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Journal of Contemporary Religion, Vol. 16, No.

3, 2001

New Age Commodication and Appropriation

of Spirituality


ABSTRACT The New Age Movement can be seen as one response to the decline of
traditional religion in the West. It conforms to the spiritual pluralism that Bryan Wilson
understands as a consequence of secularization. From a New Age perspective, the
worlds various spiritual traditions are now public property and no longer the private
preserve of the parochial groups or religious elites that they once were. Since in this
open availability process, the sacred becomes commodied, the general argument allows
that it can be bought and sold and thus consumed according to basic free-market
principles. The paper explores both the New Age rationale for spiritual
commercialization and some of the clashes this engenders with the traditions from which
it appropriates.

In the contemporary religious consumer market, the commodication of
spirituality and its appropriationespecially from other traditions not ones
ownfoment an increasingly contentious issue. The questions which arise relate
to ownership: is spirituality a private possession or does it belong today more
in the public domainmaking it something freely accessible to whomsoever
chooses? Until the end of the nineteenth century or later, religion was something
into which one was born. A persons religious conditioning was an automatic
and accepted fact.
In todays world, however, through globalization, capitalism, and large-scale
immigration, along with the decline of traditional religious institutions, the
Western individual is confronted with an awareness of religious options on an
unprecedented scale. The present information age allows a familiarity with
religions and religious movements beyond that of ones birth. Books, journals,
television documentaries, the internet, and so forth have increased knowledge
of different spiritual practices. In todays competitive capitalistic world,
they become possible options. Through gaining multiple perspectives, the
religious consumer can now more easily than ever choose to become
de-conditioned from the prevailing acculturation of his/her society and, in some
cases even, re-conditioned into a new spiritual practice of his/her own choosing.
Much of this situation of religious consumer options relates to the diminishment
of traditional, institutionalized religion or what is often referred to
secularization. 1
ISSN 13537903 print/ISSN 1469-941 9 on-line/01/030361-1 2
DOI: 10.1080/1353790012007717 7

2001 Taylor & Francis Ltd


M. York

In the eld of sociologymore specically, the sociology of religion, the
question of secularization is one of the more nuanced and complex issues the
discipline must face conceptually. What do we mean by the decline of religion
and how would we measure it? Although it seems apparent that secularization
has been more pronounced in the twentieth century than during any previous
period of recorded history, putting a sociological handle to this likelihood has
proven a daunting and elusive task. Even when we understand the process to
involve a decline in the prestige and power of religious teachers, the electronic
media industry of today has extended its reach and appeal on an unprecedented
scalesuch as we see, for example, with televangelism. The proliferation of
e-mail lists and spiritual chat-rooms offer new means of information exchange
beyond the connes of the traditional community church, cathedral or
synagogue.2 The question invariably remains whether recognizable religion and
spirituality are ceasing to exist or are simply changing form and modes of
In general, the processes taken as signs of secularization include the ending of
state support for religious organizations, the elimination of religious teaching in
public schools, no longer employing religious tests for public ofcials, the
ending of legislative protection for religious doctrine or other state-sponsored
controls designed to safeguard religion. In a secularized democracy in which
religious dogmas and ethical notions have lost their dominance, there is more
scope for individual dissent and change. India, Great Britain, and the United
States are examples of secular states, but this being said, there is a wide
variation between these polities in terms of separation of church and state as
well as religious belief and participation.
Perhaps more meaningfully, secularization can also refer to a pervasive
decline of interest in religious traditions. Respect for religious institutions, as a
consequence, is found to diminish throughout the general public. More
concretely, established religious bodies no longer draw the same numbers of
practising supporters. Attendance and membership gures become less and less.
Contemporary secularization is, therefore, seen as a combined product of
scientic/humanistic rational thought and socialistic/communistic political
theory. Religion comes to represent superstitious interference or a popular
opiate or both.
In its fullest sense, secularization should indicate the cessation of all interest
in religious perspective, practice, and institutionalized features. However, while
there appears to be little, if any evidence that Western society has reached this
stage, there does appear to be in the West a detectable and growing
dissatisfaction with traditional forms of religion. Consequently, for secularization
to be meaningful in sociological terms, we are best to follow Bryan Wilsons
understanding of the notion of secularization as essentially the contemporary
process by which religious thinking, practice and institutions lose signicance,
and become marginal to the operation of the social system in which they are
found (Wilson, 1988: 954). In Wilsons perspective, the spiritual pluralism of the
modern/postmodern era is itself a consequence of secularization. If traditional
religiosity had formerly been central to societys decision-making and general
functioning, its secular loss of prestige, power, and inuence opens the gates, if

New Age Commodication


not the ood gates, to private, marginal, and even deviant, but certainly newer
forms of religion beyond the originally established and popularly endorsed
religio-social connes. Therefore, religious expression becomes freed from the
rule of conformityespecially in a condition when the status quo no longer
remains xed, but has itself become something uid. The accelerated
technological, economic, and demographic changes which are underway in the
millennium transition of the West make any present condition or state of affairs
radically ephemeral and elusive. In the advent of what is often hailed as
gobalization, this means institutional and social change in the West, which has
immediate worldwide implicationsones which possibly, if not probably, affect
virtually everyone everywhere on the planet today.

Globalization, however, often appears to be simply another name for a new
breed of American imperialism.3 The perpetual American championing of
capitalist and individual freedom becomes pitted against the sanctity of
weaker, but autonomous systems or traditions. In todays world in which the
entire international arena becomes a competitive marketplace, it is those with the
greater nancial (including military) clout who become the winners. In the
relentless, market-fuelled drive to reduce as much as possible to the
samewhether the same range of goods, the same currency of exchange, the
same architectural look, it appears to be increasingly within the multifaceted
diversity of religion that variety has its greatest chance of surviving. However,
religion itself often becomes simply one more commodity and one more tool in
the overall process of globalized homogeneity. Despite detectable
counter-hegemonic manifestations by particular Islamic or Judaic identities, it
can be argued that the overall evangelical missionizing drives behind Buddhism,
Christianity, and even Islam have already contributed to a process of universal
sameness. Some of the newer religions are no less immune to this very tendency.
Among them is the New Age Movement. While its missionizing efforts toward
converting or saving the world may or may not place it into the same league
as Christianity, it is certainly of equal stature when it comes to the appropriation
of indigenous and competing institutions. In other words, the issue of what it
gives is one thing; the issue of what it takes is the other.

New Age
New Age itself is a difcult phenomenon to describe, let alone appraise. It has
been summarized as a blend of pagan religions, Eastern philosophies, and
occult-psychic phenomena (York, 1995: 34). William Sims Bainbridge nds, for
instance, that the forms of religious movement most closely associated with the
New Age are occult, neopagan, and Asian (Bainbridge, 1997: 386). For
Hildegard Van Hove, the New Age-alternative spirituality eld is an eclectic and
inspirational mix of Eastern religions, the Western esoteric tradition, and
psychologysometimes more integrated than others (Van Hove, 1999). For
literary critic Harold Bloom, however, the New Age boils down simply into an
endlessly entertaining saturnalia of ill-dened yearnings (Bloom, 1996:18).


M. York

Although the term New Age is often rejected by many whom the sociologist
might identify as New Agers, we nd certain key features throughout the
current eld of alternative spirituality with which core New Age intersects and
is generally identied (see in particular Brown, 1997: 4749, 69; see also Lewis &
Melton, 1992). These theological notions include the contention that human
beings are essentially gods in themselves. Each individual is believed to contain
a God-spark, a central infusion of divinity. At ones deepest level, one
participates in and identies with the godhead. A second generally held idea is
that human beings undergo successive reincarnations as part of an evolutionary
process which returns them to full God-realization. Thirdly, a prominent New
Age doctrine is that the human individual is responsible for creating his/her
own reality. The last relates to the concomitant conviction in the power of
positive thinking to mold and shape our own destinies. It is balanced, but not
necessarily defeated by the understanding that our behavior is in part inuenced
by our actions in previous lives. Finally, however, New Age places the entire
evolutionary quest and desire to transmute ignorance and negative karma into its
comprehension of the universe as a single interconnected eld. This ultimately
holistic notion provides the New Age spiritual orientation with its guiding
transcendent value. It is the very context which also provides New Age with its
justifying rationale for attempts to spiritualize commodication and commercial
At best, the New Age movement comprises a disparate and loosely
co-ordinated confederation of contrasting beliefs, techniques, and practices.
There is no central authority capable of speaking for the movement as a whole
or of supplying membership registrars or even of ascertaining who and who is
not a New Ager. New Age is largely a perpetually shifting and ad hoc alliance
of exegetical individuals and groups, audience gatherings, client services, and
various new religious movements that range between the cultic, sectarian, and
denominational. To the degree that it may approximate a quasi-political
movement, it is more confederative than federal.
New Age vs. Neo-paganism
While interconnectedness of the cosmos is central to New Age thought, at the
same time it is also a core afrmation of contemporary Western paganism. In
fact, a key entry into understanding the complexities of the New Age movement
is to be located in why some people (sociologists, scholars of religion, Christian
apologists) include contemporary Western paganism as part of the New Age,
whereas other people (other sociologistsmyself included, historians,
participants) consider New Age and Neo-paganism separate, if not distinctly
separate. New Age and Neo-paganism might be distinguishable on the basis of
theology, practice, and self-identity, but they also share many similar, if not
identical features, attitudes, and reasons for being. Consequently, depending on
ones perspective, New Age is sometimes inclusive of the modern pagan
movement and sometimes not.
It is important, therefore, to discern similarities, overlap, and contrasts of New
Age with Neo-paganism. Both can be accused by critics for being narcissistic.
Both take part in the contemporary spiritual consumer market and both display
tendencies to appropriate spiritual idioms from a range of other traditions.

New Age Commodication


Despite the often vehement distancing from and denial of the New Age by most
contemporary Western pagans, Paul Heelas (1996), for instance, would also
include witches, Wiccans, Druids, shamans, and other modern-day pagans
within New Age identity. We nd a similar inclusion by other researchers (e.g.
Faber, 1996; Streiker, 1990). On the other hand, Vivianne Crowley expresses the
general trend within contemporary paganism, when she re-published her
best-seller Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Age (Crowley, 1989) seven years
later as Wicca: The Old Religion in the New Millennium (Crowley, 1996).
Heelas classies both New Age and Neo-paganism under the general rubric of
self-religionspresumably to distinguish them from God-religions and
express what they have in common. However, Heelas is never clear over what
he means by self. At times, the self is simply the ego of individual
consciousness, but on other occasionsand more frequentlythe self-referent is
an indication of what New Age generally calls the Higher Self. Whatever the
Higher Self might be, it is not the ego-self with which the individual usually
identies, and Heelas has simply substituted one unclear metaphysical concept
(namely God) with another (namely the Self).
Most important, in clarifying the New Age/Neo-pagan interplay, the
respective vocabularies of the two movements, although they may have points
of overlap or similarities, are not the same. Neo-paganism, contemporary
Western paganism, the various reconstructed ethnic paganisms (Druidry,
Northern, Celtic, Hellenic, Egyptian, etc.) do not generally speak in terms of a
Higher Self or of a(n imminent) quantum leap in collective consciousness, i.e.
the coming Age of Aquarius. The New Age movement has essentially recast
Joachim de Floress twelfth-century theory of Three Ages of History into
astrological terminology (Melton, Clark & Kelly, 1990: 2930). As Aidan Kelly
explains, in this epochal framework, the Old Testament Age of the Father
becomes identied as the Age of Aries. The New Testament Age of the Son
corresponds with the Age of Pisces, which de Flores understood as embodied in
the Roman Catholic Church. However, the ensuing aeon, the Age of the Holy
Spirit, is to be as different from the current Age of the Son as the last is from
the Age of the Father which preceded. Consequently, the Age of the Holy
Spirit is recognized as the Aquarian New Age of great and millennial changes.4
If Jesus Christ represented the pivotal spiritual gure of the Age of Pisces,
according to the New Age Church Universal and Triumphant, the Comte de
Saint-Germain is to be the equivalent for the Age of Aquarius. On the other
hand, with its essential distance from Christian terminology and astrological
re-interpretation of the ages of history, contemporary paganism does not
entertain the notions of either literal apocalypticism or metaphorical
Part of the confusion between the two movements may stem from the
inclusion of prominent Wiccan-activist Miriam Simos, or Starhawk, among the
faculty of Matthew Foxs Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality (founded
in Chicago in 1978), after it was re-established in Oakland, California, at the
Holy Names College in 1983. In practice, the two movements frequently
interconnect and a mutual presence can often be witnessed at their respective
venues. The Starhawk-Fox association is perhaps simply the most prominent
example of the easy compatibility between the two distinguishable orientations.
Most importantly, however, vis-a`-vis mainstream and dominant Christianity,


M. York

New Age and Neo-paganism are natural allies. Much of the current confusion
between the two orientations is, in fact, most likely the result of this alliance by
default, which pits both traditions into the position of outsider heresies from
the perspective of the canonical spirituality of the Judaeo-Christian West.
However, if the two movements are natural partners, their respective theologies
and consequent practices are nevertheless clearly distinguishable.
Paganism itself subscribes to an immanent understanding of the godhead or
divine, which allowsor even centralizesthe natural world as manifest
sacrality. New Age, on the other hand, descends from a competing theological
perspective, namely, a Gnostic/Theosophical and New Thought tradition via the
American Metaphysical Tradition which views nature as an obscuring obstacle
to hidden spiritual truth. The physical world becomes, accordingly, either an
illusion or at least something of secondary and lesser importance. From a strictly
sociological perspective, New Age and Neo-paganism are simply distinct, if not
also rival theologieseach part of long-standing and legitimate spiritual
traditions. However, in the emergent twentieth-century notion that the
individual alone is the locus for selectivity and determination of beliefa notion
which may be a concomitant to the process of secularization itself, the
anti-authoritarian impulse which increasingly denies that one can be told what
to believe also denies that one can be told, at least spiritually, what not to take.
Apart from the vexing question of whether new religious movements are
themselves testimonies to secularization or, instead, represent an unexpected
reversal of secularization, the increasing privatization of religion is intimately
tied to the ethical question of spiritual appropriation.

Authority and Accountability

If self-religion means personal exegesis and selection by the individual, the
general rubric is applicable to trends in the late modern/early postmodern
transition, which encompass much more than simply New Age and Neo-pagan
religiosities. At its worst extreme, we nd something like the World Church of
the Creator which encouraged a 21-year-old youth, Benjamin Smith, who lives
not far from Chicago, to appropriate within the last half of 1999 the integrity
and/or lives of people who belonged to what Smith considered the mud races.
While this heinous act may represent an extreme illustration of
non-accountability and (someones) individual freedom to decide what is right
and wrong, it betokens the lack of moral guidelines consequent or at least
possible when the permission to make such decisions shifts from traditional
authority to the individual alone. The lack of moral consensus and legitimating
sanction appears to be a direct result of the secular diminishment of religions
former role in traditional society.
For Van Hove, the central elements of the alternative spiritual world with
which New Age overlaps, apart from holism, harmony, personal growth, the
development of greater consciousness, and an ethos of bricolage, include
individual autonomy and authenticity (Van Hove, 1999: 313). It is, however, this
very self-autonomy based on what feels right to the individual that is most
scorned by New Age criticsfor along with decision-making freedom comes
real responsibility, but without the foundation, for instance, of the traditional

New Age Commodication


biblical view, according to a traditionalist like John Newport, New Age freedom
has no basis for viable ethical decision-making (Newport, 1998: 410).5 Whether
one agrees with the self-authority and self-accountability of New Age or not, it
is the stance on this issue around which New Age nds much of its identity.
Spirituality is here considered to be something that the individual decides for
him/herself. There is a growing and concerted refusal to be told what to believe
and what one must do and not do. The ramications of this ethical no-mans
land can be enormous and questionable, but the issue I wish to focus upon in
the remainder of this paper is that which concerns commodication
particularly the use of other peoples spiritual property.

Besides its narcissism, or perhaps even linked to it, one of the more controversial
aspects of New Age concerns its commodication of religion and the freedom to
appropriate spiritual ideas and practices from other traditions. The New Age is
modelled upon, and is an outgrowth of, liberal Western capitalism. It is part of
the same cultural logic of late capitalism that asserts the right to free and
unrestricted global trade. As an aggregation or congeries of client services and
competing audience cults, New Age is part of what is described as the religious
consumer supermarketone which thrives on competition and the offering of
various spiritual commodities. Rather than a rejection of free market principles,
New Age endorses a spiritualized counterpart of capitalismone which seeks
ever extended markets, new sources of marketable goods, and expanding
prots. In that the prot motive of New Age is fully nancial, if not also oriented
toward greater spiritual well-being, it represents a modern continuation of
Calvinistic principles which exalt material success as a sign, reection, or
consequence of ones spiritual state of grace.
New Age liberalism falls, however, into the same trap as political
Anglo-American liberalisms of equal dignity in which supposedly neutral
principles based on the denial of difference are really to be seen as reections of
hegemonic culture. As Charles Taylor sees it, the very idea of liberalism may
be a kind of pragmatic contradiction, a particularity masquerading as the
universal (Taylor, 1994: 44). What Taylor identies as procedural liberalism
nds human dignity in autonomy rather than with any particular view of what
constitutes the good life. This kind of liberalism can verge on libertarianism and
even the Christian Identity kind of resistance to authority and liberal norms or
goals as witnessed in Benjamin Smiths Chicago killings. Yet at the same time,
the increasingly popular view of the human agent as primarily a subject of
self-determining or self-expressive choice (Taylor, 1994: 57), despite its political
appropriation by extreme right, conservative, liberal, libertarian or socialist
factions, also provides the New Age with its bedrock idea of human potential
and its corresponding belief that one can create ones own universe.

In the case of New Age, its solipsism, coupled with its advocacy of free market
principles, opens the worlds spiritual arena as an opportunity for spiritual


M. York

exploitation and even capitalistic imperialism. Not only does it encourage a

paradoxical homogenizing to the cultural standards of North Atlantic
civilization, exemplied in its afrmation that we are all one, but it also carries
an implicit judgement of inferior status for non-hegemonic cultures, inasmuch as
they are not considered to be the ones who decide what is to be shared and what
is not. There is also an inherent bias against the physical itself as inferior and
something not worthwhile for ownershipeither because the physical is
deemed not really to exist or is at least of secondary importance. New Age
upholds the idea that all past and present spiritual legacies are no longer private
property, but belong now, in the New Age of Aquarius, to the public domain.
This idea easily translates into the rationale and justication for appropriating
whatever third-world institution has appeal to the individual religious consumer
along with the freedom to market what one allocates to others.
The conict involved with this belief in an unaccountable and free accessibility
to the worlds spiritual traditions and the countervailing insistence of cultural
ownership by minority ethnicities became disturbingly clear to me during the
1993 Parliament of the Worlds Religions in Chicago. Despite the Amerindian
pivotal role in launching and sustaining the success of the Parliamentin
private Native Americans were debating a Lakota-sponsored Declaration of
War which included among its targeted enemies New Age proteers and
Neo-Paganists [sic]. From the position as an endangered species on the verge
of extinction, the loss of cultural artefacts, private practices, use of traditional
sites or their own sweat lodges has been viewed as the nal loss of American
Indian identity. The growth of popular forms of Neo-shamanism in the West
was cited in particular as a cultural theft on the part of the Euro-American
hegemony. Other disciplines usurped by New Age include Hawaiian Kahuna
magic, Australian Aborigine dream-working, South American Amerindian
ayahuasca and San Pedro ceremony, Hindu Ayurveda and yoga, and Chinese
Feng Shui, Qi Gong, and Tai Chi.
Consequently, in many cases, the spiritual appropriation of nativistic practice
and belief follows the same dynamic as, for instance, the steady elimination of
the Brazilian rainforest or the oceans whale population. Species become
endangered and eventually extinct as a result of free market operations and
expansion. In a multi-cultural world, a procedural liberalism which adopts no
particular substantive view about the ends of life may not recognize or even
mis-recognize particularity of religion and culture. The erosion of ethnic dignity
and identity might be an inevitable aspect of historical and cultural change, on
the one hand, or a catastrophic diminishment of human legacy, on the other
hand. In many cases, it is a complicit or even active disseminatory role of the
original bearers themselves which has encouraged religio-cultural exportation.
The Tibetans have consciously marketed Vajrayana Buddhism to the West and
have recognized tulku-incarnation among Euro-Americans. Hindu swamis and
gurus, Chinese martial art masters and Japanese shidoin aikido teachers
consistently promote their respective practices throughout a spiritually hungry
West. Even the American Indian community appears split over the issue of
keeping its traditions to itself or initiating Westerners into them. If there is an
ethical question concerning spiritual appropriation, those who feel their ways
and identities are being appropriated are quite often actively part of the
dissemination process itself.

New Age Commodication


There may, in the end, be no nal answer to the dilemma between universal
rights and particular identity. In defence of New Age, it could be pointed out
that all religions appropriate from each other. Roman paganism, through its
interpretatio romana, incorporated Celto-Gaulic deities; Hinduism included
Gautama Buddha as an avatar of Vishnu; Christianity acquired pagan
sanctuaries and festivals for its own; Islam seized the Kaaba and the site of the
Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. Inter-religious exchange may, in fact, be seen as an
inevitable norm. As a rule, contemporary Western paganism does not
appropriate from living cultures in the same willy-nilly and prot-motive
manner as does New Age. Basically, if New Age is grabbing sacred truths from
other cultures, its ultimate fruition might lie in re-claiming, like Neo-paganism,
sacred truths from the pastin other worlds, sacred truths that are no longer
claimed as privately owned. When a culture is extinct, there is no
ownershipwhether private or cultural. When, on the other hand, a culture or
people is endangered, its very identity becomes part of what it owns as a
culturean ownership belonging to a private collectivity vis-a`-vis hegemonic
global culture.
On the other hand, it is one issue appropriating from others; it is another
when one is the victim of being appropriated from. There appears within the
free exchange that characterizes the New Age market that New Age is not a
phenomenon from which one can appropriate. Or, if one can, it does not matter.
The situation, however, is different with New Ages sister ally, Neo-paganism.
In pre-Christian times, of course, Roman annexation of an indigenous shrine
became a means of extending and consolidating imperial power. The Celtic locus
religiosus of Sulis in what is now the town of Bath, for instance, became the
Roman center of Sulis Minerva. There was no destruction, but instead an
expansion and a subsequent ourishing. With the advent of Christianity,
however, pagan shrines were no longer extendedif they survived at allbut
converted. We see archaeological evidence of the Church Triumphant across
Europe and Latin America (Paris, London, Rome, Mexico City, Cuzco, etc.).
Formerly pagan shrines were destroyed and churches built over them. A similar
pattern can be witnessed concerning Hindu temples and the construction of
mosques in the wake of the Mogul invasions. In Bath, the bathing complex of the
former Aqua Sulis fell into neglect and ruin until the thermal spa became once
again popular in the days of the Georgian kings.
Yet even when pagan sanctuaries escaped Christian demolition (e.g.
Stonehenge, Lydney Park or Aqua Sulis), they have come invariably under the
custodianship of the state that has, in turn, restricted or denied access for the
contemporary pagan. Neo-paganism has instead, almost as a defensive response,
shifted its focus to what remains of pristine nature (such as natural woodland),
but now the threat is road-projects, airport expansion, construction of
commercial centers, and the like. Consequently, much of contemporary Western
paganism concerns itself with land protection, road protest, and other
environmental protection efforts. Vis-a`-vis hegemonic power, for the last two
millennia, paganism has largely occupied a besieged position.
New Age may not share with Neo-paganism the same centrality of unspoiled
nature, but it does often share use of the same sacred sites (e.g. Stonehenge,


M. York

Avebury, Glastonbury Tor, Mount Shasta). In the use of some of these places
and the battles with police that have frequently ensued, the term New Age
Travellers is a misnomer created by the media. Travellers are not New Age but,
if anything, might be seen as constituting a marginal counter-cultural pagan
faction. Although not related genetically, their greatest afnity is with the
Romany Gypsy. Their clashes with the authorities, however, have been linked
and confused with the Road Protest movement which contains an often
dominant pagan element. Nevertheless, New Age sympathiesand sometimes
active supportcan still be found with the Earth Firsters, the Dongas, and other
The clash between universal rights and particular identity, between New Age
and Neo-paganism, with mainstream political, social, and economic forces, is not
an environmental issue alone. As Sabrina Magliocco points out, victimhood has
become a necessary step in constructing authenticity (Magliocco, 1999: 53). In
the formation of cohesiveness, as Ralph W. Hood, Jr, puts it, identity becomes
a crucial concept in linking individuals to both the maintenance and the
transmission of cultures, as it is both socially bestowed and sustained (cited in
Swatos, 1998: 234). In the case of Neo-paganism and, in an oscillating sense, New
Age, victimization, whether perceived or constructed, may even result from a
deliberate strategy of religious outsidershipwhat Moore refers to as a
creation of a consciousness of difference [involving] a group in inventing a
dominant culture to set itself against (Moore, 1986: 19). With New Age in
particular, cultivating the ction of being outside may actually place the
group successfully and centrally within the religious mainstream (York, 1995:
329). The commodication and commercialization of religion which seem to be
intrinsic in some sense with New Age appear to offer a symbiotic t with the
globalized consumerism that constitutes the dominant socio-economics of today.
Nevertheless, the real opposition of our day is perhaps not one between
religion and science, but rather one between religion and commercialism. The
popular in-word is spiritual over religious. The latter is associated chiey
with outdated religious institutions and the very process of institutionalization.
Yet the preference of spiritual rather than religious may equally have to
do with the increased association and connotation of religions with
commercialism. If the modern commodication of religion is to be superseded,
what is required might be a postmodern re-sanctication of the market. The
prospect of the sacred in the secular, that is, nding religious dimensions in the
world beyond religion, could raise the postmodern challenge of re-sacralizing
commerce. The Roman forum and the Greek agora were not only commercial
centers, but also religious ones. It was here where many of the local
communitys major temples were to be found. If religions in our secularized
societies are becoming increasingly market-oriented, perhaps socio-cultural
viability in the future will come to depend on re-enchanting commerce and the
market itself. Whatever this might entail in the long run, the re-spiritualized
panoply of the New Age spectrum could offer a source for understanding
commercial exchange as a spiritual act.
In this possible re-sacralizing of commerce, we are reminded of Marcel
Mausss perception of gift exchange as a seminal integration of the religious and
magical with the legal and economic. If secularization refers to a supposed
pervasive decline of interest in religious traditions, it might just equally signify

New Age Commodication


an opening in ideas of new forms and identities of spirituality. What appears to

be secularization could in fact amount to current changes and re-shapings of
traditional religionpushing religion not only into new forms and expressions,
but also into new areas not previously considered religious. Secularization might
in fact represent or allow spiritualityor at least include it in non-recognizable
forms. Although the magnitude and speed of global commerce may make it
seem unlikely that it could be re-sacralized, such possibilities as collective
meditations by the workforce, inaugural and concluding attunements on a
daily basis, ethical consideration in (multi-national) corporate decision-making,
augmentation of economic prot drives with environmental awareness or even
responsibility as well as the generation of holistic and/or spiritual principles
may sketch some of the directions such re-sacralization might take. Some of the
company-sponsored holistic practice is already found in both Japan and
If the supermarket is the venue of communal exchange, it might also become
re-identied as (or at least, a` la the middle ages, adjacent to) the church or
temple. If it is difcult to envision what a postmodern re-sanctication of the
market might look like, this becomes an even greater challenge to collective
human imagination and ingenuity toward discovering telos and spiritual
direction. The downside of secularization is that it links with meaninglessness.
Religion, on the other hand, in all its myriad forms, has to do with the location
of signicance and value. With the overwhelmingly increasingly technological
where-with-all constantly on the human horizon, the imperative becomes one of
nding a raison detre in which to situate our breakthrough developments. This
is the domain and dialogue of religionan arena of ongoing debate and,
hopefully, meaningful creativity and discovery. What we dismiss as
appropriation could, on the other hand, be the kind of exchange incumbent for
productive maturation. If Marshall McLuhans global village is our future, like
it or not, its neighborhoods will become less protected bastions of sacrosanct
identity, but instead generative matrices of accommodation and inspiration for
the collective good. Parochial and sectarian community ownership may have to
become more a thing of the past and be superseded by an open global exchange
of ideas and practices that respects the unimpeded ow of information more
than private or cultural claims. If this sounds like a form of imperialism, in some
senses it isonly now termed globalism or globalization, and it forms a
fundamental rationale for New Age appropriation. For better or for worse, the
spiritual and the commercial become increasingly wedded.
Dr Michael York is in the Department of the Study of Religions at Bath Spa University
College. Correspondence: Study of Religions, Bath Spa University College, Bath BA2

For a listing of the standard sociological works on secularization , see the reference section
appended to the Secularization entry in Swatos, 1998: 456.
For a particularly cogent discussion of what the world-wide web offers as new and as-of-yet
unfathomable possibilities for the reincarnation of religion, see the papers given in the session
on The Virtual Frontier: Transforming Power and Identity in the Electronic Dimension of
Religion during the XVIIIth Quinquennial World Congress of the International Association for




M. York
the History of Religions in Durban, South Africa, 512th August, 2000: Michael Colliers How
Fast is Faith: The Religion of Hyperreality, Shawn Arthurs Technophilia and Nature Religion:
Growth of a Paradox, and Stephen Flanigans Falun Gong Online: Redening Revolutionary
Space. Collier in particular discussed the discrepancy between linear space-time and the
omnipresent space-time of the internet (Baudrillards hyper-reality) and the opportunities that
this offers religions in terms of power-knowledge. The ramications for the future of religion
that is freed from both origins and territory suggest a dynamic domain in which the traditional
limitation s for religion understood as secularizatio n have been superseded. Respondent Bruce
Lawrence suggested digital dharma as a term for spirituality on the web.
Among the seminal works on globalization, see Robertson, 1992, and Beyer, 1994.
For instance, the founder of New Thought, Emma Curtis Hopkins (18531925) also employed
Joachim de Floress historization of the Trinity. She considered that God the Father
corresponded to the ancient patriarchal ideal, whereas the second epoch begins with the birth
of Jesus the Nazarene and represents a time in which the masses are freed from oppression. The
third period is that of the Spirit, the Truth-Principle, or the Mother-Principle. For Hopkins, this
is the time for the rise of women. (see Melton, 1978: 111).
For actress Shirley MacLaines notorious solipsism, see Newport, 1998: 501, or York, 1996: 7778.

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