What is so interesting about New Religious Movements?

First of it all, NRM. New Religious Movements, as you’d easily find on Wikipedia by a quick search, are movements concerned with freedom of individuals in the sense of “it’s all true for you, but not for me”. The adopters of these are people who strongly believe that the God(s) are within the individual and thus each person can be right, no matter the discrepancies between one-another. In a way it does sound like a fairy-tale where everyone is happy with themselves and the other, a society of understanding and because each of them know the ‘rightness’ within all, then they all get along and all that. Also referred to as ‘the new age’, it’s focused on ‘self-discovery’, ‘spiritual growth’, and ‘enlightenment’, the latter having the meaning of ‘reaching light’ and not the scientific beginning. Its roots are in Buddhism and Hinduism which have recently been Westernized; new agers vocabulary include ‘God’ and ‘Universe’, but ‘cosmic consciousness’ and ‘cosmic mind’ mostly, because when they state ‘God’ they refer to ‘Force’, ‘Energy’, and do not use the biblical sense (Rochford, J. M.). They exist via media such as newspapers, magazines, CDs (cassettes), and ‘lectures’. Considering, spirituality abandoned the idea of a main Holy Book (such as The Bible, The Koran, or others) and spreads itself around various sources. It is pretty obvious to exist in different forms as it is a mix-up of beliefs that different between themselves a lot. New-age-spirituality.com quotes “New Age Spirituality steps in to fulfil the need of something (…) that the material world cannot offer”, but it is sociologically interesting how it survives through beliefs in mostly the supernatural in an era of scientific research and proof, and all how it manages to function. Because the material world looked discouraging after two world wars and the atomic bomb, people looked for faith in the spiritual realm. Moreover, due to the same reason and because the church was rigid, individuals looked for freedom, freedom which was given through the idea that the soul lives more lives, that the spirit is what matters.

To me it’s particularly interesting what new religions actually are, and I will go through that as much as possible for the first part of the article. Obviously, as you hypothetically just read on Wikipedia for the first sentence I wrote, they believe in so many things that I couldn’t possibly reach out to all, but I made a list, ‘best of NR’, and it goes as follows. New Age can be said to develop through various astronomical cycles which can be astrologically identified; this is a concept borrowed form Theosophical Doctrine (Hanegraaff, 1996: 303). A common belief is that humanity enters or entered the Age of Aquarius, which should be “New Age of love, joy, peace, abundance, and harmony […] the Golden Age heretofore only dreamed about” (Melton, 1992: 19). Moreover, it would be established through human agency, although some adopters of ‘new age’ beliefs would say it will happen through extraterrastrial forces or  spirits (Heelas, 1996: 74). New Age is also differently envisioned; the ‘moderate’ perspective says the Age of Aquarius relies on societal improvement, through converging science, mysticism, and alternative medicine, but also ending the violence of any kind, growing a healthier environment, and conferring international co-operation. Other people see the New Age through a fully utopian vision, namely “Age of Light”, human beings evolving to total spiritual beings who experience unlimited love, bliss, and happiness (Hanegraaff, 1996: 341-343).

This all sums up to: new agers believe that the world goes through astronomical phases and we’re supposed to already have entered the most beautiful phase (did we, really?! Is this as good as it can get?). Moreover, they also claim that this phase is ‘announced’ by anything, really, be it real or supernatural. Another thing the new agers believe in is healing. Not the medicine-like healing as in take medicine or go for surgery, but the pseudoscientific medicine. The belief states that health is the natural form for the human beings’ existence, and illness is the disruption of natural balance (Hanegraaff, 1996: 46-47). It’s true that illness isn’t seen as a positive feature by anyone’s eyes; though, ‘New Age’ therapies attempt to heal the general concept of ‘illness’, which include physical, mental, and spiritual. Considering, the concept of ‘personal growth’ is of great importance. Hanegraaff (1996) roughly categorized the forms of healing in two, as he explains that various authors of New Age Spirituality use different terms to refer to the same things. The first category is Human Potential Movement (HPM) which is related to psychedelic cultures such as hippies and ‘Summer of Love’. The HPM evolved as a counter-cultural rebellion towards mainstream psychology and organised religion – it’s not itself a religion, but a psychological philosophy and framework (Puttick, 2004: 399). The idea is that the Western society supresses massive human potential and that the heeling consists of gaining access to parts of themselves [individuals] that they have alienated; thus HPM is related to individuals reaching as a whole their full potential and gain meaning to their lives (Hanegraaff, 1996: 48-49). Closely related would be the shaman consciousness idea, which argues that the shaman would be an expert in ‘altered states of consciousness’ and adopts them to reach personal healing and growth.

A second category identified by Hanegraaff is the holistic health. This began around 1970s out of the free clinic movement in 1960s and had direct relation to the HPM. These emphasise the idea that the individual is a holistic, with an independent body of mind and vice-versa, and a spirit for the healing process is integrated within the powers of the universe (Hanegraaff, 1996: 54). Some of the holistic healings include acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, kinesiology, homeopathy, and other forms of bodywork, meditation and visualisation, psychic healing, herbal medicine, or chromotherapy, and also reincarnation therapy (York, 1995). Pseudoscientists are believed to focus healing energy and effect positive results. Chromotherapy is therapy through colour. It is said that chromotherapists use light in the form of colour to ‘balance the energy’ lacking from a person’s body.

This bit translates to: you’re hurt? No worries, go pray in your way! Because there are people out there who just hoover their hands over you and you’re all back to 100% functioning. And not only, there are people who just think of it (distant healing) and you’re healed. And they also use colours in some specific way; I do understand acupuncture though, it makes sense, stabbing yourself in the right places (it actually makes sense exclude my sarcasm). I wonder, didn’t find out, are there people who actually don’t do surgeries and pill-taking but only go for these pseudo-healings? Are they mutated with some sort of hugely advanced self-healing cells – is that you, Wolverine? [Note] I am completely aware they would heel their souls. The issue is not that some people believe that they can have their soul heeled, the problem is that they both go for these supernatural healing ideas and also for the actual scientific medicine to get actual real scientific healing and it can only look to me as cognitive dissonance [/Note]. But the most of them all is reincarnation therapy. I love this one, must admit, I think I was either a cat or a sloth, but the first is more probable just because I can go pure evil sometimes. So if I’ve been a cat , what kind of sins could I be freed of in this life – not catching some particular mouse.. or trying to take over the world? As many unappropriated jokes as I would do, the question is still if they actually take into account you might have been a flower! What sins could it have? If you’ve been a person in all of your past lives (yes, you had more!), then yes, I can go past the resurrecting memories from the unconscious and think of various sins that you’d be freed of; but the main issue that I have with it is that at some point someone will go for this reincarnation therapy and they will find out they have been a leopard, lion, sheep (or that’s what they would be now?), mouse, cat, etc., you get the idea I’m trying to underline.

New Age is a constant trial of creating “a worldview that includes both science and spirituality” (Drury, 2004: 9). Even though it seems that the new age movements reject science, it employs terminology and concepts borrowed particularly from the new physics; moreover, a couple of new age authors come with backgrounds of professional scientists (Hanegraaff, 1996: 62-62). However, ‘new age science’ is a pseudo-science, or best explained by Hanegraaff (1996: 64), Naturphilosophie (Ger., the philosophy of nature). The scope is to discover the nature of the divine and establish the scientific base for the religious beliefs. Given that the new age rejects the dualistic good and evil, the negativity exists for the individual to ‘learn the lesson’ and enable them to advanced spirituality. There is no sin and guilt for the new age (reference to abode idea of reincarnation therapy and it ‘treating’ guilt), as it believes those to hinder spiritual evolution. The movement practically emphasises the cult of positive thinking, although its forms vary. The belief in reincarnation ‘ensure cosmic justice’, but many New Agers manage to separate reincarnation-related concepts and karma as it would be an outer concept, and believe more of the latter. This still assures cosmic balance, although there is no system enforcing punishment for past-life actions (Hanegraaff, 1996: 286). The last idea points to the murdering of science and cherry picking in order to have the end one specifically needs. [Note] Cherry picking – selecting only the results in favour of the result one needs, leaving aside the contra-arguments, or selecting only one encounter so that the result is that one expects and needs to use for further action [/Note].  What is nice to note here is that New Agers don’t do as some Christians do, completely rejecting science. Adopters of new religions are aware of science and praise it in a way, take from with what suits them – which in a way falls in place, because don’t we all at some point use something only because it suits us at some point but ignore anything else about it (see some book you’d use for an essay in university when you only read that useful chapter than completely hide the book back on its shelf, it’s almost the same situation).

Financial prosperity is an issue seen by the New Age proponents; various books have been published to establish the New Age centres, those geld spiritual retreats and classes aimed for business people, and the New Age groups developed training for conducting businesses as well (Heelas, 1996: 62-65). For example, IBM, AT&T, and General Motors welcomed New Age-related seminaries hoping they would increase productivity and efficiency throughout the workers, although what actually happened is that employees claimed this as an assault to their original religious beliefs or that this damaged their psychological health (Rupert, 1992: 127-133). New Agers such as Michael Fox criticise the aim for profit of the movement, claiming it as lack of social consciousness. Regardless, the New Age movement is seen to suit the modern society for its encouragement to individuals to behave as a consumers: they choose spiritual practices on grounds of personal preference. This is very interesting because for as much soul-healing they go for, financial prosperity is at home with them. As few individuals that actually have an interest in NA (see further paragraphs), a lot of people buy at some point some book related to them just for curiosity or because the title sounds good. Not New Age by definition, but I bought a book “The Art of not giving a f*ck” some months ago and I love it – point is: self-teaching books, ideas of how to live a peaceful life with yourself, no matter what that is and in what ways you achieve it – as long as is still moral – and this moral is what everyone considers moral, really, brought to modernity through religion (reference last article), not killing one another and ‘being a good citizen and a good person in general’ – that’s as broad as it can get but each of us knows what that is, because it differs a little bit from society to society. So the new agers are only people who want peace of mind, aren’t they. There is nothing wrong (as in psychological moral-immoral and consequences of both) with it! It’s not irony nor sarcasm, it is nothing wrong with it, I desire peace of mind and balance in my life as well, but the means I use to achieve them are slightly different. I, for one, don’t really want to resurrect from my memory the cat I’ve been in my past life to catch that particular mouse in this life so that my peace of mind would be fully achieved, I just want to end up in this world where I think I deserve by analysing what I am capable of and trying to find a place within these societies.

Fascinating as it might have been for you to read my article until now, I know I didn’t really underlined why NA is so much sociologically interesting. They are interesting for any of us until now. The first idea is that we all know what we’re talking about before we label some specific topic. I would claim we already know what we talk about. Therefore, why would I be interested in New Religious Movements as the sociologist I aspire to be? Demographics of the New Age were studied and drawn to two thirds of participants being women, showing a tension between commodification and the empowerment of women (O’Connor, 2011). The New Age movement could be found in the US, Canada, Western Europe, Australia, and New Zeeland in the mid-1990s, with problematic membership as many individuals did not identify themselves as such. However, some participants of the New Age identify themselves as Jewish, Christians, Buddhists, or atheists (Pike, 2004: 25). Sutcliffe (2003: 200) defines the New Age participant as “a religious individualist, mixing and matching cultural resources in an animated spiritual request”. Heelas (1996: 118-119) argues that individuals involved in new age spirituality could be categorized in three: the first group who dedicates themselves to ideals, mostly workers in the ‘field’ of the movement, the “serious part-timers” group who nevertheless spend much of their free time in the rituals of new age, and the “casual part-timers”, the group who occasionally involves themselves in the activities of new age. First of all, religion in general is to be organized either as a Church or denomination (both hierarchically proven), as a sect, or as a cult. The latter is defined by Troeltsch as “a small loosely knit group organized around some common themes and interests, but lacking a sharply defined and exclusive belief system” (1976). Alike the denomination, the cult is tolerant with, and understanding of, its own members (Bruce, 1996). Therefore, the new age movements can only be organized as a cult for their tolerance and diversity. Moreover, the new agers can only be cultic for they lacking the ability to argue between them and, therefore, they need an easy-to-come-easy-to-go system; they are individuals deeply convinced that the truth lies within each person and reality differs from one another. Their organization is sociologically interested because new age is an ‘one-and-only’ case of full tolerance amongst its members and, as their truth-related belief, they accept and cannot argue with individuals of other religion for they would say ‘well, it is true for them’. Excluding the discrepancy between some of their beliefs and the technological advancement of the 21st Century, the new age movement looks from an analytical perspective a mostly positive feature of the society as it only encourages and reproduces morally-accepted values.

It is interesting that the individuals are not huge in number and new agers don’t have a society even comparable with Christians or Buddhists or any others existing today. It’s sociologically interesting that as religious as the USA still is, New Religious Movements did not cover or got people to convert that much; while in the secularized Europe New Religious Movements have such a small chance that one can be blind to it. Asia again is not a fan of New Age Movements, Hindus will stay that way, Buddhists will remain Buddhists, it’s unlikely they will convert to a new age idea in the conditions of today’s secularization. This is the actual interesting fact, what is the impact of new religious movements? Do they have any real chance? But these questions are already answered: because of the small number of adopters and small chance of others converting, the impact is not big nor particularly globally relevant; and they might have a chance, but new religions will not take the statistical digits that other religions lost.

 

[Note] This is adapted from an official submitted essay to the University of Aberdeen for the course Religion and Society, 2016 [/Note]

About alexandra-bucur

My religious, political, and any other belief are ‘sociology’, meaning that, as the person I’ve taught myself to be, critical thinking is in my nature. I am highly keen to leave people with this feeling about me, that I don’t own a certain belief be it about anything, as it is harder to believe but as true as it gets. Since a child, I never believed something, but always asked and tried to find out different versions of a fact, therefore I got to the point when I relised that everything can be true for certain people, and everything else for others, but yet the both cannot be true in the same time as generalities, therefore beliefs are social constructs. And there is when my sociological studies actually started. I have also seen around many indoctrinated by advertising people, so I pay much attention to marketing as well. Moreover, my tiny psychological knowledge is enough to get me to understand that the mind indeed prouces facts for itself if needed and it also created facts by itself at the impuses of various others. Therefore, I do see how marketing works very well and I can see its effects on masses but also individuals. [Note] To make sense of all, these articles are written from a social perspective and as any other sociological paper, they do not analyse by ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ and they do not claim anything to be an absolute truth. The articles are as general as they can statistically be and affirm the exceptions if the case provides.As less subjectivity of the writer is left throughout the work, yet if the subject in topic allows, personal opinion of the righter might matter to the final conclusion. [/Note]
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