Steve Bruce points out that the New Age mostly appeals to successful, highly educated, middle class individuals, especially those working in the creative and expressive professions. The kind of individualist beliefs espoused by the New Age Movement fit in well with the world view of such individuals. The doctrine of self-generated success fits their experience of life so far, as they believe they have driven their own success through their own efforts, and New Age practices are a means of achieving even further success.
Bruce further points out that most New Age practices have been stripped of the need for any significant level of self-discipline – all that is required to develop one’s potential is to attend a weekly class, or engage in 20 minutes of yoga or meditation every day. There is no requirement to make any drastic life-changes (like many of the World Rejecting NRMs) and so this fits in well with the busy life styles which most people lead.
In short, Bruce argues that the New Age Movement fits the extremely individualistic nature of late modern societies.
Paul Heelas suggest four reasons why the the New Age Movement has grown in popularity in the Late Modern era:
Modernity has given people a multiplicity of roles, many of which contradict each other, and many people as a result have fragmented identities. The New Age Movement offers people a chance to construct a coherent identity
Consumer culture has created a ‘culture of discontent’ as people fail to find satisfaction in the products and services they consume – the New Age Movement offers an alternative way of seeking perfection, but still offering a choice.
Rapid social changes associated with modernity lead people to seeking security.
The decline of traditional religion has meant people have little alternative.
Ultimately the New Age offers a balance of solutions to those who both experience modernity as an iron cage and a crumbling cage – it offers people freedom, but within a structure they themselves construct.
It also offers people the chance to pursue both ‘utilitarian individualism’ and ‘expressive individualism’, just in different and potentially more satisfying ways than those options offered through consumer culture.
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’.