Religion and Borrowing in the

New Age

– By Oliver Friedmann| June 14, 2017


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New Age spirituality is a sociological mystery, and as a subject of academic enquiry, incredibly difficult to analyse. Participants engage with a variety of practises that originate from many different cultural sources. Most individuals aim, in one way or another, to alleviate their disenchantment with the modern world (Weber, 1963). What is clear to those ethnographers that have observed and interacted with the phenomenon is that there is something of sociological importance going on.

In what follows, I attempt to survey academic interpretations and responses to the New Age. The purpose of this is twofold: first, to understand what is meant by the term New Age, and second to engage with the controversial issue of indigenous cultural borrowing among participants. Section one will provide some general sketches of the New Age in the context of modernity, and how it applies to participant trends. Section two will look at the issue of appropriation within New Age practise. The general motivation here is to capture a spectrum of alternative spiritualties practised in a modern context where cultural borrowing is present and endeavour to identify issues that concern, or possibly should concern, the indigenous owners of these practises.

What is the New Age?

The New Age movement has a rather short but convoluted history of academic engagement. Observers have characterised the movement in a number of ways: ‘a blend of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies, and occult-psychic
phenomena’ (York, 1999), a ‘secularised esotericism’ (Hanegraaff, 1996), a ‘highly optimistic, celebratory, utopian and spiritual form of humanism’ (Heelas, 1996), which is often linked with ‘middle-class people who had both money and status in society’ (Tulloch, 1993). The phenomenon consists of people with an individualised, de-institutionalised and fluid spirituality who engage with a variety of communal and personal activities that originate from multiple religious and non-religious sources. Common activities include engaging with yoga, shamanism, meditation, ritual, drumming and other healing methods. Methods of practice often involve reading New Age literature, attending meeting circles or retreats and engaging in a daily practice of some kind that attempts to connect with the divine (Hanegraaff, 1996).

James Davison Hunter’s ‘The New Religions: Demodernisation and the Protest Against Modernity’ (1981) links the growth of the New Age, deinstitutionalisation and the alienating conditions that characterise the majority of modern life. He makes the argument that with the demise of the traditional social order came increased institutionalisation in the public sphere — in government, business, law, healthcare. But the private emotional sphere trends in the opposite direction. In the past where patterns of vocation, religion, marriage, gender and consumption were dictated by institutions and social expectation, one’s identity is now primarily driven by personal choices. The New Age ‘re-sacralise’ this space by reorienting these private concerns in a safe public ‘institution’ that links personal choice with a wider divine order. Thus, wide choice is a largely why individuals choose the New Age. It seems to be a well suited model for the post-modern mind which is constantly acquiring new methods, techniques and practices to express their lifestyle (Tarnas, 1991).

Identity construction is, for most, the key project of the New Age. Heelas addresses two concerns for New Agers: the ‘uncertainties of modernity’ and the ‘certainties of modernity’ (Heelas, 1996). The uncertainties are identity concerns generated by de-traditionalisation. Identity is no longer singularly constructed by the institutions of class, occupation, political affiliations, race or religion. Instead, citing Peter Berger (1967), Heelas comments that most people focus on expressivity in personhood, but eventually turn to countercultures to replace the capitalistic order — a kind of radical engagement, as Giddens would put it (Giddens, 1990). Berger’s argument is that by the late twentieth century, religions in the West were forced to respond to two distinct phenomena: pluralism and privatisation (Berger, 1967). No longer can religious institutions retain a monopoly on religious tradition. New Agers find this liberation too overbearing. Normlessness is too uncertain (Durkheim, 1897).

What is distinctively universal amongst New Agers then is that their underlying ideology ‘[tends] to pinpoint some acute and distinctively modern dislocation which is said to be producing some mode of alienation, anomie or deprivation to which [people] are responding by searching for new structures of meaning and community’ (Robbins, 1988). Very useful in this discussion is Michel Maffesoli’s concept of ‘neotribes’ (Maffesoli, 1996). Neotribes are unstable, open communities where participants, importantly un-coerced, agree that they share some kind of common sentiment. This establishes a certain ethical experience, a view of living that may not be shared by the broader social order. In the New Age, there is no dogma, no orthodoxy, and essentially no agreement on where the boundaries of the movement end. In this sense, it is not so much a movement as a ‘sprawl’ and ‘thus we have a diffuse collectivity of pragmatic spiritual experimentation comprising the acts in time and space of individual seekers that yet lacks sufficient complexity of organisation or criteria of boundary, membership, and mobilisation to constitute a bona fide (that is, falsifiable) movement’ (Sutcliffe, 2009). The New Age is not a movement, as much as it is a response. It is a revolt against modernity from within modernity.

On cultural borrowing

Cultural borrowing can take many forms: the use of indigenous artifacts in commercial enterprise, fashion or art, the use of ritual, chants or music or the reproduction and sale of cultural artifacts (Shand, 2002). Most discussion around New Age appropriation centres around two key trends: commercialisation and exoticism.

Commercialisation in this context refers to the use or replication of indigenous artifacts for personal consumption. Lisa Aldred makes some compelling arguments regarding New Age consumption patterns (Aldred, 2000). Aldred is specifically concerned with the New Age commercialisation of Native American spirituality, where purchasing has become synonymous with the search for meaning. Her suggestion is that consumption patterns among New Agers mesh well with the mainstream capitalist worldview they are trying to escape (Aldred, 2000). Often, acts of purchase, be it books or workshops fulfil the spiritual desires of participants, allowing them to feel engaged with the community and with themselves. In this sense, purchasing becomes the mode of spiritual fulfilment.

Exoticism refers to the New Age admiration for the indigenous Other. Very often there is little cultural exchange or dialogue between New Agers and indigenous peoples. The Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, Mick Dodson, offers an apt summary to preface issues of exoticism.

‘Indigenous people are used to create a counterpoint against which the dominant society can critique itself, becoming living embodiments of the romantic ideal, which offers a desolate society the hope of redemption and of recapturing what it feels it has lost in its march forward. Those who wish to present a critique of individualism point out that Aboriginality is about community; those who wish to highlight the detrimental effects of industrialisation on the environment point to Indigenous people as the original conservationists. We present a remaining, though strategically distant, image of what has been lost, and what could be regained’ (Dodson, 1994).

According to Dodson, romanticising indigenous knowledge can blind participants to the struggles facing indigenous communities. Many observers see the New Age as a device of cultural inclusiveness, that attempts to erase all cultural difference. In doing so, participants reduce indigenous practices to therapeutic devices (Saldanha, 2007). The main point that arguments of this kind make, is that practices that are reductive to the romantic often trivialise and undermine the true issues facing Indigenous communities.

Bryan Schmidt (2015) takes an interesting approach to issues regarding indigenous borrowing, by first situating the discussion within the context of Nicolas Bourriaud’s theorising of ‘relational aesthetics’ (1998). Schmidt (2015) argues that Transformational Festivals have become aesthetic experiences that solidify subcultural ties to a particular style of event. The term ‘Transformational Festival’ is a new term among the New Age community and has been popularised by Jeet-Kei Leung. A participant in the West Coast festival scene, Leung’s 2010 Vancouver TEDx talk codified the term and brought it into mainstream New Age dialogues. Subsequent to the talk, a documentary series was made and a web platform was created which solidified Transformational Festivals as a key activity for many New Age practitioners. These particular festivals are characterised by a few core frameworks: ‘an ecstatic core ritual provided through electronic dance music; visionary art, performance, art installations, and live art; a workshop curriculum covering a spectrum of New Paradigm subjects; the creation and honoring of sacred space; ceremony and ritual; a social economy of artisans and vendors (or, alternative gift economy); a natural, outdoor setting to honor the Earth; and a multiple (typically 3–7) day duration’ (Schmidt, 2015).

Pike (2000) has argued that these festivals have become sites for the New Age transformational project. She suggests that such festivals have become functional pilgrimages. For Schmidt, what is important is ‘re-indigenisation’.

‘Transformational festivals, as described by Leung, are built on a premise of fostering a new mode of spirituality discovered through combining the re-performance or redeployment of “ancient” ritual elements alongside the spectacle firepower provided by contemporary visual, aural and chemical technologies; this leads, potentially, to what he calls “reindigenisation”, an attempt to simultaneously “reconnect with the earth…with our own indigenous nature”, and to explore “a re-encounter [with] representatives of indigenous communities’(Schmidt, 2015, 49).

Schmidt links this analysis to what Arun Saldanha has called the white ethico-political project of psychedelics, the aim of which is to transcend the geo-historical body (Saldanha, 2007). In these festivals, the individual’s identity is seen as fluid and mutable. Individuals are able to choose from a range of cultural practices that often do not align with their personality or practices in the ‘real world’.

Schmidt (2015) identifies some very important concerns with regards to these practises. He first identifies that most festivalgoers are genuinely respectful of indigenous practises. However, he suggests that there is a limited presence of indigenous peoples at these gatherings, which is symptomatic of a wider, modern concern that indigenous communities do not have control over their own voice and representation. Schmidt also identifies the place of privilege that most participants occupy —the perception that white middle class participants are free to mould and mutate their identity as they see fit reinforces white supremacy by suggesting that white privilege is ‘neutral, unmarked, a blank slate’ (Schmidt, 2015, 31). The cultural significance, relevance, specificity and origins of ritual are diminished and in their place is the identity project of the privileged. As Werry suggests:

‘It redeploys them as forms of identity capital in a neoliberal marketplace that does not privilege those from whom the practices were mined, but rather, Homo economicus, the rational figure of political modernity that can detach from the web of cultural associations that sustain community and resistance’ (Werry, 2011).
To garner greater legitimacy, this movement needs to prioritise cultural exchange involving both owners and borrowers.  Tupper (2009) identifies that it is often a simplistic assertion to assume that all cross cultural transfers are problematic. When Western individuals engage with practises such as yoga, meditation or drumming with respect, diligence and adequate guidance from the cultural roots from which the practise originates, appropriation is not necessarily avoided, but control is give back to indigenous owners. As noted by Cuthbert, ‘to seek to represent every transaction and exchange between coloniser and colonised as only appropriative — or expropriative — is to oversimplify substantially the dynamics of a complex field of cultural interaction’ (Cuthbert, 1998).


It is in their perceived simplicity as lifeways that indigenous practises resonate (Dodson, 1994). But the interface between cultures of the West and those outside often involves a power dynamic that is not addressed in most cross cultural dialogues. The basic lesson to be learnt from this broad survey is that cross cultural interaction is not a problem in itself. It is a complex phenomenon that requires careful consideration, respect and interaction between indigenous and non-indigenous participants. It is important that exchanges are not a reflection of colonising, neo liberal projects. This paper has argued that the New Age phenomena is a response to modernity from within modernity; that its participants are able to pick and choose their engagement with a movement that has delimited borders and draws on a variety of indigenous influences. Consequently, participants expose themselves to instances of cultural appropriation and borrowing, which usually manifest as acts of purchase or romanticising the indigenous Other. In spaces where borrowing supposedly allows mostly Western, privileged, middle class participants to transcend the geo-political body, often the voices of indigenous owners are lost.
There are three responses one could have to cultural borrowing: one that represents it as cultural genocide by transforming indigenous communities, one that suggests cultural borrowing is impossible because each iteration of ritual is inherently different and one that suggests it is central to global religious and cultural evolution. All have their merits and failings, but I am inclined to align most with the last. As long as there is an understanding that it is indeed borrowing and there is adequate engagement between participants and their indigenous counterparts not only in the spiritual space, but also with wider community life, I find such cultural exchanges important for knowledge generation and exchange.

Oliver Friedmann is a Demos sub-editor.



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