New Age Commodification and Appropriation of Spirituality

Michael York

Bath Spa University College


In the field of sociology – more specifically, the sociology of religion, the question of secularization is one of the more nuanced and complex issues the discipline must face conceptually. What do we mean by the `decline of religion’ and how would we measure it? Though it seems apparent that secularization has been more pronounced in the twentieth century than during any previous period of recorded history, putting a sociological `handle’ to this likelihood has proven a daunting and elusive task. Even when we understand the process to involve a decline in the prestige and power of religious teachers, the electronic media industry of today has often extended their reach and appeal on unprecedented levels – such as we see, for example, with televangelism.

In general, the processes taken as signs of secularization include the ending of state support for religious organizations, the elimination of religious teaching in public schools, no longer employing religious tests for public officials, the ending of legislative protection for religious doctrine or other state-sponsored controls designed to safeguard religion. In a secularized democracy in which religious dogmas and ethical notions have lost their dominance, there is more scope for individual dissent and change. India, Great Britain and the United States are examples of `secular’ states, but this being said, there is a wide variation between these polities in terms of separation of church and state as well as religious belief and participation.

Perhaps more meaningfully, secularization can also refer to a pervasive decline of interest in religious traditions. Respect for religious institutions, as a consequence, is found to diminish throughout the general public. More concretely, established religious bodies no longer draw the same numbers of practising supporters. Attendance and membership figures grow less and less. Contemporary secularization is seen, therefore, as a combined product of scientific/humanistic rational thought and socialistic/communistic political theory. Religion comes to represent superstitious interference or a popular opiate or both.

In its fullest sense, secularization should indicate the cessation of all interest in religious perspective, practice and institutionalized features. But while there appears to be little if any evidence that Western society has reached this stage, there does appear to be in the West a detectable and growing dissatisfaction with traditional forms of religion. Consequently, for secularization to be meaningful in sociological terms, we are best to follow Bryan Wilson’s understanding of the notion as essentially the contemporary “process by which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose significance, and become marginal to the operation of the social system” in which they are found (1988:954). In Wilson’s perspective, the spiritual pluralism of the modern/postmodern era is itself a consequence of secularization. If traditional religiosity had formerly been central to society’s decision-making and general functioning, its secular loss of prestige, power and influence opens the gates, if not flood gates, to private, marginal and even deviant but certainly newer forms of religion beyond the originally established and popularly endorsed religio-social confines. Religious expression, therefore, becomes freed from the rule of conformity – especially in a condition when the status quo no longer remains fixed but itself has become something fluid. The accelerated technological, economic and demographic changes underway in the millennium transition of the West make any present condition or state of affairs radically ephemeral and elusive. In the advent of what is often hailed as gobalization, this means institutional and social change in the West has immediate worldwide implications as well – ones which possibly if not probably affect virtually everyone everywhere on the planet today.

Globalization, however, often appears to be simply another name for a new breed of American imperialism. The perpetual American championing of capitalist and individual freedom becomes pitted against the sanctity of `weaker’ but autonomous systems or traditions. In today’s world in which the entire international arena becomes a competitive marketplace, it is those with the greater financial (including military) clout who become the winners. In the relentless, market-fuelled drive to reduce as much as possible to the same – whether the same range of goods, the same currency of exchange, the same architectural `look’, it appears to be increasingly within the multifaceted diversity of religion that variety has its greatest chance of surviving. However, religion itself often becomes simply one more commodity and one more `tool’ within the overall process of globalized homogeneity. If it can be argued that the evangelical missionizing drives behind Buddhism, Christianity and Islam have already contributed to a process of universal sameness, some of our newer religions are no less immune to this same tendency. Among these is the New Age Movement. While its missionizing efforts toward converting or `saving’ the world may or may not place it into the same league as Christianity, it is certainly of equal stature when it comes to appropriation of indigenous and competing institutions. In other words, the issue of what it gives is one thing; the issue of what it takes is the other.

New Age itself is a difficult phenomenon to describe let alone appraise. It has been summarized as “a blend of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies, and occult-psychic phenomena” (York, 1995:34). William Sims Bainbridge (1997:386) finds, for instance, that the “forms of religious movement most closely associated with the New Age are occult, neopagan, and Asian.” A key entry into understanding the complexities of the New Age movement is to be located in why some people (sociologists, scholars of religion, Christian apologists) include contemporary Western paganism as part of the New Age, whereas other people (other sociologists – myself included, historians, participants) consider New Age and Neo-paganism distinctly separate.

At best, the New Age movement comprises a disparate and loosely co-ordinated confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques and practices. There is no central authority capable of speaking for the movement as a whole or of supplying membership registrars or even of ascertaining who and who is not a New Ager. New Age is largely a perpetually shifting and ad hoc alliance of exegetical individuals and groups, audience gatherings, client services, and various new religious movements that range between the cultic, sectarian and denominational. Despite the often vehement distancing from and denial of the New Age by most contemporary Western pagans, Paul Heelas (1996) would also include witches, Wiccans, Druids, shamans and other modern-day pagans within New Age identity. On the other hand, Vivianne Crowley (1989, 1996) expresses the general trend within contemporary paganism when she re-released her 1989 best-seller Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age seven-years later as Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium.

Heelas classifies both New Age and Neo-paganism under the general rubric of `self-religions’ – presumably to distinguish them from `God-religions’ and express what they have in common. But Heelas is never clear over what he means by `self’. At times, the self is simply the ego of individual consciousness, but on other occasions – and more frequently – the self-referent is an indication of what New Age generally calls the `Higher Self’. Whatever the Higher Self might be, it is not the ego-self with which the individual usually identifies, and Heelas has simply substituted one unclear metaphysical concept (namely, `God’) with another (namely, the `Self’).

From the start, it should be pointed out that the respective vocabularies of the two movements, though they may have points of overlap or similarities, are not the same. Neo-paganism, contemporary Western paganism, the various reconstructed ethnic paganisms (Druidry, Northern, Celtic, Hellenic, Egyptian, etc.) do not generally speak in terms of an `Higher Self’ or of `a(n imminent) quantum leap in collective consciousness’, i.e., the coming Age of Aquarius. The New Age movement has essentially recast Joachim de Flores’ twelfth century “Three Ages of History” theory into astrological terminology (Melton, Clark & Kelly, 1990  p. 29f). As Aidan Kelly explains, in this epochal framework, the Old Testament `Age of the Father’ becomes identified as the Age of Aries. The New Testament `Age of the Son’ then corresponds with the Age of Pisces which de Flores understood as embodied in the Roman Catholic Church. However, the ensuing aeon, the `Age of the Holy Spirit’, is to be as different from the current `Age of the Son’ as this last is from the `Age of the Father’ which preceded. Consequently, the `Age of the Holy Spirit’ is recognised as the Aquarian New Age of great and millennial changes. If Jesus Christ represented the pivotal spiritual figure of the Age of Pisces, according to the `New Age’ Church Universal and Triumphant, the Comte de Saint-Germain is to be the equivalent for the Age of Aquarius. On the other hand, with its essential distance from Christian terminology and astrological re-interpretation of the ages of history, contemporary paganism does not entertain the notions of either literal apocalypticism or metaphorical millenarianism.

Part of the confusion between the two movements may stem from the inclusion of prominent Wiccan-activist Miriam Simos, or Starhawk, among the faculty of Matthew Fox’s Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (founded in Chicago in 1978) after it was re-established in Oakland, California at the Holy Names College in 1983. Most importantly, vis-à-vis mainstream and dominant Christianity, New Age and Neo-paganism are natural allies. Much of the current confusion between the two orientations, in fact, is most likely a result of this alliance by default which pits both traditions into the position of `outsider heresies’ from the perspective of the canonical spirituality of the Judaeo-Christian West. But if the two movements are natural partners, their respective theologies and consequent practices are radically distinguishable.

Paganism itself subscribes to an immanent understanding of the godhead which allows – or even centralizes – the natural world as manifest sacrality. New Age, on the other hand, descends from a competing theological perspective, namely, a Gnostic/Theosophical tradition which views nature as an obscuring obstacle to hidden spiritual truth. The physical world becomes, accordingly, either an illusion or at least something of secondary and lesser importance. From a strictly sociological perspective, New Age and Neo-paganism are simply rival theologies – each part of long-standing and legitimate spiritual traditions. However, in the emergent twentieth-century notion that the individual alone is the locus for selectivity and determination of belief – a notion which may be a concomitant to the process of secularization itself, the anti-authoritarian impulse which increasingly denies that one can be told what to believe also denies that one can be told, at least spiritually, what not to take. Apart from the vexing question of whether new religious movements are themselves testimonies to secularization or, instead, represent an unexpected reversal of secularization, the increasing privatization of religion is intimately tied to the ethical question of spiritual appropriation.

If `self-religion’ means personal exegesis and selection by the individual, the general rubric is applicable to trends in the late modern/early postmodern transition which encompass much more than simply New Age and Neo-pagan religiosities. At its worst extreme, we find something like the World Church of the Creator which encouraged a 21-year-old youth, Benjamin Smith, within the last two months and not far from Chicago, to `appropriate’ the integrity and/or lives of people who belonged to what Smith considered the `mud races’. While this heinous act may represent an extreme illustration of non-accountability and (someone’s) individual freedom to decide what is right and wrong, it betokens the lack of moral guidelines consequent or at least possible when the permission to make such decisions shifts from traditional authority to the individual alone. This lack of moral consensus and legitimating sanction appears to be a direct result of the secular diminishment of religion’s former role in traditional society.

Besides its narcissism, or perhaps even linked to it, one of the more controversial aspects of New Age concerns its commodification of religion and the freedom to appropriate spiritual ideas and practices from other traditions. The New Age is modelled upon, and an outgrowth of, liberal Western capitalism. It is part of the same `cultural logic of late capitalism’ that asserts the right to free and unrestricted global trade. As an aggregation or congeries of client services and competing audience cults, New Age is part of what is described as the `religious consumer supermarket’ – one which thrives on competition and the offering of various spiritual commodities. Rather than a rejection of free market principles, New Age endorses a spiritualized counterpart of capitalism – one which seeks ever extended markets, new sources of marketable goods, and expanding profits. In that the profit motive of New Age is fully financial, if not also oriented toward greater spiritual well-being, it represents a modern continuation of Calvinistic principles which exalt material success as a sign, reflection or consequence of one’s spiritual state of grace.

But New Age liberalism falls into the same trap as political Anglo-American liberalisms of equal dignity in which supposedly neutral principles based on the denial of difference are really to be seen as reflections of hegemonic culture. As Charles Taylor (1994:44) sees it, the very idea of “liberalism may be a kind of pragmatic contradiction, a particularity masquerading as the universal.” `Procedural liberalism’ finds human dignity in autonomy rather than with any particular view of what constitutes the good life. This popular view of “the human agent as primarily a subject of self-determining or self-expressive choice” (Taylor, 1994:57) provides the New Age with its bedrock idea of human potential and its corresponding belief that one can create his or her own universe.

New Age solipsism, coupled with its advocacy of free market principles, opens the world’s spiritual arena as an opportunity for spiritual exploitation and even capitalistic imperialism. Not only does it encourage a paradoxical homogenizing to the cultural standards of North Atlantic civilization, but it also carries an implicit judgment of inferior status for nonhegemonic cultures. New Age upholds the idea that all past and present spiritual legacies are no longer private property but belong now, in the New Age of Aquarius, to the public domain. This idea easily translates into the rationale and justification for appropriating whatever third-world institution has appeal to the individual religious consumer along with the `freedom’, then, to market what one allocates to others.

The conflict involved with this belief in an unaccountable and free accessibility to the world’s spiritual traditions and the countervailing insistence of cultural ownership by minority ethnicities became disturbingly clear to me during the 1993 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago. Despite the Amerindian pivotal role in launching and sustaining the success of the Parliament, in private Native Americans were debating a Lakota-sponsored `Declaration of War’ which included among its targeted enemies `New Age profiteers and Neo-Paganists’ [sic.] From the position as an `endangered species’ on the verge of extinction, the loss of cultural artefacts, private practices, use of traditional sites or their own sweat lodges is viewed as the final loss of American Indian identity. The growth of popular forms of Neo-shamanism in the West was cited in particular as a `cultural theft’ on the part of the Euro-American hegemony. Other disciplines usurped by New Age include Hawaiian Kahuna magic, Australian Aborigine dreamworking, South American Amerindian ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremony, Hindu Ayurveda and yoga, and Chinese Feng Shui, Qi Gong and Tai Chi.

Consequently, in many cases the spiritual appropriation of nativistic practice and belief follows the same dynamic as, for instance, the steady elimination of the Brazilian rainforest or the ocean’s whale population. Species become endangered and eventually extinct as a result of free market operations and expansion. In a multicultural world, a procedural liberalism which adopts no particular substantive view about the ends of life may not recognize or even misrecognize particularity of religion and culture. The erosion of ethnic dignity and identity might be an inevitable aspect of historical and cultural change, on the one hand, or a catastrophic diminishment of human legacy, on the other. In many cases, it is a complicit or even active disseminatory role of the original bearers themselves which has encouraged religio-cultural exportation. The Tibetans have consciously marketed Vajrayana Buddhism to the West and have recognized tulku-incarnation among Euro-Americans. Hindu swamis and gurus, Chinese martial art masters and Japanese shidoin aikido teachers consistently promote their respective practices throughout a spiritually hungry West. Even the American Indian community appears split over the issue of keeping its traditions to itself or initiating Westerners into them. If there is an ethical question concerning spiritual appropriation, those who feel their ways and identities are being appropriated are quite often actively part of the dissemination process.

There may, in the end, be no final answer to the dilemma between universal rights and particular identity. In defence of New Age, it could be pointed out that all religions appropriate from each other. Roman paganism, through its interpretatio romana, incorporated Celto-Gaulic deities; Hinduism included Gautama Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu; Christianity acquired pagan sanctuaries and festivals for its own; Islam seized the Kaaba and the site of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Inter-religious exchange may, in fact, be seen as an inevitable norm. As a rule, contemporary Western paganism does not appropriate from living cultures in the same willy-nilly and profit-motive manner as does New Age. Basically, if New Age is grabbing sacred truths from other cultures, its ultimate fruition might lie in re-claiming, like Neo-paganism, sacred truths from the past – in other worlds, sacred truths that are no longer claimed as privately owned.

The real opposition of our day is perhaps not one between religion and science but rather one between religion and commercialism. If the modern commodification of religion is to be superseded, what is required might be a postmodern re-sanctification of the market. The prospect of `the sacred in the secular’, that is, finding religious dimensions in the world beyond religion, could raise the postmodern challenge of re-sacralizing commerce.



William Sims Bainbridge (1997), The Sociology of Religious Movements, New York/London: Routledge.

Vivianne Crowley (1989), Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age, Wellingborough, England: Aquarian Press; reprinted in 1996 as Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium by Thorsons/Harper Collins.

Paul Heelas (1996), The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity, Oxford: 1996.

J. Gordon Melton, Jerome Clark & Aidan A. Kelly (1990), New Age Encyclopedia, Detroit: Gale Research.

Charles Taylor (1994), “The Politics of Recognition,” in Multiculturalism (originally published in 1992 as Multiculturalism and `The Politics of Recognition’),  Amy Gutmann (ed.), , Princeton: U.P.

Bryan R. Wilson (1988), “`Secularisation’: Religion in the modern world,” pp. 953-66 in The World’s Religions, eds. Stewart Sutherland, Leslie Houlden, Peter Clarke & Friedhelm Hardy, London: Routledge.

Michael York (1995), The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman & Littlefield.