Doubting Thomases turn eyes to new age

April 18, 2003

Easter Sunday might prick the conscience of lapsed churchgoers, but as congregations continue to shrink, alternative spiritualities have never been more popular.

The spreading influence of new-age and contemporary religions will be examined next month by an enthusiastic and growing community of researchers who are striving for academic respectability.

Paul Heelas, professor of religious studies at Lancaster University, said that while traditional religion was in decline, inner spirituality was such a growing force that a "spiritual revolution" was under way.

The heightened interest in the new-age phenomenon has produced a wealth of academic inquiry that supporters hope will help establish alternative spirituality as a mature intelligent "religion" rather than a loony fringe.

Alongside the interest of high-profile professionals such as Cherie Booth, there are numerous signs of a growing acceptance of alternative ideas - major retailers such as Boots, Sainsbury's, The Body Shop, Waterstone's and WHSmith, for example, sell products that encourage holistic body-mind spirituality.

But while these ideas may be increasingly familiar, measuring the significance of an emerging spirituality accurately is hugely complex.

Professor Heelas spent two years investigating the religious landscape of one Cumbrian community.

He said: "At first sight, it is difficult to make sense of the current situation. Some theorists see the progressive extinction of the sacred, in particular religious tradition. But others argue that life-focused or spiritual forms of the sacred are growing and have become pretty dominant."

Could it be, he asks, that there is now more holistic, body-mind spirituality in our culture at large than there is theistic religion?

The question will be a central concern of Asanas, the Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies conference at the Open University next month.

Organiser Marion Bowman, senior lecturer in religious studies at the OU, said the gathering was now in its 11th year and had grown significantly.

"We really felt it was time for a major review of the field since it is clearly no longer appropriate to talk about new age and alternative spiritualities as fringe," she said.

"Big business is buying into the new-age approach, which is part of a subtle process whereby ideas lose their strangeness and move from flakiness to familiarity. The real issue now is the need for a reappraisal of what is mainstream religion in the 21st century."

After all, she adds, Christianity was, for three centuries at least, an outlawed religion.

Daren Kemp, author of the forthcoming New Age: A Guide , agrees. "New age is being continually redefined, and one of the most important achievements is the birth of esotericism as a whole new field of study," he said.

Professor Heelas' study of Kendal showed that while church congregations were declining, participation in holistic spiritual practices had doubled or possibly trebled over the past decade.

"The findings may not be exact enough to conclude that holistic inner spirituality has overtaken theistic beliefs in a personal God, but there is much less doubting the fact that mind-body spirituality now appears more frequently in key cultural sites than does traditional theistic religion."

Michael York, a research fellow at Bath Spa University College, said new-age ideas were now perceived as a serious threat to Christianity.

"Their growth seems not to be coincidental but is likely to be linked intimately to disenchantment with established religions," he said.

Such claims are being investigated in universities across Europe and especially in Sweden, where traditional religion is undergoing something close to collapse.

Joanne Pearson of Cardiff University's department of religious and theological studies said she had witnessed a distinct revival of interest in British academia that, in contrast to continental Europe, had hitherto dismissed the value of new-age ideas.

"This is an area that has been on the margins, and although it is still on the outer edges of acceptability, things are beginning to shift."

While it was extremely exciting working in a new, dangerous but emerging field, she said, it was frustratingly difficult to pin down. As ever, academics had yet to agree a set of working definitions. "We have been talking about 'new age' since the 16th century, and 'alternative spirituality' is pejorative. Alternative to what exactly?" William Bloom, editor of the Penguin book of New Age and Holistic Writing , said the new-age movement had now entered a second phase as a more sociological approach to exploring the meaning of life and happiness had taken over.

"In the past, the accusation was that new age was a kind of babyboomers-postmodern-consumerist approach to personal growth. But if you believe it is a basic human instinct to explore God, then people will do it in forms that emerge from their cultural environment.

"With today's free flow of ideas, we are no longer locked into the parochial religious structures of the past that can no longer be maintained."

All spiritual traditions shared a number of universal traits, Mr Bloom added, and the ability to disengage from human affairs and reconnect with the universe and God was far more important than any religious dogma.

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