By Vexen Crabtree 2016
New Age practices and products are infamous for being based on whim and fancy, with very poor quality (and untested) healing products being sold to uncritical customers. Even worse is the literature that attempts to explain New Age theory. William James said in 1902 that the New Age is "so moonstruck with optimism and so vaguely expressed" that rational people find the literature almost impossible to read1 and Sam Harris says "the New Age has ... made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells [and has arisen] in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence. Indeed, many New Age ideas are so ridiculous as to produce terror in otherwise dispassionate men"2. One of the most disliked aspects is pseudoscience, where "New Agers speak and write about science... with very little understanding of actual scientific theories"3. Sometimes, even daft beliefs can have serious consequences, especially where New Age practices verge towards making medical claims, and for this reason many have called for increased regulation4.
The New Age is a wildly varied collection of practices and beliefs rather than a structured belief system, and as such it is difficult to define5. Popular elements include alchemy, alternative psychotherapy techniques, animism, aromatherapy, astrology, crystal work, divination, Gnosticism, karma stuff, lightwork and colour healing, magic, psychic powers of every kind, reincarnation and past life regression, sacred geometry (leylines, pyramids, magical shapes), Spiritualism, Tarot card readings, Taoism, Yoga and many other splintered movements and zany practices6.
Its derives from folklore, superstition, pre-modern magical beliefs and elements of Hinduism and Buddhism. The peoples of mythical places such as Atlantis and Avalon rub shoulders with the gods, goddesses and other spiritual beings from ancient Greece, ancient Egypt, Celtic, Nordic, Saxon, Teutonic and Native American belief systems7. New Agers themselves emphasize the 'arcane' nature of their 'ancient' and 'secret' wisdom8. Some of it comprises of practices that are commonplace in the East (such as meditation) but which are simply called 'new age' when they happen to be practiced by Westerners. Much of the Indian influence on the New Age derives from diluted practices and ideas brought from India by the Theosophists.”
Contents for the introduction page:
Many New Religious Movements, especially the New Age, thrive on emotional instinct, basic magical thinking and supernatural beliefs that are anathema to science - "the heart in favour of the head" according to Paul Heelas, who specifically notes that the New Age is opposed to rationalism and prefers to rely on intuition and "inner wisdom"9. Likewise it might sound positive and healthy to follow Sir George Trevelyan´s New Age advice to "Only accept what rings true to your Inner Self"10 but it is as much a recipe for anarchy as it is for peace.
Poor thinking abounds. Simplistic and nonsensical categorisation methods - based on whim and fancy - are used as the basis for systems of healing which are then sold to uncritical customers. The otherwise impassionate Steve Bruce compared the style of thinking to that of the Middles Ages:
“Causal mechanisms rarely gets beyond metaphor and highly contestable notions of temperament that have hardly developed since the Middle Ages' four humours of blood, phlegm, choler, and block choler (or melancholy). For example, Edward Bach's flower remedies, which were first formulated in the 1930s and are now popular again [held] that there are twelve basic moods which can be manipulated with the appropriate flower essences [to cure disease]. [...]
For outsiders, one of the most startling features of the New Age is its apparent division from the rational scientific world-view which dominates Western culture [... with includes its] insistence on experimentation, observation and testing. [...] New Agers tend to have little interest in conventional notions of testing. That one or two people assert that a therapy worked for them is enough.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)4
Scientific journals and periodicals such as the Skeptical Inquirer are filled with articles that despair at the scientific nonsense that is peddled on the New Age shelves of bookstores. Religious studies academic Roderick Main notes that all too "commonly, New Agers speak and write about science, whether drawing on or denigrating it, with very little understanding of actual scientific theories or methodologies"3. Sam Harris summarizes the net effect of the volumes of pseudo-scientific rubbish that is produced by New Age authors and disseminated by New Age publishers:
“The New Age has [...] made spiritual life seem generally synonymous with the forfeiture of brain cells. Most of the beliefs and practices that have been designated as "spiritual," in this New Age or in any other, have arisen and thrive in a perfect vacuum of critical intelligence. Indeed, many New Age ideas are so ridiculous as to produce terror in otherwise dispassionate men.”
"The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason" by Sam Harris (2006)2
These criticisms against the modern New Age are not in themselves modern. William James, one of the esteemed founders of the study of comparative religion, warned us all clearly that "what immediately feels most 'good' is not always most 'true'" (in 1902)11. Such criticism began as the pre-echoes of the Enlightenment began to be felt across Europe and superstition itself became to be seen as a human weakness in critical thinking: an attempt to trick humans for selfish purposes, rather than an attempt to promulgate the Devil's practices. It was this that caused King Louis XIV in 1682 to enact laws to protect "many ignorant and credulous people who were unwittingly engaged with... the vain professions of fortune-tellers, magicians, or sorcerers" and to regulate the selling of posions12.
“New Agers often frame contemporary experience in terms of myth [partly because] it does not make the same claims to explanatory adequacy as religious doctrines traditionally have, is less vulnerable to direct criticism from science and so can survive better as a container of spiritual meaning.”
"Religion, Science and the New Age" by Roderick Main (2002)13
The New Age embrace of weird and wacky psychotherapy techniques - from chanting (and screaming), to the creation of repressed memories and past-life exploration, has sometimes done more damage than good. A great number of psychological studies have shown that our memory is more malleable than we think, and the power of suggestion is the true source of 'retrieved' memories.
“Some people call for greater regulation of New Age practices, especially where they veer into the realm of making medical claims. [...] Some of the demand comes from conventional secular professions which wish to maintain the superior effectiveness of their techniques [and] interestingly, some New Age practitioners are in favour of the codification and regulation of their expertise. [...] Some of the claimants have suffered direct harm as a result of unconventional therapies, whilst some have witnessed others being harmed. Some have merely realized that the services they have paid for have done nothing at all. A particularly contentious area is the claim of some psychotherapists to assist victims of sexual abuse to discover and externalize repressed memories. Some parents who have been accused by their adult children of rape in childhood have formed organizations to campaign for the regulation of therapists; some have started legal actions.”
"Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults" by Steve Bruce (1996)4
Concerns about New Age practices in history have seen laws passed as long ago as the 17th century against many practices which are now considered part of the New Age. Some of these laws actually lessened the punishment possible for these crimes by moving them out of Christian jurisdiction by emphasizing their human rather than Satanic nature, hence, helping to prevent the inquisition from interfering in the judicial process. The motive behind these laws was more to protect the gullible and daft from the wiles of the cunning-folk, rather than to enforce orthodox belief.
“In 1682 Louis XIV ordered the promulgation of a new law to suppress all those 'who follow the vain professions of fortune-tellers, magicians, or sorcerers or other similar names'. Strict regulations regarding the sale of poisons were instituted. The language of the Edict of 1682 also made it clear that magic was a pernicious belief rather than a real diabolic force. By banishing magicians and their ilk the Edict aimed to protect 'many ignorant and credulous people who were unwittingly engaged with them'. [...] Over the next few decades legislation would gradually appear elsewhere in Europe reflecting this fundamental shift from magicians as diabolic criminals to magicians as frauds. Grimoires were no longer instruments of heresy but immoral manuals of superstition.”
Although the New Age received most attention throughout the 1980s after its rise in the 1970s, the Catholic Church still feels the pinch, especially when polls reveal that many Western Christians are indulging in alternative spiritual practices.
“The Roman Catholic Church has warned Christians against resorting to New Age therapies to satisfy their spiritual needs. Publishing the results of a six-year study of practices such as yoga, feng shui and shamanism, the Vatican said that whatever the individual merits of such therapies, none provided a true answer to the human thirst for happiness. "New Age is a misleading answer to the oldest hopes of man."”
Funnily enough they actual got the statement about happiness completely wrong as Eastern solutions are better than Western religions at producing happiness: Buddhist and non-religious countries are the happiest. See: Happiness and Religion: Does Belief Make You Happy Or Does Unhappiness Make You Believe?.
There have been many anti-New Age Christian authors, often operating under the "anti-cult" banner.
Benjamin Radford is a skeptical investigator and perhaps the world's topmost expert on the chupacabra, a mythical monster of the same ilk as bigfoot and the Lock Ness Monster. He stumbled across a book which led to an interesting exposé of the way New Age material is churned out with little in the way of editorial checks on quality or accuracy. The book, published by HarperCollins, was authored by Theresa Cheung, who, according to her Amazon profile was "born into a family of psychics and astrologers. She gave her first public psychic reading at the age of 14 and has been involved in the serious study of the psychic world ever since". Her books typically feature in the mind-body-spirit section and she in 2013 wrote a column for The Daily Mail on dream interpretation.
Radford's interest was piqued by the following paragraph in Theresa Cheung's book:
“In 2005, Isaac Espinoza spent millions of his own money trying to hunt down the chupacabra. He lived in the jungles of South America for eight months with a team of researchers, video and print journalists, and local guides.”
Radford looked into Isaac Espinoza, a man who he's never heard of before, only to find after extended and methodical searching, that he didn't exist. He was a figment of the imagination of anonymous web authors, and exactly the same paragraph of text about him has been copied to a few monster-hunter websites. She copied this fictional character into her book and now, for years to come, innocent readers will forever believe in Isaac Espinoza, and even have a referenceable book to back up their belief. How did this happen?
“The author, Theresa Cheung, surely hadn't just made him up in a reference work published by HarperCollins. [...] It seemed clear that Cheung had simply cut and pasted the information about Espinoza from the web and into the chupacabra entry in the encyclopedia she was writing. If she was so indifferent to factual accuracy in her book that she would use someone else's words without bothering to check if the information was true (much less 'credit' them), then what did that say about her other research? [...] Using my own chupacabra notes, books from my library, and the Internet, after several hours I identified no less than four different sources from which Cheung had taken her words, often verbatim. I was shocked that that plagiarism was so obvious and so rampant. [...] Over 80% of her entry was taken, uncredited, from other sources. [...] Once we knew what to look for, it became clear how Cheung 'wrote' those entries of her book; she merely typed a subject name into the Google search engine and then cut and pasted paragraphs from the top three or four hits, changed a few words, and then submitted it as her own work. [...] There are likely more (many more) entries that may have been copied from other sources, but we stopped after finding evidence of plagiarism in a stunning eight out of ten randomly-selected entries we spot-checked.
The findings were sent to HarperCollins, who (basically) dismissed them as being an ordinary level of human error! The researchers are continuing to collect evidence from other articles in Theresa Cheung's encyclopedia.”
Benjamin Radford wasn't the first to sound the alarm about the plagiarism of Theresa Cheung. A few years earlier Niels K. Petersen described her book as "an inaccurate mix of information taken from various sources"15. Shame on Theresa Cheung, and shame on HarperCollins for failing to perform basic plagiarism checks on its text before publishing it.
HarperCollins is owned by News Corp, a company deeply mired in complaints about poor publishing methods. See: "Rupert Murdoch and News Corp's Involvements in Politics" by Vexen Crabtree (2016).
Current edition: 2016 Nov 3016
Originally published 2014 Jun 20
Parent page: Human Religions
Skeptical Inquirer. Magazine. Published by Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, NY, USA. Pro-science magazine published bimonthly.
(1996) Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults. Paperback book. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK.
(2009) Grimoires: A History of Magic Books. Hardback book. Published by Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK. Davies is Professor of Social History at the University of Hertfordshire, UK.
(2006) The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and the Future of Reason. Paperback book. 2006 edition. Published in UK by The Great Free Press, 2005.
(1996) The New Age Movement: Religion, Culture and Society in the Age of Postmodernity. Paperback book. Published by Blackwell Publishers Ltd, London, UK.
James, William. (1842-1910)
(1902) The Varieties of Religious Experience. Paperback book. Subtitled: "A Study in Human Nature". 5th (1971 fifth edition) edition. Originally published 1960. From the Gifford Lectures delivered at Edinburgh 1901-1902. Quotes also obtained from Amazon digital Kindle 2015 Xist Publishing edition. Book Review.
(2002) Religion, Science and the New Age. This essay is chapter 5 of "Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age" by Joanne Pearson (2002) (pages p173-224).
(2002, Ed.) Belief Beyond Boundaries: Wicca, Celtic Spirituality and the New Age. Paperback book. Published by Ashgate Publishing Ltd, Aldershot, UK, in association with The Open University, Milton Keynes, UK.
York, Michael. Principal Lecturer in Cultural Astronomy and Astrology and Director of the Sophia Centre at Bath Spa University College, UK. Previously a post-doctoral reasearcher at the Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies in London.
(1995a) The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movement. Published by Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, USA.