New Age is an eclectic range of spiritual or religious beliefs and practices that developed in Western nations during the 1970s. Although often considered to be religious, those involved in it typically prefer the designation of spiritual or mind, body, spirit and rarely use the term New Age themselves. Many scholars of the subject refer to it as the New Age movement, although others contest this term and suggest that it is better seen as a milieu or zeitgeist.
As a form of Western esotericism, the New Age drew heavily upon a number of older esoteric traditions, in particular those that emerged from the occultist current that developed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Such prominent occultist influences include the work of Emanuel Swedenborg and Franz Mesmer, as well as the ideas of Spiritualism, New Thought, and Theosophy. A number of mid-twentieth century influences, such as the UFO religions of the 1950s, the counterculture of the 1960s, and the Human Potential Movement, also exerted a strong influence on the early development of the New Age. The exact origins of the phenomenon remain contested, but there is general agreement that it developed in the 1970s, at which time it was centred largely in the United Kingdom. It expanded and grew largely in the 1980s and 1990s, in particular within the United States. By the start of the 21st century, the term New Age was increasingly rejected within this milieu, with some scholars arguing that the New Age phenomenon had ended.
Despite its highly eclectic nature, a number of beliefs commonly found within the New Age have been identified. Theologically, the New Age typically adopts a belief in a holistic form of divinity that imbues all of the universe, including human beings themselves. There is thus a strong emphasis on the spiritual authority of the self. This is accompanied by a common belief in a wide variety of semi-divine non-human entities, such as angels and masters, with whom humans can communicate, particularly through the form of channeling. Typically viewing human history as being divided into a series of distinct ages, a common New Age belief is that whereas once humanity lived in an age of great technological advancement and spiritual wisdom, it has entered a period of spiritual degeneracy, which will be remedied through the establishment of a coming Age of Aquarius, from which the milieu gets its name. There is also a strong focus on healing, particularly using forms of alternative medicine, and an emphasis on the notion that spirituality and science can be unified.
Centered primarily in Western countries, those involved in the New Age have predominantly been from middle and upper-middle-class backgrounds. The degree to which New Agers are involved in the milieu varied considerably, from those who adopted a number of New Age ideas and practices to those who fully embraced and dedicated their lives to it. The New Age has generated criticism from established Christian organisations as well as modern Pagan and indigenous communities. From the 1990s onward, the New Age became the subject of research by academic scholars of religious studies.
"One of the few things on which all scholars agree concerning New Age is that it is difficult to define. Often, the definition given actually reflects the background of the scholar giving the definition. Thus, the New Ager views New Age as a revolutionary period of history dictated by the stars; the Christian apologist has often defined new age as a cult; the historian of ideas understands it as a manifestation of the perennial tradition; the philosopher sees New Age as a monistic or holistic worldview; the sociologist describes New Age as a new religious movement (NRM); while the psychologist describes it as a form of narcissism."
The New Age phenomenon has proved difficult to define, with much scholarly disagreement as to its scope. The scholars Steven J. Sutcliffe and Ingvild Sælid Gilhus have even suggested that it remains "among the most disputed of categories in the study of religion".
The scholar of religion Paul Heelas characterised the New Age as "an eclectic hotch-potch of beliefs, practices, and ways of life" that can be identified as a singular phenomenon through their use of "the same (or very similar) lingua franca to do with the human (and planetary) condition and how it can be transformed." Similarly, the historian of religion Olav Hammer termed it "a common denominator for a variety of quite divergent contemporary popular practices and beliefs" that have emerged since the late 1970s and are "largely united by historical links, a shared discourse and an air de famille". According to Hammer, this New Age was a "fluid and fuzzy cultic milieu". The sociologist of religionMichael York described the New Age as "an umbrella term that includes a great variety of groups and identities" that are united by their "expectation of a major and universal change being primarily founded on the individual and collective development of human potential."
The scholar of religion Wouter Hanegraaff adopted a different approach by asserting that "New Age" was "a label attached indiscriminately to whatever seems to fit it" and that as a result it "means very different things to different people". He thus argued against the idea that the New Age could be considered "a unified ideology or Weltanschauung", although he believed that it could be considered a "more or less unified 'movement'." Other scholars have suggested that the New Age is too diverse to be a singular movement. The scholar of religion George D. Chryssides called it "a counter-cultural Zeitgeist", while the sociologist of religion Steven Bruce suggested that New Age was a milieu; Heelas and scholar of religion Linda Woodhead called it the "holistic milieu".
There is no central authority within the New Age phenomenon that can determine what counts as New Age and what does not.
Many of those groups and individuals who could analytically be categorised as part of the New Age reject the term New Age in reference to themselves. Some even express active hostility to the term. Rather than terming themselves New Agers, those involved in this milieu commonly describe themselves as spiritual "seekers", and some self-identify as a member of a different religious group, such as Christianity, Judaism, or Buddhism. In 2003 Sutcliffe observed that the use of the term New Age was "optional, episodic and declining overall", adding that among the very few individuals who did use it, they usually did so with qualification, for instance by placing it in quotation marks. Other academics, such as Sara MacKian, have argued that the sheer diversity of the New Age renders the term too problematic for scholars to use. MacKian proposed "everyday spirituality" as an alternate term.
While acknowledging that New Age was a problematic term, the scholar of religion James R. Lewis stated that it remained a useful etic category for scholars to use because, "There exists no comparable term which covers all aspects of the movement." Similarly, Chryssides argued that the fact that "New Age" is a "theoretical concept" does not "undermine its usefulness or employability"; he drew comparisons with "Hinduism", a similar "western etic piece of vocabulary" that scholars of religion used despite its problems.
Religion, spirituality, and esotericism
In discussing the New Age, academics have varyingly referred to "New Age spirituality" and "New Age religion". Those involved in the New Age rarely consider it to be "religion"—negatively associating that term solely with organized religion—and instead describe their practices as "spirituality". Religious studies scholars, however, have repeatedly referred to the New Age milieu as a "religion". York described the New Age as a new religious movement (NRM). Conversely, both Heelas and Sutcliffe rejected this categorisation; Heelas believed that while elements of the New Age represented NRMs, this did not apply to every New Age group. Similarly, Chryssides stated that the New Age could not be seen as "a religion" in itself.
"The New Age movement is the cultic milieu having become conscious of itself, in the later 1970s, as constituting a more or less unified "movement". All manifestations of this movement are characterized by a popular western culture criticism expressed in terms of a secularized esotericism."
— Scholar of esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff, 1996
The New Age is also a form of Western esotericism. Hanegraaff regarded the New Age as a form of "popular culture criticism", in that it represented a reaction against the dominant Western values of Judeo-Christian religion and rationalism, adding that "New Age religion formulates such criticism not at random, but falls back on" the ideas of earlier Western esoteric groups.
The New Age has also been identified by various scholars of religion as part of the
cultic milieu. This concept, developed by the sociologist
Colin Campbell, refers to a social network of marginalised ideas. Through their shared marginalisation within a given society, these disparate ideas interact and create new syntheses.
Hammer identified much of the New Age as corresponding to the concept of "folk religions" in that it seeks to deal with existential questions regarding subjects like death and disease in "an unsystematic fashion, often through a process of bricolage from already available narratives and rituals". York also heuristically divides the New Age into three broad trends. The first, the social camp, represents groups that primarily seek to bring about social change, while the second, the occult camp, instead focus on contact with spirit entities and channeling. York's third group, the spiritual camp, represents a middle ground between these two camps that focuses largely on individual development.
Between the 1930s and 1960s a small number of groups and individuals became preoccupied with the concept of a coming "New Age" and prominently used the term accordingly. The term had thus become a recurring motif in the esoteric spirituality milieu.
Sutcliffe therefore expressed the view that while the term New Age had originally been an "apocalyptic emblem", it would only be later that it became "a tag or codeword for a 'spiritual' idiom".