The New Age movement has often been seen as a highly individualistic and ephemeral phenomenon by sociologists, but recent studies suggest that the picture is more complex than that. Articles in the May issue of theJournal of Contemporary Religion note that New Age practitioners are socialized into New Age groups and teachings just as one is socialized into an established religion. British sociologist Paul Heelas writes that New Age participants are involved in a “shared culture” with similar values and problems that they seek to solve. “Whether one looks at publications or holistic milieu [New Age] activities, one cannot but be struck by the extent to which basic themes appear and reappear,” he writes.
Dutch sociologists Stef Aupers and Dick Houtman write that the New Age movement is definitely eclectic, with various groups and teachers borrowing from a wide range of sources But the New Age, or as they term it, “self-spirituality,” also has well-defined doctrines usually involving the concept of the sacralization of the self that creates common language and practices even among groups and teachings as disparate as yoga, Reiki and shamanism. Aupers and Houtman find that it is particularly in the use of spirituality in corporations for motivational and productivity purposes where the group and even communal dimensions of the New Age are most evident. In a case study of a Dutch company, the promotion of self-spirituality tended to break down the separation between private and public life. Employees learn the importance of “rejecting external authorites and making contact with their `deeper selves.’” Yet those who choose not to participate in these programs feel pressure to conform to the group.
A third article, however, still finds differences between older notions of community and social belonging and New Age social values. In surveying groups of Catholics, non-believers, and New Age believers, Miguel Farias and Mansur Lalljee find that the latter group was more likely to stress individualistic traits, such as hedonism and self-mastery and direction along with the general concept of universalism. While the Catholics stressed concrete social self-definitions (for instance, being a neighbor, a citizen, a mother), New Age practitioners used more abstract, universal metaphors, such as “I am connected,” or “I am part of the universe.”
(Journal of Contemporary Religion, Institute of Education, University of Warwick, Coventry CV4 7AL UK)