I remember the first time I heard the clever little saying, “New Age rhymes with sewage.” I thought, “yeah, that’s so apt, because not only does it allow me to feel superior to others’ beliefs, but it also encapsulates my beliefs about the world in a clever almost-rhyme.”
The New Age movement is an outgrowth of the New Thought movement of the late 19th century. New Thought taught, among many other things we’ll get to in a moment, that our thoughts created our reality, and that sickness was the result of wrong-thinking. If you thought negative thoughts, you would manifest negative reality.
This kind of new thought is intimately tied to the philosophies of the Theosophists, and we postmodern occultists owe a debt to this position, as well as that of the newer New Age movement.
If I had to summarize New Age off the top of my head, doing no sort of fieldwork or anything, I suppose I’d put it this way. New Agers believe a constellation of the following beliefs, more or less:
1. The world is entering a new historical period, in which people will become in some way more spiritual and less material.
2. Thoughts create our reality, and you choose — consciously or unconsciously — the reality you wish to live in by thinking certain thoughts.
3. God is more of an impersonal but benevolent force.
5. Aliens? Angels? New evolution of humanity? Any number or cluster of such things insofar as it appeals to the individual.
For the most part, I have no particular objection to any of this, other than perhaps the lack of critical thinking sometimes evidenced in the last one, which seems to sweep whole shelves of nonsense into the shopping cart indiscriminately. But really, even that — when you think about it, it’s just saying “Here is a set of metaphors or symbols that explain something to me.” Seen that way, belief in aliens is no more odd than belief in gods or belief in economic systems. I don’t have to buy it to respect your right to plop down your quarter.
The only serious beef I have with New Agers is the idea that we choose our own reality to such an extent that we are therefore responsible for bad stuff that happens to us. Most people, when pressed, will admit that this kind of blaming the victim lacks compassion and back away from it, but others will simply bite the philosophical bullet, saying “they must have done something terrible in a past life.” I once heard someone suggest that the only reason an acquaintance came down with cancer is that she wasn’t “manifesting love” in her life.
That is some low stuff right there. It’s a pernicious idea, but not necessarily embodied in the teaching itself. After all, we often do experience misfortune because we have made choices that led to it. That doesn’t mean we’re necessarily culpable for that misfortune or somehow deserving of it. And it can help to endure misfortune to see it as a lesson, but that doesn’t mean that we should lecture people about the lessons they should be learning.
The problem arises when people say such things as “it must be her karma” to mean “thank god it’s not mine!” That’s fleeing from human compassion into religion, and it’s just as bad as when any other religious person does it. That tendency to find a reason why it couldn’t happen to you is where the real problem lies.
So New Age might rhyme with lots of stuff, but the snooty superiority of looking down upon it because it doesn’t match my particular standards of critical thinking . . . well, I’m just out of the energy for that sort of thing. Yes, there can be seriously pernicious philosophical implications to an unsophisticated reading of some of these ideas; that’s true of pretty much everything from Capitalism to Christianity, my own Paganism very much included. I see no reason to single out the New Age movement, and really, can’t we just find a better rhyme?