In recent years, the New Age movement has been subject to plenty of bashing. At best, its detractors call it tacky, insincere, self-indulgent and a rather silly mash-mash of cultural appropriations. At its worse, critics accuse it of pedalling pseudo-science and magical “cure alls” that exploit the desperation of vulnerable people while dangerously discouraging those who are ill from getting genuine medical help.
I think that these are all genuine concerns and I absolutely detest seeing greedy and manipulative people using “New Age” cures and treatments to con people out of thousands of pounds’ worth of money. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong at all with selling crystals and charms for “good luck” or charging money for things such as tarot readings or psychic readings (the charge involved is usually small and the clients tend to enjoy it, so it’s worth paying for the “entertainment” value if nothing else), I think there is something very wrong with claiming to be a substitute for proper medical care and saying that you can cure anything for the right price. And I’ve seen plenty of practitioners who could be labelled “New Age” who do just that. For the record, I think that alternative medicine should be seen as “complementary” medicine and is absolutely not a substitute for mainstream medicine. If alternative healing methods work for you, that’s great – but I personally will always go to the doctors before seeking alternative medicine.
Anyway, despite those unethical individuals who have given the New Age movement a rather bad name, I actually think that New Age has done plenty of good – in fact, most of it has been positive, in my opinion. And I think that today’s Pagans have a lot to thank the New Age movement for. And here’s why I think the New Age movement really isn’t so bad:
1. The New Age movement is extremely eclectic, borrowing from absolutely everywhere – Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Judaism, Native American beliefs, secular movements such as Humanism, and plenty of weird and wonderful beliefs such as the UFO movement. In fact, I would say that New Age is a spirituality of everything – perhaps the very first popular movement of its kind to say that all religions and beliefs were linked together and should be celebrated. And as I’ve mentioned before, I think eclecticism in spirituality is a very good thing; I believe it can make us more tolerant, open-minded and spiritually enriched.
2. Like the Hippie movement to which it is related, New Age encourages a degree of political engagement, especially in environmentalism, feminism, World Peace and the preservation of indigenous culture. It got people to stand up and work for a better world.
3. New Age provides a form of spirituality suited to modern, urban society – but, arguably, without supplanting those religions already in place. For example, say you are a Christian who feels disillusioned with the way the religion is practised and taught. You would find the New Age moment embracing slightly different aspects of Christianity, such as focussing on angels or using Gregorian chants as music for meditation. And the New Age movement would also tell you that Christianity was also linked to all the other religions in the world, meaning none are “right” or “wrong,” and that they merely reflect different aspects of the Divine. In this way, New Age would help you to embrace Christianity and perhaps re-capture your faith, albeit in a slightly different manner to what is traditional.
4. Through its emphasis on sensual experiences, such as music, aromatherapy etc., New Age encourages creativity and open-mindedness.
5. New Age strongly acknowledges the link between a healthy mind and a healthy body, and encourages the individual to focus on both.
6. There is a certain element of enjoyment in New Age. Those who practise aspects of the New Age moment do so because they find it fun and fulfilling, not because they are told they must do so to fulfil societal obligations or, worse, they will be punished in the afterlife if they don’t. (This is of course with the exception of those unscrupulous businessmen who make claims that you will get sick if you don’t purchase their particular brand of New Age snake oil.)
7. Finally, this is rather contentious, but I think the New Age movement did a lot to popularise Paganism, and enrich it as well. Before it was picked up by the New Age movement, Paganism was practised rather secretly and was poorly understood by the masses. But by linking Paganism to all its other belief systems, New Age helped to build Paganism into a religion which soon became perhaps the fastest-growing religion in the UK (the other contender for this title, Islam, is easier to measure because it is an organised religion, and so we may well see Islam come out on top for this title in official records for this reason). In part thanks to New Age, many of the old ideas surrounding Paganism (and Wicca) as an anti-Christian, “satanic” path were much dispelled, and people began to see Pagans instead as being rather much like Hippies – harmless, earth-loving and peaceful.
What’s more, Paganism picked up lots beliefs and practises from the New Age movement. A good example is crystals. When I first started going to moots, I was rather surprised as how much emphasis was placed on crystals – the way I saw it, crystals belonged more in the New Age tradition than in the Pagan one because our ancestors probably wouldn’t have used crystals that much – mining didn’t really exist in the time of the druids after all! But the fact is, crystals fit very well with the Pagan and Wiccan ideas of the energy that is contained within the natural world, and using that energy for beneficial effects, and it therefore seems natural to incorporate working with crystals into Pagan ritual. It doesn’t really matter that the practise probably didn’t happen among the Pagans of the past.
Of course, there are plenty of Pagans who aren’t keen on the New Age movement, and accuse it of creating a generation of “Fluffy Pagans” – in other words, those who have learned about Paganism only from the more dubious pocket-sized books on Paganism from New Age shops (or popular TV shows), and those for whom Paganism is all sweetness and light without any dark sides (I personally see nothing wrong with this…). And perhaps this is a valid point – one could argue it is a form of cultural appropriation, just like the affectation of Native American rituals without a full understanding of their meaning. But I believe that, all in all, the New Age movement has done a lot of good for Paganism. And let’s face it, we’ve all spent plenty of hours in New Age shops stocking up on crystals, essential oils and candles…