ABSTRACT The New Age Movement can be seen as one response to the decline of traditional religion in the West. It conforms to the spiritual pluralism that Bryan Wilson understands as a consequence of secularization. From a New Age perspective, the world’s various spiritual traditions are now public property and no longer the private preserve of the parochial groups or religious elites that they once were.
Since in this open availability process, the sacred becomes commodified, the general argument allows that it can be bought and sold and thus consumed according to basic free-market principles. The paper explores both the New Age rationale for spiritual commercialization and some of the clashes this engenders with the traditions from which it appropriates.
In the contemporary religious consumer market, the commodification of spirituality and its appropriation—especially from other traditions not one’s own—foment an increasingly contentious issue. The questions which arise relate to ownership: is spirituality a private possession or does it belong today more in the public domain—making it something freely accessible to whomsoever chooses? Until the end of the nineteenth century or later, religion was something into which one was born. A person’s religious conditioning was an automatic and accepted fact.
In today’s world, however, through globalization, capitalism, and large-scale immigration, along with the decline of traditional religious institutions, the Western individual is confronted with an awareness of religious options on an unprecedented scale. The present ‘information age’ allows a familiarity with religions and religious movements beyond that of one’s birth. Books, journals, television documentaries, the internet, and so forth have increased knowledge of different spiritual practices. In today’s competitive capitalistic world, they become possible options. Through gaining multiple perspectives, the religious consumer can now more easily than ever choose to become de-conditioned from the prevailing acculturation of his/her society and, in some cases even, re-conditioned into a new spiritual practice of his/her own choosing. Much of this situation of religious consumer options relates to the diminishment of traditional, institutionalized religion or what is often referred to secularization.
In the field of sociology—more specifically, the sociology of religion, the question of secularization is one of the more nuanced and complex issues the discipline must face conceptually. What do we mean by the ‘decline of religion’ and how would we measure it? Although it seems apparent that secularization has been more pronounced in the twentieth century than during any previous period of recorded history, putting a sociological ‘handle’ to this likelihood has proven a daunting and elusive task. Even when we understand the process to involve a decline in the prestige and power of religious teachers, the electronic media industry of today has extended its reach and appeal on an unprecedented scale—such as we see, for example, with televangelism. The proliferation of e-mail lists and ‘spiritual’ chat-rooms offer new means of information exchange beyond the confines of the traditional community church, cathedral or synagogue. The question invariably remains whether recognizable religion and spirituality are ceasing to exist or are simply changing form and modes of expression.
In general, the processes taken as signs of secularization include the ending of state support for religious organizations, the elimination of religious teaching in public schools, no longer employing religious tests for public officials, the ending of legislative protection for religious doctrine or other state-sponsored controls designed to safeguard religion. In a secularized democracy in which religious dogmas and ethical notions have lost their dominance, there is more scope for individual dissent and change. India, Great Britain, and the United States are examples of ‘secular’ states, but this being said, there is a wide variation between these polities in terms of separation of church and state as well as religious belief and participation.
Perhaps more meaningfully, secularization can also refer to a pervasive decline of interest in religious traditions. Respect for religious institutions, as a consequence, is found to diminish throughout the general public. More concretely, established religious bodies no longer draw the same numbers of practising supporters. Attendance and membership figures become less and less. Contemporary secularization is, therefore, seen as a combined product of scientific/humanistic rational thought and socialistic/communistic political theory. Religion comes to represent superstitious interference or a popular opiate or both.
In its fullest sense, secularization should indicate the cessation of all interest in religious perspective, practice, and institutionalized features. However, while there appears to be little, if any evidence that Western society has reached this stage, there does appear to be in the West a detectable and growing dissatisfaction with traditional forms of religion. Consequently, for secularization to be meaningful in sociological terms, we are best to follow Bryan Wilson’s understanding of the notion of secularization as essentially the contemporary “process by which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose significance, and become marginal to the operation of the social system” in which they are found (Wilson, 1988: 954). In Wilson’s perspective, the spiritual pluralism of the modern/postmodern era is itself a consequence of secularization. If traditional religiosity had formerly been central to society’s decision-making and general functioning, its secular loss of prestige, power, and influence opens the gates, if not the flood gates, to private, marginal, and even deviant, but certainly newer forms of religion beyond the originally established and popularly endorsed religio-social confines. Therefore, religious expression becomes freed from the rule of conformity—especially in a condition when the status quo no longer remains fixed, but has itself become something fluid. The accelerated technological, economic, and demographic changes which are underway in the millennium transition of the West make any present condition or state of affairs radically ephemeral and elusive. In the advent of what is often hailed as globalization, this means institutional and social change in the West, which has immediate worldwide implications—ones which possibly, if not probably, affect virtually everyone everywhere on the planet today.
Globalization, however, often appears to be simply another name for a new breed of American imperialism.3 The perpetual American championing of capitalist and individual freedom becomes pitted against the sanctity of ‘weaker’, but autonomous systems or traditions. In today’s world in which the entire international arena becomes a competitive marketplace, it is those with the greater financial (including military) clout who become the winners. In the relentless, market-fuelled drive to reduce as much as possible to the same—whether the same range of goods, the same currency of exchange, the same architectural ‘look’, it appears to be increasingly within the multifaceted diversity of religion that variety has its greatest chance of surviving. However, religion itself often becomes simply one more commodity and one more ‘tool’ in the overall process of globalized homogeneity. Despite detectable counter-hegemonic manifestations by particular Islamic or Judaic identities, it can be argued that the overall evangelical missionizing drives behind Buddhism, Christianity, and even Islam have already contributed to a process of universal sameness. Some of the newer religions are no less immune to this very tendency. Among them is the New Age Movement. While its missionizing efforts toward converting or ‘saving’ the world may or may not place it into the same league as Christianity, it is certainly of equal stature when it comes to the appropriation of indigenous and competing institutions. In other words, the issue of what it gives is one thing; the issue of what it takes is the other.
New Age itself is a difficult phenomenon to describe, let alone appraise. It has been summarized as “a blend of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies, and occult-psychic phenomena” (York, 1995: 34). William Sims Bainbridge finds, for instance, that the “forms of religious movement most closely associated with the New Age are occult, neopagan, and Asian” (Bainbridge, 1997: 386). For Hildegard Van Hove, the New Age-alternative spirituality field is an eclectic and inspirational mix of Eastern religions, the Western esoteric tradition, and psychology—sometimes more integrated than others (Van Hove, 1999). For literary critic Harold Bloom, however, the New Age boils down simply into an “endlessly entertaining saturnalia of ill-defined yearnings” (Bloom, 1996:18).
Although the term ‘New Age’ is often rejected by many whom the sociologist might identify as ‘New Agers’, we .nd certain key features throughout the current field of alternative spirituality with which core New Age intersects and is generally identified (see in particular Brown, 1997: 47–49, 69; see also Lewis & Melton, 1992). These theological notions include the contention that human beings are essentially gods in themselves. Each individual is believed to contain a ‘God-spark’, a central infusion of divinity. At one’s deepest level, one participates in and identi.es with the godhead. A second generally held idea is that human beings undergo successive reincarnations as part of an evolutionary process which returns them to full God-realization. Thirdly, a prominent New Age doctrine is that the human individual is responsible for creating his/her own reality. The last relates to the concomitant conviction in the power of positive thinking to mold and shape our own destinies. It is balanced, but not necessarily defeated by the understanding that our behavior is in part influenced by our actions in previous lives. Finally, however, New Age places the entire evolutionary quest and desire to transmute ignorance and negative karma into its comprehension of the universe as a single interconnected field. This ultimately holistic notion provides the New Age spiritual orientation with its guiding transcendent value. It is the very context which also provides New Age with its justifying rationale for attempts to spiritualize commodification and commercial exchange.
At best, the New Age movement comprises a disparate and loosely co-ordinated confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques, and practices. There is no central authority capable of speaking for the movement as a whole or of supplying membership registrars or even of ascertaining who and who is not a New Ager. New Age is largely a perpetually shifting and ad hoc alliance of exegetical individuals and groups, audience gatherings, client services, and various new religious movements that range between the cultic, sectarian, and denominational. To the degree that it may approximate a quasi-politica movement, it is more confederative than federal.
New Age vs. Neo-paganism
While interconnectedness of the cosmos is central to New Age thought, at the same time it is also a core affirmation of contemporary Western paganism. In fact, a key entry into understanding the complexities of the New Age movement is to be located in why some people (sociologists, scholars of religion, Christian apologists) include contemporary Western paganism as part of the New Age, whereas other people (other sociologists—myself included, historians, participants) consider New Age and Neo-paganism separate, if not distinctly separate. New Age and Neo-paganism might be distinguishable on the basis of theology, practice, and self-identity, but they also share many similar, if not identical features, attitudes, and reasons for being. Consequently, depending on one’s perspective, New Age is sometimes inclusive of the modern pagan movement and sometimes not. It is important, therefore, to discern similarities, overlap, and contrasts of New Age with Neo-paganism. Both can be accused by critics for being narcissistic. Both take part in the contemporary spiritual consumer market and both display tendencies to appropriate spiritual idioms from a range of other traditions. Despite the often vehement distancing from and denial of the New Age by most contemporary Western pagans, Paul Heelas (1996), for instance, would also include witches, Wiccans, Druids, shamans, and other modern-day pagans within New Age identity. We .nd a similar inclusion by other researchers (e.g. Faber, 1996; Streiker, 1990). On the other hand, Vivianne Crowley expresses the general trend within contemporary paganism, when she re-published her best-seller Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age (Crowley, 1989) seven years later as Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium (Crowley, 1996). Heelas classi.es both New Age and Neo-paganism under the general rubric of ‘self-religions’—presumably to distinguish them from ‘God-religions’ and express what they have in common. However, Heelas is never clear over what he means by ‘self’. At times, the self is simply the ego of individual consciousness, but on other occasions—and more frequently—the self-referent is an indication of what New Age generally calls the ‘Higher Self’. Whatever the Higher Self might be, it is not the ego-self with which the individual usually identi.es, and Heelas has simply substituted one unclear metaphysical concept (namely ‘God’) with another (namely the ‘Self’). Most important, in clarifying the New Age/Neo-pagan interplay, the respective vocabularies of the two movements, although they may have points of overlap or similarities, are not the same. Neo-paganism, contemporary Western paganism, the various reconstructed ethnic paganisms (Druidry, Northern, Celtic, Hellenic, Egyptian, etc.) do not generally speak in terms of a ‘Higher Self’ or of ‘a(n imminent) quantum leap in collective consciousness’, i.e. the coming Age of Aquarius. The New Age movement has essentially recast Joachim de Flores’s twelfth-century theory of “Three Ages of History” into astrological terminology (Melton, Clark & Kelly, 1990: 29–30). As Aidan Kelly explains, in this epochal framework, the Old Testament ‘Age of the Father’ becomes identified as the Age of Aries. The New Testament ‘Age of the Son’ corresponds with the Age of Pisces, which de Flores understood as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the ensuing aeon, the ‘Age of the Holy Spirit’, is to be as different from the current ‘Age of the Son’ as the last is from the ‘Age of the Father’ which preceded. Consequently, the ‘Age of the Holy Spirit’ is recognized as the Aquarian New Age of great and millennial changes.4 If Jesus Christ represented the pivotal spiritual figure of the Age of Pisces, according to the ‘New Age’ Church Universal and Triumphant, the Comte de Saint-Germain is to be the equivalent for the Age of Aquarius. On the other hand, with its essential distance from Christian terminology and astrological re-interpretation of the ages of history, contemporary paganism does not entertain the notions of either literal apocalypticism or metaphorical millenarianism.
Part of the confusion between the two movements may stem from the inclusion of prominent Wiccan-activist Miriam Simos, or Starhawk, among the faculty of Matthew Fox’s Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (founded in Chicago in 1978), after it was re-established in Oakland, California, at the Holy Names College in 1983. In practice, the two movements frequently interconnect and a mutual presence can often be witnessed at their respective venues. The Starhawk-Fox association is perhaps simply the most prominent example of the easy compatibility between the two distinguishable orientations. Most importantly, however, vis-a`-vis mainstream and dominant Christianity, New Age and Neo-paganism are natural allies. Much of the current confusion between the two orientations is, in fact, most likely the result of this alliance by default, which pits both traditions into the position of ‘outsider heresies’ from the perspective of the canonical spirituality of the Judaeo-Christian West. However, if the two movements are natural partners, their respective theologies and consequent practices are nevertheless clearly distinguishable.
Paganism itself subscribes to an immanent understanding of the godhead or divine, which allows—or even centralizes—the natural world as manifest sacrality. New Age, on the other hand, descends from a competing theological perspective, namely, a Gnostic/Theosophical and New Thought tradition via the American Metaphysical Tradition which views nature as an obscuring obstacle to hidden spiritual truth. The physical world becomes, accordingly, either an illusion or at least something of secondary and lesser importance. From a strictly sociological perspective, New Age and Neo-paganism are simply distinct, if not also rival theologies—each part of long-standing and legitimate spiritual traditions. However, in the emergent twentieth-century notion that the individual alone is the locus for selectivity and determination of belief—a notion which may be a concomitant to the process of secularization itself, the anti-authoritarian impulse which increasingly denies that one can be told what to believe also denies that one can be told, at least spiritually, what not to take. Apart from the vexing question of whether new religious movements are themselves testimonies to secularization or, instead, represent an unexpected reversal of secularization, the increasing privatization of religion is intimately tied to the ethical question of spiritual appropriation.
Authority and Accountability
If ‘self-religion’ means personal exegesis and selection by the individual, the
general rubric is applicable to trends in the late modern/early postmodern
transition, which encompass much more than simply New Age and Neo-pagan
religiosities. At its worst extreme, we find something like the World Church of
the Creator which encouraged a 21-year-old youth, Benjamin Smith, who lives
not far from Chicago, to ‘appropriate’ within the last half of 1999 the integrity
and/or lives of people who belonged to what Smith considered the ‘mud races’.
While this heinous act may represent an extreme illustration of
non-accountability and (someone’s) individual freedom to decide what is right
and wrong, it betokens the lack of moral guidelines consequent or at least
possible when the permission to make such decisions shifts from traditional
authority to the individual alone. The lack of moral consensus and legitimating
sanction appears to be a direct result of the secular diminishment of religion’s
former role in traditional society.
For Van Hove, the central elements of the alternative spiritual world with
which New Age overlaps, apart from holism, harmony, personal growth, the
development of greater consciousness, and an ethos of bricolage, include
individual autonomy and authenticity (Van Hove, 1999: 313). It is, however, this
very self-autonomy based on what feels right to the individual that is most
scorned by New Age critics—for ‘along with decision-making freedom comes
real responsibility’, but without the foundation, for instance, of the traditional
biblical view, according to a traditionalist like John Newport, New Age freedom
has no basis for viable ethical decision-making (Newport, 1998: 410).5 Whether
one agrees with the self-authority and self-accountability of New Age or not, it
is the stance on this issue around which New Age finds much of its identity.
Spirituality is here considered to be something that the individual decides for
him/herself. There is a growing and concerted refusal to be told what to believe
and what one must do and not do. The ramifications of this ethical no-man’s
land can be enormous and questionable, but the issue I wish to focus upon in
the remainder of this paper is that which concerns commodification—
particularly the use of other people’s spiritual property.
Besides its narcissism, or perhaps even linked to it, one of the more controversial
aspects of New Age concerns its commodification of religion and the freedom to
appropriate spiritual ideas and practices from other traditions. The New Age is
modelled upon, and is an outgrowth of, liberal Western capitalism. It is part of
the same ‘cultural logic of late capitalism’ that asserts the right to free and
unrestricted global trade. As an aggregation or congeries of client services and
competing audience cults, New Age is part of what is described as the ‘religious
consumer supermarket’—one which thrives on competition and the offering of
various spiritual commodities. Rather than a rejection of free market principles,
New Age endorses a spiritualized counterpart of capitalism—one which seeks
ever extended markets, new sources of marketable goods, and expanding
profits. In that the pro.t motive of New Age is fully financial, if not also oriented
toward greater spiritual well-being, it represents a modern continuation of
Calvinistic principles which exalt material success as a sign, reflection, or
consequence of one’s spiritual state of grace.
New Age liberalism falls, however, into the same trap as political
Anglo-American liberalisms of equal dignity in which supposedly neutral
principles based on the denial of difference are really to be seen as reflections of
hegemonic culture. As Charles Taylor sees it, the very idea of “liberalism may
be a kind of pragmatic contradiction, a particularity masquerading as the
universal” (Taylor, 1994: 44). What Taylor identi.es as ‘procedural liberalism’
.nds human dignity in autonomy rather than with any particular view of what
constitutes the good life. This kind of liberalism can verge on libertarianism and
even the Christian Identity kind of resistance to authority and liberal norms or
goals as witnessed in Benjamin Smith’s Chicago killings. Yet at the same time,
the increasingly popular view of “the human agent as primarily a subject of
self-determining or self-expressive choice” (Taylor, 1994: 57), despite its political
appropriation by extreme right, conservative, liberal, libertarian or socialist
factions, also provides the New Age with its bedrock idea of human potential
and its corresponding belief that one can create one’s own universe.
In the case of New Age, its solipsism, coupled with its advocacy of free market
principles, opens the world’s spiritual arena as an opportunity for spiritual
exploitation and even capitalistic imperialism. Not only does it encourage a
paradoxical homogenizing to the cultural standards of North Atlantic
civilization, exemplified in its affirmation that ‘we are all one’, but it also carries
an implicit judgement of inferior status for non-hegemonic cultures, inasmuch as
they are not considered to be the ones who decide what is to be shared and what
is not. There is also an inherent bias against the physical itself as inferior and
something not worthwhile for ownership—either because the physical is
deemed not really to exist or is at least of secondary importance. New Age
upholds the idea that all past and present spiritual legacies are no longer private
property, but belong now, in the New Age of Aquarius, to the public domain.
This idea easily translates into the rationale and justification for appropriating
whatever third-world institution has appeal to the individual religious consumer
along with the ‘freedom’ to market what one allocates to others.
The conflict involved with this belief in an unaccountable and free accessibility
to the world’s spiritual traditions and the countervailing insistence of cultural
ownership by minority ethnicities became disturbingly clear to me during the
1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. Despite the Amerindian
pivotal role in launching and sustaining the success of the Parliament—in
private Native Americans were debating a Lakota-sponsored ‘Declaration of
War’ which included among its targeted enemies ‘New Age profiteers and
Neo-Paganists’ [sic]. From the position as an ‘endangered species’ on the verge
of extinction, the loss of cultural artefacts, private practices, use of traditional
sites or their own sweat lodges has been viewed as the .nal loss of American
Indian identity. The growth of popular forms of Neo-shamanism in the West
was cited in particular as a ‘cultural theft’ on the part of the Euro-American
hegemony. Other disciplines usurped by New Age include Hawaiian Kahuna
magic, Australian Aborigine dream-working, South American Amerindian
ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremony, Hindu Ayurveda and yoga, and Chinese
Feng Shui, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi.
Consequently, in many cases, the spiritual appropriation of nativistic practice
and belief follows the same dynamic as, for instance, the steady elimination of
the Brazilian rainforest or the ocean’s whale population. Species become
endangered and eventually extinct as a result of free market operations and
expansion. In a multi-cultural world, a procedural liberalism which adopts no
particular substantive view about the ends of life may not recognize or even
mis-recognize particularity of religion and culture. The erosion of ethnic dignity
and identity might be an inevitable aspect of historical and cultural change, on
the one hand, or a catastrophic diminishment of human legacy, on the other
hand. In many cases, it is a complicit or even active disseminatory role of the
original bearers themselves which has encouraged religio-cultural exportation.
The Tibetans have consciously marketed Vajrayana Buddhism to the West and
have recognized tulku-incarnation among Euro-Americans. Hindu swamis and
gurus, Chinese martial art masters and Japanese shidoin aikido teachers
consistently promote their respective practices throughout a spiritually hungry
West. Even the American Indian community appears split over the issue of
keeping its traditions to itself or initiating Westerners into them. If there is an
ethical question concerning spiritual appropriation, those who feel their ways
and identities are being appropriated are quite often actively part of the
dissemination process itself.
There may, in the end, be no final answer to the dilemma between universal
rights and particular identity. In defence of New Age, it could be pointed out
that all religions appropriate from each other. Roman paganism, through its
interpretatio romana, incorporated Celto-Gaulic deities; Hinduism included
Gautama Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu; Christianity acquired pagan
sanctuaries and festivals for its own; Islam seized the Kaaba and the site of the
Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Inter-religious exchange may, in fact, be seen as an
inevitable norm. As a rule, contemporary Western paganism does not
appropriate from living cultures in the same willy-nilly and pro.t-motive
manner as does New Age. Basically, if New Age is grabbing sacred truths from
other cultures, its ultimate fruition might lie in re-claiming, like Neo-paganism,
sacred truths from the past—in other worlds, sacred truths that are no longer
claimed as privately owned. When a culture is extinct, there is no
ownership—whether private or cultural. When, on the other hand, a culture or
people is endangered, its very identity becomes part of what it owns as a
culture—an ownership belonging to a private collectivity vis-a`-vis hegemonic
On the other hand, it is one issue appropriating from others; it is another
when one is the victim of being appropriated from. There appears within the
free exchange that characterizes the New Age market that New Age is not a
phenomenon from which one can appropriate. Or, if one can, it does not matter.
The situation, however, is different with New Age’s sister ally, Neo-paganism.
In pre-Christian times, of course, Roman annexation of an indigenous shrine
became a means of extending and consolidating imperial power. The Celtic locus
religiosus of Sulis in what is now the town of Bath, for instance, became the
Roman center of Sulis Minerva. There was no destruction, but instead an
expansion and a subsequent flourishing. With the advent of Christianity,
however, pagan shrines were no longer extended—if they survived at all—but
converted. We see archaeological evidence of the Church Triumphant across
Europe and Latin America (Paris, London, Rome, Mexico City, Cuzco, etc.).
Formerly pagan shrines were destroyed and churches built over them. A similar
pattern can be witnessed concerning Hindu temples and the construction of
mosques in the wake of the Mogul invasions. In Bath, the bathing complex of the
former Aqua Sulis fell into neglect and ruin until the thermal spa became once
again popular in the days of the Georgian kings.
Yet even when pagan sanctuaries escaped Christian demolition (e.g.
Stonehenge, Lydney Park or Aqua Sulis), they have come invariably under the
custodianship of the state that has, in turn, restricted or denied access for the
contemporary pagan. Neo-paganism has instead, almost as a defensive response,
shifted its focus to what remains of pristine nature (such as natural woodland),
but now the threat is road-projects, airport expansion, construction of
commercial centers, and the like. Consequently, much of contemporary Western
paganism concerns itself with land protection, road protest, and other
environmental protection efforts. Vis-a`-vis hegemonic power, for the last two
millennia, paganism has largely occupied a besieged position.
New Age may not share with Neo-paganism the same centrality of unspoiled
nature, but it does often share use of the same sacred sites (e.g. Stonehenge,
Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, Mount Shasta). In the use of some of these places
and the battles with police that have frequently ensued, the term ‘New Age
Travellers’ is a misnomer created by the media. Travellers are not New Age but,
if anything, might be seen as constituting a marginal counter-cultural pagan
faction. Although not related genetically, their greatest affinity is with the
Romany Gypsy. Their clashes with the authorities, however, have been linked
and confused with the Road Protest movement which contains an often
dominant pagan element. Nevertheless, New Age sympathies—and sometimes
active support—can still be found with the Earth Firsters, the Dongas, and other
The clash between universal rights and particular identity, between New Age
and Neo-paganism, with mainstream political, social, and economic forces, is not
an environmental issue alone. As Sabrina Magliocco points out, “victimhood has
become a necessary step in constructing authenticity” (Magliocco, 1999: 53). In
the formation of cohesiveness, as Ralph W. Hood, Jr, puts it, “identity becomes
a crucial concept in linking individuals to both the maintenance and the
transmission of cultures, as it is both socially bestowed and sustained” (cited in
Swatos, 1998: 234). In the case of Neo-paganism and, in an oscillating sense, New
Age, victimization, whether perceived or constructed, may even result from a
deliberate strategy of ‘religious outsidership’—what Moore refers to as a
“creation of a consciousness of difference … [involving] a group in inventing a
dominant culture to set itself against” (Moore, 1986: 19). With New Age in
particular, cultivating the fiction of being ‘outside’ may actually place “the
group successfully and centrally within the religious mainstream” (York, 1995:
329). The commodification and commercialization of religion which seem to be
intrinsic in some sense with New Age appear to offer a symbiotic .t with the
globalized consumerism that constitutes the dominant socio-economics of today.
Nevertheless, the real opposition of our day is perhaps not one between
religion and science, but rather one between religion and commercialism. The
popular ‘in-word’ is ‘spiritual’ over ‘religious’. The latter is associated chiefly
with outdated religious institutions and the very process of institutionalization.
Yet the preference of ‘spiritual’ rather than ‘religious’ may equally have to
do with the increased association and connotation of ‘religions’ with
commercialism. If the modern commodification of religion is to be superseded,
what is required might be a postmodern re-sanctification of the market. The
prospect of ‘the sacred in the secular’, that is, finding religious dimensions in the
world beyond religion, could raise the postmodern challenge of re-sacralizing
commerce. The Roman forum and the Greek agora were not only commercial
centers, but also religious ones. It was here where many of the local
community’s major temples were to be found. If religions in our secularized
societies are becoming increasingly market-oriented, perhaps socio-cultural
viability in the future will come to depend on re-enchanting commerce and the
market itself. Whatever this might entail in the long run, the re-spiritualized
panoply of the New Age spectrum could offer a source for understanding
commercial exchange as a spiritual act.
In this possible re-sacralizing of commerce, we are reminded of Marcel
Mauss’s perception of gift exchange as a seminal integration of the religious and
magical with the legal and economic. If secularization refers to a supposed
pervasive decline of interest in religious traditions, it might just equally signify
an opening in ideas of new forms and identities of spirituality. What appears to
be secularization could in fact amount to current changes and re-shapings of
traditional religion—pushing religion not only into new forms and expressions,
but also into new areas not previously considered religious. Secularization might
in fact represent or allow spirituality—or at least include it in non-recognizable
forms. Although the magnitude and speed of global commerce may make it
seem unlikely that it could be re-sacralized, such possibilities as collective
meditations by the workforce, inaugural and concluding ‘attunements’ on a
daily basis, ethical consideration in (multi-national) corporate decision-making,
augmentation of economic pro.t drives with environmental awareness or even
responsibility as well as the generation of holistic and/or spiritual principles
may sketch some of the directions such re-sacralization might take. Some of the
company-sponsored holistic practice is already found in both Japan and
If the supermarket is the venue of communal exchange, it might also become
re-identi.ed as (or at least, a` la the middle ages, adjacent to) the church or
temple. If it is difficult to envision what a postmodern re-sanctification of the
market might ‘look like’, this becomes an even greater challenge to collective
human imagination and ingenuity toward discovering telos and spiritual
direction. The downside of secularization is that it links with meaninglessness.
Religion, on the other hand, in all its myriad forms, has to do with the location
of signi.cance and value. With the overwhelmingly increasingly technological
where-with-all constantly on the human horizon, the imperative becomes one of
.nding a raison d’eˆtre in which to situate our breakthrough developments. This
is the domain and dialogue of religion—an arena of ongoing debate and,
hopefully, meaningful creativity and discovery. What we dismiss as
appropriation could, on the other hand, be the kind of exchange incumbent for
productive maturation. If Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’ is our future, like
it or not, its neighborhoods will become less protected bastions of sacrosanct
identity, but instead generative matrices of accommodation and inspiration for
the collective good. Parochial and sectarian community ownership may have to
become more a thing of the past and be superseded by an open global exchange
of ideas and practices that respects the unimpeded flow of information more
than private or cultural claims. If this sounds like a form of imperialism, in some
senses it is—only now termed ‘globalism’ or ‘globalization’, and it forms a
fundamental rationale for New Age appropriation. For better or for worse, the
spiritual and the commercial become increasingly wedded.
Dr Michael York is in the Department of the Study of Religions at Bath Spa University
College. Correspondence: Study of Religions, Bath Spa University College, Bath BA2
1. For a listing of the standard sociological works on secularization, see the reference section appended to the ‘Secularization’ entry in Swatos, 1998: 456.
2. For a particularly cogent discussion of what the world-wide web offers as new and as-of-yet unfathomable possibilities for the reincarnation of religion, see the papers given in the session on “The Virtual Frontier: Transforming Power and Identity in the Electronic Dimension of Religion” during the XVIIIth Quinquennial World Congress of the International Association for the History of Religions in Durban, South Africa, 5–12th August, 2000: Michael Collier’s “How Fast is Faith: The Religion of Hyperreality”, Shawn Arthur’s “Technophilia and Nature Religion: Growth of a Paradox”, and Stephen Flanigan’s “Falun Gong Online: Rede.ning Revolutionary Space”. Collier in particular discussed the discrepancy between linear space-time and the omnipresent space-time of the internet (Baudrillard’s hyper-reality) and the opportunities that this offers religions in terms of power-knowledge. The rami.cations for the future of religion that is freed from both origins and territory suggest a dynamic domain in which the traditional limitations for religion understood as secularization have been superseded. Respondent Bruce Lawrence suggested ‘digital dharma’ as a term for spirituality on the web.
3. Among the seminal works on globalization, see Robertson, 1992, and Beyer, 1994.
4. For instance, the founder of New Thought, Emma Curtis Hopkins (1853–1925) also employed Joachim de Flores’s historization of the Trinity. She considered that God the Father corresponded to the ancient patriarchal ideal, whereas the second epoch begins with the birth of Jesus the Nazarene and represents a time in which the masses are freed from oppression. The third period is that of the Spirit, the Truth-Principle, or the Mother-Principle. For Hopkins, this is the time for the rise of women. (see Melton, 1978: 111).
5. For actress Shirley MacLaine’s notorious solipsism, see Newport, 1998: 501, or York, 1996: 77–78.
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Bloom, Harold. Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. London: Fourth Estate; New York: Putnam’s Sons, 1996.
Brown, Michael F. The Channeling Zone: American Spirituality in an Anxious Age. Cambridge: Harvard U. P., 1997.
Crowley, Vivianne. Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age. Wellingborough, Northants: Aquarian
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Taylor, Charles. Multiculturalism: Examining the Politics of Recognition. Princeton: Princeton U. P., 1994.
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Van Hove, Hildegard. “De weg naar binnen: spiritualitei t en zelfontplooing.” Katholieke Universiteit
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Wilson, Bryan R. “ ‘Secularisation’: Religion in the Modern World.” In Sutherland, S.; Houlden, L.;
Clarke, P. & Hardy, F., eds. The World’s Religions. London: Routledge, 1988: 953–966.
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