How secular spirituality differs from the New Age Movement

As many of you would know, I have a particular interest in the New Age Movement from my many years of outreach at Mind Body Spirit Festivals and past involvement in the New Age Movement itself. So it probably comes as no surprise that I’m occasionally given to reflecting on the past and how the spirituality scene has shifted over the years.

A particular question that comes to mind is this: how does the secular spirituality of the 00s differ from the New Age Movement of the 80s and 90s?

Defining movements that defy standardization is always a hazardous exercise, but I think there are a few generalized statements I can make about them without too much misrepresentation. So here goes. To me it seems the New Age Movement was characterized by two broad concerns: personal awakening and global awakening.

Personal awakening

If you read any New Age book you’ll see numerous references to personal awakening, enlightenment, realization, Christ consciousness … choose the phrase of your choise. Lying behind this was the mantra: you are your own authority. In many ways this operated as a spiritualized version of the mantra of consumerism: the customer is always right. Not surprizingly, for all it’s espoused counterculturalism, Mind Body Spirit Festivals could be very consumerist. All the faddism and the ecclecticism of the New Age Movement can be seen as an outworking of this: you are your own authority, awaken to it.

Global awakening

But even more important for the New Age Movement, as a movement, was expectation of global awakening, of paradigm shift, of a “New Age” coming. This expectation is what gave the movement it’s name, and also what explains it’s demise. For with the coming of the millenium, what emerged was not the long prophecied apocalypse or the evolution of higher consciousness amongst humans worldwide, but 9/11 and a new world order of terrorism and counterterrorism. In the aftermath, the scene shifted.

Secular Spirituality

Secular spirituality then, is the New Age Movement stripped of it’s millenial prophecies. When the apocalypticism (hope for global awakening) fell out of favour, what remained was the gnosticism (search for personal awakening). Thus, secular spirituality still emphasizes spiritualized psychology but (apart from the odd 2012 silliness) pays much less attention to scientized eschatology.


6 thoughts on “How secular spirituality differs from the New Age Movement

  1. How would you evaluate the “Integral” school of thought, ala Ken Wilber? His sources are more than secular, drawing from Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions. And they maintain an optimism for global awakening.


  2. Ken Wilber is an interesting character. He has critiqued the New Age Movement, at least in some respects, yet he shares much in common with it. I think the secular spirituality label would fit him better than New Age, because his evolutionary eschatology is rather mild, but I’m not sure he would agree with me even there. He likes to think of himself as in a category all of his own. I have one of his books, which I found stimulating, but the Hindu roots run much deeper than he seems willing to admit so I don’t buy his claims to religious neutrality. His emphasis on “the true, the good and the beautiful” got me digging back into ancient teaching on the transcendentals myself, so you’ll see he has influenced me to some extent if you search through my posts, but I don’t accept his teaching uncritically. In other words, I think some sifting is required.


  3. Oh, and by secular I don’t mean atheistic. Personally I think atheistic spirituality is a bit of an oxymoron, suggesting a certain level of self delusion / self contradiction. I use secular in the more general and original sence, of simply being post-ecclesial. Smorgasbord spirituality or spirituality shopping probably describes the phenomenon better though I doubt the phrase would catch on. It’s the folk spirituality of a secular, consumerized, glocalized society.


  4. I’d have to agree with you Matt. I’ve been an Integral onlooker for a couple years now, and Ken does tend to be critical of the New Age perspective, especially in the more “woo-woo” aspects. I have also been influenced and challenged by Ken’s perspective, and agree that filtering is necessary as with any teacher, mentor, or adviser. His main critique of New Age comes from an essay he wrote many years ago on what he calls the “Pre-Trans Fallacy”. If you’re not familiar with this line of thinking, Wikipedia has a good summary…


  5. Yes, familiar with it. I’m with him to a large degree on “all quadrants”, not so much on “all levels”. He links spiritual development and psychological development too simlistically and unidirectionally.


  6. How could it be otherwise, because the entire Western world, including all of its religion, has been patterned or formed by the secular world-view, or paradigm ideology for several centuries now – our mind forged manacles.
    But the New Age moment is just an outgrowth of the do-it-yourself religiosity that began with the Protestant “Reformation”. There are literally thousands of Protestant sects, ALL of which, including the big mainline denominations, are forms of do-it-yourself religiosity.
    This reference describes how this came to be
    In the public sphere we now have various secular “authorities” such as Zizek, Habermas and Eagleton promoting old-time “religion” as the key to the challenges of modernity and postmodernism.
    There is also a constant stream of new books being published praising the “return” of “God” or “religion”, or in response to the “new atheists”. God Is Back by Micklethwait & Woolbridge and The World Turned Upside Down (Phillips) being two that come to mind.
    The phenomenon described and promoted in God Is Back is entirely do-it-yourself religiosity.The World Turned Upside Down is painfully awful, an expression of the fundamental psychosis that mis-informs the right side of the culture wars altogether.
    But none of that comes anywhere near to providing any real answers.
    Plus a reference on Reality, Truth & The Beautiful
    And on the origins and world-wide “eschatological” consequences of the centuries long suppression of The Beautiful at:


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