The ‘New Age Movement’, common during the 1980s, refers to a collection of unconventional spiritual and therapeutic practices influenced by Buddhism, Taoism, psychology, paganism, and more. The movement encourages individual choice in spiritual beliefs and practices, emphasizing self-improvement and personal empowerment. Beliefs in natural healing, mysticism, fate, and interconnectedness are characteristic. It also challenges the notions of religious authority, instead promoting a relative, varied approach to spiritual fulfillment.
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 characterised as a ‘spiritual supermarket‘. Individuals are free to pick and mix those spiritual beliefs and practices which they feel best help them achieve peace of mind or realise their full human potential.
Examples of New Age Beliefs and Practices
New Age beliefs are many and varied and 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.
Believing 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.
Believing 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
Four common themes of the New Age Movement are:
A focus on self-improvement.
The self is the final authority in the New Age Movement.
A Pick and Mix approach to religion.
A belief in holism, or the interconnections of all things.
A focus on ‘self-improvement’
Many New Age practices are about ‘perfecting oneself’ – going on a journey of self-improvement, or even self-transcendence. This often means going beyond one’s socialised self and getting in touch with one’s true self through practices such as meditation.
The self is 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 there are diverse paths on the way to ‘spiritual fulfilment’. Hence ‘shopping around’ and trying out different New Age practices is common. This way 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 underpins their acceptance of diversity: there are diverse paths to the same ‘universal beyond’.
Signposting and relevance to A-level sociology.
This material is part of the popular beliefs in society option, usually taught as part of second year sociology.
Max Weber theorized that 17th-century Protestant values contributed to the emergence of capitalism in Europe. Weber argued that Protestantism, particularly Calvinism, promoted a strong work ethic, characteristics upon which the capitalist system flourishes. However, he also noted that other factors, such as governmental support and available capital, played a role, and Protestantism alone did not necessarily lead to capitalism.
Weber argued the values of the protestant religion led to the emergence of capitalism in Northern Europe in the 1600s.
Weber observed that Capitalism first took off in Holland and England, in the mid 17th century. He asked himself the question: ‘why did Capitalism develop in these two countries first?’
Protestant Individualism and the Emergence of Capitalism
Weber argued that the particular varieties of protestantism present in England and Holland in the 1600s were essential to the emergence of capitalism in those two countries.
The values of Protestantism encouraged ways of acting which (unintentionally) resulted in capitalism emerging, over a period of many decades, even centuries.
Weber observed that most other countries in Europe at that time were Catholic. He theorised the different value systems of the two religions had different effects.
Protestantism encouraged people to ‘find God for themselves’. Protestantism taught that silent reflection, introspection and prayer were the best ways to find God. This (unintentionally, and over many years) encouraged Protestants to adopt a more ‘individualistic’ attitude to their religion by seeking their own interpretations of Christianity.
In contrast, Catholicism was a religion which encouraged more conservative values and thus resisted social changes. The Catholic Church had a top-down structure: from God to the Pope to the Senior Bishops and then down to the people. Ultimate power to interpret Catholic doctrine rested with the Pope and his closest advisers. The authorities expected practising Catholics to abide by such interpretations and not to interpret religious scripture for themselves.
Similarly, part of being a good Catholic meant attending mass, which was administered by a member of the Catholic establishment. This reinforced the idea that the church was in control of religious matters.
Weber argued that the individualistic ethos of Protestantism laid the foundations for a greater sense of individual freedom. It was acceptable to challenge ‘top down’ interpretations of Christian doctrine, as laid down by the clergy. Societies which have more individual freedom are more open to social changes. Hence why capitalism emerged first in the two Protestant countries England and Holland in the 1600s.
The Protestant Ethic: necessary but not sufficient!
Weber recognised that protestantism alone did not explain why capitalism emerged in Holland and England first. He noted that Switzerland, Scotland and Hungary were also protestant countries. However these did not have other factors present which were conducive to social change.
Other factors existing in England and Holland were also important for capitalism to emerge, such as governments which supported protestantism and the availability of capital to invest. But protestantism was also an essential driver in the emergence of capitalism.
Weber also argued that Buddhism and Taoism in India and China prevented capitalism from emerging first there. India and China also had technological knowledge and labour for hire in the 1600s. However, Buddhist and Taoist religions encourage inner reflection rather than ‘a work ethic’. Hence India and China suitable belief systems for capitalism to emerge.
The Protestant Ethic
Weber argued that a particular denomination of Protestantism known as Calvinismplayed a key role in ushering in the social change of Capitalism.
Calvinism originated in the beliefs of John Calvin who preached the doctrine of predestination: God had already decided who was going to heaven (‘the elect’) before they were born. Similarly, God had also already decided who the damned were. Whether or not you were going to hell had already been decided before your birth.
This fatalistic situation raised the question of how you would know who was saved and who was damned. Fortunately, Calvinism also taught that there was a way of figuring this out. There were indicators which could tell you who was ‘elect’, and who was damned.
Simply put, the harder you worked, and the less time you spent idling and/ or engaged in unproductive, frivolous activities, then the more likely it was that you were one of those pre-chosen for a life in heaven. This is because, according to Calvinist doctrine, God valued hard-work and a ‘pure-life’ non-materialistic life.
According to Weber this led to a situation in which Calvinist communities encouraged work for the glory of God, and discouraged laziness and frivolity. Believers were motivated to stick to these ethical codes, given that hell was the punishment if you didn’t.
Calvinism: all work and no play!
A strong value within Calvinism was asceticism and leading an ascetic lifestyle. Asceticism means leading an austere lifestyle of rigorous self-discipline and abstaining from life’s pleasures.
Hard work was a calling and Calvinists pursued it with single mindedness and with vigour.
John Wesley, leader of the Methodist revival just before the industrial revolution wrote towards the end of the 18th century:
‘For religion must necessarily produce industry and frugality, and these cannot but produce riches. We must exhort all Christians to gain what they can and to save all they can; that is, in effect to grow rich’. (Quoted in Weber, 1954.)
Calvinists disliked time-wasting, idle gossip and more sleep than was necessary. They frowned on impulsive fun and enjoyment such as pubs and gaming houses. Sport and recreation were only justified for improving fitness, not for fun. Sex was only for procreation.
Since asceticism was also a belief, people couldn’t spend their riches on enjoying themselves. Rather, they should invest profits back in their businesses to enhance capacity to meet their calling.
Over the decades, the ‘work-ethic’ of protestantism encouraged individuals and whole communities to set up businesses, and re-invest any money they earned to grow these businesses.
The Spirit of Capitalism
The attitude towards wealth in protestantism mirrored the attitude to wealth creation in capitalism.
Underlying the practice of capitalism was what Weber called the ‘Spirit of Capitalism’.
Weber saw this spirit in the works of Benjamin Franklin. He wrote works entitled ‘Necessary Hints to Those that Would be Rich’ (1736) and ‘Advice to a Young Tradesman’ (1748). In the later he wrote:
‘Remember that time is money. Time wasting, idleness and diversion lose money…. A reputation for prudence and honesty will bring credit… Business people should behave with industry and frugality and punctuality and justice in their dealings.’
The Spirit of capitalism was more than about making money, it was also a way of life and a set of ethics. Making money became both a religious ethic and a business ethic.
Capitalist enterprises are organised on rational bureaucratic lines. Capitalists conduct Business transactions in a systematic and rational manner and they monitor costs and profits closely. This single minded, rational pursuit of profits is like a sense of calling in protestantism.
The protestant idea of a regimented and disciplined life and the idea that people had a set place in life further encouraged standardised production and justified the division of labour.
Weber argued that over the following centuries, the norm of working hard and investing in your business became entrenched in European societies. These norms encouraged entrepreneurialism and a rational approach to mass production which fuelled capitalism.
Eventually the old protestant religious ideas withered away and we were left with mainly secular, capitalist societies.
Evaluations of the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism
Weber’s theory of social change recognises that we need to take account of individual motivations for action in order to understand massive social structural changes.
Kautsky developed a Marxist critique of Weber. He argued that early capitalism preceded Calvinism. He sees Calvinism as developing in countries and cities where commerce and early industrialisation were already established. Then Calvinism came along to justify their already existing capitalist practices.
Critics have pointed out that the emergence of Capitalism doesn’t actually correlate that well with Protestantism. There are many historical examples of Capitalist systems having emerged in non-Protestant countries. An example of this is Italian Mercantilism a couple of centuries earlier.
There are also some Calvinist countries where capitalism developed much later on. For example Switzerland and Scotland.
However, defenders of Weber dismiss the above criticisms. They point out that if we drill down into the examples of where capitalism didn’t emerge in some calvinist countries, those countries didn’t have other necessary factors. For example in Scotland, they lacked capital investment and government policies were not favourable.
Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic: how is it relevant to A-level Sociology?
Weber (1958, first published 1904) argued that in some circumstances religion can cause social change. Religious beliefs may have united protestants in the 1600s but those same beliefs resulted in long term social changes. Moreover, the emergence of capitalism is arguably the most important social change in modern history.
This criticises Functionalist and Marxist theories of religion which argue that religion prevents social change.
Weber’s theory also criticises Marx’s theory that religion is shaped by economic factors. In Weber’s theory the reverse happens: the beliefs of protestantism laid the foundations for the capitalist economic system.
Weber’s theory is also a good example of social action theory. We can only understand why capitalism emerged by understanding the world view of protestants 400 years ago. We need to understand their religious motives and beliefs to understand capitalism.