Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Secret War Against the New Age: Introduction

To most people, the New Age is a joke. The picture you usually get in the media is that the New Age is a conglomeration of hucksters and charlatans peddling mystical claptrap to bored, eccentric housewives. Despite the popularity of figures associated with New Age - Oprah, Deepak Chopra, Tony Robbins - the movement isn't taken very seriously by most people.

In fact, New Age isn't even really a movement anymore as much as a catchall phrase for a host of different practices and philosophies, vaguely based in a synthesis of Eastern and Western traditions. And the thrust of today's New Age is distinctly feminine and distinctly somatic, with the various massage therapies and aromatherapy and so on.

But it wasn't always that way. Before "Shirley MacLaine" became a buzzword for ditzy but harmless mysticism, there actually was a New Age movement that included psychologists, scientists, soldiers, artists and clergy. The movement came to be seen as a serious threat by some, who had their own cultural movement fighting for dominance, namely Evangelicalism.

Certainly Evangelicalism is in steep decline in the US (when a devout Mormon like Glenn Beck is seen as the head of the new religious right, you know the movement is in trouble), but religion always follows where global capital leads, and the resources are obviously needed elsewhere.

Even so, the New Age movement put such a scare into the  Evangelical power elite that you can still find reams of digital propaganda out there darkly warning about the "threat" the New Age poses. This began in earnest in the late 60s, and by the mid-80s anti-New Age literature was a staple at Fundamentalist bookstores and gun shows. 

At the same time, megachurches began incorporating New Age practices into Evangelicalism in an attempt to co-opt the competition. So this struggle was clearly not based in doctrine or ideology.

Government scientist Levitt attacks 
dissident professors- note childish visuals

But that in itself was not enough to derail the "New Consciousness" so a parallel movement was created to hack at the foundations of the New Age - the "Skeptic" movement. Comprised of a host of media figures and government-beholden scientists, the Skeptic movement went after the various claims and teachings of the New Age, hammer-and-tongs.

Even though the movement was tiny, it was never lacking for media attention. And with few, almost token exceptions, the Skeptics completely ignored the claims and teachings of the Evangelical movement.

It wouldn't be until the Bush years when the New Atheists hit the scene that some skeptics would man up and go after the Evangelical behemoth with some of the energy it reserved for such dire threats to civilization as palm reading and biofeedback.

But many prominent skeptics
still claim that Evangelicals should be left alone and the movement should only target ideas associated with the New Age. A civil war has resulted in the skeptic/atheist axis between the "absolutists" and the "accommodationists."

This is a rough sketch of the ideas I will be exploring in this series. In classic Secret Sun fashion, it will be an exploration, a work-in-progress. Also in classic Secret Sun fashion, it will be updated as inspiration allows. But I think there's a fascinating story here, one that tells us a lot about what is happening in Western culture and why.

Is there a new New Age emerging as the polarities of absolute belief and absolute disbelief lose their appeal? And is that necessarily a good thing?

After all, there is a precedent in the Imperial Roman era - a constantly shifting and mutating grab-bag of beliefs and practices cobbled from other sources. It too was a minority movement comprised of weirdos and spinsters, and it too got its fair share of criticism and official discouragement. 

But once that big cosmic clock bell rang, there was no turning back.

We all know how that turned out.

DISCLAIMER: This essay is an historical analysis of a broad-based and amorphous movement that is generally misunderstood. The point here is understand how belief systems arise and how the Establishment responds to them. As the concept of belief itself is up for grabs in the West, I believe that it's worth looking at the last major challenge the religious and scientific establishments faced and exactly how they handled that challenge.