SECULAR AND NEW AGE OVERLAP

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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.

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SCHOLARS AND SUBJECTS: TWO PERSPECTIVES

The term ‘New Age’ has evolved in meaning over the years. We think of it as a relatively new term, but it in fact is not. The term became associated with Theosophy through Alice Bailey’s writings in the early 20th century, and continued evolving from there. But the modern concept we are familiar with, largely emerged through ‘60s counter culture. The components that make up New Age are extremely diverse causing definitions of the term to be equally as diverse. In the scholarly realm, New Age is characterized by:

  • Individualism
  • Shopping, spiritual market
  • Seeking
  • Inbuilt resistance to organization
    (Taves & Kinsella 2013: 84-85)

These are common themes academic literature on New Age phenomena. They are also highly contested with a multitude of positive and negatives stances for each theme. However these points of significance as identified by academic scholars become much more telling when held in juxtaposition with major components of New Age thinking identified by New Agers. According to John Button and William Bloom, New Age thinking is largely made up of the following components:

  • Through the revelations and insights of contemporary science, we are beginning to understand that matter is composed of dancing waves of energy, and that every particle and movement of the cosmos is related to every other. Science is also determining that there is a continuum between matter and consciousness, and that the two are not separate.
  • Within psychology there is a growing understanding of the potential of the human psyche and consciousness. It is being increasingly recognised that a major purpose of human existence is to achieve psychological integration and fulfillment and that this dynamic is fuelled and guided by each individual’s ‘inner’ or ‘core’ self.
  • Within holistic medicine and healing, it is accepted that illness and health can only be understood and treated in relation to the whole person and their own unique life story.
  • The green movement has clearly demonstrated that the delicate and intimate interrelationships between all living beings on the planet, recognising that the planet too is a living being in its own right.
  • The accelerated pace of social and political change and the global electronic communications revolution have brought events and traditions from around the world into our cultural consciousness.
  • Being part of this global village has opened access to all the world’s religious and mystical traditions, and increasingly we are coming to understand the underlying unity of all spiritual paths. We can appreciate the rich tapestry of different approaches, honoring the wisdom of native traditions and the esoteric teachings of the mainstream religions.
    (1992: 12)

In my experience observing New Age phenomena, I see the relevance of both constructs. Neither can be easily identified as wrong. But the difference suggests that researchers and their subjects are focused on different things, and designate significance by different requirements. The quotes above illustrate how researchers focus on structure and function, while participants are more concerned with content. Considering that many researchers interested in New Age phenomena come from a social science background, it is not surprising that they tend to focus on how New Agers operate.

But themes deemed significant by subjects must be given ample attention by researchers. This is imperative to gain an emic perspective and develop an understanding of subjects’ belief and decision making systems. In the early days of social research, scholars imposed their reasoning for beliefs and actions over the reasoning of their subjects. In the field of New Age research especially, I fear this ineffective and damaging trend is alive and well. Balancing scholarly interests with areas of importance identified by subjects will yield more thorough and unbiased studies.

Button, John & William Bloom. “Introduction” in The Seeker’s Guide: A New Age Resource Book, edited by J. Button & W. Bloom. London: The Aquarian Press, 1992, pp. 11-17.

Taves, Ann & Michael Kinsella. “Hiding in plain sight: the organizational forms of ‘unorganized religion’” in New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. Edited by S.J. Sutcliffe & I.S. Gilhus. Durham: Acumen Publishing Limited, 2013, pp 84-98.

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A SECULAR ALTERNATIVE TO RELIGION: HUMANISM

17198022-abstract-word-cloud-for-humanism-with-related-tags-and-termsIn the secular age, alternatives to organized religion have been desired more than ever before. New Age philosophies are one such alternative experiencing a boom today, the other is Secular Humanism. While New Age thrives on the symbolism, rituals and mystical experiences of many religious traditions, Secular Humanism thrives on science. Hobson and Jenkins describe Humanism with the following ideas:

  • Humanists do not recognize a God that is responsible for the creation of the universe or that is directly involved with day to day human life.
  • Morals are thought to have come to be through evolution. The cornerstone of Humanist morality is that there is nothing more important than people. Humanists believe that positive change can be brought about through human intervention alone.
  • Humanists look to science for answers about the world we live in and believe the scientific method is the only way of adding to our knowledge.
  • Due to a lack of scientific evidence, Humanists do not believe in life before birth or life after death.
  • They work continually to find ways to improve the Earth’s environment and the human race.
  • Humanists do not believe in absolute truths, but instead look continually for new evidence that may support, dispute or challenge existing ideas.
    (1994, 1-2).

These ideas would function universally in the attempt to help all of humanity regardless of race, religion or creed. There are many religion-based organizations focused on providing charity, but religious and cultural differences can get in the way. The Secular Humanist perspective does well to avoid this problem. Its universal and unbiased nature is a great strength. However, I do not see Secular Humanism as the perfect solution. Like any other philosophy or ideal it has challenges to face.

While the ideas outlined above are beneficial to address basic human needs, they do not recognize any spiritual need among humans. Much less, any means of addressing these needs. Hobson and Jenkins discuss how even some scientists acknowledge, “… that the human mind needs a ‘something’ more ethereal and mystical than the matter-of-fact approach of science. They find religious practices to be emotionally satisfying, fulfilling some indefinable need” (1994, 60). I find the response as to how Secular Humanists fill this need rather unsatisfying, “The Humanist also often feels the need for what some would regard as non-rational or ‘unwinding’ activities and they meet it by taking part in, for example, competitive games, walking in the country… reading poetry or fiction, dancing or listening to pop music” (Hobson & Jenkins 1994, 60). Equating mystical experience or sacred rituals to non-rational and unwinding activities trivializes religious acts and the importance they hold in people’s lives. Secular Humanists regard religion as a good, “… source of comfort, uplifting ideas and moral inspiration” (Hobson & Jenkins 1994, 63). This language does not convey and respect for religion, but rather treats it as simply means to an end.

In the past, people with innovative minds were often persecuted by religious institutions as heretics. I fear in this age of science and reason, the opposite could occur. It would certainly not be the first case of reverse discrimination. In such case, religion will become archaic, laughable and trivial at best. The religious attitudes, beliefs and philosophies people follow has been shifting. In our modern world it seems the next step is philosophy that disregards the supernatural entirely as Secular Humanism does. In the past scholars interested in religion viewed monotheistic traditions like Christianity as the most evolved form of religion (Habel, O’Donoghue & Maddox 1996, 8). Such thinking promoted hierarchy and the mistreatment of traditions viewed as primitive or less developed. I hope that this unfortunate past does not repeat itself and that followers of non-theistic philosophies do not claim superiority over people of faith. For Secular Humanism this would be disastrous in its primary goal of improving the welfare of the entire human race.

Habel, Norman, Micheal O’Donoghue & Marion Maddox. Myth, Ritual and the Sacred: Introducing the Phenomena of Religion. Underdale, South Australia: Texts in Humanities, 1996.

Hobson, Alfred & Neil Jenkins. Modern Humanism: Living without Religion. London, UK: Adelphi Press, 1994.

THE CATEGORIZATION OF ACADEMIA

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Secular society’s obsession with categorization has made its way into academia. Academic disciplines are heavily regulated and painstakingly sorted into colleges with other like disciplines. Interdisciplinary work is highly regarded, though it is also thought to be a difficult and complex task. Complex and multi-faceted issues should be at the center of academic work. If an issue or phenomena is studied, explored and analyzed from one disciplinary perspective, much could be lost through the narrow scope. Categorization in academia is becoming so extensive that disciplines of study are created from different methodologies, even when they largely cover the same topic. For example religious studies, theology and philosophy take different approaches but all focus greatly on religion. But what about sociology, anthropology or history? These perspectives would be vital as, “… religion is often not easily separated from the broader category of culture” (Cusack 2010: 20). This trend of almost obsessive specialization works against the synthesis of relevant ideas. While providing plenty of focus for projects in a time and budget strapped world, specialization is not conducive to a broad and balanced understanding.

For a number of reasons, such as its secular elements, New Age does not easily fit the rigid boundaries of ‘religion’. As New Age has been very difficult to define, settling on a suitable academic discipline is equally as difficult. But also, “… to study it in its various components would run the risk of ignoring the ways in which its elements interconnect and overlooking the holism that is so constantly emphasizes” (Chryssides 2007: 23). As academic trends move toward categorization, New Age and other subjects that thrive on holism may suffer. How can a phenomena holistic in nature be studied successfully by a categorized and segregated system? As all religions are part of the whole of culture, these topics need to be approached in a holistic manner.

Chryssides, George D. “Defining the New Age” In Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age. Edited by J.R. Lewis & D. Kemp. Leiden: Brill, 2007: pp. 5-24.

Cusack, Carole. Invented Religions: Faith, Fiction, Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Group, 2010.