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Why Do the Churches Become Empty, While New Age Grows? Secularization and Religious Change in the Netherlands

By Dick Houtman, Peter Mascini, and Marieke Gels, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Social Sciences, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, the Netherlands
Preliminary version - Do not reproduce without the consent of the first author.
A paper presented at The 2001 Conference in London

 If we have to make one element of modernization central
to understanding the nature of modern religion,
it would be that which explains the rise of the sect,
the tolerance at the heart of the denomination,
and the amorphous nature of the cult: individualism.
(Bruce, 1995: 428).


Since the 1960’s the Dutch religious landscape has changed dramatically. The percentage of people not affiliated with one of the Christian churches has increased from 24% in 1958 to 60% in 1995. As a result, in 1995, only 19% of the Dutch population considered itself Roman Catholic, only 15% felt affiliated with either of the two principal Protestant churches in the Netherlands (9% ‘Dutch Reformed’ and 6% ‘Neo-Calvinists’), while the residual category ‘other churches’ accounts for an even lower percentage (Becker et al., 1997: 57-61; see also Becker and Vink, 1994 ). It is difficult to find other countries where the Christian tradition has eroded so rapidly and dramatically during the last few decades. For this very reason, the Netherlands constitutes a strategic case study in the debate on secularization and emerging new types of religiosity.

Some Dutch sociologists have concluded from the dramatic decline of the Christian churches that Dutch culture and society have become increasingly secular (e.g., Becker and Vink, 1994). Others, however, emphasize that this decline of the Christian tradition has been accompanied by the rise of a veritable ‘experimental garden of religiosity’: new types of religion, among which New Age figures prominently, are held to flower alongside the remains of the Christian tradition (Janssen, 1998; Van Otterloo, 1999). Becker et al. (1997) have demonstrated that the increased affinity with ‘new’, ‘alternative’, or ‘post-traditional’ types of religion does not outnumber the exodus from the Christian churches. Nevertheless, the remarkably divergent development since the 1960’s of the Christian tradition and New Age, one of the most discussed ‘alternative’ religions, poses an intriguing problem of sociological explanation: Why do the churches become empty, while New Age grows? This is the question which is addressed in the present paper.

We first elaborate this research problem by discussing the answers suggested by two prominent theoretical traditions within the sociology of religion. We refer to those as the thesis of rationalization, which predicts religious decline as a consequence of a process of rationalization, and the thesis of individualization, which predicts religious change as a consequence of a process of individualization. The definite research questions which result from this theoretical discussion are then answered by means of an analysis of qualitative and quantitative data (in-depth interviews with New Agers and survey data collected among the Dutch population at large, respectively). We conclude with a summary of our principal findings and some remarks regarding their theoretical implications for the analysis of religious and cultural change.

Rationalization and the decline of religion

The thesis of rationalization

About one and a half century ago, Auguste Comte argued that a ‘theological’ worldview, which holds supernatural forces responsible for the origin and nature of things, has historically been substituted first by a ‘metaphysical’ and at last by a ‘positive’ worldview. According to him, magic-mystical and religious interpretations of reality have been more and more repelled by scientific knowledge, while magic as a means to control the environment (‘applied religion’) has increasingly been dispelled by technology (‘applied science’) (1974 [1851-1854]). Comte’s theory does not stand on itself, but is a typical part of an extensive nineteenth-century intellectual tradition, which also includes thinkers like Spencer, Marx, Tylor, Freud, and Levy-Bruhl:

(…) traditional claims concerning the incompatibility of science and religion and predictions of science’s contribution to religion’s inevitable demise have always been framed in terms of physical science discoveries that expose the fallacies of religious superstitions and technological progress that reduces the appeal of religious promises (Iannaccone et al., 1998: 384).

This idea that the growth of scientific knowledge pushes religion to the margins of modern consciousness is still alive today. American anthropologist Wallace, for example, claims that ‘(…) belief in supernatural powers is doomed to die out, all over the world, as a result of the increasing adequacy and diffusion of scientific knowledge (…) the process is inevitable’ (cited by Stark and Finke, 2000: 29). Sociologist of religion Dobbelaere puts it this way:

(…) many people (can) no longer believe in God because not only the material and the physiological world seem controllable, but the social and psychical world as well. People think more and more that they can control and manipulate ‘their’ world. They act more in terms of insight, knowledge, controllability, planning and technique and less in terms of faith (1993: 15, our translation from Dutch, DH/PM/MG). [1]

In this paper we refer to this theoretical logic as the ‘thesis of rationalization’: the idea that the space left over for religion - also at the level of individual consciousness - decreases with the rise of the conviction that true and objective scientific knowledge exists, which can be utilized to control the environment.

This thesis of rationalization should not be confused with Weber’s ideas about the disenchantment of the world, which refer to the gradual decline of the appearance of the world as a ‘magic garden’, dominated by mysterious and unpredictable powers, controllable by magical means only. According to Weber, this magic garden gives way not only to the idea of an inanimate nature, controllable by means of technology, based on scientific knowledge, but also to the skeptical idea that no such thing as an ‘objective’ meaning exists. So, with the disenchantment of the world, the idea that meaning is inevitably a human creation, lacking any meta-social or supernatural foundation, becomes increasingly widespread. As a consequence, Weber’s ideas on the disenchantment of the world, as distinct from the thesis of rationalization mentioned above, leave open the possibility that rationalism itself will become critically scrutinized and found wanting (although Weber has never elaborated this problem himself). Cultural changes since the 1960’s point out that precisely this has happened.

As part of a process of ‘reflexive modernization’ (Beck, 1992; Beck et al., 1994) or ‘postmodernization’ (Inglehart, 1997) the past few decades have not only witnessed an erosion of the Christian tradition in many countries, but a declining faith in science and technology as well. Moreover, the latter development is not restricted to the general public. It has also taken place in the field of knowledge and the universities. Especially among intellectual circles in the arts, philosophy and anthropology, the postmodern conviction that ‘knowledge’ is ultimately ‘manmade’ rather than ‘found’, has gained quite a lot of influence. This position entails a radicalized skepticism, which can be understood as the product of the disenchantment of the world. After all, postmodernism considers not only religious and cultural ideas, but even ‘scientific truths’ as products of the human mind awaiting their eventual deconstruction. It goes without saying that precisely this postmodern denial of the distinction between religious and cultural ideas on the one hand and scientific knowledge on the other, makes postmodernism hard to swallow for most scientists.

Summing up, developments since the 1960’s point out, firstly, that rationalism is not the inevitable and undisputed ‘end of history’ the thesis of rationalization holds it to be. It has in fact gradually become an important focus of cultural conflict within the field of knowledge and the universities. Secondly, the developments since the 1960’s suggest that the cultural dynamics of modern western societies do not simply spring from a ‘religion/science conflict’ (Sappington, 1991) or a ‘warfare of science with theology’ (White, 1960). After all, since the 1960’s both the Christian tradition and science and technology seem to have lost part of their credibility. As rationalism has not become more widespread, but has increasingly been challenged, it is not very plausible that the gradual erosion of the Christian tradition is a consequence of a process of rationalization, as the thesis of rationalization holds.

A decline of the Christian churches as a consequence of rationalization?

Survey data collected among the Dutch population in 1998 are used to study whether, notwithstanding fashionable ideas about reflexive modernization and postmodernization, the downfall of the Christian tradition since the 1960’s can nevertheless be explained by an increased faith in science and technology during this same period. If the thesis of rationalization is tenable, then we should find that older generations are more often Christian, while younger generations are more often non-religious, because the former are less rationalistic than the latter (hypothesis 1). [2] As discussed above, ‘rationalism’ refers to the conviction that true and objective scientific knowledge exists, which can be applied in the form of technology to control the environment.

New Age as persistent secularization?

Because the thesis of rationalization assumes a tension between faith in scientific knowledge and technology on the one hand and all sorts of religion on the other, it is difficult to reconcile it with the growing popularity of New Age. In fact, such a reconciliation can only be achieved by demonstrating that New Age does not constitute a ‘real’ religion. Indeed, this line of reasoning is not uncommon. Bryan Wilson, for instance, writes:

According to this logic, which is similar to Fenn’s (1978), New Age does not constitute a ‘real’ religion, but only a pale shadow of it - a sort of ‘religion lite’, which needs not to be taken seriously. The ‘annoying fact’ of the growth of New Age, therefor, does not pose a threat to the validity of the thesis of rationalization. More than that, the flowering of the new religious movements corroborates the reality of the processes of rationalization. Stark and Bainbridge argue that this line of reasoning boils down to Christian-Judaic parochialism, as it relies on debatable assumptions as to what constitutes a ‘real’ religion (1985: 436-437). Stark and Bainbridge themselves argue that secularization and religious revival tend to go hand in hand. They substantiate this claim by demonstrating that the new cults have larger numbers of adherents in precisely those social contexts, which are characterized by the strongest declines of the traditional churches (Stark and Bainbridge, 1985).

It seems, indeed, difficult to contest Wilson’s claim that New Age (and most other new types of religion as well), lacks the morally integrative potential and ambition which characterizes traditional institutionalized forms of Christianity. Concluding from this that we are not dealing with ‘real’ religion, however, assumes a solution to the notoriously difficult problem of defining religion, which is unlikely to be acceptable to all, or even most, sociologists of religion. Most sociologists of religion are likely to be willing to maintain an analytic distinction between religion and its (present or absent) social consequences, thus refusing to define the former in terms of the latter. Rather than squabbling on the nature of ‘true’ religion, it seems important to answer two empirical questions, which can shed light onto the extent to which the growth of New Age indicates either persistent secularization or religious revival.

First, using in-depth interviews with New Agers, we study whether it is true that New Age amounts to no more than shallow, superficial and volatile ‘consumerist’ preferences for religious ideas and practices, which change in a fashion-like way when changes occur at the supply side of the religious supermarket, and which thus indicate the absence of a more or less stable system of religious meaning. More specifically, we study two things: whether or not New Agers believe in the existence of a ‘supernatural’ or ‘super-empirical’ order, which provides them with meaning, and whether or not more or less coherent and substantial religious ideas underlie their notoriously diverse and volatile interests in different types of books, religious ideas, therapies, etcetera. To the extent belief in a meaning-providing super-empirical order and coherent underlying religious ideas are absent, it can be maintained that New Age is not a ‘real’ religion and that its increased popularity does not jeopardize the thesis of rationalization.

Second, analyzing survey data for the Dutch population at large, we study whether affinity with New Age is most typical of those who have never identified with one of the Christian churches in the past or of those who have. If New Age is mostly found among the former, its growth primarily constitutes religious revival: especially people who have never been Christians, have become interested in New Age religion. On the other hand, if New Age is mostly found among those who have identified with one of the Christian churches in the past, its growth might primarily constitute persistent secularization. Becker et al. (1997) refer to this idea that New Age has been substituted for Christianity as the ‘thesis of substitution’. To the extent such a process of substitution has been taking place, indeed, it might be correct to conclude that Christianity has been replaced by a less serious ‘religion lite’ - that is, of course, if our qualitative analysis confirms this interpretation of New Age. In short, then, if affinity with New Age is stronger among ex-churchmembers than among those who have never identified with one of the Christian churches (‘non-churchmembers’), the growth of New Age might indicate persistent secularization more than religious revival. To the extent this pattern is not found, rising affinity with New Age primarily indicates religious revival, which constitutes an ‘annoying fact’ for the thesis of rationalization.


Individualization and religious change

The thesis of individualization

Whereas the thesis of rationalization predicts a downfall of religion as a consequence of growing faith in science and technology, the idea of an eventual disappearance of religion is not universally accepted among sociologists of religion. Those who reject this idea do, of course, not deny that the Christian tradition has lost some of its cogency, but emphasize that religion has radically changed character. In its most influential formulation, Luckmann (1967) predicted almost 35 years ago that as the individual consciousness becomes detached from traditional social contexts, people develop a sense of individual autonomy. As a consequence, Luckmann argues, traditional Christianity makes way for more or less ‘invisible’ and ‘privatized’ forms of religion, which are characterized by an emphasis on self-expression, self-actualization and individual freedom. Today, Luckmann (1996) considers New Age, in which individual spiritual development is a dominant theme, while a stable organization, canonized dogmas, a system of member-recruitment, and a disciplinary system, are conspicuously absent, as the most prominent contemporary representative of this type of religion.

Heelas (1996) offers a similar explanation for the rising popularity of New Age. As he sees it, New Agers, in constructing their identity and moral judgements, characteristically reject guidance by any kind of ‘external’ tradition or authority. Instead, they consider their ‘self’ the principal moral authority:

Much of the New Age would appear to be quite radically detraditionalized (rejecting voices of authority associated with established orders) or in other ways anti-authoritarian (rejecting voices of those exercising authority on their own, even rejecting ‘beliefs’). (…) The basic idea (…) is that what lies within - experienced by way of ‘intuition’, ‘alignment’ or an ‘inner voice’ - serves to inform the judgements, decisions and choices required for everyday life. The ‘individual’ serves as his or her own source of guidance (Heelas, 1996: 22-23; italics in original). [3]


This way, like Luckmann, Heelas relates the rising popularity of New Age to decreasing acceptance of traditions and authorities and increasing moral individualism:

The (…) rejection of external voices of authority, together with the importance attached to Self-responsibility, expressivity, and, above all, authority, goes together with the fact that one of the absolutely cardinal New Age values is freedom. Liberation from the past, the traditional, and those internalized traditions, egos; and freedom to live a life expressing all that it is to be truly human (1996: 26).

In this paper, we refer to this idea of Luckmann and Heelas as the ‘thesis of individualization’, which argues that the rising popularity of New Age results from an increase of moral individualism. Two key assumptions made by Luckmann and Heelas are confirmed by the available empirical evidence. First, moral individualism has, indeed, become increasingly widespread during the past few decades (e.g., Inglehart, 1977; 1990; 1997). [4] Second, indeed, the relationship between moral individualism and the Christian tradition is strained: typically, negative correlations between Christianity and moral individualism are reported. The reader is referred, for example, to Middendorp (1991) and Vollebergh et al. (1999) for the Netherlands and to Olson and Carroll (1992) and Woodrum (1988a; 1988b) for the United States. Although we encounter this moral individualism in the research literature under different headings, [5] all of those refer to essentially the same sort of moral individualism: the granting of a moral primacy to individual liberty.

As discussed earlier, however, research also points out that, at least in the Netherlands, the downfall of the Christian tradition strongly outnumbers the growth of New Age and other new religious movements (Becker et al., 1997). So, Luckmann and Heelas seem right in arguing that a growing moral individualism has undermined the Christian tradition, but seem to neglect the circumstance that, besides New Age, non-religiosity is an important option as well. In short: whereas the thesis of rationalization tends to neglect the rise and growth of post-traditional forms of religiosity, this thesis of individualization neglects the possibility of a genuine decline of religion. To deal with this possibility, it is necessary to distinguish two variants of the thesis of individualization: substitution of Christianity by New Age and substitution of Christianity by non-religiosity. [6]

Decline of the Christian churches and growth of New Age as consequences of individualization?

Is the process of individualization, indeed, responsible for a growth of affinity with New Age, a rise of non-religiosity and an erosion of the Christian tradition? This question can be answered through the analysis of our survey data, which have been collected among the Dutch population at large. Doing so, differences between the old and the young with regard to individualism and religiosity are interpreted as resulting from processes of historical change. We do not find this assumption very problematical, as research points out that the moral individualism of the young does not change into ‘cultural conservatism’, ‘authoritarianism’, ‘conformism’ or ‘traditionalism’, as they grow older. As a consequence, the individualism of the young cannot be understood as a consequence of the stage of life they are in, but results primarily from a historical process of individualization (Inglehart, 1977; 1990; 1997). Likewise, it has been demonstrated that the fact that there are less Christians among the young as compared to the old indicates a historical process of change as well (see especially: Te Grotenhuis, 1999). Although we know of no research which demonstrates the same for the affinity with New Age among the young as compared to the old, it seems less plausible to assume that today’s older Christians have been New Agers during their youths.

The idea that the process of individualization has increased the affinity with New Age and has at the same time eroded the Christian tradition and led to a rise of non-religiosity, produces three hypotheses about the relationships between age, individualism and type of religiosity. If the process of individualization has led to a rise of non-religiosity, the young should be non-religious more often and the old should be Christian more often, because the young hold more individualistic views than the old (hypothesis 2). If the process of individualization has led to religious change, the young should have more affinity with New Age and the old should be Christian more often, because the young hold more individualistic views than the old (hypothesis 3). Because New Agers as well as non-religious persons are expected to be young and to feel unattracted to Christianity because of their strong individualism, a final hypothesis can be formulated. It predicts that New Agers and non-religious persons do not differ with respect to either age or individualism (hypothesis 4).

Is New Age a ‘real’, albeit highly individualistic, religion?

Data from in-depth interviews

In the context of the writing of her MA-thesis, the third author has collected qualitative data, which have been reanalyzed for the present paper. From the end of 1998 to the beginning of 1999, she conducted 32 in-depth interviews with people who are involved with New Age. She made the first contacts through her personal network and through the Internet. Later contacts were made through these firsts (‘snowball sampling’). Almost everyone she approached agreed to be interviewed. The interviews lasted for an average of one hour and were all recorded on tape. The principal interview topics were the religious background and upbringing of the respondents, the way they define their position vis-à-vis the Christian tradition, whether or not there has been a definite reason for their first interest in New Age, and the behavioral consequences their affinity with New Age gives rise to.

Spiritual growth, individualism, and religious meaning

For the people we have interviewed, the personal importance of New Age lies in part in the fact that it provides a context of meaning, in which a super-empirical reality takes a prominent place. This is especially clear from the fact that many of them emphasize that things do not ‘just’ happen. Instead, they see certain events as ‘signposts’, offering opportunities for self-actualization and spiritual growth. If one is not open for such signs, this is considered a missed opportunity. So, our respondents argue that it is important to learn and recognize the meaning of seemingly casual events and to realize personal growth through the insights they yield (referred to as ‘synchronicity’ by Jung). A forty year old woman explains this connection between fate and self-actualization as follows:

I tend to think that there is no such thing as chance. Although I find the consequence of that difficult as well. But that is how I think about it. I don’t know whether it is true for every aspect of life, but many things are fated, have a reason to it. I think people are here to learn something again. How it works is a big mystery, but we do get invitations for it in various ways. In that sense, there is no such thing as coincidence. (…) It cannot be once only. It would be very cynical if we would be here for seventy years and eternity lasts millions of years and it should happen in those seventy years. I never thought like that. I find it nihilistic. I don’t believe in ‘Now, and that’s the end of it’ (no. 32).

Half of the people interviewed (sixteen persons) first became interested in New Age after a traumatic event in their personal lives. These are for example the end of a relationship, the death of a child, brother or friend, getting stuck in an addiction or getting a serious disease. The idea that such personal setbacks do not ‘just’ happen, but are ‘fated’, provides comfort, support and opportunities for personal growth. This can be illustrated by a fragment of an interview with a man (thirty years old) who has lost his brother:

The confrontation with death was so traumatic and it preoccupies one so much. (…) One should really change completely as a human being when such a thing happens. (…) There was no explanation for it. I was angry about it for a very long time. Very long very angry. I also pushed it away for a very long time, but that gradually changed. One wants to know "why" and then one comes in touch more and more with the spiritual aspects of it. And there I could leave it more and more. More and more a feeling like: ‘If everyone has his life-path, than his life-path had ended, and you should just accept it’. It has to be like that, if I want to continue. Read a lot about such things… Just reading, remaining critical, putting aside certain things laughingly. Yet, it enriched me ever more. I always picked out the things of value to me, till I gradually constructed my own belief (…) (no. 22).


It is not surprising, of course, that the need for religious meaning manifests itself especially when one is confronted with a serious personal setback. It is exactly this type of experience which creates a problem of meaning by raising a question which needs to be answered one way or another, but which precludes any rationally founded answer. The rejection of the idea that such setbacks are ‘just coincidence’ means that New Agers believe in the existence of something like a ‘supernatural’ or ‘super-empirical’ order - an idea which is (by definition) absent among people who are not religious. Although it differs strongly from Christianity with its belief in a transcendent personal God, therefor, New Age is religious as well.

From our 32 respondents, 27 indicated having made a deliberate choice for New Age instead of one the Christian churches. The other five respondents are interested in New Age but, at the same time, consider themselves members of a Christian church. Nevertheless, this also involves a deliberate choice, stemming from the conviction that only religious ideas for which one has chosen deliberately can be personally meaningful. As such, all our respondents object to the dogmas of Christian churches, which they consider ‘artificial’ and ‘forced’ answers to problems of meaning. They are of the opinion that, in principle, it does not really matter which religious traditions one chooses to adopt elements from, for in the end all of them refer to the same esoteric truth. As a consequence, the perceived sense of superiority of the monotheistic religions is rejected as unfounded and morally reprehensible. [7] A 41-year-old man expresses his aversion to dogmas as follows:

I have not rejected it [the Christian faith; DH, PM, MG], but I see it in a wider perspective. It is not the only true religion. Not only through Jesus one can come to enlightenment. Jesus was one of the divine incarnations. […] I lived in Amsterdam for a while, participated in a conversation group, and that was quite disappointing: those people were pretty strict in their religious perceptions. There was no room for reincarnation there. There, one really had to stick to the Christian doctrine: that single vertical, sort of narrow way of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and only in that way one could believe. Not otherwise. Then I felt already like… After that, I traveled around the world a bit and then one sees other religions and other cultures. Buddhists have a religion at least as valuable as we Christians and it goes against the grain with me to not consider that as equal. This is in fact the intolerance of the Christian church that I saw, or see, that made me averse to going back to it. I don’t have such a need for that community. I’ve never really discovered what binds you together (no. 13).

 In short, it is not so much Christianity as such that is rejected, as its closely associated tenets and dogmas, as well as the church as an institution and hierarchical organization. Many of our respondents therefore sharply distinguish between ‘church’ and ‘religion’. A 45-year-old woman explains why:

Churches? I don’t like institutions and dogmas. I think that as soon as a belief turns into an institution, it is going the wrong way. It fossilizes. It’s no longer alive. And I think this is what has happened in the West. The moment it fossilizes and people oppose to that, or the spirit of the time, then some will want a living faith. They want to revitalize it. They are no longer part of it. They separate from it. While others think that the ground is taken away under their feet. Then I think: ‘What is this ground? Those Hail Mary’s? You don’t need the church for that, do you?’ That is not to say that those rituals are wrong, but if they are blank, I don’t think it’s right. And I think that for a lot of people these rituals are blank. In many churches the spirituality is no longer there (no. 24)

 The strongly felt need to be able to pursue one’s personal spiritual path, unhindered by religious authorities, goes hand in hand with the ambition to be tolerant of people with different personal ideas. A 67-year-old woman puts it this way:

One integrates [spirituality] into one’s life. One is living it, the spiritual. I started meditating to come closer to myself. I started to develop my sense of harmony. Actually that goes by itself. I noticed that at work. There were people there that I completely disliked. And when I was involved with it for six months, a year, I noticed at a certain point that I could talk friendly with these people for ten minutes and that I felt it as well: ‘That one is that one, and that one is built that way’. You become kinder to the world around you. You learn to deal with remission and especially with harmony in yourself (no. 23).

 In short, our respondents are of the opinion that Christian churches do not give people enough opportunities to follow their personal religious paths. They prefer to scrutinize different religious traditions to find forms of spirituality which have meaning for them personally. Their aversion to ready-made answers is also shown in their ambition not to condemn others for having different worldviews. To be short, the New Agers we have studied, are clearly individualistic in the sense assumed by Luckmann and Heelas: they do not want to be prescribed what to believe in, nor do they want to prescribe this to others. They want to follow their own spiritual paths.


The well-considered definition of their position vis-à-vis the Christian tradition already suggests an equally well-considered and relatively stable religious commitment. Those people are religious, but they mostly want to distance themselves from the Christian tradition. They read a lot about religion and spirituality, attend lectures on those subjects, participate in courses, workshops and therapies, etcetera. It is mistaken, however, to interpret their diverse and fleeting religious interests and practices as indicating an absence of a stable and serious religious commitment. In fact, the diversity of religious interests and practices results from two more or less coherent underlying religious ideas: ‘syncretism’ and ‘perennialism’. ‘Syncretism’ refers to the individual combination of religious ideas and practices to achieve personally meaningful spirituality (e.g., Hanegraaff, 1996: 396-397) and ‘perennialism’ refers to the idea that within the wide variety of religious and spiritual traditions a common ‘spiritual core’ can be found, which is more important than their idiosyncrasies (e.g., Heelas, 1996: 27-28). The diverse and varying spiritual ideas and practices individual New Agers are engaged in can, in short, not simply be interpreted to indicate ‘shallowness’, ‘consumerism’ or ‘absence of stable religious ideas’. Indeed, it is the very diversity of their religious interests which indicates two more stable and firmly held religious ideas, which preclude a deeply felt commitment to a particular religious tradition, but bring, for that very reason, personal spiritual growth within reach: syncretism and perennialism.

This also means that New Age is, indeed, characterized by moral individualism. The New Agers we have studied feel that standard prescriptions, handed ‘from the outside’ as it were, cannot satisfactorily fulfill their need for meaning. According to them, giving meaning to life cannot be ‘outsourced’ to religious authorities. They feel that this problem needs to be actively taken up by oneself to allow for the attainment of personal growth. It is important to note that, in many respects, the way they position themselves vis-à-vis Christianity could just as well have been recorded from non-religious persons: they refuse to commit themselves to a religious authority which supplies a ready-made package of moral and religious commandments and prohibitions to live by. Those findings confirm Heelas’ thesis about the individualism of New Age:

(…) those who think in terms of the ideology of the autonomous self, who attach very great value to being themselves, who attach equal value to expressing what they are, who have a ‘metaphysical dread of being encumbered by something alien’, are much more likely to be attracted to the (relatively) detraditionalized New Age than to other forms of religiosity, namely those which speak the language of externally-informed injunctions, directives: moral rules and regulations (1996: 161-162).

Does this individualism mean that the increased popularity of New Age since the 1960’s can, indeed, be understood as a consequence of an increase of moral individualism? And if this is so, is the same true for the increase of non-religiosity? And are New Agers and non-religious persons, indeed, similar with respect to individualism, while both are more individualistic than Christians? To answer those three questions we now proceed to the testing of our hypotheses.

Survey data and measurement


The data to be analyzed constitute the first prize in the 1997 contest Wie ontwerpt het beste Telepanel-onderzoek? (Who Designs the Best Telepanel Study?) of CENTERdata (Catholic University of Brabant, KUB), which has been won by the first author in co-operation with Manu Busschots and Sjaak Braster. The just mentioned institute has collected the data in the summer of 1998 for free through its panel of respondents, which constitutes a cross-section of the Dutch population of sixteen years and older. Those who are part of it have got a personal computer at their disposal, with which they are expected to regularly answer questions of researchers. Of the 2,466 persons who have been approached, 1,848 (75 percent) have completed the questionnaire.

As discussed above, it is not too problematical to interpret differences between the old and the young with respect to individualism and church-membership as indicating processes of historical change. In the case of rationalism this methodological problem is more serious. If authors like Beck and Inglehart are right, however, stronger rationalism among the young is not even to be expected: if, indeed, rationalism has declined during the past few decades, a stronger rationalism among the old is to be expected. So, the awkward question whether or not rationalism among the young, assumed by the thesis of rationalization, indicates a historical process of change, will probably not even rise. We have therefore decided not to solve this problem by measuring rationalism indirectly through a high level of education, as others have done. [8] A second reason to reject this strategy is that it boils down to solving a methodological problem by creating a theoretical one. As it happens, a high level of education is a more valid indicator for individualism than for rationalism, [9] thus confounding the two phenomena we wish to disentangle to study the causes of secularization and religious change. We therefor measure both individualism and rationalism directly and accept the methodological problem in the case of rationalism mentioned above as the price to be paid for this.


Religiosity is not reduced to a dichotomy such as ‘religious’ versus ‘non-religious’ or ‘Christian’ versus ‘non-Christian’. Instead, we use a trichotomous variable: ‘Christian’, ‘New Age’ and ‘non-religious’. Three types of indicators for religiosity (religious or not religious) and the nature of religiosity (Christian and/or New Age) are combined to construct it.

New Age is difficult to operationalize. To enable a comparison with earlier studies by Dutch researchers, [10] we have followed those by presenting our respondents some practices closely related to New Age - ‘reincarnation’, ‘astrology’, ‘New Age’, ‘yoga’ and ‘oriental religions’ -, asking them to what extent they have been involved in each of those. As this operationalization only indirectly captures the presence of ideas characteristic of New Age, we have added five Likert-type items (agree strongly through disagree strongly), which express four core ideas of New Age. [11] The first is holism: the conviction that all elements discernible within man, world and universe essentially constitute a unity and continuously influence one another. The following statements refer to this conviction: ‘One’s character is strongly determined by the stars and planets’ and ‘One can predict one’s future to a large extent by reading the lines in one’s hand’. The second core idea is the occurrence of a process of spiritual transformation, which has been operationalized through an item expressing a belief in reincarnation: ‘After death, one’s soul passes to another human being or animal’. The third core idea of New Age is syncretism, the conviction that the attainment of personally meaningful spirituality requires an individual combination of religious ideas and practices. This conviction has been operationalized through the item ‘One should search in different religions oneself to make one’s own religion’. Fourth and finally, an item tapping perennialism - the conviction that all religious traditions and ideas refer, essentially, to the same esoteric truth: ‘The one and only true religion does not exist, but there are truths one can find in all religions of the world’. Those involved in the five practices proved to agree more strongly with those five items as well. [12] This suggests that both series of five questions measure roughly the same, as we intended and expected. The combination of those ten questions produces a single reliable scale (Cronbach’s =0.78), which we consider a valid measure of affinity with New Age.

The type of transcendental consciousness is determined with the question which of the following statements best reflects one’s personal conviction: 1) ‘There is a God who personally occupies himself with every human being’; 2) ‘There has to be something like a higher force that controls life’; 3) ‘I don’t know whether there is a God or a higher force’; 4) ‘There is no God or higher force’. The idea was that Christians would choose the first option, New Agers the second, and non-religious persons the third and especially the fourth.

Church-membership, finally, has been ascertained simply by asking whether or not one considers oneself as belonging to a church. After having divided the scale for affinity with New Age into five categories, about equal in size, the three indicators for (type of) religiosity mentioned above have been analyzed with HOMALS (SPSS). The HOMALS-analysis produces a well-interpretable two-dimensional solution, with a first dimension indicating affinity with the Christian tradition and a second one indicating affinity with New Age (see table 1). Finally, both dimensions have been combined into the three required religious types: ‘non-religious’ (37%), ‘Christian’ (48%) and ‘New Age’ (15%). [13]

Ex-churchmembership and non-churchmembership have, of course, been ascertained only for those who said they did not consider themselves as belonging to a church. Those respondents have been asked whether they have done so in the past. Those who answered that they had, are regarded as ex-churchmembers and those who say they had not as non-churchmembers.

Rationalism has been measured by means of seven Likert-type items, ascertaining the extent to which one believes that true and objective scientific knowledge exists, which can be applied in the form of technology in order to control the environment (table 2). [14]

As discussed above, individualism refers to the granting of a moral primacy to individual liberty. Research by Middendorp (1991) points out that this moral type of individualism is especially indicated by a rejection of authoritarianism, a rejection of traditional ideas about family-life and sexuality, and a democratic inclination. Besides, he refers to Ingleharts well-known index for ‘postmaterialism’ - and with justice, as other research has demonstrated. [15] We therefore measure (moral) individualism in this paper as the linear combination of an (inverted) scale for authoritarianism, [16] a scale for sexual permissiveness [17] and Inglehart’s index for postmaterialism. [18]

Age is measured in years. Finally, two more variables, which are known to be associated with New Age, level of education and gender, are added as controls (e.g., Becker et al., 1997). For the highest level of education completed, we use a division into seven categories: 1) no/adapted primary education (4%), 2) primary education (16%), 3) lower secondary education (14 %), 4) average secondary education (20%), 5) higher secondary education (12%), 6) college (21%) and 7) university (12%).

Why do the churches become empty, while New Age grows?

Religious revival or substitution of New Age for Christianity?

If affinity with New Age is not primarily found among those who have left one of the Christian churches, it is difficult to maintain that its growth indicates a process of persistent secularization. After all, in this case, formerly non-religious people have become religiously involved, which means that we are dealing with religious revival instead. To safeguard the thesis of rationalization from falsification, in other words, a pattern of substitution of New Age for Christianity should exist: strong affinity with new Age among those who used to identify with one of the Christian churches (‘ex-churchmembers’) and weak affinity among those who have never identified with one of the Christian churches (‘non-churchmembers’). The relevant cross-tabulation is presented in table 3.

Among both ex-churchmembers and non-churchmembers non-religiosity is the most common option. As table 3 contains only those respondents who do not consider themselves affiliated with one of the Christian churches today, the presence of a (small) number of Christians requires some explanation. This is caused by our decision to use both church membership and belief in a personal God as indicators for Christianity (compare table 1 above). The few Christians in table 3 are those who do not consider themselves church members, but nevertheless believe in a personal God - a fairly non-typical combination. [19]

Although the percentage of New Agers is somewhat higher among the ex-churchmembers as compared to the non-churchmembers, the difference is not impressive and barely significant. So, it would be exaggerated to maintain that substitution, compatible with the theses of rationalization and persistent secularization, is all that is taking place. Even though affinity with New Age is somewhat more frequent among ex-churchmembers, it is still true that, albeit to a somewhat lesser extent, religious revival is taking place as well.

Testing hypotheses through LISREL

The three possible combinations of the three mentioned types of religiosity constitute the three dependent variables required for the testing of the remaining hypotheses: 1) non-religiosity versus affinity with the Christian tradition, 2) affinity with New Age versus affinity with the Christian tradition and 3) affinity with New Age versus non-religiosity. Those dependent variables can all be considered ordinal dichotomizations of theoretical continua. Because, apart from the also ordinally scaled level of education, all other variables have a metric level of measurement (with gender represented by a dummy variable), we use LISREL with (Generally) Weighted Least Squares (WLS) to test the remaining hypotheses.

The input for this analysis is provided by three correlation matrices made with PRELIS, containing polychorical and polyserial correlations and the associated asymptotic covariance matrices. The correlation matrices estimated by PRELIS reveal that those who have affinity with the Christian tradition are indeed not only older than non-religious persons (r=-0.22), but also older than those who have affinity with New Age (r=-0.19). Those who have affinity with New Age and those who are non-religious do, indeed, not differ with respect to age (r=-0.02). So, as compared to Christians, New Agers and non-religious persons are young, while the two last-mentioned groups do not differ in age. Of course, nothing else was to be expected, as an exodus from the Christian churches has taken place during the last few decades, while in contrast New Age and non-religiosity have only increased. To test our hypotheses, we need path models indicating the extent to which those age-effects can be attributed to differences with respect to rationalism and individualism between the old and the young. Therefor, irrespective of their levels of significance, we specify all age effects on individualism, rationalism and the dependent variables. As to level of education and gender, used as controls, paths have been omitted in case of non-significance.

Religiosity of the old and the young explained

The first two hypotheses to be tested relate to the downfall of the Christian churches and the growth of non-religiosity during the past few decades. Hypothesis 1, derived from the thesis of rationalization, proves untenable (see figure 1). Although rationalism marginally increases the likelihood of a person to be non-religious rather than Christian, the old are not less but more rationalistic than the young, as Beck’s and Inglehart’s work already led us to suspect. It is not true, therefor, that the old are more often Christian than the young, because they are less rationalistic. This means that hypothesis 1, derived from the thesis of rationalization, is rejected.

Figure 1. Non-religiosity (versus affinity with Christianity) explained (N=1,310, Chi-squaret=3.90, df=4, p=0.42; R2 non-religiosity=16%, R2 rationalism=5%, R2 individualism=15%; all paths shown are significant (p<0.05), unless marked ‘n.s.’).

Hypothesis 2, derived from the thesis of individualization, is confirmed, however. The young are not only more individualistic than the old, but this individualism also leads them to embrace non-religiosity rather than affinity with the Christian tradition more often. Although the effects of both age on individualism and individualism on non-religiosity are both quite strong, a significant direct effect of age on the distinction between non-religiosity and Christianity remains. Although survey data do not permit an easy test of this possibility, we might speculate that this results from a weakening ability, itself a likely consequence of the decline of Christian cultural dominance, of ‘tradition’, ‘convention’, ‘habit’ or ‘custom’ to lead young people to associate themselves with one the Christian churches (that is: independent of their personal judgment as to the desirability of such an association).

For the testing of hypothesis 3, also derived from the thesis of individualization, we now compare New Agers to Christians (figure 2). It is evident that the young are not only more individualistic than the old, but that their individualism also contributes strongly to a preference for New Age rather than Christianity.

Figure 2. Affinity with New Age (versus affinity with Christianity) explained (N=959, Chi-square=3.05, df=5, p=0.69; R2 affinity with New Age=19%, R2 rationalism=7%, R2 individualism=14%; all paths shown are significant (p<0.05), unless marked ‘n.s.’).

In contrast with figure 1 above, which compares Christians and non-religious people, no significant direct effect of age on the dependent variable remains in this case. This means that the young’s strong moral individualism fully accounts for the popularity of New Age rather than the Christian churches among them. Once again, it is difficult to understand why in this case no direct age effect remains. We might speculate that this is caused by the circumstance that New Age, more than non-religiosity (figure 1), constitutes a non-traditional and hardly institutionalized religious option, which for that very reason demands a deliberate value-rational choice. Finally, it is striking that women have more affinity with New Age and men more with the Christian tradition. This gender difference can be attributed to neither individualism, nor rationalism, as it shows up with those two variables held constant.

Figure 3. Affinity with New Age (versus non-religiosity) explained (N=811, Chi-square=0.59, df=4, p=0.96; R2 affinity with New Age=10%, R2 rationalism=8%, R2 individualism=15%; all paths shown are significant (p<0.05), unless marked ‘n.s.’).

Figure 3, finally, demonstrates that hypothesis 4 is confirmed as well. New Agers and non-religious persons differ hardly or not at all with respect to either age or individualism. Although the difference is negligible and hardly significant, New Agers are even a little more individualistic than non-religious people. This is quite an important finding, as it means that the rising level of individualism since the 1960’s has reduced support for the Christian tradition considerably, while it combines just as easily with non-religiosity as with New Age. We have seen above that the Christian tradition is equally strongly accepted by men and women (figure 1), but we now find that women have quite a stronger affinity with New Age than men (figure 3). It is difficult to offer a plausible interpretation for this religious difference between men and women, which would also lead us well beyond the problem discussed in this paper. We limit ourselves, therefor, to the observation that this gender difference underscores the importance of distinguishing between different types of religion in empirical research. Findings such as those can, after all, by definition not be explained by means of a theory relying on a distinction between ‘religion’ and ‘non-religion’ rather than between different types of religion.

Conclusion and debate

Why do the Dutch churches become empty, while New Age grows? We have addressed this question in this paper by means of a qualitative analysis of in-depth interviews with New Agers and a quantitative analysis of survey data collected among the Dutch population at large. Our main conclusion is that both the decline of Christianity and the growth of New Age during the last few decades can be understood against the background of a process of individualization. The prevalence of affinity with New Age and non-religiosity among the young and of Christianity among the elderly can all be attributed to a stronger moral individualism among the former as compared to the latter. So, although the process of individualization has seriously undermined the moral basis of the Christian tradition, it cannot be said to undermine all sorts of religion, as (post)modern individualism combines with New Age just as easily as with secularism. The decline of the Christian churches since the 1960’s and the rise of New Age during the same period are, in short, caused by a process of individualization.

Our second conclusion is that the thesis of rationalization is untenable. This conclusion is supported by three empirical arguments. First, it is not correct to depict New Age as ‘non-religious’ or as a sort of ‘religion lite’, embraced by those who have deserted the Christian churches. As a consequence, the growth of New Age during he past few decades cannot be reconciled with the idea that all sorts of religion are being undermined by a growing faith in science and technology. Second, non-religious persons are hardly more rationalistic than Christians, whereas non-religious persons and New Agers do not differ at all in this respect. As such, the assumption underlying the thesis of rationalization - that strained relationships exist between rationalism on the one hand and any type of religion on the other - is untenable (see also Stark and Finke, 2000). Third, consistent with the contemporary literature on ‘reflexive modernization’ (Beck, 1992) and ‘postmodernization’ (Inglehart, 1997) an increase of rationalism seems not even to have taken place during the last few decades: strongest rationalism is not found among the young, but among the elderly.

Summing up, both principal pillars of western culture, rationalism and Christianity, seem to have been showing increasing wear and tear during the past few decades. In the form of New Age, gnosticism, which has subsisted for centuries as a relatively marginal cultural movement, has gained considerable popularity during this same period. Closely related to the process of individualization, the gnostic idea that ‘truth’ cannot be reached through ‘faith’ or ‘reason’, but requires personal experience (‘gnosis’), seems to have become more widespread (Hanegraaff, 1996; compare also Gellner, 1992). It is important to underscore that youthful cultural and political discontent during the 1960’s, commonly regarded as an acceleration of the process of individualization (e.g., Inglehart, 1977) exhibited gnostic tendencies as well (Zijderveld, 1970; see also Bell, 1976). As such, the growth of New Age is not only an important object of study for sociologists of religion, but is of considerable relevance for sociologists of culture and political sociologists as well.

Its very relevance to the understanding of modern (political) culture, however, inevitably implies that New Age is quite controversial and capable of arousing deeply felt likes and dislikes. It is, indeed, telling that sociologists’ most common rejections of New Age as a significant religious phenomenon seem affected by two discourses of modernity, which underlie two long-standing theoretical traditions within the sociology of religion (e.g., Tschannen, 1990). First, there are those who worry about ‘moral decline’ and ‘loss of norms and values’ as dismal consequences of the downfall of the Christian churches. Those who do, are unlikely to consider New Age a ‘real’ religion, because, failing to provide the binding moral values needed to contain (post)modern individualism, it is not a serious alternative to the Christian tradition. Worse, it even embraces this (post)modern individualism. Second, there are those who welcome secularization as a decline in ‘superstition’, ‘ignorance’ and ‘irrationality’. Those are equally unlikely to consider New Age a ‘real’ religion. After all, because they hold that religion disappears as science and technology develop, New Age must be either a last religious convulsion or something which has nothing to do with religion at all. The very relevance of New Age for an understanding of modern culture, in short, gives rise to great difficulties in disentangling empirical facts, theoretical interpretations, and moral discourses, when studying it.



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[1] [back] Bryan Wilson (1976, 1982) also assumes a close connection between rationalization and secularization.

[2] [back] Doing so, we need to make an additional methodological assumption, which will be discussed further on.

[3] [back] Compare Heelas et al. (1995) on ‘detraditionalization’.

[4] [back] Inglehart himself does not speak of increasing ‘moral individualism’, but of increasing ‘postmaterialism’.

[5] [back] E.g., ‘moral progressiveness’, ‘cultural progressiveness’, ‘self-directedness’, ‘social liberalism’, and ‘libertarianism’, understood as the opposite poles of, respectively, ‘moral conservatism’, ‘cultural conservatism’, ‘conformism’, social conervatism, and ‘traditionalism’ or ‘authoritarianism’.

[6] [back] This distinction between two variants of the thesis of individualization is, of course, not necessary when one is willing to designate every conceivable cultural expression as ‘religion’. According to most sociologists of religion, however, this stretches the notion of ‘religion’ too far, thus excluding the possibility of a decline of religion by definition, as ‘religion’ and ‘culture’ become largely synonyms (e.g., Hamilton, 1995, 163-164).

[7] [back] The five interviewed who combine interest in New Age and affinity with a Christian church express this idea, too.

[8] [back] See, for example, Need and De Graaf (1996). Their reasoning is, of course, that the fact that the young are more highly educated than the old cannot be a life cycle effect by definition, as it is impossible for an already received education to disappear again.

[9] [back] This strong and positive relationship between individualism and level of education has been common knowledge in the social sciences for at least the last half century. Some of the most conventional sociological interpretations of this relation, which to a certain extent contradict one another, appear to be untenable when thoroughly tested, however (Houtman, in press). On the other hand, we know of no research which demonstrates higher levels of rationalism among the highly educated than among the poorly educated.

[10] [back] De Hart (1993), Becker et al. (1997), and Bernts and Van der Hoeven (1998).

[11] [back] In a slightly modified form, those items have been taken from Gussenhoven and Van den Maagdenberg (1998).

[12] [back] With the percentages ‘rather/very intensively involved’ or ‘(strongly) agree’ between brackets, the factor loadings are 0.75 for ‘reincarnation’ (19.6), 0.74 for ‘astrology’ (22.0), 0.60 for ‘New Age’ (10.5), 0.55 for ‘Yoga’ (19.2), 0.54 for ‘oriental religions’ (24.6), 0.62 for ‘One’s character is strongly determined by the stars and planets’ (13.1), 0.53 for ‘One can predict one’s future to a large extent by reading the lines in one’s hand’ (7.0), 0.59 for ‘After death, one’s soul passes to another human being or animal’ (9.7), 0.46 for ‘One should search in different religions yourself to make one’s own religion’ (26.7) and 0.41 for ‘The one and only true faith does not exist, but there are truths one can find in all religions of the world’ (72.5).

[13] [back] We exclude the fourth type of religion which is produced by combining the two dimensions - affinity with both the Christian tradition and New Age - from our analysis, because none of our hypotheses relates to it. This ‘mixed’ type is scarce, anyway. There are only 126 Christians with affinity with New Age, as compared to 645 non-religious persons, 259 New Agers and 818 Christians. This is, of course, because the Christian tradition and New Age do not endure each other so well (compare Becker et al., 1997: 146-152, and the analysis of our qualitative data in this paper). With respect to age and individualism, this ‘mixed’ type of religion takes up the expected middle position between Christians and New Agers. On average, those involved are older than New Agers and younger than Christians (47.2, 43.9 and 49.1 years respectively; =0.16; p<0.01) and less individualistic than New Agers, but more than Christians (49.2, 58.2 and 45.7 respectively; =0.30; p<0.01). There are no differences with respect to rationalism.

[14] [back] Those items have been taken from De Meere (1996, 72).

[15] [back] See Middendorp (1991, 259-262). Flanagan (1979; 1982; 1987) has suggested the same much earlier. See Dekker et al. (1999) for a brief summary of the debate and an empirical confirmation of Flanagan’s and Middendorp’s position.

[16] [back] The eight items of the shortened F-scale (Cronbach’s =0.80) with, respectively, the percentage ‘agree (strongly)’ and the loading on the first factor in brackets, are: 1) ‘Our social problems would largely be solved if we could somehow remove criminal and antisocial people from society’ (31.7; 0.71); 2) ‘What we need is less laws and institutions and more brave and dedicated leaders whom the people can trust’ (23.7; 0.68); 3) ‘If people would talk less and work harder, everything would be better’ (29.7; 0.67); 4) ‘There are two kinds of people: the strong and the weak’ (22.4; 0.65); 5) ‘One can hardly expect a person with bad manners, habits and upbringing to mix well with decent people’ (38.5; 0.65); 6) ‘Young people sometimes get rebellious ideas, but when they grow older, they should get over them and adapt to reality’ (50.2; 0.60); 7) ‘Sexual crimes, like rape and assault of children deserve more than just prison sentences; such criminals should receive corporal punishment in public’ (38.2; 0.59); and 8) ‘Most people are disappointing once one gets to know them better’ (15.2; 0.52).

[17] [back] The six items indicating sexual permissiveness (Cronbach’s =0.77) with, respectively, the percentage ‘agree (strongly)’ and the factor loading in brackets, are: 1) ‘Too much sex is shown on television’ (45.8; -0.76); 2) ‘One should only have sexual contact with one’s regular partner’ (64.6; -0.73); 3) ‘People are free to have sexual fantasies about people around them’ (63.9; 0.62); 4) ‘Sex is talked and written about much to freely and openly’ (22.1; -0.76); ‘Having sex should be done with two persons’ (69.3; -0.71); 6) ‘People are free to passionately kiss each other in public’ (55.2; 0.48). Scale scores are given to all respondents who have answered ‘don’t know’ to a maximum of two items.

[18] [back] In the case of postmaterialism, we use factor scores, which are adopted from a factor analysis on the prioritization of the four political goals used for its measurement. Factor analysis of the three mentioned indicators of individualism then produces one single factor, which explains 52% of the variance. Factor loadings are 0.80 for the (inverted) scale for authoritarianism, 0.71 for postmaterialism and 0.64 for sexual permissiveness.

[19] [back] The 55 Christians in table 3 constitute only 11% of those who believe in a personal God. The remaining 89% of those who believe in a personal God do identify themselves with one of the Christian churches.


The Spiritual Supermarket: Religious Pluralism in the 21st Century

April 19-22, 2001

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