IAHR Tokyo (March 2005)
The New Age and Contemporary Pagan Movements in Britain
Michael York
Bath Spa University College

The development of both New Age and contemporary pagan spirituality in the United Kingdom follow in the general tradition of the cultic milieu and new religious movements that have appeared in the British Isles since the nineteenth century. Among the earliest groups that make a presence within England if not also Wales and Scotland, there is the Salvation Army as an expression of the Christian holiness movement. A different kind of Christian or at least a quasi-Christian development is Spiritualism – early imported to Britain as part of the séance craze that first swept America from the 1850s and reaching a peak between 1880 and 1920. An offshoot of Spiritualism that took root early in the United Kingdom was Helena Petrovna Blavatksy’s Theosophy movement.

In contrast to the transcendental bias of Spiritualist/Theosophical thought, we have developing within England if not the other British countries as well such secular expressions as Deism and Auguste Comte’s Positivist Church of Humanity. But for alternative spirituality itself in Britain, Eastern influence in the wake of Spiritualism and Theosophy has appeared to be the most fruitful. During the first half of the twentieth century, both Alice Bailey and Krishnamurti broke from the Theosophical Society. Bailey founded the Arcane School and Lucis Trust; Krishnamurti, repudiating his incarnation as Maitreya, developed a non-dogmatic spiritual teaching that had a popular following in the United Kingdom. Another Hindu import in these same years to the British Isles was Vedanta, while from further a field and essentially Sufi-inspired was the Javanese Subud with its group receiving ritual known as the latihan. Also from the East or, in this case, the Middle East, Baha’i came to Britain at this time.

The East has continued to be a major resource for the expansion and development of British-based alternative spirituality. Among the major players of the post-1960 new religious movements (NRMs) in the United Kingdom, there is ISKCON (the International Society of Krishna Consciousness), Transcendental Meditation of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, Élan Vital (formerly Guru Maharaj Ji’s Divine Light Mission) and the Bhagwan Rajneesh movement (now known as the sannyasins of Osho). While Eastern spirituality has continued to augment in Britain in the likes of the Brahma Kumaris, the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, the New Kadampa Tradition of Tibetan Buddhism (Geshe Kelsang Gyatso) and the Prema Sai Baba Organisation and even in such theosophical and/or ufo-oriented groups as the Church Universal and Triumphant, George King’s Aetherius Society and Benjamin Creme’s Share International Foundation that awaits the imminent reappearance of Maitreya, contemporary with the earlier NRMs in Britain are the Christian-based The Family (formerly Children of God and known notoriously through their `flirty fishing’ stratagem) and L. Ron Hubbard’s Church of Scientology. This last prefigures much of the diffused yet popular Human Potential Movement (HPM) in the likes of est (Erhard Seminars Training), Exegesis, the Emin network, the School of Economic Science (founded in 1937) and the Findhorn Foundation established in Forres, Scotland.

Another and more indigenous spiritual tradition to England has grown out of Freemasonry and Ceremonial Magic, namely, the Wicca or witchcraft of Gerald Brosseau Gardner (1884-1964). It was, however, only with the rescinding of Britain’s anti-witchcraft laws in 1951 that Wicca has been allowed to develop as a legal practice. To date, it remains the dominant form of contemporary Western paganism both in its country of origin and abroad. Essentially as what may be described as a pagan magical mystery religion, Wicca, the various spin-offs (such as Alexandrian and Georgian Wicca as well as Shan Jeyran’s Shamanic Craft) and modern witchcraft in general often have the reputation of autonomously inventing their tradition and combining elements from other traditions on an ad hoc and eclectic basis. To the degree that this occurs, they are frequently confused with New Age license. Theologically, New Age and paganism/Neo-paganism are generally distinct. On the other hand, inasmuch as they justify all behaviour through self-legitimation alone, they reveal similarities.

Wicca and spiritual witchcraft are now part of a broader movement known as paganism. In the United Kingdom, other pagan spiritualities include Druidism, Asatru or Odinism, many of the magic(k)al traditions, the Fellowship of Isis and a more generic form of Celtic spirituality. While Wicca remains the predominant form of contemporary paganism within Britain, interestingly, and according to the figures released by the Office of National Statistics concerning the United Kingdom’s 2001 census,[1] more people now identify as `pagan’ than as `Wicca’, namely, 30,762 versus 7,253, that is, the ratio of people identifying simply as pagan to those who identify as Wiccans or witches is 4¼. The next largest pagan grouping is Druidism with 1,657 – followed by pantheists at 1,603. The remaining pagan identities that the census reveals are Celtic pagans at 508, animists at 401, Heathens (278), Asatru (93), ancestor worshippers (98), Vodun (123), occultists (99) and Santeria at 21. 1,525 people identified as Satanists – a group that is often included with the pagans but which the pagans themselves as a rule deny and claim to be a Christian development or inversion.

Another interesting finding among the census results is that only 906 people identified as New Age. This is less than one thousand in the United Kingdom, although if we were to add the 234 who claim allegiance to the Native American Church and the 158 who identify with mysticism, we have a total of nearly 1300. New Age, however, needs to be approached as a special case – one that is unlikely to reveal itself among census figures. It is less an identity as such as it is a broad and relatively diffuse spiritual option. Those who study New Age as a sociological phenomenon have long been plagued with the problems of attempting to determine who is and who is not. There is no coordinating New Age movement, no acknowledged leaders for the movement as a whole, and no register of membership. If a person attends the occasional lecture on `healing sounds and songs’, on `embracing change’, on holism, the principles of success, spiritual awakening, tantra, `healing chronic fatigue syndrome’ or a workshop on inner healing, overtone singing, sensual awakening, angels, shamanic journeying, Reiki or on NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), should such a person be counted as a New Ager? How often need an individual attend such lectures and workshops before being identified with the New Age? There are no clear answers to these questions – a situation, in fact, that is complicated to the extent that as a chief expression of the contemporary trend toward religious consumerism, New Age broadly cuts across the traditional and non-traditional religious spectrums alike. What we can discern from the UK census figures, however, is that it is more important for pagans to identify as pagans, witches or druids (97% of the pagan total) than it is for someone to identify as New Age. If we include the pantheists among the pagans, there is a total of 42,896 or 33% times the number of people who self-identify as New Age.

Considering pagan and New Age together, we have a contemporary alternative spirituality figure for the United Kingdom of 44,430. This compares with 40,341,045 who identify as Christian or, including the Jehovah’s Witnesses (70,651), a Christian total of 40,411,696. It also compares to the 8,668,750 who claim no religious identity, the 1,589,183 who are Muslim, the 558,342 who are Hindu, the 336,179 who are Sikh, the 267,373 who are Jewish, the 149,157 who are Buddhist and the 159,167 who are any other religion.[2] Nevertheless, the pagan/New Age alternative spirituality numbers are greater than the Spiritualists (32,539), Rastafarians (4,703) or Baha’i (4,890) – or, in fact, these three together (that is, 44,430 vis-à-vis 42,132). As the census question concerning religion was a voluntary one, eight percent of the respondents chose not to state their religion. The `no religion’ category is perhaps the most controversial. In the tallied figures, these were made to include the `Nones’, the Jedi Knights, the Agnostics, Atheists, Heathens and those who checked `Other’ but did not write in any religion. Two problems here come immediately to mind. The first is that Heathen is now the preferred religious identity label of many pagans who follow the Northern Tradition – whether Asatru, Odinism, Vanatru or seiđr. The second concerns the Jedi Knights of the Star Wars films origin. Admittedly, many if not most of these represent a protest vote that had been encouraged by an Internet campaign, but the appeal of a chivalrous galactic order of warriors who fight evil, corruption and pollution to New Age religiosity cannot be denied.

The UK census figures, consequently, are only broad indicators. With over four million missing papers (4,010,658) – accounting for over ten percent of the whole, the numbers are provisional at best. Moreover, the Scottish figures allow only for the options of pagan and Wicca, whereas, in Northern Ireland, the categories were simply Catholic, Protestant, other and none. The Northern Ireland `other’ category of 6,500 would include Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs. But overall, the census figures do indicate that “For every Pagan there are over 38 Muslims and nearly 1,000 Christians!”[3] But even this last must take into consideration the frequent reluctance – even in a governmental census – for pagans to be open about their religiosity. As Graham Miller puts this, “there is a level of paranoia about declaring your religion when that faith has been persecuted.”[4]

In the time that I have left, I would now like to address the relationship between contemporary Western paganism and New Age in the United Kingdom. As I have tried elsewhere to establish, the New Age movement as a broad religiosity follows in the traditions of Gnosticism and Theosophy.[5] According to Bednarowski, the New Age is largely an updating of Theosophy using a modern idiom.[6] The other central input into New Age derives from the American New Thought movement. Whereas in the United States, such institutionalised expressions as Unity, Religious Science and Divine Science serve as vehicles and often important nexi for the dissemination of New Thought/New Age ideas, in Great Britain New Thought does not appear in denominational form but more broadly simply as New Age spirituality and more specifically in such workshop venues as A Course in Miracles study groups.

Many sociologists and religion commentators on both sides of the pond and elsewhere have tended to lump New Age and Neo-paganism – if not paganism in general – together under the single New Age rubric. Among these we might note Gordon Melton, Paul Heelas, M.D. Faber, Lowell Streiker, John Newport, Peter Spink, Harold Bloom and Alex Wright among others.[7] For instance, Heelas is quite content to place witches, Wiccans, Druids, shamans and other modern-day pagans within New Age identity[8] – despite the often vehement distancing and denial from the New Age by most contemporary British pagans. Similarly, William Sims Bainbridge can sweepingly assert that “The forms of religious movement most closely associated with the New Age are occult, neopagan, and Asian.”[9] What cannot be denied is that British New Agers and pagans are both consumers within the contemporary spiritual supermarket – generally sampling and selecting on a basis of what `feels’ right to the selector. But paganism tends to eschew concern with what the New Ager frequently refers to as the `Higher Self’.

More importantly, however, and in what has generally given me difficulty in grouping these two contrasting spiritualities together, the movements can be distinguished on theological grounds. As New Age has comes to find its own voice and articulation, the religiosity that is put forward is essentially gnostic. The theosophical bias of New Age in which nature is an illusion, a veil to be penetrated, is everywhere detectable. The New Age goal is to return to a primary state of grace, Teilhard de Chardin’s `omega point’. This is gnosticism plain and simple. The body is a tomb (soma sema) from which to seek escape for something altogether more transcendental. On theological grounds, denying that there is an important contrast between New Age and paganism is similar to scholars such as Basil Hall Chamberlain, Allan Grappard, Kuroda Toshio, Murakami Shigeyoshi and Brian Bocking who maintain that Shinto is a completely artificial religion created with the Meiji Restoration of 1868 and the shimbutsu bunri or dissociation of Shinto and Buddhist divinities.[10] Such a contention ignores the historic distinction between the this-worldly theology of Shinto and related folk religiosity or minkan shinkô, on the one hand, and the other-worldly theology of Buddhism on the other – a distinction that is comparable between this-worldly paganism and other-worldly New Age.

But having said all this, the work of Dominic Corrywright into both the UK-based Schumacher College on the south coast of Devon near Totnes and the English periodical Resurgence concerning the deep ecology of sustainability and renewable resources, reveals a dimension hitherto either neglected or not readily apparent within British New Age circles. Corrywright’s specific interest is network spirituality, and he employs a “web model” to understand what elsewhere is more broadly formulated by Luther Gerlach and Virginia Hine as the segmented-polycentric-integrated-network or SPIN. But the point he uncovers and that I wish to emphasise is the relationship he finds between nature and the divine in such residential course centres as the Findhorn Foundation, the Schumacher College, Monkton Wyld Court and Gaia House, if not elsewhere as well. Moreover, beside such periodicals as Resurgence, New Age journals from North America that are popular or appear in United Kingdom centres (Kindred Spirit, Positive News, The Ecologist, Open Exchange, What is Enlightenment?, Natural Awakenings, the New Age Journal for Holistic Living and so forth) equally express this New Age turning toward planetary well-being, that is, to something that has been traditionally much more central to contemporary Western pagan concern. Whilst some of these journals are more exclusively centred on environmental reform, others are more typically New Age in focusing on the evolution of enlightenment. All the same, they are nonetheless devoting more and more space to Green politics and ecological news. And following in the wake of James Lovelock and Lynn Margulis, key British New Age spokespeople such as Satish Kumar, William Bloom and Rupert Sheldrake have come to stress environmental consciousness as an integral part of spirituality. They are joined by such global representatives as Marilyn Ferguson, Matthew Fox, Starhawk, Stephen Gaskin and John Robbins among others. Satish Kumar captures the shifting trend when he replaces the standard New Age triad of mind, body and spirit with one comprising `soil, soul and society’ – thereby introducing the notion of what he refers to as “reverential ecology” that focuses on the social and spiritual dimensions of Alternative spirituality. As Corrywright puts it, “The addition of solidity – in soil and society – provides a foundation for the non-anthropomorphic approach to the environment.”

 `Generic’ paganism, by contrast, and unlike the simply `nominal’ paganisms of Pythagoreanism, Platonism, Neo-Platonism, the Cabbala, etc., affirms nature as real, not mâyâ, and as something intrinsically and immanently sacred. Consequently, the millennial expectations of New Age must be understood apart from New Age’s unresolved dialogue with Neo-paganism but within its own unresolved dialogue which parallels the historical struggle between Christianity and Gnosticism.

But though Gnosticism and paganism and their more contemporary equivalents in New Age and Neo-paganism are theological opposites, they are, vis-à-vis mainstream and dominant Christianity, natural allies. Much of the current confusion between the two orientations, in fact, is most likely a result of this alliance that, by default, pits both traditions into the position of `outsider heresies’ from the perspective of the canonical British spirituality that belongs to the Judaeo-Christian West. The New Age itself may be seen as part of the currently popular self-help industry to which an often diffuse and incidental spiritual vocabulary has been added, intuitive and non-rational principles have been exalted, and dualism and reductionism have been repudiated. Typical features might include yoga, meditation, body work, use of crystals, tarot and astrology, but more broadly New Age is simply an extension of the tradition of Western esotericism. Hanegraaff (1996) cites five basic elements as characteristic of the New Age movement: (1) a weak variety of this-worldliness, (2) holism, (3) evolutionism, (4) psychologising religion and secularising psychology, and (5) expectation of a coming New Age which will counteract the loss of emotionality, sensitivity and spontaneousness in modern Western society. New Age champions the inalienable sovereignty of the divine individual and the corresponding subjective ability to create one’s own universe.

Consequently, the division of New Age and paganism in the United Kingdom on the basis of respective attitudes toward the earth is becoming increasingly questionable. Whilst a theological distinction is discernible in principle, in the actual play-out of practice, any gap on the ecological front appears to be continually diminishing. Beyond all those components that we have come to associate with or as the New Age phenomenon – including Hinduism, Theosophy and New Thought, the central focus is that of healing. Restoring balance and health to the body and the mind are well-known emphases within the Human Potential origin of New Age, and this undoubtedly extends to the more spiritualised concern with the soul. But as British New Age continues to mature, its centre of attention would appear to be expanding if not shifting steadily toward the healing of the planet as well. In other words, despite its gnostic and transcendental legacies, remedial effort to the degree that it is fully honest comes to recognise the role of the environment in the well-being of both the individual and the community of which he or she is a part. And, moreover, to the degree that the ecological becomes a growing priority within the New Age matrix, the fusion of its agenda with that of the pagan is increasingly evident.

But that being said, I am still increasingly struck by the fuzzy, permeable boundaries between New Age and Neo-paganism. In a 1994 U.K. paper entitled “Astrology: From Pagan to Postmodern?,” Patrick Curry seeks to understand the hostility of the Church to astrology. He concludes that the monism and universalism of Christian monotheism are anathema to the pluralism and relativism of astrology. Curry (1994:71) speaks of the astrological commitment “to a multiplicity of gods or truths, and … to the ineradicable importance of personal participation, perspective and context.” And he concludes that as “a pluralist and relativist practice, astrology really is pagan, irrational and superstitious.”

What has struck me most in Curry’s analysis, however, has been his recognition that pluralism is transforming the fundamental premises of modernism – thereby affecting such present-day spiritualities in the United Kingdom as the New Age and Neo-pagan movements. The one common theme found in both contemporary Western paganism and the New Age movement(s) is that there is no single authority of truth. For one, neither orientation possesses any decisive mechanism for determining who is and who is not a member. Truth, belief and practice are to be decided by the individual alone. Consequently, both Neo-paganism and New Age have emerged as spiritualities indicative of the pluralism of contemporary times.

Consequently, my current way of thinking is now to see New Age thought as a sub-sect of pluralistic paganism. Whilst there are many who would disagree – especially among those who identify as pagan (e.g., Rowan Fairgrove who considers that `new age’ is correctly pronounced to rhyme with `sewage’), there is no provision within contemporary paganism that is authoritative. The two spiritualities share an emphasis on self-determination, possess an inclination toward appropriation of ideas and practices from other religions, are anti-bureaucratic and institutional, seek spiritual restoration, the experience of enchantment and exploration of innovative practices, and, increasingly, an increased cherishing of ecological recovery and balance. If, as according to Hanegraaff,  New Age this-worldliness is weak, it ultimately differs from contemporary paganism’s strong this-worldliness essentially by degree rather than by kind. Furthermore, the two orientations are together united in their quest for recognition and survival vis-à-vis both traditional mainstream Christianity and any tendency toward a scientistic monopoly. In New Age expectation, the New Age itself is an idea whose time has come. In its pagan context, it is a multitudinous plurality that is in its very foundation democratic in principle.



[1] http://www.statistics.gov.uk//focuson//religion/default.asp

[2] The official figures for non-main religions in England and Wales are 151,000. Of these, the largest is the Spiritualists (32,000) followed by the pagans (31,000), Jains (15,000), Wicca (7,000), Rastafarians (5,000), Baha’i (5,000) and Zoroastrians (4,000). The population for the United Kingdom as a whole is 57,103,927.

[3] Graham Miller, “Census Results for Religion Analysed,” Pagan Dawn 154 (Imbolc/Spring, 2005:17).

[4] Ibid.

[5] York (1995).

[6] Bednarowski (1989).

[7] E.g., Wright, Alex. “New Age message for Christians.” The Guardian (Saturday 15 March 2003) – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentary/story/0,3604,914681,00.html

[8] Heelas (1996).

[9] Bainbridge (1997:386).

[10] York, Michael, “Invented Culture / Invented Religion: The Fictional Origins of Contemporary Paganism,” Nova Religio September (1999:135-146).