The New Age movement took its current form during the Human Potential Movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Characteristic of the New Age is a deep emphasis on spiritual matters, often in a form attributed to alleged Asian mystics (particularly Indian and Tibetan); indeed many New Age beliefs draw from (and heavily distort) Eastern religions, particularly Buddhism. Also characteristic of the New Age movement is a complete lack of intellectual rigor, making it rather postmodern in its beliefs.
Consumers Practitioners choose what they want from Asatru, Hinduism, Neopaganism, UFOlogy, Zen, and any other weird concept that appeals to them. These beliefs are then mixed together according to personal likes and dislikes.
New Age is based on a body of thought that derives ultimately from the Spiritualism movement of the 19th Century and the Theosophy faith created by Helena Blavatsky (as well as from the beliefs of societies such as the Order of the Golden Dawn). Alice Bailey's Theosophy-influenced occult writings of the 1930s and 1940s are sometimes cited as the origin of the modern New Age movement, although the extent of this is debatable. Some Alice Bailey followers, most notably Benjamin Creme, were influential in popularizing New Age ideas in the 1980s and giving the movement its modern form. Other early possible progenitors include the Urantia Book (1955) and The Aquarian Gospel of Jesus the Christ (1908), both consisting of allegedly channeled material mixing Christianity with Eastern religious thought and in the case of Urantia a cosmology of extraterrestrial spirit beings; and the practicies of Spiritism which included such things as table rapping, Tarot cards, and the Ouija board, which later re-emerged in popularity among the hippie movement. The Findhorn Foundation in Scotland (founded 1963) and the Esalen Institute in California (founded 1962) are also cited as origins of the New Age. The Human Potential Movement which emerged during the 1960s and 1970s was originally a secular movement rooted in pop psychology and the existentialism philosophy popular at the time, and not at first given to much interest in spiritual matters; typical of this era were the Erhard Seminars Training and Lifespring seminars, popular self help books such as Psycho-Cybernetics (1960) and I'm Ok, You're OK (1969), and primal scream therapy. The Human Potential Movement taught the achievement of self-actualization through a variety of means, often based on freeing oneself from negative scripts imposed on ones life by other people (such as parents or peers), or during early childhood. As traditional belief systems (including religions and political ideology) were seen as self-limiting, some aspects of this movement veered into freethought, but much of the movement took a simultaneous interest in developing new spiritual outlooks which fused the secular pop psychology of the day with other popular movements of the era which were overtly spiritual. Spiritual movements which flourished around the same time included Transcendental Meditation, the Hare Krishna sect, and esoteric Christian sects such as the Unification Church and the evangelical "Jesus Freaks".
A fusion of the secular with the spiritual was inevitable, most notably taking on influence from Zen, Hinduism, some forms of liberal Christianity, and belief in supernatural phenomena. Popular books such as Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull (1970) and Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (1974) successfully combined the promise of unlimited potential and self-actualization with spirituality. An increasing interest in "unexplained phenomena" from Bigfoot and the Bermuda Triangle to alleged mystical powers of pyramids followed in the 1970s, often promoted by mass-market books and TV shows like In Search Of, and starting in the late 1970s, a sci-fi influence and interest in extraterrestrial life heralded by films such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
The New Age came into its own in the 1980s offering a smorgasbord of spiritual choices to the seeker, by then largely devoid of its early secular pop psychology and philosophy roots, and often characterized by a complete lack of skepticism and by an annoying stylistic vagueness and slick marketing. Notable events popularizing the New Age term, and beliefs, included full-page newspaper ads placed (circa 1982) by Benjamin Creme's groups heralding the arrival of "Maitreya", a purported New Age avatar or "Christ"; the "Harmonic Convergence" when in August 1987 New Agers gathered at alleged sacred sites around the world to herald a new era of world peace and spiritual transformation, based on a loose interpretation of the Mayan calendar; the rise of New Age bookstores and free newspapers advertising the smorgasbord of activities available; and the popularity of crystals, trance channelling, "aura" photography, runes, and similar woo.
New Age thought is not a monolithic body of work, and has many contradictions and competing ideas; however, in general, New Agers tend to embrace vitalism as a binding principle of the Universe, believing that such things as extrasensory perception, psychic phenomena, astrology, and the paranormal all they believe can be observed and have direct impact on the daily lives of people. There is some overlap with the neopagan faith community, though neopagans tend not to be very tolerant of those with a New Age mindset, calling them "fluffbunnies" due to many New Agers' seeming self-centeredness and lack of commitment.
The New Age movement is generally considered a load of bollocks by rationalists, and several well-known skeptical writers (particularly James Randi and Martin Gardner) honed their skills using the early New Age movement for target practice. Nevertheless, New Age rituals and paraphernalia are big business; some places such as Sedona (AZ), Salem (MA), and Glastonbury (UK) have a particularly large business presence of New Age practitioners plying their trade, and "psychics" such as John Edward and Sylvia Browne have gotten quite wealthy pretending they can talk to the dead.
"New Age" is used frequently as a snarl word by Christian fundamentalists, apparently as a codeword for a poorly-articulated Satanic conspiracy theory to bring down Christianity. New Age practitioners, however, usually concentrate on pleasant concepts, and avoid uncomfortable ideas like Satan.
Threads of the New Age
The fundamental guiding principle of the New Age, such as there is one, is vitalism, as mentioned above -- the idea that there is a physical universe and a spiritual realm, that interact but are entirely separate. Since the New Age is essentially a grab bag of philosophies, it is easiest to describe some of its components in a list:
- Astrology and sham astronomy -- In addition to the fevered ramblings of those who carry on a long-discredited form of using the stars and planets to predict the future, New Agers (who often overlap with UFO fans) often ascribe special significance to certain real or imagined features in space (see Photon belt as an example of the latter). A popular New Age pastime is predicting doom and gloom every time planets, moons and or stars seem to "line up".
- Channeling -- the act of allowing your body and mind to become a "host" for a higher spirit, usually a long-dead spiritual guru. Usually consists of bad acting and vague religious platitudes, but "channeler" JZ Knight managed to get a popular Hollywood movie  made about her and her character "Ramtha".
- Communication with the dead -- At the same time one of the most popular and most widely reviled New Age practices, there is a large market for trying to reach loved ones who have died. Mediums, practitioners of such feats as seances, tend to cater to the weaknesses of the bereaved and desperate, and rationalists consider such people to be the most damaging and blatantly thieving of the hucksters in the movement, especially since the "dead" tend overwhelmingly to talk in vague, feel-good babbling.
- Extrasensory perception-- largely drawn from the Human Potential movement, many New Agers believe that given enough training it is possible to see things that cannot be directly observed (remote viewing or clairvoyance), to read minds (telepathy), or to predict the future or view the past (precognition and postcognition). Despite the efforts of a band of overly credulous scientists in the 1960s and 1970s (called "counterculture physicists" by Martin Gardner, among others), no reliable evidence of psychic phenomena has ever occured.
- Fairies -- Belief in fairies, devas, angels and other sorts of entities in this and other dimensions that can be contacted for advice and healing.
- Healing -- Various forms of "energy work", epitomized by the Barbara Brennan School of Healing, and the use of Reiki are taught and used to heal others of real and imaginary ailments. Crystals, aromatherapy, and sound therapy all play a role in the desire by every New Ager to be a Christ-like healer.
- Magical thinking, such as the currently fashionable Law of Attraction.
- Pseudoscience -- Rather than simply present their material as religious, New Agers often cloak their beliefs in the language of science, with constant ill-defined use of the terms "energy" and "vibration", as well as a heavy dose of sham quantum physics, being the most common abuses. A great deal of alternative medicine is either rooted in or closely associated with the movement as well. Gaian Theory is one such belief popular among New Agers.
- Pyramid Power -- the belief that the pyramidal shape somehow acts like a lens to focus cosmic energy. Some new agers actually put their razor under a plastic pyramid in the belief that this will sharpen the blade overnight.
- Reincarnation and past-life regression -- Loosely drawn from reincarnation doctrine in Hinduism and Buddhism, reincarnation is a common belief among New Agers, and the attempt to recover memories of past lives is a common practice. Observers have noted that one's past life personalities were never janitors or office clerks - kings, queens and famous generals are very much in demand for past lives of the New Ager. During the 1980s, actress Shirley MacLaine promoted past-life regression, leading to considerable ridicule. 
- Shamanism -- The need to be "someone special" frequently manifests itself in the fashioning of a new identity, as a mystical healer who travels on the astral plane to communicate with spirits and the dead, modelled after the purported beliefs and rituals of traditional cultures in the Amazon, Siberia and the American West.
- Sham quantum physics -- New Agers, as a rule, really like the "observer" principle of the orthodox Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, and when they need a scientific-sounding Band-aid to impress the rubes, "quantum" is a word that gets a lot of use. The fact that Copenhagen is a drastic (and very old, and primitive) oversimplification of a brutally difficult subject, as well as the fact that it really doesn't make any sense in this context, didn't stop Gary Zukav  and Fritjof Capra  from giving embryonic New Agers just enough leeway to make them look horribly foolish.
- Scamming -- While it is clear that a good number of New Age practitioners actually believe the tripe they put out, many of them are no more sincere than a garden-variety televangelist and are in it only to take money from gullible folks who want to believe that there's Something Out There.
New Agers are often fellow-travelers with the alternative medicine community, and people like Deepak Chopra habitually cross the line without making any meaningful distinction. A good number of New Agers also espouse liberal politics, making easy straw man targets for libertarian "debunkers" like Penn and Teller.
New Age music
The New Age movement has spawned a musical style with the same name - airy-textured instrumental fluff, often with dolphin sounds mixed in. It can be rather relaxing and enjoyable, but it is in no sense profound -- though it borrows much from jazz and classical music, it is far more simplistic than either one. It is sometimes played in elevators and waiting rooms, in place of Muzak, and is often played in stores selling such items as candles, incense, crystals, etc.
A Joke: What do you get when you play New Age music backwards? New Age music.
References and notes
- ↑ What the (bleep) do We Know?
- ↑ MacLaine ultimately eased off on the woo and went back to acting, though there are no indications that she's given up any of her battier beliefs.
- ↑ The Dancing Wu Li Masters at Wikipedia (William Morrow & Co., 1979)
- ↑ The Tao of Physics at Wikipedia (Shambhala Publications, 1975)
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