In a world where religion is no longer the main source of meaning and value, New Age spirituality has emerged as a popular alternative. The definition of this term is still being debated by scholars, but it generally refers to beliefs that are not based on traditional Western religions. This article will explore the history and culture of New Age religion from its beginnings in Northern California to present-day practices such as Yoga, meditation, tarot readings, and Reiki therapy.
For our society to make sense of their changing cultural landscape there needs to be an understanding on both sides about how these traditions have been shaped over time. And if we want a more inclusive society then we need a better understanding of one another’s spiritual practices so that they can co-exist.
New Age Religion and Western Culture
The term “new age” entered the American vocabulary in the early twentieth century. Since then, it has undergone many redefinitions. The New Age is generally seen as a spiritual movement that emerged in response to the Cold War era’s shift toward increased rationality, science, and materialism (Lukoff & LeFever). Historians date its beginnings with the Human Potential Movement of the 1950s and 60s, also known as The Aquarian Conspiracy. This cultural shift encouraged individuals to embrace new forms of spirituality outside of traditional religious frameworks (Lukoff & LeFever). For example, Wicca was recognized as a religion for the first time in this period. It should be noted that historically, witches have been associated with negative connotations. It wasn’t until the 20th century that Wicca was recognized as a religion because of its increased public visibility and acceptance (Lukoff & LeFever). In 1969, Helen Schucman claimed she heard a voice dictating A Course in Miracles written from within her mind. This book is now widely used as a self-study guide for those interested in New Thought ways of thinking about spirituality and psychology which emphasizes individual experience over organized religion (Lukoff & LeFever).
Another major marker for the development of the New Age was the Harmonic Convergence on August 16, 1987. On this day thousands gathered at The Great Pyramids in Egypt and Mount Shasta in California to meditate and “unify the planet” through prayer (Lukoff & LeFever). Over time, this emphasis on meditation spread into mainstream culture with its implementation into initiatives such as Google’s 20 Percent Time. During this period of history, there was a general trend towards interest in Eastern religions. While these practices were not new, they were often reinterpreted by New Agers for Western consumption. One example is Yoga which many people use to promote health and wellness now but was originally intended as a tool for enlightenment (Lukoff & LeFever). Meditation retreats are another way that eastern traditions have been imported into our society. Since the 1980s it has become more popular for individuals to practice Vipassana meditation retreats which promote a non-sectarian approach to spirituality (Lukoff & LeFever).
Influenced by Eastern Religions:
This is not to say that the New Age movement was directly influenced by Eastern religions. It wasn’t until the 1960s and 70’s with the emergence of Humanistic and Transpersonal psychology (Grof) that westerners began to adopt practices such as meditation, Yoga, and pilgrimage into their spiritual worldview again (Lukoff & LeFever). The popularity of these spiritual techniques can be seen in books like The Celestine Prophecy written by James Redfield in 1993. Readers could learn how they too could practice living an enlightened life through self-awareness and positive thinking.
New Age religion is steeped in historical tradition found within New Thought and Theosophical Society movements, similar to Protestant Christian reformists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries (Walker). To understand the impact of these traditions on today’s society it is helpful to look at each spiritual movement separately.