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Religion Library: New Age

Early Developments

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Although virtually all elements of today's New Age movement -- from dietary reform to alternative "complementary" medicine to channeled teachings -- predate the so-called counterculture of the 1960s, the latter's widespread (if sometimes superficial) rejection of traditional middle-class values invigorated what had been an aging collection of metaphysical movements. Sociologist Michael York noted that recruits to the new religious movements and New Age groups of that period tended to be "urban white youth, well-educated and from middle- and upper-class families."

The experience of the counterculture led directly into the formation of the New Age. Few Americans remained longer than a few years in the new religions, but many longed for alternative religious identities, and rejected the suburban middle class norms of church, parish, and synagogue. From the counterculture, the New Age inherited a distrust of hierarchy and social control and an embracing of self-development as a core practice. However the New Age offered far fewer restrictions than the new religions, and upheld a far more individualistic worldview. Many of the earliest practices of the New Age embraced just such norms, notably the use of material received through channeling -- the practice of contacting nonhuman entities to gain wisdom or knowledge -- as a path toward self-discovery.

The New Age movement has embraced a variety of alternative and holistic healing methods. New Age practitioners throughout the late 1970s and 1980s propagated a variety of alternative health and healing approaches. These included dietary systems such as vegetarianism, raw food, and macrobiotics. New Age practitioners also embraced systems aimed to transfer and increase energy, such as visualizations and aura readings. Many New Agers borrowed extensively from Asian healing techniques such as Chinese herbalism and acupuncture, or Japanese Reiki (energy work).

During the 1990s, the many healing approaches of the New Age movement began to coalesce into systems of alternative medicine or holistic medicine, some of which had much older sources. Though differences exist between holistic, alternative, naturopathic, and homeopathic medicine, each New Age medical approach rejects the mainstream medical assumption that the body is basically a biological machine filled with working parts. Rather, each of these approaches follows a single alternative medical system: New Age medicine declares the body to be a whole that cannot be described in purely material or scientific manners. New Agers instead look to the power of the mind, bodily energy flows, and herbal supplements as methods to maintain health and recover from disease.

At the same time the alternative health movements became more central in the New Age, the influence of Asian traditions similarly increased. Some scholars call this the "Asianification of New Age." Influences from Asian religions spread through New Age networks throughout the 1980s and 1990s. From Hinduism, New Agers drew the ayurvedic medical system, with its emphasis on balance of diet, as well many broader yogic systems. Some, such as yoga, promised bodily health, while others offered the empowering of the body's energy centers, or mastery of the breath and respiration. Chinese medical techniques, spatial science (feng shui), as well as the oracles of the I Ching all made their way into the New Age. The Chinese concept of chi, or energy, became a part of New Age vocabulary at this time.

The New Age movement expanded through seminars and training sessions offered at mainstream Fortune 500 corporations. Such New Age training seminars encouraged employees-often managers-to develop their own potential and envision themselves as empowered to overcome boundaries. These seminars drew heavily from the transpersonal psychology and human potential wings of the New Age, which called for self-development through exploring emotions and feelings, and gradually building toward an awareness of the mind as the true manufacturer of reality. New Age gurus or organizations ran the largest of these business-training seminars, most notably Warner Erhard's est training approach, later called The Forum. Scientology, a new religion that drew heavily from New Age concepts, also offered such training through its subsidiary organizations. In all of these cases, New Agers stressed to the corporate management that New Age practice led to better control of stress, stronger interpersonal relationship skills, and productive employees.

A final historical development during the first decades of the New Age occurred as many proponents of Paganism began to separate themselves from the broader New Age community. Pagans and New Agers share much in common: a desire for self-exploration, embracing of alternative healing systems, and a broad rejection of both the materialistic technological modernity and mainstream western religious monotheism. The two traditions developed somewhat in tandem, and both featured channeling, healing, the use of crystals, and diffusion through publication. However, the two movements sharply differed over their general outlook as well as theological concepts, with Pagans generally looking to a reimagined European past and the gods of antiquity, and New Agers looking to the future and seeing the divine as within the self. They also developed alternative social structures, with some Pagans creating more hierarchal covens and groups and New Agers generally preferring to pursue individual self-exploration outside of communities. As Pagan institutions, journals, books, and scholars developed their own tradition as a unique world religion, it splintered off from the New Age. With time, other sub-traditions within New Age might follow the same pattern. Already, many proponents of alternative health envision themselves not as New Age practitioners but alternative health professionals.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why could the New Age movement be described as a movement within the counterculture?
     2.    What is meant by the phrase “alternative medicine”? How does it work?
     3.    What is the “Asianification of New Age”?
     4.    How has the New Age movement been adopted by the American dominant culture?
     5.    Compare and contrast the New Age movement with Paganism.

 
     
     
     
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