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Religion Library: New Age

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

Without an army, major political party, or even significant institutions, in the past thirty years the New Age has conquered much of the western world. It did not conquer with weapons, of course, but with ideas. By the 21st century, Americans and Europeans had internalized many central New Age beliefs. A 2005 survey revealed that forty percent of Americans believes in spirits or ghosts, thirty-four percent believes in UFOs, and approximately a quarter of all Americans believes in reincarnation, astrology, and the existence of witchcraft. While all of these beliefs predate the New Age, their burgeoning in recent decades resulted from the popularity of New Age materials. In particular, the manner in which many North Americans understand these concepts reveals their New Age heritage. Rather than the conventional understanding of reincarnation present in Buddhism or Hinduism, for example, most North Americans who adhere to reincarnation look to it as a form of spiritual development and evolution over many lifetimes.
    
Remarkably, statistics indicate that some of those Americans who accept such New Age beliefs also self-identify as Christians. Surveys in Great Britain and continental Europe report the same phenomenon: the widespread acceptance of central tenets of the New Age. Yet, though New Age ideas have spread widely, few individuals who hold them identify as New Agers or New Age practitioners. Rather, the New Age has diffused throughout western culture.

The case of yoga offers a representative example of the spread of a New Age practice throughout broader culture. Yoga is an ancient practice in Hinduism, exhibiting a high degree of diversity. The New Age did not introduce yoga to the West, but it certainly popularized it. During the late 19th century, Indian teachers, called gurus, had traveled to America and England to teach various forms of yoga. Some centered on breath control, others on bodily manipulation, and others on the energizing of the body's spiritual nexuses, the chakras. However, few outside the Indian subcontinent had even heard of yoga before the early 1970s, when the New Age popularized it, stressing the value of yoga as a meditative tool, a healthy activity, and a way to control the subtle energies of the body. New Agers digested various books on yoga practice and attended yoga classes where they learned from either Indian yoga gurus or their disciples. Though New Age practitioners valued the authenticity of Hindu yoga gurus and employed traditional Sanskrit mantras (prayers) in their practice, New Age yoga removed the practice from its Hindu context. Having transformed yoga into a relaxing, healthy, safe practice, the New Age made yoga appealing to a much wider audience. By the turn of the millennium, entirely secular yoga studies vied with New Age yoga groups and even Christian yoga practices throughout North America and Europe.

While yoga represents one of the most notable examples of the spread of New Age ideas into wider culture, the movement contributed other practices and ideas as well. Like yoga, vegetarianism, raw food, and health food movements all existed before the New Age, but the New Age movement catapulted these food practices from tiny minorities to large spectrums of population. Recent research has indicated that over three million Britons practice vegetarianism, a figure that accounts for approximately five percent of the United Kingdom's population. In North America, close to three percent of all Americans and Canadians follows vegetarian diets. Though most of these individuals do not do so for New Age reasons, New Age heath food stores, cookbooks, and companies have provided the infrastructure for the graduate emergence of vegetarianism as a viable food choice in the western world.

Despite the New Age's great success in spreading various components of its worldview into a broader audience, actual self-described membership in the New Age continues to be extremely small. Many individuals who accept New Age beliefs and practices shy away from the label. One reason may be that the movement has opened itself to extensive criticism for its unsophisticated incorporation of religious concepts drawn from a multitude of traditions, leading to charges that the movement engages in a form of religious colonialism. Such criticisms generally focus on a lack of cultural sensitivity to Amerindians, as well as an unrealistic romanticist image of Asia. Of these two charges, that of cultural insensitivity to Native Americans strikes a particular chord. Having already experienced disease, war, expulsion, internment, and mass slaughter, Native Americans have suffered greatly at the hands of Euro-Americans.  Yet during the 1970s and 1980s, white American New Agers, the cultural inheritors of the same white Americans who had earlier persecuted Native Americans, appropriated rituals, beliefs, and stories from American Indians. (In other cases, however, Native American teachers have deliberately sought cross-cultural audiences.)

Under the rubric of shamanism, New Age practitioners employ Native American practices (e.g., sweat lodges, ritual dance, peyote use), sacred items (e.g., rain sticks, sacred pipes), and stories (e.g., creation and nature myths). These appropriations rely on the view of Native Americans as living in harmony with the natural world and instill a "noble savage" philosophy to much of the New Age. While some Native American groups have offered strong criticism of such New Age perspectives and appropriations, others simultaneously often rely on New Age pilgrims and tourists to sustain their communities. For example, the Eastern Band Cherokee of North Carolina welcome New Age tourists and sell them "authentic" Indian artifacts, but also seek to recontextualize their sacred traditions through educating these tourists on the cultural place of their traditions.

A similar problem exists when Asian religions have encountered the New Age. In the New Age's romantic view of Asian religious traditions as natural, spiritual, and holistic, many New Agers fall into what scholar Edward Said has called the Orientalist mindset. Orientalism fixates on Asia as the "exotic other," the opposite of western culture.  Asian religions certainly demonstrate every bit as much philosophical, theological, and ritual complexity as European religions; they exhibit institutionalization and hierarchy; some have supported wars and colonialism. In their hopes for a new era, New Agers have drawn upon a long tradition of romanticized Orientalism to imagine Asia as a source of perennial spiritual knowledge, in distinction to the West's rational, scientific, and technical knowledge. Many Asians consider that assumption both presumptive and offensive, and similarly question the appropriation of their traditions by western New Agers.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the New Age movement so predominant within contemporary Western culture?
     2.    Describe the relationship between Christianity and the New Age Movement.
     3.    What is the relationship between yoga, the New Age movement, and the West?
     4.    Why might followers shy away from the label of New Age?
     5.    How are Native American traditions and Asian traditions both incorporated into the New Age movement?