One of the biggest criticisms of New Age spirituality is its ‘commercial nature’. Taves and Kinsella identify shopping / the spiritual market place as one of four major characterizations attributed to New Age in scholarly literature (84-85). As far as looking to define the essence of New Age, I don’t think this judgement holds in regards at all to tangible goods. Every ‘World Religion’ has revenue raising products such as books, CDs, and decorative items that increase the wealth of companies or individuals. The main target of the criticism toward New Age greediness centers around services and education. Some may take donations for providing services (such as readings and healings), but you are more likely to find a determined price list. Similarly, knowledge is passed through paid classes and programs.
The criticism gets the most traction with the assumption that the motivation behind all this is money. In my experience, the prices simply allow New Age service providers to live (and not particularly lavishly). Whatever faith you follow, money is necessary in our world. People cannot teach or nurture others if they cannot support themselves in the most basic ways. When that support moves well above and beyond basic, that is another story. Determining what constitutes as ‘basic’ would be difficult considering people of different backgrounds, especially those from developing nations compared to those from the developed world.
From a consumerist point of view, there is nothing bad about spending money on such products if what they receive in return is ‘worth it’. Similarly, those in New Age that find energies significant, find monetary exchange as a way of creating balance. They believe that to receive something you must give something. In this lofty ideology, ‘mundane’ money can work as part of that exchange. It is simply give and take, action and reaction.
A benefit of this system, is that there is little question where funds are coming from. The ‘consumer pays’ method is relatively transparent. In other faiths, the wealthier members typically contribute more to compensate and carry members with lower incomes. There is nothing wrong with this method. I find it admirable. But it is important to remember there is no such thing as a free lunch. And with New Age’s monetary flow, it’s easier to know where money is coming from. Scholarships are sometimes made available for New Age events and workshops, but the contributors are usually identified. Not so much for the sake of ego as transparency.
In the discussion of New Age commercialism, it is important to remember that there is no overarching doctrine dictating that followers must spend money in prescribed ways. There are admittedly more subtle pressures from followers and leaders alike, but the choice is ultimately the seeker’s. It is possible to be an active member in the New Age community with little cost. People can study and move along on their journeys independently. The decision where to allocate funds is left to followers, they have total control, they have the choice.
Perhaps in this way New Age is consumeristic in the way members are given a plethora of choices. But the greed often attributed to New Age is ill-placed. As a whole, service providers in the sector of alternative spiritualities are not looking to swindle followers out of their money. They are looking to make a fair exchange. Sellers in the New Age market place are looking to provide something of spiritual value to those seekers that feel called to experience.
Taves, Ann & Michael Kinsella. 2013. “Hiding in Plain Sight: The organizational forms of ‘unorganized religion’”, in New Age Spirituality Rethinking Religion. Acumen Publishing Limited.