Ethical Differentiations Within the New Age Spectrum:
Problems of Authenticity

Michael York



The broadly conceived New Age Movement ranges from apocalyptic expectation and sectarian exclusivism such as is exemplified in the Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) to what Paul Heelas identifies as `Self Religions'. These last are equivalents or outgrowths of the general Human Potential Movement (HPM) and may be typified in the spiritual emphasis of individual self-sufficiency as fostered by the Findhorn Foundation in Forres, Scotland. Both extremes expect radical world change and a quantum `leap' in human consciousness, but this change is conceived differently as is also its implementation. A major criticism directed against most aspects of New Age is that of narcissism. The supernatural/apocalyptic orientation tends to shift accountability away from individual responsibility to more abstract or transcendental forces. The more non-supernatural or psychological and therapeutic approach is considered to be self-indulgent and a retreat from community involvement. One understanding of the various parameters of New Age identity which I have found useful to conceive of the broad-based phenomenon as comprising essentially spiritual, occult and social quests. However, a further problem emerges through New Age's predilection for existential terminology which Theodor Adorno, focusing particularly on Heidegger, blames for the German Holocaust.

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In identifying the New Age spectrum, we find such relatively disparate groups as Elan Vital (DLM), Osho International (Rajneesh) and Transcendental Meditation which are labelled mind-controlling or brain-washing `cults', the more truly authoritarian and sectarian Church Universal and Triumphant (CUT) with its mega-million underground air raid bunkers, and the evil-denying, all-is-good attitude of Shirley MacLaine solipsism and the holistic ideology of the more typical New Age centre and workshop. Although there are sectarian and cultic-like behaviours within it, sociologically New Age conforms more to what Gerlach and Hine identify as the segmented-integrated-polycentric-network. There is in general a boundary indeterminantness and diffusion as opposed to the more traditional NRMs such as TM, DLM, CUT or further a field, the UC, ISKCON or the Church of Scientology. New Age often includes or overlaps with both Neo-paganism and Human Potential (HPM).

A chief criticism often directed against New Age and HPM concerns narcissism, self-indulgence and retreat from community commitment as expressions of pseudo-mysticism, superstition and anti-rationalism. One argument is that yoga and related Eastern religious techniques are now used to strengthen the sense of social personality or ego when these methods were originally used to weaken or destroy the self. On the other hand, it is argued by New Agers that transformation of the world is to be based first on self-transformation. As  founder Werner Erhard explains, "When people become free to acknowledge their real needs at a deeper level of awareness, ... their apparent self-interest becomes transferred into concern for others as well." According to Donald Stone, "Social science lacks a concept for motives that produce service out of a sense of self-satisfaction." Robert Wuthnow found that persons attracted to new mystical religions are more likely than others to become involved with political protest and activism - not less. Stone reports that "Wuthnow found that people reporting mystical and peak experiences were less materialistic, less status-conscious, and more socially concerned."

The `Self Religion' core of the more loosely configured New Age expression pursues meaning and existential authenticity through desecularization, a reflexive methodological resacralization and, often group-supported, self-realization. In the Experience Week induction of the Findhorm Foundation, critical inquiry is considered divisive and a product of the separatist ego. Unlike CUT, the Findhorn-type holism distances itself from ideas of spiritual hierarchies, superior extraterrestrials and divine transcendence. These are replaced by the psychological and internal mysteries of the human Self. The Self as a theological construct is routinized and subjectively socialized through concentrated workshop-type group interaction and reinforcing the ground rules of mutual support and togetherness.

Looking to the other extreme, e.g., CUT, we find a Galactian New Age orientation that understands a cosmic conflict between the forces of good and those of evil. Related to CUT in this sense are such New Age communities as the City of the Sun Foundation in New Mexico who sometimes follow the writings of J.J. Hurtak and his Keys of Enoch which portray the history of the cosmos as the triumph of the spiritual hierarchy over the rebelling legions of Lucifer. The germinating core of this narrative concerns the biblical story of the Watcher Angels who were assigned by God to watch over humanity but who developed a lust for the Daughters of Man and conceived an amalgamated race of offspring who to this day masquerade among human beings. For CUT leader Elizabeth Claire Prophet, this race of beings is often found in the international drug and arms trade as well as as the heads of banking corporations and big business. As a small sect making such allegations, CUT is essentially harmless. But as a dominant church or attitude of mainstream society, the very foundations of a democratic society are accordingly undermined.

New Age in general expresses concern over ecology, healing and diet. These are becoming more and more central concerns as the very future of the planet comes increasingly under question. However, to the degree that New Age tends to espouse an anti-material, transcendental theology in which the world is illusory, or the groundedness of ecological and holistic concern itself becomes shaky at best. As a counter-movement within New Age itself, Neo-paganism addresses the need to recognize the earth as immanent godhead. But to date, the contradictory notions of Nature as Real and Nature as Illusion remain unresolved within the New Age Movement as a whole.

Within Neo-paganism, the practice of Wicca is currently the most dominant. Proponents claim that their ethics is an ethics of responsibility. Wiccans argue that their acts are their own alone, they have consequences, and that they alone are themselves held to account for their acts and their consequences rather than in how the acts may be judged against a universal but abstract standard or a code of `thou shalt nots'. In Wicca and much of Neo-paganism in general, there is what is termed the Law of the Threefold Return in which whatever is done by a person is believed to return to them three times as strong. In many respects, this Threefold Ethic is similar to and has been influenced by the Hindu notion of karma. On the other hand, I have heard the Archdruid of the British Order of Druids (David Loxely) denounce those who argue for the sacredness of the earth and the necessity of ecology but who continue to smoke cigarettes. Protest over the sanctity of the earth means nothing, he claims, if one cannot start with the sacredness of one's own body first.

New Age terminology itself is often vague but is nonetheless readily used and exchanged as a series of implicitly understood code words. Examples include `the Self', the Higher Self, the God Within, Love, the Grand or Cosmic Plan, Truth, etc. This terminology constitutes a colloquial existential jargon. It posits that we are all one happy family; that there is no other and no one excluded. Consequently, the marginal itself can often become invisible or recognizably non-existent. But in his attack on Heidegger and the existential jargon of authenticity, Theodor Adorno, a member of the critical Frankfurt School, condemns this kind of thought and glib vocabulary as producing a social  blindness to the plight of the unfortunate or simply different. The German Holocaust stands as the worst measure which can evolve from this kind of insensitivity and blanket assimilation of the other to oneself.

To date, the New Age theology is at an early stage of development. It retains many self-contradictions and unformulated points of tension. The use of a slipshod vocabulary of vagueness and superlative platitudes only adds more confusion and less concrete direction to its spiritual undertakings. Consequently, we can at this stage only recognize various ethical uncertainties and implicit dangers. As the theology itself becomes more concrete and established and universally accepted by those who identify with the New Age Movement, its ethical position is likewise to be expected to become more cogent and debatable in the open arena of intercultural dialogue.


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Miscellaneous notes from Steven Sutcliffe: "The authority of self in new age religiosity: the example of the Findhorn Community":

New Age apocalypticism ... "shifted accountability away from individual persons and onto the back of impersonal forces, whether astrological, extraterrestrial or divine. It took away an individual's sense of ... being involved in a process of conscious and participatory evolution" (Spangler 1984, p.28) p.5

Spangler's revised `new age' can be seen as restructuring,... an emerging shift to political liberalism,.. the non-materialization of requisite social change... p.5

Firstly, the pursuit of meaning, significance or ultimacy - the savific quest “... is effectively desecularized. Secondly, this resacralized quest is reoriented to the quest for the divine ... accomplished via ... a reflexive methodology.  ... the interior world is posited as the ultimate source of the phenomenal world. ... The quest for existential authenticity becomes a quest for a self at home in the world...” p.10

Many at Findhorn - and elsewhere in the New Age movement - claim that such an epistemology encourages one to take responsibility for what one says & does... it is claimed that negative psychological states and resulting destructive behaviours seen for what they are, are transformed by a holistic self waxing in wisdom and a sense of deep connection to its wider context or `host', the world. The transformation of the latter is then seen only to be possible ... by measure of transformation ... p.11

autarky, the self-sufficiency of the individual The Experience Week ground rules also discourage critical enquiry, which is considered to be a generally divisive function of the separatist Ego. ... Tears were consistently valorised as ... conferring existential authenticity on the shedder. ...the very possibility of `error' is not an obviously viable issue in new age religiosity. The metaphysical ambiguity of such a radically decontextualised stance is at the heart of the new age construal of religious authority and it is largely the source of its diffuse appeal across the EuroAmerican religious spectrum
of the late C20th.

...the historical shift of ... the New Age movement ...   from spiritual hierarchies, extraterrestrial councils & a transcendent divinity ... towards the psychological and microcosmic mysteries of the human organism, the Self... The self ... a theological construct routinized through a schedule of principles & practices skillfully introduced in the course of one intensive week. p.12

...the group in fact functions as a means to an end, as a subordinate device
... p.13