What Ever Happened to the New Age Movement?

It is not obvious what happened to the New Age movement. In the late 80s it was gaining serious momentum, but in the early 90s it appeared to vanish. At the same time, it’s had a strangely persistent aura (I can say that here). Knowing a little bit about the history of New Age will help you understand at least two things. First, why people don’t like to be called that (even if they appear to be so), and second, what its relationship is to the contemporary spiritual but not religious (SBNR) movement. Knowing these things is important if you are someone who works with SBNRs. It will help you understand the paradox of their identity. Plus it’s an intriguing story.

So What Exactly is the New Age Movement?

A scholar complained that defining New Age is no simpler than trying to capture the Loch Ness monster on film. Why is it so difficult? There are a few obvious reasons. First, New Age is complex. There are many different strands and themes. Just as there are over 41,000 Christian denominations, there are many different ways of being New Age or “spiritual.” It’s not a one size fits all thing. Second, there is no central governing body. The term “movement” implies it is like other broad social movements like the Peace movement and the Civil Rights movement. So in this context, it was about more than spirituality: it was a new model for society. There wasn’t a single group or person in charge. It grew as groups who shared similar messages came together. It was more like a milieu than any organization.

The New Age movement emerged in the early 70s, intensifed through the 80s and died out by the early 90s in the wake of media ridicule and fallen dreams. Its basic message was a belief in personal and planetary transformation as the astrological calendar moved from the house of Pisces to the house of Aquarius. It was prophesied that this transition would herald the dawn of a new age, or Age of Aquarius.

The new age would be realized when enough people became conscious–spiritually aware–members of society. As such, personal development work became synonymous with social progress. This view energized the Human Potential movement of the 70s which saw expanded interest in the men’s movement, Jungian psychology, holistic healing, deep ecology and so forth. These pursuits blended with alternative religious practices such as channeling, shamanism, and astrology, as well as Eastern practices such as mediation and yoga, creating the vibrant spiritual marketplace we see today.

Even though there was lots taking place, this kaleidoscopic activity wasn’t always called New Age. The term was ambiguous even then. As a result, people could be involved without necessarily thinking they were “New Agers.” The term got a bit of traction in the late 70s when Bantam Books started its New Age Library line geared to metaphysical seekers. Around the same time, Marilyn Ferguson’s best-selling book The Aquarian Conspiracy (1980) was published. Although the term New Age never appeared in the book, her work synthesized the New Age vision, and it came to be seen as a kind of manifesto for the New Age worldview. She predicted an imminent transformation of the social order through new leftist politics and mass move to psycho-spiritual growth.

Here are some of the other highlights:

  • In 1982 Ken Keyes published a small book called The Hundredth Monkey, endorsing the idea of critical mass consciousness. He suggested that if enough members of a society attained elevated consciousness, the effect would automatically spread to other members of the general population. In this way, society as a whole could be transformed even if only a select few did the work required. The book sold over a million copies and led to a series of mass gatherings, including the famous Harmonic Convergence in 1987 (more on that shortly).
  • In 1983, Shirley MacLaine published her best-seller Out on a Limbwhich described the American actress’ experiences with extra-terrestrials and trance channelers.
  • By this time, media attention began focusing on the bizarre aspects of New Age thinking including holistic health remedies, UFOs and astrology. On the upside, the New Age was becoming conscious of itself as a distinct movement.

Sociologist of religion Gordon Melton estimates that in the 80s alone, the New Age movement attracted 3-5 million Americans. While the movement wasn’t huge, it was making waves. By the late 80s the media was openly using the term to describe a range of activities that focused on holistic lifestyles and alternative spirituality.

So what happened? Why did it disappear?

Advocates of the New Age eyed institutions and authority with suspicion–even hostility. Why? Because institutions had the power to shape public opinion and behavior. “New Agers” did not want to be puppets of the system. They feared any threat to their personal freedoms, because they required unfettered access to what they believed was the true source of power and wisdom—the inner Self. As heir to the counterculture, the New Age movement was in the business of challenging the power of cultural elites, and that can be a dangerous game.

Scandal and Demise: The Downfall of the New Age Movement

By the late 80s a string of events brought the original New Age movement to an end.

  • First, Christian Evangelical Constance Cumbey wrote The Hidden Dangers of the Rainbow that linked New Age to the Antichrist.
  • Second, Shirley MacLaine appeared in a televised miniseries of her book Out on a Limb, bringing her New Age prophecy to a mass audience. While it made New Age thinking even more prominent, it also raised expectations and made followers of this path clear targets for media attacks. It also further enraged throngs of conservative Christians across America and contributed to the perception that New Age was a satanic cult.
  • Finally, on August 16, 1987 tens of thousands of self-proclaimed New Agers gathered for the “Harmonic Convergence.” This was the brainchild of the American scholar Jose Arguelles. He suggested an unusual planetary alignment would occur on this day that would produce a shift in planetary consciousness and change the way humans interacted. He linked it to the culmination of a “great year” in the Mayan calendar. The media had a field day; Newsweek dubbed it the “moronic convergence.”

By now, New Agers, soaking in ridicule, bad press and broken dreams, retreated. Not only were they targeted for the scorn of mainstream America, the transformations they had hoped for had not come about—at least not in the way they had imagined. The high ideals of the movement dissipated along with media attention. Sort of.

 Harmonic Convergence Aug.16, 1987. Sunrise at Stoney Indian Reserve, Alberta.

Harmonic Convergence Aug.16, 1987. Sunrise at Stoney Indian Reserve, Alberta.

The New New Age 

Despite this debacle, the New Age spark did not go out completely. Quietly its embers glowed. We can see now that what started as a collective symbol representing a new model of the ideal society had infiltrated the collective consciousness of North American culture. Gone were the idealism and trenchant esotericism, but what lingered was an impulse to initiate change through personal development and spiritual growth. Since the early 90s, the self-help culture of the 80s has systematically morphed into the bigger, more mainstream health and wellness sector we see today. And the dubious term “New Age” has softened into spiritual or spiritual but not religious.

So while the shaman I mentioned in the previous post can be forgiven for not understanding New Age, she is like many spiritual teachers and entrepreneurs today who promote what started as basically New Age messages:

  • It’s all God
  • You have direct access to the divine
  • Your body is your guide to your essential self
  • Spiritual experiences are the master class: this is how you know “God”
  • Higher levels of human development are emerging on the planet every day
  • You can heal your life and ultimately the world by recognizing this and taking charge of your destiny
  • Life evolves but ultimately, you are one with everything
  • It’s all one
  • We are all one.

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Melton, Gordon. 2007. Beyond Millennialism: The New Age transformed. In Handbook of New Age, eds. Daren Kemp and James R. Lewis, 77-102. Leiden: Brill.

Raschke, Carl. 1996. New Age Spirituality. In Spirituality and the Secular Quest, ed, Peter Van Ness, 203-226. New York: Crossroad.