New Age Movement

views updated May 29 2018


NEW AGE MOVEMENT . "New Age" was originally a buzzword that achieved widespread popularity in Europe and the United States during the 1980s. It referred to a wide array of spiritual practices and beliefs perceived as "alternative" from the perspective of mainstream Western society. To many observers, the increasing visibility of "things New Age" in the media and popular culture conveyed the impression of something radically new: the birth of a grassroots movement of social and spiritual innovation, prophesying a profound transformation of Western society that some claimed would culminate in a vastly superior culturethe "Age of Aquarius."

The phenomenon that came to be known as the New Age movement during the last two decades of the twentieth century actually had its immediate roots in the counterculture of the 1960s and some of its immediate predecessors, while its fundamental ideas had much more ancient origins. New Age religion is neither something completely new nor just a revivalor survivalof something ancient. While its fundamental ideas have origins that can be traced far back in history, these ideas are interpreted and put to use in a manner that makes New Age a manifestation par excellence of postmodern consumer society. In order to gain a balanced view of the New Age movement, we therefore need to consider both dimensions: its historical foundations as well as its specific modernity.

The New Age Movement in a Strict Sense (1950s1970s)

The immediate roots of the New Age movement may seem surprising at first. Shortly after World War II, popular curiosity was attracted by unexplained phenomena in the sky referred to as unidentified flying objects (UFOs). In various places in Western Europe and the United States, study groups were formed by people who wanted to investigate these phenomena, and some of those groups rapidly proceeded to take on cultic characteristics. Typically, such groups believed that UFOs were in fact spaceships inhabited by intelligent beings from other planets or other dimensions of outer space. Representing a superior level of cultural, technological, and spiritual evolution, they now made their appearance to herald the coming of a New Age. The Earth was entering a new evolutionary cycle that would be accompanied by a new and superior kind of spiritual consciousness. However, since the present cultures of humanity were thoroughly corrupted by materialism, they would resist this change. As a result, the transition to a new cycle of evolution would necessitate the destruction of the old civilization by violent causes such as earthquakes, floods, diseases, and the like, resulting in global economic, political, and social collapse. Those individuals whose consciousness was already in tune with the qualities of the new culture would be protected in various ways and would survive the period of cataclysms. In due time they would become the vanguard of the New Age, or Age of Aquarius: an age of abundance, bliss, and spiritual enlightenment when humanity would once again live in accordance with universal cosmic laws.

These beliefs were inspired by occultist teachings of various provenance, but especially by the writings of the Christian Theosophist Alice Bailey (18801949) and, in some respects, the anthroposophical metaphysics of the German visionary Rudolf Steiner (18611925). In 1937, Alice Bailey "channeled" a spiritual prayer known as "The Great Invocation," which is still used by some New Age adherents to invoke the New Age and which reflects the pronounced Christian elements that still informed the occultist millenarianism of the early New Age movement. These elements would remain prominent during the second, countercultural stage of its development. During the 1960s, the basic belief system and millenarian expectations of the UFO groups were adopted by various utopian communities, the most famous of which is the Findhorn community in Scotland. The members of these communities were trying to live in a new way, in tune with the laws of nature and the universe. They were trying, in the spirit of "The Great Invocation," to be "Centers of Light," or focal points in a network from which spiritual illumination would eventually spread out and encompass the globe.

In the attitude of these early New Agers, represented by popular spokespeople such as David Spangler (b. 1945) or George Trevelyan (19061996), there can be seen an important change from the perspectives of the 1950s UFO groups. Whereas the pronounced apocalypticism of the latter entailed an essentially passive attitude of "waiting for the great events" that would destroy the old civilization and usher in a New Age, utopian communities of the 1960s, such as Findhorn, increasingly emphasized the importance of an activist, constructive attitude: Spangler noted in The Rebirth of the Sacred: "Instead of spreading warnings of apocalypse, let Findhorn proclaim that the new age is already here, in spirit if not in form, and that anyone can now cocreate with that spirit so that the form will become manifest" (London, 1984, pp. 3435). This became the perspective typical of the New Age movement of the 1960s and its sympathizers in later decades.

The Cultic Milieu

This early New Age movement, born in the context of the postwar UFO cults and flowering in the spiritual utopianism of the 1960s and 1970s, was only one manifestation of the countercultural ferment of the times. More generally, this ferment found expression in a widespread "cultic milieu" (Campbell, 1972) in Western society: a diffuse phenomenon consisting of individuals who feel dissatisfied with mainstream Western culture and religion and are looking for alternatives. This cultic milieu proved to be fertile soil for a plethora of new religious movements of various provenance. Some of these movements took the form of relatively stable social entities, including an internal hierarchy of power and authority, definite doctrines and rules of conduct, clearly defined boundaries between members and nonmembers, claims of exclusive truth, and so on. Other movements were more ephemeral and fluid, with relatively few demands on members and an inclusive and tolerant attitude. The latter type of cultic groups may come into existence quickly and vanish as quickly again, and their membership may sometimes be very small. Members may participate in several such groups at the same timedisplaying an activity known as "spiritual shopping"without feeling committed to making a choice in favor of one at the expense of the other. This type of spiritual activity is most characteristic of the development of the "cultic milieu" that spawned and supported the New Age movement of the 1980s.

It is helpful to distinguish the latter movement from the original New Age movement described above. The spiritual perspectives associated with the UFO cults of the 1950s and the utopian communities of the 1960s and 1970s may collectively be referred to as the New Age movement in a strict sense (Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, pp. 94103). This movement is characterized by a broadly occultist metaphysics (with special prominence of the forms of Theosophy founded by Alice Bailey and, to some extent, Rudolf Steiner), a relatively strong emphasis on community values and a traditional morality emphasizing altruistic love and service to humanity, and a very strong millenarian emphasis focused on the expectation of the New Age. This New Age movement "in a strict sense" still exists, but its membership is rather strongly dominated by the baby-boomer generation and tends to be perceived as somewhat old-fashioned by new-generation New Agers. By the end of the 1970s this New Age movement in a strict sense came to be assimilated as merely one aspect within the much more complex and widespread phenomenon that may be referred to, by way of contrast, as the New Age movement in a general sense.

The New Age Movement in a General Sense (1980s1990s)

This New Age movement in a general sense may be defined as the cultic milieu having become conscious of itself, by the end of the 1970s, as constituting a more or less unified movement (although not a New Religious Movement in the normal sense of the word; Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, p. 17). In other words, people who participated in various "alternative" activities and pursuits began to consider themselves as part of an international invisible community of like-minded individuals, the collective efforts of whom were destined to change the world into a better and more spiritual place. American sociologist Marilyn Ferguson referred to this phenomenon as the Aquarian Conspiracy: a "leaderless but powerful network" working to bring about radical change (Ferguson, 1980, p. 23). Physicist Fritjof Capra saw it as the "rising culture" destined to replace the declining culture of the modern West (Capra, 1982, p. 419). But eventually what they were referring to came to be known as the New Age movement: by the late 1970s and early 1980s the term New Age was adopted from the specific occultist-millenarian movement known under that name and came to be applied as a catchall term for the much more extensive and complex cultic milieu of the 1980s and beyond. This is how the New Age movement in a strict sense was absorbed into the New Age movement in a general sense.

This development has been a cause of concern for some representatives of the original movement, who perceived in it a cheapening of the idea of a New Age. While the original New Age movement had been carried by high-minded idealism and an ethic of service to humanity, the movement of the 1980s quickly developed into an increasingly commercialized "spiritual marketplace" catering to the tastes and whims of an individualistic clientele. While the original movement had espoused a reasonably coherent theosophical metaphysics and philosophy of history, the movement of the 1980s seemed to present a hodgepodge of ideas and speculations without a clear focus and direction. While the excited expectation of a radical New Age dominated the earlier movement, this expectation ceased to be central to the movement of the 1980s, which, in spite of its name, tends to concentrate on the spiritual development of the individual rather than of society. The development might also be described in terms of cultural geographics: while the original movement was England-based and relied upon occultist traditions that had long been influential there, the new movement was dominated by the so-called metaphysical and New Thought traditions typical of American alternative culture. The move from community-oriented values to individual-centered ones is a reflection of that development.

Indeed, the New Age movement in a general sense has been dominated by American cultural and spiritual ideas and values, and the most important spokespersons have been Americans. While many names could be mentioned, two stand out as symbolic of the 1980s and the 1990s, respectively. During the 1980s the most vocal representative of the New Age idea may have been the movie actress Shirley MacLaine. Her autobiographies, published between 1983 and 1989, in which she describes her spiritual quest, and the television miniseries Out on a Limb based upon the first of these books, encapsulate the essential perspective of the New Age movement of the 1980s. For the 1990s the same thing may be said of the best-sellers of James Redfield: The Celestine Prophecy, with its accompanying Celestine Workbook, and a succession of follow-up volumes capitalizing on the success of the first one. While MacLaine's autobiographies were certainly easy to read, Redfield's books carried the New Age perspective to a new level of simplicity, thereby broadening the potential market for New Age beyond the audiences already reached by earlier authors.

These developments contributed to the fact that by the beginning of the 1990s more and more people attracted to alternative spirituality began to distance themselves from the label New Age, which they perceived as loaded with unwanted associations. During the 1980s it was still possible to investigate the New Age movement (in a general sense) simply by questioning people who identified themselves as involved in New Age; during the 1990s participants increasingly refused to identify themselves as such, preferring vague and noncommittal terms such as "spirituality." It is a mistake to conclude from this, as has sometimes been done, that the New Age movement is declining or vanishing. Rather, the movement has been moving away from its traditional status as a "counterculture" that proclaims the New Age in a gesture of rejecting the values of the "old culture." Attempts to replace the term New Age by a term such as spirituality fit within a new strategy of adaptation and assimilation instead of rejection and confrontation, as a result of which the New Age movement is now securing its place as an increasingly professionalized spiritual wing within the cultural mainstream.

Secularized Esotericism

From the perspective of intellectual history, the basic ideas of New Age religion have their origins in the traditions referred to as modern Western Esotericism, which took shape since the early Renaissance. The foundational worldviews of Western esoteric religiosity were thoroughly transformed, however, under the impact of various processes of modernization since the eighteenth century, resulting in a new phenomenon that may be referred to as secularized Esotericism and that comprises "all attempts by esotericists to come to terms with a disenchanted world or, alternatively, by people in general to make sense of Esotericism from the perspective of a disenchanted secular world" (Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, p. 422). Although there is a risk of terminological confusion, the term occultism will be used below as a synonym for secularized Esotericism.

The first signs of a secularization of Western Esotericism may be perceived in the perspectives of Swedish visionary Emanuel Swedenborg (16881772) and German physician Franz Anton Mesmer (17341815), both of whom exerted an incalculable influence on the history of Esotericism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Theurgical practices, spiritual manifestations, and psychic phenomena of a type already present in some esoteric societies of the later eighteenth century as well as in the popular practice of magnetic healing achieved mass popularity in the second half of the nineteenth century in the movement known as Spiritualism. Spiritualism provided a context within which a plethora of more or less sophisticated occultist movements came into existence. Among these manifestations of alternative religiosity, the Theosophical Society founded in 1875 by Helena P. Blavatsky (18311891) and Henry Steel Olcott (18321907) is certainly the most important in terms of its influence, and the basic metaphysical system of modern theosophy may be considered the archetypal manifestation of occultist spirituality at least until far into the 1970s. In addition, popular practices of magnetic healing, also referred to as mesmerism, reached the United States as early as 1836 and spread widely in the following decades, eventually providing a popular basis for the emergence of the so-called New Thought movement of the later nineteenth century. Each one of these various currentsSpiritualism, modern theosophy, and the American New Thought movementhas taken on a multitude of forms, and their representatives have mingled and exchanged ideas and practices in various way. The result of all this alternative religious activity was the emergence, during the nineteenth century, of an international "cultic milieu" with its own social networks and literature; relying on an essentially nineteenth-century framework of ideas and beliefs, this cultic milieu has continued and further developed during the twentieth century, eventually to provide the foundation after World War II for the emergence of the New Age movement.

The occultist or secularized esoteric milieu of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries differs from traditional Western Esotericism in at least four respects, which are crucial for understanding New Age religion. First, Esotericism was originally grounded in a worldview where all parts of the universe were linked by invisible networks of noncausal correspondences and a divine power of life was considered to permeate the whole of nature. Although esotericists have continued to defend such holistic view of the world as permeated by invisible forces, their actual statements demonstrate that they came to compromise in various ways with the mechanical and disenchanted world models that achieved cultural dominance under the impact of scientific materialism and nineteenth-century positivism. Accordingly, secularized Esotericism is characterized by hybrid mixtures of traditional esoteric and modern scientistic-materialist worldviews: while originally the religious belief in a universe brought forth by a personal God was axiomatic for Esotericism, eventually this belief succumbed partly or completely to popular scientific visions of a universe answering to impersonal laws of causality. Even though the laws in question may be referred to as spiritual, nonetheless they tend to be described according to models taken from science rather than religion.

Second, the traditional Christian presuppositions of modern Western Esotericism were increasingly questioned and relativized because of new translations of Asian religious texts and the emergence of a "comparative study of the religions of the world." Asian religions began to display missionary activities in Western countries, and their representatives typically sought to convince their audience by using Western terms and concepts to present the spirituality of religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Conversely, since esotericists had always believed that the essential truths of esoteric spirituality were universal in nature and could be discovered at the heart of all great religious traditions East and West, it was natural for them during the nineteenth century to incorporate Asian concepts and terminology into already-existing Western esoteric frameworks. One excellent example is the concept of karma that Blavatsky adopted from Hinduism as a welcome alternative to Christian concepts of divine providence, whereas Blavatsky's essential understanding of reincarnation depended on Western esoteric rather than Asian sources (see discussion in Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, pp. 479482).

Third, the well-known debate between Christian creationism and the new theories of evolution became highly relevant to esotericists as well, and in this battle they generally took the side of science. But although popular evolutionism became a crucial aspect of Esotericism as it developed from the nineteenth into the twentieth century, and although this evolutionism was generally used as part of a strategy of presenting occultism as scientifically legitimate, the actual types of evolutionism found in this context depended less on Darwinian theory than on philosophical models originating in German Idealism and Romanticism. The idea of a universal process of spiritual evolution and progress, involving human souls as well as the universe in its entirety, is not to be found in traditional Western Esotericism but became fundamental to almost all forms of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Esotericism.

Finally, the emergence of modern psychology (itself dependent partly on mesmerism and the Romantic fascination with the "night-side of nature") has had an enormous impact on the development of Esotericism from the second half of the nineteenth century on. While psychology could be used as an argument against Christianity and against religion generally by arguing that God or the gods are merely projections of the human psyche, it also proved possible to present Western esoteric worldviews in terms of a new psychological terminology. Most influential in this respect was Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (18751961), whose spiritual perspective was deeply rooted in the esoteric and occult currents of German Romantic Naturphilosophie but whose theories could be used to present that spirituality as a scientific psychology. Apart from Jung, the pop psychology of the American New Thought movement has been a major influence on the mixtures of occultism and psychology typical of New Age spirituality (Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, pp. 482513).

Postmodern Spirituality: The Religion of the Self

To the four main aspects of the secularization of Western Esotericism, perhaps a fifth one may be added that became dominant only after World War II and is fully characteristic of the New Age movement of the 1980s and 1990s: the impact of the capitalist market economy on the domain of spirituality. Increasingly, the New Age movement has taken the shape of a spiritual supermarket where religious consumers pick and choose the spiritual commodities they fancy and use them to create their own spiritual syntheses, fine-tuned to their strictly personal needs. The phenomenon of a spiritual supermarket is not limited to the New Age movement only but is a general characteristic of religion in (post) modern Western democracies. Various forms of New Age spirituality are competing with more traditional forms of religion (including the Christian churches as well as other great religious traditions such as Islam or Buddhism) and with a great number of so-called new religious movements. However, in this universal battle for the attention of the consumer, the New Age movement enjoys certain advantages over most of its competitors, which seem to make it the representative par excellence of the contemporary spirituality of the market. Whereas most other spiritual currents that compete for the attention of the consumer in modern society take the form of (at least rudimentary) organizations, enabling their members to see themselves as part of a religious community, New Age spirituality is strictly focused on the individual and his or her personal development. In fact, this individualism functions as an in-built defense mechanism against social organization and institutionalization: as soon as any group of people involved with New Age ideas begins to take up "cultic" characteristics, this very fact already distances them from the basic individualism of New Age spirituality. The more strongly they begin to function as a cult, or even as a sect, the more other New Agers will suspect that they are becoming a church (that is, that they are relapsing into what are considered old-fashioned patterns of dogmatism, intolerance, and exclusivism), and the less they will be acceptable to the general cultic milieu of New Age spirituality. Within the present social context of a democratic free market of ideas and practices, the New Age's strict emphasis on the self and on individual experience as the only reliable source of spiritual truth, the authority of which can never be overruled by any religious dogma or considerations of solidarity with communal values, functions as an effective mechanism against institutionalization of New Age religion into a religion. This essential individualism makes the New Ager into the ideal spiritual consumer. Except for the very focus on the self and its spiritual evolution, there are no constraints a priori on a New Ager's potential spiritual interests; the fact that every New Ager continually creates and re-creates his or her own private system of symbolic meaning and values means that spiritual suppliers on the New Age market enjoy maximum opportunities for presenting him or her with ever-new commodities.

As indicated above, that New Age as a spiritual supermarket caters to an individualistic clientele primarily interested in personal growth and development is not only a fact of social observation but also reflects beliefs that are basic to the movement. At the symbolic center of New Age worldviews, one typically finds not a concept of God but, rather, the concept of the (higher) Self, so that New Age spirituality has indeed sometimes been dubbed Self Religion (Heelas). The symbolism of the self is linked to a basic mythology, which narrates the growth and development of the individual soul through many incarnations and existences in the direction of ever-increasing knowledge and spiritual insight. Strict concentration on personal spiritual development rather than on communal values is therefore not considered a reflection of egoism but, rather, of a legitimate spiritual practice based on listening to your own inner guidance: only by following one's inner voice may one find one's way through the chaos of voices that clamor for attention on the spiritual supermarket and find one's personal way to enlightenment.

A final remark is in order about the question of a globalization of New Age religion beyond the confines of Western democracies. From what has been said, it will be clear that New Age religion is a product of specific historical developments in Western culture and that its present manifestations are impossible to separate from the internal dynamics of (post) modern consumer societies. Furthermore, as a movement that owes its identity to a consistent pattern of criticism directed against certain dominant aspects of mainstream Western culture, it is difficult even to imagine New Age religion existing in non-Western societies. It has often been claimed that New Age is spreading to continents other than North America and Europe (such as Africa, South America, or Asia); but on closer scrutiny one discovers that scholars who describe such processes of alleged acculturation tend to use the term New Age in a too vague and intuitive sense, and that they are usually speaking of the spread, not of New Age religion, but of various Western new religious movements to non-Western societies (Hanegraaff, 2001). To the extent that non-Western cultures and societies resist socioeconomic pressures tending toward a global Americanization, there is no particular reason to refer to new forms of spiritual syncretisms that may emerge on their soil as New Age religion; this is true regardless of whether or not these syncretisms happen to owe something to the influence of Western New Age ideas. Rather, such local new spiritualities must be considered as products of the specific culture and society in question, and one should not prejudge the question of whetherand if so, to what extentthey can be compared to the Western phenomenon of New Age religion.

Whither the New Age?

For quite some time now, it has been claimed by scholars and critics that the days of the New Age movement are numbered, that the New Age is over, or that the movement has already yielded to a follow-up phenomenon sometimes referred to as the Next Age. Whether this is true depends very much on one's definition. There are indeed clear signs that New Age religion is losing its status as a countercultural movement and is now increasingly assimilated by the mainstream of society. Such a development is anything but surprising: rather, it may be seen as the predicable result of commercial success. From one perspective, the fact that New Age is developing from a distinct counterculture to merely a dimension of mainstream culture may indeed be interpreted as the end of the New Age movement as we have known it; but from another one, it may be seen as reflecting the commonsense fact that New Age is developing and changing, just like any other religious movement known to history. The idea of a decline of New Age is largely the result of optical illusion. There are some indications that the phenomenon of specialized New Age bookstores is declining, but at the same time one notices a substantial increase of spiritual literature on the shelves of bookstores. Likewise, specialized New Age centers for healing and personal growth predictably become less necessary to the extent that at least a part of their therapeutic services are becoming more acceptable in mainstream medical and psychological contexts. One might well interpret such developments as reflecting not the decline of the New Age movement but, precisely, its development from a countercultural movement set apart from the mainstream to a significant dimension of the spiritual landscape of contemporary Western society in general.

Whether or not the label New Age will eventually survive, there is no evidence that the basic spiritual perspectives, beliefs, and practices characteristic of the movement of the 1980s and 1990s are losing popular credibility. Quite the contrary: all the evidence indicates that they are becoming more acceptable to great numbers of people in contemporary Western societies, whether or not the latter identify themselves as "New Agers." Again, the phenomenon is anything but surprising, for the highly individualized approach to spirituality traditionally referred to as New Age simply accords too well with the demands of the contemporary consumer culture in a democratic society where citizens insist on their personal autonomy in matter of religion.

That the social dynamics of postmodern consumer society happen to favor a particular type of religion (referred to above as secularized Esotericism) is a fact of recent history, but once again it is not a surprising one. That traditional forms of religionthe Christian churches and their theologiesare in decline at least in the contemporary Western European context is a generally known fact. The vogue of postmodern relativism indicates that the grand narratives of progress by science and rationality are shaken as well. If more and more people feel that traditional Christianity, rationality, and science are no longer able to give sense and meaning to human existence, it is to be expected that a spiritual perspective based on personal revelations by means of gnosis or personal religious experience will profit from the circumstances (Van den Broek and Hanegraaff, 1996/1998, pp. viix). As long as the grand narratives of the past fail to regain their hold over the population while no new ones are forthcoming, and as long as Western democratic societies continue to emphasize the supreme virtue of individual freedom, the "self religion" traditionally known as New Age will remain a force to be reckoned with.

See Also

Blavatsky, H. P.; Esotericism; Jung, C. G.; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements and Millennialism; New Thought Movement; Occultism; Olcott, Henry Steel; Spiritualism; Swedenborg, Emanuel; Swedenborgianism; Theosophical Society; UFO Religions.


Bednarowski, Mary Farrell. New Religions and the Theological Imagination in America. Bloomington and Indianapolis, Ind., 1989. Probably the first book to take New Age theologies seriously.

Bochinger, Christoph. "New Age" und moderne Religion: Religionswissenschaftliche Analysen, Gütersloh, 1994. The most ambitious study of the German context; it interprets New Age as a "phantom" created by book publishing enterprises rather than an actual "religious movement."

Campbell, Colin. "The Cult, the Cultic Milieu, and Secularization." A Sociological Yearbook of Religion in Britain 5 (1972): 119136. A classic article that made theoretical and terminological distinctions essential to an adequate analysis of the New Age movement.

Capra, Fritjof. The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture. New York, 1982.

Corrywright, Dominic. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations into New Age Spiritualities. Oxford and New York, 2003. One of the most recent sociological studies.

Ferguson, Marilyn. The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s. Los Angeles and New York, 1980.

Hammer, Olav. Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age. Leiden and Boston, 2001. Analyzes in depth the argumentative strategies by which contemporary esotericists seek to present their beliefs as "reasonable."

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden, 1996; Albany, N.Y., 1998. The most complete study of New Age beliefs and their historical backgrounds.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "New Age Spiritualities as Secular Religion: A Historian's Perspective." Social Compass 46, no. 2 (1999): 145160. Discusses further aspects of New Age not treated in Hanegraaff 1996/1998.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "Prospects for the Globalization of New Age: Spiritual Imperialism versus Cultural Diversity." In New Age Religion and Globalization, edited by Mikael Rothstein, pp. 1530. Aarhus, 2001. Analyzes what is at stake in studying the spread of New Age ideas to non-Western contexts.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. "Spectral Evidence of New Age Religion: On the Substance of Ghosts and the Use of Concepts." Journal of New Age Studies 1 (2004). Discusses theoretical and methodological issues suggested by recent social-science studies of New Age.

Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. The best sociological study of New Age.

Spangler, David. Emergence: The Rebirth of the Sacred. New York, 1984.

Sutcliffe, Steven J. Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices. London and New York, 2003. Methodologically problematic and unreliable as regards the general New Age movement, but contains good discussions of the England-based "New Age in a strict sense."

York, Michael. The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements. Lanham, Md., and London, 1995. The first book-length sociological study of New Age.

Wouter J. Hanegraaff (2005)

New Age Movement

views updated May 29 2018


The New Age (NA) Movement is a variegated cultural phenomenon. In its broadest sense, the term refers to a configuration of Eastern and Western esoteric psychologies, philosophies, and religious traditions that have been brought into convergence with new paradigms in science and modern psychology. The New Age Movement has links with the Eastern and Western occult and mystical/metaphysical traditions. In the United States, the movement is the inheritor of the Aquarian "new religious consciousness" of the 1960s and 1970s.

New Age cultural referents include health food stores, parapsychology research organizations, psychic

development groups; interest in reincarnation, astrology, witchcraft, tarot cards, the I Ching, out-of-body experience, channeling, and in the "healing powers" of crystals and pyramids; "transformational" techniques ranging from meditation to martial arts; alternative or "holistic" medicine, body therapies, and a melange of other "consciousness raising" techniques.

While there is no hard-line NA gospel per se, nor unanimity of NA beliefs, the conviction that humanity is on the threshold of a radical spiritual transformation is a central motif. New Age thinking also embraces eclectic and syncretistic healing strategies and spiritual disciplines, reasserts various forms of supernaturalism and sacramentalism, and promotes the full realization of human potential. Themes of "transformation," "consciousness raising," "self-realization," "higher self," the "god within," and "global unity" are standard NA parlance. New Age thinking also animates elements of the contemporary environmental movement, notably in relation to eco-feminism and creation theology.

Growth of the Movement. The spread of NA thinking in modern society has been propagated through movement literature and through a multitude of seminars and training programs focused on human potential and self improvement. Various teachers, empowerment practitioners, and assorted shamans have facilitated such programs. These include cultural celebrities as diverse as Baba Ram Dass (Richard Alpert), a former professor of psychology at Harvard; the actress Shirley MacLaine; and David Spangler, formerly a co-director of a Scottish community at Findhorn and author of Revelation, The Birth of a New Age (1976). New Age perspectives have also been popularized by Marilyn Ferguson's book, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s, an impassioned discussion of the need to create a new society based on a "turnabout in consciousness"

and a vastly enlarged concept of human potential.

Cultural historians have emphasized the continuity between current NA ideas and earlier American interest in metaphysical, occult, and non-Western spiritual traditions (viz., transcendentalism, spiritualism, theosophy, new thought). They have also pointed to NA affinities with the long-standing American utopian tradition and the quintessential American dream of transcending one's background by reinventing one's self.

Social and behavioral science perspectives link the appeal of the NA to the cultural crisis of post-1950s America. From this perspective, the NA is a cultural response to the weakening of structures and institutions that integrate society. The contradictions of late capitalism's commodity culture and the spiritual poverty of the technocratic state, characterized by massive bureaucracy, depersonalization, aesthetic sterility, and the dominance of instrumental rationality compounded this crisis. Other factors facilitating the spread of NA thinking include the decline of mainline religions, the expansion of comparative religion courses, the increase in Asian immigration, and mass marketing techniques by NA spiritual entrepreneurs. The high media visibility of Hollywood celebrities promoting NA concepts and theories also contributed to the cultural visibility of the movement.

During the last four decades, a large part of the recruiting ground for religious and spiritual experiment has been among the relatively privileged and social elites. In this context, the spread of the NA Movement is attributable, in part, to structural characteristics of demographic and generational shifts associated with an emerging cohort of "baby boomers" whose affluence and greater discretionary time have freed them for diverse spiritual and cultural pursuits.

Criticism of the Movement. Criticism of NA therapies and philosophies comes from two main sources: left-leaning cultural critics and academics and conservative Christians. Cultural critics and academics censure the movement for its assault on the heritage of the enlightenment and for sowing doubt about the trustworthiness of rational thought. Accordingly, NA devotees promote alchemist-like spirituality, superstition, pseudoscience, incipient totalitarianism, a dangerous ahistoricism, and, in some cases, outright fraud.

Cultural critics also asserted that exotic NA interests such as crystal gazing and "harmonic convergence" are contrived, artificial phenomena that actually point to the triviality of spiritual matters in modern society. From a psychological perspective, some NA devotees manifest narcissistic and obsessive self-fixation traits that mirror the powerlessness, alienation, and atomistic individualism endemic in society. New Age "higher consciousness" is, therefore, little more than a misguided initiative to rescue the modern American "minimal self." In addition, NA practitioners have been accused of mimicking liberalism's idioms of globalism, cooperation, and tolerance. However, because some currents in the movement reject or minimize reformist political struggle, they implicitly promote apolitical escapism and reinforce the status quo.

The most aggressive assault on NA thinking comes from fundamentalist and conservative Christians who link NA spiritual effervescence with exotic "cults," with secular humanism, and with the emergence of a "false" and "one world" religion. "Bible believing" Christians denounce NA apologists for distorting and/or rejecting the Bible's message of sin and salvation, for promoting the "occult" and "demonic," and for contaminating the Christian tradition with false spiritual ideas. The New Age Movement is construed as the shadow of the anti-Christ and another cultural barometer of the apostate age.

More moderate Christian critics point to the latent gnosticism in much NA thought and to the movement's promotion of magic-like ritualization and its co-option of traditional religious symbolism. These critics have also reproached the NA Movement for failing to address the reality of evil (or for viewing social and structural oppression as merely a state of mind), for failing to link "self-realization" with moral guidance, and for extolling forms of self-exploration that too readily degenerate into self-promotion. In addition, both secular and religious critics criticize certain NA currents for amoralism, for the degradation and blatant commercialization of piety, and for the tendency to reduce religion to psychology.

The spread of New Age thinking has also been interpreted in more positive ways. First, the phenomenon shows that people do not respond to new social and cultural problems by abandoning religion as much as by developing new religious innovations and orientations on the ruins of the old. What is "new" about much NA thinking is not the content, per se, but the unexpected spread of such ideas in the face of assumptions regarding the alleged inexorable triumph of secularization.

Second, the NA Movement points to the continuing problem of the bifurcation of religious and scientific orientations that has long afflicted Western civilization. In response to this situation, people often compartmentalize their meaning systems. The privatization of religion is one aspect of this; the idolatry of technique another. New Age thinking with its call for "holistic" and "integrated" living is both symptomatic of this cultural problem and a creative and contemporary response to it.

Third, while the spread of NA theories and practices can be seen as an indictment of organized religion's failure to respond in creative and dynamic ways to new cultural trends, the movement has also stimulated a renewed interest in mysticism, meditation, and spiritual renewal within the Christian tradition. New Age ideals have also converged with a new stress on eclectic approaches to spirituality in many mainline churches.

The most positive aspects of NA ideals are those that encourage consensus decision making, integrated living, the emphasis on freedom for positive growth, creative action, and the call for human solidarity. Certain NA motifs are also highly relevant to aspects of the emerging ecological ethos and for the need for a new cosmology relevant to environmental concerns.

In its overall composition and visibility, the NA Movement gives expression to the dynamic and ongoing realignment of religion and culture. In reference to the Christian tradition, the NA Movement provides another opportunity for both spiritual revitalization within the tradition and for a new and creative discernment of the vibrant relationship between the Gospel and culture.

Bibliography: j. a. saliba, Christian Responses to the New Age Movement (London 1999). f. m. bordewich, "Colorado's Thriving Cults," The New York Times Magazine (May 1, 1988): 3744. w. d. dinges, "Aquarian Spirituality: The New Age Movement in America," The Catholic World (May/June 1989): 137142. m. ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy: Personal and Social Transformation in the 1980s (Los Angeles 1980). c. lasch, The Minimal Self; Psychic Survival in Troubled Times (New York 1984). j. r. lewis and j. g. melton, Perspectives on the New Age (Albany 1992). t. peters, The Cosmic Self (San Francisco 1991).

[w. d. dinges]

New Age Movement

views updated May 23 2018


NEW AGE MOVEMENT. The New Age movement was an international cultural current that arose in the late 1960s, when Eastern religions became popular in the United States. It combined earlier metaphysical beliefs such as Swedenborgianism, mesmerism, transcendentalism, theosophy, and often primitivist beliefs about the spiritual traditions of nonwhite peoples. As expressed by Baba Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), its first recognized national exponent, the New Age movement propounded the totality of the human body, mind, and spirit in a search for experiences of transformation through rebirthing, meditation, possessing a crystal, or receiving a healing.

Stressing personal transformation, New Agers envision a universal religion placing emphasis on mystical self-knowledge and belief in a pantheistic god as the ultimate unifying principle. The New Age movement is perhaps best known for its emphasis on holistic health, which emphasizes the need to treat patients as persons and offers alternative methods of curing, including organic diet, naturopathy, vegetarianism, and a belief in the healing process of crystals and their vibrations. New Age techniques include reflexology, which involves foot massage; acupuncture; herbalism; shiatsu, a form of massage; and Rolfing, a technique named after Ida P. Rolf, the originator of structural integration, in which deep massage aims to create a structurally well-balanced human being. Music is also used as therapy and as a form of meditation. While the term "New Age music" in the mid-1990s was a marketing slogan that included almost any type of music, true New Age music carries no message and has no specific form because its major use is as background for meditation.


Melton, J. Gordon, et al. New Age Encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

York, Michael. The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1995.

John J.Byrne/f. h.

See alsoAsian Religions and Sects ; Cults ; Medicine, Alternative ; Spiritualism ; Utopian Communities .

New Age movement

views updated Jun 11 2018

New Age movement. A diverse set of organizations united by their enthusiasm for the creation of a new era of enlightenment and harmony in the ‘Aquarian Age’ (in astrology the era or cycle of c.2,150 years when the constellation and zodiacal sign of Aquarius will coincide, following on from the ‘Piscean Age’ during which the same is true for Pisces).

New Age ‘teachings’ are characterized by an emphasis on monism, relativism, individual autonomy, and the rejection of the Judaeo-Christian emphasis on sin as the ultimate cause of evil in the world. Instead, New Age posits lack of knowledge and awareness as the root of humanity's problems. It is eclectic in style, gathering in a wide range of people and teachings if they reinforce the central concern.

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