The term New Age or New Age Thinking is a general label used since the late 20th century and after to cover a number of interrelated spiritual interests. They include belief in “alternative healing” or “holistic health” (acupuncture, homeopathy, diet-based cures, etc.), astrology, crystals, a strong afﬁrmation of the power of thought to change oneself and reality, the “channeling” of great teachers or “masters” through trance, Reincarnation and karma, and a general sympathy with nature and ecology.
Many speakers and best-selling books, tapes, and videos, such as those of the actress Shirley McLaine, have popularized the concepts. Though one can ﬁ nd numerous groups and bookstores recognizable as New Age, the movement has produced no major, long-lasting organization. Nevertheless, several important centers reﬂ ect its spirit, such as the Findhorn community in Scotland and the Association for Research and Enlightenment in Virginia Beach, Virginia, established by the famous “sleeping prophet” Edgar Cayce (1877– 1945), considered a precursor of the New Age.
The New Age movement has roots in the ancient world, especially Platonic philosophy. Some of its ideas, such as astrology and cosmic energy, have long enjoyed a sort of underground coexistence with the dominant religions of Europe and North America for centuries. Their outlook might be considered an alternative to the spiritual mainstream.
This side surfaced strongly in the 19th century in New England Transcendentalism, Spiritualism, and NEW THOUGHT, and in movements like THEOSOPHY. The term New Age itself goes back to that period. But its most immediate predecessor was the famous “counterculture” of the 1960s. Many New Age concepts and practices became popular in that era, and the New Age movement began in the wake of the 1960s. For all its diversity, the New Age movement has certain common core ideas.
Most basic is the concept of energy. Many philosophies, both Eastern and Western, have postulated a basic, universal energy, much like the “Force” in Star Wars, most intense in biological organisms, that drives and regulates all things. When it is balanced and ﬂ owing freely in a person, she or he is in good health. When it is not, there is disease. But there are processes, for example, acupuncture and YOGA, to remove blockages and restore the energy’s proper ﬂow.
New Age approaches to healing and health generally are grounded on this energy concept. They are called “alternative medicine” because they differ in this respect from mainline medicine, which is centered more on ﬁghting and destroying disease-causing organisms. Some New Age adherents believe that energy can also be worked with in its universal aspect. Certain objects, such as crystals, may be particular sources or transmitters of it. Properly placed crystals can send cosmic energy to a person and help restore his or her own energy.
Some New Age teachers have postulated “energy vortexes” or “power spots” on Earth, for example, Sedona, Arizona, and Mount Shasta in California, where the energy is especially accessible. Others believe that cosmic energy also operates through what the ancients called “correspondences,” subtle lines of force between phenomena in one part of the universe, including the heavens, and others, including human beings. Movement of the stars and planets can affect events on earth and the lives of its inhabitants.
Gemstones or colors can be in harmony with various days of the week or organs of the body, and thus can affect the potency of healing energies. No less important are New Age beliefs about consciousness. It is usually assumed that consciousness and matter are both universal forces, like two sides of the same coin, so one can always affect the other. New Age followers attempt to use meditation and concentrated thought to change health and even events in the outer world.
New Age people accept what earlier thinkers called the “great chain of being” doctrine: Centers of consciousness can rise above humanity just as they can descend below it into animals and plants; the higher consciousness would be what we call spirits, saints, masters, angels, and demigods, up to God Supreme. For many New Age people these entities are important as companions and guides and can sometimes be “channeled” or enabled to speak through human mediums during trances.
Though perhaps perceived as less vogue than they were around the 1980s, New Age attitudes have continued to be powerful in popular culture in the 21st century.
- James R. Lewis, The Encyclopedic Sourcebook of New Age Religions (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus, 2003);
- Shirley MacLaine, Out on a Limb, Rpt. (New York: Bantam, 1999);
- J. Gordon Melton, New Age Encyclopedia (Detroit: Gale, 1990);
- Sarah Pike, New Age and Neopagan Religions in America (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).