Traditional religion in Western culture is on the decline. Since the 1950s the number of people with no stated religious affiliation has increased six-fold and in the most religious country in the West, the United States, only 25% of people regularly attend traditional religious services while the percentage of people that never attend religious ceremonies has risen by 10% in the past decade and accounts for almost one quarter of the population. But at the same time, the same statistics show that as we have become less religious we have become more spiritual with almost one in five people younger than 40 defining themselves as spiritual and not religious and the trend is gaining momentum. So if people are abandoning their traditional religions but are increasingly spiritual; where does this esoteric impulse find its outlet? The statistics imply that while many are just becoming atheists a greater number are turning to alternatives that are generally lumped together under the title of new age but, as we shall see, are really not that new.
Spirituality in the 21st Century is a conglomerate of borrowed ideas and practices chosen almost ad hoc at the traditional religions of the world are picked apart and reassembled into mix and match isms that are marketed to a growing consumer base who are avaricious for the next spiritual high from an exotic culture. Driven almost entirely by celebrity pop culture, new age spirituality has acquired Hollywood chic in its 50 years of over hyped development. The term ‘New Age’ to mark the spiritual turn in the West is derived from an obscure and inconclusive study of astrology that has determined that we have moved (or are about to move- depending upon who you ask) into a new astrological age- the Age of Aquarius. Quite aside from the fact that there is no basis for the claim of any such change, alternative spiritualists seized upon the idea in support of their burgeoning enlightenment and their abandonment of traditional religious values. The concept was cemented in place in the middle class consciousness by the musical Hair announcing that we were at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, a new age of spiritual wisdom. From these humble beginnings the new age has grown from an alternative to getting a haircut, a job and going to church for a few peyote munching hippies to encompass a broad spectrum of believers in everything from aliens in UFOs to old fashioned End-of-Worlders who have replaced the Revelation of St John the Divine with the unshakeable certainty of the end of the Mayan calendar in 2012.
What has evolved is a diffuse, often incoherent, unstructured and eclectic set of popular beliefs backed up by just as eclectic a collection of pick ‘n mix practices that have been pillaged from mostly Oriental traditions but with a growing intention of wholesale swallowing up of native spiritual beliefs from across the third world. New Age Spirituality is at times very self conscious, almost always middle class and almost never founded on any holistic structure as might be found in any long established religion. Prone to be faddish and celebrity-centric, new age spirituality has become a huge industry incurring the tag of consumer religion for the movement as a whole. In fact some scholars have indicated that many new age practices such as aromatherapy and macrobiotics are being targeted at women to create the consumption that is required to sustain new age capitalism. But how big is that market really?
Statistics across the Western world indicate that about 0.4% of the population define themselves as being ‘New Age’. The numbers that engage in some sort of new age activities or who hold new age beliefs is likely to be much higher as many of them would also consider themselves as belonging to some traditional faith even if it is inert in practice. The marketing push on new age products tends to indicate that the consumers are there in larger numbers and some estimates indicate that as many as one sixth of the population would spend money on new age goods or services. But how many of these consumers of new age paraphernalia are engaged in any sort of meaningful spiritual development and how many are feeding a self indulgent whim to be different, to do their own thing- so big a part of the Aquarian Age.
The almost total non-existence of any enduring cohesive groups of new age spiritualists is the obvious result of its schismatic, populist and hugely eclectically diffuse nature, but one new age movement that has almost managed to develop into an acceptable mainstream religion is Wicca. In many ways Wicca is the fundamental new age spiritual movement and it has come to possess all of the qualities of the divergent new age beliefs in one package. It began as an alternative to traditional Western forms of worship, returning to a reverence for the divine gift of the fertility of this world rather than God’s intention to use it as a purgatory for the afterlife, and soon began to collect its own eclectic array of borrowed beliefs and practices, splitting very quickly into several autonomous variations and developing distinct cultural and political affiliations. Wicca and its companion new age belief, Neo-Paganism, have become integral parts of the feminist and environmental movements and given the green generation an almost tangible religious façade.
Worldwide there are estimated to be around half a million Wiccans, Neo Pagans and Witches of every variety, they form one sixth of the entire new age movement and some estimates indicate that the movement is growing as fast as 143% per annum or faster. Another study has found that as many as three quarters of all people that identify themselves with witchcraft are solitary and over half class themselves as eclectic. In fact eclecticism is so entrenched in the modern witchcraft movement that it is almost impossible to define the practices of the Wiccan religion. While the traditional schools of Wicca, the Gardnerians and the Alexandrians, were insistent on a structured spiritual developments and a clearly defined moral code, modern Eclectic Witches don’t see themselves as being bound by any established moralities and develop their own path of spiritual growth according to their tastes. This has led to modern witchcraft being compared to a consumerist religion, where the custom parts that you want for your blend of religion can be assembled like adding custom features to a new car.
So what does this all mean? What is the truth about the new age and its menagerie of mysticism? Is it all going somewhere? If it is, is it anywhere important?
The first thing that the new age has to grapple with is its lack of newness. Of all of the conflated techniques that have been requisitioned by the Aquarian Age only a tiny number are even close to resembling something new, and quite often they are valued simply because they are so ancient; while the value of the insight of traditional practitioners in these arts is revered as the wisdom of the saints. The other thing that isn’t new is the actual ‘age’. There is no evidence to support the claims of the sun moving into the astrological sign of Aquarius at the Vernal Equinox. If humanity has moved into any new age at all it must be the Silicone Age. The new age movement grew out of an effort to systemize spiritual development in the late 19th Century and since that time has slowly divested itself of any sort of structured discipline, except in some rare instances. This diffusion and, to some extent, confusion would be the natural state for the early phases of a new spiritual awareness that is evolving if that is what is happening, but it is very difficult to see where enough cohesion will come from to form the general sentiments of the new age into a practical form of religious expression or of spiritual growth.
The one exception to this could be Wicca but with its schismatic nature and the growing predilection for eclecticism it may also be beginning to dissolve into a broad spectrum of witch-like practices with very little to bind the different points of view together. Of course it may also be that a new, more evolved form of Wicca may be beginning to emerge that keeps enough of the original template for the religion while embellishing it with enough exotic accoutrements to give it the broad appeal that is needed to attract a wide enough demographic to survive. It has been noted by demographers looking at the modern upsurge in irreligious spirituality that it has an unexplainable appeal to women, the well educated and the young, who are all abandoning traditional religious beliefs at the highest rate in the population ensuring that Wicca and Neo Paganism will have a steady stream of new members and hinting that the astounding growth of the new religion can continue at pace for some time to come yet. If the growth of Wicca continues at this pace it will be the third largest religion in the Western world in the next year or two and must soon reach a critical mass where it truly begins to compete with the long established world religions. Perhaps that will truly herald the dawning of the Age of Aquarius.