There is no doubt New Age has many characteristics that are often considered secular. I have already written an article on such instances of overlap in an article entitled, “Secular and New Age Overlap.” But these similarities leave us to wonder, along with the growth of New Age in the secular age, what exactly is the nature of the relationship between New Age and secularism? This question is unfortunately much like the chicken or the egg dilemma. Did the similarities come about because New Age, as we know it today, grew up out of a largely secular mainstream society? Or does the holistic and seemingly boundary-free nature of New Age provide an opportunity for secularism to encroach upon and transform New Age to closer align with its ideals?
These two positions are argued by Carole Cusack and Steve Bruce. First, Cusack views the similarities between New Age and secularism as evidence of the reaching effects of mainstream culture. Here Cusack uses the strong presence of consumerism in secular society and New Age to illustrate this, “… if the cultural context is consumerist, then the dominant religious form of that community will be, too” (2010, 20). While Bruce takes on the opposing argument, “Unless one constantly works to preserve a body of doctrine, the ideas will gradually accommodate to the cultural norms” (2002, 102). I have not conducted enough research on this topic to side completely one way or the other, but instead aim to provide some thoughtful commentary.
Both arguments are sound in that they provide ample and logical reason as to why New Age and secularism share similar elements. I think the key to shedding light on this debate is in the differing characteristics of secularism and New Age. Whichever argument can account for the points of difference as well as the similarities can be utilized as the primary model for the secular-New Age relationship. The biggest point of separation is the holism emphasized in New Age and the extensive categorization indicative of secularism. This most evident in the thorough separation of religious and spiritual systems from other facets of society.
I find it more likely that New Age has inevitably picked up some characteristics from wider society as it formed its own sub culture, as argued by Cusack. New Age started as an alternative to organized religion; often to leave behind patriarchy and hierarchical structure in favor of personal spirituality and mystical experience. But it seems today it has become an alternative to a purely secular (humanist) existence. While spirituality and mysticism are important elements in New Age, holism is the New Age buzz word of today. This suggests that it may have picked up some popular elements of secularism considered supportive or at least benign to New Age ideals. But New Age promotes and constructs its ideals around points of differentiation like holism, as a direct response to secularism.
However I don’t believe there is such a thing as a one-way relationship. This question may not have an either / or answer, but a both / and answer. Secularism and New Age must affect each other mutually, not simply one upon the other. Such reasoning would make neither Cusack nor Bruce wrong.
Bruce, Steve. God is Dead: secularization in the West. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2002.
Cusack, Carole. Invented Religions: Faith, Fiction, Imagination. Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2010.