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The New Age? It's just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds.—James Randi
"New Age" is a catch-all term for a wide range of spiritual and social movements, most of which developed from the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Characteristic of the so-called New Age movement is the focus on spiritual matters, with an emphasis on individuality. Those with an interest in such matters often tend to attribute New-Age beliefs to real or alleged Asian mystics, particularly Indian and Tibetan ones, and many New-Age type beliefs draw heavily from Eastern religions, particularly Hinduism.
The New-Age movement lacks intellectual rigor and shuns scientific approaches to reality, ostensibly due to the perceived separation between science and spirituality, but also under the pretense of a vague postmodernism. New-Age believers typically take a pick-and-mix approach to spirituality, adapting beliefs and practices from a wide variety of sources such as Hinduism, neopaganism, ufology, Zen Buddhism, and any other weird concept that may appeal to them.
In general, New Agers tend to embrace vitalism as a binding principle of the Universe – though they don't commonly call it that – believing that such things as extrasensory perception, psychic phenomena, astrology, and the paranormal all can be observed and have direct impact on the daily lives of people. There is some overlap with the neopagan faith community, though even neopagans find their patience tried by the New Age mindset, calling them "fluffbunnies" and sometimes saying that "New Age" rhymes with "sewage," due to many New Agers' seeming self-centeredness, lack of commitment, and focus on "sweetness and light" aspects of paganism.
New Age thought is not a monolithic body of work and has many contradictions and competing ideas – though, in a form of "vindication of all kooks", all ideas within the cultural tent are treated as valid to some degree, and calling attention to contradictions is considered rude. The process is to take on an indiscriminate hodgepodge of woo and sand it all down into lifestyle accessories.
It is very common for New Age writers to downplay the importance of logic and overvalue intuition while avoiding "negative" emotions like fear and anger. Avoiding these emotions usually means suppressing them (not good!) and consciously avoiding getting oneself into situations where fear or anger may arise. This includes completely avoiding people who are depressed or desperate – even if those people are one's friends or family. New Agers are usually instructed to "let go" of the people in their lives who are pulling them down. This is consistent with the remarkable self-centeredness of New Age philosophy, in sharp contrast to the emphasis on charitable works and outreach to others in many religions. The whole point of New Age thinking is development of one's own spirituality, one's own happiness, and the importance of keeping one's "vibration" high:
“”While it may seem as if lightworkers are not engaging in social issues, the opposite is actually true. While everyone else is out there fighting, arguing, debating, pushing, warring, and creating conflict, a true lightworker knows that the way to change our planet is to hold the vibration of what we want: peace, love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, and joy. While everyone else is sinking down into the mud to fight about things, the lightworkers are cleverly keeping their vibration high.
The New Age movement is generally considered a load of bollocks by rationalists, and several well-known skeptical writers (particularly James Randi and Martin Gardner) honed their skills using the early New Age movement for target practice. Nevertheless, New Age rituals and paraphernalia are big business; some places such as Sedona (AZ), Salem (MA), and Glastonbury (UK) have a particularly large business presence of New Age practitioners plying their trade, and "psychics" such as John Edward and Sylvia Browne have gotten quite wealthy pretending they can talk to the dead.
"New Age" is used frequently as a snarl word by Christian fundamentalists, apparently as a code word for a poorly-articulated Satanic conspiracy theory to bring down Christianity. Again, New Age practitioners themselves usually concentrate on pleasant concepts and avoid uncomfortable ideas like Satan.
Despite their hand-wavey dismissal of all things profit-related (e.g., them paying you), New Age proponents have a firm commitment to commerce (i.e., you paying them). They tap into a strong market for books and personal services relating to inchoate woo, particularly among the bored and comfortable classes. Seminars can prove profitable - witness Werner Erhard or Keith Raniere.
Having a reasonable income, New Agers tend to wash more consistently than other hippies — unless you get a lot of them in a town, in which case the bums gather.
There is a visible class distinction between the nice well-off middle-class New Agers with money — the sort of people who can afford science-denial as an affectation — and the smelly hippies without money.
New Age traces back to the Spiritualism movement of the 19th century and Helena Blavatsky's Theosophy, as well as the Order of the Golden Dawn and Swedenborgianism. It may occasionally borrow from or share ideas with still older esoteric movements such as Freemasonry and Rosicrucianism, from which the Order of the Golden Dawn was derived. Alice Bailey's Theosophy-influenced occult writings of the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes cited as the origin of the modern New Age movement; some Alice Bailey followers, most notably Benjamin Creme, were influential in popularizing New Age ideas in the 1980s and giving the movement its modern form.
Other early possible progenitors include the Urantia Book (1955) and Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1908), both consisting of allegedly channeled material mixing Christianity with Eastern religious thought (and in the case of Urantia a cosmology of extraterrestrial spirit beings); the channeled "readings" of Edgar Cayce; and the practicies of Spiritism which included such things as table rapping, Tarot cards, and the Ouija board, which later re-emerged in popularity among the hippie movement. The Findhorn Foundation in Scotland (founded 1963) and the Esalen Institute in California (founded 1962) are also cited as origins of the New Age.
The actual term "New Age" was used as early as 1809 by William Blake (a popular figure in New Age circles) who described a coming era of spiritual advancement in his preface to Milton a Poem by stating: "When the New Age is at leisure to pronounce, all will be set right." A weekly journal of Christian socialism titled The New Age was published as early as 1894. It has been held to be a significant influence on modernism in literature and the arts during its heyday. Psychoanalysist Carl Jung was a believer in a coming "Age of Aquarius." In a letter to his friend Peter Baynes, dated 12 August 1940, Jung wrote a passage: "This year reminds me of the enormous earthquake in 26 B.C. that shook down the great temple of Karnak. It was the prelude to the destruction of all temples, because a new time had begun. 1940 is the year when we approach the meridian of the first star in Aquarius. It is the premonitory earthquake of the New Age." Following Jung, Alice Bailey published the book Discipleship in the New Age (1944), which used the term New Age in reference to the transition from the astrological age of Pisces to Aquarius. Another early usage of the term was by the American artist, mystic, and philosopher Walter Russell, who spoke of "this New Age philosophy of the spiritual re-awakening of man...Man's purpose in this New Age is to acquire more and more knowledge" in his essay "Power Through Knowledge," which was also published in 1944.
Into the mainstream
Widespread usage of the term New Age began in the mid-1970s (reflected in the title of monthly periodical New Age Journal) and probably influenced several thousand small metaphysical book- and gift-stores that increasingly defined themselves as "New Age bookstores."
As traditional belief systems (including religions and political ideology) were seen as self-limiting, some aspects of this movement veered into freethought, but much of the movement took a simultaneous interest in developing new spiritual outlooks and it was quickly overshadowed. Spiritual movements which flourished around the same time included Transcendental Meditation, the Hare Krishna sect, and esoteric Christian sects such as the Unification Church, the evangelical "Jesus Freaks and Crystal Healing. "The Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 1970s was originally a secular movement rooted in pop psychology and the existentialist philosophy popular at the time, and not at first given to much interest in spiritual matters; typical of this era were Erhard Seminars Training and Lifespring seminars, popular self help books such as Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) and I'm OK, You're OK (1969), and primal scream therapy. The Human Potential Movement taught the achievement of "self-actualization" through a variety of means, often based on freeing oneself from negative scripts imposed on ones life by other people (such as parents or peers), or during early childhood.
By the 1970s, a fusion of the secular with the spiritual was inevitable, most notably taking on influence from Zen, Hinduism, some forms of liberal Christianity, and belief in supernatural phenomena. Popular books such as Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) successfully combined the promise of unlimited potential and self-actualization with spirituality. This was followed by an increasing interest in "unexplained phenomena," such as Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle, as well as the alleged mystical powers of pyramids, often promoted by mass-market books and TV shows like In Search Of. Later in the '70s, a sci-fi influence and interest in extraterrestrial life (including interest in the Roswell crash) was heralded by films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The New Age came into its own in the 1980s offering a smörgåsbord of spiritual choices to the seeker, by then largely devoid of its early roots, and often characterized by a complete lack of skepticism and by an annoying stylistic vagueness and slick marketing. Notable events popularizing the New Age term, and beliefs, included full-page newspaper ads placed (circa 1982) by Benjamin Creme's groups heralding the arrival of "Maitreya," a purported New Age avatar or "Christ"; the "Harmonic Convergence" when in August 1987 New Agers gathered at alleged sacred sites around the world to herald a new era of world peace and spiritual transformation, based on a loose interpretation of the Mayan calendar (sound familiar?); the rise of New Age bookstores and free advertising the smörgåsbord of activities available; and the popularity of crystals, trance channeling, "aura" photography, runes, and similar woo.
Threads of the New Age
The fundamental guiding principle of the New Age, to the extent that there is one, is vitalism, as mentioned above – the idea that there is a physical universe and a spiritual realm, that are separate but interact. Since the New Age is essentially a grab bag of philosophies, it is easiest to describe some of its components in a list:
- Alternative medicine – New Agers often show active hostility to actual medicine that works, preferring something with that personal touch from someone woo-friendly.
- Anima mundi – believing that the whole world is alive... in some sense. Expect frequent overlap with (if not complete containment in) pantheism.
- Astrology, Chinese astrology, and sham astronomy – In addition to the fevered ramblings of those who carry on a long-discredited form of using the stars and planets to predict the future, New Agers (who often overlap with UFO fans) often ascribe special significance to certain real or imagined features in space (see Photon belt as an example of the latter). A popular New Age pastime is predicting doom and gloom every time planets, moons and or stars seem to "line up."
- Channeling – the act of allowing your body and mind to become a "host" for a higher spirit, usually a long-dead spiritual guru. Usually consists of bad acting and vague religious platitudes, but "channeler" JZ Knight managed to get a popular Hollywood movie made about her and her character "Ramtha."
- Communication with the dead – At the same time one of the most popular and most widely reviled New Age practices, there is a large market for trying to reach loved ones who have died. Mediums, practitioners of such feats as seances, tend to cater to the weaknesses of the bereaved and desperate, and rationalists consider such people to be the most damaging and blatantly thieving of the hucksters in the movement, especially since the "dead" tend overwhelmingly to talk in vague, feel-good babbling.
- Crystals – They love them, because they're shiny and natural, and because New Agers are obsessed with light.
- Cultural appropriation – A form of cultural imperialism in which items are removed from their wider cultural context. Usually this invoives white middle class Westerners stealing elements from cultures perceived to be primitive and tribal, e.g. Native Americans or Ancient Celts, or exotic, i.e. Asian, and completely misinterpreting them.
- Dolphins – they sure do love their dolphins. This seems to trace back to John C. Lilly's experiments in the 1960s with LSD and dolphins in which he tried to foster human communication with dolphins by ingesting LSD himself while in a tank with them. New Agers might be shocked and surprised to learn that some dolphins feed on mammals, including sea lions. Vicious rapey predators that pretend to be peaceful, loving and beautiful is not too bad a metaphor for the New Age movement.
- Energy: A vague term in New Age thinking which can mean any number of different things, and bears no real resemblance to the use in physics or other actual science—see energy woo.
- Entanglement - The true technical, and extremely advanced, meaning of this discovery is rejected by the New Age because its disciples haven't a hope of understanding it. They substitute a vague concept which they claim can explain many "observed" mysteries such as remote viewing, telepathy, and ESP. See also Quantum woo.
- Extrasensory perception – largely drawn from the Human Potential movement. Many New Agers believe that, given enough training, it is possible to see things that cannot be directly observed (remote viewing or clairvoyance), to read minds (telepathy), or to predict the future or view the past (precognition and postcognition). Despite the efforts of a band of overly credulous scientists in the 1960s and 1970s (called "counterculture physicists" by Martin Gardner, among others), no reliable evidence of psychic phenomena has ever come to light.
- Fairies – Belief in fairies, faeries, furries,Do You Believe That? devas, angels, and other sorts of entities in this and other dimensions that can be contacted for advice and healing.
- Frequency. New Agers have no idea of the meaning of this term, so they assign it to everything. People, rocks, planets... The one thing they never talk about is what instrumentation they use to measure frequency.
- Healing – Various forms of "energy work," epitomized by the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, and the use of Reiki are taught and used to heal others of real and imaginary ailments. Crystals, aromatherapy, and sound therapy all play a role in the desire by every New Ager to be a Christ-like healer.
- Indigo children – Apparently, impatient children will grow up to change the world for the better.
- Light woo – Belief that staring into the Sun provides nutrition, light from the Moon alters your mood, that shining colored lights on people can cure them of various ailments, and other nonsense ideas centered around light and natural sunlight.
- Magical thinking, such as the currently-fashionable Law of Attraction.
- Moral relativism – i.e. everything is equally correct, as long as you agree with us.
- Pseudoscience – Rather than simply present their material as religious, New Agers often cloak their beliefs in the language of science, with constant ill-defined use of the terms "energy" and "vibration," as well as a heavy dose of quantum woo, being the most common abuses. As with medicine, New Agers often have active hostility to actual science or engineering that works, and outright scorn for the peer review process.
- Pyramid Power – the belief that the pyramidal shape somehow acts like a lens to focus cosmic energy. Some New Agers actually put their razor under a plastic pyramid in the belief that this will sharpen the blade overnight.
- Quantum woo – New Agers, as a rule, really like the "observer" principle of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and when they need a scientific-sounding Band-aid to impress the rubes, "quantum" is a word that gets a lot of use. The fact that Copenhagen is a drastic (and very old, and primitive) oversimplification of a brutally difficult subject, as well as the fact that it really doesn't make any sense in this context, didn't stop Gary Zukav and Fritjof Capra from giving embryonic New Agers just enough leeway to make them look horribly foolish. They tend to think Deepak Chopra is a genius.
- Reincarnation and past-life regression – Loosely drawn from reincarnation doctrine in Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is a common belief among New Agers, and the attempt to recover memories of past lives is a common practice. Observers have noted that one's past life personalities were never janitors or office clerks – kings, queens and famous generals are very much in demand for past lives of the New Ager. Now are the dead contactable or are they leading new lives? During the 1980s, actress Shirley MacLaine promoted past-life regression, leading to considerable ridicule.
- Sacred Geometry – Esoteric meanings and symbolism are attached to certain geometric forms and ratios, such as the Vesica piscis. New Agers believe that such shapes offer insight to the inner workings of the universe.
- Scamming – While it is clear that a good number of New Age practitioners actually believe the tripe they put out, many of them are no more sincere than a garden-variety televangelist and are in it only to take money from gullible folks who want to believe that there's Something Out There. They are, however, absolutely sincere about money.
- Shamanism – The need to be "someone special" frequently manifests itself in the fashioning of a new identity, as a mystical healer who travels on the astral plane to communicate with spirits and the dead, modelled after the purported beliefs and rituals of traditional cultures in the Amazon, Siberia and the American West. Bonus points if they combine all three.
- We are all connected. A cliché of the New Age, this sounds cute but has no useful meaning whatever.
New Age music
The New Age movement has spawned a musical style with the same name – usually airy-textured instrumental fluff, often with dolphin sounds mixed in. It can be rather relaxing and enjoyable, but it is in no sense profound – though it borrows much from jazz and classical music, it is far more simplistic than either one (excluding Enya). It is sometimes played in elevators and waiting rooms, in place of Muzak, and is often played in stores selling such items as candles, incense, crystals, beads, etc.
It should be noted that the exact definition of New Age music is not very precise (sometimes things such as Celtic folk, ambient, experimental electronica and film/game soundtracks are lumped in the genre), and not all artists labeled as such are involved with the New Age movement. Some artists outright reject the tag to dissociate themselves from it.
A joke: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards? New Age music.
- MyPineal - reported to be the only new age social network as of 2018 and 2019
- Constance Cumbey - an evangelical Christian writer who condemned the New Age movement
- David Icke - New Age meets extreme wingnuttery and conspiracy theories
- The Spirit Science - a New Age Youtube channel featuring all of the woo and pseudoscience. All of it. And, of course, Space Jews.
- Texe Marrs - an anti-New Age writer who promotes the exact same conspiracy theories as David Icke, illustrating an odd example of extremists meeting at the outer fringes
- Papyrus - the official font of the New Age
- Ten rules for writing New Age Jargon in order to sound really intelligent and profound!, Larry Brown.
- New-Age Bullshit Generator
- Criticism of the New Age: Ridiculous Practices, Daft Beliefs and Pseudoscience by Vexen Crabtree
- DMOZ listing for New Age>Opposing Views
- "Why don’t lightworkers engage in social justice issues?"
- General Introduction to The New Age 1907–1922, Brown University & The University of Tulsa — The Modernist Journals Project, retrieved 2010-10-28
- Letters of C. G. Jung: Volume I, 1906–1950, p. 285
- "Power Through Knowledge", retrieved 2010-10-12
- Algeo, John and Adele. Fifty Years Among the New Words: A Dictionary of Neologisms.
- Materer, Timoty. Modernist Alchemy: Poetry and the Occult. 0801431468
- The Dancing Wu Li Masters at Wikipedia (William Morrow & Co., 1979)
- The Tao of Physics at Wikipedia (Shambhala Publications, 1975)
- MacLaine ultimately eased off on the woo and went back to acting, though there are no indications that she's given up any of her battier beliefs.