When I first discovered the New Age, specifically, the Church of Religious Science, I felt that I had found the answer to all the world's problems. However, after I studied a number of books and took some classes, a sense of uneasiness started developing. Now that I have had the benefit of eleven years of study and observation, I am now able to put words to what was once an undefined set of reservations.
As a child I grew up in a fundamentalist Christian atmosphere. In this setting, God was an angry creature who didn't think people should have fun and enjoy life. After that experience, any group of people who could gather together in a spirit of kinship and with an attitude of fun was going to be a great improvement. Even today I still prefer to associate with New Age people because they have a much greater tolerance for diversity. (I tend to avoid the inner sanctums of the church, however, keeping in mind an admonition by Gurdjieff, "if you want to lose your religion, make friends with the priest.")
In this article I will outline how the New Age improves on the prior fundamentalism, how it correlates with fundamentalism in some of its basic assumptions, and then offer some ideas for making the next step toward understanding mans relationship with the universe in a realistic and compassionate way.
If one wants to anticipate what kind of attitudes and actions a philosophy will inspire in those who embrace it, one needs to make explicit three basic assumptions that most philosophies only state implicitly. These three assumptions are as follows: 1) Metaphysics - is it a hostile or a benevolent universe? 2) Epistemology - how do we know what we know? Is reason adequate for comprehending physical reality, or are we dependent on faith and the guidance of those who claim some kind of extrasensory perception? And 3) ethics - in other words, how should people treat one another? Should relationships be voluntary in nature, or, if coercion is to be used, when should it be used? Every philosophy holds beliefs about each of these three issues, but most philosophies hide their beliefs under reams of argumentation (often referred to as "mumbo-jumbo").
Let's start with metaphysics -- is it a hostile or is it a nurturing universe? The fundamentalist Christian religions paint a picture of an angry, fire-breathing God who is poised to stage a cosmic temper tantrum. We were snatched out of eternity from where we know not, and now they tell us that we risk burning for eternity if we pick the wrong church from a selection of 480-plus churches (within the Christian world alone). A thinking person will quickly find this either very scary or quite ludicrous.
To the credit of the New Age, this fire-breathing God has been given his walking papers. According to the New Age, we were meant to be happy and prosperous, instead of suffering this life as some kind of earth-based purgatory while waiting for a better life to come. In short, the New Age has done us a valuable service by replacing a hostile universe with a nurturing and benevolent universe.
Now we are ready to consider epistemology. Once again, epistemology is the study of how we know what we know. Some schools of thought tell us that mastery comes through the disciplined use of thought, while others tell us that thought is powerless is the face of material reality, and that faith is paramount for survival in a universe designed for madmen.
The fundamentalists tell us that reason and intelligence will kill us, if for no other reason than the fact that thinking people quickly become skeptical of cosmological speculations that are presented as absolute truth. They tell us that faith is the answer, and that reason is powerless in the face of a scary and hostile world.
New Age churches also make the same claims. Although they do not insult our intelligence with an angry, anthropomorphic God, their main thrust is that scientific prayer is indispensable for developing our "consciousness" and for wheedling favors out of a candy-man God. The fact that most of God's blessing have come at the price of lots of thinking and still more hard work as raw materials are converted into usable products is often played down from the pulpit with declarations like, "dont bother me with the details -- I'm into consciousness." Like fundamentalist religions, the New Age has an investment in our believing that the mind is powerless in the face of material reality, and that faith is paramount. (An empty collection plate is an empty...) Consequently, the New Age shares a common epistemology with fundamentalism, and in turn loses some ground metaphysically because it would be a hostile universe that would put us here without adequate tools for survival. (What kind of loving parent would send their children out bear hunting with buggy whips?)
The final issue to be considered is that of ethics. A useful way to understand ethical systems is to think of them as being simply codes of behavior that prescribe how human beings ought to treat one another. Basically, there are two kinds of relationships: voluntary and coercive. (There are three types of coercion: force, fraud and guilt. Each of these three types of coercion can be further subdivided into two categories: offensive coercion and defensive coercion.) With this in mind, we can make explicit, ethical codes that are otherwise implicit, by inventorying what types of behavior are sanctioned and what types of behavior are discouraged.
Fundamentalist religions are very clear in their prohibition against the use of force, fraud and guilt -- except, of course, for the use of coercion with the purpose of promoting their doctrines. They tell us, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." And they are being true to form, because a true believer would gladly suffer coercion in order to be saved; consequently, guilt, fraud, and force have been used for centuries for recruiting new members into the ranks of the faithful.
Other than the doctrine that could be called "New Age Calvinism," (which will be explored later,) the New Age avoids the use of force, fraud and guilt. However, there is a virtual avoidance of ethical issues, which leaves many innocent souls morally disarmed when confronted by unscrupulous people. If you are successful, it is assumed that you and Mr. God are getting along just fine, and there is little thought as to whether that success comes from voluntary transactions or coercive transactions. After all, if we don't think bad thoughts, there won't be bad things - right? ("New Age Calvinism" is the term I developed to describe the superstition that suggests that our successes and failures are barometers of how well we are getting along with Mr. God. It is half-comical and half-tragic to see people watch their spirituality go up and down with the daily vagaries of life in much the same way investors watch the Dow Jones Average as a barometer of their financial health.)
Symptomatic of this void in the area of ethics is the refusal to discuss and explore political issues. Occasionally, protests against higher taxes and especially inconvenient government regulations are issued from the pulpit when the church is affected, but for the most part, we hear that if we are truly prosperous in our thinking, we can be taxed at a rate of 100% and still thrive. In fact, we are sometimes told that if our consciousness is right, we should be able to thrive in a concentration camp, and that those who do not fare so well simply need to look at their relationship with God. Given the avoidance of political issues by the New Age, one could conclude that we are not supposed to be concerned with politics while social developments are still in their beginning stages -- we are just supposed to think sweet thoughts in an attempt to cope with the results. Again, as political debate is nothing more than the debate over the proper use of coercion in society (under every stack of regulations lies a gun), the avoidance of political issues is also the avoidance of ethical issues. (Another way of saying it is, Politics is a subcategory of Ethics.)
There is one more issue to be dealt with. While it is true that our thoughts do play an important role in creating both our inner and our outer experience of life, to suggest that the universe and all of its inhabitants are marionettes to our consciousness is a bit extreme. It is here that blaming the victim becomes popular, and I have actually heard aggressors in our midst say, "how did you create the experience of me taking advantage of you? You had better work on your consciousness!" Also, to think that a stray negative thought can trash our whole lives is a threat almost as dubious as the threat of hell fire.
After eleven years of being associated with the New Age, I have concluded that it is a valuable halfway house on the journey toward rational living. We have gotten rid of the fire breathing god, and of our egoistic notion that God should somehow favor our chosen sect and despise all the rest, but we haven't made the complete trip toward embracing rationality and compassion. Rationality says that we choose to believe that we have been given adequate tools for survival on this planet. Compassion says we are all in training, so if we stumble and fall, so be it. If we cannot sleep on a book in order to gain its secrets, we should not hesitate to open it and read it. Instead of praying for delivery from the effects of social developments, we would be wise to study cause and effect relationships and then challenge our problems while they are still in their formative stages.
The New Age has been a valuable step in a positive direction. When we decide to embrace a positive metaphysics, a rational epistemology and an ethics of voluntary cooperation, we will then be ready to begin the New Renaissance.