Sabine Keller

Chapter 3

The New Age Movement

The advent of the mass movement of New Age religions is often dated back to the 1960s and early 70s. Before this time only very small numbers of people were interested in alternative spiritual paths. The advent of mass interest is described as a result of the political rebellion of the 1960s and early 70s, where norms and established values were questioned and rejected. This also included the questioning of Christian values and dogmas. As a result spiritual seekers turned towards alternatives such as Eastern religions, religiotherapy and other forms of New Age in order to explore self actualisation and perceive a liberation of traditional and established life (Heelas1992/ Heelas1996)[see references].  Heelas (1996) defines the core of the New Age as the search and desire for freedom with the rejection of external authorities in religion. However this freedom is not aimed to a particular new direction or belief system, rather than it is self exploration and the search for alternatives. This might partly explain the rise of a wide range of New Age practices and the lack of focus in the whole New Age movement.
Similarly it has to be mentioned that in Marxist terms this new freedom always remains restricted on the choice that is provided by the system and therefore cannot be seen as a ultimate freedom yet more as a new form of regulation in disguise.
In addition the secularisation of society, as discussed earlier might have played an important role in searching for new fulfilments (Wilson 1992) and overcoming the increasing anonymity and frustration in society (Berger et al 1973). It is argued that some system of shared beliefs – a ‘sacred canopy’ – is still required (Berger et al 1973).

The New Age is used as an umbrella term for various forms of alternative healing, the Green movement, various forms of divination (such as palm reading or tarot), astrology, the interest in Eastern religions, meditation techniques, Wicca, ancient pagan religions, occultism and spirituality among others (Heelas1992).
Despite of the variety of disciplines in New Age certain similarities and major aims can be observed (at least for most of them). They almost all focus on the development of the inner self and the assumption that the inner self is generally positive or even God-like (Heelas1992). One has to turn away from the outside world and concentrate on the inside and inner wisdom to uncover and develop the inner self which was spoilt by the outside world. Aldridge (2000) points out the main criteria and motivations of the New Age movements as an improvement and ‘success in career; health improvements and longevity; community aspect; kingdom building (world rejection); self-development and religious experience’ (Aldridge 2000:166/7). However it is argued that the major interest lies in self-actualisation which could be the result of the improvement of conditions in the life of the individual in post war time (Heelas1992).

One explanation of the motivation underlying the interest for these kinds of beliefs is explained through the Maslow pyramid (Heelas1992). The pyramid indicates different hierarchical layers of needs that one desires to satisfy in life. The most basic needs are physical ones such as food, followed by the need for safety, then there are social needs and self-esteem, and finally the need for self actualisation. Since it is argued that these needs are hierarchically fulfilled one who has not fulfilled the more basic needs would not express interest in self actualisation. Yet more and more people in the post war period have been able to meet the more essential needs and so they now gain interest in self actualisation (Heelas1992). According to the assumption that the inner self is God-like or at least contains incredible psychic power and wisdom, New Age beliefs are far more suitable for self actualisation than Christianity (Heelas1992).

An alternative view on the central aspect of New Age religions is provided by Bruce (1996), who points out that ‘…most elements of the New Age are cultic and are organised as ‘clients cults’ and ‘audience cults’. The client cult is structured around the individual relationship between a consumer and a purveyor’ (Bruce 1996:196). It is argued that in contrast to traditional forms of religion, New Age is strongly characterised through its centrality of commerce. Religiotherapies, divination as well as seminars and workshops are advertised in spiritual newspapers and magazines and are self-evidently exchange through money (Bruce 1996). In addition the expanding New Age market for spiritual books, crystals and other healing equipment as well as certain magical items to improve the life of the individual could strengthen this point.
According to Bruce (1996) there is a significant increase of interest in New Age and occult literature which is indicated through the growing number of spiritual literature in book shops whereas the interest in Christian books is declining. In fact a relation between the decline of participation in Christianity and the growth of the New Age movement in Western countries can be observed. However Bruce (1996) stresses the difficulty to research accurate figures of New Age participants for the reason that ‘new agers’ rather characterise through consumption than a membership of an institution. Furthermore because of the variety of the New Age disciplines certain New Age aspects overlap with other categories like for example medicine, ecology or psychology. It is suggested that the variety of New Age topics lead to a culture where ‘new agers’ chose, combine and learn unsystematically and often in a contradictory way only guided through their personal taste and preference (Bruce 1996). In this context Welch (2002) criticises the lack of understanding and distorted or half-knowledge of New Age practitioners turning towards tribal religions (such as of the Native Americans or Aborigines), which is created through an insufficiency of understanding of the indigenous culture and results in exploitation.
The triviality of New Age consumption is criticised by Wilson (1976) in Robbins (1988) as the reduction of religion to a mere consumer item. It is argued that spiritual consumption remains in a superficial state where the individual chooses from the ‘spiritual supermarket’ according to one’s choice in order to create a lifestyle and identity. However the mere consumption of the new religions does not impact on any political and social issues. In addition the New Age movement does not contribute towards an integration in culture for its reduction on consumption. In this way new religions are understood as an ‘exotic consumer product’  (Robbins 1988/ Wilson 1976:55) with the only purpose to serve as a lifestyle attribute. Consequently the increase of the New Age religions is seen as a sign of secularisation in society (Robbins 1988/ Wilson 1976).
Even further York (2001) suggests that the commercialisation in New Age indicates a ‘postmodern re-sanctification of the market’ (York 2001:370). A religion becomes more and more reduced to a commodity and the ‘…supermarket is the venue of commercial exchange, it might also become re-identified as (…) the church or temple’ (2001:372).

Another consideration is the grade of commitment that is dedicated to a New Age discipline. Similar to the different layers of commitment in subcultures (Hebdige 1979), ‘way of life’ membership to ‘weekend new agers’ can be observed. The grade of commitment might vary from occasional horoscope reading in a newspaper (Bruce 1996) or consulting a palmist motivated through curiosity to the overall commitment to a sectarian organisation (i.e. joining an ashram) which changes almost all aspect in the life of the individual. In this sense New Age aspects can be observed which provide only a temporary or part ‘solution’ for one’s life (divination, healing) in contrast to organisations which deliver a comprehensive ideology that covers economical, social and political issues. An example could be drawn from the ‘Damanhur’ enclave near Turin in Italy which provides their own legislation, educational system as well as its own currency and bank system (Damanhur 2001 [online]). This might highlight the difficulty in researching New Age involvement. On one hand there are the relatively small numbers of members of institutions which could be recorded yet on the other hand there is a ‘grey zone’ of occasional as well as fulltime ‘new agers’ which purchase goods and services that might even been  labelled under psychology, alternative healing or ecology (etc.).

According to the material provided on the New Age movement one can identify certain interesting aspects. On one hand the commercialisation in the new religions indicates a secularisation among them; on the other hand the secularisation of society – which has been suggested is caused by the changes of production and consumption – might have supported the rise of the New Age movement in the first place. Aldridge (2000) points out that according to Bocock (1993) consumerism and religion cannot exist parallel thus it is suggested that eventually religion will be consumed as anything else (Heelas 1994). However Aldridge (2000) draws on Wilson (1966) that the example of America as the land of consumption delivers a counter-example where the majority of people confess to a belief thus in a highly secular environment.
According to a recent study (Mears 2000 [online]) of the population of Texas on the involvement in New Age purchasing showed that the ‘purchase of New Age materials (books, magazines, tapes, and so forth) (a) is surprisingly common, and (b) is distributed rather evenly across most segments of the population’ (Mears 2000 [online]). Approximately 22% of the questioned people did purchase New Age material in the past year. It is suggested that this figure would be impressively higher if it would have been questioned if any New Age material was purchased in the whole lifetime (Mears 2000 [online]). Also of interest are the outcomes of the survey where people have been invited to agree or disagree with the following statements. The results showed that ’31 percent of respondents agree or strongly agree with Lived Before, 28 percent agree or strongly agree with Communicate with Dead, and these numbers are even higher for Heal Ourselves (43 percent), Spiritual Truth Comes From Within (66 percent), and Charge of Our Lives (78 percent)’ (Mears 2000 [online]). This example might indicate that the involvement in New Age activities and its commercial aspect is far beyond estimated figures.

In this sense Abridge (2000) suggests that one could observe a dominance of consumption in the life of the individual where consumers are manipulated through New Age advertising. Alternatively one could stress the positive aspect of consumption of the New Age religions in the way that there is a consumer sovereignty and the consumer is enabled to chose according to one’s desire their own lifestyle and identity. In addition it is suggested that since the Western world becomes more and more a world of consumption it could be absolutely legitimate also for traditional religions to use advertising as a conduit to reach new members (Aldridge 2000). However this would bring religion a step further in becoming reduced to just another commodity. In contrast Percy (2000) disagrees with Berger’s affirmative view of advertising churches, for an advertisement never can present the full sacred aspect that lies behind the religious institution and therefore would only help to commodify and secularise the organisation.

chapter 4