New Age beliefs may seem loopy but they influence millions of people.
The recent case of an apparent double suicide in Washington state by an English man and his 14-year-old stepdaughter is a stark reminder of the risks involved in neo-pagan worship and certain New Age practices. The pair were involved in a romantic relationship and both were Wiccans. Their Christian wife and mother, the real victim of this horrifying incident, believes they took their lives in the hope of spending eternity together.
Wicca is a revival of pagan beliefs and rituals which emerge in the 1950s and 60s. It does not endorse murder, suicide or underage sex, though it does list ritual sex as a “magickal practice”. It could be argued, not without reason, that the ill-fated pair were mentally ill. But it would be wrong to conclude that their practice of Wicca was merely incidental to their actions.
Unlike the major world religions, Wicca and other neo-pagan groups such as the Druids issue no guidelines regarding right and wrong, and refute the very concept of absolute evil. Instead they encourage the cult of the self, with results ranging from mild self-centredness to downright profiteering, or (as in this case) megalomania with tragic consequences.
Unfortunately this self-centred approach is not confined to “religious” groups. New Age and New Thought are umbrella terms for a multitude of beliefs and practices, drawing on sources as diverse as gnosticism, Darwinism and Jung’s psychoanalytical theories. Yet they all share a few common themes, including the quest for personal fulfilment, succinctly expressed in the phrase “if it feels good, do it”.
The term New Age refers to the imminent astrological era, the Age of Aquarius, expected to commence around 2070, and of no intrinsic significance to anyone except stellar cartographers. Yet the coming era is eagerly anticipated by disillusioned folks looking forward to a new age of enlightenment, freedom and the “sacred feminine”(Wiccans worship a “triple Goddess” associated with the various phases of the Moon). The Age of Pisces, in which we currently live, spans the whole of the Christian era, and many New Agers believe the passing of the Age of Pisces will coincide with the end of Christianity and patriarchalism.
A number of pseudo-Christian churches have sprung up in the US since the late 1800s promoting New Thought philosophies. The most popular of these is Unity, whose teachings embrace an emasculated form of Christianity in which Jesus is merely a “master teacher of universal truths”, and whose main emphasis is on spiritual healing. A real danger of this philosophy is that people with serious medical problems are often inspired to put their faith solely in unscientific methods such as positive affirmations and energy healing.
The practice of spiritual or faith healing has become firmly established in the wellness industry of most developed countries. Treatments such as hypnotherapy and Reiki owe far more to New Thought philosophies than they do to psychology and medicine, with the exception of Traditional Chinese Medicine, whose practitioners, however, generally prefer to distance themselves from the New Age movement.
A central belief uniting the various New Age practices is the collective unconscious, variously called divine essence, energy, God, or simply “the Universe”. This god, although benign, is an impersonal deity bearing little resemblance to the personal and loving God of Abraham. Marianne Williamson, whose 2008 book The Age of Miracles spent weeks on the New York Times best seller list, describes God as merely “the energy, the thought of unconditional love”. The theory is that individual humans, along with rocks and frogs, form a part of this divine essence, just like a drop of water in the ocean. One of the mantras of the New Age is “All is One”. Individual conscience and personal responsibility do not rank highly on the New Age agenda – hardly good news for society.
The New Age has flourished on the back of an increasingly relativistic culture. It is important enough to merit a lengthy study by the Vatican published in 2003. It dealt sympathetically but uncompromisingly with New Age phenomenon, but concluded that “It does not demand any more faith or belief than going to the cinema, and yet it claims to satisfy people's spiritual appetites”. The Vatican theologians suggested that the majority of New Agers are good people who have been lured by false promises of a more fruitful life, and are drawn to the movement as a result of the spiritual dearth in Western culture. A superficial resemblance to Christian asceticism and Eastern mysticism can make the New Age seem very attractive to many who are genuine seekers of truth.
It’s less clear whether those making the big bucks can be let off so lightly. No doubt some are sincere, but it cannot be denied that many gurus, such as Bob Proctor and Jack Canfield, have amassed fortunes from the spiritual hunger of others. Both were featured in a 2006 movie “The Secret”, based on another New York Times best seller by Australian Rhonda Byrne, which purports to share knowledge closely guarded by society’s elite for hundreds of years (it was released around the same time as the equally bizarre The Da Vinci Code).
This “secret” is the Law of Attraction, essentially white magic dressed up in pseudo-scientific language. The law, another pivotal theme of the New Age, states that we attract our reality by means of our thoughts, which radiate into the cosmos like light and heat. Negative thoughts attract negative outcomes, whereas positive ones bring good things into our lives. Teachers exhort their clients to avoid negative thinking at all costs, because all thoughts inevitably “manifest” as reality. Such thought-policing is surely as ruthless and demeaning to humanity as anything imposed by Mao or Stalin.
In any case this explanation of our reality, when placed under scrutiny (which it rarely is),leads to conclusions which would be almost universally unacceptable. For example, we might ask why Hitler did what he did, and why the Jews had to suffer so much under the Nazis. A proponent of “The Secret” would logically have to conclude that Hitler was merely a misguided source of low-level radiation, a sort of human Fukushima, and that his victims – all of them! – somehow attracted their misfortune by emitting the wrong signals into the universe. Perfectly loopy.
The New Age has little time for reason, science or technology, apart from the occasional lip-service paid to quantum physics, and the widespread use of the Internet for proselytizing and profit. New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins, with their professed monopoly on science and reason, should logically concentrate their attacks on the irrational and harmful gods of the New Age, not the God of Judaism and Christianity (incidentally, would it be altogether unreasonable for them to put a few of the movement’s less scrupulous leaders on charge for crimes against humanity?)
A professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver describes the New Age as “the spiritual version of AIDS; it destroys the ability of people to cope and function.” All things considered, I would much rather be trapped down a mine with a battle-scarred New Atheist than a devout New Ager. They would be more likely to possess the human qualities needed to see us through the ordeal, and conversation would definitely be more lively. The New Age has a lot to say about spiritual energy and goodness, but in the end it doesn’t give it, it just drains it away. Let’s hope that reality and reason come back in fashion before too long.
Sue Alexander-Barnes writes from Sheffield, in the UK.