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Social Compass New Age Spiritualities as Secular Religion: a Historian's Perspective

Wouter J. HANEGRAAFF Social Compass 1999; 46; 145 DOI: 10.1177/003776899046002004 The online version of this article can be found at:

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Social Compass 46(2), 1999, 145160


New Age Spiritualities as Secular Religion: a Historians Perspective

The New Age movement represents the historically innovative phenomenon of a secular type of religion based upon a radically private symbolism. This thesis is developed against the background of a three-part definition of religion, according to which religion in general may manifest in the form of either religions or spiritualities. Secularization, in this context, refers not to a decline or disappearance but to a thorough transformation of religion under the impact of new developments. The essence of this process lies in the autonomization of spiritualities with respect to religions: while spiritualities had traditionally been embedded in the collective symbolism of an existing religion, New Age spiritualities are manifestations of a radically private symbolism embedded directly in secular culture. From a historical point of view, this phenomenon is new and unprecedented. Special attention is given to how and why private symbolism in the New Age context tends to concentrate on the Self and its spiritual evolution. Le mouvement du Nouvel Age est un phnomne innovateur en ce sens quil reprsente un nouveau type de religion sculire base sur un symbolisme priv. Lauteur dveloppe cette thse dans le cadre dune dfinition tripartite, selon laquelle la religion en gnral peut prendre la forme soit dune religion, soit dune spiritualit. Dans ce contexte, la scularisation ne consiste pas en un phnomne de dclin ou de disparition de la religion, mais en une transformation de la religion sous linfluence de facteurs nouveaux. Le cur de ce processus rside dans lautonomisation des spiritualits par rapport aux religions: alors que les spiritualits traditionnelles senracinaient dans le symbolisme collectif dune religion dj existante, les spiritualits du Nouvel Age trouvent directement leur fondement dans la culture sculire. Ce processus est un phnomne sans prcdent du point de vue historique. Enfin, la question se pose de savoir comment et pourquoi le symbolisme priv du Nouvel Age a tendance se focaliser sur le Soi et sur lvolution spirituelle de celui-ci.

Some statements in the rst chapter of Durkheims Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Durkheim, 1995: 4344) may serve to suggest the challenge of the New Age movement for the historian of religion. Having dened religion as a social phenomenon, Durkheim mentions the alternative possibility of individual religions that the individual institutes for himself and celebrates for himself alone. Some people today, he writes, pose the
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question whether such religions are not destined to become the dominant form of religious lifewhether a day will not come when the only cult will be the one that each person freely practices in his innermost self. Could it be true that we witness the emergence of a new form of religion, which will consist entirely of interior and subjective states and be freely construed by each one of us? Durkheim recognizes that if this were the case, his own denition of religion would be in need of adaptation. But, he continues, since such radically private religion remains as yet no more than an uncertain future possibility, the scholar is justied for the moment in restricting himself to the religions of the past and the present. The implication is clear. Were such a radical religious individualism to become a fact, this would represent a radically new phenomenon: an unprecedented break with religion as we know it from the past and the present. I will argue that the new type of religion referred to by Durkheim has indeed become a fact, and that the contemporary New Age movement is its clearest manifestation. New Age exemplies a new phenomenon which may be dened as secular religion based on private symbolism. As such, it presents a challenge to sociologists as well as to historians of religion. The challenge consists in trying to understand what the New Age phenomenon can teach us about the processes of modernization and secularization, and their signicance with respect to the systematic study of religions. For my basic understanding of New Age religion, I must refer the reader elsewhere (Hanegraaff, 1996, 1998a). Since most studies of New Age had been written from a sociological perspective, I decided to concentrate on aspects which tend to be neglected in that literature. On the basis of a representative selection of written primary sources, I analyzed the fundamental ideas of New Age religion and interpreted these from a historical perspective. I concluded that New Age religion can be dened as a form of secularized esotericism: it is rooted in so-called western esoteric traditions which can be traced back to the early Renaissance, but which underwent a thorough process of secularization during the 19th century. The new phenomenon of a secularized esotericism is best referred to as occultism; it had come to full development by the beginning of the 20th century and was eventually adopted by the New Age movement as it emerged during the 1970s. In the present article I would like to further develop this distinction between secularized esotericism on the one hand (a phenomenon belonging primarily to the history of ideas, and which had emerged during the 19th century), and the New Age movement on the other (a social phenomenon, which has emerged during the 1970s and which has adopted and further developed a secularized esoteric belief system). Religion, Religions, and Spiritualities My discussion of New Age as a form of secular religion presupposes a more general theory of religion, which I have developed in some detail elsewhere (Hanegraaff, 1999a). I dene religion in terms of a critical Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 reformulation of the analysis proposed by Clifford Geertz in 1966:1

Hanegraaff: New Age Spiritualities as Secular Religion


Religion = any symbolic system which inuences human action by providing possibilities for ritually maintaining contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning.

Under the terms of this denition, New Age evidently qualies as religion; but this does not by any means imply that it is a religion. The class of religions (sing.: a religion) can be dened as a subcategory of the general class of religion; this subcategory is characterized by the fact that the symbolic system in question is represented by a social institution.
A religion = any symbolic system, embodied in a social institution, which inuences human action by providing possibilities for ritually maintaining contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning.

In other words: religion may (and frequently does) manifest itself in the form of religions, but need not necessarily do so. For example, the Dutch Reformed Church is religion as well as a religion; the New Age movement, however, qualies as religion but not as a religion. But of course nothing prevents a group of New Agers to organize themselves in some sort of institutional framework. The result will then be a New Age religion: the equivalent of what is often referred to as a New Age cult. Religion may also manifest as what I propose to refer to as a spirituality:
A spirituality = any human practice which maintains contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning by way of the individual manipulation2 of symbolic systems.

This concept of a spirituality (plur.: spiritualities) is basic to my interpretation of New Age, but in order to elucidate the different forms it can take, I will rst develop my understanding of religion in slightly more detail. Collective Symbolism: Religious and Non-religious Current theories of symbolism and the neighboring domain of myth show a great complexity, but I will here bypass these discussions and restrict myself to a very basic observation. So much has been written about symbol and myth that one may easily forget that symbols are images just as myths are stories. And reversely: not only images, but stories as well, may function as symbols in the human imagination. Applied to the study of religions, symbols and myths can therefore be discussed quite simply as images and stories which have an important function in a certain religious context. They can have such importance because their meaning is not restricted to the literal level. The Christian cross is more than two pieces of wood put together; the life of Jesus is more than a biography. But, as will be seen, even highly abstract discursive or scientic propositions normally do not get a hold over the popularDownloaded imagination, unless they are capable of being grasped from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 as images.


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A commitment to common symbols is essential to religions generally. As formulated by Gershom Scholem: one of the main functions of religious symbols [is] to preserve the vitality of religious experience in a traditional, conservative milieu (Scholem, 1969: 22). Indeed, an implicit but crucial assumption in my denition of religion is that the doctrines and theologies of a given religion are ultimately far less important to preserving religious community in space and over time, than the fundamental images and stories shared by its members. For example, Christian doctrines and theologies have undergone tremendous changes and transformations between the rst centuries and the present day; indeed, the disputes of theologians appear usually to have produced discord and discontinuity rather than maintaining certainty and safeguarding the cohesion and continuity of Christianity as a religion. But whatever their doctrinal opinions, both theologians and the community of believers shared a commitment to certain powerful images and stories, i.e., to a collective symbolism. Such collective images and stories make a powerful moral appeal to the individual, who is stimulated by them to conform to the communitys code of conduct. By providing access to a more general framework of meaning, images and stories are supremely important means of binding the adherents of a religion together in space and over time. But images and stories may function in a non-religious context as well, as can be demonstrated by a comparison with the collective symbolism of contemporary secular society. The point I just made about the importance of images and stories for maintaining the cohesion of religions can be applied equally to the prevailing wordview of secular society. On the popular level, for example, few people have even a rudimentary understanding of Cartesian philosophy or Newtonian science; but they immediately recognize the image of the world as a machine. Likewise, the problem of the interpretation of quantum mechanics is a highly technical subject involving subtle philosophical problems; but the popular image of a subatomic particle whichparadoxicallyis a wave appears to be so exciting to the imagination that one encounters it everywhere on the popular level, sometimes in highly surprising places. In fact, this latter image has become a supreme symbol of dissent: to invoke it is to criticize the symbolism of an earlier, mechanistic worldview. Nevertheless it remains a scientic symbol, not a religious one. And moving from symbol to myth, we nd the same thing. Few people will be able to explain the differences between the philosophical, scientic and mystical evolutionary theories of the German Idealists, Darwin, Lamarck, Teilhard de Chardin, Sri Aurobindo, Ilya Prigogine, or Ken Wilber, to mention just a few. No matter. What does matter is that the biblical story of creation has been replaced, in their minds, by another and better story, which satises the imagination of people who were brought up to respect the ultimate authority of science. And, nally, the power of secular symbolism is not restricted to physics and biology. In our days, for example, the economic concept of the market appears to have become a highly important popular symbol; like many religious or quasi-religious symbols, it is able to bind people together in the conviction Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 that they pursue a common cause, which is for the greater good of humanity

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(Loy, 1997). In order to have that conviction, they need not understand the economic theories involved. Such is the stuff of the collective symbolism of contemporary secular society. My point is that contemporary society is not based upon science and rationality any more than pre-Enlightenment Christianity was based upon Christian theology. It is not science but popular mythologies of science which provide society with its basic collective symbolism. Spiritualities: With or Without a Religious Foundation Now, within any symbolic systemreligious or non-religious spiritualities may appear, and indeed, inevitably do appear. This is quite simply because people may interpret the collective symbolism of a religion in individual ways, but may do the same with non-religious symbolic systems. In traditional pre-secular contexts, such spiritualities do not consist of a strictly private symbolism and can not be seen as examples of the type of religious individualism referred to by Durkheim. They can be correctly characterized, however, as private interpretations of collective religious symbolism. This distinction is essential, as will be seen. I will demonstrate it by two examples. One characteristic case of a private interpretation of collective religious symbolism, leading to a spirituality rooted in a religion, would be the theosophical system developed by the 17th century mystic Jacob Boehme. Boehme earned his living as a cobbler in Grlitz, a small town on the present border between Germany and Poland. Tormented by questions about the origin of evil and suffering in the world, he nally experienced an interior illumination which changed his life. He describes how God permitted him a momentary gaze into the innermost center of nature, thus enabling him to perceive all earthly things in the light of the divine mystery: the mystery of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, divine Love and divine Wrath, and the reconciliation of these opposites by Christ. Boehme would devote the rest of his life to a continuing attempt to explain his interior experience in human language, and develop the implications of his vision. His writings are the work of a visionary genius, and were to become the foundation of a rich spiritual tradition. Boehmian theosophy is a characteristic manifestation of the complex of traditions referred to under the general label of western esotericism (p. 146). Now, it is evident that this perspective belongs to the domain of religion in terms of my denition. Moreover (in spite of his problems with a local minister who considered him a heretic), Boehmes esoteric teachings are undoubtedly rooted in a religion: Christianity as such, and the Lutheranism of his time in particular. But we are evidently dealing here with a spirituality as well. Boehmes work is the product of an individual manipulation of the various symbolic systems he had at his disposal: Christian symbolism in general, the more recent symbolism of Lutheranism in particular, mystical traditions in the line of Eckhart and Tauler, the Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 nature-philosophical and esoteric symbolism of alchemy, and the teachings


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of Paracelsus. Using elements of these various symbolic systems, he created a new synthesis: a new way of understanding his native Christian faith. It is not necessary here to enter into the historical backgrounds of the traditions just mentioned; what concerns me here is Jacob Boehmes work as an example of a spirituality rooted in (the collective symbolism of) a religion. Now let us compare this rst example of a spirituality with a second one, characteristic of New Age religion. I have intentionally chosen an example which displays certain similarities with Boehme, in order to make the differences stand out all the more clearly. On 9 September, 1963, the New York science ction writer Jane Roberts was suddenly hit by a powerful psychic experience. She was quietly sitting at the table when, as she describes, between one normal minute and the next, a fantastic avalanche of radical new ideas burst into my head with tremendous force, as if my skull were some sort of receiving station, turned up to unbearable volume (Roberts, 1970: 11). The experience included not only ideas, but also extreme and unusual physical sensations and a sort of psychedelic experience of travelling through many dimensions. When she regained her composure, she found herself furiously scribbling down the words and ideas that had ashed through her head. In an attempt to nd out what had happened to her, she and her husband started experimenting with spiritistic techniques. After some time, they contacted a spirit, who eventually began to communicate directly through Jane Roberts body. In this way, she developed into a so-called trance medium or channel for a higher entity who referred to himself as Seth. Seths messages were published and have exerted an enormous (and still underestimated) inuence on the development of the New Age movement. The core of his teaching is that we all create our own reality, in a process of spiritual evolution through countless existences on this planet as well as in an innity of other dimensions. Few New Agers realize how many of the beliefs which they take for granted in their daily lives have their historical origin in Seths messages. The intriguing phenomenon of channeling is not my subject here. I would merely like to emphasize how strongly Seths messages appeared to t within Jane Roberts personal frame of reference. As may be checked by a comparison with the books she published under her own name, this frame of reference consisted of a highly eclectic combination of religious and nonreligious symbolic systems. They included the Romantic cosmology and evolutionism of the American Transcendentalists, the positive thinking of the New Thought movement and related traditions usually referred to as the American Metaphysical Movements, spiritualism and parapsychology in the wake of magnetism and American mesmerism; but also science ction literature, popular science, and popular psychology. From the elements of all these symbolic systems, Jane Robertsor Sethcreated a new, original synthesis. The Seth teachings evidently qualify as religion in terms of my denition. But they do not constitute a religion, nor are they rooted in a religion, as was the case with Boehme. They are clearly an example of a spirituality: the product of individual manipulation of available symbolic systems (reliDownloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 gious as well as non-religious). This spirituality fullled the function which

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it still fullls in the context of the New Age movement today: it inuences human action by providing the possibility for maintaining contact between the everyday world and a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning. It is therefore undoubtedly religion. I should add one important note. In both the examples just given, we are dealing with the spectacular product of unquestionably gifted individuals, whose published writings made such an impression on readers that their spirituality (or elements of it) was adopted by others and took up a life of its own. But when talking of spiritualities we should denitely not think merely or even mainly of the comparatively rare phenomenon of religious virtuosi. In principle we are dealing with an everyday phenomenon: every person who gives an individual twist to existing religious symbols (be it only in a minimal sense) is already engaged in the practice of creating his or her own spirituality. In this sense, each existing religion generates multiple spiritualities as a matter of course; and it is only the more spectacular cases which sometimes become the basis for a new spiritual tradition. Spiritualities and religions might be roughly characterized as the individual and institutional poles within the general domain of religion. A religion without spiritualities is impossible to imagine. But, as will be seen, the reversea spirituality without a religionis quite possible in principle. Spiritualities can emerge on the basis of an existing religion, but they can very well do without. New Age is the example par excellence of this latter possibility: a complex of spiritualities which emerges on the foundation of a pluralistic secular society. Secularization and the Autonomization of Spiritualities In terms of the above discussion, secularization cannot be interpreted as a process in which the social importance of religion, or even religion as such, declines or vanishes altogether. But secularization can very well be understood as a thorough transformation of religion under the impact of historical and social processes, particularly since the 18th century. From a strictly empirical and historical perspective, secularization can be dened as the whole of historical developments in western society, as a result of which the Christian religion has lost its central position as the foundational collective symbolism of western culture, and has been reduced to merely one among several religious institutions within a culture which is no longer grounded in a religious system of symbols. One might argue that, from the perspective of the history of religions, such a process of transformation is nothing new. No religion has ever been stationary; all religions have always been in a process of change and transformation, and the process of secularization might therefore be seen as merely another phase in the history of religions in western societies. However, I believe that there is reason to consider the western process of secularization as a historically unique and unprecedented example of such a transformation: a deeper and more fundamental caesura than any other Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 change known to us from the history of religions. The complicated histor-


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ical, social and political causes of this transformation are the subject of an abundant historical and sociological literature, which we do not need to go into here. I am concerned mainly with dening in which respects contemporary western society is different from all other societies before the period of the Enlightenment. As far as we know, never before has there existed a human society, the common culture of which was not religious: i.e., a society whose commonly-shared collective symbolism was not of such a nature as to provide a framework for ritually maintaining contact with a more general, meta-empirical framework of meaning. Precisely such a non-religious complex of symbolic systems, however, is fundamental for contemporary society. In this sense, secular western society can be regarded as a historical anomaly, which breaks in an unprecedented way with previous human cultures. The distinction between religions and spiritualities can be used as an analytic instrument to get a grip on the secularization process in this sense. Secularization by no means implies that religion declines or that religions die out; but it does mean that religion is transformed in a crucial way. The essence of this transformation is that religions are faced with increasing competition by spiritualities which are themselves no longer based upon and embedded in an existing religion but become wholly autonomous. This process of autonomization may be described as the emergence of secular spiritualities based upon a private symbolism in a strict sense.3 This is a crucial characteristic of New Age religion: it consists of a complex of spiritualities which are no longer embedded in any religionas was the case with all spiritualities in the pastbut directly in secular culture itself. All manifestations of New Age religion, without exception, are based upon what I called an individual manipulation of existing symbolic systems. In this way, new syntheses are continually being created, which provide exactly what religion has always provided: the possibility for ritually maintaining contact with a more general meta-empirical framework of meaning, in terms of which people give meaning to their experiences in daily life. Spiritualities in a traditional religious context did not need to start from point zero. The religion in which they were embedded already served to provide meaning; the primary function of new spiritualities was to clarify and further develop existing religious symbolism, so as to ne-tune it to the specic needs of the person in question. Hence, Jacob Boehme certainly did not develop his esoteric system because he doubted that Christ had saved humanity from sin; he did it in order to better understand what that meant. New Age spiritualities, in contrast, do not grow on the soil of an existing religion. They are based upon the individual manipulation of religious as well as non-religious symbolic systems; and this manipulation is undertaken in order to ll these symbols with new religious meaning. As for existing religious symbolic systems, New Age spiritualities generally concentrate on whatever is not associated too closely with the traditional churches and their Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 theologies. Hence their preference for alternative traditions, from gnosti-

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cism and western esotericism in their own culture to various religious traditions from other cultures. As for their use of a non-religious symbolic system: by far the most important area is that of the popular mythologies of science to which I made reference above. In countless ways, New Agers give a spiritual twist to the symbolism of quantum mechanics and relativity theory (Hanegraaff, 1996: Chs 3, 6), various psychological schools (Hanegraaff, 1996: Chs 8, 15), sociological theories (Hanegraaff, 1996: Ch. 5), and so on. The common basis of New Age religion is therefore no longer the symbolic system of an existing religion, but a large number of symbolic systems of various provenance, bits and pieces of which are constantly being recycled by the popular media. Since there is no longer a commonly shared source of authority which indicates how all this information ts together within a religious framework, one is left to ones own devices to gure out the religious implications of available symbolic systems. At most, one may nd assistance in a continuing stream of popular literature (which, however, does not follow one clear direction either). As such, New Age is the manifestation par excellence of the secularization of religion: religion becomes solely a matter of individual choice, and detaches itself from religious institutions, i.e. from exclusive commitment to specic religions. Even more: what is considered to be real religion according to a New Age perspective is hardly compatible (if at all) with religious institutions. Here, as in many other things, New Age religion reveals itself as a characteristic heir of the Enlightenment. A consistent refrain in New Age sources is that people have nally managed to free themselves from the tyranny of religious power structures; religions are pictured as being based upon blind acceptance of dogmas, by which the faithful have been prevented from discovering the divinity that resides within themselves. The Symbolism of the Self and the Myth of its Evolution Whereas traditional spiritualities consisted of private interpretations of existing collective religious symbolisms, New Age religion exemplies the far more radical phenomenon of private symbolism. Only this latter phenomenon catches the essence of the new type of religious individualism foreseen by Emile Durkheim at the beginning of the 20th century. Now, in what respect does this view of New Age religion differ from existing ones? We have seen that New Age religion initially looks like a strange mixture of secular and non-secular elements. One certainly nds here a mythology of science, but defended for what seem to be essentially religious reasons; and one nds various elements of traditional religious symbolism, but presented as compatible with and actually validated by avant-garde science. Accordingly, some have perceived New Age religion as a direct product of contemporary secular society, while others have described it as an attempt to revive pre-secular religious traditions.4 The former option has been especially popular among sociologists, who have Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 tended to pay little attention to the historical roots of New Age religion in


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western religious traditions. The latter option is popular among critics who denounce New Age as a regression to pre-scientic obscurantism, as well as among defenders who see it as a revival of traditional wisdom; both of these perspectives have tended to neglect the modernity of New Age. From a historians point of view, both interpretations are one-sided: the specic modernity of New Age religion can only be understood by situating the phenomenon in a historical framework. It seems to me that a bridge can be built between existing disciplinary approaches by recognizing that New Age religion is based neither on the collective symbolism of one religious tradition or another, nor on the collective symbolism of secular society which I referred to as a mythology of science, but on the characteristically modernist tendency to move from collective symbolism to an eclectic private symbolism. The key to this phenomenon is the religious individualism and eclecticism which is so fundamental to contemporary culture as a whole. New Agers do not want to be told by others what they are supposed to believe. In principle, they take this attitude not only to religious ideas, but to scientic ones as well. Thus, they indignantly reject the so-called Cartesian/Newtonian paradigm, because this materialist and mechanicist conception of the universe is experienced by them as a stiing dogma which limits spiritual freedom. But this sensitivity to overtly dogmatic authority hardly protects them from submitting to the more subtle hegemonic claims implicit in the mythology of science as such. Accordingly, New Agers typically ght old science with new science, arguing that quantum mechanics proves the truth of a new paradigm which has room both for science and spirituality. It is highly uncharacteristic for New Age religion to suggest that science as such might have its limitations, which might make it simply irrelevant to the domain of the sacred.5 Specic mythologies of science (or paradigms) may be accepted or rejected in truly eclectic fashion, but the basic assumption that spiritual truth must be in harmony with scientic truth is hardly ever questioned. We are thus led to an important observation: there is no type of collective symbolismbe it religious or scienticwhich New Agers as a group accept as authoritative; but the mythical authority of science as such is nevertheless strongly in evidence. Now, the opposition of New Age against religious as well as scientic authoritarianism and dogmatism still remains on the level of reasoning; but I have been emphasizing that the coherence of a religious perspective is ultimately based on shared images and stories rather than on reasoned beliefs. What, then, are the fundamental common images and stories basic to the many private symbolic worlds found in New Age religion? For it is true that, in spite of all their individualistic emphasis, these myriad manifestations of private symbolism do have something in common. The solution to what looks like a paradox is almost predictable (at least once one knows the answer). Try to imagine a central, unifying symbolism that should be proper to a secular religiosity based on religious individualism. What else could it be, than a symbolism circling around that most individualistic of all concepts: the Self? Indeed, the Self can be seen as the symbolic center of New Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 Age religion (cf. Heelas, 1996); and its most universal story or myth

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describes how this Self undergoes a process of spiritual evolution. Although the unifying symbolism of the Self is basic to all forms of New Age religion, it cannot be regarded as a collective symbolism. We saw that collective symbolism typically binds the adherents of a religious perspective together as a community. The symbolism of the Self is perhaps a unique phenomenon, because whenever it is seriously made into the core and center of a religious movement, it practically prevents this movement from functioning as a religious collectivity! And this observation can be reversed as well: only a movement which regards religious individualism and freedom as essential will adopt the Self as its central symbol. It can therefore be no surprise that the so-called New Age movement still shows no signs of becoming a religion (in the sense of my denition) but remains an informal network. In developing a wide array of private symbolic worlds centering around the symbolism of the Self and the mythology of its evolution, New Age religion makes eclectic use of whatever materials it can nd. But the materials are not selected at random: they have to be in accordance with an underlying motivation. As I have argued elsewhere, the idea structure of New Age religion is based upon a deep-seated culture criticism, which rejects various forms of dualism and reductionism and seeks to develop holistic alternatives. A similar pattern of culture criticism is found in some other movements, such as the womens movement and the ecology movement. The New Age movement differs from them because its culture criticism is expressed in terms of a secularized esotericism. For the complete argument I have to refer the reader elsewhere (Hanegraaff, 1996: Ch. 16); here I merely wish to point out that the centrality to western esotericism of gnosisknowledge of the Self interpreted as knowledge of Godappears to provide a perfect foundation for the individualistic symbolism of the Self in New Age religion. I will illustrate the New Age symbolism of the Self with two examples. The rst is taken from the Seth messages already referred to. In an early book, Seth describes how the universe sprang forth from God, who is referred to as All That Is. He describes how, in a primary state of nonbeing, prior to all manifestation, all possible realities existed as unconscious dreams in the mind of All That Is. These dreams, as Seth says, yearned to be actual:
All That Is saw, then, an innity of probable, conscious individuals, and foresaw all possible developments, but they were locked within It until It found the means . . . The means, then, came to it. It must release the creatures and probabilities from Its dream. To do so would give them actuality. However, it also meant losing a portion of Its own consciousness . . . All That Is had to let go . . . With love and longing It let go that portion of Itself, and they were free. The psychic energy exploded in a ash of creation. [All That Is] found the way to burst forth in freedom, through expression, and in so doing gave existence to individualized consciousness. Therefore is It rightfully jubilant. Yet all individuals remember their source, and now dream of All That Is as All That Is once dreamed of them. And they yearn toward that immense source . . . and yearn to set It free and give It actuality through their own creations. (Roberts, 1970: 264268)

There are gnostic, neoplatonic, kabbalistic and theosophical echoes in this

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creation myth; but it also provides a metaphysical background to the extremely common New Age belief that we all create our own reality. Each conscious individual, according to Seth, is the manifestation of a creative Soul or Higher Self. And each Self is a spark of the great universal Self called All That Is (who, by the way, may in turn be a spark of an even greater Self). Thus, the Self is modeled on God; and the essence of both God and the Self is limitless creative expansion. The result is a world-afrming perspective in which each Self continually creates its own reality as naturally as breathing. Thus, according to Seth, my own Higher Self is at this very moment creating a reality in which IWouter Hanegraaffam writing an article on the New Age movement. And each of my readers lives in his or her self-created reality, which happens to be one in which he or she is reading an article on New Age. Now, it is basic to New Age religion that each self-created reality functions as a learning experience. Our limited personalities have become alienated from their own Higher Selves; and so they come to believe that the worlds created by their own Higher Selves are the only real world. Many of these self-created learning experiences are more or less painful and involve a degree of suffering (including, no doubt, the ordeal of working ones way through articles in academic journals!), for it is only in this way that souls can evolve and develop spiritually. The more they evolve, the more satisfying will be the realities they create for themselves. This is the basic outline of New Age symbolism of the Self and its evolution. The logic of this perspective inevitably leads to solipsism: each private Self quite literally lives enclosed in its own private symbolic world. The actress Shirley MacLaine, who became perhaps the most prominent representative of New Age in the 1980s, managed to scandalize even many of her New Age friends by openly drawing precisely this conclusion:
. . . since I realized I created my own reality in every way, I must therefore admit that I was the only person alive in my universe . . . And human beings feeling pain, terror, depression, panic, and so forth, were really only aspects of pain, terror, depression, panic, and so on, in me. If they were all characters in my reality, my dream, then of course they were only reections of myself . . . Now, that truth can be very humorous. I could legitimately say that I created the Statue of Liberty, chocolate chip cookies, the Beatles, terrorism, and the Vietnam war . . . I knew I had created the reality of the evening news at night. It was in my reality. But whether anyone else was experiencing the news separately from me was unclear, because they existed in my reality too. And if they reacted to world events, then I was creating them to react so I would have something to interact with, thereby enabling myself to know me better . . . If what I was proposing was true, would it also be true that I did nothing for others, everything for myself? And the answer was, essentially, yes. If I fed a starving child, and was honest about my motivation, I would have to say I did it for myself, because it made me feel better . . . I was beginning to see that we each did whatever we did purely for self, and that was as it should be. (MacLaine, 1987: 171173)

Shirley MacLaine indeed takes private symbolism to its logical conclusion. This permits me to briey touch upon the question of the ethical implications of New Age religion. In order to understand the momentous shift from Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 collective symbolism to the emergence of a private symbolism, and the new

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type of religion which has emerged from it, this aspect is of central importance. I noted above (p. 148) that collective images and stories make a powerful moral appeal to the individual, who is stimulated by them to conform to the communitys code of conduct. What, then, might happen to morality when collective symbolism gives way to private symbolism? I will not attempt to tackle all the ramications and implications of this question in the space of this brief article. The most important aspects of it may be brought out by concentrating on the contrast between the private symbolism of New Age, on the one hand, and the private interpretations of collective symbolism found in western esoteric traditions, on the other. I was originally inspired to explore the differences between collective and private symbolism by a casual remark made by Gershom Scholem in an interview, which might be put side by side with Durkheims remarks in the rst chapter of The Elementary Forms. As I have argued elsewhere (Hanegraaff, 1999b), Scholems remarks about Jewish esotericism apply equally to its Christian parallels:
Modern man lives in a private world of his own, enclosed within himself, and modern symbolism is not objective: it is private; it does not obligate. The symbols of the kabbalists, on the other hand, did not speak only to the private individualthey displayed a symbolic dimension to the whole world. (Scholem, 1976: 48)

The specically mystical symbolism which Scholem saw as basic to traditional esotericism was based upon the collective symbolism of Judaism; it had its center in a divine mystery which radically transcended human understanding but could nevertheless be experienced in the created world. With respect to morality, traditional mystical symbolism clearly obligates; it reects the understanding that human actions in the world must nd their justication (or not nd it) according to a normative system which is divinely instituted and may therefore not be fully accessible to human understanding, but the existence of which is not in any doubt. New Age, in contrast, has its logical center not in God but in the Self of each individual; and in principle there is no limit to the potential of the Self to unlock even the deepest mysteries of the universe. With respect to morality, New Agers claim that suffering exists for the purpose of spiritual education, but there does not exist such a thing as evil. This basic message is repeated over and over again: evil is an illusion, the belief in which merely reects spiritual ignorance (Hanegraaff, 1996: Ch. 10). Under such conditions, a concept of moral obligation to anything but ones own spiritual development becomes impossible ex principio. The implications are shocking if formulated in all clarity. Even acts of the most horric kind, such as the rape and murder of a child, are not evil or wrong: in essence, they constitute a learning experience for both parties, which their higher Selves have created together and in mutual collaboration. The victim participates in the crime no less than the criminal; and even the bereaved parents should eventually learn to see the murder of their child as a learning experience chosen by their own higher Selves.
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Social Compass 46(2)

Conclusion In the end, the foundational myth of New Age religionunlimited spiritual evolution in which the Self learns from its experiences in many self-created realitiesmust be recognized as deeply rationalistic.6 On the crucial assumption that evil does not exist and whatever is, is right, this spiritual evolutionism actually succeeds in providing a consistent, reasonable and conclusive explanation of suffering. The unquestionable explanatory strength of this foundational New Age myth is undoubtedly a main reason for its attraction for many contemporary people who wish to make sense of human existence. The hard core of fully convinced believers in its truth are enabled to consider themselves part of an invisible community of likeminded individuals, as distinct from the mass of human beings who have not yet discovered the true meaning of existence. Those who are not convinced, and must therefore consider themselves as belonging to the latter category, may perhaps be permitted to wonder whether the proclaimed arrival of the New Age would leave any room for common moral values. NOTES
This research was supported by the Foundation for Research in the Field of Philosophy and Theology in the Netherlands, which is subsidized by The Netherlands Organization for the Advancement of Research (NWO). 1. At rst sight my reformulation may look rather different from Geertzs famous ve-part denition of religion; for a detailed account, see Hanegraaff (1999a, forthcoming). 2. My use of the term manipulation might create misunderstandings. I do not intend to make a statement about the extent to which an individual is capable of dissociating or distancing him/herself from the various symbolic systems present in his/her cultural and social context. I defend neither an extreme view of the autonomous subject which is supposedly at full liberty to make its choices among the various symbolic systems which are made available to it in the religious supermarket of contemporary western society, nor a (no less extreme) view according to which this so-called subject is merely an exponent of supra-personal collective forces. Symbolic systems are products of human beings, who are in turn products of symbolic systems. The power of existing social structures is no less crucial than the capacity of individuals to make individual choices. In this context, the term manipulation means merely the empirical fact that people come up with personal and creative interpretations of existing symbolic systems. The question of where precisely lie the limits of their freedom of interpretation can be disregarded here. 3. Obviously, that religion is becoming more and more a matter for individual choice is hardly an original statement. I merely refer to Peter Berger (1980) for the fundamental point that, in contemporary western society, religion has become a subject of individual choice rather than a matter-of-course dimension of the symbolism available in everyday life, woven in the fabric of the common culture. We choose whether to become a member of a religion or, if we are raised in one, whether to remain a member. Such a religion may be a Christian church, but it may equally well be one of the innumerable new religious movements which ourish in secular society. And of course any existing (large or small) religion may spawn new spiritualities, some of which may in turn give rise to yet other new religions. This is Downloaded from at CAPES on May 23, 2009 how all religion functions in a pluralist secular society.

Hanegraaff: New Age Spiritualities as Secular Religion

4. 5.


For a more detailed discussion, see Hanegraaff (1996: 406410). But there are occasional exceptions such as Ken Wilber, discussed in Hanegraaff (1996: 176181). 6. See my comparison between New Age and the Enlightenment perspective represented by the character of Settembrini in Thomas Manns Magic Mountain (Hanegraaff, 1998b). The relation between New Age and the Enlightenment is discussed in Hanegraaff (1996: Ch. 15, Section 1, and passim).

Berger, P. (1980) The Heretical Imperative: Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Affirmation. London: Collins. Durkheim, E. (1995) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free Press. Firth, R. (1973) Symbols: Public and Private. London: Allen & Unwin. Geertz, C. (1966) Religion as a Cultural System, in Michael Banton (ed.) Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Religion. London: Tavistock Publications. Hanegraaff, W.J. (1996) New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden: E.J. Brill (US edn, Albany: SUNY Press, 1998). Hanegraaff, W.J. (1998a) The New Age Movement and the Esoteric Tradition, in R. van den Broek and W.J. Hanegraaff (eds) Gnosis and Hermeticism from Antiquity to Modern Times. Albany: SUNY Press. Hanegraaff, W.J. (1998b) Reections on New Age and the Secularization of Nature, in J. Pearson, R. Roberts and G. Samuel (eds) Nature Religion Today: The Pagan Alternative in the Modern World. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press. Hanegraaff, W.J. (1999a) Dening Religion in Spite of History, in J.G. Platvoet and A.L. Molendijk (eds) The Pragmatics of Defining Religion: Contexts, Concepts & Contests. Leiden: E.J. Brill, forthcoming. Hanegraaff, W.J. (1999b) La n de lsotrisme? Le mouvement du nouvel age et la question du symbolisme religieux, in Symboles et Mythes dans les mouvements initiatiques et sotriques (17me20me sicle). Paris: Arch Edit/La Table dEmeraude. Heelas, P. (1996) The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell. Loy, D.R. (1997) The Religion of the Market, Journal of the American Academy of Religion 65(2): 275-290. MacLaine, S. (1987) Its All in the Playing. Toronto: Bantam Books. Roberts, J. (1970) The Seth Material. Toronto: Bantam Books. Scholem, G. (1969) Religious Authority and Mysticism, in G. Scholem, On the Kabbalah and its Symbolism. New York: Schocken. Scholem, G. (1976) With Gershom Scholem: An Interview, in G. Scholem, On Jews and Judaism in Crisis: Selected Essays, ed. Werner J. Dannhauser. New York: Schocken.

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Social Compass 46(2) Wouter J. HANEGRAAFF is Research Fellow in the Department for the Study of Religions at the University of Utrecht, The Netherlands. He specializes in the history of so-called western esoteric traditions from the period of the Renaissance up to the present. He is the author of New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought (E.J. Brill, 1996/SUNY Press, 1998) and is at present working on a book on conceptualizations of magic. ADDRESS: Oudezijds Armsteeg 4-c, NL-1012 GP Amsterdam, The Netherlands. [email:]

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