In the secular age, New Age has flourished. It seems to be the religion / spirituality of secularism. (New Age ‘religion’ v. New Age ‘spirituality’ is a discussion for another time; I use the two terms interchangeably here). Why does New Age fit so well in secular society? Scholars’ identifications of New Age characteristics are not entirely dissimilar from modern elements treasured in mainstream culture. Taves and Kinsella identify individualism, shopping / consumerism, seeking and resistance to organization as primary elements of New Age (2013, 84-85). Significant overlap of ideas and activities is common between New Age and secular principles, allowing New Age to grow in a secular environment.
To better understand the relationship between New Age phenomena and secularism, we need to examine elements of New Age with special attention to their secular duality. Jespers speaks about this dualism with respect to categorizing activities and practices as either ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’. Jespers provides the following example, “For instance mindfulness is typically presented as a psychological practice, but it is often also seen as a ‘spiritual’ activity, usually without worship, or larger institution. Therefore in my [Jespers’] typology it is defined as ‘secular’” (2013, 207). In this case the lack of worship or recognized institution leads Jespers to label mindfulness as secular, though others feel it has spiritual value. I will later return to Jespers’ methods of designating phenomena as ‘secular’ or ‘spiritual’ after exploring the duality of New Age elements as identified above by Taves and Kinsella.
Due to the nature of New Age phenomena and the holism it emphasizes, its elements are highly integrated. Discussing each in turn is difficult due to the how much they affect one another. However I will do my best and begin with individuality. Most definitions of religion emphasize the belief and participation of large congregations. This principle alone threatens to move New Age phenomena into the secular sphere as congregations adhering to a set doctrine is highly uncommon. This line of thinking downplays spiritual devotion on the basis of quantity. Religions are supposed to be comprised of many followers while individualism is thought to be something of the modern era. The individual is secular, while the congregation is religious. But as is common in New Age, “If it is believed that the sacred resides in the deeper layer of the self, after all, what else can be expected than people following their personal paths, experimenting freely with a range of traditions…” (Aupers &Houtman 2006, 206). This notion also speaks to the characteristics: seeking and resistance to organization.
Individuals seek meaning because in New Age there are no absolutes or one-size-fits-all doctrines. While there may be highly revered teachers or mentors, everyone is their own expert with regard to themselves. Also with no designated sacred texts, seeking is the primary way followers learn about themselves and experience the divine. Further this set up is not conducive to a hierarchical organization as is common among world religions. But that is not to say New Agers are without organization. I will discuss New Age organizational modes later.
Shopping is another pivotal component scholars have identified. Guy Redden considers it an integral component by arguing that it mobilizes the entire New Age phenomenon (2012, 53). However some scholars take the centrality of shopping to mean that this is all New Age is comprised of. New Age is criticized for having no spiritual substance, consisting of only self-gratifying consumption. This is the main argument employed to trivialize New Age on the basis of quality. I find this analysis of participation in the spiritual marketplace very shallow. There is little to no thought about the meaning or function of such participation. An exception among scholars, Heelas claims, “Purchases are deployed to facilitate sociocultural progress… Purchases are used to distinguish one’s way of life…” (2009, 107). Further in the modern era, “… self-transformation [has] become the fundamental religious process for many Westerners… and consumerism [has become] a major part of identity formation” (Cusack 2010, 17). With this frame of mind consumption suddenly becomes imbued with meaning. It becomes the means to belonging. Moreover the marketplaces that provide New Age goods and services facilitate the initiation and building of relationships among like-minded people. Participation in the spiritual marketplace becomes the foundation of organization in New Age circles. Spiritual marketplaces are the nodes in a web-like organizational network (Possamai 2007, 152). This organizational mode is fluid rather than static and heavily policed and preserved like the institutions of world religions. This stark difference is another factor threatening to place New Age in the ‘secular’ category.
If this discussion on New Age characteristics can teach us anything it is that products, acts and processes cannot be taken at face value, but must be searched for hidden meaning. As illustrated, the components of New Age may not be easily put into a ‘New Age’ or ‘spiritual’ category. Rather than looking to categorize New Age and / or its components into a secular-religious dichotomy, Melton argues New Age should be viewed as, “… an effort to bring older organizations and the people associated with them together and constitute a new sense of oneness among them” (2007, 79). Though the components may be secular in nature, the greater framework they are situated in and the meaning prescribed to gives such components a spiritual quality. This directly challenges Jespers’ typology that labels phenomena secular unless proven otherwise.
Jespers over simplifies New Age activities so that they can be neatly classified. While there is certainly a need to better define New Age in academic literature, analysis should not be biased or oversimplified to maintain mutually exclusive categories. Overlap and dualism should be fully explored and embraced for it offers a far more rich discussion than a dichotomy. Moreover subjects’ notions need to given equal weight to that of the researcher to ensure a thorough an unbiased study. Otherwise we risk going back to the days of social evolutionists and armchair anthropologists asserting their ‘wisdom’ over the notions of the less civilized.
Cusack, Carole. Invented Religions: Faith, Fiction, Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010.
Heelas, Paul. Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009.
Jespers, Frans. ‘From New Age to new spiritualities: secular sacralizations on the borders of religion’. In New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion, edited by S.J. Sutcliffe and I.S. Gilhus, 197-211. Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2013.
Melton, J. Gordon. ‘Beyond Millennialism: The New Age Transformed’. In Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, edited by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 77-102. Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2007.
Possamai, Adam. ‘Producing and Consuming New Age Spirituality: The Cultic Milieu and the Network Paradigm’. In Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, edited by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 151-166. Leiden: Brill Publishing, 2007.
Taves, Ann, and Michael Kinsella. ‘Hiding in plain sight: the organizational forms of
“unorganized religion”’. In New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion, edited by S.J. Sutcliffe and I.S. Gilhus, 84-98. Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2013.