What is the New Age Movement?

During the 1980s increasing numbers of people started turning to various unconventional spiritual and therapeutic practices, which have been labelled as the ‘New Age Movement’ by sociologists such as Paul Heelas (1996).

The New Age Movement consists of an eclectic range of beliefs and practices based on Buddhism and Taoism, psychology, and psycho-therapy; paganism, clairvoyance, tarot and magic.

The New Age Movement is probably best characterized as a ‘spiritual supermarket’ from which individuals are free to pick and mix those spiritual beliefs and practices which they feel best help them achieve peace of mind or realize their full human potential.

Examples of New Age Beliefs and Practices

These are many and varied, but they include….

  • A belief in the power of natural healing and ‘spiritual energy’… as found within Tai Chi and Reiki.
  • The belief that nature is sacred, as found in beliefs in Gaia and Paganism.
  • A belief in the idea that individuals have a ‘deeper’ inner potential to be realized – with the help of various psycho-therapeutic interventions.
  • A belief in mysticism, clairvoyance and the psychic power of certain individuals.
  • A belief in fate which might be uncovered through practices such as the tarot or astrology.
  • A belief in extra-terrestrials, and ‘cosmos’ religions.

.Common Themes of the New Age Movement

  • A focus on ‘self-improvement’ – many New Age practices are about ‘perfecting oneself’ – going on a journey of self-improvement, or even self-transcendence. Often this means going beyond one’s ‘socialised self’ and getting in touch with one’s ‘true self’ or ones ‘inner self’ through practices such as meditation.
  • The self is seen as the final authority in the New Age Movement – rather than accepting the truth of an external god, one needs to find the god or goddess within and find one’s own path to perfection. This fits in with Anthony Giddens’ concept of detraditionalisation – New Agers do not accept the authority of traditional religions, they look to themselves.
  • A Pick and Mix approach to religion – New Age practitioners generally accept that there are diverse paths to ‘spiritual fulfillment’. Not only this, but ‘shopping around’ and trying out different New Age practices is common, so that people can find ‘the mix of beliefs and practices that suit them’. It follows that New Agers reject the idea that one religion has a monopoly on the truth. The New Age movement is in fact more like a cafeteria of relative truths.
  • A belief in holism, or the interconnections of all things – New Agers tend to believe that there is a ‘deeper reality’ behind what we can perceive with our senses that binds us all to one greater whole. This unperins their acceptance of diversity – there are diverse paths to the same ‘universal beyond’.

Related Posts 

Some World Affirming New Religious Movements are part of the New Age Movement, as are some World Rejecting New Religious Movements.

Some aspects of Feminist Spirituality can also be characterized as ‘New Age’.

World Affirming New Religious Movements

According to Roy Walllis, World Affirming New Religious Movements aim to help individuals achieve success within mainstream society by unleashing their spiritual potential.

This is the third type of movement in Wallis three fold typology of New Religious Movement, and is most closely related to Bruce’s concept of ‘the cult’.

Examples of World Affirming NRMs…

  • Transcendental Meditation
  • Scientology
  • The Human Potential Movement

Key features of World Affirming New Religious Movements

  • They aim to help members achieve their full potential in terms of the dominant values of mainstream society.
  • These groups claim to access to spiritual or supernatural powers, and aim to help members access these powers so that they can be successful in life, by unleashing their full potential.
  • Besides the above, they tend to lack any formal religious doctrine, and are the ‘least religious’ of Wallis’ three NRMS, at least in the conventional or traditional sense of what organised religion is about.
  • They are extremely individualistic: success is seen as a matter of individual effort.
  • There is little attempt to control members lives, low commitment. Turnover of membership tends to be quite high.
  • Membership tends to be ‘tiered’.
  • Membership is highly inclusive – World Affirming NRMs want as larger membership base as possible. Membership of such groups may be limited to a client base consumer style relationship…. members ‘buy spiritual services’ from the group.

World Accommodating New Religious Movements

The World Accommodating New Religious Movement (NRM) is one of Roy Wallis’ three types of New Religious Movement. As the name suggests, their orientation to wider society is one of ‘accommodating’ the world rather than rejecting or affirming it.

These type of religious movement have normally broken off from an already existing mainstream church or religious organisation, and they are thus very close to  Niebuhr’s category of the denomination.

Neo-Pentacostalism is a good example of a World Accommodating New Religious Movement.

Key features of World Accommodating New Religious Movements

  • They are typically offshoots of an already existing religion. For example, neo-Pentecostal groups developed from Protestantism or Catholicism.
  • These movements tend to aim to restore the ‘spiritual purity’ which they believe has been lost in the larger institutions they have broken away from.
  • The main aim of World Accommodating NRMs tends to be to provide members with ‘spiritual solace’ and a way of coping with their ordinary lives.
  • They tend to focus on helping individual members develop their own interior sense of spirituality and commitment to God.
  • Unlike world rejecting movements, they do not reject mainstream society, in fact most members of world accommodating groups tend to be actively involved with mainstream society – they have jobs and the like.
  • Unlike World Affirming Movements, World Accommodating Movements are not obsessed with ‘maxing out personal spiritual growth’, they are more about helping members cope with their ordinary lives, improving their quality of life within in society.

World Rejecting New Religious Movements

The World Rejecting New Religious Movement (NRM) is one of Roy Wallis’ three types of New Religious Movement. As the name suggests, their orientation to wider society is one of rejecting most of what that society stands for.

Wallis’ World Rejecting NRMs are closely related to Troeltsch’s category of the sect.

Examples of World Rejecting NRMs…

  • The People’s Temple
  • The Manson Family
  • Krishna Consciousness
Krishna Consciousness

Key features of World Rejecting New Religious Movements 

  • Their religious ideology tends to be highly critical of mainstream society (and possible mainstream religions within that society).
  • World Rejecting Movements typically demand high levels of commitment from members. They often expect members to withdraw from mainstream society and devote much of their lives to the movement. Some of them may act as ‘total institutions’, controlling every aspects of members’ lives.
  • While regular members’ lives are tightly controlled, those higher up the hierarchy will typically have more ties and more interactions with the outside world.
  • Seeking radical individual transformation or even radical social change is often the main goal of World Rejecting NRMs.
  • They tend to have been founded by a charismatic leader, and membership tends to demand loyalty to that leader.
  • World Rejecting NRMs vary size: from small, ‘one location’ organisations such as The People’s Temple to global NRMs such as the Moonies.
  • Many NRMs have conservative religious beliefs, especially where sex and marriage are concerned.

Types of religious organisation: the cult

Steve Bruce (1995) defines a cult as a ‘loosely knit group organized around some common themes and interests but lacking any sharply defined and exclusive belief system’.

Cults correspond closely to Roy Wallis’ category of ‘World Affirming New Religious Movements’.

Examples of Cults/ World Affirming NRMs include

  • Scientology
  • Transcendental Meditation
  • The Human Potential Movement

 Key Features of Cults 

  • Cults tend to lack a fixed religious doctrine, and typically have very loose religious beliefs, which are open to a wide range of interpretation by members.
  • They tend to be more individualistic than other forms of religion.
  • Members tend to be more like ‘customers’: they are free to come and go as they please, and choose which aspects of the cult’s activities to take part in.
  • Unlike sects, they tend to lack strict rules. There is very little commitment involved with being a member.
  • They are tolerant of other religions beliefs.

Competing definitions of cults 

 

NB – The media often uses the term cult, when really it’s referring to a sect!

NB – when a world rejecting religious movement goes nuts and convinces its members to commit mass suicide, the media often uses the term ‘cult’ to refer to it. Strictly speaking, according to the various categories used by sociologists, such organisations are ‘sects’, not ‘cults’.

Sources: Haralambos and Holborn (2013) Sociology Themes and Perspectives, edition 8.

Types of Religious Organisation: The Sect

According to Troeltsch, the Sect is basically the opposite of The Church….

religious organisations types.png

Key characteristics of sects according to Troeltsch…

  1. They have significantly smaller memberships than churches
  2. The membership base of sects is drawn from the lower social classes
  3. Sects are not aligned with the state
  4.  Sects do not accept the norms and values of mainstream society. Sects are detached from society, and in opposition to it.
  5. Sects demand a high level of commitment from their members and they have a high level of integration. They may expect members to withdraw from society all together.
  6. They do not have ‘inclusive membership’. Membership has to be conscious and voluntary. Children cannot be born into sects.
  7. Sects tend to possess a monopoly on truth.
  8. Sects have a charismatic leader, who is generally perceived to be special. They do not have an hierarchy of paid officials.

According to Steve Bruce, the first sects in modern Europe were formed when groups of people broke away from a more established religion, because of disagreement over how that religion was interpreted.

Over time, some sects have developed into denominations.

Criticisms of Troeltsch’s ‘sect’ category….

There are very few religious organisations which tick all of the above boxes, meaning the category might be too exclusive to be useful.

Roy Wallis has suggested that it is more useful to distinguish between different types of sect according to their orientation to the wider society – such as world affirming, world accommodating and world rejecting. In other words, he argues that not all sects are ‘world rejecting’.

Sources

  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book

Types of Religious Organisation: The Denomination

H.R. Niebuhr (1929) was the first sociologist to distinguish between a church and a denomination. His distinction was based on a study of religion in the U.S.A.

Denominations share some, but not all of the features of churches.

Examples of denominations include the Methodists, the Pentecostals and the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

religious organisations types.png

According to Neibuhr, denominations have about 6 characteristics:

  1. Like churches, denominations draw members from all sections of society: they are inclusive.
  2. Like churches, denominations have formal organisations and are hierarchically organised with a bureaucratic structure.
  3. There tend to be several denominations in a society, so they do not have universal appeal
  4. Denominations do not claim a monopoly on truth.
  5. Unlike churches, a denomination does not identity with the state and believes in the separation of church and state.
  6. Some denominations place more restrictions on their members: for example the Methodists and the Pentecostals.

Steve Bruce suggests that denominations have become more important in society with the rise of religious pluralism.

Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the denomination

The concept may be too broad to be useful. There is disagreement over whether certain religious organisations should be classified as sects or denominations.

 

Sources

  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book

Types of Religious Organisation: The Church

Ernst Troeltsch (1931) used the term ‘church’ to refer to a large, hierarchically organised  religious institutions with an inclusive, universal membership, typically with close links to the state.

religious organisations types.png

According to Troeltsch* Churches have about 5 characteristics:

  1. Churches tend to have very large memberships, and inclusive memberships.
  2. Churches tend to claim a monopoly on the truth.
  3. Churches have large, bureaucratic, hierarchical structures
  4. Churches have professional, paid clergy
  5. Churches tend to be closely tied to the state.

Criticisms of the ‘concept’ of the church

Steve Bruce (1996) suggests that the above definition of church may have been true in pre-modern Christian societies, but ever since the Reformation, and especially since the increase of religious pluralism, this type of definition of a ‘church’ no longer applies to organisations which formally call themselves churches in modern societies – organisations such as the Church of England.

There are several examples of ‘churches’ which do not fit the above definition:

  • The Church of England does not have universal membership.
  • Many churches today do not claim a monopoly on the truth, they tend to be tolerant of other faiths.
  • The links between the church and the state are not as strong as they once were.

It seems then, that the only ways in which modern churches resemble Troeltsch’s definition lies in their organisational structure.

Sources

  • Haralambos and Holborn: Sociology Themese and Perspectives
  • Chapman et al: Sociology AQA A-Level Year 2 Student Book

Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times

David Lyon argues that religion is not declining with the shift from modernity to postmodernity, rather it is simply relocating to the ‘sphere of consumption’ as people selectively choose which aspects different religions to use at different points in their lives.

David Lyon suggests there are two main social changes which characterize the shift from modernity to postmodernity:

  1. The spread of computer and information technology- which allows for information to spread much more rapidly and much more globally.
  2. The growth of consumer culture. The normalizing of consumerism means that people have come to expect choice in every aspect of their lives: not only in terms of the products they buy, or where they go on holiday, but also in terms of their religious beliefs and practices.

David Lyon thus argues that the shift to postmodernity does not mean that religion has necessarily declined in purpose, it has simply moved to a different sphere of social life – to what he calls ‘the sphere of consumption’. People expect choice in every other area of their life, and they expect to be able to choose their religion too.

Lyon uses the example of religious belief in Canada to illustrate that religion remains important to most people, but only when they selectively choose it to be, in line with their own individual needs.

Lyon pointed out that 80% of those who did not attend church on a regular basis still drew selectively on religion during critical times of their lives, such as during marriage and death.

This is far from religion ‘disappearing’ from social life altogether, and thus Lyon theorizes that religion has shifted from a social institution which imposes norms on people to a cultural resource which people selectively draw on when they see fit.

To put this another way, rather than Christianity (for example, in the Christian West) being the grand narrative which dictates what people’s lives should be like, people now construct their own ‘narratives’, their own life stories, but they still look to religion to help them write the stories of their lives, but only at certain times.

People also seek a greater diversity of ways to express their faith in postmodern society, and religion has actually been very successful at adapting to fit these needs.

Jesus in Disneyland

Lyon uses the example of Christian singers appearing on stage at Disneyland during religious festivals, amidst all of the other Disney paraphernalia going on around them, to illustrate how religion has adapted to fit the postmodern society: it is no longer confined to traditional settings, and has become part of a more diverse, chaotic and fluid postmodern social landscape.

Finally, Lyon suggests that another important feature of postmodern society is de-differentiation, which involves the distinction between different areas of social life becoming blurred – and the example of ‘Jesus’ in Disneyland demonstrates this: religion has adapted to become part of a ‘fun’ leisure environment….it has become detraditionalised, but this does not necessarily mean that it has become any less important!

 

 

Find out more:

Read ‘Jesus in Disneyland‘ (2000) by David Lyon

Religious Pluralism: Evidence of Secularization?

Durkheim’s view of religion implied that a truly religious society could only have one religion in that society. In Durkheim’s analysis this was the situation in small-scale, Aboriginal societies, where every member of that society comes together at certain times in the year to engage in religious rituals. It was based on observations of such societies that Durkheim theorized that when worshiping religion, people were really worshiping society.

However, in more modern societies, especially postmodern societies, there is no one dominant religion: there are many religions, or a plurality of religions. Sociologists describe such a situation as religious pluralism.

According to Steve Bruce (2011) modernization and industrialization in Northern Europe and America brought with them social fragmentation, such that a plurality of different cultural and religious groups emerged. We see religious pluralism most obviously in the growth of sects and cults and in the increase in ethnic diversity of religion in societies.

Two process happen as a result of this: people find that their membership of their particular group or religion no longer binds them to society as a whole; and the state finds it difficult to formally support one ‘main religion’ without causing conflict.

Bruce thus argues that ‘strong religion’, which influences practically every areas of people’s lives: shaping their beliefs and practices cannot exist in a religiously plural society. Strong religion can only exist in isolated pockets, such as the Amish communities, but these have isolated themselves from society as a whole.

Religiously plural societies are thus characterized by ‘weak religion’ – which is a matter of personal choice and does not dominate every aspect of people’s lives. Weak religions accept that there is room for other religious belief systems and have little social impact.

Examples of weak religions include modern Protestantism, the ecumenical movement and New Ageism.

Arguments against increasing religious pluralism as evidence of secularization 

It is possible that religion is just changing to fit a postmodern society rather than it being in decline. Why does a society need to have one dominant religion for us to be able to say that religion is important?

It might be that diverse religions which preach tolerance of other religions are the only functional religions for a diverse postmodern society.

There are societies which have more than one religion where religious beliefs are still strong: for example Northern Ireland and Israel.

Sources/ Find out More 

Religions Pluralism – Wikipedia

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