New Age Spiritual Eclecticism- The Path to Wisdom or Self Indulgence

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.

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About dgmattichakjr

D G Mattichak jr was born in 1963 in Syracuse New York and immigrated to Melbourne Australia with his family in 1972. He was educated in one of Melbourne’s exclusive private schools before studying art at Preston Technical College. D G Mattichak jr has been a student of the occult arts since the early 1980s and has become well known in Australian magickal circles and, in recent years, around the world due to a string of essays on a variety of occult subjects http://www.scribd.com/dmattichak/shelf . He discovered the “key to the order & value of the English alphabet” from Aleister Crowley’s Book of the Law in 1983 and has since used this English Qabalah to unlock the secrets of Thelemite magick. Success in these methods admitted him to the highest levels of attainment in various Hermetic disciplines and until recently he has been passing on his knowledge to private students, many of whom have gone on to become notable occultists in their own right. After almost three decades of study and development D G Mattichak jr has finally been able to distil his knowledge of magick and Thelema into a book- A Comment on the Verses of the Book of the Law, the first in a planned series of books on Hermeticism and Thelemite magick, revealing, for the first time in over a century, the secrets of magick that have been hidden in Crowley’s magnum opus, the Book of the Law. D G Mattichak jr currently lives in Melbourne Australia with his artist wife Michelle and their two cats. He has had a long career as an al a carte chef in Melbourne’s vibrant hospitality scene and now spends his time writing blogs on cooking, writing and, in the guise of Master Ankh af na Khonsu, about magick. He is also one of the founding members of the Mt Franklin Annual Pagan Gathering and regularly contributes to its official website http://mountfranklinannualpagangathering.blogspot.com/ as both an administrator and as an author. D G Mattichak jr’s first book Loot was released in 2009. His books are available through amazon.com at http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias=stripbooks&field-keywords=D G Mattichak&x=13&y=20 .
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7 Responses to New Age Spiritual Eclecticism- The Path to Wisdom or Self Indulgence

  1. Mary says:

    Traditional Wicca could be considered schismatic according to the context of which you use in this article David if only for the fact that it was conceived initially from Gerald Gardner and then Alex Sanders who developed Alexandrian Wicca. However these two pathways share enough commonality, praxis and similarity that many of its practitioners, particularly in the UK work together without division. This is less common in Australia and as I understand it, other parts of the planet, but it still does occur. The issues of which you speak of in terms of ‘pick n mix’ occurs when eclectic ‘wiccan’ groups or individuals believe that they can operate under an “orthopraxia” type mentality. That is, they can discard what they want believing it to be incorrect, unsuitable, wrong or incongruent with their own belief structures. Thus the very nature of what was attractive for them is swiftly revamped in favour of a more suitable or individual working pathway.
    Now, thats all very wonderful except one could reasonably make the assertion that it no longer resembles any Wiccan structure. As an example, at its heart of Trad. Wicca the requirement of Initiation by another Wiccan is required. Generally eclectics alsotend to overlook out of ignorance/or preference that Wicca does not include Indo-Asiatic, Norse, American Indian deities in its worship. A blight commonly discovered in the New Age Movement you discuss above. The melting pot of professed spirituality one might say.

    The Gods associated with Traditional Wicca as a practice are undeniably those found in the British Isles. If individual practitioners develop a strong personal or patron affiliation with a deity then so be it-however this is personal and not introduced into the Traditional material. Traditional Wicca has long since lost any ownership it felt of the word and therefore must define itself by utilising terms such as Traditional Wicca or commonly found across the USA/Canada British Traditional Wicca (BTW). This term was identified and introduced by our USA counterparts to distinguish themselves from the popular rise of all things considered ‘wicca’.

    Interestingly an common cry from many eclectics and ‘spiritual people’ is tolerance of all things. At best one could consider this delusional and, at worst hypocritical and dangerous. If everyone sat on the fence and tolerated everything we would most likely descend into a state of anarchy. Of course I’ve made a sweeping and gross generalisation, however, finely tuned and on closer examination the issue at hand is more disturbing to me and those around me. That question being, in tolerating everything, all paths, all experiences and all humanity, do we exclude examining our own motivations and agenda’s, do we neglect our personal responsibilities?
    This for the Traditional practitioner, and I will speak only for myself and mine at this point, would be of diabolical concern. This would indicate a lack of courage, conviction, faith, strength, accountability and responsibility. This laissez faire approach for us would signal impropriety, lack of regard, honour and reverence to the very nature of what we practice.

    This in itself is not as you point out (with reference to generalised spirituality) a new concept either. One of the first documented indicators of this thought and philosophy is of course found in Homer. Thus in we are reminded of the Oracle’s message of “Know Thy Self” and “Nothing to Excess”. I doubt any serious practitioners or practitioners of any length of time across any magical system would find this revolutionary. These are principles that are exposed very early on in my experience across a range of Western Traditions. Even found in Eastern Mysticism a complimentary example is found which directs the adherent back towards the self as a part of outwardly devotion and as a path to ‘cosmic consciousness’.

    Commercialism in spirituality is not a new concept either. It seems everyone is out for a quick buck and always has been. Rather than focus on the commercialism side, it seems to me to be a more serious question of what is it that people are looking for? Why when they make an online purchase from some self made “witch’ who sells some pretty beads “just consecrated!” do they feel that this is the antidote, the cure for what ails them. This is not unique within the spirituality/new age movement. Turning the television on in the wee small hours of the morning will bring forth some new happy clapper, or evangelical over tanned guy that looks so sincere you could vomit. He or she looks down the barrel to you at home, sympathising with you over your mortal flaws, your propensity to give in and be weak…why don’t you purchase the religious schools ‘secret weapon against all demons’!!! Thats right you show those devils that you mean business by forking out cash to ensure the minister continues his spray tans and his missus can still afford liposuction (System cost at just $59.99 with free signed crucifix for battling pesky devils incl plus P&H!).

    The point is this is **just as ridiculous** as purchasing Australia’s Most Amazing Witchypoo/Guru of the Month’s beads, amulets, spells, workshops, meetings, (dubious) *training* sessions (only $680.00 for 1st Degree!!!) (in what is never discussed) or anything else. You may feel temporarily uplifted. You might even feel you have ‘progressed’ and ‘improved’ your life. But *if* after your retail therapy high, and if you were to remove all the bells and whistles, the jewellery, the crystals, beads, statues, rainbows, trinkets, books, ‘training’ material, baubles, *things*…there would only be you left. You cannot purchase religious or spiritual panacea’s. Doing so merely leaves you poorer and still searching for human traits of companionship, acceptance, belief, faith, happiness, contentment.

    We must work for these things, very few of us are born with all this intact. I’m yet to meet one, and I’m yet to see one product that can be purchased, bargained for, haggled that will deliver any of what it claims to when it comes to New Age Spirituality/wicca.
    Traditional forms of practice do not require money. It does not require its adherents to give over of themselves to another human. It requires intense self reflection and commitment, something very few are willing to offer these days in high commercial dealings. Most believe the commitment is to another person how very wrong (and how very sad it is to watch) they are!

    (Kindly taken for use from Monty Python’s “Life of Brian” 1979)

    Brian: I’m not the Messiah! Will you please listen? I am not the Messiah, do you understand? Honestly!
    Girl: Only the true Messiah denies His divinity.
    Brian: What? Well, what sort of chance does that give me? All right! I am the Messiah!
    Followers: He is! He is the Messiah!
    Brian: Now, fuck off!
    [silence]
    Arthur: How shall we fuck off, O Lord?

    Mary

  2. Wow! What a great comment.

    What first attracted my attention was the way that Wicca had evolved along with the rest of the new age movement into a more eclectic practice that was demographically marginalizing the traditional practitioners such as yourself. The statistics on new age-ness in general seems to indicate that once the West unbound itself from the strictures of traditional faiths that along with what it saw as an old fashioned or out-moded form of spiritual expression it also abandoned any sort of structured discipline. It struck me also that in any other arena of life this wouldn’t be acceptable. We don’t do half of a university course and call ourselves professors nor do we call ourselves qualified if we only learn half of a profession. Pick n mix tradesmen used to be tagged as “Jack of all trades and master of none” and a great deal of the new age movement would seem to fall into that classification.

    A recent seminar on religion found some interesting statistics that relate to Wicca that indicate that now 79% of all people that call themselves Wiccan are solo practitioners and that the commonest terms that they use to describe their beliefs is Eclectic Paganism (53%) with a further 22% disclaiming any sort of labels at all. That means that fully three quarters of everyone that claims to be practicing witchcraft are non-affiliates of the traditional schools. Gardnerain and Alexandrian witches are becoming marginalized within their own religion and could even be seen by many as fundamentalist sects or even cults.

    I have to agree about the history of religion and consumerism being intertwined for all time. Even Jesus was irked by the temple of Solomon being used as a marketplace- quite right too, you can’t buy the Light, as you say, you have to work for it. That implies a structure that takes a person from one state to another, a path, and without discipline and structure how can we find the right path, not just spiritually but in anything?

  3. Hank says:

    I would add to this that the idea of witchcraft or Wicca being a religion is problematic. Traditional Wiccans are probably more able to make that claim, because there are a number of adherents who follow essentially the same methods of worship of essentially the same deities. But Traditional Wicca lacks the kind of dogma that characterises other world religions. Witchcraft itself isn’t a religion, and never has been. Nor is paganism. These are terms that refer to a broad range of activities and beliefs that don’t necessarily have anything much in common, except for what they’re not, which is essentially “of the family of Semitic religions”. Even then, there are grey areas.
    I like to think in terms of Wicca, being the Traditional variety, and wicca, being this other spectrum of new-age nonsense that has proliferated since. Capitalisation is all I have left.

    • If the definition of a religion was about such semantics the world would be a simpler place. The statistics that I have seen all talk about people that SAY that they are wiccan/pagan/witches of some variety and now that demographic is becoming dominant. It is just a statistic but in the real world that equates to a lot of people that believe themselves to be witches etc. This itself must go to redefining the terminology used. It is certainly a major contributor to confusion on the subject and adds to the general diffusion of the new ageness of modern witchcraft generally. It could be said that the Christian religion which has many different sects (some figures indicate many thousands) suffers from the same problems of sectarianism as wicca does and yet it is also generally referred to as a single entity.

      Stick with the capitalization, good grammar is good manners here Hank.

  4. Mary says:

    I disagree. I think that Wicca (note capiltalisation!) certainly lacks a clear cosmogony but utilising the definition of Religion, it certainly does contain the standards which define a *religion* per se. I also disagree that there is no dogma to be found. It is true that it is perhaps not as overt as mainstream religions, it is equally true that it does exist. In some ways these may be loosely defined, but in others they are certainly immutable and a move away from these core practices/beliefs/thoughts/teachings heralds a definitive shift away from Wicca to wicca (no capitals here folks!). However this is a particularly old argument and for another time perhaps. Having said that I have worked with Traditional Witches who do have a quite overt creationism theory which has zero influence from folklorist Lelands Aradia: Gospel of the Witches.

    I agree with David that a simpler world would indeed be in operation without the human clots that throw a spanner in the wheel every five seconds with hypocrisy and bullshit. I think the WildHunt article is a really interesting piece actually. It certainly reflects my own observations after all these years and I’ve seen the mad rush and hectic formation of ‘covens’ spring up and burn just as quickly in the early days. It would seem that individuals working solitary seem to wish to work in a magical sense on their own without any authority (at least of the corporeal type) and without any dogma, rules, regulations, expectations. Personally I have no particular concern about this, each to their own. Except of course when they introduce themselves as wiccan and/or worse are derogatory once they find out I am an initiated Wiccan (a peculiar phenomenon here in Australia). Immediately those of us initiates are considered ‘aloof’, ‘elitist’ etc etc. I’ve heard it all.

    A consideration in all of these interesting statistics is how few of us will actually admit to our Craft on paper, in person, on a survey, in real life. So automatically in my mind, any talk of being marginalised is almost certainly flawed by a working knowledge of just how closed generally speaking we are and not because of any rubbish elitism but due to personal and Traditional reasons. Therefore that data is immediately dubious (not that I doubt the trend discussed overall) assigned to Traditional Wicca because many won’t discuss it. The rest of the article I have no issues with and as I said it certainly reflects what I have seen and noted as you most certainly would have also Hank and David.

    It is harder I think these days to find Traditional folk in amongst the real and cyber smorgasbord of neo paganism and spirituality. And honestly, for most people its more than sufficient to dip their toes into the pool of new agey guff and feel enlightened and a better person. Surely that can’t be a bad thing?

    But for some of us, that pool of knowledge could never be enough without total immersion.

    • On the issue of Wicca (capitalized) being a religion Professor Sabina Magliocco gave me this opinion:
      I do not see Wicca or Paganism as becoming mainstream religions — at least, not yet. These religions are at heart oppositional, and there is still too much prejudice and discrimination against their adherents to deem them mainstream.” She denitely see paganism as having all of the attributes of a religion but one that will remain marginalized by outsiders and not from within for some time to come. Her book: Witching culture: folklore and neo-paganism in America http://books.google.com.au/books?id=cVB3IBDIEREC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false actually give a very erudite description of an emerging religion that combines an almost archetypal spiritual awareness with a modern focus on rationalism. Regardless of the difficulties of previous claims of “fakelore” being used as a foundation for modern witchcraft’s revival movement, modern scholarship on the subject is revealing much subtler connections to our pre-Christian ideas about spirituality that have survived and are finding new outlets today.

      The statistics are in fact skewed slightly by the factors that you enumerated but the demographers have taken much of that into account when producing the results that I have looked at. I refer you to these basic sources:

      http://www.pluralism.org/resources/statistics/tradition.php#Paganism
      http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2003/06/29/1056825278034.html
      http://www.religioustolerance.org/chr_prac2a.htm
      I agree Mary that it is a good thing for people to take ownership of their spiritual connection to this world.

  5. Mary says:

    Yep but its still not truly representative-because it can’t be 🙂 Still a great article and study.

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