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Religion Library: New Age

Modern Age

Written by: Benjamin E. Zeller

During the first decade of the 21st century the New Age movement has repeated the same patterns of the 1990s. Individual subcultures within the New Age have grown exponentially, but few people self-identify as New Agers. During the current century various New Age alternative health and nutrition approaches, as well as self-help literature, have made forays into the wider culture of the West. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, most Americans, western Europeans, and urban citizens of the rest of the world will have had some exposure to New Age ideas, even if they are not explicitly conscious of it; New Age ideas have, in other words, become assimilated into the mainstream of globalized culture.

New Age ideas about alternative health and nutrition have become increasingly prevalent, both in the West and in urban communities in Asia and Latin America. During the first decade of the 21st century, New Age healing practices such as rolfing (deep message), reflexology (manipulation of the feet and other extremities), aromatherapy (use of scents), and acupressure (pushing on parts of the body) have entered the mainstream. Many insurance companies now cover some of these services, and some scientific journals have begun to take these practices seriously. Famously, Harvard University held a symposium in 1993 on the medical value of meditation. Similar events around the world have legitimized New Age alternative healing techniques in the eyes of many, techniques that are often subsumed under the rubrics of naturopathy or homeopathy. Some recent surveys have indicated that as many as one -- half of all Americans has used alternative healing practices drawn from the New Age -- even more if one includes chiropractic, a descendent of the 19th-century's New Age, New Thought.

Following the same pattern that led to the birth of the movement, New Age alternative healing practices have spread first through publications. New Age health gurus who also possess western medical degrees, such as Dr. Andrew Weil and Dr. Deepak Chopra, have successfully bridged the boundary between alternative and mainstream. During the late 1990s, Weil's books became New York Times bestsellers, and the massive success of his Eating Well for Optimum Health (2000) led to his revising and republishing most of his earlier work. Weil combines New Age interests in using natural means to augment human health with a focus on the power of the mind and self-transformation. Combining these approaches with his conventional western medical training, Weil successfully brought New Age health concepts to the widest possible audience. Chopra's work operated on a similar level and reflects similar themes.

At the same time that interest in New Age health practices burgeoned, broad public interest emerged in the New Age focus on abundance and success. Most notably, the 2005 text The Secret, authored by Rhonda Byrne (as well as the movie based on the book) made the New Age concept of the "law of attraction" a household phrase well outside New Age circles. The book achieved top ranking on both the New York Times bestseller's list as well top-seller for online merchant Amazon.com. The book defined the law of attraction as the principle that positive thoughts lead to positive results, a belief that draws on the New Age philosophy of the world as a product of the human mind. Specifically, The Secret focused on material abundance and the power of positive thought to bring great wealth to its practitioners. Here the text clearly followed a pattern set by New Age self-development gurus, as well as an earlier history of Protestant positive-thinker Norman Vincent Peale, and the New Thought movement before that. Oprah Winfrey's inclusion of The Secret on her widely-watched television show resulted in the text leaping from alternative to mainstream.

During the early part of the 21st century some scholars have called into question whether the New Age has run its course, and if the New Age really exists anymore as a definably religious movement. The New Age movement, however, has always been amorphous, decentralized, and characterized by eclectic individual practice. The contemporary history of the movement follows that pattern, but as New Age ideas diffuse into broad culture, more and more people might be characterized as touched by the New Age.


Study Questions:
     1.    How has the New Age movement become assimilated to American mainstream culture?
     2.    Name some New Age healing practices utilized by American culture.
     3.    What did the book The Secret teach? Why was it widely accepted?
     4.    Does the New Age movement still exist as a definable religious practice? Why or why not?

 
     
     
     
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