|Links: Pages on New Age, Other Religions|
|Area of Origin||The West|
|Founder||From popular beliefs from the 1850s, attaining identification in the 1960s|
|Numbers in the UK (Census results)|
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 define1. 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 practices2,3
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 systems4. New Agers themselves emphasize the 'arcane' nature of their 'ancient' and 'secret' wisdom5. 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.
New Age practices, products and ideas are infamous for being based on whim and fancy3, with very poor quality (and untested) healing products being sold to uncritical customers. Even worse is the literature that attempts to explain New Age theory. William James said in 1902 that the New Age is "so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed" that rational people find the literature almost impossible to read6 and Sam Harris says "the New Age has ... made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells [and has arisen] in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence. Indeed, many New Age ideas are so ridiculous as to produce terror in otherwise dispassionate men"7. It is "a sad commentary on reading tastes" that since the 1980s self-help bookshelves have been swamped with endless Deepak Chopra waffle and thoughtless rubbish like Rhonda Byrne's The Secret3. The very phrase 'New Age' is associated with such nonsense that many practitioners have switched to use the word 'holistic' instead8. One of the most disliked aspects is pseudoscience, where "New Agers speak and write about science... with very little understanding of actual scientific theories"9. Sometimes, even daft beliefs can have serious consequences, especially where New Age practices verge towards making medical claims, and for this reason many have called for increased regulation10.
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.
Pagans and New Agers share a large number of cultural interests and there is a significant overlap between the two communities20. Some scholars class neo-Paganism as a whole as part of the New Age as a whole, where some are sure that they are independent developments21. For example, Nevil Drury say Paganism is New Age, but Aiden Kelly differentiates them22. Pagans themselves despise being described as New age as Pagans consider themselves "less consumer oriented and less mainstream than New Age" whilst New Agers tend to focus on "light" and "healing" and other intensely saccharine concepts, all mixed in with a very open form of popularism23,20. Despite those differences, in 1995 the researcher Michael York found that at a Newcastle conference, Paganism in Contemporary Britain, the attendees were not only well educated about the New Age as a whole, but, they expressed opinions that it was worthwhile and good - no-one there said otherwise19.
The researcher Michael York notes that the New Age derives from older traditions. He notes, in particular, "the spiritualist, New Thought and theosophical traditions of the 19th century" (York 2004)24, and says that the New Age is "a contemporary development" and "outgrowth" of Theosophy, and that it represents a move towards accepting the best parts of all other world religions and beliefs (1995)25.
“A major difficulty with understanding New Age is that it does not conform to traditionally understood forms of religious organisation. [... It] is highly diversified and means many different things to different people. [...] It is instead a loose series of networks between different groups or cells - some similar or even duplicates, others radically contrasting - while a constantly varying number of spokespeople, therapists and teachers who are in vogue at any given point in time move through its various circuits. [...] For the most part, people who identify with New Age are anti-institutional and claim to be 'spiritual' rather than 'religious'.”
“The situation we find ourselves in [...] is that upper-class Indians visiting the Theosophical Society, middle-class Indians visiting Sai Baba's, or Indian hippies sitting on the rocks of Mahabalipvram, are best not thought of as 'New Age'. But Westerners, New Age in California, surely continue to be New Age when they visit the same sites. [...] Bhagwan, catering for Indians during the earlier 1970s, is best regarded as just another Indian Guru. But Bhagwan in Oregan [...] is clearly best regarded as New Age.”
"The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Postmodernity" by Paul Heelas (1996)27
The OCRT describe the modern movement now known as New Age as becoming popular in the 1970s, and state:
“Its roots are traceable to many sources: Astrology, Channeling, Hinduism, Gnostic traditions, Spiritualism, Taoism, Theosophy, Wicca and other Neo-pagan traditions, etc. The movement started in England in the 1960's where many of these elements were well established. Small groups, such as the Findhorn Community in Inverness and the Wrekin Trust formed. The movement quickly became international. Early New Age mileposts in North America were a "New Age Seminar" ran by the Association for Research and Enlightenment, and the establishment of the East-West Journal in 1971.”
However it is identifiable as a noticeable and significant movement at least seventy years before then. William James' lectures in 1900/1901 compiled as "The Varieties of Religious Experience28" describe the new age movement as a wave sweeping America. If it was already a wave by 1901, it must have been gaining momentum even before then, too.
William James29 clearly describes the early movement that we now know as "New Age", calling it the "New Thought" and "Mind cure" movement. He describes it as a flood that is sweeping America. "It has reached the stage, for example, when the demand for its literature is great enough for insincere stuff, mechanically produced for the market, to be to a certain extent provided by publishers - a phenomenon never observed, I imagine, until a religion got well past its earliest insecure beginnings". He lists its influences as being:
The four Christian Gospels
Emersonianism or New England transcendentalism
Other modern authors have noted some of the exact same influences on the New Age (see the introductory description at the top of this page for examples).
“The roots of many of today's New Age religions, philosophies and groups can be traced back over a hundred years, to the last quarter of the nineteenth century. [...] Sir George Trevelyan was teaching New Age courses in the 1950s, and Guy Ballard's I AM Movement and the Emissaries both date to the 1930s.”
"A Brief Guide to Secret Religions" by David V. Barrett (2011)30
Alan Anderson lists some important figures and groups in the formation of the new age movement:
“New Thought [began] in the nineteenth century [...]. It is the outgrowth of the healing theory and practice of Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, whose influence was spread by his former patients, the most prominent of whom were: Warren Felt Evans, who wrote the first books in what would be called New Thought; Mary Baker Eddy, who established Christian Science; and Julius and Annetta Dresser, who, with their son Horatio, spread the word about Quimby. Former Eddy associate Emma Curtis Hopkins taught her own version of healing idealism, indebted indirectly to Quimby and directly to her own explorations and to Eddy. Hopkins, the "teacher of teachers," taught founders of Divine Science, Unity, and Religious Science. These groups, along with Religious Science-influenced Seich-No-Ie, are the best-known groups in the New Thought movement.
The name New Thought was taken in the 1890s, generally replacing such names as Mind Cure and Mental Science. William James dealt with the movement in Lectures IV and V of "The Varieties of Religious Experience" under the name "The Religion of Healthy-Mindedness." [...] Some studies of the New Thought movement by Charles S. Braden, Horatio W. Dresser, Stillson J. Judah, and others are given in the bibliography of the most recent survey of the field, "New Thought: A Practical American Spirituality"”
I would also add that major influences have been Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky (the Fourth Way), Westernized versions of Buddhist and Hindu belief (the Theosophists), confusing modern science (Quantum mechanics and the surrounding philosophers and science fiction writers) and various other age-old superstitions and spiritual beliefs that have all been lumped together haphazardly to form a loose background of rationalisation and inspiration for the New Age movement. (And indeed some of these influences are important across the occult world in general).
From the 1970s onwards, the New Age became generally popular throughout the West, and has remained part of the cultural landscape ever since10.
There has been an explosion of interest in unusual, novel, untraditional, magical, counter-cultural and Earth-centered religious movements. They have some common features31 and share a number of common pull-factors attract people to new religious movements31.
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism.35
Golden-age romanticism. Some groups promote pre-industrial or historical moral eras and attract others who think that the modern world is "lost".36. "By reasoning backward from the observation that modern societies have many defects, New Agers conclude that pre-moden cultures must be morally and ethically superior. Tibetans, Eskimos, Native Americans, and Aborigines are then invested not only with superior social mores but also with great insight into the workings of the material world"10.
The rise of individualism41 and protections for freedom of belief means people are free to pick-and-choose which religion to embrace. Researcher M. York states that the "New Age is a decentralized movement - one built around not doctrines or particular belief systems but an experiential vision"42. Paul Heelas goes further and states that the self-spirituality of the New Age is the defining and unifying feature of the New Age43.
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.41,44,45,46,47
Feminism-friendly movements such as Paganism and Wicca attract many like-minded folk.41,48. Most New Agers are female, and, there is "resonance" between the New Age and feminism. "The critique of gender roles that is at least implicit in New Age thought is even more far-reaching than that of much feminist literature"10.
For detail, see:
The Christian reaction to NRMs has often been frenzied and maniacal - the phrase "anti-Christian" is used to describe pretty much anything that does not conform to the son-of-god monotheism that Christians and Westerners are used to. But just because a new group is occult, magical, counter-cultural or simply weird, does not mean that it is born in opposition to Christianity. The Golden Dawn, parent to so many occult and (later) anti-Christian cults, itself had "no official stance against establishment Christianity"49 and some members (famously: A.E. Waite and Dion Fortune) even used alternative spirituality to further their own Christian development. Pearson writes that "for many members, there existed no abyss between Christianity and the occult" and indeed throughout the history of Christianity there has existed a strong undercurrent of pagan, non-institutionalized magical practices that have often been condemned from above, even including the authorship of magical grimoires by Priests50, but which has nonetheless existed within underground Christian culture.
Aside from esoteric groups, the Celtic revival (including Druidism) amalgamated much ancient Scottish, Welsh, Irish and S.W. English history into a single romanticised (and ahistorical) period51. The influential Edward Williams who wrote under the name of Iolo Morganwg, and forged most his life work (he was discovered by historians who doubted his supposed sources), was a Unitarian Christian. Many Christians adopted Celticism as part of an inclination towards non-dogmatic intuitive spirituality52. The rise of neo-druidism and Celticism is not mainly a protest against Christianity, but often was an expression of soft, popular, Christianity, merely with a Celtic and pantheistic theme (the latter frequently being popular amongst lay Christians who know no better). There are many reasons that people join such movements. When it comes to Wiccans, a relatively well-researched group, it is clear that "a straightforward disaffection or disillusionment with Christianity is ... unlikely to be the main cause of Wiccan membership"53.
Likewise with the New Age and all of its disparate practices and groups; William James in 1901, the most recognized scholar of religion of that period, remarks on the volume of Christian-sounding material there was in the New Age (known then, as it was, as New Thought and Mind-Cure),: "Although the disciples of the mind-cure often use Christian terminology, one sees from such quotations how widely their notion of the fall of man diverges from that of ordinary Christians"54. Most must agree that over time, the Christian element has decreased and few now consider the New Age to have anything to do with Christianity. But what is clear is that the movement did not start out in opposition to Christianity. Early Christianity would have been much closer to the New Age, but that modern Christianity has moved far away from popular magical practices to become increasingly sterile and homogenous so that now the New Age seems opposite to it.
The practitioners of common healers and magicians throughout Europe from the 15th to 19th centuries are sometimes called "cunning folk" amongst many other names, and represent lots of disparate practices largely derived from superstition and various folk beliefs. Prof. Hutton is the expert on early modern religion and folklore and has written on this already:
“In 1976 James Obelkevitch published his famous pioneering monograph upon popular religion in Victorian England [and] used the term 'paganism' to describe popular magical practices [which was] 'not a distinct and conscious movement or organization but a loose agglomeration of religious phenomenon. It was not a counter-religion to Christianity; rather, the two coexisted and complemented each other. This conclusion was echoed by Willem de Blecourt, surveying what is known of cunning folk in Europe as a whole; their work did not reflect a single cosmology, but was made up of the debris of many.
[Popular magic and cunning folk techniques...] often contained a large component of Christianity. [...] It is obvious that many [charms] - perhaps the majority - are Christian in character. They quote from the Bible, or appeal to the Trinity, or to Jesus, or to saints. In most cases, to be sure, they are using the trappings and symbols of Christianity with little regard to what churchmen would have regarded as its essence; the Bible, for example, is regularly treated as a magical object in itself. [...] This is, however, a large part of what popular Christianity had always been about, and, something that had caused learned and devout members of the faith to tear their hair at intervals ever since the time of the Church Fathers.
[Demand for such practices was rife in a medieval Europe.]
Such demand, and supply, still exists, but the suppliers are no longer likely to be called charmers, but to be identified with one of the techniques within the burgeoning fields of natural healing and therapy, such as naturopathy, homeopathy, hypnotherapy, herbalism, acupuncture, flower remedies, aromatherapy, and colour-healing.”
"The Triumph of the Moon: A History of Modern Pagan Witchcraft" by Ronald Hutton (1999)55
Despite the synergy with common magic, there are now some strong anti-Christian elements within modern, 20th--century neopaganism. The practice of low magic has generally become the New Age which is now generally non-Christian in character. Other groups started out antagonistically. The Theosophists started out with a specific anti-mainstream-Christian intent56 and the highly influential Aleister Crowley identified himself specifically with the anti-Christ and wrote volumes against Christianity; according to Pearson this was due to his in rebellion to his strict Plymouth Brethren upbringing57. Wiccans and Pagans repeat the phrase "Never Again, the Burning Times" to justify anti-Christian rhetoric on the basis of horrors that Christians committed against nonconformists during the Dark Ages. Likewise Christian institutions have employed strong condemnations of all things non-Christian using all available forms of communication: it seems that such "anti-language" is part of the normal development of religion. To extrapolate that a particular movements is protest-based because of it, is selective: all religious movements employ such language.
Pagans are especially into environmentalism, preservation, sustainability and other 'green' endeavours. Prudence Jones writes that "by experience we know that we can be transported into rapture by the beauty of Nature. [...] For Pagans the divine, transcendent powers seem to be present within Nature itself, and by deliberate ritual and contemplation the devout Pagan can make contact with these"(1995)58. A study published in 1986 brokedown the reasons that American Pagans gave for becoming involved, and the positive and green stance on environmentalism was amongst the top 6 most commonly given motivations41. Researchers William Bloom and M. York state that this has also been a strong trend within the New Age; according to York a New Ager "through interdependence and interpenetration, accepts responsibility for the planetary state"59,60. Author Kenneth Rees imagines that we might expect to find that one hundred percent of all Pagans are environmentally-conscious and "professing a green spirituality"61. New Agers have taken the green attitude to some extremes: to the extent of actual communion with plants (Dorothy Mclean's conversations with plant spirits is one of the founding stories told about the famous Findhorn community) and New Agers have embraced such theories as James Lovelock's Gaia hypothesis that sees the Earth as a single living being10.
Most forms of Paganism and the New Age are accepting, tolerant and respectful towards other's beliefs and practices14. There is very little in the way of an impulse towards correcting others, telling them they're wrong and criticizing their beliefs. Even if two believers' theories about important aspects of their crafts are contradictory and impossibly conflicting, there is rarely much in the way of hatred, or even dislike, between them.
“Pagans believe that no one belief system is correct and that each person should have the freedom to come themselves to the path of their choice. [...] For all Pagans there is no place for either dogma or proselytising.”
Academic researchers have been pleased to note that although some of the these new religious movements emerged from within an anti-Christian milieu many groups simply never took up an aggressive stance, or, if they did, they mostly quickly moved on (within a few decades) to a neutral and tolerant stance. Pearson (2002) puts it like this: "Wiccans and Pagans have been, and are at present, involved in the development of interfaith meetings with members of other religions, and [...] no longer requires legitimization through false histories or hatred of the Christian Church"63.
A similar liberal strain exists within New Age culture, from which many new religious movements have sprung. Esalen (California, USA) is an immensely important place in that world, and in the foreground of the creation of modern New Age spirituality. Steve Bruce, an academic of comparative religion, notes that the New Age attitude is "one of almost complete acceptance of alternative views"10. Two forefathers, Messrs Murphy and Prise, frequently repeated the saying that "no one captures the flag", "a phrase heard at Esalen to this day which means that every religion, fad and idea has equal access as long as it does not try to exclude or dominate the others. In practice, this ruled out the Abrahamic religions, but welcomed Yogic and Vedic philosophy, Zen Buddhism and Taoism, which are non-theistic and easy-going about orthodoxy"64.
It seems natural and ascendant that modern religions such as the various forms of Paganism and New Age-style belief systems should abandon strict claims about their exclusive access to truth. In a world where fundamentalism seems forever on the rise many new religious movements represent a better side of religion, free from powermongering and free from the urge to enforce its doctrines on people for their own good.
But there is a serious downside to this accept-everything mentality. The lack of critical thinking has opened up the New Age to a range of beliefs and practices that are so deeply ridiculous and based on wishful thinking, ignorance and delusion that a new hint of fundamentalism has emerged. Whilst they accept zany beliefs of fellow new-agers, they reject of aspects of science and evidence-based criticism with such vigour that it begins to attain the same feel as those Christian and Muslim creationists who reject evolution, and even the same feel as those almost-forgotten flat-earth Christians in their battle against science. New Age therapies can verge on the dangerous on times when they give people confidence in their ability to cures ailments that sufferers should rather be trusting medical doctors with. As a result of their quest to accept others' beliefs (no matter the evidence), a decline into fundamentalism has begun as counter-evidence and counter-arguments are wilfully ignored.
The New Age is full of an amazing variety of self-help ideas, 'cures' and therapies. Some consider the New Age to be nothing but a movement based on popular self-help practices. Most complementary and alternative medicines (CAM) and alternative therapies work through indirect psychological effects, and by the turn of 20th century many New Age related remedies and practices were already said by psychologists to be based on cures by suggestion66. The diversity of approaches, organisations, meetings and methods is outstanding, even if, unfortunately, the actual techniques are generally all complete quackery, and based on some very outlandish and nonsensical ideas of the human psyche. My page on Pseudoscience and Health: The World of Alternatives (to Truth) briefly introduces some of the more popular things found in all New Age shops. Explorations of Hopi ear-candlers, Shamballa Multi-Dimensional Healing, astral-plane projection healing, past live memory recursion, crystal healing, tarot card psychotherapy and other zany otherworldly services will have to be done by the intrigued reader in hir own time!
Many of these products are wider than just being "New Age" services, and are widely embraced, often to the worry of medical observers and sociologists.
“In the USA up to 4 in ten adults use 'some form' of alternative therapy67. In Britain there are about 150 000 alternative therapists, and the public spend about £4.5 billion on them (as of year 2009)68. In nearly all practices, they work due to the psychology surrounding 'treatment' (the placebo effect and statistical regression) rather than the actual result of the treatment. This is why drugs companies spend more on branding and advertising than they do on research and development69. Nearly all alternative therapies are psychological trickery rather than real medicine70. All such practices are called quackery by skeptics. The danger is that many people seek help from 'alternative' providers before they seek proper medical help, which can result in delayed treatment and in the worst cases, death from ailments that are otherwise perfectly curable if only the sufferer had gone to a normal doctor sooner67. "Some homeopathic remedies may contain substances that are not safe, or that interfere with the action of other medicines" and a real doctor should be consulted before using alternative therapies71 (including those that say they are 'natural' - so are many poisons).”
The introductory paragraphs at the top of this page included a summary of criticisms. Criticism of the New Age: Ridiculous Practices, Daft Beliefs and Pseudoscience is the full page. Its menu is as follows: