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What is New Age

Cult Observer, 1993, Volume 10, No. 1

What Is “New Age?”

Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.

Question: I have been reading a lot about New Age techniques being introduced into the school system to our children.  I don’t know much about New Age philosophy, and so I would like to know how I can recognize potentially harmful techniques or procedures.

Answer: A recent research study examining experts’ opinions on the New Age Movement (NAM) concluded that the NAM “is an eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques that are rooted in Eastern mysticism, lack scientific evaluative data, and are promoted zealously by followers of diverse idealized leaders claiming transformative visions,” (Professor Arthur Dole, University of Pennsylvania, Cultic Studies Journal. Vol. 7, No. 1, 1990).

There are four main streams of thought within the NAM: 1) the “transformational training” stream, represented by groups such as est and Lifespring; 2) the intellectual stream, represented by publications such as The Tao of Physics; 3) the lifestyle stream, represented by publications such as Whole Life Monthly, and organizations such as the Green Party; and 4) the occult stream, represented by astrology, palmistry, crystal power, and the like.  It is important to keep in mind that within this diversity there is much disagreement.  Many intellectual new agers, for example, deride adherents of the occult stream of the new age.

The NAM, then, is too “fuzzy” and disparate to constitute a great conspiracy, as some have claimed.  Nor is it a cult, although cults exist within the NAM.  The NAM is, in essence, a world view, a paradigm, that has attained a high enough level of popularity to challenge the two world views that have been in competition through most of this century—the Judeo/Christian tradition and the secularscientific tradition.

The NAM, which some link historically to the Gnostic heresies of early Christianity, is similar to the secularscientific tradition in that its “sects” implicitly, if not explicitly, reject a personal god and the notions of sin and redemption.  The NAM is similar to traditional religions in that it posits the existence of a supernatural realm, or at least something beyond “atoms and the void.”  But it differs from both of these paradigms in that it denigrates reason and implicitly exalts magic.  The NAM adherent believes that spiritual knowledge and power can be achieved through the discovery of the proper techniques.  These techniques may be silly, as in crystal power.  But they may be very sophisticated, as in some forms of yoga.

The NAM’s overlapping the two established paradigms, the fundamental conceptual fuzziness that results from its mystical core, its missionary “pitch” of being the great synthesizer of religions (recall John Lennon’s song “Imagine,” particularly the verses about “imagine no religions”), and the public relations sophistication of its leading adherents (many of whom are wellknown entertainers) make the NAM very seductive.  Its concepts have permeated our culture in a quiet, almost invisible way.  For example, a Gallup survey of teenagers, several years ago, found that approximately onethird of churchgoing Christian teenagers believed in reincarnation, a fundamental new age belief.  Reincarnation is antithetical to Christianity. Yet, onethird of churchgoing Christian teenagers believe in it!

Reasons why New Age notions can insert themselves into our culture include these:

  • New Age mysticism can be very appealing to secularists who have had spiritual experiences, or who recoil from the “void” of “atoms and the void” because it enables them to explore their spiritual impulses without making commitments to traditional religions, which they have rejected. For the same reasons, it can appeal to religious seekers who, for whatever reason, have rejected traditional religions.
  • New age notions of the fundamental oneness of existence can be very appealing to religious persons troubled by the internecine quarrels of religions and denominations.
  • The New Age emphasis on techniques for spiritual development has given it a tremendous influence within humanistic psychology, which, in turn, has had a great influence in many aspects of our culture, including management training, education, and growthoriented workshops of traditional religions. Professor William Kirk Kilpatrick’s book Psychological Seduction describes and criticizes the changes brought about under the banner of humanistic psychology.

Once a person accepts certain new age concepts, he gradually becomes more willing to accept others, simply because the credibility of the entire network of ideas increases once he has attributed credibility to parts of the network.  Thus, acceptance of the mystical core of the NAM, i.e., “we are all god and duality is an illusion,” will tend to make one more receptive to the notion of reincarnation, especially if one begins associating with new agers who believe in reincarnation.

The fundamental assumption of American pluralism is that we must not critically examine our fundamental assumptions. Thus, it is taboo to discuss religion, except in the most innocuous ways. In the name of peaceful coexistence, we perform a lobotomy on the culture’s cerebral cortex! The ensuing “mush of nonthinking agreeableness” emasculates traditional religions, which have a strong core of rationality, and gives free reign to fringe groups, many of which fall within the purview of the new age movement.

Given this background, how can one “recognize potentially harmful techniques or procedures?” Ask the following questions about the “product” under review.

  • Does the product denigrate rationality?
  • Do its promoters avoid, neutralize, or condemn critical questions about the product?
  • Does the product make extravagant claims?  Does it seem too good to be true?
  • Is there a lack of scientific evidence for the product’s alleged effectiveness?  (Distinguish between scientific evidence and pseudoscientific evidence.)
  • Is the product packaged slickly?
  • Is the product associated with a bandwagon mentality? Or does it seem to be part of a fad?
  • Would the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell, the Pope, Billy Graham, and an orthodox rabbi agree that the product is nonsense or destructive?

If the answer to these questions tends to be “yes,” step back and take a closer look.

The author is Executive Director of the American Family Foundation (publisher of The Cult Observer) and editor of AFF’s Cultic Studies Journal. This article first appeared in the Savannah Parent (September 1992, page 3), to which we are grateful for permission to reprint it here.