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Blind Boy Apollo
and the All-White Astronauts

New Age "Asiatic" thought ... is establishing itself as the
hegemonic ideology of global capitalism. (Zizek)

Saturday, October 8

new religious movements

NRMs are New Religious Movements. Add it to your ever growing list of acronyms. Chances are good you're going to hear it again. And again. The study of NRMs is a new subcategory in the standard industrial classification of religious studies -- which is why the acronym is beginning to take on the quality of yet another sanctified buzzword. It is a common, though hugely naive belief that academic social scientists study phenomena worthy of... well, study. But sometimes they run out of things to write about. Then it's time to cook up a whole new subfield. Voilà! New Religious Movements.

This is not to say that the flaky bullshit that passes for "spirituality" today should not be studied. I'm grateful to the many academics who are researching and writing about such fascinating delusions. The problem that arises, however, is that old standby: academic politics. Degrees and tenure are hard to come by in a field that defines itself as the study of Total Bullshit -- though Lord knows, there are plenty of fields that qualify already.

The insidious effect of the academic study of NRMs is that there is a strong tendency of such studies to legitimize the phenomena under scrutiny. Critical judgment is often dispensed with in a rush to validate these movements as equal in importance to historical religions such as Islam, Buddhism, Judaism and Christianity. And who knows? Perhaps it's just a matter of few millennia before billions of people are being "cleared" in Scientology temples or booking passage on the Second Coming of Hale-Bopp. Me, I'm content to wait a couple thousand years before pronouncing these various exercises in low-IQ irrationality the saving grace of the 21st century.

The following quotes are lifted from Religion in the Contemporary World: A Sociological Introduction by Alan Aldridge.

The explosion of new religious movements in the west in the late 1960s came as a surprise to most people including sociologists, who had to revise their conceptualization of religion in consequence. The same might now be said of New Age religiosity. To deny that these phenomena are truly religious shows a failure to comprehend them. (pp. 23-24)
Well then, color me failing to comprehend. First off, as these pages have been seeking to show, the idea that New Age religions came directly out of the '60s is a red herring. Yeah, there was an explosion of weird beliefs -- fueled by dope and postmodern uncertainty -- but the beliefs themselves preceded the Summer of Love by at least a century.

Also, the above passage begs the question: what do you mean, exactly, by "truly religious"? There is substantial debate in religious studies circles these days about whether the word "religion" itself has any useful meaning. On the face of it, such debate may seem absurd, but the argument poses important questions.

In a nutshell, in order to reduce all the cultural practices we refer to as religion to a single concept, we need to buy into the perennialist/Traditionalist notion that all "religions" are at base talking about "the same thing" -- that this is, in fact, what qualifies them as "religions." It's a circular argument, and the "make me one with everything" (as the Dali Lama said to the hot-dog vendor) premise is not terribly well supported by... well, really any evidence at all. The closer you look, the more it's Joseph Campbell quoting Aldous Huxley quoting Mircea Eliade quoting Carl Jung, and a very large peanut gallery of New Age groupies cheering from the sidelines. But without the "all religions are one" orientation (pun intended), it's very difficult if not impossible to distinguish what we call "religion" from what we call "culture" -- and at that point, what sense is there in talking about religion as a separate phenomenon?

My personal take, since so many of you have asked, is that all these modes of belief, whether Buddhism or Astrological Tarot, are manifestations of the weird things human beings, left to their own devices, cook up in their heads whenever life is joyous or scary -- which is a lot of the time. Are these things interesting? You bet. Are they true? That depends what you mean by "true." And it's around this question that the plot, as usual, thickens...

The denominational form is ideally suited to a consumer society. Switching between denominations is very common in the United States; it has been estimated that around 40 per cent of the American population have changed denominations at least once. This does not usually reflect a conversion experience in the the sense that the person has undergone a fundamental transformation of identity. It is, rather, a change of allegiance often caused by other changes of social status, including geographical mobility and marriage. People's religious 'preferences' are similar to their choice of supermarket: a question of taste shaped by socio-economic status. This has often been taken by European commentators to demonstrate that American religiosity is shallow, even `secularized from within'. This equation of consumerism with superficiality may, however, be nothing other than the cultural snobbery of intellectuals. (p. 42)

The new paradigm treats American religiosity as authentic. Notions that religion in America is 'secularized from within', infected by shallow consumerism, and a vehicle of ethnic identity rather than genuine spirituality -- all these are rejected as unfounded and condescending. (p. 90)

Note that these passages are absolutely brilliant bits of sophistry. The consumerist life-style choice of "spirituality" is deemed "authentic" because to judge such brand-driven options otherwise would be to demonstrate condescending snobbery. Wow, huh? Thus a more-convoluted-than-usual invocation of political correctness demands that we not call bullshit on crystal gazing and kundalini raising because then how would the academics studying such "authentic religiosity" earn a living?

Since he brings the "consumer society" into his argument, it seems a failing that the author neglects to mention the primary advice that has always pertained to same: caveat emptor.