Though I didn't realize it at the time, the New Age movement was my entry point into the world of alt.whatever some 30 years ago. And it was also an object lesson in how the sandblasting power of consumer culture can reshape everything in its own image. This may seem like a weird detour to be writing about the New Age in these apocalyptic times, but I hope to convince you that it's anything but.
First, the news.
Despite a relentless campaign of intimidation and libel from the now rapidly-waning Fundamentalist community (and their conspiranoid camp followers) and decades of derision and scorn from the media and academia, the New Age population (classified in polls as SBNRs- an acronym for Spiritual But Not Religious) now outnumber Jews, Muslims and many of the dying "Mainline" Protestant sects, according to a new poll published in The New York Times.
There is no single "New Age" movement and the term itself is as amorphous and malleable as many of the so-called therapies and practices that have come to be associated with the New Age itself. Which makes this result all the more remarkable.
For instance, the New Age I was initiated into back in the mid 1980s was in fact street-level, DIY occultism (the kind on sale at the late, lamented Magickal Childe), identified with the New Age only because of a book-selling category that threw everything that retailers couldn't fit in the religion section in the very tetchy Reagan Era.
Speaking of which, this latest poll is fascinating because I remember no less a defender of ortodoxy than Pat Buchanan triumphantly crowing about a similar poll back in that same Reagan Era (1987, to be exact) that counted the SBNRs as being "statistically insignificant," less than a fraction of one percent.
My, how things have changed.
On the plus side, the SBNRs are middle-class, health-conscious and despite stereotypes to the contrary, politically engaged (and often engaged outside the usual Coke-Pepsi duopolistic fraud system). On the down side, the SNBRs are often prone to elitism, solipsism and a preachy neo-Puritanism (I saw a lot of this at Esalen).
If you read the mainstream media you'd think that Western civilization is on an inevitable march towards a Bright, godless future. This may be true inside the hyperprivileged bubble that the media elite and their friends travel in, the bubble that insulates them almost entirely from the effects of the real world. Outside this bubble, religion is not only on the march, it's literally on the warpath.
Religion is most certainly winning the war of the cradle; in fact, Atheism seems to have surrendered that battlefield entirely.
What's more, atheists are now contending with an aging Fundamentalist movement that is in steep decline in the US, and was even before this latest wave of atheist activism. Bush's promises of planned Armageddon in the shadow of Mystery Babylon itself gave the movement a jumpstart, but most of the previous growth had come from relatively higher birthrates among the religious, conversions from the moribund liberal denominations and immigration.
Today, most of the major Evangelical leaders are dead or retired, and the popular megachurch preachers are predominantly Prosperity Gospel hucksters who have no real interest in politics. The face of American Christianity is increasingly a brown face, and the face of American atheism is almost exclusively white, which leads one to wonder (though you don't have to wonder much) what motivations are being left unsaid. You can look at Tumblrs and Instagrams of atheist meetings- such as James Randi's Amaz!ng Meetings- and count the nonwhite faces on one hand, if at all.
And of course, Randi is one of those original CSICOP members (nearly all of whom were on government salaries of one type or another) who spent all their time screaming about the New Age movement in the 70s and 80s, when the New Age was hardly a blip but when Fundamentalists were running amok, taking over local school boards, legistatures, state houses, and finally the Congress and the White House itself.
If skeptics trained their sights on preachers at all, it was to debunk hucksters like Peter Popoff who were giving the Fundamentalist movement a bad name.
Strange diversion of energy for these so called champions of reason and rationality, don't you think, worrying about Bigfoot and crystals when an apocalyptic deathcult was rampaging across the land and shredding the Constitution? And wouldn't you just know it, said deathcult was also filled with people on Uncle Sam's payroll and also filled with people all fired up about the New Age movement. What a coincidence:
The Christian Right went into a full-blown meltdown over the New Age, with writers tearing themselves away en masse from their airport men's room perches, peepshow stalls and favorite rest stop clearings to man the typewriters and word processors in defense of the Faith of their Fathers.
The importance of the anti-New Age agenda was impressed upon the shills in the Conspiracy underground as well. Soon, intel dupes like Bill Cooper and Serge Monast were warning of the "New Age One World Religion," a self-contradicting impossibility given that the movement was by definition fractured, decentralized and creedless; the old cat-herding bit, in other words. At the same time Cooper and Monast were tapping out their screeds with aching forefingers, their handlers were creating the real one world religions; Fundamentalism, both Christian and Islamic.But scandal has shattered the skeptic movement, with many of its major stars being accused of rape and sexual harassment. The old line and the new feminist atheists are now openly at war with each other. Randi's right hand man recently blurted out that sexual consent laws were "irrational," reminding us that one of the major bankrollers of the movement was himself imprisoned for having sex with minors. A major skeptic star was convicted in federal court on a huge eBay fraud rap. The list goes on and on (and on), but you get the point.
What it all boils down to is these movements were never going to be ready for prime time. They have peaked, despite their uncritical audience within the media itself. And with war breaking out all over, even ever-adoring allies like The Guardian, The New Statesman, the BBC, Slate and The Atlantic will find themselves busy dealing with more important issues.
A DANGEROUS WORLD
The spectre of war turns the human mind to a topic it usually does everything to avoid; mortality. And the next generation of war may be a total kind we can't yet imagine. We keep hearing stories of pathogens going missing from various labs, making this writer wish he didn't watch so many X-Files reruns. Radioactive material has gone missing in Mexico and Iraq and probably other places I've blanked out.
I know a lot of people want to believe we're all locked in a battle against a single monolithic enemy, and that if we all pull together and fight as one, a new Heaven will descend upon Earth and we'll all live as one. The problem is that that's the same old myth that the Nazis and the Communists were selling. It's a comforting myth and a useful one for a potential tyrant.
Serious observers of the current situation see a much more dangerous world; in which a number of different powers- and subsects within them- are all struggling to define the next world order. Things are so dangerous now because several large powers- the so-called BRICS- are tired of playing second-fiddle and want to steer their own destiny. I should have realized how dangerous things were going to become when I read an editorial in Bloomberg Businessweek begging the BRICS not to set up their own World Bank and IMF.
The New Age is everywhere now.
Yoga studios and health food stores are as ubiquitous as hair salons and hardware stores in middle class neighborhoods. Various New Age therapists and consultants can be found in professional buildings in more upscale burgs. Even sneering liberals are advocating the benefits of meditation in the form of "mindfulness."
Even Christian churches see the value in yoga, meditation and health food. The New Age is less a movement than a totalizing thought contagion.
This latest incarnation of the New Age is ubiquitous precisely because it is amorphous and essentially doctrineless. It's a somatic regimen disguised as a spiritual movement. However, this is not what it began as and not necessarily what it will remain as.
As I explained in the Secret Star Trek series, the current state of the movement is the result of a deliberate colonization effort of a post-hippie, neo-Theosophist subculture by the most important family in America. This process began in 1985 after the death of Esalen co-founder Dick Price and the takeover of the institute by a clutch of corporate types led by onetime Starbuck's executive Steven Donovan:
Because as much as it's anyone's, Esalen is a Rockefeller project. Rockefeller money helped build it, sustain it and grow it. It helped rebuild it after various crises. The Rockefeller in question is the late Laurance Rockefeller, whose very, very deep pockets helped build a New Age Empire in California, including Esalen, the San Francisco Zen Center, the Lindisfarne Association, the Institute of Noetic Sciences and the California Institute of Integral Studies.
This isn't surprising; nothing gets done in this country without people with deep pockets behind it. Not religion, not politics, not media, not even big-time conspiracy gurus. But it might explain why the New Age movement is so arid and inert and unthreatening (especially compared to its early days). It was engineered that way.
Even with all this money and pressure, I'm sure your Facebook newsfeed is filled with New Agers who -despite the dated stereotypes- leaven their Rumi and Eckhart Tolle quotes with rants about GMOs, chemtrails, the Federal Reserve, the NSA and so and so forth. And of course, New Agers are more open than the population at large to UFOs and ancient astronauts and all the rest. Which may be why the "New Age" section at my local Barnes and Noble seems to be almost entirely filled with books on those subjects these days (You failed, Herr Heiser. Miserably).
What remains to be seen is what course this movement will take in the future, particularly if current economic, social and global crises continue to worsen. There are some who believe that the New Age is simply a symptom of a self-centered, superficial culture. Certainly, the movement cycled through a series of spiritual dabblings like kids through a toy box-- Buddhist, "Celtic", Native American, channeling, Angels, Da Vinci code-type neo-Medievalism-- before stepping away from nearly all of it to concentrate on self-improvement, health, yoga and other purely somatic pursuits.
THE LAST TIME AROUND
But you had a remarkably similar situation to today in the early 19th Century, with proto-New Age groups such as the Transcendentalists and the Oneida Society. There were any number of weird sects with strange notions about health and diet that bought up tracts of land and formed short-lived communities across New England and New York. Most of these groups were small and weird and had no real impact.
It wouldn't be until the Apocalypse came in the form of the War Between the States that the first New Age movement would take off like a rocket.
It's said that Spiritualism was so powerful a force because so many Americans had lost loved ones during that horrific conflict that the need to 'commune with the dead' became something so powerful that the Church couldn't stand in its way. But it would be Madame Blavatsky who would understand that Spiritualism was nothing without a creed and so was Theosophy was born.
The difference between Blavatsky and earlier religious visionaries is that technology was such that her plagiarisms became easier to catch (scholars are still sorting out the various "borrowings" in the more ancient religions today) and to expose. Perhaps a hundred years earlier she'd have been seen as a messenger from the Heavens.
As it was, she attracted the cream of New York society (Thomas Edison himself was a Theosophist) and created such a powerful tidal wave that we still base all of our science fiction and fantasy on the work of people initially inspired the explosion set off by the Madame (Lovecraft wouldn't have written a word if he couldn't plunder the work of Freemasons, Theosophists, Rosicrucians and other various occultists). It would be Theosophists who would bring Buddhism to the West, which would have a profound effect on culture to this day.
So powerful was the effect of Theosophy that even Ghandi himself was drawn into its orbit (as were other key Indian nationalists). All of which brings us back to the BRICS and their threat against the World Bank's world order.
Still believe there's nothing to this?
We saw how the Globalist impulses of the early movement were exploited to the hilt by robber barons who created an internationalist pseudoculture with the help of plutocratic musicians like Peter Gabriel, Bono and Sting, that helped open up new markets for exploitation in the wake of the Cold War's end.
You still see vestiges of the old Globalist impulses among the Trustafarian wing of the movement but you also see an equal (if not greater) amount of Alex Jones-type NWO bashing as as well (Natural News anyone?) This is nothing new- Gary Null's old "Hidden Agendas"series were as radical as anything you'd hear on Jones' show today.
But there is certainly an infrastructure in place.
It's hard to argue with Big Money and the various methods of control are more ubiquitous than ever before. And maybe Big Money wants a creedless, inert New Age. But just two years ago all of it was almost wiped out by an errant solar flare, bringing us all back to, well, Madame Blavatsky's time (at least).
I don't think the New Agers (or SBNRs) will ever become the "One World Religion" of Evangelical fever dreams, but I do think they could become a force to be reckoned with. Most especially if things become considerably worse here. Whether or not the movement breaks out of its current demographic is dependent on who emerges as a guru (or perhaps even if we experience another 1970s type UFO flap, speaking of that Barnes and Noble section). Then all bets are off.
Having seen the Elizabeth Clare Prophet organization during its 80s peak, I've seen how authoritarian-- and frightening-- Theosophy and the New Age can be when working in concert with fringe right wing politics. Though I'm certain there were strings being pulled there (for some reason the Fundamentalists never trained their sights on her operation), who's to say that same synthesis couldn't emerge yet again?
With the present age serving no one but a tiny handful, the appeal of a new age could be unimaginably powerful. The type of people who are now "Spiritual but not Religious" are the kind of people who you could build a movement with. And perhaps once you begin to slake those vague spiritual longings with powerful religious ideas you could use that movement to build an army.
Don't think for a moment history has no precedent for such a thing.