Nashville, Tennessee
10 November 1996


Post-Media Achievement and Millennial Blood-Groundings in the New Belle Époche: Whatever Happened to the New Age?

Michael York
Bath College HE
Academy for Cultural & Educational Studies



This paper shall address the current status of the New Age Movement with particular emphasis on Britain. As the New Age becomes increasingly less newsworthy, it simultaneously appears to be adopting a more mainstream position. In the process, however, its more Neo-pagan component and/or associate assumes a more marginal situation - bringing it by default into a proximity with Evangelical/Pentecostal groups, popular misperceptions of satanic `cults' and the violent fringe sector in general. Comparing the increase in suicides during the 1890s as well as the apparently normal social necessity for `grounding' through blood sacrifice, the question arises whether the current phenomena such as the AUM Shin Reikyo, the Solar Temple, Waco, etc. are particularly unusual or are instead part of a normal social atavistic scapegoating response. The British Neo-pagan-sponsored Road Bypass Protest Movement may be another manifestation of this `need' for conflict and the possibility of carnage which at the same time distances Neo-paganism from the `airy-fairy-ness' of New Age through a blood-grounding.

* * * * *

Whether it is true or not, I have heard that there was a marked increase in the number of suicides during the 1890s as the turn of the century approached. My source was a secondhand report of a media article. The explanation given was apparently the psychological anxiety that was created in general as the year 1900 approached. The belle époche is variously understood as the 1890s or as the whole period preceding the First World War. It was characterized as a time of settled and comfortable life - at least by those who would have been making self-descriptions of the day.

Today, of course, we are facing not just a century change but a millennial change. If our era is not to be described as particularly settled, it is at least relatively comfortable - comfortable for those who are considered `the haves' and perhaps the service or working class which serves the more affluent. It is of course not a particularly comfortable time for the homeless whose numbers appear to be increasing constantly in Britain as well as in America. But then once again even this point might be arguable if the homeless of our day were to be compared with those of another time.

We would also tend not to consider our times as particularly settled - the Oklahoma City bombing, the World Trade Center bombing, TWA Flight 800 and the Centennial Park explosion during this year's Olympics in Atlanta. Britain too must face the unexpected havoc caused by sudden destruction now that the IRA Ceasefire has collapsed, and the cities of London and Manchester have experienced the consequences of this collapse. But with this being said, perhaps our times could still be described as largely settled ones: our transport systems function (despite the occasional industrial actions on British Rail or the London Underground), food is still available in our Safeways, Sainsburys, Waitroses and other supermarkets, post is still delivered and so forth. In fact, life for the vast majority of us in the West regardless of which side of the Atlantic we are on probably functions more ubiquitously and efficiently than it has during any other preceding period of human history.

But the question of whether our times can be described as a new belle époche or not is not my central concern. I am instead wishing to focus on the possibility of collective psychic anxiety that may be occasioned by cultural concern over the end of the millennium. With its Christian heritage, the West has always been under the apocalyptic specter in face of a possibly imminent Second Coming of Christ. Today, as prophecies as divergent as the Mayan, Chinese, Hindu, Native American, Nostradamus, Edgar Cayce, and the countercultural are more and more seen to converge with the precession of the equinoxes, the calamity inherent in predictions of major earth changes and the like face us all whether we believe in such possibilities or not.

My question then is that if it were true there was indeed an increase in the number of suicides in the 1890s, is this true again or even more so today? Since I am uncertain concerning the statistics on the individual level, I would at least like to pose the question whether the greater number of mass violences through suicide and/or murder that we detect in the general observation of religious and particularly new religious developments might fulfill some atavistic social need for scapegoating and cathartic release in times of increased anxiety?

British columnist Charles Leadbeater refers to John Leslie's book The End of the World and speaks of `Endism' as the most pervasive and powerful ideology of the late 1990s. According to Damian Thompson, author of The End of Time, "Apocalyptic belief in the End of Time appeals most to people who are disoriented, whose identity is under threat." While millenarianism comes from the Book of Revelations, millenarianism is not just a belief that the world may end at any time, but that there will be a violent struggle between the forces of good and those of evil. Sectarian paranoia stretches at least back to the 1970s with the astonishing end of Jonestown in Guyana, but the more recent and spectacular incidents of the Branch Davidians, the Solar Temple and AUM Shin Reikyo in which large numbers of people are murdered, commit murder or both raise the possibility that perhaps we have a collective need for sacrifice which is played out frequently through the New Religions.

We no longer have the public forms of human sacrifice which were once popular is certain pre-Christian cultures. Inquisitions are now `politically incorrect'. And the ordinary deaths by road accident or hold-up and such are too commonplace to fulfill the bloodlust need which is perhaps demanded by our social mind and which once was met through such established institutions as the gladitorial games and Christians-to-the-lions spectaculars in ancient Rome. Current terrorisms might answer this apparent scapegoating need in some sense, and the terrorisms committed either by or to new religious movements can be seen as part of the same spectrum. In some cases, the violence is performed by the group. In others, it is carried out by the state against the group. And in yet other cases, violence could take the form of vigilantism - such as perhaps the Thai Buddhist murders in Phoenix in 1992.

In contrast to such more esoteric and introversionist sects, there is a different phenomenon which conforms more to Gerlach and Hine's SPIN model of which I have spoken elsewhere. In essence, the SPIN or segmented-polycentric-integrated-network is, according to Gerlach and Hine, a means of survival in an unsupportive or even hostile environment. The New Age and Neo-pagan Movements are largely illustrations of these kinds of networks in a religious or spiritual dimension which operate in today's Western world. Along with Fundamentalist Christianity, New Age and Neo‑paganism are different ways ‑ or at least have different ways ‑ of handling the perceived millennium shift.

However, I wish to propose that in the latter part of the 1990s New Age is no longer considered newsworthy. Instead, New Age has come to appear to be indicative of a more general postmodern transformation of spirituality. This can be witnessed, for instance, in the mainstream profile of the Unity Church in Naples, Florida as much as it can through the general acceptance of psychotherapies, spiritualism and even vegetarianism in Bath, England.

However, as the New Age seems to go off more and more into a transcendental or gnostic framework, with regard to collective social needs, there is a counter tendency toward grounding which is answered in part through (Neo‑)pagan theology or religious expression and in part through the cults of violence such as the Solar Temple and Waco. Nothing seems to be more grounding than death ‑ especially death which involves blood and or violence. Consequently, and to repeat my hypothesis, the emergence of suicidal and murdering groups ‑ or groups which are murdered ‑ might reflect an atavistic social need in response to millennial fevour ‑ a sort of scapegoating device.

Paganism, however, falls somewhere between the divergent extremes of New Age and (Self‑)destructive Sectarianism. But although it plausibly has practical agendas and certainly by‑and‑large falls short of mass suicide or murder syndromes, it's ecological protest nevertheless results in the spillage of blood ‑ usually its own and usually at the hands of the authorities against which the protest is directed.

Contemporary paganism is, by and large, nowhere as extreme as such sectarian and more radical manifestations like the Branch Davidians or AUM Shin Reikyo. On the other hand, in Britain, the pagan's usual complaint against and dismissal of New Age is that it is too airy-fairy. Pagans by contrast like to and are willing to get their hands dirty. Their rituals are frequently earth-oriented and thereby `grounding' in the sense that New Age's trance channellings and attunings are not. So in the broad range of contemporary, non-mainstream, unorthodox or unconventional, and marginal religious behavior, I would place the more sectarian extremists on one end and the more New Age conformists on the other - with the Neo-pagans somewhere between the two.

Serious and occasionally more mass violence so far manifests among the extremists. New Age in its own way is becoming increasingly less non-conventional and increasingly more accepted and integrated into both American and British generally accepted and acceptable lifestyles. In fact, according to Donald Reeves, the rector of London's St. James's Piccadilly, the venue for the popular New Age Alternatives Program, New Age is now worldwide some 90 million strong.[1] At the same time, and in contrast to the `extremists', New Age has in general always eschewed violence. While a group such as the Church Universal and Triumphant, ostensibly New Age, may prepare - and prepare even massively - for Armageddon, and where, by being headquartered in Montana, gun permits and hunting rifles are more the norm than the exception, Elizabeth Clare Prophet's following nonetheless probably still conforms more to the general New Age orientation toward non-violence than otherwise.

Neo-pagans would also eschew violence as a general rule, and in Britain at least, the majority of the contemporary pagan community prefers a vegetarian diet - if not, in many cases, a vegan one as well. In Bath, England, for instance, the vegetarian mode has expanded to the extent that virtually all restaurants offer several vegetarian courses if not an entire vegetarian menu as well. This non-carnivorous transformation of public culinary habits appears in large part to be the joint influence of the expanding New Age and Neo-pagan communities in Britain.

On the other hand, in Britain, paganism is much less mainstream or adaptable and/or assimilated to the consensus lifestyle. Predominantly, British neo-pagans remain marginal both in spiritual preference and in socio-economic status. While this is indeed changing - especially among the academic community, Neo-pagans in the United Kingdom generally range from the misnamed (by the media) `New Age Travellers' to distinctively and often flamboyantly dressed former hippies, the unemployed, artists and social drop-outs and economic marginals. But since, in contrast to New Agers, it is closer to the earth as a rule, its very physicality brings the Neo-pagan closer to the blood-atoning extremists than to the transcendental, all-is-light New Agers. A foremost instance of Neo-pagan spirituality in Britain is to be seen in the emergence of the Dragon Environmental Group which combines what is labelled `eco-magick' (that is, Neo-pagan rituals) and ecological protest action. The recent campaign against the Newbury by-pass was largely inspired by Dragon sentiment and maintained through Dragon participation and input. And while not as extreme as the blood-letting or `blood-groundings' of the sectarian extremists which result in mass suicide or mass murder, pagan protest nevertheless often results in blood spillage.

In a paper delivered to the Lancaster University's Nature Religion Today conference earlier this year, Bronislaw Szerszynski addressed the issue of "The Varieties of Ecological Piety" (Szerszynski, 1996). Its `Sectarian' form Szerszynski sees primarily in "the new radical disorganisations such as the anti-roads groups and Earth First" (Szerszynski, 1996:4). He claims that "the smallness and exclusiveness of sectarian groups fosters a need for personal displays of worthiness of membership through displays of virtue and commitment..." Moreover, "road protesters are encouraged to follow the leadings of the Earth spirit ... in their actions and avowals, rather than following an organisational line. ...there is a kind of urgency and universality about the roads protesters piety - captured in their use of the phrase `If not you who, if not now, when?'" (Szerszynski, 1996:5).

The Dragon Environmental Group emerged in the early 1990s as a grassroots organization dedicated as an ecological protest movement. Headquartered in London, individual chapters (Cardiff, Coventry, Manchester, Nottingham, Essex, Leeds, etc.) remain totally autonomous and are encouraged in their position to know what is needed locally. The movement's stated aims are:

(1) [To] increase general awareness of the sacredness of the earth.
(2) [To] encourage pagans to become involved in conservation work.
(3) [To] encourage pagans to become involved in environmental campaigns.
(4) [To] develop the principles and practice of magical and spiritual action for the environment (which we call `ecomagick').[2]

The Green Dragon wing developed in response to the Tree Planting Day sponsored by the Islington Council. Dragon and Green Dragon have forged links with the US-based Tree Spirit in its efforts to protect forests and with both the Save the Redwoods League and the Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters Forest. Additional networking by Dragon includes the `save the brown bear habitat' in the Val d'Aspe of the Pyrenees, the tribal peoples protection charity Survival International, and the Ogoni Community Association.

On its homefront, Dragon took an active role in the demonstrations against Britain's Criminal Justice Bill. Dragon admitted that the

"Riots at the recent demonstration may not have helped our cause; reports coming in to Dragon suggest that they were the combined result of bad policing and a minority of violent troublemakers, some of whom knew next to nothing about the CJB and were there purely to stir things ... Police responded to [the] violence by a small minority by targetting the peaceful, law-abiding majority."[3]

According to the human rights organization, Liberty, who were also present, there were "a number of apparently unprovoked assaults on individuals by Police with truncheons."[4]

Apart from campaigns against an open cast mine and a toxic waste dump in Wolverhampton, the most prominent Dragon martialing has been the Roads Bypass Protest. These protests have included the M11 in Munstonia, the New Thanet Way A299 in Whitstable, the proposed Greenwich Bypass and the Oxleas Woods efforts, but the most recent largescale involvement has been the Newbury Bypass. Combining forces with Friends of the Earth and backed by over 10,000 local inhabitants, Dragon joined the ad hoc organization known as The Third Battle of Newbury. The general tactic in the saving of trees is the construction of tree-houses and `benders' or tent-like constructions using bent scrub-brush. After the local council gave the go-ahead for the removal of protestors, the BBC's Radio Four reported this past April nearly 200 arrests within the first two days alone.

In his 1996 book, Senseless Acts of Beauty (Verso), George McKay refers to the `practical paganism' of the Dongas road protest tribe which he considers more aptly described as `political paganism'. University of Keele's Benjamen Seel admits

"There have certainly been many cases of injury during the road protest campaigns by such paganesque groups. Many protesters have been extremely violently evicted from tree-houses. There have also been some cases of trees being cut down with protesters still in them. There have been many broken limbs on the protesters side. There was a case earlier this year at Newbury where a chainsaw operator working for the sheriff was severely injured by a falling tree due to carelessness in their operations."[5]

Seel also mentions the 1989 `battle of the beanfield':

"Riot Police were set upon a field full of [pagan-]type `New Age travellers'. They destroyed completely many vehicles, beating men, women and children. I've seen some film of it, and it is seriously disturbing. It's basically a black army of fully armoured riot police smashing travellers' vehicles up and dragging [people] out of vehicles before beating them with truncheons. A BBC cameraman who recorded the event said that they were the worst scenes of violence by police he had ever seen, abroad as well as Britain. The official BBC tapes were taken by police for use as evidence in trial, but inadvertantly `lost' before trial!"

Paganism in Britain is frequently a rather messy affair.

To say, however, that such violence springs from an atavistic social need for blood spillage due to an increase in millennium tensions is of course merely an hypothetical contention. I am not clear how one would be able to go about to prove or disprove such an assertion. The one thing, however, which is certain is that such blood letting is a more grounding activity than the meditations and body therapies of the non-pagan New Age manifestation. So while New Age in general in Britain continues to become ever more assimilated and accepted and less ridden with `scandals, atrocities, spectacular failures, `tug-of-love' stories, defections, exposés and outrageous conduct - what James Beckford identifies as "the main criteria of NRMs' newsworthiness,"[6] it is left to its more pagan wing to fulfill the media void. If there is a public need for scapegoating which the innocent victims of Western-based terrorism or spectacular accident do not satisfy, the Neo-pagan distinction from the sectarian extremists such as the Branch Davidians or AUM Shin Reikyo may only lie in the physical dispersal of the movement's individual members who tend not to live in communes or isolated and identifiable communities. This lesser `blood grounding' on the part of today's Neo-pagans, however, could and would change if there were to be a reinstitution of a dominant mentality akin to that which prevailed during the medieval witch burnings.



[1] Prophecy Today (July 1989).

[2] “Dragon Environmental Group: Summer Update ‘95” p.1.

[3] “Dragon Environmental Group: Samhain Update ‘94” p. 2.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Personal communication 12 July 1996. Seel adds, “Although the cases of injury in these road protests are numerous I’m not sure where/if you could find a listing of the details of them.”

[6] 1993 INFORM paper (London, 28 March).