CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

CESNUR 2005 International Conference
June 2-5, 2005 – Palermo, Sicily
Religious Movements, Globalization and Conflict: Transnational Perspectives

Is "New Age" a Construction? Searching a New Paradigm of Contemporary Religion

Liselotte Frisk

A paper presented at the 2005 CESNUR Conference in Palermo, Sicily. Preliminary version – do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.

During the 1990s a research field gradually emerged, as a side field of New Religious Movements, studying a diffuse religious subculture labelled “New Age”, “New Age Movement”, or even sometimes “New Age Religion”. The New Age subculture has been called “a major phenomenon in popular religion, with a considerable cultural and religious significance” (Hanegraaff 1996:1). However, in spite of much discussion and research, its contents and nature has remained vague.

Inspired by the work of Steven Sutcliffe (Department of Religious Studies at the University of Stirling), and Linda Woodhead (Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University), the purpose of this paper is to attempt a perspective of  rejecting the concept of New Age as an essentialized category, and to focus instead on the whole field of  non-official or popular religiosity[1] in contrast to the institutionalized religions. I argue further with Linda Woodhead and Paul Heelas, also from the Department of Religious Studies at Lancaster University, that the contemporary expressions of popular religiosity may indicate a paradigm shift taking place in religion as a whole. I intend to investigate this question deeper, discussing the recent spirituality discourse, and look at the shifts in the light of globalization theories.


The scholarly use of the New Age concept

Among the scholars arguing for New Age to be called a religion is the Swedish historian of religion Olav Hammer. He argues that many characteristics of New Age are similar to religions around the world, e.g. beliefs in supernatural beings who communicate with people, revealed scriptures, pilgrim places, invisible forces penetrating cosmos, and beliefs that certain animals have spiritual properties (Hammer 1997: 16). Hammer summarizes some basic beliefs in the New Age religion, for example that cosmos is a whole penetrated by a force or energy, that the consciousness or thoughts of human beings create outer circumstances, that human beings reincarnate in order to learn more in each life, that there is an ancient wisdom manifesting itself in all religions, and that there is a new age soon coming when these ideas will be adhered to by more and more people. Hammer emphasizes, however, that New Age is special because there is no organization, and no membership, and that each person creates his or her own world view (Hammer 1997: 18-20). 

The Dutch professor in western esotericism Wouter Hanegraaff differs between New Age religion and New Age movement, defining the former as a general type of culture criticism based on a foundation of secularized esotericism, born in the 19th century, and the New Age movement as the cultic milieu becoming aware of itself approximately in the second half of the 1970s (Hanegraaff 1996: 522). Although Hanegraaff questions if it is relevant to suggest a “movement” with common goals and aspirations, his conclusion is that there tends to be some measure of coherence in New Age beliefs (Hanegraaff 1996: 514-515). He argues that the basic structures of New Age religion have emerged, practically without exception, from long-standing occidental traditions which either belong to, or are closely connected with western esotericism. Those traditions on which the New Age movement has drawn can, according to Hanegraaff, be characterized as western esotericism reflected in four “mirrors of secular thought”: the new worldview of “causality”, the new study of religions, the new evolutionism, and the new psychologies (Hanegraaff 1996: 517-518). Hanegraaff summarizes five basic elements which may be regarded as constitutive for New Age religion: this-worldliness, holism, evolutionism, psychologization of religion and sacralization of psychology, and expectations of a coming New Age. Hanegraaff points out that each of these five elements are very general, and only provide a very rough and preliminary orientation (1996: 514).

Among the “essentialists”, there are also scholars, like Paul Heelas, who focus on one central characteristic of New Age, as Self-spirituality – that the Self is sacred. Self-spirituality is, according to Heelas, characterized by three basic themes: life lived out of the “lower self” does not work, our true essence is of a spiritual nature, and spiritual disciplines are experienced as providing the key to effecting a transformational “shift” from the lower to the higher realm of being (Heelas 2002: 362). The reasons for this development Heelas summarizes as responses to conditions of modernity (Heelas 1996: 135-177). Another “essentialist” is professor J. Gordon Melton, who focuses on the literal significance of the concept of New Age, that a new age will be coming (Melton 1988: 35-36). This characteristic, however, is nowadays not very central in the environment as a whole, which pinpoints the fact that the concept of New Age is not very fitting for this cultic milieu as it looks today (Frisk 1997).

In the 90s, I was also working with the New Age concept, among other things trying to find a method of defining what was New Age and what was not. But the whole phenomenon seemed to elude me. If a belief in reincarnation was present, should the milieu then be called New Age? What about astrology? Or positive thinking? Finally I decided to use a New Age magazine[2] as my basis, and by a quantitative method I identified certain more central and less central keywords of the subculture, without creating any artificial borders around it. By this method, I found “healing” to be the most central characteristic, followed by different practices to achieve healing. Other central characteristics were, for example, “energy”, which I argued was used as a kind of God metaphor, and reincarnation (Frisk 1997). However, this did of course not solve the basic dilemma of finding out what was New Age and what was not, even if it was a method of avoiding the question.

Further, I also argued for sociologically conceiving New Age as a “smorgasbord” offering a choice of dishes from different parts of the world. Each person chooses what and how much to put on his or her own plate. No central authority composes the “true” menu, and there are no demands on how much to put on each plate. Theoretically two individual plates need not have even one dish in common – but in practice certain kinds, for example belief in reincarnation, appear on almost all plates (Frisk 1998: 163-164). But the problem still persisted, that there was no way to tell what was presented on the smorgasbord in the first place, except for in terms of “more” or “less”.

Critics of the New Age concept

The most radical critic of the concept New Age is Steven Sutcliffe, who in his book from 2003 suggests to remove New Age from the field of “movement studies” and to reconceive it as a harbinger of the shift in contemporary religion to small group practice and a discourse of spirituality. Sutcliffe argues for a shift in focus away from fantasies of a New Age movement, and towards the emergent discourse on a reflexive lay spirituality, and the nature and function of the small flexible cultural institutions that emerge once the New Age dust settled (Sutcliffe 2003: 5-6). Sutcliffe argues that a formulation such as the New Age movement essentializes a set of mixed, meandering, even divergent, social processes, and that New Age as a movement is a false etic category. He suggests further that New Age is a codeword for the heterogeneity of alternative[3] spirituality, best classified as a subtype of popular religion. Sutcliffe characterizes some typical concerns of religion in a popular mode as grass roots activism, strategies for everyday living, ideals of spiritual autonomy and egalitarianism, and an ideology of direct, unmediated access to experiences (Sutcliffe 2003: 9).

Steven Sutcliffe argues that a popular, functional everyday spirituality increasingly displaces New Age, and is a product of its genealogy. By the early 21st century, the diffuse and popularized discourse of spirituality has become fairly comfortably established across the cultural spectrum as a symbolic repudiation of organized religion. According to Sutcliffe, the spirituality discourse has developed at least since the first world war,  and is conceived of as set over and against institutionalized religion. In contemporary culture, “spirituality” has emerged as a hybrid discourse constructed from alternative and popular sources. Spirituality is, according to Sutcliffe, associated with living experience and inner discourse, while religion is associated with systems and dogma. Practising spirituality is increasingly done in the culture at large. This emergent spiritual discourse has, according to Sutcliffe, three broad qualities or instincts: 1. It is dissident, meaning striving at finding something other, more and better than institutionalized religion. 2. It is lay, meaning that it has a domestic setting which undermines traditional boundaries between public and private space. It reclaims intimate and profane acts of everyday life, by sacralization of everyday acts like housework. It is also populist, meaning that it recognizes the supremacy of the will of the people, and desire for a direct relationship between people and leadership, unmediated by institutions. The authority to interpret is reclaimed by the practitioners themselves, who are not specialists trained by traditional institutions, but lay doers and thinkers. 3. It is also functional, wanting a spiritual practice that works, emphasizing short achievements of goals and the active creation of meaning in everyday life (Sutcliffe 2003: 214-223).

Following Steven Sutcliffe, I will now turn to some other interpreters of the contemporary popular spirituality discourse: Paul Heelas, Ursula King, Linda Woodhead, Wade Clark Roof et al., Eileen Barker, and Bente Alver et al.


The Spirituality Discourse of Popular Religion

Paul Heelas is one of the scholars claiming that a spiritual revolution is gradually taking place, as increasingly more people favour the language of life-spirituality to that of traditional religion (Heelas 2002: 365). Heelas argues that the religious (for God) is giving way to the spiritual (for life). By “religion” Heelas means “obedience to a transcendent God and a tradition that mediates his authority”, while he defines “spirituality” as “experience of the divine as immanent in life”. Whilst the former is under threat, the latter is thriving, and is, according to Heelas, doing well both amongst those who are not involved with institutionalized religion, and within the field of traditional religion itself (Heelas 2002: 358). Heelas points out that surveys show that belief in a spirit or life force has overtaken the traditional theistic belief in a personal God, and that there is an expansion of new spiritual outlets, as magazines and New Age/occult publications (Heelas 2002: 363-365). Heelas views New Age as a symptom of a wider, spiritual revolution, widespread in mainstream culture. New Age is, according to Heelas, just the most visible tip of the iceberg (Heelas 2002: 361).

Also professor Ursula King discusses the concept of spirituality, meaning that it is a more personal and individual notion than “religion”, which points to a system of more institutionally embodied beliefs and practices. “The spiritual” could be said to be in one sense less institutionally bound and more diffuse, potentially even secular and non-religious, as the presupposed holy can be something very worldly, as power, sexual energy, or success;  yet, in another sense, spirituality has a more focused meaning when understood as the core dimension of the human as well as the centre and heart of all religions. King argues, that the study of spirituality has moved away from theological interpretations to the anthropological dimension. The latter perspective affirms the spiritual potential of every  human being, and sees spiritual growth closely related to the individual´s psychological development and maturation. Further, King means that many people connect the practice of spirituality with the spiritual disciplines found in traditional religion or ancient wisdom traditions, but that they often use them eclectically as resources rather than identifying exclusively with one religious tradition as the only source of their spirituality (King 2001: 5-9).

Professor Wade Clark Roof et al. describe the late- or post-modern spirituality of which the post-war generation is the principal carrier, as a distinctive form of spirituality, which is reshaping existing patterns of faith and practice in important ways. They point out five characteristics of this spirituality: individual choice, a mixing of codes, involvement in both new religious movements and evangelical Christianity, religious experience and personal growth, and that it is anti-institutional and anti-hierarchical (Roof et al. 1995: 247-252).

Linda Woodhead argues for what she calls the “turn to life”, meaning that this turn represents one of the most significant trends in religion and spirituality, as well as in the wider culture, in the West since the Second World War. Woodhead differs between a) religions which view the supernatural as life itself b) religions which understand the supernatural as controlling life and c) religions which place the emphasis on a state after life. She exemplifies the last category by many forms of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Christianity, both Protestant and Catholic, which placed a perhaps unprecedented emphasis on God´s transcendence and viewed this life primarily as a preparation for the next. In reaction, the turn to life seems to swing to the opposite pole. In between are forms of religion, exemplified by much popular medieval Catholicism, which understand the world to be controlled by spiritual forces, both divine and demonic. Woodhead characterizes the “turn to life” to have two poles: at one pole is my life: my story, my way, my autobiography. Spirituality is understood in terms of living out one´s own life in all its fullness, “selfing”: to do things “in my own way”. At the other pole we have cosmic life: a universal and unifying force which is believed to animate all things, the life force, of which my small self is ultimately only an aspect. Besides these two poles there are, according to Woodhead, other variants of the turn to life which place more emphasis on nature and/or on human relationship: religion becomes a matter of intimate relationship with other human beings and with nature. But the emphasis of the “turn to life” is always to be this-worldly and “holistic”. This distinguishes the post-war turn to life from some of its earlier manifestations: its antecedents in the nineteenth- and early twentieth-century tended to be much more dualistic – they tended to identify life with Spirit and distinguish it from the material in a more Platonic fashion. By contrast, according to Woodhead, the contemporary turn to life insists on the unity of “body, mind and spirit”, and life tends to be very much “here-and-now”. Belief in some sort of post-mortem existence is not, however, ruled out: it just becomes rather hazy. There is also an emphasis on life as mystery, as well as a radical egalitarianism, a radical empowerment of each individual. Ultimately I am my own authority (2001: 111-113).

Woodhead emphasizes that this “turn to life” is effective not only in alternative, post-Christian and counter-cultural movements, but it is also becoming widely influential in post-war Christianity in the West, especially in its more liberal wing, and in feminist theology. She exemplifies this with voices talking about a reinterpretation of God: God should not be thought of as over or against this world, but as the depth of this world, and God could also be inter-personal. But Woodhead also means that the “turn to life” is characteristic of many conservative forms of Christianity as well. She exemplifies this with the Pope John Paul II, who presents himself as the defender of life against death, but also as a defender of democracy and human rights. For John Paul II it is this life, rather than the next, which is the centre-stage, and he speaks of humanity as much as he speaks of God. Punishment, hell, damnation, and demonology have almost dropped out of the picture, as has a strong stress on asceticism and self-mortification. Death has become the enemy. Experience, egalitarianism, and this-worldly development continue to eclipse older emphases on sacrifice and denial in this life in preparation for a more real life to come (2001: 113-117).

Woodhead rejects the classic modernization explanation for the “turn to life”: that the rationalization and technologization of public life has lead to a demystification of the natural world and the dissolution of the stable ties of local, kinship and primordial relationships, and that, abandoned to the impersonal structures of impersonal institutions, modern men and women find themselves trapped in an iron cage of rationalized bureaucracy which can supply neither meaning nor significance. According to this explanation, homeless, alienated, and anomic minds would find purpose and value not in their work and their public roles, but only in life itself. Woodhead´s alternative explanation interprets the phenomenon of “turn to life” as “the flight from deference”. By “deference” she means first, submission to a higher authority, a higher cause, a higher good, God or another human being, to a community or an institution, and the attitude that these are ultimately more valuable than one´s self. Second, “deference” means deferral of personal gratification. The flight from deference is, according to Woodhead, not confined to the religious sphere: The World Values survey of 1990 indicates a decline in deference to many institutions which would formerly have commanded respect. A loss of confidence in governmental, party-political and religious institutions is evident. Woodhead traces these changes back to a combination of significant social, political and economic transformations from the 1970s or even earlier which typify “late industrial” society: unprecedented levels of affluence and post-secondary education, the growth of the service sector of the economy, and the information revolution. All these changes serve, according to Woodhead, to empower more and more individuals to make decisions for themselves, to shape their lives as they wish, and to extend the power of choice and consumption into more and more spheres of life. She emphasizes this to be a turn in religion, not from religion, and also points out the rejection of the turn to life in some stratas of conservative religion, which, however, to Woodhead seems more countercultural than expressions of the turn to life (2001:117-121).

Professor Eileen Barker, sociologist of religion at London School of Economics, discusses in an article the concept of “spirituality”, and what it might mean. She distinguishes hypothetically between the ideal types “scriptural religiosity” and “spirituality”, each with different theological and social beliefs or orientations (Barker 2004a):

                        Religiosity                                    Spirituality

The Divine                        Transcendent and particular            Immanent and cosmic

Source                         Without                                    Within

Origins                         Creation                                    Creating

Source of knowledge            Scripture/revelation                        Experience/mysticism

Authority                        Dogma/Priesthood/Tradition            Personal experience

Theodicy                        Evil/sin/Satan                        Lack of attunement, balance and
/or awareness

Life after death            Salvation/resurrection/damnation            Reincarnation/transmigration

Time                        Temporal/historical                         Eternal/a-historical

Change                        Lineal: past/present/future                        Cyclical: then/now/then

Perspective                        Analytical                                     Holistic/syncretistic

Anthropology            Man in God´s image                         Humans as part of Nature

Distinctions                        Dichotomous: Them/us                        Complementary: Us


Sex/gender                        Male/(female)                         Feminine ~(masculine)

Relations                        Controlling                                    Relating (´sharing´)

Social Identity            Group (membership or tradition)            The inner ´me´/the ´true self´

Control                        External authority                        Internal responsibility

Organisational unit            Institution/family                         Individual

Place of worship            Synagogue; church; mosque             Informal building; temple;
                                                            shrine; open air

Communication            Vertical hierarchy                        Horizontal networking


Barker means that “something important is going on”, which students of religion ought to recognize, but that the tools to explore this “something” are not yet developed (Barker 2004a).

A Norwegian group of historians of religion and ethnologists, Bente Alver et al., also discusses the fact that the religious field today finds expression in new ways, and that there is a silent change taking place in contemporary religion. They are not explicitly discussing “spirituality”, but point out central characteristics of this silent change, which are similar to what other scholars discuss in connection with spirituality, for example that the divine has moved from heaven into the separate individual, and that religious experience is emphasized in a new way. Alver et al. call this phenomenon “new religiosity”. They argue that the new religiousness is not expressing itself only in contexts we are used to call religious, but that it is today thinly spread everywhere in secular culture (Alver et al. 1999: 7-9). They connect these changes to postmodernity, to the fact that the metanarrative of  reason, democracy and progress has broken down (Alver et al. 1999: 12-13).



There are many difficulties pertaining to the New Age concept, the main one having to do with problems of definition. Because of its unorganized and diffuse character, it is almost impossible to define what should be inside the concept and what should fall outside. The borders to other kinds of popular religion are, to say the least, vague. Besides, the literal meaning of the concept itself is misleading. Belief in a coming new age might have been an important characteristic of this subculture in the 1970´s, but has today become quite peripheral. The concept is also, as Sutcliffe points out, an etic concept. Only very few people, who are engaged in the subcultural environment outsiders call New Age, would today agree to use it.

Is it at all relevant to distinguish between different categories of popular religiosity, making a separate category for “new religiosity”, even if not calling it New Age? Several authors claim that there is a certain coherence of beliefs and structure, which legitimate the use of an essentializing label for these currents. There certainly are some characteristics which seem to be common in this cultic milieu – according to my study for example healing, reincarnation, energy – but these characteristics are today increasingly so well spread and mixed with other elements in popular religion, that I would argue that, while it might have made sense in the 1970´s to speak about “new religiosity” or even “New Age”, it does not make sense today. Communication in the globalized world is increasingly dense, and because of the syncretism and ecumenism in uninstitutionalized popular religiosity in the post-Christian western culture all elements are today mixed to a degree that it makes no sense to speak about “new religiosity”[4] as a separate category. At the most, one could speak of different tendencies in popular, uninstitutionalized religiosity, but not of essentialized categories. Moreover, this syncretistic tendency is slowly making it more and more useless also to speak about different religions, even if this process is much slower. I will discuss these processes further below.

Steven Sutcliffe discusses “spirituality” as opposed to institutionalized religion, and argues that contemporary spirituality in significant parts is the legacy of New Age. Several other authors point to the fact that there seems to be a change of focus in contemporary religion, and in this context discuss “popular spirituality” in contrast to the institutionalized religions. As to the shiftings, each author describes them a little differently, but there are a few characteristics that several of them bring up. Such elements are: eclecticism, emphasis of personal experience at the expense of ideology or dogma, self-spirituality and sacralization of psychology, uninstitutionalism and religiosity in the private mode, radical egalitarianism - recognizing each person as his/her own spiritual authority - , and this-worldliness rather than emphasizing life after death, sacralizing profane acts and life. To speak with Alver et al., the contemporary divine has moved down from heaven into the separate individual and into the world. As reasons for these shifts modernity theories as well as sociological theories about recent political and economic changes are discussed.  Some of the scholars emphasize that the same changes of religious perspective discussed above also seem to be at work in many forms of institutionalized religions, and therefore claim that there is a paradigm shift taking place in contemporary religiosity as a whole. 

Together with the above discussed authors, I would basically distinguish between official or institutionalized religion on one hand, and nonofficial or unorganized religion on the other (even if there are also, of course, different degrees of organization and institutionalization, which makes a spectrum from institutionalized to uninstitutionalized, rather than two separate categories). In both phenomena, however, I would claim that there are processes of change at work that are so encompassing that there are reasons to speak about a paradigm shift of religiosity, even if this change is much more evident in the uninstitutionalized forms as there is a stronger inherent resistance to change in institutionalized religion. Below, I will discuss the six interlinked processes of this change that I identified above, based on field observations and the above discussed authors. I will discuss these processes in the light of globalization theories, as I believe this is one of the most important explanations for these changes. Of course, globalization is only one of the processes triggering this shift, but I think that as a major cause it has been quite neglected in the discussion so far.


From particular to eclectic

Several authors, for example Olav Hammer and Ursula King, note the eclecticism of the contemporary spirituality discourse/New Age. Many different religions are used as resources. Irving Hexham, professor of religious studies, and Karla Poewe, professor of anthropology, who discuss New Age in a globalized context, write that one of the main characteristics of New Age is that it consists of fragments of different cultures. New Age selectively combines aspects of many traditions to create a new culture, a process which is only possible under strongly globalized conditions (Hexham & Poewe 1997: 41-43).

Today communication is worldwide and increasingly dense. People, cultures, societies, and civilizations that previously were more or less isolated from one another are now in regular contact (Beyer 1994: 2). Structurally, the contemporary strongly globalized conditions explain the existence of elements from several cultures in one place. But to explain why this leads to eclecticism, we have to look at a special process of globalization, by the sociologists of religion Roland Robertson and Peter Beyer called relativization. By globalization particular societies are set in a wider system of societies, resulting in the relativization of both societies and individuals (Beyer 1994: 26-27). All particular cultures are relativized, including the religions (Beyer 1994: 9). Individuals form their religious identity in the knowledge that their religion is only one among several possibilities (Beyer 1994: 30). This process, together with the radical empowerment of the individual discussed below, gives rise to the wild eclecticism we see today in popular culture. As elements of one religious culture are as good as other elements of another religious culture, the individual could pick according to individual choice. However, this choosing is of course not completely at random: some religious cultures – like, for example, western esotericism, Indian religion, Chinese religion and Native American religion – are more represented in popular western religious culture than, for example, African or Arabic religions. Global currents are more inclined to flow in certain directions, depending on, for example, aspects of power, and on aspects of prevalent discourses like the Orientalism discourse (Frisk 2001). The eclecticism also gives rise to an extreme tolerance: if all religions are relative, they are all as true. Further, this characteristic undermines religions like Christianity, which claim to have a particular truth.

This eclecticism also in some sense makes the boundaries between different religions  more vague. The difference between religions has, for the individual, become increasingly unimportant. In some contexts, elements from different religions are mixed, without awareness even that there is a mixture. This is so far evident especially with religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, which have some similarities and about which there is limited knowledge in the West (Frisk 2002).


From dogma to experience

Characteristic in a globalized world is that many different belief systems and ideologies coexist side by side. Many of them oppose each other, and it must be clear to the individual that not all of them could be true. For example, if you go to heaven after death, you cannot at the same time reincarnate. As a consequence, for the individual the plausibility of all belief systems is undermined. The solution, for the individual, is to change focus away from dogmas and belief systems and towards other aspects of religion. The ideological dimension looses importance, and, together with the radical empowerment of the individual discussed below, the subjective experience dimension stands out as the most important aspect of contemporary religion.

Another argument for the decrease of importance of the belief dimension in contemporary religion is that several recent large quantitative studies of religious beliefs show that there is a good deal of uncertainty in religious beliefs spreading in western society. The “don´t know”-answers, as well as “believe a little”, and “maybe”-answers are well represented (Gustafsson 1997: 35). I believe that this is also an expression of the change of emphasis from dogma to experience.


From theological to anthropological

In popular religiosity there is also a new emphasis on the human being. According to Ursula King, spirituality has moved away from the theological to the anthropological dimension. Salvation in popular religion is conceived of as more of an inner realization than related to an outer divinity (Frisk 2004). The individual has become radically empowered, a process connected to and interlinked with the two next processes discussed below. Characteristic is that the spiritual potential of every human being is affirmed, and that spiritual growth is conceived of as closely related to the individual´s psychological development and maturation. Some scholars, like Paul Heelas, even mean that  “self-sacralization” or “selfing” is today the very basic characteristic of contemporary popular spirituality.

The new emphasis on the human being also means that religion has become more secular, interlinked with the sixth and last process discussed below. Contemporary religion is manifesting itself in far more secular ways than before, of which the emphasis on human being, at the expense of supernatural beings, is but one aspect.


From collective to personal

Not only is there a new emphasis on the human being in popular spirituality, but also a new emphasis on the personal individual, as opposed to collective institutions. Religious establishments have, for the post-war generation, broken down or at least substantially weakened in influence (Roof et al. 1995: 244). As Linda  Woodhead notes, the results of the World Values survey indicate a decline in deference to many institutions – governmental, party-political and religious. Woodhead argues that the social, political and economical transformation from at least the 1970s all serve to empower more and more individuals to make decisions for themselves. Much of religion has thus moved from the public to the private sphere.

Peter Beyer argues, that globalization structurally favours privatization of religion (although it also could provide fertile ground for the renewed public influence of religion). For religion to be publicly influential, it is required that religious leaders have control over a service that is indispensable in today´s world, in the same way that health professionals, political leaders, scientific or business experts do. The structures of modern/global society greatly weaken most of the ways that religious leaders have accomplished this before. The central structural feature of modern and global society is, according to Beyer, differentiation on the basis of function. There is a difference between how a subsystem relates to the society as a whole – which Beyer calls “function” – and how it relates to other subsystems – “performance”. In the context of the religious subsystem, “function” refers to “pure” religious communication, whereas “performance” occurs when religion is applied to problems generated in other systems (e.g. economy, politics). Beyer means that “performance” is a problem for religion today, because of its special nature of encompassing holism, which runs counter to the specialized and instrumental pattern of other dominant functional systems. The major applications dominated by religious experts  in the past – for example higher education, or healing – have been taken over by experts of other functional domains (Beyer 1994: 79-81) Therefore, Beyer argues that religion has a comparatively difficult time in gaining public influence, and is more visible in the private, personal sphere (1994: 71-72).


Hierarchical to egalitarian

Steven Sutcliffe is one of the scholars emphasizing that contemporary spirituality is populist, meaning that it recognizes the supremacy of the will of the people, and that the authority to interpret is reclaimed by lay doers and thinkers.

This egalitarianism may also be connected to the prevalent globalization. Peter Beyer argues that a global society has no outsiders who can serve as the social representatives of evil, danger or chaos. The person who used to be the outsider is now a neighbour. According to Beyer, under globalized conditions there are two main responses for religion: the conservative option, which reasserts the reality of the devil (and persons/cultures who are seen as outsiders or evil) and the liberal option which dissolves the devil. Liberal religion seeks to address the problems engendered by the global system, but on the basis of the prevailing global values and not in opposition to them. Liberal religion thus correlates with the structural tendencies of a global society, and Beyer says that the liberal option might be seen as the trend of the future. Liberal religion is ecumenical and tolerant, and more or less agrees that there are comparable possibilities for enlightenment and salvation in different religions. The possibility of salvation, enlightenment or wisdom is for all, everyone is included. Liberal religion works for the fuller inclusion of all people in the benefits of the global community (Beyer 1994: 87-104).

Tolerance and inclusion of all people go well together with egalitarianism and democratic ideals. Everyone´s voice is today of the same value. Therefore, the reasons to listen to authorities diminish or even disappear. The individual is radically empowered, and knows as much as the priest about spiritual matters – not through studies or revelation, but through inner experience.


From after death to this-worldly

According to Linda Woodhead, the “turn to life” is one of the most significant trends in religion and spirituality in the West since the second world war. The emphasis in religion is today on this world, not on the world to come. In popular spirituality, the divine is concevied of as immanent in both the individual and in this world. Aspects of this world, like nature or intimate relationships, are seen as sacred. Together with the flight from deferral of personal gratification and the emphasis of the divine immanent in this world, Woodhead points out that also subjects like punishment, hell, damnation and demonology have almost dropped out of the picture, in popular spirituality as well as in institutionalized religion. According to Peter Beyer, globalization of society does not lead mainly to the death of God, but the death of the devil, because of the liberal tendency to be all-inclusive. Without these, the forces of order and good also become more difficult to identify, undermining or relativizing, for instance, moral codes (1994: 72).

Alver et al point out that popular spirituality today expresses itself not only in contexts we are used to call religious, but also everywhere in secular culture. There are not any more sharper borders between the religious and the secular, between holy and prophane. The prophane is sacralized, and the sacred is prophanized. The sacred is no longer confined to church, or to life after this life, but is conceived of as immanent in the human individual in nature and in intimate relationships.



Religious change is often related to structural and social change. The last decades have showed large changes in several ways, mostly affecting the Western culture but rapidly spreading beyond this context. In this paper, I have focused on one aspect of these changes, globalization, and argued for its importance in six interlinked processes of contemporary religious change. Several of these processes point to a radical empowerment of the individual, as well as the sacralization of the prophane world or a this-worldly orientation. Globalization is linked to these processes in several ways, but essentially by the process of the inclusion of all and everything in a globalized world, and the consequential process of relativization.

Further, for several reasons, I argue that it is time to drop the concept of “New Age”, and instead focus on the dichotomy of institutionalized religion on one hand, and uninstitutionalized or popular religion on the other hand. The elements of popular religion are today, because of globalization, so interrelated and mixed that it does not any more make sense to distinguish or essentialize one special category. The religious change discussed above relates to both institutionalized and uninstitutionalized religion, but more to the latter category, as there is an inherent resistance to change in institutionalized religion.

Finally, this change is a change in religion, not from religion. Thus this paper is also a contribution to the secularization debate. As one of the processes involved in the contemporary religious change is sacralization of the prophane, there is, however, a new difficulty for scholars of Religious Studies: difficulties to recognize and sort out which expressions are religious and which are not. And this, I expect, is our new challenge.

References (printed)

Barker, Eileen (2004a): “The Church Without and the God Within: Religiosity and/or Spirituality?”, in Dinka Marinovi Jerolimov, Siniaa Zrinaak and Irena Borowik (eds): Religion and Patterns of Social Transformation. Zagreb: IDIZ (Institute for Social Research in Zagreb). P. 23-47.

Beyer, Peter (1994): Religion and Globalization. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: SAGE Publications.

Frisk, Liselotte (1997): “Vad är New Age? Centrala begrepp och historiska rötter.” Svensk religionshistorisk årsskrift. P. 87-97.

Frisk, Liselotte (1998): Nyreligiositet i Sverige: ett religionsvetenskpaligt perspektiv. Nora: Nya Doxa.

Frisk, Liselotte (2000): ”New Age-utövare i Sverige: Bakgrund, trosföreställningar, engagemang och ´omvändelse´,” in Carl-Gustav Carlsson and Liselotte Frisk (eds): Gudars och gudinnors återkomst: Studier i nyreligiositet. Umeå: Institutionen för religionsvetenskap. P. 52-90.

Frisk, Liselotte (2001): ”Globalization or Westernization? New Age as a Contemporary Transnational Culture,” in Mikael Rothstein (ed.): New Age Religion and Globalization. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press. P. 31-41.

Frisk, Liselotte (2002): “The Satsang Network: A Growing Post-Osho Phenomenon,” in Nova Religio, vol. 6, number 1, October. P. 64-85.

Frisk, Liselotte (2003): “New Age Participants in Sweden: Background. Beliefs, Engagemeng and ´Conversion´,” in Mikael Rothstein and Reender Kranenborg (eds): New Religions in a Postmodern World. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press. P. 241-256.

Frisk, Liselotte (2004): “Religion och medicin inom nyreligiositeten: Deepak Chopra och Stephen Levine som två företrädare,” in Chakra, 2. P. 33-46.

Gustafsson, Göran (1997): Tro, samfund och samhälle: Sociologiska perspektiv. Örebro: Libris.

Haanegraaff, Wouter (1996): New Age Religion and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. Leiden, New York, Köln: Brill).

Hammer, Olav (1997): På spaning efter helheten. New Age – en ny folktro? Stockholm: Wahlström & Widstrand.

Heelas, Paul (1996): The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers.

Heelas, Paul (2002): “The Spiritual Revolution: From “Religion” to “Spirituality”, in Linda Woodhead et al. (eds): Religions in the Modern World. London and New York: Routledge. P. 357-378.

Hexham, Irving & Karla Poewe (1997): New Religions as Global Cultures: Making the Human Sacred. Oxford: Westview Press.

King, Ursula (ed.) (2001): Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium. Brighton/Portland: Sussex Academic Press.

Lewis, James R. & J. Gordon Melton (1992): “Introduction,” in Lewis, James R. & J. Gordon Melton (eds): Perspectives on the New Age. Albany: State University of New York Press. P. ix.xii.

McGuire, Meredith (1992): Religion: The Social Context. Third edition. Belmont, California: Wadsworth Publishing Company.

Melton, J. Gordon (1988): “A History of the New Age Movement,” in Robert Basil (ed.): Not Necessarily the New Age. Critical Essays. Buffalo, New York: Prometheus Books. P. 35-53.

Roof, Wade Clark, Jackson W. Carroll & David A. Roozen (1995): The Post-War Generation and Establishment Religion: Cross-Cultural Perspectives. Boulder, San FRancisco, Oxford: Westview Press.

Sutcliffe, Steven J. (2003): Children of the New Age: A History of Spiritual Practices. London and New York: Routledge.

Woodhead, Linda (2001): “The Turn to Life in Contemporary Religion and Spirituality”, in Ursula King with Tina Beattie (eds): Spirituality and Society in the New Millennium. Brighton/Portland: Sussex Academic Press. P. 110-123.


References (unprinted)

Barker, Eileen (2004b): “New Religious Movements, Authority and Democracy”, a paper given at the conference New Religious Movements, Authority and Democracy, Högskolan Dalarna, Sweden, 2004-05-06.

[1] The sociologist of religion Meredith McGuire defines “non-official religion” as a set of religious and quasi-religious beliefs and practices that is not accepted, recognized, or controlled by official religious groups. Whereas official religion is relatively organized and coherent, nonofficial religion is unorganized, inconsistent, heterogeneous, and changeable. Nonofficial religion is sometimes called “folk”, “common” or “popular”, because it is the religion of ordinary people rather than the product of religious specialists in a separate organizational framework. McGuire writes that popular religion is  no single entity, and that its elements are diverse (McGuire 1992: 104-105).  In this article, I will use the concepts popular, non-official and uninstitutionalized religion as interchangeable concepts, not going into, for the moment, the different meanings different labels could have.

[2] “New Age” by self-definition.

[3] There has also been a scholarly discussion as to whether New Age should be considered ”alternative” and ”countercultural”, or if it should be viewed as ”mainstream”.  For example, James R. Lewis and J. Gordon Melton call New Age “an integral part of a new, truly pluralistic ´mainstream´” (Lewis & Melton 1992: ix), while Hanegraaff means that all New Age trends are intended as alternatives to currently dominant religious and cultural trends, and that there is a persistent pattern of New Age culture criticism, directed against what are perceived as the dominant values of western culture in general, and of modern western society in particular (Hanegraaff 1996: 515-516). Sutcliffe argues that “alternative” is problematic to use in connection with New Age, as some of its spiritual styles have fully entered popular culture and are diffused in advertizing, television, world wide web, paperbacks and magazines. Sutcliffe suggests the use of “alternative spirituality” for the extensive historical field from which New Age emerged, thereby suggesting that what was alternative yesterday is mainstream today (Sutcliffe 2003: 5).

[4]The label  ”new religious movements” could of course also be discussed, but I would argue that, in spite of many difficulties, it at least makes more sense to speak about new religious movements as a separate category, as “newness” in connection with religious organizations often relates to some special characteristics, like a living charismatic leader, deviating belief system, authoritarian structure, dichotomous world-view and tension to society (Barker 2004b).