The New Age Movement: Volunteer Associations, Not Markets

RemPsyc
14 min readFeb 27, 2023

April 9, 2015

The New Age Movement: Volunteer Associations, Not Markets

ALL IS ONE

“The New Age is Hard to Define” (Kyle 1995:3). Indeed, this movement — which counts between 20 000 and 40 000 000 adherents in US only — is highly eclectic, diverse, and even incoherent (König 2000). It borrows from most religions and several traditions but does not limit itself to one. There is no unifying dogma, ideology, beliefs, practices, organization, structure, or institutionalization. Thus, it is hard to make boundaries and to evaluate what is part of the movement and what is not. Historically, the movement has drawn mainly from the human potential and new thought movements, eastern mysticism, transcendentalism, spiritualism, theosophy and psychology (Kyle 1995). What is more, people part of the movement do not even identify themselves with the term New Age as it got a negative connotation with time, in particular because of the way the media and public discourse define it (König 2000).

The central idea is that a coming New Age will lead to a rise in global consciousness, which will lead to social and personal transformation (Kyle 1995, Patheos Library). As a result, the resolution of several of our issues will be facilitated: hunger, sickness, poverty, racism, sexism, war, etc. Thus, the New Age Movement (NAM) does not focus on a single issue, as it believes the key to all of them lies within individuals. Generally speaking, we could say the issue New Age deals with is spiritual alienation, low consciousness, or ignorance. Indeed, according to Perry (1992), the NAM is also “a liberation movement, seeking to free and to empower the individual’s private experience of spiritual realities — freedom from religious dogma and authority, and empowerment in the face of mainstream intellectual culture” (35). Many of the teachings of the NAM focus on individual autonomy, relativism, spiritualism (Patheos Library), survival, unity, interdependence, and humanness (Miller 1989).

On the socio-political level, the NAM’s main themes comprise environmentalism, decentralization, feminism, human rights, social justice, population control, peace and disarmament, internationalism, globalism, and horizontalism (Kyle 1995). This pluralism of practices, beliefs, and causes is well reflected in the idea that, as Groothuis (1986) puts it, “All is one… interrelated, interdependent… interpenetrating… [and] inter-locking” (18 & 116). That is why, according to New Agers, one cannot focus on only one cause, but on the individual, whose influence will be reflected in all causes. But if the NAM is so encompassing, then what unites groups among it? According to one source, it is their “desire to promote a new worldview and to revitalize humanity ethics, the human potential movement, and holistic health ideas” (Kyle 1995:8). Indeed, holism is a major theme: “New Agers contend for a more integrated approach to health-care, education, politics, the environment, economics, and gender relationships” (Kyle 1995:205).

New Agers do value social change, but they think it must come from evolution, not revolution (Szerszynski 1992). One New Ager explains that “as the consciousness movement expands, its natural evolution will be toward changing society, taking the new energy generated through meditation, yoga, honesty, and self awareness outward into social institutions” (Groothuis 1986:113). Instead of trying to convince or force people into taking action for a specific issue, it goes, if you change people’s values, they will take action without constraint or significant effort. What is more, Miller (1989) argues that spiritual experience, when combined to the pre-suppositions of the NAM — such as ‘all is one’ — gives rise to a certain set of values. Accordingly, these specific values lead to a specific set of political positions and actions. And for the NAM, the underlying assumption is that values can be changed by dint of consciousness raising.

THE NEW AGE MOVEMENT ENCOUNTERS LIMITED SUCCESS

Mass Behavior and Collective Actions

König (2000) estimates that the NAM has not been successful in impacting society because of its lack of collective action. This seems true according to Gamson’s criteria: the movement has not been accepted as a legitimate actor and has not reached its goals either (Amenta et al. 2010). Indeed, what characterizes the movement is better termed “mass behaviour” (König 2000:19). Enough people participate in the same behaviors (for example, meditating or buying books), but since these bring no social change or outcome other than for the individual doing it (well-being, health, wealth, success, performance, etc.), it is considered mass behavior.

A few collective actions can be cited, however. In 1986, more than 500 million people and more than 500 spiritual or peace organizations in seventy countries participated to the World Healing Day/World Instant Cooperation (Quartus 2014). This event was among the first efforts to promote New Age goals at an international level (Chandler 1988). People prayed globally for “a planetary affirmation of peace, and love, forgiveness and understanding” by trying to achieve a “critical mass of spiritual consciousness” (Quartus 2014). This event has been held every year since. A year later, more than 5000 people met at Mount Shasta and dozens of thousands at other sacred places around the world to meditate for world peace and harmony for the “Harmonic Convergence” (König 2000). Again, the belief was that enough meditating people could change the planet’s frequency and bring about positive change. Many newspaper wrote an article on the event, but the impact was minimal as coverage was impeded by the time of the event (early morning), the geographical dispersion of participants, the absence of national New Age organizations promoting the event, and reporters’ ignorance of the movement.

Unfortunately, the movement’s repertoire of collective action is limited to these kinds of mass meditations. They do have other strategies, but these are individual actions: workshops, seminars, spiritual retreats, reading books, meditating, etc. Indeed, protests, sabotage and other invasive tactics seem not appropriate to the movement because it seeks to avoid confrontation and counter-movements. Part of the NAM philosophy is peace through unity, so actions that may create conflicts are avoided, although this may in fact keep the movement from achieving its goals.

Resource Mobilization Theory and the Commercial Pitfall

From a Resource Mobilization Theory perspective (Edwards and Gillham 2013), the NAM would have moderate moral resources (celebrities endorsements but low legitimacy) but poor cultural, social-organizational, human, and material resources, one of the reasons being that the movement is mostly represented by the lower middle class (König 2000). It is hypothesized that this combination of low general resources has forced the NAM to organize through businesses rather than formal organizations, as these allowed them to generate at least a minimum of material and social-organizational resources. In particular, since the NAM does not have unified movement organizations, collective actions can hardly take place, so the movement does not produce significant social or political change either.

This dragging toward commercial forms of organization has many disadvantages. Because New Age entrepreneurs need to attract a lot of clients, other New Age businesses are seen as competitors. Movement activism is thus perceived as competition, and is thus discouraged. Economic competition undermines the NAM principle of global participation and has “weakened the movement” (Kyle 1995:199). Not only do commercial dynamics deter the movement’s unity and create competition, but it also creates hostility from the people from which these traditions, beliefs and practices emerge. Indeed, most traditions are opposed to the commodification of spirituality. The most salient example of this cultural appropriation is with Native spirituality (Churchill 1994). To sell traditional spiritualities that does not belong to one’s culture — the NAM is mainly white American — is to add insult to the injury. This appropriation runs in direct opposition to the movement’s ethos of authenticity and respect, and so weakens the movement and makes it actually seem hypocrite and profiteer (König 2000).

Movement frames and Collective Identities

It will now be useful to discuss movement frames to show how they have been negatively impacting the movement. König’s (2000) analysis points out to a dissociation between internal and external media discourses, and suggests that this dissociation is instrumental to the lack of identification to the movement. Indeed, internal master frames tend to be more positive (liberal individualism, ethno-nationalism — although Kyle (1995) notes that nationalism is actually considered an enemy of the NAM because of the emphasis on unity, universality, inclusion — harmony with nature, popular democracy, and self-reliance), while external or media frames tend to be negative (cult frame, New Age proper/inefficacy frame, and yin-and-yang frame). According to König, the cult frame is the most detrimental and significantly hinders mobilization, as most successful leaders or entrepreneurs dissociate with the movement by fear of being associated with cults, leaving only less skilled and knowledgeable individuals as representatives of the movement. The New Age proper frame includes a lack of direction and persistence, of authenticity (artificiality), of professionality, and of knowledgeability and skills. This frame furthermore deepens successful professionals’ motivation to dissociate with the movement as it can be personally hurtful to their careers. In other terms, because of how the media defined the movement’s collective identity through framing, defining one’s identity as “New Ager” has become self-sabotage. Furthermore, the failure to establish organizational spokespersons has led to the inability to reframe the negatively biased discourse of the media. The end result is that most New Agers now reject the term. Unfortunately, König argues, activists with some professional success is precisely what the movement would need to move forward and bring about change. It is useful to remember that most of the movement is represented by the low-middle class, who never quite make it to important or influential social roles.

There may be another reason for movement activists to dissociate with the term, namely that the concept of identification itself is in contradiction with the movement’s idea that “all is one” and to reject labels. The movement itself favors inclusivity and hopes that one day everyone’s consciousness will be raised, that is, that everyone is going to be part of the movement. However, one knows that by making categorisations, distinctions, one creates division. By creating a specific group, an identity, one necessary excludes others, those that do not share this identity, although this is precisely the opposite intention of the movement. How to feel unity without dividing? If there is an “us”, an identity, there must necessarily be a “them”. How can New Agers recognize their identity while simultaneously holding a discourse of universality? How can one affirm one’s identity as part of the movement without creating tension or opposition? Indeed, the surprising lack of opposition or counter-movement would precisely hold because of this universalist and inclusive discourse. However, König (2000) suggests that a universalist identity is not conducive to collective action, while a specific, exclusive, coded identity does. A coded identity leads to solidarity, because people can feel they are special, precisely in opposition to others. It is then easier to construct a common identity, especially if activists fight for specific, identity or minority-related rights. As such, it is relevant to note the implication of the NAM in the feminist (Crowley 2011) and environmental (Szerszynski 1992) movements. For instance, deep ecology would have stemmed from the NAM (Kyle 1995:120) and New Age beliefs and ideas would have contributed to part of the feminist’s movement development.

There is another way in which the NAM is having difficulty with its public representation. On the other hand, it may appear to the public has having too many causes to defend — indeed virtually all causes — while Amenta et al. (2010) note that success is more likely with a single issue. Simultaneously, when movement proponents try to refocus the discussion on more immediate demand, personal transformation, they get accused of individualism, egocentrism, or commercialism. Thus, collective identity is once again weakened and so is collective action. However, Kyle (1995:125) notes that according to New Agers, once individuals are transformed, they should work with organizations to help solve the world’s problems. Thus, it may seem that the NAM does not engage in collective action because when it does, individual participants are counted as though they were part of the other movements. Thus, when we focus on collective action, it seems that the NAM’s contribution gets absorbed by other movements, which is consistent with the wide variety of causes adopted by the NAM.

Repression

Regarding the undesirable collective identity created by the media, we could say that the movement is victim of soft repression, a form of non-violent power used to affect collective identities and ideas (Ferree 2005). More precisely, ridicule happens at the individual level and is the most used form of repression in the context of the NAM. New Agers are frequently marginalized or laughed at because of their beliefs. Stigma happens at the group level and is first seen by the cult frame: New Age groups are thus marginalized or excluded, not taken seriously, etc. (König 2000). Stigma is also seen with the market frame, which asserts that any economic activity around New Age products or services shows the inauthenticity of the movement, for two reasons. First, the structure of the New Age market would create the need for clients to keep coming back, so they cannot provide effective treatment otherwise people would stop consuming this market. This is the classic doctor’s versus clients’ interests debate. Moreover, not only are businesspeople seen as overcharging, but the fact that this kind of service is charged at all is seen in a suspicious and negative light. New Age clients are thus seen like naïve market consumers while entrepreneurs and writers are seen as driven by profit, conferring the whole movement an aura of artificiality. Lastly, silencing is the exclusion of a social movements from the public sphere. We could argue that unfortunately, the negative framing around its collective identity has led the NAM to silence itself, as it carries no effort to delegate spokespersons or talk to the media.

PROMOTING NON-COMMERCIAL AND VOLUNTEER NEW AGE ASSOCIATIONS

König (2000) suggests that institutionally supported volunteerism is key to successful social movements and takes radical feminism as a case example. He points out that feminist organizations are principally university-affiliated groups. One problem of the New Age is that it is neither rooted in academia or any institution functionally equivalent to a college environment. Indeed, the only public institution support the NAM gets is from the market economy, which as we have seen is detrimental to the movement. This commercial dynamic favors the production of private, rather than collective goods. Worse, because of its market structure, the NAM does not provide any collective goods at the moment, according to König (2000).

I propose that the movement should coordinate better on a global sphere to promote collective action (e.g., by creating formal national and international New Age organizations) and also focus on a few key issues rather than on several general ones. More specifically, I propose that the NAM takes example on the feminist movement and spread through university-affiliated, non-commercial and volunteer groups. The movement must stop lingering in markets and go into volunteer associations such as student organizations. By doing so, more authentic and stronger networks will develop because activists will be interacting on an equal basis rather than in a client-provider dynamic. Here, one real-world example of such an organization is presented.

The SOI (Sagesse, Ouverture, Intégrité) is a student club founded in 2010 at Cégep Édouard Montpetit in Longueuil that promotes several values associated with the NAM, although it does not necessarily identify with it. The SOI claims to favor both individual and collective happiness and realization through various strategies inspired by spirituality, psychology, philosophy, and self-growth (SOI). This student club tries to facilitate personal transformation through activities such as meditations, visualisations, self-hypnosis, relaxation, yoga, taiji, qigong, movies, group readings, exchanges and discussions, coaching, conferences, and so on. It promotes discussion about health, wellbeing, happiness, exercise, food, stress, sleep, self-esteem and self-control, positive thinking, non-violent communication, non-judgment, empathy, and various similar themes.

In contrast to commercial New Age organizations, the SOI provides collective goods, including a room for students to gather for activities and between classes. It is equipped with various utilities like lockers, a refrigerator, landline-phone, couches and tables. Students may use it to eat, study, chat, pray, meditate or even take a nap. The room contains an important collection of books, but most importantly, it is a place where significant social interaction takes place, helping to build networks and friendships, which are necessary for social movements (König 2000). The possibility for offering all these collective goods to students lies in the financial contribution and visibility of the Association Générale des Étudiants du Cégep Édouard-Montpetit (AGECEM), contributing in building movement resources. The recruitment of volunteer human resources is also facilitated by the important pool of students frequenting the academic establishment.

Now, one could wonder whether this type of initiative has any collective action potential, but the strength of this institutional form is exemplified by the fact that former students started similar initiatives elsewhere, confirming the possibility of a movement. One was made by two previous female students at Université de Montréal (Le SOI — Le Salon Zen), and one is currently in progress at Université du Québec à Rimouski (Le SOI-Là). Both organizations are growing in size, visibility, and legitimacy. Furthermore, the location of the SOIs, a cégep and two universities, help in fulfilling what the movement was definitely missing: proximity with sources of legitimacy such as academia. Moreover, proximity with other engaged students and activists permit members to develop cultural capital on many levels, including organization and protest strategies. In sum, promoting and working for the arrival of such initiatives is likely to contribute to change the focus of the NAM from commercial organizations to volunteer organizations. Accordingly, such organizations may help facilitate collective action and change public discourses and framings about the movement. Finally, these collective action will help bring about the so-desired paradigm shift and other changes in consciousness and behavior the NAM is waiting to see.

References

Amenta, Edwin, Neal Caren, Elizabeth Chiarello and Yang Su. 2010. “The Political Consequences of Social Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:287–307.

Chandler, Russell. 1988. Understanding the New Age. Dallas: WordPub.

Churchill, Ward. 1994. Indians Are Us? : Culture and Genocide in Native North America. Monroe, Me.: Common Courage Press.

Crowley, Karlyn. 2011. Feminism’s New Age: Gender, Appropriation, and the Afterlife of Essentialism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Edwards, Bob and Patrick F. Gillham. 2013. “Resource Mobilization Theory.” The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans and Doug McAdam. Wiley Online Library: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. Retrieved April 9, 2015. (http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/9780470674871.wbespm447).

Ferree, Myra Marx. 2005. “Soft Repression: Ridicule, Stigma, and Silencing in Gender-Based Movements.” Pp. 138–55 in Repression and Mobilization, Vol. 21, edited by C. Davenport, H. Johnston and C. M. Mueller. Minneapolis & London: University of Minnesota Press.

Groothuis, Douglas R. 1986. Unmasking the New Age. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.

König, Thomas. 2000. “The New Age Movement: Genesis of a High Volume, Low Impact Identity. “Department of Political and Social Sciences, European University Institute, Florence.

Kyle, Richard G. 1995. The New Age Movement in American Culture. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America.

Miller, Elliot. 1989. A Crash Course on the New Age Movement :Describing and Evaluating a Growing Social Force. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House.

Patheos Library. “Religion Library: New Age”. Retrieved April 6, 2015, (http://www.patheos.com/Library/New-Age.html).

Perry, Michael. 1992. Gods Within : A Critical Guide to the New Age. London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.

Quartus. 2014, “World Healing Day: Home”. RetrievedApril 6, 2015, (http://www.quartus.org/world-healing-day/).

SOI. “SOI — Sagesse Ouverture Intégrité”. Retrieved 27 March 2015, (https://sites.google.com/site/sagesseouvertureintegrite/).

Szerszynski, Bronislaw. 1992. “Religious Movements and the New Age: Their Relevance to the Environmental Movement in the 1990s.” Vol. Lancaster: Centre for the Study of Environmental Change, Lancaster University.

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