Introduction. The term New Age refers to a wave of religious enthusiasm that emerged in the 1970s and swept over the West through the 1980s only to subside at the end of the decade. As with other such enthusiastic movements, however, it did not just simply go away, but like a storm hitting a sandbar, it left behind a measurably changed situation among those elements of the religious community most centrally impacted.
The New Age has frequently been cited as among the most difficult of contemporary religious phenomena to comprehend. Two obstacles slowed study of the movement and the appreciation of its significance. First, the movement hit just as the field of New Religious Studies was struggling to establish itself as a valid sub-discipline within the larger world of religious studies. Scholars of New Religions, the people to whom we would ordinarily turn for some interpretation of the New Age, had specialized in very different forms of religious life. The average New Religious Movement had come into the West from other parts of the world, existed as a discrete entity with very visible boundaries, and primarily recruited young adults in the 18-25 age group. In contrast, the New Age Movement had emerged essentially within Western culture and had the appearance of an amorphous decentralized social phenomenon that contrasted sharply with the more prominent New Religions such as the Unification Church, the Divine Light Mission, or the Hare Krishna. In visiting New Age organizations, one saw some young adults but were struck by the distinctly middle-age make-up of adherents.
Second, but equally important, the New Age was seen as having some relationship to the older world of the occult. Historically, the world of occultism was not one to be understood, but denounced. Much of the history of Western scholarship has been shaped by the desire to move beyond magic and occultism, which was equated with the crudest forms of superstition and supernaturalism. In one sense we already understood gullible people who were attached to occult superstitions, and our primary response to the continual presence of occult organizations was the passing of laws to prosecute individuals who used occult beliefs to con people out of their money. This perspective has now been institutionalized in the anti-pseudoscience movement. 1 A related perspective, that denounces the New Age as a competing supernatural worldview, can be found in the writings of the Christian counter-cult movement. 2
Thus it was that only as the New Age peaked and began to fade that studies outlining the New Age movement's place in the rapidly changing religious scene in the modern West were published. However, beginning in the 1990, a series of books on the New Age have appeared from which some overall perspective can be constructed. 3 This paper will attempt to summarize our present understanding of the New Age, its origins, its basic nature as a social movement, the significance of its appearance and demise, and the post-New Age world.
Toward a Definition of the New Age It is a more-than-helpful exercise to confront a few of the issues that emerge in gaining some common perspectives on the New Age. First, we need to make a sharp distinction between the New Age and that class of religious groups that are variously termed New Religions, cults or sectes. As a whole, New Religions are small relatively new religious organizations distinguished by their intrusion into a dominant religious community from which they make significant dissent. A New Religious Movement brings people together around a singular history, belief, practice, and leadership. The great majority of New Religions are sectarian, that is, they are new variations on one of the older major religious traditions. Hare Krishna is a sect of Hinduism, the Divine Light Mission (now known as Elan Vital) is one of the many Sant Mat groups; and the AUM Shinrikyo was a Buddhist organization. Many New Religions are Christian sects that adhere to the great majority of traditional Christian beliefs but either dissent on one or two important doctrines and/or champion a different lifestyle (communalism, separatism, high-pressure proselytization, sexual freedom, etc.). Most of the remaining groups attempt to create a synthesis of two or more of the older religious traditions, the Unification Church being the most notable example.
In sharp contrast, the New Age Movement was never a single organization, but originated as an idea spread by a group of theosophical organizations that shared a common lineage in the writings of Alice A. Bailey. Movement leaders never challenged the integrity of these organizations or of anyone's attachment to them. In this regard, in its earliest stages, the New Age movement was much like the Christian Ecumenical Movement prior to the formation of the World Council of Churches. Without attacking the integrity of the various churches, Ecumenism looked for a Christian community that could give a more visible expression to the shared Oneness among Christians in the object of Christian worship. As the New Age movement grew, some theosophical groups became enthusiastic supporters, some were mildly accepting, some indifferent, and a few were quite hostile. A similar spectrum was presented by different Christian denominations to the Ecumenical Movement.
Much of our confusion about the New Age also derives from the different ways we use the term "movement." As applied to New Religions, "movement" generally refers to the dynamic and informal nature of many first generation religious organizations that are still in the process of rapid change and the creation of the structure that will carry them into the next generations. As applied to the New Age, however, "movement" refers to its likeness to broad social movements such as the Civil Rights movement or the Peace Movement. These movements include a bewildering array of people devoted to the cause but very diverse in their institutional affiliations, definition of particular goals, and adherence to variant strategies on reaching common ends.
As the New Age developed it reached out from its beginning among the Baileyite groups of the United Kingdom, to speak to the hundreds of Theosophical groups and soon invited the entire spectrum of magical, metaphysical, Spiritualist, and other occult groups to consider its basic vision. In the process of its spread, many individuals not previously associated with any of these older groups became excited about the New Age ideal and formed entirely new organizations to add their energy to the cause.
Thus, it is best to see the New Age, not an organization itself, but as an effort to bring older organizations and the people associated with them together and constitute a new sense of oneness among them. As the New Age movement matured through the 1980s, it could also be compared to contemporary Evangelicalism. Evangelicalism exists as a number of conservative Protestant denominations that doctrinally represent a spectrum from Presbyterianism to Pentecostalism. Some of these denominations are quite small and some Evangelical groups consist of but a single congregation (there being a strong anti- denominational theme within Evangelicalism). The Evangelical movement is also served by a number of schools, missionary agencies, specialized ministries, ecumenical associations, and publishing houses that are independent of any one denomination while trying to work with all of them or at least a particular set of them.
In like measure, the New Age consists of many different groups, some large international bodies, some smaller, and many consisting of but a single center. The movement as a whole was served by a number of schools, publishing houses, specialized organizations, networking services, and outreach groups that attempted to serve New Age adherents across their allegiance to a particular occult/metaphysical "denomination." Because of the movement's minority status and anti-institutional biases, New Age organizations tend to be far more fragile than similar Christian organizations in the West.