantic projection of our fear-ridden egos. We are thus responsible for the world, since we have created it ourselves:
I am responsible for what I
I choose the feelings I experience, and decide upon the goal I would achieve.
And everything that seems to happen to me I ask for, and receive as I have asked.2
Thus, all the evil and suffering that we believe ourselves to be witnessing in fact, the outcome of our own fear and guilt. When we seem to fall ill or suffer the effects of old age, this is merely the result of our own mind projecting its attacks on the body. More surprisingly, perhaps, even seemingly positive features of the world of ordinary perception, such as many close personal relationships, friendships, and loves, are said to prevent us from arriving at the state in which we realize that God and love are all there is. Personal relationships are yet another way of projecting onto others what we believe is lacking in ourselves. Such relationships, just like sin and suffering, are therefore part of the illusion that the ego makes us live in.
Books like the Seth series or A Course in Miracles hardly promote a holistic outlook by any reasonable interpretation of the term. Behind the professed holism there is a strong strand of metaphysical idealism. This underlying belief has roots in much older forms of Western esoteric religiosity and has been an integral part of the New Age ever since its inception.3
Further alternative-New Age writers can claim that their ideas are basically identical to the spiritual insights of Hindu sages, Native American shamans, Japanese healers, Egyptian priests, or Celtic druids. Commonly, these various traditions are claimed to be various manifestations of a common underlying essence. This essence, sometimes referred to as the perennial philosophy, is seen by many New Agers as the core of their own beliefs.
Problems arise, however, whenever a New Age writer attempts to delineate
precisely which doctrinal elements and rituals belong to this common spiritual
heritage. Religions from around the world appear to offer the most diverse
theories on topics such as the nature of the divine, the causes of evil, the
reason for the existence of suffering, and life after death. Typical strategies
have evolved to mask the differences. By claiming that all traditions are
basically more or less divergent versions of the truths offered in their own New
Age texts, contemporary spiritual entrepreneurs construct what is effectively a
A typical example concerns the belief in reincarnation. The term itself is quite vague and implies little more than the notion that it is our destiny after death to be reborn. Reincarnation beliefs are common throughout the world, a fact that a universalist might well find inspiring. The details, however, vary drastically depending on the specific religious context. In certain forms of reincarnation belief, a moral law determines which body we will be reborn into. In others,the process lacks ethical implications. In some belief systems, we can only be reborn as humans. In others, we can become animals or superhuman entities of various kinds. And most embarrassing for a true universalist, many religions, especially the three Abrahamitic faiths, base their views on life after death on other principles than reincarnation.
The specific reincarnation beliefs that one finds in popular New Age books are quintessential products of a Western religious imagination. As befits a theory of reincarnation in a society permeated with the idea of progress, the chain of successive lives that we pass through represents a ladder of spiritual evolution. The fundamentally optimistic outlook on life that dominates much of the New Age implies seeing reincarnation as a succession of opportunities to learn, experience life to the fullest, and fulfill our potential. By contrast, most orthodox forms of Hindu beliefs have no concept of progress and present reincarnation as an endless, nightmarish series of ups and downs. Rarely, if ever, does New Age literature concern itself with the incompatibility of Eastern and Western beliefs.
That the Abrahamitic faiths generally do not embrace reincarnation is readily explained away. First, it is noted that there are forms of Judaism as well as Islam that do accept reincarnation. The fact that these currents from an historical point of view represent unorthodox minority views is apparently not perceived as problematic. Second, the lack of reincarnation beliefs in Christianity has given rise to a modern legend.4
Theosophical writers in the late nineteenth century explained that early Christianity had indeed accepted the doctrine of rebirth and that the church father Origen was a reincarnationist. The leading authorities of the church, however, decided to suppress this belief. In the second council at Constantinople, Origen was declared a heretic and reincarnation was banned from Christian orthodoxy. New Agers have adopted this theosophical version of history and seem generally unaware of the fact that more mainstream understandings of the development of early Christian doctrine are entirely at odds with this view.
The fact that New Age reincarnationism is a quintessentially modem view vastly different from for example, Hindu or Buddhist beliefs, is hardly surprising. Every religious system is a unique socio-historical constellation of elements, one that furthermore is constantly changing, adding new doctrines and rituals as well as shedding old ones. A truly universalist creed is a contradiction in terms. Universalism needs to exclude those elements that do not fit the preconceptions of what the core of human religion should be like in order to protect an illusion of coherence between faiths.
Religious universalism also carries with it another problem. The peoples from whom one borrows doctrines and rituals can become aware of the fact that their traditions are being appropriated and may resent this fact. The resistance against New Age reinterpretations has been especially vocal from various indigenous peoples. Spokespersons from a number of Native American communities, Australian aborigines, Saami people of Lapland, and others have protested vehemently against New Agers constructing their own versions of their religions. The modern Western reinterpretations are often seen as commercialized pastiches of the original worldviews.
The relation between various indigenous groups and New Age appropriations of their traditions becomes even more intricate in those cases where modern reinterpretations have been created by individuals who themselves are Native Americans, Australian aborigines, or Saami.5 Elders within their respective ethnic groups can accuse these religious entrepreneurs of being motivated by commercial interests or of betraying the spiritual traditions of their own people.
The late twentieth century was a period of widespread tribalization. Consisting of ethnic groups whose members had been largely integrated into mainstream, white society discovered its roots and began defining itself as descendants of various indigenous peoples. Other groups, fighting a struggle for land rights and autonomy, had strong political motives for emphasizing their ethnic separateness. Although the languages, customs, and beliefs of some of these Native American or Australian peoples had become practically defunct, attempts were made to reconstruct their cultures. Scholars pointed out that some of these attempts seemed to invent indigenous traditions by projecting Western fantasy images onto the remaining vestiges of native cultures. The same radical reinterpretations that created New Age versions of tribal traditions seemed to be used by the ethnic groups to project positive images of themselves.
Spokespersons from numerous indigenous communities reacted by effectively branding critical scholars as agents of repression. Quite a few acrimonious battles have ensued over the legitimate interpretation of indigenous history. Thus Sam Gill, a scholar with an outstanding record of research in Native American religions, was fiercely attacked for a book that attempted to demonstrate that the image of the Indian venerating Mother Earth was largely a Western invention.6
New Age beliefs are intended to promote holism. At the same time, the supposedly holistic doctrines and practices of the New Age worldview are used by most New Agers as a set of individual building blocks that can be accepted or discarded in piecemeal fashion. What persuades individual New Agers to adopt any given element? Is it their unconstrained individual choice?
The elements of the cultic milieu have characteristically short life cycles. Any specific building block of the New Age can be fashionable for a few years, only to be superseded by yet another trend. During the 1970s, there was a widespread belief in the imminent spiritual evolutionary leap of mankind, a belief connected with the astrological concept of the Aquarian Age. A couple of decades later, it is difficult to find anybody who is firmly committed to this vision.7
In the 1970s, the values that were stressed in much of the literature were countercultural. Influential writers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, C. G. Jung, and Abraham Maslow wrote about themes such as the spiritual maturity and evolution of the individual and of humankind as a whole. In the 1990s, the aim of much of New Age literature would appear to be to affirm the values of mainstream society. Widely read authors such as Shakti Gawain, Louise Hay, and Deepak Chopra present methods of attaining health, wealth, and personal happiness. 8 A romantic dream has largely been replaced by a neo-liberal utopia.
Such trends that persuade hundreds of thousands of people to adopt certain practices or espouse given beliefs contradict the picture of the New Age as a truly individualistic phenomenon. The amount of collective behavior is surely no less in the cultic milieu than in, for example, the fashion industry. The individual choices of millions of individuals lead them to buy essentially the same products.
What factors influence people to streamline their behaviors? The creation of new trends in the religious marketplace is especially linked to the production and distribution of books. Key players, such as publishers and trendsetting media personalities, are crucial to this process. The importance of individuals who host popular talk shows can hardly be overestimated. Books endorsed on, The Oprah Winfrey Show have a substantially better chance of becoming best-sellers in America. Agents see the commercial potential of marketing these books overseas. Sales campaigns then focus on those particular books rather than on the dozens of other volumes on similar subjects that happen to be published at the same time. The net result is that an appearance on American prime-time television can significantly boost sales figures even in countries where these talk shows are practically unknown to the general public.
The wide distribution of specific texts can profoundly influence the cultic milieu. A major role of canonical literature in any religious community is to allow readers to express the vicissitudes of their own lives in the terminology and concepts of the sacred books. Literary merit, depth of ideas, logical coherence, and other values that outsiders to the community may look for in a text are largely irrelevant to those who use the canonical texts in this way. For New Agers, the latest best-sellers by Shirley MacLaine, Jerry Jampolsky, James Redfield, Brian L. Weiss, or Deepak Chopra can serve such a function. By reaching millions of people, they contribute significantly to the construction of a collective identity.
Others will regard their circle of friends as the reference group that gives legitimacy to various practices and beliefs. In her book Out on a Limb, Shirley MacLaine describes her journey from being a skeptical onlooker to a convinced New Ager. The practices and doctrines she comes to accept are, of course, those made available to her by people in her social network. Nevertheless, MacLaine considers herself a person who has "never been much for doing anything communally"9 and calls her participation in rituals constructed by other people and her gradual adoption of preexisting religious options a "quest for my self."9
The New Age literature tells us that we have a quasi-divine core, a spiritual self filled with untapped wisdom and potential. Truth lies within us. No guru needs to tell us how we should act and what we should believe in. Nevertheless, the same texts can then proceed to inform their readers in painstaking detail of the knowledge that they are deemed to already possess. The democratic ideal of the New Age is contradicted by the emergence of a tradition with canons of behavior and belief and with the concomitant possibility of gaining expert status at interpreting that tradition.10
Every sector of the New Age has its own more or less flexible rules governing correct praxis and orthodox doctrine. Astrological signs can be interpreted in many ways, but the allowable modes of interpretation are constrained by the rules of the astrological community. In theory, nothing would prevent the author of a textbook on astrology from going against the current and asserting that Leos are meek and Pisces assertive. Nevertheless, such statements would no doubt be branded as erroneous. Since numerous tests have shown beyond reasonable doubt that there is no empirical correlation between astrological signs and character traits, any critique from within the astrological community itself against such divergent views is necessarily directed against deviations from an established tradition.
The contradictions between the professed value of an individual quest and the existence of a canon are especially apparent in the attitude of the New Age toward religious experience. The often quite negative assessment of conventional religions-especially Christianity-tends to focus on the image of a patriarchal, hierarchical organization with rigid dogmas. This image of Christianity is rhetorically contrasted with the perceived freedom of New Agers to explore their own spirituality. Thus, in a way paralleled by few other modes of religiosity, New Age texts affirm that we all have the ability to receive prophetic messages through channeling. There are even do-it-yourself manuals teaching this rather arcane skill, for example, Opening to Channel by Sanaya Roman and Duane Packer.119 Nevertheless, only a small minority of those individuals who claim to have this ability have succeeded in reaching an audience wider than the nearest circle of friends.
A perusal of the channeled literature reveals variations on a few common themes. For a number of reasons, these texts claim, we have forgotten our true identities. We are not the limited beings that everyday experience tells us that we are. In reality, we are sparks of the divine. Perhaps it is fear that has blocked us from realizing our true nature. Or perhaps it is the dominance of a monolithic religion, the materialistic culture we live in, or the limitations of rationality. We create the world we live in. Our inner states are reflected in the outer world. Since we have forgotten our true natures, we create a flawed reality. However, we have incarnated again and again, have learned our spiritual lessons, and are now ready for a great spiritual leap. To help us, a variety of spiritually advanced beings, such as angels, spirits or extraterrestrials, are ready to come to our aid. There are now ways for us to shift our perception in order to become aware of what magnificent beings we actually are.
The relative homogeneity of the messages received by New Age channelers is apparent when contrasted with the very different prophetic writings produced in other religious contexts, such as Theosophy or Mormonism. How can a large number of texts composed by many different individuals be based on such a uniform set of ideas? Modes of social pressure invisible to the New Age spokespersons themselves would seem to provide a parsimonious account of the phenomenon. A small number of channeled texts have become central components of the New Age. These books have attained the status of standards of reference. A new revealed message will be produced by a person who is already steeped in this common New Age culture and will only be accepted by its readers to the extent that it is sufficiently coherent with earlier messages.
In his survey of New Age texts, Wouter Hanegraaff notes that the literature in its entirety sees its own form of "spirituality" as an alternative to the worldviews of mainstream society.12 The very term New Age places this form of religiosity in opposition to the ëold age' values represented by the two main foes, institutionalized Christianity and materialism. It is often left vaguely sketched what these new and positive values will be. The uniting link is not so much the new values that one struggles for as the old values one struggles against.
For a mode of religiosity that survives on quasi-Darwinist principles, a critique of the prevailing cultural norms is problematic. The available customer base for the ideas that float around within the cultic milieu is predominantly composed of modern Westerners. In fact, surveys tend to show that New Agers are mainly well-educated, middle-class individuals7'In order to attract readers, New Age writers will thus need to express their culture critique in a way that nevertheless appeals to the culturally defined demands of a distinctly modern, urban audience.
It should therefore come as no surprise that some of the most successful attempts to define what this new spirituality is supposed to achieve present the results of spiritual advancement as personal success in a variety of areas. In his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, best-selling author Deepak Chopra explains that we can change our circumstances by altering our way of thinking. Among the effects of a new, spiritualized mind-set, one finds not only good health, energy, enthusiasm for life, fulfilling relationships, creative freedom,
emotional and psychological stability, a sense of well-being, and peace of mind but also the ability to "create unlimited wealth with effortless ease and to experience success in every endeavor."13 The ultimate goal of the spiritual quest would seem to be to succeed in capitalist society.
Segments of New Age literature nonetheless remain committed to a critique of contemporary culture. To what extent might such a critique have any effect in the real world?
Parallels with other new religious movements give some indication of what is needed to achieve one's aims. What differentiates large, economically and politically successful bodies such as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (that is, the Mormons) from their weaker competitors? The Mormons have an efficient and strictly organized missionary activity.14 They have built up a bureaucratic power structure, and have, through the custom of tithing, established a powerful economic base. In communities where Mormons constitute a significant segment of the population, they exert considerable influence on business and politics.
The New Age presents a striking contrast. Despite its implicit emergent
canon, it is embodied in the practices and beliefs of a large
number of individual people without a common institutional affiliation.
From a sociological point of view, it might be more appropriate to classify the
New Age as a form of vague collective behavior than as a movement.15 Even if
New Age spokespersons should evolve a more distinct social or political agenda,
their prospects of actually implementing their proposed goals would seem to be
Alternative-New Age literature is filled with empirical claims: astrology is a key to character and destiny, therapeutic touch cures illness, dowsing can detect hidden energies. Skeptics present their reasons for regarding such claims as flatly contradicted by robust research. As this article has shown, there are also inherent contradictions in the broader aims of the New Age movement.
If the universalism of the New Age is insular, if its antiauthoritarianism is contradicted by the authoritarian voices of its founding texts, if so many of its claims are ultimately based on a subjective intuition that disregards critical rationality, why does the New Age hold such an appeal for millions of often quite well-educated people?
Its appeal, it would at times seem, lies less in the ideas of the New Age literature itself than in the way it defines its foes. Much of the New Age is a revolt against rationalism, even against modernity itself. Skeptics point to the fact that much New Age material flies in the face of contemporary scientific knowledge. What the skeptic perhaps misses is that this is precisely one of the appeals of the New Age message.
Why should New Agers want to revolt against science and critical rationality? A suggestive parallel is afforded by a study of the intellectual development of young women.25 Many of the women had been plagued by the typical self-doubts of youth, had found it difficult during their school days to assert their own wishes and opinions and to see themselves as competent and intelligent individuals. Quite a few had resolved their doubts by quietly revolting against authority. They redefined the nature of knowledge. Previously, knowledge had been defined as passively assimilating the claims coming from parents, teachers and other adults. Knowledge gradually came to be understood as an inner, subjective or intuitive faculty. Almost half of the women in the study had at some time in their lives adopted a largely subjective epistemology.
Adopting a subjective view of knowledge has both advantages and disadvantages. It gave the women of the study the strength to assert themselves as individuals. At the same time, subjectivism entails a risk of marginalization by reinforcing culturally constructed stereotypes of women as being less logical than men. A subjectivist stance, if carried to extremes, also risks excluding women from careers in, for example, the sciences. Subjectivism, implying that an opinion that is deeply held needs no support from empirical evidence, rationality, or established knowledge, goes counter to the most elementary principles of higher education. Some of the women of the study went as far as adopting the view that rationality is a gender-specific male discourse.
There are obvious similarities between the women who identified strongly with a subjective view of knowledge and the supporters of New Age thinking. Science, abstraction, and critical rationality are in both groups seen as something profoundly alien. In their attempts to reject the perceived dogmatism of external authorities, both groups risk constructing an equally dogmatic position, in which science, logic, and rationalism are forcefully rejected for a priori reasons.
However, the story does not end there. A study of American college students suggests that there is a step beyond subjectivism.26 A period of passive acceptance of authorities was frequently followed by an extreme subjectivism. However, for many college students this was a passing stage. They gradually arrived at a synthesis in which subjectivity and critical analysis could coexist. Personal areas of life were judged according to emotional or subjective criteria, whereas empirical matters were not.
In order to enable students to arrive at such a position, it would seem important to stress the difference between accepting a set of facts and assimilating the method of critical rationality needed to judge the veracity of facts. Research conducted as far back as the turn of the twentieth century has shown that intellectual aptitude in one area does not increase other intellectual skills." Specifically, critical thinking does not just seep in as facts are assimilated but needs to be specifically taught.16 Age spokespersons, by contrast, tend to be self-taught or may have pursued specialized courses at private institutions that do not generally foster historical, scientific, or philosophical awareness. The contradictions and incoherences of much New Age literature are therefore not checked by any counteracting forces.
Skeptical literature generally attempts to debunk the empirical claims of the New Age literature. The present article, although also written in a critical vein, has attempted a somewhat different mode of approach. Individual New Age writers can contradict themselves and each other, and can grossly misrepresent historical and scientific facts. The New Age as a whole lacks the structures necessary to detect and remedy such inconsistencies. No religion is based on logic and adherence to what is empirically verifiable; two basic elements of any faith are the willing suspension of disbelief and sheer habit. Incoherence is inevitable in any religion, no matter how elaborately theologized. However, the New Age generally lacks support from intellectuals. Whereas a number of other creeds have been defended by the ablest minds of each generation, the New Age remains a bare-bones rendition of religiosity.
Religion can be understood as a set of discourses and practices that
"invest specific human preferences with transcendent status by
misrepresenting them as revealed truths, primordial traditions, divine
commandments and so forth."17 Other faiths have simply had a considerably
greater success at convincing large audiences that their discourses and
practices are consistent worldviews grounded in ancient traditions and
transcendent truths. For those of us who believe that religious worldviews are
built on nothing more substantial than the predilections of certain individuals
or social groups, the very fragmentation and incoherence of the New Age milieu
is one of its most redeeming features. Unlike powerful and institutionalized
religions, the New Age is likely to have a relatively limited effect on society as a whole. Whereas Christian creationists have the
resources to wage a concerted war against the teaching of evolutionism, even
the most committed New Agers will most probably never have the political clout
to force schools to give classes on the occult energies of crystals.
1. A Course in Miracles is a channeled text dating back to the early to mid-seventies. According to the founding legend, the message of this book was received from an inner voice speaking to a research psychologist at Columbia University, Helen Schucman.
2. A Course in Miracles, Volume I: Text, p. 418.
3. Ultimately, the New Age belief that our consciousness creates the circumstances that we live in is a modern reflex of the much older belief in the power of our imaginative faculties. Images held in the mind, it was widely understood throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, could either be projected onto others and used to influence them or could affect the person holding them. This latter concept was inter alia used to give a seemingly rational explanation of the then-current lore that fetuses were affected by the sense impressions received by pregnant women See Faivre 2000 for a brief overview of the concept of imaginatio.
4. Hanegraaff 1998, 321-22, briefly surveys the occurrences of this legend in New Age literature.
5. One of the most influential of these was Sun Bear (1929-1992), a man of Ojibwa descent who created a set of pan-Indian rituals that catered to the interests of whites. 13. Gill 1987.
6. Melton 1995.
7. Heelas 1996, 126.
8. MacLaine 1986, 143.
9. MacLaine 1986, 5.
10. See Culver and lanna 1988 for a review of such studies. 19. Roman and Packer 1987.
11. Hanegraaff 1998, 515-17.
12. For a brief discussion, see Bruce 1996, 217-19. 22. Chopra 1996, 1-2.
13. On the succesful history of Mormonism, see Arrington and Bitton 1992; specifically on LDS recruitment and mission strategies, see e.g., Stark and Bainbridge 1985, 316-20. 24. Bainbridge 1997, 369.
14. Belenky et al. 1986.
15. Perry 1970.
16. Thorndike and Woodworth 1901.
17. Research to this effect is summarized in Nisbett and Ross 1980,
176-79. 29. Lincoln 2000, 416.
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