Paganism & The New Age

Paganism & The New Age September 1, 2014

new_age_symbolMuch of my Pagan practice comes from books. My first three years as a Pagan were spent as a solitary and in order to learn as much as I could I read as much as I could. Those first Pagan steps were all taken in the smallish town of Cape Girardeau Missouri where my book options were limited. For much of my time in Cape I was limited to two bookstores, one small independent store within walking distance, and a WaldenBooks at the local mall. At both stores books on Paganism were shelved in the “New Age” section, a tradition that continues today at booksellers like Barnes and Noble.

Both stores had a pretty limited amount of Pagan books and I exhausted their inventory of Pagan and Witch titles quite quickly. Still desperate to read anything that might be associated with Paganism I moved onto several general “New Age” titles, an enterprise that had varying results. Some of those books were indispensable in my development as a Witch. Shakti Gawain’s Creative Visualization was a Goddess-send, and helped me to develop a very solid magical foundation. Other titles in the genre weren’t helpful at all, it was truly a mixed bag.

What is the New Age? Definitions from a variety of sources.

Wikipedia: “The New Age movement is a Western spiritual movement that developed in the second half of the 20th century. Its central precepts have been described as ‘drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology.'”

Christian Apologetics: “The New Age (NAM) movement has many sub-divisions, but it is generally a collection of Eastern-influenced metaphysical thought systems, a conglomeration of theologies, hopes, and expectations held together with an eclectic teaching of salvation, of “correct thinking,” and “correct knowledge.” It is a theology of feel-goodism, universal tolerance, and moral relativism.”

Encyclopedia Brittanica: “New Age movement, movement that spread through the occult and metaphysical religious communities in the 1970s and ʾ80s. It looked forward to a New Age of love and light and offered a foretaste of the coming era through personal transformation and healing. The movement’s strongest supporters were followers of modern esotericism, a religious perspective that is based on the acquisition of mystical knowledge and that has been popular in the West since the 2nd century ad, especially in the form of Gnosticism. Ancient Gnosticism was succeeded by various esoteric movements through the centuries, including Rosicrucianism in the 17th century and Freemasonry, theosophy, and ritual magic in the 19th and 20th centuries.”

9780553270440_p0_v1_s114x166That the New Age books are often shelved next to the Pagan books shouldn’t be much of a surprise. Some of Modern Paganism’s DNA is directly related to New Age beliefs. When I wrote a three part series on the 25 Most Influential People in Modern Paganism “The Mother of the New Age” Madame Helena Blavatsky was on the list. Some of the “Eastern Thought” in Wicca is most likely the result of Blavatsky. Reincarnation, chakras, and karma are three ideas that became popular in the Western World because of Blavatsky and her religion Theosophy. She opened up the world and made it fashionable to express then unorthodox religious ideas in the West.

Eastern ideas often run through a Western style sausage grinder are a staple of the New Age. If you were to ask me to name some of the most common currents running through the Modern New Age Movement “Eastern Spirituality” would be near the top of my list. My local New Age store is a part of Ananda, a movement based on the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda, author of Autobiography of a Yogi. I have a lot in common with many followers of Ananda and similar faiths: karma, love of the Earth and music, and an interest in meditation. However we have vastly different ideas about magic, the gods, and how to worship. I can see the appeal many New Age faiths have to their adherents, but it doesn’t appeal to me.

Paramahansa_YoganandaPaganism and the New Age movement despite some similarities are often uncomfortable spiritual neighbors. East West Bookstore (the above mentioned local New Age store) often seems as if its embarrassed to be carrying books on Wicca and Paganism. What they have occupies a relatively few shelves, and they don’t carry any ritual tools, or statues of Western deities. It’s a lovely place to visit and I do shop there, but the overall absence of Pagan materials is noticeable. It’s also probably a market they’d be wise to exploit since there’s not a Pagan/Wiccan store within thirty miles (and less than an hour drive) of where I live (and it’s an area of over one million people).

For many Pagans “New Age” is a dirty turn of phrase often dismissed as any sort of progressive Spirituality that comes with a large price tag. Certainly some New Age teachers charge an awful lot to share their teachings, but I’ve been shocked by some of the prices at Pagan retreats and workshops too (I’ve had people pay fifty bucks to listen to me, that certainly seems like too much!). Most Modern Pagan Traditions come with a bit of light and shadow, which stands in contrast to many New Age beliefs that feel essentially “sunny.” Next month at Samhain many of us will be actively celebrating and lamenting our dead, I’m not familiar with a lot of New Age groups who do something similar.

After originally posting this article a friend of mine reminded me that the New Age Movement and Paganism “have different theological cores.” Of course(!) and I hope no one reading this article thinks that I’m suggesting otherwise. Modern Paganism’s roots are the Western Magical Tradition and European and Middle Eastern paganisms before Christianity. Many New Age philosophies are rooted in the East, New Thought, Gnosticism, and often anything else modern that doesn’t fit comfortably into a recognized religious and/or spiritual category. New Age groups can honor gurus, dolphins, angels, Christ Consciousness, UFOs, channeled spirits, along with lots of other entities.

Despite the distance that sometimes pops up between New Age spiritualities and Modern Paganism many Contemporary Pagans continue to borrow and adapt New Age ideas. Reiki is popular in many Pagan circles and has many of the hallmarks associated with New Age movements: it’s relatively new (from the 1920’s), has an Eastern core, and has been adapted by many of its Western practitioners. That’s not a criticism or a critique, only an observation. The Ancient Celts, Greeks, and Norse weren’t practicing Reiki and I doubt Gerald Gardner or Ross Nichols did either. Despite sometimes being uncomfortable with our New Age sisters and brothers we are still open to borrowing from them if we find value in a practice that emerged within their milieu.

Until the rise of the internet and big-box bookstores (like Barnes and Noble and the departed Borders) Pagan titles weren’t easily available. Sure they existed, but unless you lived close to a good Metaphysical Shop there were relatively few to choose from. As a result a lot of books and authors considered New Age have impacted Modern Paganism. I know a lot of Pagans who have read Carlos Castaneda’s The Teachings of Don Juan and every once in a while I get asked about authors such as Rosemary Altea, Marianne Williamson, Rhonda Byrne, and Don Miguel Ruiz. I often don’t have much to say in reply because I’ve never read any of them, but that so many people ask speaks highly to the continued interconnections between Paganism and the New Age.

A lot of figures and practices often labeled “New Age” have become a part of many Modern Paganisms. I know a lot of people who practice both some sort of Paganism alongside Michael Harner style shamanism. Many teaching shamans attend Pagan events and blend in seamlessly with our community, though some of their students/adherents no doubt bristle at the word “Pagan.” A lot of the Pagan Festivals I’ve attended over the years have welcomed speakers like Terrance McKenna and Timothy Leary. I’m not always sure those guys identify as New Age, but their books are often labeled such.

2012-07-19_15-48-21_295A lot of New Agers are happy borrowing from us too, so it’s definitely a two-way street. A lot of “Pagan authors” often find success in New Age markets. I haven’t seen Raymond Buckland at a Pagan event in years, but he’s a frequent visitor to Lily Dale, a Spiritualist community in Western New York that that boasts a lot of folks within its ranks who sit comfortably in the New Age category. My first “Pagan festivals” in Michigan seventeen odd years ago were mostly New Age gatherings, with soul readers, people interested in angels, and probably a few people using Dolphin oracles. Often times the big name guests were Wiccan-types, but they mostly spoke about things outside of Paganism. Silver Ravenwolf’s workshops were just as likely to be about Pennsylvania Dutch Hex Magic as Witchcraft. (One being socially acceptable to many interested in the New Age because it comes wrapped in Christian clothes, and the other being well, Witchcraft.)

I know that I can often be dismissive of things labeled New Age. When someone asks if what I do is “New Age” I’m likely to reply that my religion is of “the Old Age” and is focused on old gods, old ideas, and traditional ways of living, but that’s not entirely true. Some of what I do has been directly influenced by New Age thought and that’s fine. In Witchcraft we use what works, and sometimes New Age practices do just that. Besides, if borrowing from Helena Blavatsky was good enough for Gerald Gardner it’s probably good enough for me.

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