CESNUR - Centro Studi sulle Nuove Religioni diretto da Massimo Introvigne

londonThe 2008 International Conference
Twenty Years and More: Research into Minority Religions, New Religious Movements and 'the New Spirituality'

An International Conference organized by INFORM and CESNUR in association with ISORECEA at the London School of Economics, 16-20th April 2008

New Age or the Mass-popularization of Esoteric Discourse: Some Preliminary Reflections on the Reconceptualization of the New Age

by Kennet Granholm (University of Amsterdam)

A paper presented at the 2008 International Conference, London, UK. Preliminary version. Please do not reproduce or quote without the consent of the author.


This paper is about recognizing the problems with the New Age concept and trying to find a better functioning way of conceptualizing the field. As a manifestation of preliminary reflections it should not be taken to portray any ultimate or finite solutions to the problems discussed, but rather opening up the field to alternative approaches. It is also therefore that the major part of this paper is dedicated to the problems with the idea of a New Age movement, and less on fleshing out my alternative approach of the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse.

Some Problems with the Concept of New Age

The concept of the New Age, whether it be termed New Age movement (e.g. Heelas 1996), New Age religion (e.g. Hanegraaff 1996) or simply New Age (Kemp & Lewis 2007), is riddled with problems. I will here shortly discuss what I perceive to be the two most crucial of these.

First off, the New Age is particularly difficult to define, and few scholars seem to be in agreement as to what the New Age actually is. This difficulty is effectively portrayed in George D. Chryssides article in the Handbook of New Age. Although the article goes under the title “Defining the New Age” (Chryssides 2007) no substantial definition of New Age is given. Instead the author approaches the issue first from the perspective what New Age is not (e.g. a religion, a new religious movement or a cluster of new religious movements), secondly from the perspective of what New Age rejects (Christianity), and then finally goes to describe New Age as a “counter-cultural Zeitgeist” (Chryssides 2007: 19-22).

Often attempts to delineate New Age take the approach of introducing lists of “Wittgensteinian family resemblances”, where particular manifestations of New Age spirituality may display some, but rarely all, traits on the list. Different manifestations are then related in the same way as “two members of the family may bear almost no resemblance to each other, although they both resemble a third member” (Eileen Barker, quoted in Lewis 1992: 6). These kinds of family resemblances definitions are extremely cumbersome and inclusive, often introducing lists of such broadness that essentially anything could be labeled New Age. I will give an example of such a list, derived from Olav Hammer’s (1997: 18-19) work. According to Hammer the following are often recurring themes in New Age spiritualities:

Another example is derived from the works of Paul Heelas (1996) and George D. Chryssides (1999: 315), where such diverse elements as alternative therapies (e.g. Reiki and Zone-therapy), borrowed and reinterpreted religious practices of indigenous peoples (particularly shamanic practices), foretelling techniques (e.g. astrology, tarot reading, and I Ching), channeling, beliefs and practices pertaining to UFO’s and parapsychology, business training (e.g. Erhard Seminars Training), alternative science, and spiritual approaches to various fields of life, such as diets (e.g. macro-biotic diet), education, art (“New Age” music and the novels of James Redfield) and home furnishing (e.g. Feng Shui), are identified as some of the possible ingredients of New Age spiritualities. Wouter J. Hanegraaff goes even further and suggests that movements such as the ISKCON could possibly be included under the label (see Hanegraaff 1996: 14). The conclusion I arrive at from all of this is that there seems to be no scholarly consensus as to what exactly New Age is, and that there thus is no substance to all the various conceptualizations that are presented. There exist only external attributes and no scholar has been able to show in a satisfactory manner how these attributes are related (or that they even are related).

Another problem, closely related to the above one – and very likely a result of it, is the fact that many scholars refrain from discussing what the New Age is and simply let it remain implicit. In short, New Agers are often described as ‘those people who frequent New Age shops’. This is clearly not a satisfactory resolution of the issue, and furthermore a serious problem. A good example of this is Miquel Farias’ and Pehr Granqvist’s (2007) article on the psychology of New Agers. Farias and Granqvist arrive at the conclusion that individuals adhering to the New Age are psychologically characterized by Left temporal lobe dysfunction, individualist rather than collectivist goals, schizotypical and suggestible personalities, inclination towards magical thinking, dissociative mental states, elevated subjective suffering, ‘bursts’ of feelings and creativity, as well as having backgrounds of parental insensitivity to their needs as children and/or experiences of traumatic loss and/or abuse (Farias & Granqvist 2007: 144). Beside the multiple methodological problems with a psychological study of the sort conducted by Farias & Granqvist, the whole study is put into question by the fact that they do not manage to define what it is they are studying. Questions that arise are ‘who and what are the individuals examined?’ and ‘in what sense is this supposed to be in any way representative of a particular form of religiosity?’.

With what can in my opinion be described as a pseudo-sociological lumping together of very diverse religious elements, sentiments and practices, important differences are neglected while perhaps non-existent similarities are assumed.

As a final note it should be noted that there nowadays exist few individuals who self-identify as New Agers, something which many of proponents of the continuing use of the term New Age acknowledge (see e.g. Chryssides 2007: 12; Hanegraaff 2007: 29).

The New Age Movement

It could indeed be claimed that there did exist a New Age movement, but that it was very short-lived, coming into existence in the 1970s, gaining popularity in the 1980s, and largely disappearing in the early 1990s (see Melton 2007: 77, for a variation of this view). This was a movement identified by the anticipation of a coming golden age for humanity, identified as the Age of Aquarius. This is what Hanegraaff describes as “New Age sensu stricto” (Hanegraaff 1996: 98-103). This New Age movement of the 1970s through 1990s did play an important role in the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse.

The Mass-Popularization of Esoteric Discourse

Having discussed the problems with the concept of New Age it is time to turn to an alternative conceptualization of the field. I propose that instead of constructing a movement, we should focus on religious transformation in contemporary society, not forgoing a historical awareness. Much of the elements scholars include under the term New Age can be traced back to Western Esoteric traditions, philosophies and practices. What the “New Age” is about is not the coming into existence of a new form of spirituality in West, but rather the increasing popular acceptance and appropriation of esoteric notions and discourses, combined with the accentuation of pluralistic ideology and detraditionalization (see Heelas et al. 1996). Esoteric discourse can, in accordance with Kocku von Stuckrad’s work on the subject (Stuckrad 2005a; 2005b: 9-11), be described as claims of higher knowledge and combined with specific ways of gaining this higher knowledge. The specific ways of gaining higher knowledge include personal and individual experience of the divine and mediation by ‘higher beings’. The increasing pluralism of the West means that elements are removed from several different religious traditions and combined in the frame of an esoteric discourse.

One benefit of the approach of the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse is that the age-old (at least in the fast moving world of academic research) question of whether neopaganism should be included in New Age or not (see e.g. York 1995) can be laid to rest. Many expressions of neopagan religion are imbued by esoteric discourse, and so are many alternative therapies, contemporary Western appropriations of non-Western indigenous traditions, and divinatory practices. Likewise imbued by esoteric discourse are occultist magic orders such as Ordo Templi Orientis, and new religious movements such as Scientology. What varies is the extent to which these different expressions of esoteric discourse have gained overall acceptance and popularity. There is no need to propose the existence of a specific ‘movement’, or to declare any greater similarities between different manifestations of religious practice and philosophy – other than that they are informed by esoteric discourse. In fact, it will become very hard, if not impossible, to treat the various forms of spirituality and religion informed by esoteric discourse as having some essential qualities in common. This is something which I view as a positive factor, as I believe that we should give more attention to specific manifestations of religiosity than trying to construct large-scale categories.

Furthermore, with a perspective of the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse the focus is not on the ‘newness’ of the phenomena, but rather on processes whereby alternative expressions of religiosity gain acceptance. This will let us escape from the at times lacking historical awareness demonstrated by some of the sociologists proposing the emergence of ‘new spirituality’. Instead we can identify the historical roots of esoteric manifestations, and see the continuities of traditions, while at the same time identifying discontinuities and acknowledge religious, cultural and societal change in late modern societies.


Chryssides, George D. (1999): Exploring New Religions. London: Cassell

Chryssides, George D. (2007): “Defining the New Age,” in Daren Kemp & James R. Lewis [eds.], Handbook of New Age, 5-24. Leiden: Brill

Farias, Miguel & Pehr Granqvist (2007): “The Psychology of New Age,” in Daren Kemp & James R. Lewis [eds], Handbook of New Age, 123-150. Leiden: Brill

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

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

Hanegraaff, Wouter J. (2007): “The New Age Movement and Western Esotericism,” in Daren Kemp & James R. Lewis [eds], Handbook of New Age, 25-50. Leiden: Brill

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

Heelas, Paul & Scott Lash, Paul Morris [eds.] (1996): Detraditionalization. Critical Reflections on Authority and Identity. Oxford: Blackwell

Kemp, Daren & James R. Lewis [eds.] (2007): Handbook of New Age. Leiden: Brill

Lewis, James R. (1992): “Approaches to the Study of the New Age Movement,” in James R. Lewis & J. Gordon Melton [eds.], Perspectives on the New Age, 1-12. Albany: State University of New York Press

Stuckrad, Kocku von (2005a): “Western Esotericism. Towards and Integrative Model of Interpretation, “ in Religion 35: 78-97

Stuckrad, Kocku von (2005b): Western Esotericism. A Brief History of Secret Knowledge. London: Equinox

York, Michael (1995): The Emerging Network. A Sociology of New Age and Neopagan Movements. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield

[1] The list is translated by me from the original Swedish. It should be noted that Hammer does not directly propose this as a definition of New Age.

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