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The rise of "new age" spirituality in secular society

New Age photoSweden is one of the most secular societies in the world (at least in terms of participation in church activities), yet, despite its strong secularism, New Age-style spiritualities continue to grow there at a rapid rate. Concerned with this new trend, religious studies scholar Anne-Christine Hornborg (Linköping University) has found five characteristics that these spiritualities have in common: (1) individual-centered rituals, (2) focus on realizing the “authentic self,” (3) self-appointed leaders, (4) an emotionally intense, radical transformation of the self, and (5) commercialization.

Of course, the practioners of these spiritualities would not themselves label their practice as New Age. Instead, they would emphasize the “scientific” nature of their rituals. For example, most would prefer the word “therapy” over “healing” to describe what they do. This emphasis on “science” matters because Sweden (like most other secular societies) sees religion as a private matter, and thus religion does not belong in the public sphere. However, by describing their spiritual practice as “scientific,” or as a technique rather than a religious rite, advocates of these new spiritualities can get their beliefs into the public realm – hence their growing popularity.

Hornborg notes that many of these new spiritualities talk, first, about the notion of an “inner” self, that is, a self that has great potential awaiting actualization. The task of spirituality revolves around finding this inner self. Hornborg worries that, “Although the inner-potential concept refers to immanent forces within human beings, these forces presuppose a concealed transcendent realm, larger than the daily and ordinary life of the individual.” In other words, these spiritual practices may not be as religiously neutral as initially assumed.

Second, these new spiritualities offer a way of accessing this inner self through a process of self-transformation. Hornborg finds that this generally takes one of two directions. Either the seeker finds spiritual realization through a larger organization (not a “religious” organization, but through work, coaching, workshops, or other trainings) or through spiritual practices that aim to relieve the seeker of burnout and to transform his or her life from dull to extraordinary. Here Hornborg finds much overlap with the “classical” New Age idea of the Age of Aquarius.

Third, and perhaps most problematically for Hornborg, the leaders, that is the “therapists,” of these programs have appointed themselves to these positions and have given themselves their credentials. At the same time, these self-certified leaders strongly advise seekers to go only to certified therapists (that is, people certified by said leader). In this way, a hierarchy forms within the new spiritual movements.

Fourth, the process of self-transformation involves an emotionally intense experience. The leaders have the seeker construct a rite customized specifically for him or her with the intent of evoking emotion. The seeker should receive therapeutic benefits from this practice. In fact, seekers often experience emotions so intense that they convert to the New Age spirituality—they feel “newborn” and the leader encourages them to become “missionaries.” Not surprisingly, this kind of spirituality can spread quickly among friends and coworkers because, unlike religion, it belongs in the public space of a secular society.

Fifth, and finally, these new spiritualities work well commercially and have enjoyed great financial success. The key for them, according to Hornborg, rests in their ability to sound scientific and thus credible in a secular society. For instance, company names include “The Academy of Health,” “The Swedish Institute for Grief Treatment,” and the “Academy for NLP & Leadership.” Hornborg also points to the Human Dynamics program which calls its concepts of personal pattern “a breakthrough in science.” Furthermore, getting guidance from a certified leader costs a considerable sum of money. For instance, a six-day course offered by the Human Dynamics program for 250 teachers costs 200,000 Euros. A two-hour therapy session from the Journey program costs between 200-400 Euros. And as practitioners advance, they become eligible for more advanced certificates which cost more and more money.

Hornborg offers three critiques of these new spiritualities. First, they take societial problems and individualize them. For example, these spiritualities do not blame burn-out on societies that overwork their employees but on the employees for lacking a connection with their inner self. As such, if the therapy offered by the spirituality fails, and the person does not find his or her inner self, then the spirituality runs the risk of painting that person as a total failure. Second, the new spiritualities make it difficult for laypeople to distinguish between legitimate psychology and the new therapies, especially since the new spiritualities legitimize themselves with titles such as “accredited,” “licensed,” and “certified.” Lastly, since the new spiritualities vie for public space, situations have already arisen in Sweden where courses in new spirituality were mandatory for employees. If an employee does not submit to the spiritual leader’s ideology, he or she can be seen as a hindrance to efforts to improve the organization. As Hornborg puts it, “…if one does not find one’s hidden potential, then one has no real possibility of fully developing oneself as a person and one’s skills…. The pressure to participate in the developmental program of Human Dynamics was further increased for the ‘unconverted’, when some of their colleagues became believers and tried to persuade the unconvinced of the benefits of the course.”

To see the rise of New Age-style spirituality in one of the most secular countries on earth certainly raises questions. What is missing in secular society that people feel the need to fill with these new spiritualities? Perhaps, during all of this time, traditional religion was giving people something they could not get anywhere else.

For more, see “Designing Rites to Re-enchant Secularized Society: New Varieties of Spiritualized Therapy in Contemporary Sweden” in the Journal of Religion and Health.

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