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“New age” is among the most disputed of categories in the study of religion in terms of agreeing content and boundaries. Because such disputes reproduce in miniature the debate about the cross-cultural stability of the category “religion”, studying “new age spiritualities” tantalizingly reproduces issues central to defining and theorizing religion in general. It is the aim of this volume to bring two areas of research normally kept apart – empirical study of new age spiritualities and serious theories of religion – into close and productive interaction, with a view to opening up a new primary data set for general theories of religion.
The classical theories of religion – for instance by Edward Burnett Tylor, James Frazer, William Robertson Smith, F. Max Müller, Sigmund Freud and Émile Durkheim – were built on a varied pick and mix of religious phenomena. Some of these authors consulted ancient religions, as did Frazer and Robertson Smith; some looked to India as Müller did (without actually going there); while many were interested in so-called “primitive” cultures, as were both Tylor and Durkheim. None of these “armchair” masters did fieldwork, but relied on reports from missionaries, travellers and other reportage. And even if they tried to build their foundation on the data of pluralized formations, their ideas were mainly inspired by their concept of Christianity, as Evans-Pritchard persuasively argued in Theories of Primitive Religion (1965).
New Age and holistic beliefs and practices - sometimes called the "new spirituality" - are widely distributed across modern global society. The fluid and popular nature of new age makes these movements a very challenging field to understand using traditional models of religious analysis. Rather than treating new age as an exotic specimen on the margins of "proper" religion, New Age Spirituality examines these movements as a form of everyday or lived religion. The book brings together an international range of scholars to explore the key issues: insight, healing, divination, meditation, gnosis, extraordinary experiences, and interactions with gods, spirits and superhuman powers. Combining discussion of contemporary beliefs and practices with cutting-edge theoretical analysis, the book repositions new age spirituality at the forefront of the contemporary study of religion.
This chapter argues that recurring uncertainties in demarcating “new age” phenomena are in important respects an effect of conceptual constraints upon our thinking about “religion” in general. These constraints are imposed by the existing taxonomy of religious formations, which is derived from the prototype of a “world religion”! The apparent broadening of this taxonomy from the early 1970s on, through the use of adjunct terms like “new religion” and “new religious movement”, while appearing to differentiate and pluralize representations of religious formations, in fact left the basic prototype undisturbed and even strengthened. Under its terms, the popular practices and beliefs which circulate under the name “new age” (and related modern rubrics such as “holistic”) can only register on the conceptual radar of religion as an anomalous or residual category. The often-remarked problem of defining new age is therefore better understood not as an empirical question – we now know a fair amount about the varieties of beliefs and practices in circulation – but as a fresh and pressing example of how our concepts (continue to) construct our data. The world religions paradigm is a recognized conceptual problem in the study of South Asian traditions, especially in relation to “Hinduism” (Fitzgerald 1990; Geaves 2005). “New Age” phenomena raise similar questions, but now in relation to the construction of religion in a “Western” context.
“New Age” phenomena are frequently seen as atypical forms of religion, and a specific terminology is created to describe them. This terminology includes, for instance, terms like “New Age” itself, “New Religious Movements”, “new religiosity”, “neo-spirituality”, “spirituality”, “alternative religiosity”, “alternative spirituality”, and “holistic” Terms and theories establish the research object, which also means that terms highlight some aspects of a phenomenon and leave other aspects in twilight or darkness. Do the terms mentioned above point at the most characteristic aspects of the phenomena they describe – and if not, what terms could be used instead? In this chapter I will discuss the terminology of New Age phenomena in relation to a specific model for the study of religion and argue that to develop a fruitful terminology, it is necessary to develop a more complete and dynamic picture of contemporary religion. Religion in both the historical Roman Empire and in contemporary Norway is used as an example, and my broader argument is that a historical approach can provide important comparative insight into a phenomenon usually considered ur-contemporary.
The terms mentioned above are problematic for several reasons. One problem is that they imply a polarized approach. Most of the terms situate their objects as secondary in relation to established religious institutions and religious power, for instance by using the prefix “new/neo” or the term “alternative” The dominance of the “world religion” category implies that “New Age” phenomena in the Western world are seen in relation to Christianity and to established churches.
In this book we have drawn on the data of new age spiritualities in order to try to rethink the general category of religion. Since the basic prototype of religion seems largely to have remained undisturbed when the terms “new religions” and “new religious movements” were introduced from the 1970s, especially in the context of undergraduate teaching programmes and everyday “common-sense” understandings, it is time to reassess and if possible to alter this situation. Two main questions have arisen over the course of this volume: in what ways do new age data ask questions of the dominant category of religion; and what is the analytical potential of a renewed general category of religion that includes new age phenomena among its integral components? In short, in what ways is new age “good to think” in the study of religion, to employ Levi-Strauss's apt phrase?
NEW AGE SPIRITUALITIES AND THE RETURN TO “ELEMENTARY FORMS”
When the academic study of religion was created in modern research universities in the later nineteenth century, the pioneers were preoccupied with finding basic motifs and components of “religion”. In the words of Emile Durkheim in 1912, the aim was to identify “the elementary forms of religious life”.
Several of the contributors to this volume look back to classical theories and engage more-or-less directly with some of the pioneers.
On 25 July 2007, one of the BBC news headlines on the Internet was ‘Norway princess “talks to angels”’. The day before, the story had made the front pages of all the Norwegian national newspapers. In the BBC version it read as follows:
Norway's Princess Märtha Louise says she has psychic powers and can teach people to communicate with angels. The 35-year-old daughter of King Harald and Queen Sonja made the announcement on a website promoting her plans for a new alternative therapy centre. She says she realised as a child that she could read people's inner feelings, while her experiences with horses had helped her make contact with angels. Princess Martha Louise is fourth in line to the Norwegian throne. The royal palace says it has no official link to the princess' planned alternative therapy centre, the AFP news agency reports. The princess, who trained as a physical therapist, says on the website for her Astarte Education centre that she has ‘always been interested in alternative forms of treatment’. Students at her centre, she says, will learn how to ‘create miracles’ in their lives and harness the powers of their angels, which she describes as ‘forces that surround us and who are a resource and help in all aspects of our lives’. ‘It was while I was taking care of the horses that I got in contact with the angels,’ she says. ‘I have lately understood the value of this important gift and I wish to share it with other people, maybe with you.’ A three-year programme at her centre costs 24,000 Norwegian crowns ($4,150; 3,000 Euros; £2,000) per year.
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