I’m returning here to a theme I have raised in this blog in the past, namely whatever happened to the occult and esoteric in modern America? Where did the New Age go? You may think that this question has nothing much to do with Christians, and it should certainly not concern them. But it really should.
Recently, the New York Times published a column by Krista Burton, about visiting a “crystal store,” the kind of New Age establishment that deals in Tarot readings, chakra readings, astrology, and medium services. I don’t comment on her particular experience or analysis, except to take issue with her remark about how trendy such phenomena are, and “the meteoric rise of New Age practices.” I honestly don’t see that. In fact, she is more accurate than she thinks in referring to a meteor, something that by definition does not rise: it falls and burns.
This point came to my mind some years ago when I saw a copy of Witches and Pagans magazine. Well known Pagan author Diana L. Paxson, was complaining that “The generation that founded modern American paganism in the 1970s is rapidly aging…. Pagan groups that haven’t found a way to integrate younger members may be lost, though emerging Pagan libraries are working to preserve our history….The children of the first generation of modern Pagans have now grown up, and although many of them identify as Pagan and may maintain connections to their family-based practices, very few are active in Covens or Pagan community activities.” It was especially difficult to attract millennials to the faith.
Does any of that resonate with Christians, especially members of mainline churches, like my own Episcopalians?
The trend that Ms. Paxson discusses is in fact one of the great unreported stories in American religion, namely the near-evaporation of the country’s once-thriving mystical, esoteric and occult traditions. That includes the New Age movement, which received its title around 1980, but which was deeply rooted in American religious history.
Think back to the world of the 1970s and 1980s, and the mass public interest in esoteric themes: reincarnation and crystals, telepathy and UFOs, shamans and gurus, pseudo-American Indian practices. Once upon a time, news stories treated such themes as UFOs and the Bermuda Triangle as deadly serious and plausible. Recall the national upsurge of fascination with the Harmonic Convergence of 1987. Yes, some people are still interested in broadly New Age ideas – remember the baloney surrounding the End of the World that the Maya Calendar supposedly scheduled for 2012 – but they have lost their presence in the mainstream culture. A broadly New Age audience is still out there, and we see their presence on the Internet. But where is their impact? Where is the mass audience that existed a generation ago?
If they still existed in their millions, I would expect to see (for instance) Hollywood movies catering to their interests and enthusiasms. We would expect major trade publishers doing the same, reflected in New Agey crossover titles appearing on the best-seller lists. We would see gurus, shamans and channelers making a good living by packing large lecture halls with gullible followers. Thousands of discussion groups, whether or not affiliated to mainstream organizations, would be getting together to chat about their experiences with reincarnation or telepathy. We would hear excited talk about Guru X, who is the unannounced messiah.
For many years I taught at Penn State University, with its 45,000 undergraduates populating a vast campus. They should be an ideal target audience. But over the past decade or two, I have seen next to nothing of this kind of activity, no obvious signs of interest in telepathy, reincarnation, crystals, gurus, and certainly nothing organized. Is that atypical? Help me.
Do campus ministries spend any effort warning young people away from occult or esoteric groups, or from tight-knit cults and guru groups, like they did so intensely in the 1970s? Which ones? Again, I can’t think of any.
I base this on impression and anecdote rather than any kind of serious ethnography, but I believe that “New Age” followers today tend to be a pretty aged bunch of boomers and older. In fact, as Diana Paxson suggests, they look very much like the congregation of one of the staider mainline churches. (Krista Burton is an exception to this picture). I’m sure there is survey evidence about how these beliefs have shifted (or not) over time, but my impression is that America’s New Age has largely sunk under the waves, like Atlantis. As the musical Hair did not exactly say, “This is the waning of the Age of Aquarius.”
If this decline reflected a shift to orthodoxy or mainstream Judeo-Christian faith, that would be one thing, but it does not. Instead, what we are seeing is a general reduction of interest in spiritual or religious matters across large sections of society, an evaporation of the broad but ill-focused concern that manifested itself in the supernatural boom of the 1970s. Whatever its harmful and downright silly aspects, that widespread spiritual activism and inquiry also contributed to the potent religious upsurge within Christianity and Judaism.
In other words, the first symptom we might expect of genuine American secularization would be a precipitous decline in activism and enthusiasm on the spiritual fringe, which is exactly what has taken place over the past two decades. If the prospect of such secularization alarms you, you really should pay attention to what is happening on the esoteric fringe.
New Agers and cults might be the canaries in the spiritual coalmine. Next time, I’ll talk more about this idea of secularization in the United States.
I am adapting and updating this post from a column I published some years ago in the magazine Chronicles.