Last modified on 16 December 2006, at 09:20

Principles of Sociology/New Agers and Fundamentalism

“Social Perspectives on New Age Religion/Spirituality”

It is difficult to have a productive discussion about religion and spirituality if the conversation doesn't get beyond what people consider the fundamental realm of faith, that is, the more unquestionable nature of religion. However, it is important to consider what social forces influence people's experience inside a specific religious context or organization and the consequences these behaviors have on shaping society at large. Discussing the emergence of “new age” religious practices helps us get beyond most people's hang ups regarding their religious commitments and provides us an interesting new arena to thoughtfully explore.

What is the meaning of “New Age”? (ideas)

How does a person labeled “New Age” behave? (behaviors)

How many people actually engage in New Age activities? (statistics)

Is there a New Age social movement or just a trend? (ideology and growth dynamics)

Most monotheistic religions have mystical aspects, or sects within the larger body…

Judaism – Kabbalah Islam – Sufism and Whirling Dervishes Christianity – Chanting Monastic Meditation

More polytheistic faiths like Hinduism, Buddhism, and animism tend to incorporate mysticism throughout

The New Age turn in America is not part of a consolidated religious sect (like the Hare Krishnas) nor a more mainstream cult (like the Moonies). New Age is better described as a large and diverse subcultural realm.

New Age spirituality and religious philosophy as we conceive of it today should be considered a distinctly American phenomenon, perhaps even part of our larger ethnicity. Our country has a long history of religious experimentalism and fundamentalist revival stretching back to the 17 th century. The New Age has captivated people much like the Spiritualists, Transcendentalists, and Theosophists did in the past.

This large-scale, fragmented, decentralized religious subculture drew its principal inspiration from sources outside of the Judeo-Christian tradition, mostly eastern religions and philosophies. While it was in many respects a continuation of a preexisting occult-metaphysical tradition, the addition to its ranks of a sizable number of former counterculturists from the 1950s period onward meant that New Age was no longer a marginal phenomenon: by the eighties, it had become an integral part of a new, truly pluralistic mainstream.

There are lots of interesting groups that have incorporated New Age beliefs and techniques into their repertoire. Before the dot com bubble burst, seminar spirituality had become widespread across the corporate landscape, encouraging creativity and personal growth in business management. Even the army has taken on some aspects: “Be All That You Can Be” and Delta Force uses New Age training exercises

Some people will tell you that the New Age movement has been siphoning off followers of mainstream Christian and Jewish denominations. People have been predicting the decline of traditional religious faiths for more than a century now, but statistics show it still hasn't come to pass. What is more likely to be happening is that while people continue to practice their inherited faith, they take on other New Age practices as well on the side and use them in a complementary fashion when their religion falls short…

Observers have noticed a general rise in spirituality over the last 50 years or so. This can be evidenced by the rise in New Age beliefs, the revival of ancient indigenous spiritualism, and the rebirth of Charismatic Christian churches across the churches constantly invoking the Holy Spirit in their congregation. Max Weber might insist that this “re-enchantment” of the world is a response to the increasing power of science and predicable rationality. Also, the sheer amount of choice people have in spirituality might also play a role

The baby boom generation is said to have taken on the New Age ideology most readily. Why might that be?

What might explain why so many Jews embrace New Age practices and their roots in eastern philosophy?

Can you see any links between the rise in New Age spirituality and the rise of more fundamentalist faiths?

Traits of the New Age:

• an attitude of "epistemological individualism," that is, a belief that the individual is the ultimate locus for the determination of truth.

• an attitude of "revelational indeterminacy," that is, a belief that the truth may be revealed in diverse ways and through diverse agents. No individual or organization possesses a monopoly on the truth.

• New Age is more about transformation than about prediction (astrology) – as such, it changes its focus constantly. It can only be defined by its primal experience of transformation. New Agers have either experienced or are diligently seeking a profound personal transformation from an old, unacceptable life to a new, exciting future....

• Those who have experienced a personal transformation project the possibility of the transformation not of just a number of additional individuals, but of the culture and of humanity itself.

• There is always an emphasis on healing, whether physical, mental, or spiritually oriented - it can come from within or from direct encounters with a guru

Similar Traits in Religious Fundamentalism:

• Personal transformation (salvation) and direct spiritual experience (communion) are at the heart of one's life project - private transformation must find its twin in the transformation of society.

• Fundamentalists hear voices more than see visions: their mysticism comes clad in a rhetoric of newness that is expressed as ongoing revelation in their day to day decision making.

• Fundamentalists stress healing, either through charismatic preachers (the anointed) or mass prayer.... physical health is a sign of blessing, part of the empowerment that comes through close contact with what is sacred. Another sign of blessing is material prosperity.

• Both tend to take texts and revelations quite literally (religious materialism)

• Both have a populist, non-elite, volunteer-oriented notion of "do-it-yourself" salvation

Some Ways to Identify These Types of Social Movements:

• Sense of belonging – A large number of persons unequivocally identifying with some group or idea

• Common values – values and practices that everyone must try to live up to in order to bring the vision to fruition in the world

• Goals of the movement – attempting to create an alternative society that they believe will eventually supplant mainstream society.

• Common Style— a way of appearing and behaving on a daily basis to give aesthetic continuity to the movement as a whole – in these groups it is often anti-materialistic simplicity.

• Jargon – there is a discourse within the movement that outsiders have difficulty understanding.

• Mass communication – there are a large number of alternative sources of information, such as newsletters and magazines, which circulate news within the movement and which rarely appeal to people outside of the movement.

Do people get the same kinds of things from New Age practices as they do from more mainstream religions?

What types of people do you think have a tendency to adopt New Age behaviors and ways of thinking?

How might the New Age movement and the bobo mentality we discussed earlier overlap? Why?

Healing = spiritual growth/learning

What does the term “new Age convey” – this debate is what spawned my interest in doing this presentation – it is the distinction between faddish caricatures and actual measurements of widespread behaviors. You can't just ask someone if they are new age.

Is New Age a social movement? Not in the traditional sense, but it is a number of groups and individuals that have a number of beliefs and orientations that have what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein has called a 'family resemblance'—two members of the family may bear almost no resemblance to each other, although they both resemble a third member

Yoga, meditation, homeopathy, eastern religious philosophy, crystals, holistic medicine, natural food, eco-awareness

Because of its diverse and decentralized nature, new age practices have infiltrated many traditional people's lives –Jews, Christians, businessmen, and doctors alike

A significant proportion, if not a majority of those people embracing new age spirituality and philosophy are from the Baby Boom generation – those hippies and counterculturalists who embarked on various types of spiritual quests in the decades following the 1960s. This is associated with a relative turn inwards of American culture – brought on by the onset of vast individualistic consumerism, youth subcultures, and an overall breakdown in value congruency.

New age is largely an emphasis on the self with concomitant emphasis on novel experience.

How many people are “new agers” in one sense or another of holding alternative religious views?

This is very hard to tell and it certainly depends on what part of the country you look in… i.e. San Francisco has more new agers than Omaha for sure. It is difficult to get good numbers on the population mostly because quantitative sociologists aren't so interested in collecting statistics to study this group – qualitative researchers have more fun just talking to a select few of these folks.

Labeling problems and recognizing shortcomings and needlessness of labels. In a recent edition of Body Mind Spirit , one of the more widely distributed New Age magazines, the editor, Paul Zuromski, raises the question, "Is 'New Age' Dead?" This question is asked in the context of a short piece on the editor's page which explains why the magazine has dropped its banner "Your New Age Information Resource" in favor of "Tools for Creating a Richer, More Fulfilling Life." After asserting that he never cared much for the New Age label anyway, the editor proceeds to cite Gallup Poll findings, as well as certain other evidence, which indicate that the label has acquired negative connotations in the mind of the general public. Partially because of this negative press, even book publishers are abandoning the new age category for a series of "more accurate labels like self-help, new science, metaphysics, Eastern religions, philosophy, natural living," and so forth

Link between Christian fundamentalism and New Age - In viewing the New Age as an expression of American culture, Bednaroski is drawing on Catherine Albanese's work on the New Age. Albanese puts forward a broad interpretation of the significance of the New Age in "Religion and the American Experience." 17 In this article, she argues that

Think about how Max Weber's notions of disenchantment and reenchantment line up with new age ideas about energy, animism, also see new Christian revivals and the emphasis on the spirit

Think about the ever precence of charlatans, pop-mysticism, and disingenuous or counterfeit spirituality

Think about the role of the charismatic leader/teacher in these movements – the oracle, seer, shaman, prophet

There are reportedly 300,000 witches and neopagans worldwide

Why do Jews overrepresent themselves in New Age organizations as compared to their portion of the population?

What kind of people adopt New Age practices and spiritual beliefs?

How do people become New Age? hint – it isn't TV

Are New Agers accepting of other social outcasts – gays, awkward teenage girls, etc?

What is the overt connection between mysticism and the New Age movement?

What is their stance on environmental issues and how might it be related to animism and belief in reviving tribal religions?

Think about the difference between New Age groups and formal religious organizations (like churches) in the way of social services provided, and community in the spatial sense of a meeting house

Here is an example of New Age discourse at a corporate training session:

"We look within to find our own individual self and universal source. That source has been called the Inner Self, the hidden mind, the divine spark, the Divine Ego, the Great I Am, God, and Essence. Some say that the very purpose of human existence is to get acquainted with your own essential qualities and express them in your daily activities. Whether it is the purpose of life or not, it is a fine definition of personal creativity: living every moment from your essence."

The above passage is not quoted from a book on metaphysics, Eastern philosophy, or one authored by Shirley MacLaine. It is from Creativity in Business, written by Michael Ray, a professor at Stanford Business School 1 Ray has taught a course of the same name for several years. Its purpose is to teach students how to use New Age metaphysical teachings to increase their creativity in a business setting. The contents of the book include meditation techniques, yoga exercises, and even specific instructions on how to contact a personal "Spirit Guide."2 “human potential” seminars

Creativity in Business is a clear example of how the American business community is becoming more and more receptive to New Age practices when used to increase productivity and efficiency. In July of 1986 officials from IBM, AT&T, and General Motors met in New Mexico to discuss how metaphysics, the occult, and Hindu mysticism could possibly aid businessmen in an increasingly competitive marketplace.3

Even the U.S. Army has joined in. The slogan "Be All You Can Be" is a direct result of a commission established to explore the possibility of creating a "New Age Army."4 Interest in New Age training methods became so significant in the armed services that in 1984 a project was undertaken by the National Research Council which would investigate these phenomena in detail. Their final report, published in 1988, concluded