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Religion and Psychoactive Sacraments:
Thomas B. Roberts, Ph.D. and Paula Jo Hruby, Ed.D.

The New Age Movement: The Celebration of the Self and the Sacralization of Modernity.

Heelas, Paul. (1996)
Malden, MA: Blackwell.

ISBN:0-631-19332-4 paperback
0-631-19331-6 hardcover

Description: Paperback, x + 266 pages. Contents: List of illustrations, acknowledgments, introduction, 8 chapters in 3 parts: 1. Portrayal, 2. Appeal, 3. Effectiveness, Appendices: 1. Characteristics of the New Age, 2. Before and After Exegesis, references, index. Excerpt(s): A note on the New Age and New Religious Movements

Some see the New Age Movement as a New Religious Movement (NRM). It is not. Neither is it a collection of NRMs. As will shortly become more apparent, although it contains NRMs, it is predominantly comprised of other modes of affiliation. So what is the relationship with the substantial literature that now addresses NRMs? Much of this literature, for example on subjects such as conversion, is highly relevant. (Good surveys and discussions of the NRM literature are provided by Thomas Robbins and Roy Wallis, an annotated bibliography being presented by Diane Choquette.) However, the New Age raises 'new' research challenges. In particular, the ways in which the New Age appears across the culture - from films to shops, from music to exhibitions - raises practical, on-the-ground research challenges of a kind not encountered by those studying localized NRMs. Furthermore, theorizing is required which can handle the cultural diffusion of New Age values, assumptions and activities and the ways in which they are incorporated into individual and community life. (page 9)

The beat movement remained small: until, that is, it flowed into the counter-culture with its hippies. The 1960s witnessed the most significant turn to inner spirituality to have taken place during modernity. The upsurge was almost entirely bound up with the development of the counter-culture. In the words of Sydney Ahlstrom, this advent was characterized by 'intense moral indignation, a deep suspicion of established institutions, and a demand for more exalted grounds of action than social success, business profits, and national self-interest'. Whether or not Ahlstrom is correct in supposing that 'The decade did experience a fundamental shift in American morals and religious attitudes' (his emphasis), there is no doubting the fact that the considerable numbers were savagely critical of the organizations and traditions of 'straight' society.

More systematically, one can think of the counter-culture in terms of three main orientations: that directed at changing the mainstream (for example the political activists engaged in civil rights or anti-Vietnam demonstrations); that directed at rejecting mainstream disciplines to live the hedonistic life (the 'decadent' world of 'Sex, drugs and rock-and-roll'); and that directed at finding ways of life which serve to nurture the authentic self (for example by taking 'the journal to the East').

Our primary concern is with the last of these orientations. For it is here that one is most likely to encounter the spiritual quest within. Those who pursued this quest, it can now be noted, generally did so in a relatively ad hoc fashion. Not many turned to the relatively few gurus, masters or organized spiritual paths then available in the West. Much more frequently, people sought spirituality by taking hallucinogenic drugs (in particular LSD or mescalin), listening to appropriate music, reading inspirational literature or participating in 'happenings,' 'be-ins,' 'tribal gatherings,' or 'love-ins.' Speaking from personal experience, only a couple of friends became involved in well-organized spirituality (both joining Scientology). The great majority, including myself, used our own resources to make contact with what we took to exist beyond the material world. We did not have a very good idea of what we were looking for. But off we went: perhaps to a favoured farm, located in the Welsh borders, where we would talk of mysteries, take hallucinogens, watch sunsets, use the I Ching or tarot, listen to The Incredible String Band, read Carlos Castenada's The Teachings of Don Juan or Herman Hesse's Siddhartha.

Self-spirituality, during the 1960s, remained relatively inchoate. But this is not to say that there was not very considerably increased interest in the inner realm. And neither is it to rule out the fact that the 1960s saw the development of more organized spiritual paths. (pages 50-51)

How effective are New Age practices in enabling participants to change? Do they make enough difference to warrant the use of the term 'conversion'? Attention is initially paid to assessing the extent to which practices can make a difference to self-understanding and experience. . . .

. . . For the present, it suffices to draw attention to some results derived from the questionnaire recently administered by Stuart Rose. (Most of the 900 readers of the magazine Kindred Spirit who responded are regular participants.) In response to the question 'In what way would you say that adopting New Age ideas and practices might have positively changed our life?' Eighty-two percent of the sample report that they have become 'more spiritual;' 80 percent state that their lives have become 'more meaningful;' 72 percent say they are now 'happier;' 71 percent state that they have become 'more self-empowered;' another 71 percent report being 'more fulfilled;' 66 percent consider themselves to have become 'more healed;' 58 percent report becoming 'more pleasurable;' and 37 percent suppose that life has become 'more playful.' Furthermore, it also appears that change has overwhelmingly been for the better. In response to the question 'Have there been any negative changes,' the largest number reporting adverse consequences was only 16 percent (these respondents accepting that New Age involvement was 'not all plain sailing'). (Nine percent, it can be noted, reported that friends, partners or relatives were negative about the New Age, this causing varying degrees of problems with relationships.) (pages 181-182)

. . . This kind of analysis of that 'conversion' known as falling in love has obvious relevance for what is going on in New Age circles. The basic argument is straightforward enough. First, New Age involvement serves to generate unusual and/or powerful experiences. Second, participants feel that they have to make sense of what is happening to them. Third, the most obvious way of providing sense is by drawing on explanatory models provided by their immediate (and therefore New Age) environment. Fourth, the 'raw' experience has indeed been infused by meanings of spiritual significance, the outcome - the constructed experience - is of a spiritual nature. And sixth, the fact that participants have now had a spiritually significant experience means that they might decide that it serves to validate the meanings which (the researcher claims) helped construct it in the first place.

There is much to commend this scenario. Going through the points, it is undoubtedly the case that participation in New Age activities often results in physiological arousal, heightened emotionality, unusual sensations, and out-of-the-ordinary bodily experiences. Second, there is considerable experimental evidence that, in the words of Wayne Proudfoot and Phillip Shaver, 'generalized physiological change elicits evaluative needs and requires labeling'. Third, there is also considerable experimental evidence that people tend to make sense of the unusual by drawing on those interpretative schemes which are closest to hand. Concerning the fourth and fifth points, support is provided by experimental research suggesting that emotions (and, we shall see drug-facilitated experiences) are - in measure - socially constructed. Since the 'spiritual' experiences under consideration are grounded in physiological-cum-emotional arousal, this research is highly relevant. And finally, it is entirely plausible to suppose that the experiences provide evidence of a kind which prompts participants to (choose to) accept the meanings which surround them. (page 191)

The second consideration concerns the role which drugs can play. There is evidence that certain hallucinogens can themselves generate what are taken to be spiritual experiences. Thus R. E. L. Masters and Jean Houston summarize a study which shows that 32 percent of subjects report having had a religious experience after having taken LSD, in a non-religious albeit 'supportive' setting. There is also evidence that drugs, taken in connextion with the right meanings, contribute to the generation of determinate spiritual experiences for a considerably higher percentage of those involved. Thus in another study summarized by Masters and Houston, 83 percent report a religious experience after taking LSD in a 'supportive environment and with some religious stimuli'. Walter Pahnke's influential 'Good Friday experiment' is also relevant, psilocybin combined with religious input (provided by the experimental subjects listening to a religious service on a Good Friday) producing mystical experience for all but one of the experimental subjects. In addition, those subjects who took psilocybin were much more likely to experience 'unity' (for example) than those subjects who had taken a placebo. (The former category of subjects scored 62 percent on the scale devised to measure 'unit;' the latter a mere 7 percent.) (page 192)

All things considered, the New Age is most likely to be effective when (a) those attracted find it (to varying degrees) culturally plausible; (b) those attracted are or become aware that life is not working as well as it should; (c) those participating have intense, out-of-the ordinary experiences, experiences which serve to enhance the plausibility of those teaching which have helped construct the experiences themselves; (d) other social psychological process are operative; (e) those running the courses are skillful; with (f) those participating making the 'correct' decisions.

But there is more to the story than this. From the academic point of view, it has to be acknowledged that another, equally plausible scenario, is that 'the East is right.' Meditation and other eastern spiritual disciplines 'work.' The testimonies of countless monks, yogins, Bauls, Zen adepts or mystics more than suffice to show that these techniques do indeed open up new realms of consciousness. Whether or not these realms have ontological significance, they do 'exist.' Accordingly, the fact that eastern spiritual disciplines are used in the west provides another avenue for exploring conversion. (page 198)

. . . Bearing in mind the argument (in the last chapter) that spiritually significant experience can be constructed, what is now happening is clearly a potent brew. The right music, the right drug, the right pulse, the right virtuals, the right technoshaman orchestrating the technologies of experience - and you have the 'magical moment,' indeed the 'terminal faith.'

On the whole, however, the New Age has not yet really taken on board many of the available technologies. And it also has to be said that certain technologies - for instance virtual reality equipment - are currently rather ineffectual. However, it is entirely beyond question that such equipment will rapidly improve in quality: an increase in effectiveness which can only enhance the prospects of bringing about a new world - at least in experience. And this will be a world where the impact of experience beyond everyday reality will surely be powerful enough to lead participants into realms ill-established in our predominantly down-to-earth, empiricist, rationalistic modernity. (page 218)

This compilation by Thomas B. Roberts & Paula Jo Hruby

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