THEORY OVERUSE

Bag of potato crisps

In the world of social science, anthropology, sociology and the like, there are plenty of theories to go around. The spectrum reflects the progress of academia and intellect through the ages as well as trends of the times. Some are now considered out of date, perhaps because they have been disproven or are simply out of fashion. Some are considered more accurate or applicable than others. There are few if any theories in the social sciences considered perfect. All have exceptions. However, this field thrives on shades of gray. It should be expected that its theories will not be in black and white.

Some fail to see the value in using theory. What is the point when they all have a limited scope and are riddled with exceptions? The suggested alternative is to simply preform studies without applying any theory to methodology or analysis. Instead, studies become detailed accounts of specific phenomena. I don’t see a problem with this. However, theories provide the opportunity to put findings and new ideas into a larger framework. This allows the researcher to make comparisons and connections, creating a more complete understanding of the phenomena and the world it is situated in.

The largest issue concerning theory is that there is a tendency to apply a theory to every situation or phenomena one comes across. We build theories up in our minds to be grand, over-arching answers. When the truth is, the world is too diverse for any such thing. If a theory cannot answer all, then it is discarded and then the next one is tried, then the next one, then the next… until we decide theories are pointless altogether. As Marvin Harris puts it, “Explanations of lifestyles are like potatoes chips. People insist on eating them until the whole bag is gone” (pg. vi). Instead we need to recognize and accept the limits of theories while taking advantage of the focused yet wider scope and fresh perspectives theories can provide.

Harris, Marvin. Cows, Pigs, Wars and Witches: The riddles of culture. New York: Random House, 1978.

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EQUATING VALUE TO MONEY: EFFECTS ON RELIGIOUS AND SPIRITUAL INVOLVEMENT

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Today value is often thought of in terms of money. In many circumstances the two are undoubtedly related, however they are distinct concepts. Too often the two concepts are conflated. People mistakenly think that the value of an item or activity is determined by how much it money it earns or costs. Job opportunities are often weighed out with considerable attention to pay. Expensive luxury items are ogled and highly sought after while simple items are often taken for granted. There are many real world examples of this confusion, many of which illustrate the damage that can occur when value is equated with money. For this article I will focus on how this mistake plays out in the realm of religion and spirituality.

I think the connection between value and money has negatively affected religious participation and the spiritual growth of many in the Western world, specifically Americans. Religious or spiritual activities such as prayer, meditation or acts of kindness have no material benefits or compensation. Time spent on these activities does not earn one money. The benefits are more subtle.

Attempts to become closer to the divine force us to focus on the ‘big picture’ and put the taxing things in our lives into perspective. The tools often used to do this such as prayer, meditation or ritual have great psychological and physical benefits. But not monetary benefits, per say. It could be argued that such activity reduces stress thereby increasing productivity. This could have an indirect effect on one’s earning capacity. But this is not the point. The point is the direct benefits that have nothing to do with money, yet are very valuable such as happiness or peace of mind.

These are things people certainly desire, but it is hard to say what these things are worth. A dollar figure is impossible to attach to these intangible things (though advertisers try relentlessly). Due to the gray area around their worth in dollars, qualities such as these are devalued by society, along with the activities or belief structures that foster them. Individuals can still recognize the importance of qualities like happiness and peace of mind and want these things in their lives. But it is difficult to do so when society rejects the legitimacy of the truly effective means to obtain these qualities. Instead false, quick fixes are promoted that often serve capitalist notions. As a result, people’s peace of mind and level of happiness suffers while the religious and spiritual traditions that develop these go by the wayside.

Even among the religious, society’s conflation of value and money is present. As discussed in my article, “Church Survival Through Innovative Means”, individuals are reluctant or do not feel it is their place to take on responsibilities within their congregation or community because those activities are perceived to be the job of the priest. They are paid to provide services that foster community and spiritual growth, so it becomes solely their responsibility to do so. With this attitude, the faithful are unlikely to participate in extra activities to cultivate their spirituality because such activities are unpaid and are therefore seen as unimportant or at the very least unnecessary.

There is a reason people say, “The best things in life are free.” There is a lot of truth in that statement and most people recognize and are willing to admit that. Here we can see that value and money are two separate things. The principle works both ways as well, the best things in life are free and some of the best things we can do earn us nothing in the way of money. It is not a new or novel idea, but it is one quickly forgotten in the daily grind. Some conscious effort to remember this is all it would take to undo what equating money to value has done.

CULTURAL APPROPRIATION

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The New Age phenomenon utilizes materials from a variety of cultures and traditions. This amalgamation, and the idea structure they are situated in, is central to New Age as a distinct phenomenon. But there has been some question concerning how these materials are used and what the implications are for the relationships between New Agers and other religious / spiritual / cultural groups. With the emphasis today on diversity, tolerance and multiculturalism, does New Age’s use of various traditions keep in line with these trends? Or does it break these norms? If so, does breaking these trends have positive or negative implications?

Here, Horie expresses some of the concerns surrounding New Age’s use of others’ cultural / religious / spiritual materials, “… while New Age stimulates hybridizations, it cannot help the essentialization of religion as a cultural resource. There is also a danger of cultural destruction and exploitation, since only part of a religion may be extracted from its original context…” (115). Based on my own observation of New Age phenomena, I find this statement accurate in that the negative effects discussed here have the potential to take place. But they certainly have they certainly are not true overall.

In the above statement, I also find traces of mainstream culture that has either forced its way into New Age phenomena over time or was brought in unconsciously at the beginning. (For more on this see my article “A Secular New Age Or A New Age Secularism”).  Davila discusses how the multicultural trend essentializes cultures (183). These same forces may be at play in New Age circles as well. However, in my experience, many New Agers fight essentialization by referring to traditional texts and emphasizing the complex nature of the traditions they draw from. Similarly exploitation may be an expression of capitalist impulses. Anything with demand is marketed to sell, with profits not necessarily making it to those with the largest part in creating the product. But this too is met with resistance in New Age circles as followers become more Earth conscious and work to find new ways to consume less. Lastly is the issue of context. I feel this, of all of the factors identified by Horie, is the most concerning. While the complexity of traditions may be expressed, they are inevitably viewed through a Western perspective and unfolded with New Age ideology. For example, “… oriental conceptions have been adapted only to the extent that they could be assimilated into already existing, Western frameworks” (Hanegraaff, 45). These conceptions are not adapted in their pure form, but given new meaning in the process. I wouldn’t call this a ‘bad’ thing, but it needs to be recognized. I think taking things from their original context may be a reaction to the neat categories of secularism. New Agers look to break down secular and religious boundaries, but also reduce the separation between various religious and spiritual traditions, in favor of a more holistic system.

I find the issues raised are relevant to New Age, but I don’t think they should be taken as proof of New Age’s inability to be a positive spiritual tradition for its followers. It is true that amalgamation provides the opportunity for essentialization and exploitation. But this same scenario also provides the opportunity to make new connections and develop a deeper understanding of traditions outside of one’s culture. New Age is not necessarily special in this regard. “All religions are negotiated cultural phenomena which only have come into existence because human beings created them in a variety of cognitive and social transitions. Very often this process means relating to the religious systems of other people” (Ivakhiv, 315). All religions and spiritual traditions come into being through this process. None are pure of others’ influence.

New Age is scrutinized because this process is happening now. This relating and negotiating will be in living memory for many years to come. It will take some time before people will grow up accepting it on the basis that it is the way it’s always been. Another reason for criticism is that New Age acknowledges its sources rather than claiming everything as its own. This is not common among recognized ‘world religions’. Such openness is novel, but relating to other traditions is not. The negative effects discussed earlier are not absolute and are largely reflections of the wider societal trends that New Age would, in my opinion, do well to resist. While the amalgamation process is not unique to New Age, the process itself is more indicative of New Age than any other tradition.

Davila, Arlene. “Latinizing Culture: Art, Museums, and the Politics of U.S. Multicultural Encompassment,” in Cultural Anthropology, 1999. 14(2), pp. 180-202.

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. “The New Age Movement and Western Esotericism,” in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 25-50.

Horie, Norichika. “Narrow New Age and Broad Spirituality: a comprehensive schema and comparative analysis,” in New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion, by S.J. Sutcliffe and I.S. Gilhus, 2013.  Acumen, pp. 99-116.

Ivakhiv, Adrian. “Power Trips: Making Sacred Space Through New Age Pilgrimage,” in Brill Handbooks on Contemporary Religion, Volume 1: Handbook of New Age, by J.R. Lewis and D. Kemp, 2007. Leiden: Brill Publishing, pp. 263-289.

ORGANIZED RELIGION & SECULARISM: THE NEW AGE RESULT

Single path splits in two directions, a fork in the road in the high grass in India

There is an idea of new agers as rebels against organized religion. That their ‘alternative’ structures and practices are a direct response to undesirable characteristics of organized religion. For some individuals this is true. Some people I have met that are involved in new age practices (whether they identify as new agers is not clear), think of themselves and their beliefs and practices as the direct antithesis of organized religion. However, there is another entity that, in my experience, is cited more frequently as the enemy: secularism.

On the first night of my yoga teacher certification class, each student introduced themselves, told how they had come to discover yoga and why they enrolled in the program. Not one cited dissatisfaction with organized religion. But many, if not all touched on their struggles with and their distaste of modern society. Some discussed yoga as a lifestyle to help combat the effects of the modern world. Namely stress, anxiety and depression. Some saw it as a means to integrate different areas of their life. Taking a stand against the rigid categorization that secularism imposes and encourages in favor of a more holistic lifestyle that allows spirituality to spread and take root in all areas of life.

Another reason cited was to combat capitalism. Students thought the training would open their mind and provide the means to leave the ‘rat race’ along with all the stress and long work hours required to earn more money to buy more, more, more of everything. Modern society rather than organized religion was the antithesis for these yoginis. While one student has blatantly voiced her distaste for a particular religious group, the overall attitude of the group has been one of overwhelming respect for organized religion and its followers. They are largely seen as fellow seekers utilizing a different path on their spiritual journey. Adherents of organized religions are regarded as comrades. It is secularism and capitalism causing strain and prompting people to seek another way of life. As organized religion is firmly placed in the private sphere by secularism, people seeking alternatives are increasingly drawn to New Age traditions. I believe this is the case because New Age appears directly applicable to all areas of life, while organized religions appear stifled and irrelevant, largely due to secularism.