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date: 16 January 2021

New Spiritualities in Western Societyfree

  • Adam PossamaiAdam PossamaiDepartment of Social Sciences and Psychology, Western Sydney University


Various social and cultural changes from modernity to late modernity have been key to the appearance and development of new spiritualities in Western society. The often-contested term of “new spiritualities” is often liked with other no less contested ones such as “mysticism,” “popular religion,” “the New Age,” and “new religious” movements. Further, if the expression new spiritualities or alternative spiritualities took off outside of institutionalized religions in the Western world, this term is now re-used by these institutions within their specific theology. As new spiritualities are becoming mainstream in the first quarter of the 21st century, they are having a low-key impact on post-secularism (i.e., a specific type of secularism characteristic of late modern societies).


The term “spiritualities” is a complex and contested one but generally taken as a signifier that refers to practices and beliefs of people who are seeking a closer connection with the divine and/or the supernatural, with a degree of autonomy within or outside of a religious group. The social actors, either religious as well or not religious at all, tend to locate their spiritual authority within the self. They can belong to a religious institution or group or regard themselves as not belonging to any of them. This is a phenomenon that started to be mainstreamed in modernity (i.e., since the ideas of the Enlightenment have been routinized in everyday life) as the growth of industrialization, urbanism, and mass education were eroding the monopoly of institutionalized religions on faith and belief matters. In contemporary Western society, in what we call late modernity—that is, the period from the 1960s up to the present, which has seen social and cultural changes such as globalization, post-Fordism, post-industrialization, and post-colonialization—these spiritualities are considered “new.” If the terms “mysticism” and “popular religion” had a clearer semantic separation during modernity, in late modernity, mysticism is becoming more and more popular, and popular religion more mystical. This article argues that these new spiritualities are, however, late modern adaptations of what used to be called “mysticism” or “popular religion,” and they are not intrinsically new. It is therefore more appropriate to situate this phenomenon in a cultural context and refer to them instead as “late modern spiritualities.”

“Popular religion” refers to religious practices and beliefs outside of institutionalized religion. It is the religion of the people, through which they subvert the codified official religion of the elite group by, for example, changing the official liturgy of the established religion to their own liking, bringing eclectic elements from other religions that are not officially recognized into a syncretic set of beliefs, or simply by following an earlier religion in opposition to a new and official one. In Parker’s view, “Unlike the [official] religion of reason characteristic of the intellectual elites and clergy, popular religion is a religion of rites and myths, of dreams and emotions, of body and the quest for this-worldly well-being.”1 This concept, however, is difficult to define from a social-scientific point of view, as what is meant by “popular religion” is context dependent.2 For example, in a location where there is a sharp contrast between an urban and rural setting, the official religion is often dominant in cities whereas popular religion (e.g., syncretic aspects of Catholicism with nature religion or animism) tends to be more practiced in villages and among illiterate peoples. However, this does not stop urbanites from tapping into popular religion and seeking the help of, for example, a spiritual healer who will perform alternative rituals to the ones performed within institutionalized religion. Another context is that of a colonized country in which the official religion is the one brought by the new dominant ethnic group, and popular religion is the one practiced by the dominated ethnic group. Although popular religion comprises a multitude of unorganized elements, often in contradiction, some theorists define popular religion not in terms of an urban/rural divide or a colonial context but specifically with regard to class divide; the upper class belonging to official religion. As such, popular religions have often been associated with the belief systems of the lower classes and have been seen as belonging to the realm of the superstitious.

Mysticism, on the other hand, is a more intellectualist and individualist religious practice followed by upper-middle-class people in opposition, or in addition, to official religion. It is Campbell’s secret religion of the educated class.3 It involves a deeper and more personal connection with the divine, and a stronger and more personal reflection on the religious message than that provided by institutional authorities. The sociologist Troeltsch distinguished two types in the early 20th century—mysticism and technical mysticism. Mysticism occurs within a religion, and its devotees include believers who see themselves as belonging to a religion but who want a closer connection with the divine. Mysticism was not always mainstream and tended to be elitist, and tensions could arise if the beliefs of the mystic were contrary to the established dogma of the dominant religious institution. Technical mystics make a break with traditional religion. They contest the religion within which they have been socialized. They understand themselves to be independent from religious principle and of every religious institution. Technical mysticism sets up its own doctrine by undercutting the form and structure of the established religions. It discovers everywhere, “beneath all the concrete forms of religion, the same religious germ.”4

As previously argued, 21st-century spiritualities are the outcome of the gentrification process of popular religion and of the democratization of mysticism.5 What were once seen as the superstitions of the lower classes and the texts and practices of the mystical intelligentsia are an accepted part of consumer culture, easily accessible on Web 2.0. This article describes, historically and sociologically, this process of acceptance and normalization, first, during modernity and then during late modernity. In the following section, the article addresses the phenomenon of new religious movements (which has partly generated new forms of spiritualities) in order to explain the move away from institutional authority (macro level), to authority of the leader of a movement or group (meso level), to authority of the self (micro level). It then explores issues of standardization and of authenticity in this field and concludes by considering the place of spirituality in what we now call “post-secularism”: that is, a new form of secularism that engages with religion in the public sphere and partly characterizes late modernity.

These spiritualities, such as New Age, have emerged as part of the trend toward post-dogmatic religion, as explored by Riis.6 As new generations of believers are taught to question the tenets of religious authorities, more and more people are attempting to establish their own personal beliefs rather than affiliate themselves with an established dogma. This has led to the emergence and growth of subjectivized forms of religion in the non-institutional field.7 While, in the past, this post-dogmatic and non-institutional trend was reflected among the elite through mysticism and among the working and dominated classes through popular religion, the late-modern world scenario has lessened class differences with regard to this (anti-) approach to institutionalized religion.

Spirituality and Modernity

With the advent of industrialization in the late 18th century, and thence modernity, the language of scientific and instrumental reason became dominant in the public sphere. No longer were theological discourses or arguments about faith heard extensively in civil society. For religion to remain relevant in this increasingly urban and educated society, it was necessary for it to also become rational. In this newly forged society, in which social Darwinism and evolutionism were mainstream paradigms, overall religion had to eliminate anything within its cultural and social domain that could be seen as magical. There were, of course, reactions from within the religious field against secularism, by, for example, the ultramontanes.

Within the secularization narrative in modernity, the realm of magic was perceived as belonging to the early stages of the civilization process, when superstitions arose as humans attempted to understand their world. As humans progressed, the way of thinking moved from the magical to the religious: that is, to a more elaborate way of thinking about culture and relationship with nature that was codified in theology. Science as a narrative was believed to be the last step in human evolution and was expected to take over from religion. To remain relevant and to compete with this new dominant ideology religions needed to become more aligned with scientific methods and thinking. And one way of doing this was to eliminate anything that was part of the magical realm. Religions had to adopt a rational and systematic approach and so demonstrate that they were not on the lower rungs of the evolutionary social ladder.

The practices and beliefs of popular religions were therefore relegated to the realm of magic and superstition. Although the term “spirituality” was not frequently used during that period, elements of those popular religions have served as a reservoir of knowledge and practices that have been adapted for 21st century spiritualities. In their drive for dogma and the rigid systemization of the religious message, religious institutions were blocking access to what we could now interpret as some of the popular forms of spirituality. In Europe, for example, the Catholic Church invested fewer resources in pilgrimage, the procession of saints, and exorcism than it had done in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance. Although such practices survived into modernity in popular religions, at the institutional level, any taint of the superstitious had to be removed or at least hidden. Despite the fact that there were reactions to disenchantment from various forms of Christianity (e.g., Abbé Julio) to be taken seriously, alongside (or in spite of) the current modern scientific discourse, theology, too, had to become systematic and disenchanted.

Exorcism is a case in point in connection with this deliberate dissociation from what was seen as superstitious, and it is worth making a short historical detour to reflect on this practice. During the Counter-Reformation, Catholic clerics performed exorcisms in order to validate their religion and demonstrate its strength as a form of propaganda against Protestant groups whom they deemed less equipped to deal with the devil. Sluhovsky’s research reveals that around the same time, the spirituality of quietism was becoming more prevalent, and it was believed by the Catholic faithful that when theologically untrained people got in touch with their spiritual selves, they became more vulnerable to attacks from the devil.8 Concurrently with the increase in the number of practitioners of this new spirituality came an increase in the number of people believed to be possessed; we can see here a parallel with our current period and the belief held by some religious conservatives that with the growth of personal spirituality (especially alternative spirituality) there is a higher risk of people becoming victims of the devil (see “Spirituality in Late Modernity”).

In the Catholic ambit, belief in the devil, like many other traditional religious beliefs, had been scientifically explained during modernity (e.g., through psychology or psychiatry) to the point where such belief had all but disappeared from the scope of theological deliberation. During the Enlightenment, the Christian Church attempted to rationalize its doctrine, discarding any superstitious elements, such as contact with the supernatural; but exorcisms were still conducted. For example, in the 18th century, English theologian John Wesley practiced exorcism himself and used these rituals to rebut Enlightenment skepticism, prove the reality of demonic possession, and thus demonstrate the need for religion.9 In accordance with Enlightenment thinking in the 18th and early 19th centuries, exorcism was discouraged—although the practice was continued in the New World and was still supported in the Old World by the Jesuits and Capuchins, who were promoting their missionary and political agenda.10 This discouragement of exorcism was not only a result of the influence of rationalism but also of changes from within the Catholic Church, such as the emergence of skeptical Augustinian theology.11 Indeed, in 1744, Pope Benedict XIV urged the bishops in Italy to use caution when dealing with the rite of exorcism.12 Because of the increase in the number of people of embracing spirituality in late modernity (among many other factors), there has been a revival of the practice of exorcism. This will be addressed in the section “Spirituality in Late Modernity.”

China provides another telling example (as presented by Goossaert) of the modernist teleology expelling spirituality from religious institutions.13 Around 1900, in China there were approximately one million functioning temples dedicated to what we would call, from a Western point of view, a popular religion.

Today, only a few thousand remain open as religious sites, and a further few thousand as museums. Of those that were not destroyed, some have been transformed into factories, depots, or dwellings. Prior to the 19th century these temples were dedicated to China’s mainstream religion and were centers for the worship of ancestors and for the cults of deities that held communities together around a local religious figure (e.g., a saint in a Christian interpretation). The functions of these local deities varied from protecting households from evil spirits, to curing illness and controlling the weather. These communities were not followers of Confucianism, Buddhism, or Taoism but had strong links with all three. Some popular cults were even recognized by the emperor and were included in the state religion.

In the early 20th century, many Chinese thinkers (e.g., Kang Youwei [b. 1858–d. 1927]) were influenced by Western reason, to the extent that they wanted to modernize their country along Western lines. This meant creating a totally new religious project for the whole country. To build the new modern China, new schools were needed, as well as post offices, police stations, and local government buildings; local temples were confiscated and repurposed into these new modern spaces. The new intelligentsia saw the traditional local cults as superstitious and advocated their removal from this new project of modernity. Because the Chinese reformers supposed that the strength of Western countries lay in the fact that they all had a designated state religion, first Confucianism, then Buddhism and Taoism were authorized as state religions, each having then to re-invent itself in a new and modernized form as an institutionalized religion worthy of the new modern China, shedding all relations with Chinese popular religion. Having introduced the modern Western religious model into their country, Chinese officials had then to distinguish “religion” from the superstitions of local cults (the term zongjiao only appeared in Chinese in the 20th century, to reflect the modern and institutionalized Western model of official religion). Because the local cults could not organize themselves as an institution (such as a type of church) and because they did not follow any “noble” written tradition, they could not be recognized as official religions. In the 1920s and 1930s, new laws were enacted to forbid divination, astrology, the practices of mediumship and exorcism, the selling of talismans, and certain practices of religious healing.

In the Western context, during modernity the term “spirituality” was hardly used. This does not mean that various spiritualities were not practiced. If working-class people and peasants were engaging in religious practices outside of an institution, these tended to be based mainly on old spiritualities, or the Vecchia Religione as it is expressed in Italian. There were practices and rituals rooted in paganism, sometimes syncretic with Christianity, and involving witchcraft and sorcery. The middle and upper classes saw their own practices as more mystical (see “Introduction”).

Colonization was key to the advent of modernity, with Western powers expanding their markets globally and spreading their ideology to the rest of the world. Global interaction facilitated Western contact with non-Christian religions such as Buddhism and Hinduism, and Islam was “rediscovered.” Groups such as the Theosophical Society developed a syncretic mystical view of the universe, mixing these “new” religions with those that had been in hiding in Europe for centuries. This mix, esotericism, refers to a body of secret knowledge only accessible to the literate, whereas sorcery is a less developed magical system based mainly on oral traditions and practiced by, and for, the lower classes. Modern occultism, for example, codified esotericism and attempted to make its secret knowledge accessible to the wider public. Occultist groups were also interested in the traditions of the Egypt of Antiquity, with its ancient knowledge being rediscovered by archaeologists during the 19th century. As the Western world was developing, and becoming disenchanted, through urbanization, industrialization, and scientific advances, the idea and practices of cults of secret knowledge progressively decayed. Esotericists, in the 19th century, wanted to deliver their “knowledge” in clear language to the general public and promoted democratic access to it. They wanted transparency (as opposed to secrecy) and became less of a secret society. As scientific knowledge advanced, new methods of systematic analysis were appropriated to “understand” the supernatural and chart its territories. This paved the way for the burgeoning of alternative spiritualities in late modernity, to the extent that now their “secrets” are widely available on bookshelves and Internet pages.

Spirituality in Late Modernity

When the Baby Boomers were becoming young adults, this post–World War II generation faced a world of changed values. The demand by this young generation for autonomy, rather than continuing the tradition of reproducing the conventions and values of previous generations, was a catalyst for major cultural changes in society. One of these changes was the move away from institutional religions; young people seeking a more meaningful life in this technocratic and increasingly consumerist world explored different types of religious experiences. Globalization and the concomitant world exchange of religious practices allowed access to these, along with the rediscovery of the Western “secret” knowledge made available in the 19th century (see above). Many new religious movements (NRMs) grew out of this period, and some of them, were catalyst of the growth of the late modern spiritualities.

The term “NRMs” applies to new forms of religion which developed during the 1960s in the Western world. Even though some of these groups, such as the Theosophical Society and various adherents of spiritualism, appeared in the 19th century—and are therefore “old NRMs”—they still remain within the confines of this appellation, as they “fully” emerged in the public sphere around this period. These groups fall into two large subtypes typical of the phenomenon: world rejecting and world affirming.14

World-rejecting NRMs aim to create a sense of community removed from mainstream society. Their membership tends to be more demanding than that of mainstream religions, and there can be a high degree of tension with the external world. There is an expectation that members of this type of group will leave their families and jobs to fully dedicate themselves to a religious life. For example, the Unification Church began in Korea in 1954, founded by the Rev. Sun Myung Moon. It spread to California in the early 1960s, but the Moonies, as they were known, had a very slow start in the United States until the 1970s, when Moon himself moved there. The followers of this NRM believed that moral values among young people were in decay and that traditional Christian churches were in decline. Moon wanted to continue the work that Christ had started but had not been able to finish; that is, to establish the Kingdom of Heaven on earth. The Moonies did not demand communal living, but they expected devotees to dedicate most of their time to involvement in, and promotion of, the movement. Another example of a world-rejecting movement is the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), whose adherents, in its early days, lived in considerable poverty in “ashrams” and dedicated much of their time to religious and domestic work. However, even though this group and others (like the notorious Children of God, begun in California in 1968) were originally world rejecting and in tension with the outside world, they have over time opened up and become less so.

World-affirming NRMs do not ask members to reject mainstream society. They tend to believe that human beings have a (godly) potential within themselves that can be developed. Members of these religious groups are not required to leave their families and/or jobs and can be involved while remaining active in society and continuing their everyday lives. Groups of this type include devotees of transcendental meditation, “est” (Erhard Seminars Training), and the Church of Scientology. Transcendental meditation, for example, involves its practitioners meditating on a mantra for twenty minutes every morning and evening to help them become more efficient in the here and now. It does not propose a program of meditation, as ISKCON does, which involves total withdrawal from everyday life. Transcendental meditation (TM) also incorporates the belief that if a critical mass of people meditates regularly, the level of what they call the “cosmic consciousness” will rise, bringing benefit to the whole of society by providing a solution to the problems of crime and other social ills.

Some of these NRMs have created tension in the Western world, with legal battles waged against the Church of Scientology, the Children of God (renamed “The Family”), and the Ananda Marga sect. It is because of these tensions that in Anglo-Saxon cultures, the word “cult” has a strong pejorative connotation, whereas the terms “New Religious Movements” (NRMs) and “minority religions” are more objective appellations used by scholars to describe the same phenomenon. “Cult” tends to refer to religious groups with an authoritarian leadership that suppresses rational thought, organizes deceptive recruitment techniques and indulges in coercive mind control, and isolates members from conventional society and former relationships. It is a word used to scare, worry, and sell in the milieu of sensationalist journalism. For Barker, the term became highly derogatory after the mass suicide/murder of 922 followers of Jim Jones in Guyana in 1978.15 While numerous NRMs had formerly been treated individually, these deaths shaped the public’s perception of NRMs, which have since all tended to be negatively termed “cults,” even if there exists a considerable diversity among them. Most anti-cult movements’ pronouncements tend to be about “destructive cults,” and they have a tendency to lump NRMs together, as though they were a single entity: “the sins of one being visited on all.”16 Although we cannot, of course, forget the atrocities perpetrated at Waco, Texas (1993), and by the Order of the Solar Temple in Switzerland (1994), Aum Shinrikyo in Tokyo (1995), Heaven’s Gate in San Diego (1997), and the movement for the Restoration of the Ten Commandments of God in Uganda (2000), we need to be clear that these events touch only a small fraction of the whole field of NRMs, and that a generalization from them cannot be extended to the large majority of these religious groups.

Established religious institutions were also faced with new competitors in a new and open “religious market.” Some members of these institutions, rather than understanding affiliation with the new religions as a matter of choice by adherents, saw it as the outcome of brainwashing techniques—people were mentally manipulated and coerced into joining an unorthodox group and following its beliefs against their will. Although it has never been scientifically proved to work, some members were taken away from their chosen religious groups by force and subjected to “deprogramming” (i.e., reverse brainwashing).

These notorious minority groups within the field of new religious movements became symbolic of the dangers that people could face by joining a small religious group outside of a well-established institution, which has led to distrust of charismatic leaders and stagnation in the membership of their groups. This does not mean that people started to return to mainstream religions; many became non-religious. However, for people of faith who did not want to submit to the authority of a large institution (macro level) or even of a small group or organization (meso level), the only place left to turn for spiritual fulfillment was the self (micro level).

The New Age movement started to grow in the 1970s and 1980s as an alternative to joining such groups, or sometimes as an aside to world-affirming NRMs. This movement could be argued to embody the start of these new spiritualities in late modernity. Instead of following the new religion of a group or an individual, people started to build a religion for themselves. The term “New Age” refers to the Age of Aquarius, and following the astrological theory of the precession of the equinoxes, this sign will soon (or, depending on interpretation, has already begun to) dominate world energies and positively influence our planet (by, for instance, bringing more humanitarian and spiritual forces to bear). Some insiders are waiting for this age to begin, while disagreeing on the exact date of its advent; others are trying to build energy (e.g., through triangular meditation around the globe) to fast forward its coming. At the same time as this belief system was emerging and growing, rediscovered ancient spiritual practices, such as tarot card reading, astrological charts, and palm and aura reading were becoming more mainstream. Stones and spells used for magical practices emerged from the underground to be sold in a more open market. People began to use “new” therapeutic techniques (meditation, yoga, Reiki, New Age retreats) to cure themselves of disease. The sorcery of the peasant classes became gentrified, and the mysticism of the elite spread out and was popularized. Quickly, the term “New Age” became associated with these eclectic practices, even if not everyone believed in the Age of Aquarius. The word “spirituality” also began to reflect this trend, and a dichotomy became manifest between religion (as a creed overseen by an organization) and spirituality (as an individual activity). People could create a spirituality of their own by mixing and matching elements from various religions and philosophies to construct a belief system that had meaning for them personally. Their social activities were not undertaken as part of any established group but tended to occur through networks of like-minded individuals; they mixed with people or groups according to the interest of the moment, guided by a “feeling” of connection, rather than by goal oriented instrumental decisions. Some observers of that time predicted that spirituality would overtake established religions.17

As New Age spiritualities grew in popularity, those in the upper echelons of some institutional religions became concerned that their followers were becoming influenced by these new ideas. In 2003, the Vatican issued the report, “Jesus Christ the Bearer of the Water of Life: A Christian Reflection on the ‘New Age’” to inform those engaged in pastoral work on how the New Age movement differs from the Christian faith. The report was, however, positive with regards to the increase of spiritual workshops with their churches, but they had to be closely aligned with the catholic dogma (e.g., no reference to reincarnation).

Other religions, on the other hand, became interested in the success that these new spiritualities were having. Many of these older groups, inspired by the new forms of networking and religious practice, introduced them into their own institutions, first, however, having cleansed them of anything that went again their theology. For Christian groups, this included notions of astrology and other forms of divination. The report, “Religious and Non-Religious Spirituality in the Western World (‘New Age’)” was presented at the 2004 Forum for World Evangelization in Thailand and called for using its affinity networks for the development of practical strategies for world evangelization.

Spirituality workshops began to develop within various religious institutions, in line with their respective theologies, as detailed, for example, in the Vatican report mentioned above. Since this development, it makes sense to refer to “spirituality” as being an expression of personal connection with the divine and “alternative spirituality” as being outside of an established group. This difference is equivalent to Troelstch’s distinction between mysticism and technical mysticism in the early 20th century.18

Within alternative spiritualities, we find the social actors behaving as seekers. These people follow their own authority in choosing religions and philosophies that inspire them in their quest for fulfilment of the self and tend to do this now through multiple trajectories. Sutcliffe points out a difference between seekers in modernity and those in late modernity.19 In modernity, before the 1960s, seekers tended to be ascetic, puritanical, and otherworldly. They were also “serial,” in that they moved from one religious or philosophical interest to the next after having explored it in some depth. Each spiritual path could be followed for months, years, decades, or a lifetime. In the 21st century, such seekers are seen as a type of subcultural pioneer. In the contemporary religious marketplace, they are more expressive, hedonistic, and this-worldly, and also “multiple,” as they test many religions and philosophies in a multidirectional and synchronic way but in less depth. Whereas, in the past, spiritual exploration was sequential, in the 21st century, as explained by Sutcliffe, it is more simultaneous. The spiritual knowledges and practices of modernity tended to be singular and more thorough, whereas those of late modernity are more numerous and varied. This is an outcome of globalization, which has allowed easier access to, hence choice of, religions from around the world, and of the development of a consumer culture that has encouraged people to pick and choose. Nowadays, spiritual knowledges and techniques are easier to access and take less time to learn. In the past, one had to find (perhaps with difficulty) a guide or an expert through word of mouth or connections/networks. Once found, learning specific knowledge from one’s spiritual guide would take commitment and a type of apprenticeship. In the 21st century, such “experts” are numerous and easy to find; they do not concentrate on grand knowledge narratives as much as in the past and focus on the more pragmatic and experiential side of things.20

The Growth of New Spiritualities

As Bauman notes, transcendence was once the privilege of a cultural aristocracy of individuals such as saints, hermits, mystics, ascetic monks, or dervishes.21 Now, this transcendence is within everyone’s reach and is even widely available as a form of entertainment in popular culture. As access to so-called hidden knowledge is now easily and widely available, certain clerics (exorcists among them) are concerned that it is easier now for people to take the wrong spiritual path and thus make contact with the devil—this increase of spirituality is not always seen as a positive trend. The search for alternative spiritualities, according to Christian exorcists, increases people’s vulnerability to possession.22 According to these priests, in our contemporary world believing is not in crisis—people are willing to believe anything: from horoscopes and the predictions of magicians who claim to foresee the future, to the effectiveness of certain occult practices that allow the living to communicate with the those in the afterlife. From the exorcists’ perspective, these experimenters are not aware that such practices, sometimes dabbled in for fun, can endanger their lives, and in severe cases, open the door to the devil. New Agers would not identify all supernatural creatures as being demonic, but, apart from the angels, these exorcists would.23

While New Age shops were discreetly increasing in number during the 1970s and 1980s, they have now become mainstream and can be found in arcades and shopping malls. In these spiritualities, one can discover a free-floating consumption ethos, in which anything and everything can be tried, from any religion or philosophy, or even from popular culture (see the reference to hyper-real religions below). The possibilities for consumption are almost unlimited, and these are heavily involved in neoliberalism.24 Adherents of New Age spiritualities consume products in order to gain and enhance sensory experiences. They can visit a “New Age” healing center for a few days, participate in a “vision quest” and be initiated into Shamanism, buy crystals and Indigenous paraphernalia, learn astrology, and so on. The objects for sale (books, tarot cards, crystals, music, aromatherapy products) have long since lost any taint of the demonic and have become mainstream products.

With the advent of Web 2.0, the incidence of multiple sourcing has increased. More choices are available, and new spiritualities inspired by popular culture have also emerged. Groups such as the devotees of Jediism are mixing religions, philosophies, and the stories of the American space epic Star Wars to create a spirituality. In this world of choice, people can make the decision to take inspiration from works of popular culture for their religious activities. The resulting fabrications are called “hyper-real religions.” These have actually existed since before the advent of the Internet. Indeed, we find in some neopagan groups, such as the Church of All Worlds, a strong interest in the science fiction story by Robert Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange World, or in Vulcan philosophy as practiced by Mr. Spock in the first Star Trek series. The Internet has allowed people to communicate about these ideas around the world at little (or no) cost and to develop new spiritualities behind keyboards. It is easy to imagine the outcome if, thirty years ago, someone dressed as a Jedi Knight had stood on a soap box in the middle of a busy street encouraging people to embrace Jediism, as compared with someone today organizing an online forum, using pseudonyms, and waiting for people from around the world to participate—thus developing these new ideas without fear of ridicule. This hyper-real religious phenomenon includes not only people who claim to follow a religion inspired by popular culture but also spiritual people inspired by specific aspects of popular culture, examples being Christians interested in a different history of Jesus Christ, as developed in the DaVinci Code, or neopagans inspired by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

As the religious market seems to be a strong regulator, one may wonder if alternative spiritualities are so alternative anymore. For example, Einstein refers to yoga, which can now be practiced in a health club rather than at a New Age retreat.25 It is now commonplace to use meditation to deal with stress issues and to enhance personal productivity, and this is done without any reference to its spiritual origin. As the bricolage of New Age movements has spread into the mainstream, and as people increasingly follow their chosen and lived religion outside of institutional guidance, we see a growth of privatized spiritualities at the intersection of many religions.26 This phenomenon eliminates dichotomies between the old and the new, the established and the free floating, the mainstream and the alternative. This is not a contemporary process limited to spiritualities but is touching mainstream religions as well. Sociologists are using the expression “the Protestantisation of religion” to reflect this process of standardization of religion.27

While it is correct to argue that access to esoteric knowledge is now more open and that alternative spiritualities are no longer so alternative, this does not mean that there is an explosion of the occult. There is, in fact, a relative lack of penetration of New Age beliefs or practices into the Christian churches—as was noted by Heelas and Woodhead, and Possamai et al. Further, the former authors discovered that the relatively small growth in the holistic milieu does not compensate for the larger decline in the congregational domain.28 Indeed, the fall in numbers of Christian churchgoers is much greater than the increase in adherents of the New Age and other NRMs. As Bruce states, “Even the most generous estimates of the New Age are unlikely to have the new spiritual seekers filling the space left by the decline of just one denomination.”29 The New Age, it appears, does not provide a spiritual refuge for all dissatisfied Christians: many of these church leavers can also become non-religious.

There are also non-Christian groups that purposely prevent these New Age penetrations from happening. Research by McKenzie documents a Tibetan Buddhist group, the

Kagyu Samye Ling Monastery that moved to Scotland and had to adapt itself to the consumer culture there.30 Instead of engaging in the eclectic approach to alternative spiritualities, this group attempted instead to reduce the New Age pick-and-mix consumption. To this end, its teachers guided consumption and provided a type of authority structure. Participants were asked not to buy books on Buddhism outside of this organization and to seek guidance in engaging in the “right” consumption patterns. The group also attracted funds to enable it to commodify Tibetan Buddhism for its new Western environment, in what they saw as a more traditional way.

On the other hand, some non-Christian groups will be seeking to include these new spiritual practices in order to attract and keep more worshippers and members. Niculescu researched Buddhism, pop culture, and contemporary metamorphoses in American Judaism and found that since the 1970s the Jewish Renewal Movement has attempted to reconvert Jewish individuals who had “gone over” to Buddhism and other Eastern and alternative spiritualties.31 This movement has led to some blending between religions, for example, infusing Chassidism and Kabbalah with elements of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and shamanism. Since the 1990s, we have seen new hybrids such as New Age Judaism, Jewish shamanism, Jewish mindfulness, and Jewish yoga. Dana Kaplan and Rachel Werczberger noted a similar trend in Israel, where their case study showed that as traditional religions decline and alternative spiritualities proliferate, some activities emerge among the middle class aiming to revitalize Jewish life by “New Aging” it.32

Although there is a free-floating market of products, Altglas has clearly shown that consumption tends to follow the lines of certain social factors, such as class, gender, and even nationality.33 With regard to the latter, the availability of exotic religious resources creates an environment that modifies and assimilates various religions into a Western context. For example, neo-Hinduism is appealing to Euro-American societies because it is believed to come from a totally different culture, but paradoxically it has been turned into a type of Western product. The spirituality of certain forms of Kabbalah is, also paradoxically, seen as more authentic, even though it has been domesticated in a Western context and so has become decontextualized from its home religion of Judaism. These spiritualities on offer respond to the demand of the local market, and this bricolage of spiritualities is thus not independent of its national context. The realization of the self is not a natural process but reflects the structure of the society in which it is performed.

In the work of various researchers on the New Age, many informants are critical of the commercial aspect of their religion and for this reason have refused to be called “New Agers.”34 Because many practitioners have attempted to dissociate themselves from the negative connotations of shallow and/or consumerist spiritualities that have become somewhat synonymous with New Age, they would rather use the term “alternative spiritualities,” or even “Mind, Body, Spirit”—a term often used to market their expos and festivals.

New Spiritualities and Post-Secularism

What is the impact of these spiritualities on our societies? Are they present only for the fulfillment of the self? Are they simply products in a religious marketplace and just goods to be consumed rather than having any social or cultural impact?

One of the critiques of people involved in spiritualities is that they tend to be mainly consumers, for example, having a tarot card reading or employing a sorcerer to dispel a curse; they are recipients of products offered by some spiritual leaders and are consumer dupes.35 While this aspect cannot be ignored, some people in this field are, rather, what could be called “prosumers” of spiritualities. They do consume spiritualities, but they are also active in producing spiritual products and/or activities. They might start by attending tarot card readings and then begin to learn the system themselves, discussing techniques via various emotional networks. Or they could start meditating in a group, meet people involved in a social cause, and become involved themselves. While there is indeed consumption, there is also an open field for the production of spiritualities by many of these practitioners.

There are beliefs within these spiritualities that aim at positive change, and these are acted on through a prosumer process. The underlying idea is that if the people involved with a certain beneficial aim reach a “critical mass,” the whole world will react and thus be changed for the better. For example, if a person develops his or her inner self, this will provoke what quantum physicists call a “butterfly effect”—that is, a small difference in the initial state of a physical system can make a significant difference later. If one spiritual actor is enlightened, he or she will show the way to other people. Another theory is that of the hundredth monkey, offered by Lyall Watson in his book Lifetide, published in 1979.36 In 1952, on a small Japanese island, scientists gave potatoes to monkeys to stop them from raiding farmer’s gardens. One of the animals learned to wash the potatoes before eating them and taught her companions the technique. By 1958, the number of monkeys washing potatoes had been estimated at 100 and had attained a critical mass. Suddenly “knowledge began passing instantaneously from monkey mind to monkey mind, and on a neighboring island, other monkeys began to wash their potatoes”.37 It was claimed that reaching critical mass, the monkeys had crossed a threshold that advanced the whole of their collective unconscious and that this concept of the threshold could be applied to the human race. Another variant of the critical mass theory is that propagated along with the transcendental meditation (TM) technique. According to TM teachers, if just 1 percent of the world’s population became meditators, a critical mass would be attained, and peace would be established on earth. “Critical Mass by Meditation (CMM)” refers to the belief that external energy may be harnessed by a certain “mass” of people meditating, or being transformed into their integral selves, and that this will change the world for the better.38

The work for Critical Mass through Social Action (CMSA) does not refer to an unconscious shift brought about by meditation but rather to a paradigmatic shift in social life.39 It follows Marilyn Ferguson’s description of the Aquarian Conspiracy: it is a qualitative change in everyday life.40 This can be brought about by the meta-networking of many networks aimed at social transformation. It is called a “conspiracy” by Ferguson and is, for her, a revolution of a new style—it aims at changing the consciousness of a critical number of people so as to provoke a renewal of society as a whole. However, changes must first take place inside individuals, which in turn will generate change on a larger scale. The aim is to provoke a “paradigm shift” in social structures and practices, in the sense used by Thomas Kuhn.

Some researchers point out that there are people involved in these new spiritualities who are part of such movements for change. Kemp refers to the Corporate Social Responsibility movement, whose members have been at the forefront since the 1970s, attempting to influence corporations by convincing them to follow what is referred to as “Socially Responsible Investment”—that is, aiming for the “sustainable development” of an environmentally and socially conscious corporate world.41 Höllinger discovers, through an extensive survey, that even if New Age legitimates the neoliberal capitalist work ethic, it still maintains a certain countercultural characteristic.42

CMM refers to an action by the “collective unconscious” (to use Jung’s term). It works on universal energies coming from above that, if tamed and well channeled, will speed up the coming of the Age of Aquarius and render it fully effective. CMSA, on the other hand, works through building on social change already under way in everyday life, especially in a variety of social movements. It operates incrementally through small actions. Work in and on one’s own community affects other communities, little by little, eventually having a snowball effect (or a butterfly effect) for the benefit of the world at large.

But what do social sciences have to say about these potential changes? A discussion of post-secularism may be useful here. “Post-secularism” is a term that has emerged in various disciplines, including sociology, to reflect the return of religion to the public sphere and hence the need to take the voices of religious actors into account in any contemporary analysis of a society. Authors such as Habermas refer to the concept of post-secularism in association with the process of the deprivatization of religion and the current dialogue about the management of religious groups present in the public sphere.43

Within this post-secular phase, religion is seen as a useful resource and as an ally in combating the exclusive use of instrumental reason by proponents of global capitalism and in providing new moral insights for the political sphere.44 It could thus be inferred that a way forward for working on the process of civilization is to allow religious people, among a multitude of other social actors, to be part of a revised Enlightenment project. The development of reason and progress is still important and central, but it is toward a reason that is not purely instrumental and a progress that is not purely material and quantitative. Religion and spirituality, among other factors, could help deploy a more humane type of reason and allow for progress toward more equitable and qualitative outcomes: a value-oriented output that promotes human rights, human solidarity, justice, and spirituality, and that opposes religious extremism and empty secularism.

While the current debate on the issue is between those who think that religions can have an input and those who think that the input is too limited to effect any change, spiritualities are seen as too individualist and too far removed from any possible social actions to be relevant.45 Bruce argues that if these social actors have been involved in environmental protest, in anti-capitalist rallies, and in developing alternative technologies, their impact has been limited.46 Bruce also wonders where are “the New Age schools, nurseries, communes, colleges, ecological houses, women’s refuges, practical anti-racism projects and urban renewal programmes?”47 It can be argued that these spiritualities do not have the social significance of the church or the sect, and for this reason, following Bruce it would be hard to conclude that they are involved in the public sphere and contribute to post-secularism.48 However, they do have an impact, and a re-enchantment from below has been observed. Weber saw the changes that drove Western society from a traditional to a modern context as a process in which the timeless magic of the universe may be removed and kept outside of a tightly closed “iron cage.” This according to Weber has reduced human perception and experience of the world to a banal parade of predictable actions in a society of arid routines. Many researchers have commented on the fact that there is now a collective move away from the over-rationalization of everyday life and a return to re-enchanted forms of public and personal spaces. Westerners are indeed facing a return of spiritual/magical thinking in their everyday lives, which produces a sense of the mysterious, the weird, and the uncanny. Through this, Partridge has argued in his research that increasing Westerners have discovered spiritual meaning in their lives.

Review of Literature

At the end of the 20th century, a series of research appeared to reflect on the appearance and growth of new spiritualities. The focus of the work of, for examples, Heelas, Hanegraaff, and York were part of what Sutcliffe has called the first wave of “New Age Studies”: that is, they share a consensus that beneath the diversity of what is “New Age,” there is nevertheless an enduring substantive core.49 Sutcliffe then reinforces the idea that a second wave of studies emerged at the beginning of the 21st century and offered additional localized ethnographies to detail the heterogeneity and diversity of these contemporary practices. These were, for examples, Corrywright, Kemp, and Possamai.50 As the research went through this phase of refinement and as the practice of spiritual actors in the field was changing, New Age was being used in the literature and in everyday life as a meronymy: that is, New Age was being used as the single descriptor for a range of distinguishable religious phenomena that comprise a family that New Age is a member of.

As the popularity of the usage and practice of spirituality was growing and was no longer limited to the New Age per se, research on post-dogmatic religion or non-institutional religion came to address the routinization of spirituality in mainstream society.51 Now New Age is so mainstream that the word and practices are now part of institutional religions. As research on this topic became more refined, some work became critical of the connection between these spiritualities and capitalism and started to revise the so-called free-floating approach to consumerism.52

Within the field of religious studies and of the anthropology, history, and sociology of religion, the subfield of New Age studies started at the end of the 20th century in a compartmentalized process, as it had to develop new ways to understand this phenomenon. Along this subfield, other experts were studying new religious movements, popular religion, and mysticism, in a compartmentalized way as well. There were overlaps in the research, but these four subfields have their specific sets of concepts that do not move well from one sphere to the next in an academic sense. In practice, these useful academic concepts and categories are not followed in the everyday life of these spiritual actors, and this article is a second attempt (the first one being Possamai) at encompassing these four subfields into a more coherent system.53

Further Reading

  • Altglas, Véronique. From Yoga to Kabbalah. Religious Exoticism and the Logics of Bricolage. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • Aupers, Steff, and Dick Houtman. “Beyond the Spiritual Supermarket: The Social and Public Significance of New Age Spirituality.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 21, no. 2 (2006): 201–222.
  • Carrette, Jeremy, and Richard King. Selling Spirituality: The Silent Takeover of Religion. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2005.
  • Corrywright, Dominic. Theoretical and Empirical Investigations into New Age Spiritualities. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2003.
  • Davidsen, Markus. “Future Directions in the Sociology of Non-Institutional Religion.” Implicit Religion 15, no. 4 (2012): 553–570.
  • Heelas, Paul. The New Age Movement. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 1996.
  • Heelas, Paul, and Linda Woodhead. The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion is Giving Way to Spirituality. Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell, 2005.
  • Höllinger, Franz. “Does the Counter-Cultural Character of New Age Persist? Investigating Social and Political Attitudes of New Age Followers.” Journal of Contemporary Religion 19, no. 3 (2004): 289–310.
  • Hume, Lynne, and Kathleen McPhillips, eds. Popular Spiritualties: The Politics of Contemporary Enchantment. Aldershot, U.K.: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Kemp, Daren. New Age: A Guide. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.
  • Marler, Penny, and Christopher Hadaway. “Being Religious” or “Being Spiritual” in America: A Zero-Sum Proposition? Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 4, no. 2 (2002): 289–300.
  • McGuire, Meredith. Lived Religion: Faith and Practice in Everyday Life. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2008.
  • Partridge, Christopher. The Re-Enchantment of the West, 2 vols. London, U.K.: T&T Clark. 2005.
  • Possamai, Adam. In Search of New Age Spiritualities. Farnham, U.K.: Ashgate, 2005.
  • Possamai, Adam. The I-zation of Society, Religion, and Neoliberal Post-Secularism. Basingstoke, U.K.: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.
  • Riis, Ole. “The Emergence of Post-Dogmatic Religion.” Implicit Religion 15, no. 4 (2012): 423–438.
  • Stark, Rodney, Eva Hamberg, and Alan Miller. “Exploring Spirituality and Unchurched Religions in America, Sweden, and Japan” Journal of Contemporary Religion 20, no. 1 (2005): 3–23.
  • Sutcliffe, Steven. Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices. London, U.K.: Routledge, 2003.
  • Sutcliffe, Steven, and Marion Bowman, eds. Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality. Edinburgh, U.K.: Edinburgh University Press, 2000.
  • Sutcliffe, Steven, and Ingvild Gilhus, eds. New Age Spirituality: Rethinking Religion. Durham, NC: Acumen, 2013.
  • Wouter Hanegraaff. New Age Religion and Western Culture. Esoterism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. New York, NY: Brill, 1996.
  • York, Michael. The Emerging Network. A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1995.