New Age is often viewed as an alternative to traditional or ‘world religions’. In the public arena the debate tends to center around the ‘spirituality’ – ‘religion’ dichotomy. But in academia it becomes more complex when trying to assign research on New Age to a field of study. For more on this subject, see my article on secularism and the categorization of academia. This article will explore a variety of view-points on how New Age should be categorized.
Gilhus and Sutcliffe describe New Age as, “… deinstitutionalized religion” (2013: 9). But is there such a thing? Many would argue religion without institution. A cult may operate without institution, a bunch of loonies may proclaim faith without institution, but the title of religion is withheld until there is an established institution to regulate and govern beliefs, practices and followers. This question of where to draw the boundaries for ‘religion’ is difficult for academics.
However there is some resistance to the ‘religion’ label. New Agers emphasize the differences between their ideals and the constructs common in world religions. For those that are seeking an alternative, such as New Age, ‘religion’ is often thought to be hierarchical, patriarchal, narrow-minded, exclusive and lacking in spiritual substance. New Agers don’t necessarily want to be put in the ‘religion’ category, but they would like the same level of respect given to traditional religions. They want their ideals and practices taken seriously rather than regarded as fluff.
The last piece of this debate, as a primary concern of academics, is whether New Age can be called a movement. Steven Sutcliffe rejects New Age as a movement and instead elects these categories, “… small group practice, auto/biographical identity construction and popular discourse on ‘spirituality’…” (2010: 17). In my limited observation of New Age phenomena I think all of these focuses have relevance. However, Melton argues that wider similarities can be seen to warrant a more all-encompassing focus like movement studies, “As applied to the New Age, however, ‘movement’ refers to its likeness to broad social movements… these movements include a bewildering array of people devoted to the cause but very diverse in their institutional affiliations, definition of particular goals, and adherence to variant strategies on reaching common ends” (2007:79). Button and Bloom, leaders in British New Age circles, support this notion of diverse collectivity and describe it as, “… [new agers]… putting together the puzzle using the different pieces…” (1992, 12).
Is New Age a religion, an expression of spirituality or a social movement? It certainly has qualities of all three. The problem arises when a category must be shared with something thought to be undesirable. As a means of avoiding a negative association, whole categories become tainted. This is evident in New Agers’ resistance to the ‘religion’ label. This reaction effects the popular opinion of what New Age is and how relevant research is categorized in academia. However, I don’t think that fitting New Age into one, neat category is necessary or beneficial for its study. But attempting to do so seems to put minds at ease.
Button, John & William Bloom. “Introduction,” in The Seeker’s Guide: A new age resource book, edited by J. Button and W. Bloom, 1992. London: The Aquarian Press, pp. 11-20.
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 & D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 77-102.
Sutcliffe, Steven. “Category Formation and the History of ‘New Age’,” in Culture and Religion: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 2010. 4(1), pp. 5-29.