New Religious Movements and Youth Culture in Great Britain

Michael York

"New Religious Movements, Sects and Alternative Sacreds in European Youth"
University of Trento: European Centre for Traditional and Regional Cultures
Trento, Italy
4-5 October 1997


In my day as a youth, `youth culture' itself was understood as that which automatically excluded anyone over the age of thirty. And I have tended to assume that `youth culture' has essentially remained as the particular province of young people who traditionally distrust anyone over thirty. In this sense, `youth culture' becomes a mobile set of attitudes, fashions and behaviours belonging to an ever changing base population. For those of us over the age of thirty, whilst we may understand the circumstances and problems faced by individuals - at least in as much as we remember the same situations from the times when we were ourselves young, a `true' understanding of `youth culture' may be precluded, and the culture itself could well remain something which is forever an enigma.

It is of course a mistake to identify all contemporary youth with what we designate as `youth culture'. In looking at this last in Britain, we are not considering the evangelical movement as it manifests among the young - except to the degree that Christian-rock music has on occasion been appropriated into pentecostal forms of worship. `Youth culture', at least as I am using it here, is a designation for a subcultural manifestation within British culture which at the same time has international or transnational expressions in other countries or societies as well.

The most viable forms of culture are religious and linguistic. With the emergence of the nation-state, national culture has become something with a territorial component. But even the culture of the political state can often be subsumed within, or at least has links with, lingual and religious cultures that extend beyond the nation-state.

But then too, in today's multicultural and interactive world of commerce, communication and migration, the contemporary nation-state is more often than not a pluralistic society of different ethnicities. This is increasingly the case in Britain in which its imperialistic legacy has bequeathed a rich mix of diasporas from the Indian subcontinent, from Africa, from the West Indies and elsewhere.

Sociology has come to speak in terms of the mainstream culture or the mainstream society. Whilst this last becomes evermore difficult to identify and localise, the difficulty is compounded when a philosopher such as Jean-Fran├žois Lyotard declares the end of the metanarrative. The grand narrative of Marxism, Freudianism, Darwinianism, Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism or so forth has been replaced, according to Lyotard's deconstructive thinking, by the many small-narratives of locality and subcultural orientation. It is therefore perhaps most profitable to consider `youth culture' as a `counter-narrative' within whatever might be identifiable as the dominant `mainstream-narrative' of the host society.

`Youth culture' in Britain and beyond is no longer exclusively restricted to the under-thirties. Alternately known as Rave Culture, the `acid house' parties include an influential albeit comparably small number of aging hippies from the countercounteral days of the 1960s. Fraser Clark, founder of numerous rave-centred organisations and participant in San Francisco's legendary 1967 Summer of Love, describes himself as a `zippy' which he explains as a midway position between the hippy drop-out and the yuppy entrepreneur. The zippy is someone who seeks to balance his or her right- and left-brain hemispheres; someone who endeavours to harmonise his or her role as a technoperson of the late twentieth century with the hippy values of spontaneity, here-and-now presence, self-autonomy, mysticism and detachment. To the degree that elder zippies like Clark are instrumental to the formulation of Rave Culture, they serve in a capacity akin to that of the priest. However, the description of the zippy applies frequently to many of the rave youth themselves for whom the older designations of `straight' and `alternative' are no longer accurately applicable. In Clark's words, "A zippy could be a businessman taking a yoga class or a Rainbowlady setting up her own little hemp stall business at a rave" (1997:81).

Rave Culture is centred on a particular form of rock music. This began in Chicago as `Acid House' Music which presumably had less to do with the ingestion of LSD by participants than it did with the practice of pouring acid onto a music track to produce a different effect. From Chicago, the music moved to Ibiza where London disco aficionados picked it up and brought it to Britain. Here, it was mixed with the drug ecstasy, another import from America. The initial explosion of the Rave Scene occurred then in the cities of London and Manchester in 1986. Fraser Clark (1997:79) clearly identifies Rave Culture as a continuation or resurgence of the 1960s counterculture and one which he understands as growing in all developed countries and in others as well.

Consequently, in attempting to assess the dynamic between new religious movements and contemporary `youth culture', it behooves us to recognise that `youth culture'/Rave Culture is itself a new form of religiosity - one with New Age, Neo-pagan and `technoshaman' affinities. So whilst the modern British evangelical/pentecostal movement continues to draw adherents from the nation's younger population and/or continues to employ rock music and other contemporary `youth culture' forms in some of its worship (e.g., the now discredited Nine O'Clock Service), and whilst more established new religious movements continue to appeal to some segments of British youth (e.g., ISKCON, Brahma Kumaris, the Western Buddhist Order, the New Kadampa Tradition, The Family and Scientology), `youth culture' is itself a decentred, segmented yet integrated network which interconnects primarily with the New Age, Neo-pagan (e.g., Wicca and Druidry), Human Potential and Goddess Spirituality movements.

Rave Culture has become a clearly established phenomenon in the last eight years. It can be recognised as a primary manifestation of the `new age' co-operative culture which is believed to be replacing the more traditional established competition culture of capitalism. A prevailing view is that now that the inappropriate world culture of communism has reached its demise, that of capitalism will be the next to go. As a religious movement, `youth culture'/Rave Culture obviously involves youth, but this is a youth of all ages. Its salient feature is doubtlessly its own style of music and dance, and this form of expression brings together people from different backgrounds and different identities. In this sense, the rave serves as a meeting point which fuses diversity. It is non-hierarchical. There are no permanent leaders or huge stars. Its ethos is ecological and nature-oriented, and it seeks large gatherings - preferably in the non-urban countryside. On the dance floor in particular, everyone is equal, whilst cooperation is the rule which is followed in the setting-up and maintenance of the rave itself.

Consequently, Rave Culture is a counter-development to that of Punk Culture which is essentially cynical, apathetic and negative. The Generation X is opposed to materialism and the systemic corruption of present-day society, but the `grunge' values of Kurt Cobain are in themselves non-transformational. Instead, contemporary `youth culture' in its rave manifestation is an affirmative stance whose closest parallel is to that of the hippy movement of the late 60s and early 70s. It includes a political perspective, an ecological love of nature and a personalised spiritual orientation which is best described as shamanic. From the political viewpoint, rave considers both communism and capitalism to be "fundamentally user-unfriendly." Rave Culture also advocates a reduced consumerism along with an expanded ecological consciousness. It is, however, the rave itself in which ego is transcended or dissolved, where shamanic consciousness-alteration occurs and where a re-balancing trance state is achieved. In Clark's words (1997:83), "The ancient shamanic consciousness-raising, ego-meltdown, boundary-dissolving technology of African-style nonstop dancing to an insistent tribal drumbeat enhanced by the most futuristic technologised electronic virtuality is getting an entire generation OUT OF THEIR HEADS and back into balance."

Dance is central to rave culture. It is what connects the movement with the African rhythms so central to Voodoo, Santer├Ča and American jazz. In colloquial expression, it is `hot' rather than `cool'. As a culture, a key moment for rave occurred when it interconnected with `New Age travellers' and their festivals and thereby reaffirmed a countercultural root that leads from the 60s. Through its literature, its therapeutic massage techniques, workshops and lectures, rave culture is not just a dance phenomenon but a wider spiritual movement which Matthew Fox recognises as a new form of prayer. In Britain, it is not uncommon for members of one or more of the various druidic orders to appear during a rave and perform a short ritual before the resumption of the dance music. With its affirmation of nature and the ethos of cooperation, its predilection for the countryside, and its emphasis on the experiential, rave religiosity belongs to the same relatively amorphous but expanding spiritual network that includes the New Age and contemporary pagan movements - both themselves descendants of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury hippy culture. In the rave itself, the disc jockey serves as the `techno shaman' who blends the music together and chooses when to change the mood of the dance floor. Alcohol is not the fashion in the contemporary rave. Ecstasy and marijuana or hashish are in general the drugs of choice, but the key direction of energy is the dancing until dawn when the rave culminates with a greeting of the rising sun. Its ritual and grounding in nature have been formatted in such a way that British `youth/rave culture' constitutes in itself a new religious movement which can be recognised as powerful through the many UK laws that have been passed against it.

It is therefore a short line of connection between rave culture and the emphasis within `youth culture' for the erotic-spiritual path that has been spearheaded by Body Electric, Joseph Kramer and his EroSpirit Research Institute, and Rajneesh and his Osho Foundation. In the words of Ryam Nearing, author of Loving More (apud Gyan Nisarg, 1997:47), "Our goal is new kinds of relationships based on unconditional love, continuing spiritual growth, respect for our diversity, equality among partners, telling the truth about our deepest desires, and accepting personal responsibilty ... together we explore the total transformation of love, sex, and the family." In `youth culture', sacred sexuality is moving from the confines of traditional monogamy into the innovations of spiritual polyfidelity. In Britain, the organisations which promote sexual sacrality include The Art of Being (UK) in Kent, and the London-based associations of The Ecstatic Being, the Osho Multiversity London, and New Paradigm Productions Ltd. (representing the Human Awareness Institute of San Francisco.) The emerging trend within `youth culture' is toward what is termed `responsible non-monogamy'. Sexual spirituality is considered to promote "a sense of love, security and personal empowerment" (Nisarg, 1997:51).

The cult of youth has come to be elevated in mainstream focus in a virtually unprecedented manner. A young sound now dominates the music industry. But the so-called `generation gap' has encouraged youth toward an autonomy to `do its own thing'. Youthful arrogance, finding its chief support through the financial clout of the music industry, expresses a collective wish to topple all tabus. But whether a positive or negative influence, `youth culture' both musically and semi-politically is so far proving to have a staying-power which has surpassed expectations. Along with the 1960s counterculture, the influences of Elvis Presley, the Beattles and the anti-war protests concerning Vietnam are considered direct influences on what the young perceive as today's situation of relative `peace'. The `follow the money' sort of proof, which protects `youth culture's' appropriation of the music industry, reappears in the cinema. The film industry appears to aim its car-chase crash and pin-ball machine vacuous sequences of bang-bang, pop-pop, top box office cheap thrill toward adolescent consumption. Despite its anti-capitalistic sentiment, it is this proof in numbers which supports contemporary `youth culture' as a viable market.

The raving with music into the night appears to be commensurate with youthful energy. This abundance leads to a joyful excess of jumping, swaying bodies in which mental faculties fade into the insistent beat of ceaseless rhythms. In the intoxicating result, feelings of time and gravity seem to fall away before the augmenting power of pleasure found in the large gathering which is united through sound and movement. The rave is considered an exercise in the experience of nonverbal meaning. As one proponent of `youth culture' put it to me, "The fact that older folk find all this pointless, if not harmful, and make it illegal only further enhances the reveler's knowledge that to grow old is to become dumb and narrow-minded. Therefore, we become determined to rave on with a vengeance."