CESNUR - center for studies on new religions


by Reender Kranenborg (Free University of Amsterdam).
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London. Preliminary version: please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author

1) Introduction

For many years now, I have been studying New Age. In more recent years, I also began studying Neopaganism. In my studies, I have found that, in general, Neopaganism is considered part of the very broad field of New Age. Hanegraaff in his "New Age Religion and Western Culture" mentions Neopaganism as a 'major trend', one of the four within New Age. Naturally, a discussion has emerged about the precise relationship between the two traditions. However, non-believers see Neopaganism as part of the entire New Age movement in their descriptions of it. Michael York’s "Emerging Network" is an example. Adherents of Neopaganism see it differently, and are eager to explain how their movement is different. At times, they even claim that they have nothing to do with New Age. Like York, Harvey focuses in on this position of the Neopagans in his "Listening People, Speaking Earth". Nevertheless, this Neopaganistic self-determination is not recognized in scientific circles. Rather, Neopaganism is considered part of the broad field of New Age.

Having studied Neopaganism for some time now, I have come to the conviction that this view is inaccurate. I would postulate the following:

Neopaganism is an independent movement. It has its own origin or history and own unique character. It also pursues its own individual course. Neopaganism is not a 'major trend' within New Age.

Obviously, similarities and common elements exist. However, they are not essential and have noting to do with the origins. I could also sum up the above as follows:

Neopaganism is an independent current within the field of the new religiosity.

Having presented this postulate, it is essential that I begin my discussion with my definition of Neopaganism. After all, if we were to limit Neopaganism to Wicce, we would see an entirely different picture. In fact, we could almost say that Wicce is indeed a kind of New Age. I would like to examine Neopaganism, however, from a very broad perspective, which is incidentally a growing trend. Neopaganism includes all the movements and groups who draw on an old religion or tradition. There are numerous examples. Druidry is connected to the Celtic religion. Wicca looks to what is termed the 'tradition of the witches.' The Goddess Movement focuses on the 'Fairy tradition.' The neo-shamanistic movement is connected to living religions in America and Siberia that have the institution of the shaman. The Nordic, odinistic or neo-germanic groups are interested in the old Germanic religion. Satanism (as practiced in the Netherlands) is considered a form of the 'old religion.' And Romuva and Dievturiba from Lithuania and Latvia are considered a continuation of the old Baltic religion. After visiting the group in Latvia last year and reading their information closely, it was clear to me that their practice of religion is entirely different from that of New Age.

To demonstrate the independence and specific character of Neopaganism in relation to New Age, I will compare the two movements. That the two religions are different will emerge clearly. Next, I will examine the similarities. In doing so, we will see whether their seemingly common elements are real similarities or in fact more differences given their contexts and underlying philosophies. Finally, I will focus in on the origins of the many different Neopaganistic religions. The question is: do these religions and New Age share the same origins? Did they originate from the same source or will we find further differences?

2) A comparison: differences

I will present a brief review of the essential elements of New Age and Neopaganism. I am aware of how difficult this task is when it comes to New Age. After all, New Age, as we all know, is very diverse. Neopaganism presents an easier prospect: although differences between the many groups do exist, there are very great similarities. In short, Neopaganism is much more of a unified, single entity than is New Age. Neopaganism is more clearly recognizable as a specific religious tradition.

When we compare the two traditions, their differences stand out for the most part. I will examine some of these below.

One very important difference lies in their ideas about divine reality. New Age views the higher reality in a general sense. In Neopaganism, by contrast, we find concrete gods, even a complete pantheon. Examples of divinities include the mother goddess, de horned god and the high god. The Celtic and Germanic religions believe in many gods from different old religions. These gods have a specific function and are active. We can find the dying and resurrecting god of the vegetation, or the hierosgamos from god and goddess. There is a tendency to view the pantheon from a Jungian perspective. When this occurs, the view of the divine is general. A tendency also exists to consider the gods as purely symbolic; nevertheless the very concrete representation is dominant. Within New Age, we find none of this.

Differences also emerge in their respective ideas about the 'other world.' Within New Age, we find a higher reality, with spheres in a hierarchical order. These spheres are inhabited by higher spiritual beings who can encounter humans. No such system exists in Neopaganism. As a rule, we find a kind of 'double reality': another reality exists after, beside or above the reality we know. Although this second reality may be that of the gods, no specific contact with human beings is sought from within that realm. Neoshamanists believe in the possibility of 'travelling in heaven.' In that case, however, it is man himself who takes the initiative and travels on his own. In short, the two realities have a different character.

We can also find a difference in views on reincarnation. In New Age, we find a specific evolutionary model, in which karma also plays an important role. This does not exist in Neopaganism. In general, the idea of reincarnation forms part of the belief system (although some groups place no faith in reincarnation). In Neopaganism, however, reincarnation simply involves a return to the earth in a future life. As a rule, it has little to do with karma. We seldom find quotations, such as 'man has chosen his life,' or 'man is on earth to learn his lessons,' or ‘we must redeem our karma.' The purpose of reincarnation in Neopaganism is not to attain a specific spiritual goal. Of course, there are exceptions to this rule. In Wicca, as practiced in the Netherlands, the idea of reincarnation is greatly influenced by the Human Potential Movement and Jung. In that sense, it does bear similarities to New Age.

Let us now take a closer look at karma. Karma has to do with the question of the origin of the evil in the world and the function of it. In New Age, evil is primarily considered a product of human action, or something that comes across our path to further our spiritual development. Neopaganism takes a different view of evil. Evil exists, but is part of nature or the creation or world we inhabit. Evil is something we humans have to accept and live with. Achieving that will make our human existence richer and fuller, though what that means differs from what it does in New Age.

Another difference is related to New Age in the real sense of the term: the expectation of a new era in this period. Occasionally, this expectation is linked to the idea of a coming messianic personality (Maitreya) or to apocalyptic ideas about disasters and great wars. The idea of eras goes hand in hand with the expectation of a new age. These elements do not exist in Neopaganism. There is no expectation of a new age, of a messianic personality, or of apocalyptic disasters. The idea of eras is also missing, as Neopaganism has no philosophy of history. By contrast, Neopaganism emphasizes the 'here and now', our current existence. Although the existence of a future is acknowledged, it is not a point of interest. Neopaganism does, however, include movements that are working hard towards a better world, one in which mankind lives in harmony with nature.

Further differences can be found in the anthropology. In New Age, we find different variations of esoteric anthropology, including with the physical, astral, ethereal and causal body and with the ego, the mind, the soul, and finally the 'divine spark'. By contrast, this anthropology is generally non-existent in Neopaganism. At times, we find the divine spark, though not always. As a rule, the self-realisation of the divine spark is not a goal in Neopaganism. Sometimes we find anthropologies strongly influenced by Jung (see Starhawk). We also encounter the belief that this is our only life. Consequently, the anthropology is more simple. In short, great variation exists. Even within this variation, however, we seldom find the esoteric forms of New Age.

One very important point of difference concerns the goal. In essence, New Age can be described as a 'religion of deliverance.' More specifically, it teaches that we humans must develop ourselves and achieve self-realisation in this life and in following lives in order to reach the divine spark in ourselves and become one with it. There are many methods to achieve this goal, from yoga to 'positive thinking.' By applying these methods, we grow spiritually. None of these ideas are present in Neopaganism. The idea that we have to be delivered does not exist at all. There is no self-realisation, but 'self-empowerment': the effort to become more rooted in this existence. In contrast to the idea of growing, Neopaganism emphasizes living in the 'here and now'. It has no evolutionary vision, no methods of deliverance. Any existing methods focus on increasing ‘empowerment. In other words, New Age teaches us to surpass this existence, while Neopaganism teaches us to intensify this life.

This brings me to my next point, the question of consistent holism. On the one hand, New Age claims to be purely holistic and is known to advocate cohesion. On the other hand, it is not consistent regarding the following point. It adheres to a hierarchy of values, in which the material, as well as the physical, is not very important. Sometimes, the word 'maya' (non-real) is used. At times, we find the idea of abstinence or specific celibacy, which implies a lack of emphasis on sexuality. (One exception are the groups that claim to adhere to tantrism or certain forms of classical gnosticism with the ideas of hermaphroditism and/or androgyny). In short, the holism is partial. We do not find this in Neoapaganism. There, holism implies a vision in which all things are interconnected and have the same value. Holism is also strongly connected to nature, the gods, other people and our own personalities. The material aspect is never less valuable than the spiritual. A gnostic dualism, in which we have to redeem ourselves, does not exist. The physical is not something that we need to surpass. In many Neopaganistic groups the physical is very important, sometimes connected with sexual rituals.

Another difference is related to the so-called 'power of the Christ' or more simply, 'the Christ'. The Christ, who has helped and will help mankind, is a very important, high spiritual being in New Age, especially in groups that focus on the esoteric tradition. At the same time, it is the power within us that we have to realise. It should be noted here that in this respect, there is an interest in the Bible, though it is generally read in the light of the older gnostic writings or modern revelations. None of this can be found in Neopaganism. The Power of Christ, or the Christ, plays no role whatsoever, and interest in the Bible is practically non-existent. The rituals bear no traces of the Bible or Jesus Christ. Often Neopaganists find New Age too Christian for the reasons outlined above.

The next point concerns 'revelation'. New Age places a great deal of importance on the information that originates in the supernatural reality and comes to mankind through channelling and other methods. The act of conveying this information can legitimately be called revelation. Strikingly, David Spangler, who established Findhorn, wrote a book entitled 'revelation'. Many people in the New Age movement function as 'channels'. In Neopaganism, revelation does not exist. No supernatural information is relayed. Information in Neopaganism stems either from knowledge of the old religions, or from experiences during rituals. Contact with the higher reality does not serve to obtain information; rather, it is an experience. Only the neo-shamans can obtain information in their travels in heaven. In their case, however, the information does not constitute a revelation, but is procured in connection with a concrete need for healing.

The most important differences lie the practice of the groups, in their gatherings and rituals. As a rule, Neopaganism is practiced in a closed group, a circle or 'coven', only accessible to initiates. This circle has to be sanctified, a ceremony based on texts and symbols. Everything that takes place within the circles proceeds according a fixed pattern. The (high) priest plays an important role in the circle. There is always a sacrifice. The members enter into trances and sing. Usually, they go naked. They work with 'energy'. Of course, we have to say, not all Neopagan groups follow this pattern. The group in Latvia, for instance, was quite different in this respect. Nonetheless, these practices are completely non-existent in New Age. Usually, New Age groups meet in open gatherings to learn and practice their beliefs. Only the so-called 'orders' bear some resemblance to New Age in this respect. These ‘orders’ are groups in New Age who hold closed gatherings consisting of many rituals and who feel a strong affinity with the esoteric tradition. (An example is the Order of the Solar Temple). However, the structure and content of those gatherings differ as do the rituals. We should note in this respect that New Age is generally very individualistic. Neopaganism, by contrast, sets great store by the collective, the community. The individual Neopagan is not possible.

We should observe in this context that annual and seasonal festivals hold a central place in Neopaganism. The observance and celebration of the festivals is one of the most essential elements of this movement. Naturally, there is a tendency to follow the rhythm of the seasons. Connected to the festivals are the 'rites-de-passage': most Neopagans hold rituals to mark birth, marriage and death. None of these elements are present in New Age. Of course, there is a general tendency in New Age to live in harmony with nature. Many New Age adherents like to celebrate the summer solstice. This does not, however, apply to most groups. Many do not celebrate the other festivals at all. Movements such as anthroposophy show similar ideas, though their application is quite different. Moreover, their festivals are more closely connected to Christian holidays. The rites-de-passage are almost completely non-existent in New Age.

Neopaganism contains elements that are practically, if not entirely, non-existent in New Age. The mythology of the older religions, together with fairy tales and wisdom literature, plays an important role. Such elements in New Age occur only sporadically. When they do, they are viewed from a Jungian perspective. In Neopaganism, animals, especially as guide animals, are very important. They play a supernatural role as their appearance is never coincidental and they convey messages to people by their behaviour. This element is particularly important in neo-shamanism. By contrast, animals in New Age play no special role; their appearance has no deeper meaning. New Age adherents view animals as part of nature and consider a duty to live in harmony with them. Occasionally, there are exceptions. In the Celestine Prophecy, in the Tenth Insight, an animal can play a special role. Even there, however, the animal is viewed within the framework of the Jungian concept of synchronicity. And when a Dutch princess communicates with dolphins, it is more in an attempt to understand the animal than to experience the supernatural. Occasionally, priesthoods in Neopaganism are hierarchical. Officially, everybody is equal and has the same rights, including that of becoming a priest. In practice, however, the hierarchical system is not easy to discard. The system in New Age features 'gurus' or 'masters'; priests do not exist, except in certain esoteric orders.

3) A comparison: the similarities

Both differences and the similarities between New Age and Neopaganism have been outlined above. A close look would show that the similarities were few and purely formal. Nevertheless, there are some similarities which seem to be more substantial. Should these similarities prove to be identical, our picture of the relationship between the two movements could change significantly. In that case, it would be more a relationship of coherence and connection. Three points stand out in this regard.

First and foremost, the concept of 'energy' is a very strong element in New Age (Redfield’s books are but one example) and Neopaganism (mostly manifest in the meaning of the rituals). Is the concept identical in both movements? I think so. The basic belief is that one substantial energy is working and can be found somewhere in the cosmos and in all of its elements. We humans can make contact with that energy and can use it to our own advantage or to help other people. In this respect, the two movements are really one. Their areas of emphasis, however, diverge from the beginning. In New Age, this energy is the Divine, and the Divine is also present in man. We are required to 'realise this energy', i.e. to strive to become united with it. In Neopaganism, this energy is not automatically identical to the Divine, but can be seen more as part of the Divine. The objective is not to unite with this energy, but to gain empowerment from it, mostly in order to help and heal others. The question is: what is the origin of this concept of energy? Whatever the case may be, the religions that claim to revive Neoaganism do not have this concept of energy. It is a modern concept. Its roots probably lie in Western esotericism, where concepts such as fluidum, a magnetic force (animal magnetism), etc. can be found. From this origin, the concept of energy has begun to play an important role in New Age and Neopaganism. Neither can be said to have learned it from the other. Rather, both have drawn in their own way on a concept that can be traced back to western esotericism.

A second similarity is connected to this, and is related to 'magic'. Magic involves working with invisible powers in order to influence our surroundings (including our own personalities). Clearly, magic is very important in Neopaganism. This is especially true of the different varieties of Wicca, which teaches that everything that happens within the circle is pure magic. We also find this in New Age. Although it is not strong enough to be considered a general characteristic, it is quite common. Magic is popular with groups structured like orders. In many groups, the practice of magic can be traced back to Aleister Crowley. In this sense, New Age adherents resemble the Neopagans. Nonetheless, magic in New Age fulfills a different function than it does in Neopaganism. Neopagans practice magic within the group as a whole with a view to gaining 'empowerment' and improving the situation of others. New Age groups practice it within the framework of 'self-realisation'; magic there can be seen as a means of becoming more united with the Divine. Although magic is a fundamental common element in the two movements, its practice and context nullify the similarity.

The third similarity is related to nature. On the one hand, both movements resemble each other. Earth and mother earth, Gaia, are very important. It also important to live in harmony with nature (or earth). Both movements believe many creatures exist, ranging from devas to fairies. Both have rituals aimed at achieving harmony with nature. All the same, we should note that the approach and the angle of incidence are fundamentally different. In Neopaganism, earth is really a goddess, Mother-earth, who plays an important role in the pantheon. In New Age, earth is not a goddess, even though she is named Gaia. Gaia is living, but is a kind of self-regulating organism; she is not a divinity and is not invoked in rituals. A fertility cult could be said to exist in Neopaganism. The belief system in New Age precludes such a cult. In other words, the Neopagans’ Mother-Earth is the all, whereas Gaia in New Age is part of a more complex philosophy.

Neopaganism strives towards a real unity with nature or the earth. In New Age, by contrast, the objective is to achieve a kind of harmony, to become attuned to the earth. In this respect, Findhorn is representative: as important as nature may be, esoteric philosophy is far more essential. It is not without good reason that Findhorn is seen as one of the origins of New Age and not of modern Neopaganism. Aside from this, the creatures living in nature are different. Findhorn’s devas are unknown in Neopaganism, which believes in the existence of creatures found in fairy-tales. Another difference lies in the importance placed on the 'sacred geography' of the earth in Neopaganism: ley-lines, junctions of energy, places with a specific tension, etc. Such places are non-existent in New Age, which is attributable to the movement’s more global orientation. Neopagans, by contrast, have stronger ties to specific countries or territories. In short, nature or the earth are common elements in both movements though their similarities are not fundamental. New Age can be said to have been inspired in this respect by Neopaganism. However, Neopaganism cannot be labelled a 'major trend' within New Age. A more accurate statement would be that New Age adherents are very interested in nature, an interest that has been influenced by Neopaganism.

4) Common origins?

It is important to examine whether Neopaganism and New Age originate from the same source, but took different directions after their common beginnings. It is often claimed that the roots of both movements lie in esotericism or that esotericism has deeply influenced both traditions. Is this picture accurate?

Whatever the case may be, both groups clearly differ in their self-understanding. Indeed, New Age traces itself back to the broad tradition of western esotericism, or views itself, by passing many centuries, as a continuation of the gnostic religion of old. Neopaganism does not trace itself back to esotericism or gnosticism. Every group’s origins are different. Druidry, for instance, apparently began in the 19th century. It was only established in 1936, though not - to my knowledge - in esoteric circles. Similarly, the old religion of Latvia began in the 19th century and was established in 1928, though not in esoteric circles. In my opinion, Neoshamanism can be traced back to Harner, who travelled in 1960 to the Indians of Latin America and wrote his book in 1980. He too has no esoteric orientation. The Nordic or Odinistic groups also originated in the 19th century. They are part of the revival of the 'Aryan myth' are very diverse; some adherents can also be found in esoteric circles. All the same, the Neo-germanics as a whole cannot be called esoteric. Dutch Satanism (now non-existent) was not a movement like that of the LaVey group. Rather, it originated in the 1960s and was greatly interested in what was called the 'old religion'. Wicca presents a different picture. Last year, Harrington drew up a broad survey, showing Wicca to have many origins. As a rule, it is thought to have begun with Murray’s books (from 1921 and 1931), and next by the establishment of the movement by Gardner in 1954. Gardner, as we know, had contacts with OTO. However, the composition of the Wicca tradition came not only from this Order, but also stems from other origins. The movement that Gardner established cannot be viewed as esoteric. Starhawk’s Goddess movement goes back to the publications of Harrison (1903) and Hawkes (1940), and not - as far as I know - to esoteric works.

It should be noted here that most of the people who established one of the Neopaganistic groups were strongly influenced by the thinking and ideas of their own age. They introduced Western optimism and romantic ideas into the old religions, a detailed account of which falls beyond the scope of this discussion. The fact is, however, that modern Neopaganistic groups are not at all identical in their beliefs to the original ancient religions. Frazer’s 'Golden Bough' played a decisive role in the process of adding to these revived ancient religions; the new contents of the concepts of magic, gods and rituals were typical products of the 19th or 20th century. Esoteric ideas and elements were sometimes introduced into these concepts. But as a whole, the thinking which gave its content to the Neopaganistic groups cannot be seen as esoteric. In short, Neopaganism has its own origins. It is a part of the age in which it originated, but is not esoteric. In this respect, New Age and Neopaganism have nothing in common.

5) Conclusion

The conclusion can be very short, as it is the statement I put forward in the beginning of my lecture. My discussion here has focused on proving the truth of this statement. In short, I hope to have demonstrated sufficiently that Neopaganism and New Age should seen as separate movements. The former is not part of the latter. These movements are independent new traditions. Admittedly, they show a certain degree of overlap. In general, however, they have their own individual origins and unique characters. The most important thing they have in common is the fact that they originated almost in the same period. They also acquired adherents within the same category of people. Finally, it appears that each movement has begun to establish its identity as being distinctly separate from that of the other.

The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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