New Age religion is neither something completely new nor just a revival — or survival — of 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 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 — and, in some respects, the anthroposophical metaphysics of the German visionary Rudolf Steiner — In , 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 s, 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.
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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. 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 s, 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, , pp.
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This became the perspective typical of the New Age movement of the s and its sympathizers in later decades. This early New Age movement, born in the context of the postwar UFO cults and flowering in the spiritual utopianism of the s and s, was only one manifestation of the countercultural ferment of the times. More generally, this ferment found expression in a widespread "cultic milieu" Campbell, 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 time — displaying 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 s.
It is helpful to distinguish the latter movement from the original New Age movement described above.
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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 s 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.
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, , p.
Physicist Fritjof Capra saw it as the "rising culture" destined to replace the declining culture of the modern West Capra, , p. But eventually what they were referring to came to be known as the New Age movement: by the late s and early s 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 s 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 s 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 s 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 s, 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 s and the s, respectively. During the s the most vocal representative of the New Age idea may have been the movie actress Shirley MacLaine. Her autobiographies, published between and , 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 s. For the s 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 s 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 s 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 s participants increasingly refused to identify themselves as such, preferring vague and noncommittal terms such as "spirituality.
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. 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.
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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 — and German physician Franz Anton Mesmer — , 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 by Helena P. Blavatsky — and Henry Steel Olcott — 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 s. In addition, popular practices of magnetic healing, also referred to as mesmerism, reached the United States as early as 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.
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Each one of these various currents — Spiritualism, modern theosophy, and the American New Thought movement — has 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. 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.follow link
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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. Simultaneously, periodicals were published to disseminate information and to create a sense of community within the decentralized movement.
As the movement grew, bookstores opened that specialized in the sale of New Age books, videos, and meditative aids. The New Age movement united a body of diverse believers with two simple ideas. First, it predicted that a New Age of heightened spiritual consciousness and international peace would arrive and bring an end to racism, poverty, sickness, hunger, and war. This social transformation would result from the massive spiritual awakening of the general population during the next generation.
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Second, individuals could obtain a foretaste of the New Age through their own spiritual transformation. Initial changes would put the believer on the sadhana , a new path of continual growth and transformation. New Age movement. Info Print Print. Table Of Contents. Submit Feedback. Thank you for your feedback. Written By: J.