By James Bishop| Most commentators on the New Age Spirituality (NAS) movement will say that what its proponents believe (we shall refer to them as “New Agers” (plural) or “the New Ager” (singular) henceforth) are a wildly varied collection of practices and beliefs rather than a structured belief system, and that this fact makes it difficult to define (1).
Practices vary often ranging from alchemy to alternative psychotherapy techniques, karma, channeling animism, astrology, aromatherapy, crystal work, divination, and so on. A number of academics have been critical of the movement saying that there is little value in examining its ideas due to it being little more than a passing cultural fad (2). But though academic interest in the New Age has been minimal some interest on the part of academicians has grown to some extent (3).
However, there are a few distinctive features of NAS. One is that what they believe and practice often falls outside of the beliefs and practices of major traditional religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. In fact, many New Agers are openly critical of “organized” religion that they see as intolerant and more concerned with preserving tradition than being open to new ideas.
This is especially the case with God. God, in the traditional monotheistic religions, is believed to be transcendent above his creation, and not, as New Agers believe, part of the universe. Another feature of NAS is that practices often change, and there is no central doctrine, creed, and practice that all New Agers engage in.
New Agers participate in what one might refer to as a network. And though practices and beliefs within this network vary, New Agers tend to find enough common ground as to make themselves somewhat distinctive. Perhaps this can be viewed in light of the words of one scholar who explains that “The many perspectives of a network derive from the autonomy of its members. All have their own turf and agendas, yet they cooperate in the network because they also have some common values and visions” (4).
Where I Find Agreement With NAS
Though the real purpose of this essay is to outline the reasons as to why I am not a New Age spiritualist, which will entail me being critical of several New Age beliefs, I find importance in observing a few areas of agreement I have with New Agers. I find importance in this approach because many critics of NAS seem derisive of the movement, often viewing its proponents as little more than a superstitious and uncritical people.
On a fundamentalist Christian extreme (by conservatives and a number of Catholics), criticism of the movement includes labeling it and its proponents as satanic, or as constituting some satanic conspiracy to overthrow Christianity, an approach which is hugely unhelpful and destructive in cross religious and ideological dialogue. However, though I do believe that NAS is often based on wishful and magical thinking, some of its proponents are smarter and more influential than what many people believe.
Firstly, some of the terms New Agers use to describe themselves are not, in my view, necessarily bad things. Words like “self discovery,” “spiritual growth,” and “enlightenment” can apply to believers across a number of religions. In Christian theology, for example, some of these terms are quite home in the notion of spiritual development in which a believer wishes to arrive at a fuller knowledge of Jesus and God, and subsequently orientate their lives in such a way that how they live reflects God’s goodness and justice.
However, where I would depart with the New Ager is on the meaning behind these terms. Many New Agers, for example, would use “self discovery” as a term to describe how one comes to realize that he is, in fact, God himself and therefore divine. The New Ager also tends to use the term “enlightenment” to refer to a higher state of consciousness that will become commonplace in a “new age” (5).
Another admirable feature of NAS is that its proponents often support movements seeking to protect the environment and end world violence, especially violence between religions (6). I think that any sane and moral human being would, or at least should, support goals that seek to produce moral virtues (love, compassion, sympathy etc.).
There is also an emphasis on eating healthy organic food which, according to many New Agers, has a good effect on the individuals mind and body. I think that many people would agree that eating healthy is a good thing, and that it can lead to a far more healthy life, though most of us fail to exercise this in the practical sense.
Thirdly, the New Ager is also a supernaturalist in that he or she holds to a supernatural worldview. This is not to say that I agree with any of his or her concepts of “God” that I will argue are logically incoherent. However, New Agers believe in the supernatural and supernatural beings like angels.
I myself am also a supernaturalist, and I have argued on numerous occasions that the empirical and testimonial evidence in support of the proposition (“the supernatural exists”) is compelling, especially in terms of miracle healing and the evidence for.
A fourth and final point of agreement is with the New Ager’s emphasis on love, and love being the goal for human relationships. Again, the notion of love is home to a number of religions and ideologies across the world, and within Christian theism specifically. I think love is good, it produces compassion, empathy, and the willingness to assist others in the world who face all kinds of trials and struggles. I think ideologies that espouse the opposite of love, like Nazism or fascism, are cold and ruthless, and ought to be opposed.
But beyond these few points of agreement I find the points of disagreement far more prominent. So let’s turn to these.
1. The Anti-Intellectualism on Behalf of Some of its Proponents
As an evidentialist (I believe evidentialism plays a key role in epistemic justification for belief) I find the sentiments, often uncritical and in contrast to reason, shared by a number of New Agers (not all) unattractive. In my experience with New Agers, sentiments expressed by many proponents run contrary to what I consider rational methodological approaches to some of life’s biggest questions.
For example, much of New Age thought is centered on developing one’s own spirituality and happiness over and above things like intellectual disagreement and reason; consider the words of one writer:
“While it may seem as if lightworkers are not engaging in social issues, the opposite is actually true. While everyone else is out there fighting, arguing, debating, pushing, warring, and creating conflict, a true lightworker knows that the way to change our planet is to hold the vibration of what we want: peace, love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, and joy. While everyone else is sinking down into the mud to fight about things, the lightworkers are cleverly keeping their vibration high” (7).
Such an approach to important questions within life, both in terms of reason and praxis, is questionable on a number of grounds. Firstly, it seems to put non-mutually exclusive categories into the same boat. For example, alongside moral evils such as “warring” and “fighting” we find the words “debating,” and “arguing.” The implication one seems to get is that debating and arguing are necessarily bad/evil things which, to New Agers, sow division.
But, to the contrary, debating is a great thing in many ways. Firstly, it helps us grow both intellectually and in confidence the more we learn and apply new ideas. Thus, we become far more informed about the world, as well as the views of others with whom we can both agree and disagree.
Moreover, the ability to “argue” our ideas is a freedom that must be protected. Such freedom constitutes the very basis of what makes a healthy society in which the freedom of expression is protected, and where moral progress is made possible. We don’t make moral progress without the ability to argue our case that we deem to be morally superior to some other norm or law within our societies and communities.
The British slave trade would have not have come to an end at the time it did if it weren’t for the likes of William Wilberforce to lead an offensive movement against it. Is engaging in such forms of social justice even remotely possible without the freedom to argue and debate? Not at all, and such moral progress would not be possible in a society in which the freedom to debate and to argue are not afforded.
Further, the phrasing of moral virtues of “peace, love, compassion, kindness, gratitude, and joy” on behalf of this commentator in such a way is disingenuous. It is exactly because we have compassion for other people that we human beings debate and argue in the first place (i.e. for the rights of blacks, slaves, and against animal cruelty).
Even “fighting” threats to human and environmental wellbeing is necessary if we intend to preserve a space of peace, harmony, and joy. Sometimes we have to resort to a “mud” fight in hope of a better world.
Therefore, sentiments as captured in this quote often shared by New Agers are confused. This specific quote also strikes one as pompous in its declaration of New Agers being “light workers,” a most abstract and exclusive term if I ever came across one, not that I have an issue with the idea of exclusivity as many New Agers do.
2. The Unlikely Coming of a New Age
Many New Agers believe that humanity is progressing toward a “New Age” of peace and prosperity, which is believed to be a time when hate, violence, wars, crime, racism, sickness, hunger or death will no longer exist (8).
This will happen when more of the human race realizes their divinity (9). But this strikes one as very unlikely for a number of reasons. Firstly, it leaves the question as to how human beings forgot their divine nature in the first place unanswered (which would seem to be some sort of metaphysical amnesia). In other words, humans are ignorant of the alleged truth that they have a divine nature as one proponent, Deepak Chopra, says, “essentially we are spiritual beings who have taken manifestation in physical form” (10).
But somewhere in the process we must have forgotten that we are divine. This brings up a really good question, “What is it that would account for such divine amnesia?” Philosopher Paul Copan thus asks, “If the human self is really divine – if there is no difference between God and humans – then doesn’t it seem strange that so many human beings have forgotten this? How do we account for this cosmic amnesia?” (11). Rather, we instead perceive ourselves as separate and distinct entities, and especially not divine.
Moreover, in this “new age” it is believed that traditional monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism, and Islam will be rendered obsolete and therefore subsequently vanish. According to Alice Bailey, a prominent spiritual writer of the 20th century, “Palestine should no longer be called the Holy Land; its sacred places are only the passing relics of three dead and gone religions. … Judaism is old, obsolete, and separative and has no true message for the spiritually minded which cannot be better given by the newer faiths; the Moslem faith has served its purpose and all true Moslems await the coming of the Imam Mahdi who will lead them to light and to spiritual victory; the Christian faith also has served its purpose; its Founder seeks to bring a new Gospel and a new message that will enlighten all men everywhere” (12).
But such a notion is pure fantasy as statistical evidence simply suggests otherwise. In fact, Islam is the fasting growing religion in the world while other religions like Christianity, Hinduism, and Judaism are also in states of significant growth (13). Buddhism is the only exception in that it shows signs of regress whereas atheism similarly bleeds numbers as the world grows more religious (14).
New Agers, however, account for less than six million people in the US alone, though it has shown signs of significant growth (15). Thus, the prospects of a new age as conceived by New Agers seems at best highly, highly unlikely.
3. Incoherent concepts of “God”
One of my major critiques of NAS concerns the nature and concept of God. I don’t think it is necessarily difficult to see that the concepts of “God” believed by New Agers are untenable.
God as Cosmic Consciousness – Often New Agers described God as being the “Universe” or some “Cosmic Consciousness” or “Cosmic Mind (16). God, on this view, is essentially an “Energy” or “Force” within the universe believed to be able to bring blessing or enlightenment into human life. This is a belief that would seem to be borrowed at convenience from Eastern philosophies that see God as being a “life force energy.”
I find this problematic on scientific and philosophical grounds. Both scientific and philosophical reasoning has well suggested that the universe had a beginning in the Big Bang some 13 billion years ago. Therefore, all things, including energy, came into being a finite time ago. Thus, energy is a created thing that is contingent on the creation of the universe.
In other words, this “God” that New Agers believe in has not always existed, and is contingent on the beginning of the universe. What we are really calling God is some physical reality within the universe itself, or some natural law. So what New Agers are calling “God” is not God at all.
A further objection is that God on this view can just as well apply to an atheistic-naturalistic universe in which nothing beyond nature exists. The irony is that if atheism or philosophical naturalism is true (i.e. a transcendent, supernatural God does not exist, the supernatural does not exist, and the universe is here for no reason) then the “God” that New Agers believe still exists!
That is because the God that many New Agers believe in, which is akin to a created thing or some natural law, is not actually God in the first place. It is not supernatural (existing outside of the natural world) nor is it transcendent (above and beyond its creation). Thus, if our concept of God is compatible with an atheistic view of the world then we aren’t actually talking about God, as opposed to some misuse of the word to apply to some created thing within the universe.
God is the Universe – In a similar way to what has been explained above, our best scientific evidence and philosophical reasoning tells us that the physical universe had a beginning a finite time ago. In other words, on this view the New Ager essentially believes (knowingly or unknowingly) that there was a time when God did not actually exist. There’s a problem here philosophically. What this would have us believe is that nothing, in the sense of absolute nothingness (no space, time, energy, matter, anything), brought God/universe into existence.
This, however, is a logically incoherent view given that absolute nothingness has no causal powers to bring about any change or effect. So, if a God exists it would have to exist beyond the physical universe in order to bring the universe into being. This has a significant implication for New Age belief given that God cannot be the universe as it had to exist prior to it. In other words, God exists beyond the universe, and there would have been no impact on God if the universe had not existed.
Second, and exactly as I’ve mentioned above, this makes the New Age concept of “God” compatible with an atheistic universe. Given that the universe is a physical object itself (see philosopher William Lane Craig’s “ball in the forest analogy”(17)), then God, on this view, is no more than a physical object. Atheists would feel no need to provide any case against such a belief in defense of their atheism.
We Are God/Divine – One former influential New Ager, Barbara Marx Hubbard, penned that “We are immortal. We are not bound by the limits of the body,” (18) and that “We can create new life forms and new worlds. We are gods!” (19). New Agers don’t only believe that we have an innate divinity but also that through engaging in yoga, channeling, aura-reading, and crystal work we can develop this divine God aspect within ourselves (20).
However, again it seems that the word “God” is being used disingenuously. Like the universe, human beings are contingent and therefore depend on something else for our existence (21). But to be contingent also means that it was possible for us to not exist, as well as for us to possibly not exist in the future.
It is conceivable that human beings would not have existed if it were not for favourable conditions in the environment such as food, water, oxygen, and so on. It is also conceivable that at some point in the future humanity could not exist or go out of existence. In other words, to call a contingent thing like a human being God is a clear misuse of the term.
Any true definition of God would have to see it as a metaphysically necessarily being. This means that it could not, by virtue of what it is, ever not have existed, which New Agers would seem to believe. Thus again, this New Age concept of God is compatible with an atheistic view of the world.
Moreover, this next point I wish to make applies to all the above mentioned concepts of God that New Agers believe in. This is that I have discovered there to be compelling and convincing theological arguments in favour of general theism (the belief in a transcendent creator God or being) (22), and should their conclusions follow from their premises then New Age concepts of God must by definition be false.
On a similar note, philosophies and worldviews that deny the existence of a transcendent creator God must also be false. The moral argument, for example, persuasively suggests a transcendent God as the foundation for objective morality, the Kalam Cosmological argument grounds belief in a transcendent creator God who existed prior to the universe and who is responsible for creating it, and the teleological argument points to a designer to the universe. Thus, on these grounds I cannot accept New Age concepts of God as being true.
4. The Problem of Reincarnation
I reject the concept reincarnation, the belief that ones’ soul, upon death of the body, comes back to earth in another body or form, for a number of reasons. A first point worth noting is that the way New Agers view reincarnation is very different to how Eastern Hindus or Buddhists view it. Reincarnation, in New Age thought, dissociates itself from the more harsh Eastern view of the concept in favour of something that would appear to be much more uplifting, and comforting (23).
In fact, for many reincarnation as a religious based philosophy that is ultimately unworkable and oppressive (24). Reincarnation, especially within Hindu societies, often results in people being marginalized and suffering stigma and discrimination as a result of their position in society. They also often feel trapped and unable to change their own situations for the better.
In other words, lower status Hindus believe that they are stuck in a rot because of unknown and uncontrollable events and decisions that they allegedly made in a previous life. These decisions, they believe, have come back to haunt them in their current life, and since they are in such an unfortunate position, other Hindus, especially ones who are not so unfortunate, end up leaving them to suffer in their mess.
After all, why intervene in the punishment dished out on others if they deserve it as the Hindu believes? For example, impoverished children living in India are thought to be suffering precisely because of their past-life injustices. Yet, according to the eastern concept of reincarnation, such children are being rightfully punished, so then why give them food, shelter, and clothing at the risk of interfering in their just punishment? Compassion in a society where such a belief in reincarnation is properly held would seem to be lacking.
Another questionable component to belief in reincarnation is its unfairness. Hitler was clearly evil in slaughtering millions of Jews in this life. However, if he were to be reincarnated in the next life, and although he was responsible for mass evil in his previous life, he would know nothing of the sort. He would have no memory or knowledge of his injustices that he did in his previous life.
However, it is precisely because of such injustices that he would ultimately be suffering for in his new life. In other words, one is being unfairly and unjustly punished in a new life as a result of a previous life of which one knows nothing about. Perhaps Hitler would be much like a Mother Teressa in his next life, but he would likely never be able actualize such potential since he would spend his next life focused on suffering and trying to get out of such a situation. Nor will he be likely to receive assistance by others since he is left to suffer his own punishment.
So, I think an acceptance of reincarnation as it actually is in Eastern thought is far more harsh than what many people realize. I thus view reincarnation as an morally evil concept due to its unfair and oppressive nature.
5. Moral Relativism
New Agers hold to moral relativism, the view that there are no objective moral facts (25). For New Agers there’s no inherited code of ethics (i.e. no Ten Commandments, Islamic Sharia law etc.), and, as a result of having no external standard by which to judge moral actions, the New Ager has to come up with them him or herself. This leads towards moral relativism in which we simply pick and choose what morals to live by. However, many, notably moral realists, have rightly criticized moral relativism on numerous grounds (26).
For example, if one is a moral relativist then on what grounds can he or she say that the action performed by another person is morally good or evil? If human beings simply invent morals as they go through life then whose to say that what Adolf Hitler did to Jews in Nazi Germany was inherently morally evil?
On moral relativism, Hitler simply made up his own moral system (i.e. racial superiority, and that exterminating Jews is a morally good thing for humanity), and it might be my subjective moral belief that loving someone as opposed to murdering them in gas chambers is a morally good act, but, on moral relativism, that’s just my weightless opinion.
This provides New Agers with a serious challenge. For example, many New Agers place an emphasis on love, namely, that love is the ultimate good over and above conflict. But if moral relativism is true there is no objective difference between loving one’s neighbour and raping them. On such a view, as I stated above, this is nothing more than one’s opinion akin to whether or not one prefers vanilla ice cream over chocolate ice cream.
But if one engages New Age thought and literature, it is quite obvious that they see themselves as moral realists. They love the environment, dislike religious particularism, and they really do believe that rape or murder is objectively morally evil, and that assisting a human being in danger, pain, or in poverty is a moral good. However, that said, they are essentially holding to both moral realism and moral relativism, two mutually incompatible categories.
Again, this relativism runs very close to atheism. Atheist philosophers have widely sought to explain the basis of our human apprehension of morality given that on their view God does not exist, and therefore cannot be the ground/basis for morality. They realize that if one cuts away the transcendent source for morality, then humanity is left with little else than having to invent morals.
New Agers are analogous to atheists in this regard, and therefore face the same challenges that moral relativism brings with it. Now, I’ve argued before in favour of moral realism, and why I believe moral facts exist. Many theists have also argued that there is a direct line from moral realism to the existence of God (see the moral argument), and that if the premises of the arguments follow then both atheism and NAS are false. The moral argument proves the existence of a transcendent, creator God, of which is incompatible with both atheism and NAS.
6. The Oneness of Religions
Many New Agers seem to suggest that different world religions are just different ways of getting to know God or to be put in contact with the “ultimate reality.” Think of a mountain analogy. All of the many paths lead to the top of the mountain, some paths are easier than others, many are difficult, but each one leads the climber to the peak. Religion, says the New Ager, is like that.
The irony in this is that it is a claim to exclusivity, though many new agers dislike theological exclusivity (which is intolerant, they argue). One of the major New Age critiques of traditional religion is its claim to truth which many consider to be overly dogmatic and intolerant (i.e. “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life,” or “There is no God but Allah.” etc.). The problem, however, is that the New Ager’s claim that “all paths” lead to God is also a claim to exclusivity in the sense that it dogmatically asserts that all, if not most, religions are false.
A former New Age friend of mine has argued that this view is even more dogmatic than religious particularism (27). Religions make exclusive truth claims about reality and theology, and as a result no two religions can be harmonized with each other without a great damage to a specific religion’s central tenets, including the tenets of who God is, what God is, and how we can know that specific God. The New Age belief that all religions lead to God cannot be logically true.
To me, this also begs the question as to how the New Ager knows this, and why we ought to believe him or her as an authority on the matter. He would likely have to have a thorough, comprehensive knowledge of God (which, as we’ve seen, is often not God as opposed to some law of nature or physical reality) for him to know the basic truth that all religions lead to God or this ultimate reality.
After all, how would he know that all the paths led to the top of the mountain unless he had traveled each path while also possessing a full knowledge of what exists at the top of the mountain?
7. Questionable Interpretations of History, Sacred Texts, and Historical Persons.
For many it is quite obvious that New Agers possess warped interpretations of significant religious historical persons of history. It likely seems to be the case that they want to make authoritative religious figures speak to as well as support their own spiritual desires. For example, Jesus is often yanked out of his historical context as a 1st century Jew, and is sometimes argued to have been some guru taught in Eastern thought. Many New Agers believe that Jesus managed to attain spiritual enlightenment, and that he came to teach others how to achieve similarly.
However, from my experience as a student in New Testament studies, I cannot think of a solitary credible practicing scholar in any relevant field (classical history, Greco-Roman history, biblical studies, or specifically New Testament studies) who would ever propose such a fantastical hypothesis that would so blatantly run contrary to every single piece of historical evidence that we have. In fact, the sources historians deem most important/authoritative on the historical Jesus are found in the New Testament corpus, none of which support the speculative interpretations forwarded by New Agers.
Moreover, no credible historical source has ever come to light to suggest that Jesus was ever anywhere else on planet Earth other than within 1st century Palestine, nor that he was taught in Eastern thought and philosophy. Jesus was first and foremost a Jew, and as such would have deemed Eastern philosophies antithetical to his own beliefs, if he had ever come across them (which he probably never did).
Furthermore, that Jesus was just another spiritually enlightened individual, perhaps like New Agers believe of Buddha and Zoroaster, fails to make sense of Jesus’ own message and self-concept. Judging by out best historical sources, Jesus’ own views of God (a personal monotheistic concept), sin (some acts are objectively evil and run contrary to God’s will), and the human predicament (all human beings are sinful in the eyes of Jesus’ God and therefore require a saviour to pardon them) squarely contradict New Age beliefs pertaining to “Christ Consciousness,” namely that Jesus came to teach us an awareness of our divinity.
In Jesus’ own view, his divinely ordained purpose was to save sinners, not teach human beings that they are divine themselves. New Age writers therefore have to resort to cherry-picking select statements said by Jesus and use them as a basis for their views (popular cherry-picked verses include Luke 17:20-21; John 18:36; 10:30). The result is a Jesus of the New Ager’s own making that bears little resemblance to the actual Jesus of history.
The New Ager’s misuse of the other holy books of other religions is also noticeable. Some, though not all, New Agers have respect for the Bible and refer to what they believe to be biblical truths. Biblical truth in their view, however, are often questionable interpretations of Christian orthodox doctrines such as sin, Satan, and the Fall.
Hubbard, for example, had an unusually positive view of the serpent in the first book of the Bible, “The serpent [in the book of Genesis, often believed by Christians to represent Satan] symbolizes an irresistable [sic] energy that is leading us toward life ever-evolving.
First the serpent tempted Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It attracted her beyond the animal/human world which knew no separation from the Creator. Then self-awareness came” (28). Similarly, another proponent explains that “The Fall was the result of man’s knowledge, for his ‘eyes were opened.’ Indeed, he was taught Wisdom and the hidden knowledge by the ‘Fallen Angel”” (29).
The problem with such views is that no professional biblical scholar or theologian would ever read the biblical texts and come to conclusions and hypotheses such as these. Most biblical scholars would agree that the serpent, as opposed to signifying something positive, stood as a symbol of evil power and chaos from the underworld (30).
Though in Ancient Near Eastern literature the serpent could stand in as a symbol of fertility, life and healing, the author of the biblical text goes to great lengths to deliberately portray the serpent as a cunning and harmful influence. This therefore suggests a very unreasonable approach to the texts of other religions. The New Ager engages in an obvious eisegesis which simply means that he uses the texts of other religions to “prove” a pre-held belief, a mistaken methodology that ends up forcing a text to support views that it does not.
Conclusion: Summing Up
Though I am very critical of NAS I possess no ill will towards my New Age brothers and sisters. To the contrary, I believe that we possess some valuable common ground, and that often they can provide some valuable insight on theological matters.
However, that said, I strongly believe that for a worldview to have any reasonable claim at being true, it is imperative that one’s concept of God needs to make logical sense, and, as I argued, I strongly believe that NAS fails in this regard. Most of New Age concepts of God are really little more than contingent physical objects and realities within the universe itself. Rather, if God exists at all, it has to be a transcendent being of whom is responsible for the creation of the universe as opposed to some contingent, finite object.
I also believe that philosophical reasoning proposes legitimate challenges to reincarnation, a concept which is morally oppressive, and morally unfair. Views held by New Agers also strike one as logically incoherent, such as, for example, that all religions lead to an ultimate reality or God.
I also believe that moral relativism raises a lot of challenges to NAS, and suggests that New Agers fail to live consistency within their worldview: on one hand the New Ager holds to relativism while the other grips to moral objectivism.
New Age methodology is furthermore suspect in how, for instance, to construct their views of reality they must distort the teachings of both historical figures (like Jesus Christ) and religious texts (the Bible), which is unfair to both the historical persons and holy texts in question.
For these reasons I could never consider myself to be a New Age spiritualist.