Return to Irving Hexham's Publications

From: Christianity Today,Week of December 13, 2000

Books & Culture Corner: The New Age Is Over
Now that Neopaganism has replaced the New Age Movement, flaws in evangelicals' criticism are obvious.

By Irving Hexham |

Recently the editor of Gnosis, America's premier alternative spirituality magazine, and Germany's leading alternative religion journal, Esotera, declared that the New Age Movement has run its course and is now effectively over. The New Age Movement first caught the attention of Christians with the publication of books by Dave Hunt and Constance Cumbey in 1983. Later Shirley MacLaine popularized New Age ideas through her many books and the television series, Out on a Limb. A rash of popular works exposing the evils of New Age ideas followed alongside equally popular books extolling the virtues of this new vision of reality.

Only recently have serious scholarly accounts of the New Age Movement appeared from the pens of Chrissie Steyn (1994), Christoph Bochinger (1994), Peter Kratz (1994), Michael York (1995), Paul Heelas (1996), M.D. Faber (1996), Wouter J. Hanegraaff (1997) and most recently John P. Newport (1998). Of these only Newport writes as an evangelical. Sadly, his book is by far the worst documented and least impressive.

Christoph Bochinger's "New Age" und moderne Religion (Güiterskiger: Chr. Kaiser Verlaghaus, 1994) presents an impressive analysis of New Age texts supplements by a very useful 153-page bibliography. He provides the reader with an excellent historical overview and detailed analysis of New Age beliefs that emphasizes the richness of their sources and the diversity of this spiritual tradition.

The book is particularly revealing because the author interviewed various publishers to discover why they were promoting New Age books. As might be expected, and contrary to the arguments of some conspiracy theorists, the answer was that German presses translated and published American books on the New Age Movement in response to popular public demand. Thus, the popularization of New Age ideas was not a conspiracy by publishers to promote the occult. Rather it was a response to market pressures from a public eager for occult teachings.

Bochinger does not discuss the New Age in terms of pantheism, or even monism. He simply ignores these terms because they are not significant for understanding the movement as it appears in his data. His book certainly deserves to be translated into English, so that it will reach a wider audience.

Worldviews in Transition: An Investigation of the New Age Movement in South Africa (Pretoria: University of South Africa Press, 1994), by Chrissie Steyn, is the first major empirical study of the New Age. Although the title suggests that the book is essentially concerned with South Africa, Steyn uses her fieldwork to discuss the New Age generally. Based on life history interviews, survey research, and an analysis of published sources, this is an exciting book that reaches some surprising conclusions. For example, after discussing what others had written about New Age beliefs she boldly states,

Although literature critical of the New Age movement consistently maintains that the New Age worldview is pantheistic…this study of the movement in South Africa did not substantiate this statement. Rather in most cases New Agers' belief systems could be described as panentheistic. A survey of the literature by leading international New Agers indicates that the South African movement conforms with its overseas counterparts.

The distinction between pantheism and panentheism is significant, for while panentheists, like pantheists, believe that God's Being permeates the universe, panthentheism also affirms, in marked contrast to panentheism, that God's Being "is more than, and is not exhausted by, the universe" (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 4th. ed.). In other words, Steyn's research demonstrates that one of the key tenants of the evangelical apologetics against New Age thinking is empirically false. More important, her findings are substantiated by all of the studies under review with the exception of the evangelical Newport.

The significance of this for understanding the crystallization of New Age thought into Neopaganism will be discussed later. What must be recognized now is that if evangelicals have fundamentally misunderstood New Age thinking they will be unprepared for its latest manifestation.

This critical assessment is supported by Michael York's analysis of survey evidence in his excellent book, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements, (Rowman & Littlefield, 1995). Although York is the first to admit that interpreting the data is difficult, it becomes quite clear that when a wide range of surveys from Britain and North American are examined, New Age believers do not believe many of the things most evangelical writers claim they believe.

For example, one survey found that only 58 percent of the respondents rejected the biblical concept of God. Similarly, although "between one-quarter and one-third of" respondents in eleven out of twelve major surveys held that "God is an impersonal force," many others were less certain about the nature of God, while a significant minority, again about one-third, believed in God as a personal being. Clearly, the assumption of a monolithic monistic-pantheism simply does not stand up in the face of empirical evidence.

Another important research finding is that Neopagan beliefs coexist with and grow out of the ethos of the New Age. Of course, as York painstakingly explains, there are differences. Thus, criticisms and tension sometimes exists between representatives of both movements. But at their cores, the ethos of these broadly based manifestations of a new spirituality overlap. This is because they share common historical roots.

Paul Heelas's The New Age Movement (Blackwell, 1996) is a well-researched, academic, yet readable, book that provides insightful descriptions of the New Age in contemporary Britain. It also has some useful comments on North America and other countries where New Age beliefs are popular. Once again this book is firmly grounded in empirical research, including participant observation and survey research.

The book suffers from its relative neglect of the historical dimensions of New Age ideas and the author's failure to provide biographical information about key figures in the movement. Nevertheless, Heelas presents a detailed analysis of the New Age, showing that while it centers on the "inner life," the belief system is varied and complex. A particularly useful section of this book is Heelas's attempt to assess the numerical strength of the New Age movement and its "diffusion through culture" in various countries. Essentially uncritical, Heelas writes from the perspective of a Religious Studies professor deeply committed to the idea of empathic understanding.

Whatever the weaknesses of Heelas's empathic approach, they are not evident in M.D. Faber's New Age Thinking: A Psychoanalytic Critique (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1996). Here no attempt is made to enter the mindset of believers or share their spiritual vision. Instead Faber presents devastating criticisms which scrutinize the New Age and many ideas associated with contemporary paganism from a medical perspective. In his view these belief are "essentially regressive or infantile in nature." They "make war on reality" and disparage "reason" with politically threatening consequences.

While many Christians will applaud Faber's outright hostility to New Age ideas, one shudders to think what he would make of traditional Christian beliefs, or a charismatic service, or Christian healing rituals. Nevertheless, this is an excellent book with many useful insights on a wide range of issues based on empirical research and observation which once again makes no mention of pantheism, monism, or other evangelical slogans.

By far the most thorough literary analysis of the New Age movement is to be found in Wouter J. Hanegraaff's New Age Religion and Western Culture (Leiden: Brill, 1997). This massive tome, which is deliberately restricted to an analysis of written sources, provides endless details based on an impressive mastery of the subject.

The book is divided into three parts dealing respectively with "Major Trends in New Age Religion," "The Varieties of New Age Experience," and "New Age Religion and Traditional Esotericism." If Heelas essentially ignores history, Hanegraaff offers an extensive survey of the Western esoteric tradition. Although very useful, the third section of the book is by far its weakest. Hanegraaff is clearly not a historian. Consequently, he tends to rely heavily on the interpretations of the French scholar Antoine Faivre. For a number of years, Faivre has been producing academic works purporting to establish the reality of an ancient occult or esoteric tradition in Western society which, he claims, has survived from ancient times.

The main problem with Faivre's work is his willingness to view historical evidence in terms of the similarity of ideas, ideal type constructions, and the use of common terminology. Of course, anyone wishing to prove the existence of an ongoing esoteric tradition must resort to such devices. This is because the historical, that is to say, documentary, evidence needed to show the continuity of such a tradition, simply does not exist. In reality, the "esoteric tradition" is, at best, a late eighteenth- or nineteenth-century invention by disillusioned rationalists and deists seeking spiritual roots.

Hanegraaff is on much firmer ground when he links New Age beliefs and modern esotericism to the Enlightenment. Here his historical arguments about the importance of Romanticism and other nineteenth-century movements hold because they are firmly rooted in archival and other empirical evidence.

Where Hanegraaff really shines is in his detailed exposition of current belief systems based on a careful analysis of published works, book, magazines, and other literature. He shows that even with a seemingly monistic thinker such as Fritjof Capra, one has to be careful in labeling his thought monistic, pantheistic, or anything else. This is because Capra's views developed over time and are far from simple. Hanegraaff also draws attention to various intellectual conflicts between leading New Age thinkers like Capra and Ken Wilber. Indeed, Hanegraaff argues that there is "a fundamental rift in New Age thinking between two contradictory views of reality: a monistic and hierarchical one." Failing to recognize the diversity and complexity of the movement, most evangelical critiques of New Age thought are based on false assumptions about its central tenets.

Evangelical Caricatures
John P. Newport's The New Age Movement and the Biblical Worldview (Eerdmans, 1998) is a case in point. This wordy, disappointing book appears to be two books rolled together into one. The first rehashes standard evangelical thinking about the nature of the New Age and what people within the movement are supposed to believe. The other book is an exposition of the Christian worldview along the lines of Arthur Holmes's excellent Contours of a World View (Eerdmans, 1983). Few people would disagree with Newport's analysis of an evangelical worldview. But his exposition of New Age beliefs is fundamentally flawed.

Evangelicals began writing about the New Age movement around ten years before almost anyone else. Yet, as the empirical evidence and literary analysis presented in these books show, evangelical scholars fundamentally misunderstand the complexity of New Age beliefs. Instead of discussing the ways in which New Age ideas are appropriated by real people, evangelicals writers construct imaginary "New Agers" who fit their own image of pantheistic monism. Hence Newport's assertion that "the New Age bottom line can be stated in three words: 'all is one.' " The typical evangelical critique continues by identifying the essence of New Age thought as "All is One (Monism)", "Everything is God (Pantheism)," and "God is within You." These beliefs, evangelical critics argue, imply a change of consciousness that leads to conclusions such as, "We are gods."

The recognition that such statements represent a fragmented view of New Age beliefs forces us to ask how such a simplistic understanding of this movement became entrenched among evangelicals. To a great extent, Newport's book answers the question. It is based on a very narrow selection of New Age sources and contains no empirical data. The bulk of Newport's references are to fellow evangelicals or academics who themselves describe New Age beliefs and believers largely on the basis of secondary works. By contrast, both Bochinger and Hanegraaff use hundreds, if not thousands, of New Age sources to arrive at their carefully measured conclusions.

Neopaganism
The easy transition to Neopaganism, which makes little sense when New Age beliefs are equated with pantheistic monism, is well documented in Graham Harvey's Contemporary Paganism (New York University Press, 1997). Harvey amply demonstrates that New Age thinking prepares the way for the acceptance of Neopagan beliefs. Although Harvey's book is remarkably uncritical, virtually ignoring clear links between some Odinist groups and neo-Nazis, it provides a wealth of detail about the variety of Neopaganism, its rituals, myths, and organizations.

Written in what may be termed the phenomenological, or Star Trek, approach to religion, which observes and reports, while refraining from any comments which can be interpreted as intervention, this book, like the works of the leading exponent of the approach, Gordon Melton, provides insight without scholarly analysis. Nevertheless, it does begin to demonstrate that a transformation from vague New Age ideas to concrete pagan practices is taking place. These developments accord with observations made at Glastonbury in 1971 and recorded in Some Aspects of the Contemporary Search for an Alternative Society, which is, as far as I know, the first British thesis on New Age thinking.

More recently, Joanne Pearson and Richard Roberts with Geoffrey Samuel have edited a major study, Nature Religion Today: Paganism in the Modern World (Edinburgh: University of Edinburgh Press, 1988). The book contains a variety of essays by both academics and practitioners under three broad headings: "A Chthonic Imperative? Religion and Nature in the Modern World," "The Pagan Alternative: The Goddess and Nature," and "Nature Religion in Practice." In particular, Peter Beyer's essay on globalization and nature religions and Wouter J. Hannegraaff's reflections on the relationship between secularization and modern paganism set the stage for what follows. Joanne Pearson's reflections on Wicca and the New Age and Richard Roberts analysis of the role of gender and what he calls "the battle for the earth" root the growth of this phenomena in history and contemporary concerns. Finally, Ronald Hutton's insightful essay on archaeology and the Goddess makes this book "a must" for anyone wanting to probe the growth and appeal of modern paganism.

Nazi Roots?
Peter Kratz's brilliant and highly provocative Die Götter des New Age (Berlin: Elefanten Press, 1994) has been left to the last because of its highly controversial nature. Kratz convincingly demonstrates that most, if not all, New Age beliefs are identical with the esotericism that promoted fascism in German society during the 1920's and 1930's. He then traces the history of New Age ideas to document their origins in the works of fascist writers. Finally, he shows that a significant number of key figures in the German New Age movement are, or were, Nazis who never repudiated National Socialism.

Of course, one can always argue that the origin of an idea says little or nothing about its present significance or use. In this way, the defenders of Heidegger attempt to distance the master from his Nazi past. It is also possible to argue that although New Age ideas can be found at the core of fascist ideology, they take on a different meaning in a democratic society. Both of these arguments have merit.

Nevertheless, Kratz has produced a well-documented book, which has a chilling effect on the reader. Kratz is no Constance Cumby or Dave Hunt pushing a sensational fundamentalist thesis. He is a very well-educated German psychologist who worked as a researcher in the German Parliament for almost fifteen years. This book cannot be easily discounted, nor can we avoid the serious questions it raises about the relationship between esoteric ideas and political action. As Wouter Hanegraaff observes, "the academic study of esotericism and of New Religious Movements" has hardly yet begun.


Irving Hexham is professor of Religious Studies at the University of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and the author of many works on New Religious Movements.