By Vexen Crabtree 2014
The definitions of things like New Religious Movements (NRMs) and the New Age are fraught with difficulties and contradictions. Neo-paganism; neo-druidism, the revival of interest in native religious culture; Wicca and Paganism; and the New Age in general, all share certain features and have overlapping memberships1, so, they all get a mention on this page alongside secret societies and other movements. Nearly all new groups are viewed with suspicion. And although it was once the case that they alone were often associated with all kinds of social problems, nowadays religion in general is also considered unwholesome by many2. So in relation, alternative religions are growing in status, especially now that traditional religions have been made unable, legally, to monopolize the public sphere. These spiritualities are all highly individualistic3, based on personal experience4, which are both features popular in modernism in general. Many of the elements of these movements are not new in terms of beliefs or practices, just new in terms of (dis-)organisation and context.
“Spirituality is being explored in some unexpected areas of Western life (such as the world of business) and may incorporate a range of beliefs informed by anything from the world religions to ideas about UFOs and dolphins.”
“The New Age is a wildly varied collection of practices and beliefs rather than a structured belief system, and as such it is difficult to define6. Popular elements include alchemy, alternative psychotherapy techniques, animism, aromatherapy, astrology, channeling, crystal work, divination, Gnosticism, karma stuff, lightwork and colour healing, magic, mediums, psychic powers of every kind, reincarnation and past life regression, sacred geometry (leylines, pyramid power, magical shapes), Spiritualism, Tarot card readings, Taoism, Yoga and many other splintered movements and zany practices7,8
It derives from folklore, superstition, pre-modern magical beliefs and elements of Hinduism and Buddhism. The peoples of mythical places such as Atlantis and Avalon rub shoulders with the gods, goddesses and other spiritual beings from ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, Celtic, Nordic, Saxon, Teutonic and Native American belief systems9. New Agers themselves emphasize the 'arcane' nature of their 'ancient' and 'secret' wisdom10. Some of it comprises of practices that are commonplace in the East (such as meditation) but which are simply called 'new age' when they happen to be practiced by Westerners. Much of the Indian influence on the New Age derives from diluted practices and ideas brought from India by the Theosophists.”
“Paganism encompasses a range of religions, belief systems and practices11,12,13,14: these include Asatrú, Celtic revivalism, Druidism, Goddess Spirituality, Heathenism, Paganism, various magical groups, some of the New Age, a few occult groups, Sacred Ecology and Wicca. It also covers the interest of previously-uninvolved Westerners in Shamanism, Native American and Native Australian spiritualism, and other primitivist belief systems. The Pagan Federation defines a Pagan as "a follower of a polytheistic or pantheistic nature-worshipping religion"14. In general, followers and fans are called Pagans with a capital "P" in order to differentiate them from "pagans", a historical religious term to mean anyone not a member of the traditional monotheistic religions. In the USA the term neo-Pagan is used for the same purpose.
General modern Paganism "is not a doctrinaire movement" and it is based "on experience rather than on blind faith"15. The various forms of Paganism tend to share an individualistic approach, are spiritually and magically oriented, reject monotheism16, involve a goddess of some sort ("a religion without goddesses can hardly be classified as Pagan"14), and veer away from commercialism. They claim ancient and timeless "wisdom" and draw upon elements of religions from around the world, especially Western esoterism, romanticised versions of native beliefs and Indian spirituality, and share a creative use of myth and a seasonal cycle of festivals17. Also normal are a positive and moral approach to environmentalism and feminism (or at least gender neutrality) and a generally liberal approach to human (and animal) rights in general. They do not consider the world to be bad nor ourselves to be inherently sinful18.
The resulting kaleidoscope of beliefs and practices are mostly indulged in quite lightly, all described and merged using mystical and airy language which, however kindly it is meant, tends to lack any philosophical cogency and sits, generally speaking, within the realm of the mythical and the irrational. Concerns abound from Christians and other representatives of world religions who are clearly worried about the new competition from this popular and young suite of newcomers to the world stage, however, it must be noted that "most people's prejudices [towards Paganism in general] are based on misrepresentation by the media"17 and some people still confuse Paganism with Satanism19. Critics of Paganism can also be found amongst historians, skeptics, scientists and intellectuals based on the negative effect it can all have on common sense, and, complaints also arise from the natives and other genuine gurus of the traditions from which Paganism has drawn. Despite those problems and the addiitonal one of "Pagan" not referring to any particular belief system, "there is both official and academic recognition that Paganism is a serious religion"17.”
“Wicca is a Western mystery religion20 invented and founded by Gerald Gardner in the UK in the 1950s, followed shortly by the very similar Alexandrian Wicca in the 1960s, although the two strands are now very closely intertwined21 and Wicca is decentralized. Wiccan practices centre on ritual, nature veneration, natural cycles, and magical and spiritual learning22. Much of it derived from pseudo-folklore. Its festivals are held on the eight yearly Sabbats. Divinity in Wicca is seen as both male and female (typically as the Horned God and Mother Goddess22), as are the general forces of nature which emanate from the male and female principal23,24, and these two sides complement one another21,25. Groups of adherents are called covens and as with other mystery religions entrance to Wicca comes by way of initiation, a process which requires study and the gaining of the trust of the others. Covens aim to have thirteen members, which are then traditionally seen as "full", and growth comes by way of splintering21. Solitary practitioners are called hedgewitches. Compared to other new religious movements in the West, adherence to Wicca takes up a surprising amount of dedication and time21.”
“Shamanism is a timeless and ancient style of religion26, involving beliefs and practices that predate history, although the word itself comes from the Tungus people of Siberia, Russia27. Shamans still operate today in North America in some native Indian communities and amongst some Australian aborigines.28 The oldest evidence of Shamanism comes from European cave paintings, the oldest of which are over 30,000 years old29. It is based on animism - the belief that spirits are everywhere, indwelling not only all animals, but objects too30. Shamans are tribal spiritual leaders who are believed to be skilled in harnessing animal spirits as allies in order to look after the local community31,32 and to be able to act as "mediator between the human world and the world of the spirits"33. They attempt to ascertain the causes of calamities and to improve the luck and enterprise of the tribe. In trances and altered states of consciousness, often brought about through the use of psychoactive drugs, deprivation and mental illness (or episodes are sometimes simply faked), shamans attest to a world full of animal and ancestor spirits.34
In the modern, developed world, new forms of shamanism have arisen as part of the general growth of neo-Paganism. Enthusiasts reconstruct, re-read and re-interpret shamanism, turning it into a general spiritual enterprise divorced from its original context and meaning. It "has spawned numerous related books, workshops and training sessions, some of which incorporate practices and paraphernalia from a variety of native traditions"35, although many are critical of this modern reconstruction and the connection between modern and ancient shamanism can often be described as "tenuous" at best36. Arthur Versluis writes with scorn of "some modern authors who give workshops" but says that "to be a shaman is not merely a weekend of entertainment"37. The pagan scholar Nevil Drury starts his book Shamanism by saying that "it is a fantasy to endeavour to transpose the world of the shaman to our own contemporary setting"38 and despite hundreds of years of shamanic experience, spiritualists nowadays report a completely different spirit world. So someone's making a lot of stuff up. Either way, our knowledge of physiology, delirium, neurology and science is simply too great, and the history of charlatans, cold-readers and other chauvinistic spiritualists is too long, for shamanism to ever seem authentic again.”
Druidry is generally thought of being representative of a Celtic religion in prehistorical England39,40,41,42, but whose adherents were barred from writing down their beliefs, and, whose beliefs were only passed down to initiates43 or encoded into folk tales39,44. Much of the Druidic/Celtic lore is based on influential forgeries from the 1780s-90s by Edward Williams (also known as Iolo Morganwg)45 and others46. They probably did believe in reincarnation, like other Celtic communities around them47. Modern reconstructed Druidism is part of the neo-pagan range of religions, with no real historical ties to ancient Druidry48. There has been a lot debate over the legitimacy of modern self-proclaimed Druids49,50.
Modern Druids most identify as polytheistic51 and the major movements involve Shamanism39,52, love of the Earth and nature39,52,51, animism (the belief that natural objects have spirit)51,52 and pantheism51 (that all the natural world is itself god), adoration of the Sun40,53 and belief in reincarnation47 which in some groups is taken so seriously that they routinely spend time at meetings channelling voices from the dead54.”
“There has been an explosion of interest in unusual, novel, untraditional, magical, counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. They have some common features1 and share a number of common pull-factors attract people to new religious movements1.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism.58
Golden-age romanticism. Some groups promote pre-industrial or historical moral eras and attract others who think that the modern world is "lost".59
The rise of individualism63 and protections for freedom of belief means people are free to pick-and-choose which religion to embrace.
Religious groups that arise from a particular cause will attract those interested in that cause. Two of the most popular amongst NRMs are:
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Age groups, and they attract many people who are similarly passionate about protecting the planet.63,64,65,66,67
Many New Religious Movements, especially the New Age, thrive on emotional instinct, basic magical thinking and supernatural beliefs that are anathema to science - "the heart in favour of the head" according to Paul Heelas, who specifically notes that the New Age is opposed to rationalism and prefers to rely on intuition and "inner wisdom"69. Likewise it might sound positive and healthy to follow Sir George Trevelyan´s New Age advice to "Only accept what rings true to your Inner Self"3 but it is as much a recipe for anarchy as it is for peace.
Poor thinking abounds. Simplistic and nonsensical categorisation methods - based on whim and fancy - are used as the basis for systems of healing which are then sold to uncritical customers. The otherwise impassionate Steve Bruce compared the style of thinking to that of the Middles Ages:
“Causal mechanisms rarely gets beyond metaphor and highly contestable notions of temperament that have hardly developed since the Middle Ages' four humours of blood, phlegm, choler, and block choler (or melancholy). For example, Edward Bach's flower remedies, which were first formulated in the 1930s and are now popular again [held] that there are twelve basic moods which can be manipulated with the appropriate flower essences [to cure disease]. [...]
For outsiders, one of the most startling features of the New Age is its apparent division from the rational scientific world-view which dominates Western culture [... with includes its] insistence on experimentation, observation and testing. [...] New Agers tend to have little interest in conventional notions of testing. That one or two people assert that a therapy worked for them is enough.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)70
Scientific journals and periodicals such as the Skeptical Inquirer are filled with articles that despair at the scientific nonsense that is peddled on the New Age shelves of bookstores. Religious studies academic Roderick Main notes that all too "commonly, New Agers speak and write about science, whether drawing on or denigrating it, with very little understanding of actual scientific theories or methodologies"71. Sam Harris summarizes the net effect of the volumes of pseudo-scientific rubbish that is produced by New Age authors and disseminated by New Age publishers:
“The New Age has [...] made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells. Most of the beliefs and practices that have been designated as "spiritual," in this New Age or in any other, have arisen and thrive in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence. Indeed, many New Age ideas are so ridiculous as to produce terror in otherwise dispassionate men.”
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)72
These criticisms against the modern New Age are not in themselves modern. William James, one of the esteemed founders of the study of comparative religion, warned us all clearly that "what immediately feels most 'good' is not always most 'true'" (in 1902)73. Such criticism began as the pre-echoes of the Enlightenment began to be felt across Europe and superstition itself became to be seen as a human weakness in critical thinking: an attempt to trick humans for selfish purposes, rather than an attempt to promulgate the Devil's practices. It was this that caused King Louis XIV in 1682 to enact laws to protect "many ignorant and credulous people who were unwittingly engaged with... the vain professions of fortune-tellers, magicians, or sorcerers" and to regulate the selling of poisons74.
In British society by the nineteenth century, secret societies and fraternities such as Freemasonry were rather common. They were epitomized by secret membership and rather involved clothing adorned with all kinds of symbolism. They were almost purely the reserve of men, not women.
“Freemasonry (though now generally lacking a genuine occult content) was found even in small country towns, and had quite a high public profile; at Melrose in the Scottish Lowlands, for example, the local lodge paraded through the streets carrying torches every Midsummer's Eve. All its branches preserved rituals of initiation and celebration which had a quasi-magical character, and Masons referred to the traditions collectively as 'the Craft'. Then there were Friendly Societies or Benefit Clubs, rudimentary insurance societies to provide members with sick pay, unemployment benefits and a decent funeral. These sprang up in both town and country in the early-nineteenth century, flourished until its end, and incorporated ceremonies loosely modelled upon those of Freemasons. They could be very dramatic; one initiation rite of the Oddfellows, for example, involved leading the newcomer blindfolded into a circle of members and tearing off the blindfold to reveal that a sword was pointed at this chest. He then had to take the oath of secrecy and fidelity to the society. It is worth bearing in mind through all this that what he was actually supposed to be doing was buying an insurance policy! Membership of these groups was often linked to a particular trade or 'craft', and meanwhile the old-style trade guilds or 'crafts' still survived in many towns. Some adopted the trappings of the quasi-ceremonial societies; in Shrewsbury in 1840, a trade guild bought up a job-lot of Masonic regalia for its meetings in order to add dignity and excitement to them.
Such groups continued to proliferate into the early twentieth century. Some were drinking clubs in which the rites were largely humorous, such as the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes. Others were much more serious. One of the most important was the Order of Woodcraft Chivalry [... which] met in woodlands, especially the New Forest, and conducted ceremonies within a sacred circle, consecrated by people standing at the quarters in the order east then south then west then north. Its leaders were called the Witan, Anglo-Saxon for 'wise'; and so its practices were 'the craft of the wise'. In 1938, the Order went into schism, and split into a number of different groups, meeting at different places in the New Forest in subsequent years and developing their own rituals.”
"The Roots of Modern Paganism" by Ronald Hutton (1995)75
Although some say that many of the pagan and New Age religions mentioned on this page are anti-Christian, this is far from the truth. Compare them to a religion that is truly and heartily anti-Christian: Satanism. In this fearsome religion, which is actually atheist, dislike of god(s) is taken to such an extreme that Satanists actually embrace and uphold the symbol of Satan as their figurehead. Satanism is certainly not part of the New Age or paganism, and is in most areas very much incompatible with traditional New Age thought. However bookstores will invariably put LaVey's books in the Mind-Body-Spirit section, through ignorance and innocence. LaVey's texts clearly should be in philosophy or religion, probably the latter. My reporting on this religion is surely biased as it is my own; however, here are two of my introductions to the subject of LaVeyan Satanism:
Satan is good and evil, love and hate. It is the gray; the totality of reality undivided into arbitrary dichotomies. Satan is not a real being, not a living entity, not conscious, nor a physical thing that can be interacted with. It is a symbol, something ethereal, something that exists as an emotional attachment and personal dream. Just like Buddhists do not worship Buddha, Satanists hold up Satan as an ultimate principle rather than an object of literal worship. Satan inspires and provokes people, so, like all (honest) religions the ultimate point is self-help. God-believers have a different opinion on what Satan is, but their opinion is a result of their religion, steeped in mankind's ignorant past. Satanism's Satan is much more eclectic and multicultural than to be defined by Christianity or Islam.
Satan is the dark force in nature representing the carnal nature and death of all living things. The vast majority of the Universe is cold, uninhabitable and lifeless. In the only part of the Universe that we know to host life, it is tied to a system of predator-and-prey: the natural world is violent, desperate, bloody and amoral. If there is a god, it is surely evil. Satan, and Satan alone, best represents the harshness of reality.”
“Satanism is a ferocious religion based on materialism, the empowerment of the self and the ego, the carnal realities of animal life, the questioning of social taboos, the ridiculing of most other religions, and the promotion of tough social justice. Satan is not real but is the most ideal and accurate symbol of reality and nature: The world is full of violence, suffering, stress, striving and death - the life cycle itself requires all these things. It is clear that no symbol of 'goodness' or 'light' can embody it all. The vast, uninhabitable darkness of the Universe, with galactic cataclysms rendering huge destructions on huge scales, means that only Satan can embody the true state of everything that is. Satanists tend to use all the symbols of darkness and evil. There is no heaven, no hell, no afterlife, no angels or demons: there are no gods or saviours apart from ourselves. But if there was a god, it would surely be utterly evil.
The Church of Satan was founded in 1966 by Anton LaVey and as of 2001 its Black Pope has been the powerful and articulate Peter Gilmore. Satanism as religion is highly skeptical, rationalist and philosophical, demanding evidence and strong argumentation, but is otherwise open-minded on magic and some parts of the supernatural. Satanists are often bold, intelligent, demanding; but are also often subtle, cautious, hidden, while others still are outrageous, aggressive, angry and puzzling. It is a religion of fire, drama, depth and forceful progress.”
Although not a growth religion (numbers slowly wax and wane), the character of Satanism shows that other pagan and NRMs are clearly not anti-Christian in character. The Left-Hand-Path is formed mostly from a series of small and sturdy philosophies and occult groups, with kaleidoscopic membership and beliefs, based heavily around the self as the center of the religious world. Despite the paranoias of some people, however, left-hand-path and occult religions are not experience anything like the levels of growth of the other NRMs discussed on this page. Their appeal is hard to gauge, with followers of Satanism being somewhat more mature, educated and stable than many would expect - see Satanists and Satanic Community: How many are there and what are they like?: 3.5. Satanists as Studied by Sociologists.
Current edition: 2014 Sep 27
Last Modified: 2017 Dec 13
Parent page: Human Religions
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