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.5
Golden-age romanticism. Some groups promote pre-industrial or historical moral eras and attract others who think that the modern world is "lost".6
The rise of individualism11 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.11,12,13,14,15
These forces are now examined in more detail:
Some people adopt new religious movements and alternative spiritualities as reactions against the complexities of science and of scientific reductionism2 (the way in which everything is broken down into physical cause-and-effect factors) and many members of the New Age in particular maintain attacks upon science, calling it closed-minded and limited in scope3,4. Robert Schroëder in "Cults: Secret Sects and Radical Religions" (2007)17 states that people "in today's societies, finding themselves spiritually and morally lost, seek alternative routes to faith and the meaning of existence"18.
“Simple faith-based answers to fundamental questions are very appealing, because the world is very complicated19,20. Human knowledge is broken up into so many deep specialities that it is no longer possible for anyone to attain an accurate overall picture of reality21. Least of all is it possible to grasp what it all means for us personally. Instability and uncertainty make people search for ideas which give a sense of personal control over destiny22.
Psychologist Carl Jung wrote that "man positively needs general ideas and convictions that will give meaning to his life and enable him to find a place for himself in the universe"23 and many say it provides them a sense of meaning and destiny24,25,26. The same psychological factor can be explained from a cynical point of view: "the contemporary persistence of religion indicates an inability or refusal on the part of many people to take on board the implications of science and rationality"27. This would appear to be a factor both amongst science-denying American Christian fundamentalism, and in Western New Religious Movements epitomized by the New Age which embraces a wide range of zany, and very unlikely, beliefs about reality. Unfortunately, and we find it hard to admit this to ourselves, many of our beliefs are held because they're comforting and simple28.”
“In attempting to account for the emergence of new religious groups, one of the most common explanations is 'some acute and distinctly modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation' that in turn leads to individuals 'responding by searching for new structures of meaning and community' (Robbins 1998: 60).”
"New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study" by David G. Bromley29
Anti-consumerism and anti-materialism supply common motives, alongside general disillusionment with Western capitalism & globalisation5. Two scholars who have comprehensively examined modern Paganism state that the rise of interest in Paganism is "a response to an increased dissatisfaction with the way the world is going ecologically, spiritually and materially; people are disillusioned by mainstream religion and the realisation that materialism leaves an internal emptiness" (Harvey & Hardman 199530). But these feelings are also shared by many other traditional and world religions and by secular critics. For example, zany Pentecostal Christianity, also a growth sector in religion, shares these traits. Harvey Cox in his analysis specifically states that Pentecostalism is a response against contemporary materialism, giving expression to "the language of the heart" and supporting "chaotic emotions without suppressing them", and providing people with an "alternative" life, all within a Christian context31. All very similar proclamations to those supporting the New Age and many NRMs.
“One of the most developed statements of social dislocation has been formulated by James Hunter (1981). Drawing on the work of Peter Berger (1967), Hunter regards NRMs as a protest against modernity.”
"New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study" by David G. Bromley32
Many NRMs are sourced from the vagaries of human experience, human credulity and introspective emotions: spiritualities where whim and fancy trump historical and scientific skepticism. It is related to what sociologists call "cultural primitivism": a romantic view of a past 'Golden Age' in a pre-industrial world, where a less sophisticated life is deemed more desirable6, less spiritually constrained, and the idea helped along by a sense of mystery aided by a lack of concrete evidence on distant cultures33. Those who adopt "native" mores are particularly likely to have a cultural primitivist outlook34. Escapism and romanticism easily merge with mysticism, attracting many of those who now find Christianity too dogmatic, organised and proscribed.
“The modern world has seen a surge in interest in 'native beliefs'. This includes Native-American "aspirational Indians" and British-orientated "Cardiac Celts"35, both interlinked with the New Age in a haphazard manner, whose audience are often disaffected souls who espouse rhetoric against capitalism and modern technology.36”
A lack of magic and fantasy in traditional text-based religions has been highlighted by multiple sociologists as causing a gap in the provision of public religion. Monica Furlong (2000)8 describes how institutional religion in Britain from the Reformation became increasingly dogmatic and text-based; reformers made "a world in which text was everything, sign nothing". David Martin talks of "religious frustration with an over-intellectualized" Christianity37. The zealous suppression of supernaturalism made Christianity more abstract and removed. This has produced two opposites; a gradual increase in secularism (as it is supernatural thinking that grants religious legitimacy) and a gap into which non-textual alternative spiritualities has grown. Another scholar of religion, Momen, says that the roots of religion can be removed but "all that happens is that modern myths and rituals replace the traditional ones, for myths and archetypes are an inherent part of the human psyche"9, and Christopher Partridge38 tells us that "many are drawn [to Wicca] by the desire to practise magic"10. These NRMs are rising to cover the supernatural ground that organized Christianity has increasingly shunned over the last few centuries.
William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" (1902)39 puts it like this: Protestantism's doctrine has been too pessimistic and unappealing for many, and Catholicism has been too legalistic and formulaic for many. There are large personality types to which neither form of traditional Christianity appeals. And so, a great number of people (who, thanks to modern communications) now find themselves exposed to many new and interesting religious groups that are not old, dry, pessimistic or legalistic.40
The rise of individualism and the modern pick-and-mix approach to religion has seen people abandon the concept of adopting a religious tradition that is formulated, structured and archaic in favour of personalized collections of beliefs, some from one tradition, some from another. This approach does not suit centralized or dogmatic religions where doctrine has been worked out as part of an entire theology of existence. Instead, unstructured, new and novel pseudo-religions are embraced where freethought (but not skepticism) are likely to be accepted. Adler (1986) found that of the 6 main reasons American gave for being involved in Paganism, most of them were individual-based including the freedom of practice, the exercise of the imagination, intellectual satisfaction and personal growth41.
Areas of popular concern are often taken up quickly by small and new religious movements. Activist causes have found accord with neo-pagan groups and bolstered their numbers and popularity, in particular from the 1970s. As liberal Christians have embraced many of these same concerns42 We can see that they are not the reserve of NRMs but of modern religious liberalism and moral conscientiousness.
“As countercultural cohesiveness began to decline, particularly when the Vietnam War no longer served as a catalyst for protest, experimentation with NRMs became one avenue through which some members of the counterculture continued the protest (Kent 2001).”
"New Religions as a Specialist Field of Study" by David G. Bromley29
Environmentalism is commonly proclaimed by all kinds of pagan, Celt, pseudo-Native and New-Agers, and attracts many people on the basis of their concerns and passions for the world that we live in. A "desperate" reaction to the sad loss of the countryside and rapid urbanisation from 1890 onwards made people turn towards paganism12,13 as a theoretical solution - and soon enough, neo-pagan religions arose to take on the challenge. Predictably, such people are nature-deprived city folk "as is usually true of those who love nature (the farmers are too busy fighting it)"43. Many alternative spiritualities now sell themselves as representing "green religion"44. Conservationism and sustainability are ubiquitous and this is the case both amongst the emoting of individuals and the doctrine and stance of organised groups.45
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)46. 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 motivations11. 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"47,48. 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"49.
See: "Religion Versus Womankind" by Vexen Crabtree (2007)
Neopaganism and Wicca formed strong associations with early feminists. Feminists joining Dianic witchcraft in the 1980s (influenced by authors such as Zsuzsanna Budapest and Starhawk) outnumbered all other kinds of convert in that decade16, and Paganism in general attracts those who are interested in feminist spirituality and goddess worship41.
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"50 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 Priests51, 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) period52. 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 spirituality53. 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"54.
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"55. 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)56
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 intent57 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 upbringing58. 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.
New religious movements still have many of the same pull factors that established religions have, especially if a NRM becomes well-established in a community and therefore exhibits the same conforming peer-pressures that traditional religions exhibit.