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Gods Company--New Age Ethics

Cultic Studies Journal, 1994, Volume 11, Number 1, pages 29-36

God's Company: New Age Ethics and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International

Dr. Paul Heelas

Department of Religious Studies

University of Lancaster, England


The New Age movement, which is tied to the monist tradition of the East, is characterized by an expressive style of ethical evaluation, which, in contrast to the authoritative mode that depends on external prescriptions and proscriptions, looks within the person for wisdom because God is believed to lie within each person. The scandals and financial downfall of the Bank of Credit and Commerce International is attributed in large part to the consequences of this expressive ethic operating within the business world. "Management by intuition" resulted in a relative absence of formal controls and accountability systems, which certain managers exploited for personal financial gain. A question is raised about the possible long-term consequences of this expressive ethic for India, where Human Resource Development is increasingly formulated in terms of the expressive ethic.

It might seem extraordinary that this infamous bank has anything to do with New Age values. Before showing that this is indeed the case"and, furthermore, that such values and ethical "structuring" have almost certainly played a major role in the bank's downfall--I pave the way by introducing the distinctive style of ethical evaluation which reigns within the New Age "movement" of the contemporary West and elsewhere.

New Age Ethicality

The term "styles of ethical evaluation" is taken from Steven Tipton (1982), who constructs a typology of different ways of obtaining moral decisions. (The typology, it can be noted, is only contingently related to the particular context of what might be right or wrong.)

The expressive style is of immediate concern. In contrast to the authoritative mode, where moral decisions are made in terms of the commandments of external authority sources, such as the traditional Christian (that is, theistic) God, the expressive mode entails looking within for wisdom. An act is right, as Tipton puts it, because it is "the most ... honest expression of one's self" (1982, p. 283). In contrast to the utilitarian mode, which also has an individualistic foundationalism, the expressive style is not simply informed by what the agent might happen to want. An act is not right merely because it satisfies whatever the agent feels like having; an act is right only when it is informed by the truth that supposedly lies within. And this might not be the same act as that which is sought by the "superficial" or utilitarian mode of being.

The expressive ethic is central to the New Age precisely because the key belief of this "movement" is that God, or that which is perfect, lies within us all. The idea is that we have been contaminated by external sources of authority--our parents, our teachers, the capitalist system, and so on. Since these external inputs have let us down, preventing us from realizing our true potential, we must organize our lives by finding out our true nature, then acting accordingly. In short, being grounded in the true Self, the expressive ethic supposedly provides the sole basis for valid moral life. Externally grounded ethicality, including what the socially contaminated utilitarian aspect of the person might demand, is rejected on the grounds that this source is divorced from the natural wisdom that lies within.

To illustrate the ethic, consider a song written by one of the leading exponents of the New Age counterculture of the later 1960s, namely Bob Dylan. There is a clear shift away from external authority:

Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do the things that only you know best/Trust yourself/Trust yourself to do what's right and not be second guessed/Don't trust me to show you beauty when beauty may only turn to rust/If you need somebody you can trust/Trust yourself

Or consider an illustration taken from a rather different setting, namely a volume designed to help spread the message that the New Age is good for managers. Roger Evans and Peter Russell wax lyrical about the expressive ethic, discussed in connection with what they call “the voice within”:

[It is] that part of us that tries to tell us what is best. It is the inner knowing that tries to speak to us in our dreams. It is the intuition that leads us to call a friend at night at the right time ... it is this willingness to listen to our own inner worlds that is the mark of the creative manager. (1989, p. 153)

Finally, by way of introducing the ethic, it is important to note that it is by no means limited to the contemporary New Age. It is found in all those great religious traditions which have monistic (Self as God) tendencies. For example, Arthur Waley, commenting on the second chapter of the Tao te Ching, writes that "the Sage avoids all positive action, working only through the "power" of the Tao..." (1977, p. 144); and Julian Baldick, discussing the works of Tustari, one of the founders of Sufi doctrine, states:

The light of direct knowledge, which is in a man's heart, is clearly related to that of faith. The light of faith enables men to read otherwise invisible lines written in their hearts before their creation. (1989, p. 39)

A New Age Bank

If the contemporary New Age in the West is characterized by its monistic self-religiosity, then monistically oriented great traditions (Taoist, Sufi, Hindu, etc.) are themselves akin to the "New Age" in character. Indeed, in India today, for example, traditional Hindu spirituality is being reworked in terms of Western New Age themes, themes which have themselves been largely derived from the East. The result is New Age Hinduism. Much the same considerations explain why it is possible to ascribe the term "New Age" to the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI).

BCCI was founded in 1972 by a Pakistani financier, Agha Hasan Abedi, a man who has been described as a "self-professed poet and mystic." (There are some indications that leading figures have been influenced by the Sufi tradition, as well as, more recently, Findhorn-related ideas.) According to Abedi's grand design, the bank would "belong" to the countries of the Third World, serving as "a rallying point of thoughts and aspirations of the under-privileged." In a more grandiose vein, a close associate says that the aim is "to bring the dimensions of ethics and morality back into people's lives. We want to create the largest possible organization performing a service to humanity" (quoted by Lessem, 1989, p. 639). And in the fashion of much New Age thinking about capitalism, Abedi has affirmed his intention is to "harmonize business life with spiritual life" (p. 675).

In fact, a great deal of the language, and, it would seem, the practice of BCCI, has been of a kind that would be welcomed at places like Glastonbury or Findhorn. Ronnie Lessem uses a number of in-house publications, and interviews, to claim that the bank has taught "metaphysical management." Much the same picture is found in a document" the UK Regional Conference Report entitled The Vital Principle, The Source of Energy" which I obtained in the mid-1980s.

The first point is that "cosmic" self religiosity is well in evidence:

In management the priority is to know yourself. Only on the basis of self-knowledge can you interfuse with the cosmic energy system--that is to say, God. God is not an idea outside of you. He is part of our self-nature, part of our feeling.

The second point is that--at least in this spiritual ideology--the Self-orientation of BCCI meshes in with a strong emphasis on the expressive ethic. Thus the passage just cited continues,

When we feel that we can comprehend totality within us, that is the feeling of God. As soon as you know that feeling, everything becomes simple.

In other words, as the following extract from Lessem (who is citing Abedi) makes explicit, once managers are in touch with the Source within, good decisions naturally ensue:

Should we as corporate managers confine ourselves to empirical wisdom and its application? Or should we attempt to reach beyond that through the process of humility and interfusion of the streams of the energy psyche of individual human beings with the main stream of the cosmic energy psyche? We may ask ourselves if wisdom is merely human reason and perception confined within the prison of the human ego, or is wisdom nature, its laws and its principles. We in BCC have attempted to give precedence to nature. (Lessem, 1989, p. xvi)

God Running a Bank: New Age Expressivism in Practice

The "formal" corporate culture of BCCI, it is quite clear, was extraordinary. And according to Lessem (Reader in International Management at the City University Business School), its metaphysical principles "have turned BCC into a major, multinational bank, over the course of fifteen years" (1989, p. vxi). Just prior to the collapse of the bank in mid-1991, it can be observed, the institution was the fifth largest bank in the world, with assets of $20 billion, and was operating in some 70 countries.

But we all know what has been revealed during the last year or so, prompting Private Eye to describe the institution as "the Bank of Crooks, Cocaine and Impostors." And so to an interesting consideration: Could it be the case that self religiosity, in particular the role played by the expressive ethic in decision making, has contributed to the demise of BCCI?

On a general note, it is difficult to see how the expressive ethic--placing trust in the wisdom that lies within rather than in that which is encoded from without--can be relied upon in private life let alone in business. Even in the ultimate sphere, intuition is by no means a reliable guide in all eventualities. True, expressive ethic can work if there is a wise Self dwelling within. But it is surely problematic to ground a personal relationship, let alone a business empire, on such an act of faith.

Yet BCCI appears to have taken such an act of faith. We do not have many details of how BCCI was run before its collapse, but observations from Lessem, Thomas Thiss (1986), and my own informants indicate that those in charge attempted to transcend conventional ways of running a business empire. At least in measure, traditional authority systems have been rejected--supposedly to facilitate the revelation of natural wisdom, and allow it to have its say.

Thus according to Thiss,

Because it [the bank] values spontaneity, trust, initiative, intuition, and feelings, it minimizes structure to facilitate these qualities. There is very little formal planning, scheduling, and budgeting in the conventional sense. Plans evolve and schedules change with the continuous interaction of people. They call it “dynamic planning.” Sometimes things just seem to happen. (1986, p. 272)

According to Lessem,

People ... are viewed as "beings in progress," as self-directed sources of energy. They have no fixed position in the organizational tree. Formal reporting chains are non-existent. People belong, not by virtue of having a place in the formal structure, but by relating to the process of the flow. (1989, p. 579)

And according to The Vital Principle,

In BCC there is no hierarchy of management flowing from top to bottom.... We should not allow our minds or our feelings to be contained by the present situation.

The aim, then, has been to liberate the God-self from the authoritative impositions of conventional business. "interfusing" with Ultimacy, managers are supposedly able to operate (at least in measure) without relying on the normal props of commercial activity. After all, as Lessem puts it, "The moral, which is equivalent to the laws and principles of nature, governs all that is material" [emphasis mine](1989, p. 578).

What a way to run a bank! Thiss cites the example of an international officer, posted to Africa, who "sensed" that it was right to open an agency office (regional management was informed only after the event). The official then proceeded with more ambitious plans, this time being criticized for not having "interfused beforehand" (1986, p. 277). But would such inner "interfusion" really have made much difference? Surely the correct decision would have involved attending to the "external" logistics of the situation.

A major problem with management by intuition, relying on the Source that lies within, is that the way is paved for corruption. BCCI might have expected its managers to be honest to God, but many, it is clear, succumbed to the temptations which surrounded them in their wealth-creating environment. Precisely because of the (relative) absence of formal controls and accountability systems, precisely because of the freedoms afforded by the use of “intuition,” precisely because of the sums passing through BCCI, it has been only too easy for managers to succumb to their "base," that is utilitarian, drives.

I have argued elsewhere (1991, 1992) that self religiosity can function to benefit capitalist enterprise. Accordingly, it is possible that the rapid expansion of BCCI has owed something to the motivational consequences of this factor. However, with regard to the overall consequences of New Age application within BCCI, the monistic path within has played a--if not the--key role in bringing disaster. It explains why the bank may not have made a profit after provision for many years, if ever; it explains why there were so many opportunities for certain managers to feather their own nests; it explains why the New Age teaching of Abedi and his close associates has resulted in something as far removed from the spirit of the genuine" New Age as it is possible to imagine.

Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how New Age commerce progresses in its original homeland--India. In this country, HRD is increasingly being formulated in terms of monistic potential. At a high profile conference (Madras, 1991), for example, talk was of "Divine sources for human resource development." One senior participant emphasized that no one should forget "the divine source within us, and that God dwells within us." It is perhaps not without significance that Abedi continually looked to this nation while planning for the future.


Baldick, J. (1989). Mystical Islam. London: I. B. Tauris.

Evans, R., & Russell, P. (1989). The creative manager. London: Unwin.

Heelas, P. (1991). Cults for capitalism? Self religions, magic and the empowerment of business. In P. Gee & J. Fulton (Eds.), Religion and power (pp. 27B41). London: British Sociological Association, Sociology of Religion Study Group.

Heelas, P. (1992). The sacralization of the self and New Age capitalism. In N. Abercrombie & A. Warde (Eds.), Social change in contemporary Britain (pp. 139-166). London: Polity.

Lessem, R. (1989). Global management principles. London: Prentice-Hall.

Thiss, T. (1986). Real management: A developed alternative. In J. D. Adams (Ed.), Transforming leadership (pp. 271-278). Alexandria, VA: Miles River Press.

Tipton, S. (1982). Getting saved from the sixties. London: University of California Press.


This article is reprinted, with the permission of the author and editors, from the Autumn/Winter 1992 edition of Religion Today, a journal edited and published by the Centre for New Religions, King's College London, United Kingdom.


Dr. Paul Heelas teaches at the Department for Religious Studies at Lancaster University in Englan