DANGER: Heavy philosophy! Hereafter is my essay concerning the New Age phenomenon. It is written from an opposing viewpoint, and my perspective is that of a rather traditionalist Pagan. Specifically, I feel that it is a reaction which has been taken to extremes; often loses touch with reality or at least flagrantly disregards it; and promotes hubris. Not everyone is likely to agree with my views. Most people should be able to handle this, but if stating my case is likely to upset your digestion, then I would advise you to find something else.
Why I Am Not a New Ager
Know thyself. Nothing in excess.
Introduction and Definitions
Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.
As you may see from the title, the subject about which I am going to write is "Why I Am Not a New Ager." Perhaps it would be as well, first of all, to try to make out what one means by the term New Ager. It is used these days in a very loose sense by a great many people. Some people mean no more by it than a person who has unconventional views on religion and spirituality. In that sense I suppose there would be New Agers in all sects and creeds; but I do not think that that is the proper sense of the word, because what is orthodoxy to one person will always be quite unconventional to someone else. It is no easy matter to come up with a workable definition of "New Age", since this has been associated with a myriad of practises and notions. Since its perspectives are as changeable as hot taffy, nailing down a definition is no easy task. Perhaps the question should be, then, what are the defining characteristics of the New Age phenomenon?
First, it is not a religion, but a very general type of spiritual outlook. There are New Age interpretations of Christianity and Pagan religions; and various Eastern and Native American religions have been absorbed into the New Age sponge. The core characteristics seem to be optimism and epistemological subjectivism. These lend themselves to a large degree of suspension of disbelief which, in New Age use, becomes syncretism and credulity. It seems to have developed largely as a reaction to dogmatic creeds and materialism. However, it has gone overboard and lost its relevance. Today, the New Age phenomenon offers simple answers for difficult problems. Unfortunately, life's great questions rarely have simple, feel-good answers; and difficult problems often involve difficult solutions which may not be to everyone's liking. And primarily because of historical reasons, Paganism in the Western world is dominated by the New Age viewpoint.
As for me, I am a Pagan, and not a New Ager. We would do far better to look into our real roots and take the time to delve into the classics and learn the philosophy by which ancient Pagan civilization thrived, rather than uncritically swallow whole the corny clichés found in pulp New Age literature. One might ask, then what is the exact definition of Paganism? This is a rather tricky question; it is difficult to compartmentalize religions into neat labels, and we Pagans are pretty hard to define at times. Much like French grammar, every rule has a few exceptions; thus a single common conceptual denominator is elusive. Paganism has been described as the oldest faith in the world. It is not to be considered a monolithic religion; more properly, it is a descriptor which applies to many religions, some of which are quite different from each other. Isaac Bonewits has come forth with some workable definitions. In search of more detail, one might also find Margot Adler's Drawing Down the Moon to be useful. But for our purposes, I will make the following ostensive definition of Paganism: a classification of religions, usually polytheistic, arising from a native folk culture and prior to substantial reinterpretation; or a revival thereof which reassumes its core doctrines and practises. Perhaps one could simplify this as religions derived from original folk culture. This definition is a rather narrow one; the monotheistic revisions of Zoroaster and Akhenaton, as well as the Orphic Mysteries, would fall under another classification -- perhaps religions derived from inspired philosophy would be as good a way as any to define them. And then there are others, such as the Discordians and the Church of All Worlds, which we could call religions derived from literature. (These groups are a testament to the effectiveness of modern literature; I know of no other period of time in which literature actually has created a religion. Usually it has been the other way around, in which the religion produces a body of mythology.) Perhaps there is a better method of classification. Definition is difficult, and I offer this only as a starting point.
There are a few good things to be said about the New Age phenomenon, yet good things become very bad things when taken to extremes -- and unfortunately, moderation isn't a very popular concept these days. Many New Age authors and lecturers, lacking proper understanding, try to over-simplify the profound, and worse, lose touch with reality. Enlightenment involves apprehending the truth, not disregarding it. Paganism, because of its re-emergent state, has been especially susceptible to New Age influences. The effect has, in many ways, become damaging. Some innovation is acceptable, and religions do need to keep up with the times to remain vital, but external influences may cause religions to lose sight of themselves if they are taken too far. And Paganism certainly may exist independent of the New Age perspective.
Therefore I take it that when I tell you why I am not a New Ager I have to tell you two different things: first, why I do not believe in most of the things which fall under the "New Age" banner; and, secondly, why I do not think that the New Age perspective is the best and wisest of all viewpoints, although I would at least give them credit for trying to be nice.
The Problem With Fuzzy Epistemology
And is there anything more closely connected with wisdom than truth?
In the New Age phenomenon, one is confronted by a stunning array of concepts and beliefs, some of which contradict each other, and most of which are pretty hard to square with science or even impartial observation. That makes the lot of it quite hard to swallow. The usual rebuttals to this are: "Who knows what reality is?", "My reality is not the same as yours", and finally "Everyone creates his/her own reality". All of these reflect erroneous notions about the nature of reality; the first rebuttal is an argumentum ad ignorantiam, the second is a statement of irreconcileable axioms (a conclusion usually made after extensive discussion makes no headway -- but a quick cop-out in this case), and the last smacks of solipsism.
The nature of reality is a large and serious question, and if I were to attempt to deal with it in any adequate manner I should have to keep you here until Kingdom Come, so that you will have to excuse me if I deal with it in a somewhat summary fashion. Let us get this clear once and for all. Rhetorical tricks aside, reality is absolute. At any given point in time, things are arranged throughout the universe in one particular way, and they can't simultaneously be arranged another way. The laws of physics don't change themselves for our convenience. (I would be willing to go out on a limb, as some quantum physicists have done, and suggest that events which we consider to be miraculous or supernatural in this world do not go against the laws of physics, but are practical applications of chaos theory. But, that is certainly not to say that each of us creates our own universe like Brahma floating on eternal waters, dreaming the world upon a lotus blossom.) Now our perceptions of reality do differ from person to person, since our senses differ, our brains which process the information are not all wired the same, we are influenced by different experiences, and each culture has its own set of archetypes. A well-educated person from a technological society is likely to have a different outlook on life than a hunter/gatherer from a neolithic tribe. (And I make no apologies in preferring the more enlightened viewpoint.) Some things are unknown, and other things elude our ability to observe them. But, none of this changes the fact that reality is absolute. This was what Plato meant when he was distinguishing knowledge from opinion.
Consider Shirley MacLaine's words:
"I really think we are all creating our own reality. I think I'm creating you right here. Therefore I created the medium, therefore I created the entity, because I'm creating everything."Here we have New Age subjectivism taken to its utmost limit, or perhaps one might say its logical conclusion. The viewpoint that one is the sole being in the Universe and that all else is an illusion for one's own entertainment is called solipsism. It is such a slippery argument that one really can't disprove it philosophically to someone who stubbornly clings to the idea -- in fact, if a person claims that the whole of "reality" is confined to his or her imagination, then indeed there is little reason to discuss anything at all. But, solipsism is a pretty shallow viewpoint, and following it isn't going to improve anyone's daily life. If your car doesn't start, you won't have much luck if you believe your car works despite the annoying fact that it doesn't -- instead, check your battery, fuel, starter, carburetor, etc. Likewise, no amount of wishing will restore a faulty network connection -- but checking wiring, hardware diagnostics, software configuration, and server function will. People don't "create their own reality"; that's simply not how the world works, and it does no good to pretend it does. People, as creatures endowed with free will, participate in a common reality, one which is governed by physical laws. To a New Ager, that may sound like a dreadfully boring world view -- but reality is incomparable. Life itself is a miracle, is that not good enough? The bare facts are, one cannot change the physical world by mental gymnastics in the way one can do so in a lucid dream. In fact, the Gods Themselves must work within the laws of physics They established -- until such time, of course, as They might decide to apply eraser to drawing board... There is no shame in being wrong about something because of bad data or an unnoticed flaw in otherwise well-reasoned logic; but to abandon reality for self-delusion is a sad cop-out.
As I stated before, reality is objective even if the perception of this reality is subjective. Now, I will go further and say that reality exists independent of observers. Sometimes one hears a counter-argument based on the Schrödinger's Cat example, but I do not find this altogether convincing. The world on a human scale does not behave the way subatomic particles do any more than Newtonian physics accurately describes the orbits of electrons. Even if the "observer theory" is true, then claiming that chupacabras, Bigfoot, grey aliens with big almond-shaped eyes, and any other corny superstitions are real because people think about them would be a pretty big fallacy of composition, if not a misapplication. Either way, that's not how things work. If Bigfoot really does exist, it's not because someone believes in Bigfoot. A falling tree does make a sound even when there is nobody around to hear it -- there is no way to demonstrate that it does, given that (by the nature of the example) there is no observer, however there is no reason to believe that a falling tree is going to behave any differently from other falling trees simply because nobody is observing it.
Let me put to rest the inevitable (and quite tedious) objection, "Who's to say what's true and what isn't?" This is not such an intractable problem as one might think; deciding what to believe in the face of conflicting claims is done on an everyday basis by jurors, voters, and shoppers. Anyone over the age of six should know how to do it. Truth is not something that is decided by committee (except in jury chambers); and any mere mortal who claims to be the dispenser of absolute truth is either lying or sadly mistaken. When two people disagree on something, who is right? There are three possible choices. One could be right, and the other wrong: "The moon is made of rock" and "The moon is made of green cheese". Both could be right: "The moon is made of basalt" and "The moon's surface has a lot of aluminum dust". Both could be wrong: "The moon is made of pizza dough" and "The moon is made of green cheese". A third party, when deciding whom to believe, would do well to refer to spectrometry and the physical evidence from the Apollo missions and apply Occam's Razor. Sometimes science is wrong, and there are matters of legitimate scientific debate: but we, the products of a technological society, should know better than to casually dismiss it and embrace supersition instead.
Why is it that so many New Agers buy into things without questioning, "Did this person really have this experience, or is it a product of an overactive imagination, or is it an outright lie?" Perhaps one can chalk up this credulity to lazy thinking. This lack of critical reasoning causes superstition to abound. It's up to individuals to decide for ourselves what we believe. This isn't a game; it's a serious matter. A corollary of this is that we're under no obligation to buy into any given notion that other people repeat simply because they believe in it. I believe in gamma rays, even though I haven't seen any or been noticeably affected by them. But I don't believe that colonic irrigation makes anyone a more spiritual person. If my unbelief hurts anyone's feelings, then that's just too bad.
One might ask, if some people have silly or irrational beliefs which are neither verified by reliable experience nor seem to be reasonable, what harm is there in it? That is like saying that a punch in the nose is an evil deed, but there's nothing wrong when someone surrenders -- or is robbed of -- the faculty of reason. The definition of badness is not restricted to immediate harmful consequences; there are long-term consequences and intangible losses one must consider. Losing onesself in a dream world is no better than drowning in a bottle of whiskey. Truth is a thing which is good in and of itself. Plato argued for this very persuasively in The Republic, and I would encourage anyone who wishes to explore this further to find a copy and read it. Plato lived in a turbulent age in a thriving Pagan society -- he wasn't starting from scratch. Despite the fact that some of it may seem odd to our modern eyes, it is a classic which nonetheless has relevance even after over about 2377 years. Plato's Republic is a long work which examines from many angles the nature of Justice and Virtue and how best to bring them about in society -- no facile answers there.
Sometimes the truth hurts, but ignorance does nobody any favors. Furthermore, refusal to face reality is something the Objectivist folks call "evasion", which they rightly consider to be a Very Bad Thing. I am not an Objectivist myself, but I recognize that it is a serious problem. Also, it is saddening to see people throwing their money away on junk cures, charlatans, and useless rubbish. It is even more saddening to see people lost in a dream world. A little over a year ago, when a schizophrenic talked thirty eight members of his cult into committing suicide with him in order to ascend to a nonexistent UFO which he said was flying behind the Hale-Bopp comet, it filled me with great horror -- and a determination to do anything I could to teach people to use their brains so that they are less likely to surrender their minds.
To be fair, it should be noted that New Agers aren't the only people who have irrational beliefs which lead to wasted time and money, or worse. Many other religions as well have been susceptible to similar problems. Jim Jones and David Koresh have more to answer for than Marshall Applewhite. I suppose that if I were a Christian, I would be writing against televangelists. For that matter, religion isn't the only thing subject to excesses -- often people take politics and economic theories with the same zeal as revealed religious doctrine, and most especially since the French Revolution, people have been fighting over them.
To a New Ager, all the above probably makes me seem like a spoilsport at least, or perhaps a caricature of Mr. Spock. I will answer this by saying that I recognize that science has its limitations, it doesn't have all the answers, it sometimes reaches false conclusions, and is susceptible to partisan influences. But, its goal of relentlessly pursuing the truth without regard to prior expectations is one which keeps it on the right track as long as people keep sight of that goal. This is why I will listen to science before I listen to hearsay dogma.
The Problem With Fuzzy Scholarship
"He who does not bellow the truth when he knows the truth makes himself the accomplice of liars and forgers."
Let us imagine someone who produces a book which claims to be the latest word on physics. The author isn't exactly Stephen Hawking, but is someone who sounds reasonably impressive to a layman. This book is sorely lacking in footnotes and attributions (which one would expect from a scholarly work); it dismisses the conclusions of many leading physicists with a casual wave of the hand; it paraphrases others quite imprecisely and often takes them far out of context; and the conclusions sound debatable at best to those well studied in physics. But, aside from those defects, the book is popular because it's not too hard to understand and it tells readers things they want to hear. Because the book is so popular, the physicist becomes a famous authority, writes half a dozen more pot boilers, goes on a lecture circuit to host expensive seminars, and gets rich. Soon, other wannabe physicists get into the act and start writing similar books. By then, people with a serious academic interest in physics have to search diligently for reliable books since the chain stores are filled with junk physics, and they must painstakingly filter truth out of the unsupported speculations. Trusting such obviously well-informed writers, many people spend a great deal of time and money trying to build things such as perpetual motion machines. Some others test their anti-gravity boots by jumping off of buildings.
Now, would that be the work of reputable scientists? I think not. And if such things are unacceptable for physicists, then why should we excuse self-styled theologians, philosophers, and metaphysicians from doing the same thing? Yet this is what we see commonly done by a great number of New Age authors. There is some originality out there, but many writers are simply churning out formulaic pot boilers because Big Name New Agers get big bank accounts. Read one or two of those books, and you've read most of them. And the greater part of them are baloney. I guess it really should be no surprise that books which promise easy ways to achieve good luck, love, lots of money, spiritual enlightenment, and cures for diseases are so popular. We all know what P.T. Barnum said, after all.
The biggest problem with fuzzy scholarship is that being imprecise is not a virtue. When ideas, sayings, techniques, explanations, and so forth are repeated without a document citation in the footnotes, then it becomes practically impossible to trace them. (I have even heard of Pagans reporting that their own writings have been plagiarized and passed off as ancient lore in somebody else's book or web site. Not only is this a misattribution, it's a copyright violation.) And the result of that is we can't find out who came up with what idea, or how accurately it was re-told when it passed from one book to another. After so many retellings, a notion becomes "common knowledge", and eventually it gains axiomatic status. Religion is a matter of great importance, concerning topics such as the nature of Deity, the conduct expected of humans, and the fate of our souls. I would prefer as much accuracy as possible on this subject. I want to know who came up with what idea; when this was (so I can trace the idea's development in its originator's philosophy); what the context, axioms, and chain of reasoning were; and whether this came from direct revelation, a manuscript from the library of Pico de Mirandola, the inspiration of the Archangel Gabriel, a Mesopotamian clay tablet, golden plates found under a hillside in Upstate New York, an LSD trip, something heard in a college coffee shop from a guy with a purple mohawk and a Dead Kennedys T-shirt, or pure reason. When these ideas are repeated inaccurately and without attribution, contexts get dropped and chains of inference are lost, and this simply won't do.
This sort of thing leads to misconceptions about the very meaning of religions -- Buddhism, Native American religion, and Paganism have been grossly misconstrued thereby. Now, as far as New Agers are concerned, they are quite given to making things up as they go, but I don't care much for distortion of the religion held by my earlier ancestors, neither do the American Indians, and it's a fair bet that Buddhists don't think much of it either.
This isn't a problem unique to New Agers, though. Early Christianity also faced this. The Gnostics were faulted for making up Gospels and passing them off as factual accounts. Eventually, the early Church had to establish which creeds they believed in and what canon they felt was supportable and self-consistent enough to put in the Bible, and anything else was either speculative or heresy. But by that time, damage had been done. The Book of Revelations barely made it into the canon, and it's been scaring people silly for nearly two thousand years. It also happens to be the least believeable part of the New Testament. There is also evidence to suggest that the part of the Gospels which mention snake handling and speaking in tongues was a later interpolation. People have died from snake handling, and televangelists speaking in tongues make for a disheartening spectacle. The Gnostics came back in the Middle Ages as the Cathars, Albigensians, Bogomils, and so forth. This time they had some new ideas: that the sacraments were worthless, and that suicide by anorexia was a ticket to heaven. (To be fair, it bears mention that anorexia developed at a late date, and did not seem to be very common. In any event, it's likely that they didn't check their premises.) I do not want to see a Pagan version of the Inquisition, but I also don't want opinions taken for axioms leading to ill-conceived dogma. Fortunately, this isn't an either/or choice -- we can avoid problems by trusting only carefully documented sources and taking the rest with a big grain of salt. Those of us who are writers have an obligation to state our sources carefully.
In Wicca, the idea of the "Threefold Law" is often considered to be an article of faith from ancient times. But, as far as I know, the earliest it occurs is in the writings of Ray Buckland. Unfortunately, this is the same person who made up at least two denominations (Seax-Wicca and Pecti-Witta) out of whole cloth, which many people (who haven't heard anything to the contrary) mistake for "ancient traditions". The idea behind the Threefold Law is basically the same as the Christian saying "You sow what you reap" (for the full quote, see Galatians 6:7-9), or the Hindu idea of Karma. And it suggests a 3:1 repayment ratio. According to Buckland, this is meted out in the same lifetime, not in the afterlife (as with Christianity or Islam) or in any subsequent incarnations (as with Hinduism). Is this true? The pilot who dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, which incinerated about 60,000 civilians, died peacefully in his sleep -- he did not, during his lifetime, get burnt or irradiated to death 180,000 times. Moreover, is this exactly the same idea as was taught in ancient times? "The Myth of Er" at the end of Plato's Republic suggests a Tenfold Law, and that the rewards and punishments are dispensed in an afterlife of 1,000 years before one is given an opportunity for reincarnation. (That's something to think about whenever one is tempted to do something dishonest.) It's presented as a myth, so we know that it should be taken allegorically rather than literally. I will cover ideas concerning the afterlife later.
And then there is the notion that Pagan religion is about unconditional, universal love. This may be a very nice sentiment, but it isn't too accurate. Tell that to Kali or Ereshkigal. My own Teutonic ancestors were rather warlike. So were many of the American Indian tribes (though one wouldn't find that out from much of what has been written about them since the 1980s). And for that matter, not all Buddhists are peaceful, either. The concept of unconditional love is, in fact, more evident in Christianity than it is in Paganism. The 1960s brought the concept into vogue in Pagandom. But political fashions have no place in religion. Those of us who know better are well aware that there is a place for love, and that unprovoked aggression is wrong, and that reactions out of proportion are wrong. Nevertheless, correctional severity has its place too. We are still in the Age of Iron, as the ancients called it, so there is a need for self defense and collective defense, and this is going to be the way things are until human nature itself changes very substantially. (And one should keep in mind that human nature changes at a glacial pace, at most.) "Perfect love and perfect trust", another Wiccan concept, has a very nice sound to it (as does Keats' poem which ends "Beauty is truth and truth is beauty"), but if that's not the way things are, it's only a pretty phrase. That principle tends to vanish at council meetings and the succession battles fondly referred to as "witch wars". I am not saying that ideas such as the Threefold Law and Perfect Love and Perfect trust have no meaning or value. Rather, I say that they should be examined within their proper context, and evaluated objectively for their utility and scope.
To pass off one's opinion as ancient lore is an argumentum ad antiquitatem, and to call it divine revelation is an argumentum ad verecundiam. Such approaches obviously exaggerate the importance of the opinion and make even the mere act of questioning it seem presumptuous. If we should arrive at religious ideas through the use of reason, then it pays to begin with premises as accurate as possible.
One may ask, what does it matter if something is new or ancient, or perhaps has been falsely claimed to be ancient, so long as it works? Tradition does have value insofar as things which don't work tend to fall by the wayside. But, innovation and experimentation have their place as well. In any event, I would like to know the facts. As far as rituals are concerned, I would like to know their history, their original cultural context, how they have been changed over the years, and so forth. This becomes very important in Ceremonial Magick. Obviously, the same care for accuracy should be taken for theology and doctrine.
Finally, New Age proverbs are often quoted out of context and without attribution as well. Consider the cliché: "All paths lead to the center." Ever wonder where it originated? This happens to be derived from a Japanese proverb, which goes something like, "There are many paths to the top of Mount Fuji." Not only is the New Age version dreadfully corny (especially when repeated ad nauseam), the substitution of all for many changes the meaning of it substantially. The painful truth is, some paths get you nowhere, and some paths lead to Jonestown. Recast into the New Age bromide, it is stripped of its cultural significance, and thereby loses some of its meaning. For instance, there is another Japanese proverb, "A sage climbs Fuji Mountain once, and a fool climbs it twice." And Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido, stated the following:
Each and every master, regardless of the era or place, heard the call and attained harmony with heaven and earth. There are many paths leading to the top of Mount Fuji, but there is only one summit -- love.I like that one much better.
The Problem With Warm, Fuzzy Optimism
This is the law of the Yukon, that only the strong shall thrive;
There is indeed something to be said for optimism. But any good thing taken to an extreme will become a very bad thing. The New Age overemphasis on the positive is positively cloying -- blown out of proportion, it becomes sheer naïvité. In the New Age phenomenon, the philosophy and terminology from many religions is cut to size, hashed together, and baked into angel food cake, and that passes for profound wisdom. Life's deepest mysteries and thorniest dilemmas are brushed aside with facile answers. That may make for a very pretty appearance, but there is no substance to it. Cotton candy may be very pleasing to the palate, but it's not a healthy meal.
Comforting sayings do no good if they are not based on reality. Consider the following:
Shirley [MacLaine] presents the view that "...a love affair, a death, a lost job, or a disease" are all experiences that "we choose to have" so that we may be educated through them, because to Shirley "that is what life is about: learning." (Dancing in the Light, p.12)That is, in fact, a rather familiar New Age bromide. But is it true? People often suffer needlessly, by no fault of their own, and to no one's benefit (short of a trite, contrived silver lining). That's bad luck, not a learning experience we "choose to have". In other cases, some people do stupid things, involving themselves and others, and are too shortsighted to see the consequences of their actions, and often keep making these mistakes. Many people come to mind here, running the gamut from Saddam Hussein to the proverbial compulsive shopper. Things don't always work out well in the end, and it does no good to fool ourselves about it. This may seem a minor distinction, but when one has done something unwise, it is better to say, "I acted foolishly, I have to deal with the consequences of my actions, and now I know better than to do that again," than to say, "I acted foolishly, but because it was such a great learning experience, it really wasn't a big deal." And, it should be particularly galling to anyone who has suffered hardship (and that's most of us) to be told that deep down, we "wanted" to suffer it. That basically blames the victims.
Life isn't one big episode of the Barney TV show. Ultimately, cloying optimism is no better than the most hard-edged cynicism and pessimism. I choose (and recommend) the middle course of realism. I want to see life as it is, not as it appears through rose-colored glasses. I want the truth, even though the truth may be painful at times. We must embrace reality, and no less. Six-year-old children may be shielded from harsh truths, but it is quite unsuitable for adults to avoid dealing with life's sharper edges. But that's exactly the sort of thing we find in the New Age world view. And, as I stated earlier, wishful thinking doesn't change anything. We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it.
The New Age phenomenon projects an image of cheerfulness, but it sorely lacks profundity. Its cotton candy outlook is far inferior to ancient Pagan philosophy, as well as much modern philosophy. (I would gladly prefer Shirley MacLaine at her silliest to the moribund ravings of postmodern wannabe philosophers such as Lacan and Derrida. Interestingly enough, both positions start with the notion that nothing is real.) There are pearls of wisdom in some New Age books, but one usually has to dive under an ocean of corniness to harvest them. Where in the New Age viewpoint is there any room for the noble austerity of Stoicism? Nietzsche's saying, "What does not destroy me, makes me stronger," or Schopenhauer's proverb, "One does not find victory without struggle," must sound quite foreign to New Age ears. The four qualities Plato regarded as the most valuable in a society are wisdom, courage, self-discipline, and justice. As we have seen, the New Age standard of wisdom is quite fuzzy, embracing comforting clichés but avoiding in-depth investigation and hard truths. The concept of justice seems to be identical with none other than 1990s standards of political correctness: Jacobinism-in-a-teapot which one day will fade away -- and the sooner, the better. To the New Age mindset, courage is somewhere between irrelevant and incomprehensible. And self-discipline might as well be a swear word.
The Problem With Fuzzy Standards
But hedonism is not a valid ethical premise; "happiness" is not an irreducible primary; it is the result, effect and consequence of a complex chain of causes. To say: "The good is that which will make me happy or that which will serve my interests," does not indicate what will make me happy or what will serve my interests. Hedonism, of course, assumes that the standard is emotional, subjective and arbitrary: anything that makes you feel happy is the good. But a feeling is not a standard of anything.
The idea that pursuit of personal satisfaction is the ultimate good, one which must not be stifled or even questioned no matter what form it takes, is a concept which has been destroying our social fabric for the past few decades. We need to start putting the brakes on this problem, and the sooner, the better. This is a difficult subject to broach, but it is necessary. Undoubtedly, some people are going to take this the wrong way. I would not turn my rhetorical guns on the problem if the stakes were lower.
Over the last several decades, the influence of traditional religion has been on the wane. It has become quite fashionable to sneer at traditional cultural values as well. Dismissing them off-hand as Christian, old-Aeon, remnants of the Piscean Age, "Ozzie and Harriet", etc. would be a mistake. At least as far as Paganism is concerned, that amounts to throwing the baby out with the bath water. One may find traditional values praised in the writings of Plato, Tacitus, Confucius, and many others; and in any case, they are what has made our society work since time immemorial. When traditional values are disregarded and there is nothing to take their place, what is left over is a culture of hedonism and consumerism. That makes for a shallow existence, one where the measure of a person's worth equals the person's bank balance. The watchword of our MTV/McDonalds culture is "Anything Goes", but that has a terrible price tag attached. People who like to make up their own rules often will find out that the old rules were there for a reason. Some others will continue, in a state of denial, to keep making the same mistakes again and again. And it gets worse when Big Nanny, the leviathan State, is expected to shield people from the consequences of their actions. We need only examine the results in our "new, improved" society -- divorce and illegitimacy rates have skyrocketed, as has drug usage and other sorts of crime. It's a bonanza for lawyers, and mental therapy is a growth industry. We can't build prisons fast enough to keep up with an unending influx of convicts -- I can't help but wonder how many of them would be responsible citizens if they weren't raised in a permissive society. We are faced with rampant rates of sexually transmitted diseases, including exotic new types of infection and drug-resistant strains of older maladies. Ultimately, the entire public has to foot the ruinous bill with higher taxes, insurance premiums, and medical bills. All too often, what happens "between consenting adults" (as the tired old bromide puts it) has far-reaching consequenses which go far beyond "the privacy of one's own bedroom". This may sound harsh, but I am merely stating the facts. It's time to stop making excuses. This isn't "freedom"; this is a disaster.
Hedonism has not made our society happier, rather it has just made it shabby and miserable. This is what happens when all desires, whims, and forms of conduct are equally valued. These days, shrugging one's shoulders and blithely muttering "to each his own" is supposed to be the epitome of virtue. (To maintain that disregarding virtue is the height of virtue, entails the fallacy of the stolen concept.) Any other standard is likely to bring a variation on the refrain so familiar to parents of children in their early teens: "You're not the boss of me!" We need to face facts: social conventions exist because they work, and we ignore them at our peril. Something is seriously amiss when it is "wrong" to stand up for the values which helped the society flourish. Fair is foul and foul is fair in the '90s.
This is a formula for a spiritually bankrupt society. Some people turn to the New Age in an attempt to fill the void. As I have pointed out, it is lacking in depth and seriousness. It emphasizes relativism of conduct, lack of accountability, and quick fix solutions -- thus, it plays right into hedonism and its beneficiary, consumerism: the dismal trends making our culture shabby. The New Age is definitely not part of the solution; rather, it's junk food for the soul. Hedonism is not its most greatly emphasized aspect, but it is potentially the most socially corrosive one. If things go on at their present rate, the New Age phenomenon is likely to become one more nail in the coffin awaiting the Western world.
With the most extreme form of New Age subjectivism, everything is morally neutral, since everything is illusion and nothing is real anyway. In a solipsistic viewpoint, murder is no worse than deleting a file from one's personal computer. And if I think I'm God, then how could I imagine being subject to any rules or standards? These absurd positions are not embraced by less extreme New Age viewpoints, but in any event they will almost always deny any Divine disapproval for wrongdoing. The notion that you can do anything you want, without fear of either temporal or spiritual consequences, is a very seductive concept, as enticing as a shiny fishhook. In the New Age, we have "Religion Lite" -- less filling, tastes great! Unfortunately, it causes a very bad hangover -- hedonism is destructive to society, it's not good for the individual, and there may well be worse consequences. I am not going to argue for Puritanical or even Victorian standards. Rather I speak for common sense and discretion.
The New Agers are quick to say there is no such thing as sin. Is this notion compatible with Paganism? Let us consider the following:
Midas, astonished at his new misfortune,
Then the New Agers promptly abolish Hell. The usual concepts of the afterlife we hear from them is either immediate reincarnation, or a hereafter of eternal bliss for everyone. The former is sensible, though I'd say there is more to it than that, but the latter would suggest that Jeffrey Dahmer is getting no worse treatment in the afterlife than Mother Teresa. Again, is this compatible with Paganism? Let us remember that the word "hell" originates from Hel, the Norse Lady of the Underworld. For Pagans to do away with the concept, we would also have to put Hel, Ereshkigal, and Persephone (among others) in the unemployment line, or at least cast them in a "bunnies & light" mold. (One may observe in the mythologies of many cultures that along with the dark aspects of Earth Mother, there are bright ones as well, sometimes personified as a different deity, other times simply referred to with a different name. The bright aspects of the Ones I named are Frau Holde, Inanna, and Kore. In any event, one aspect doesn't exist without the other. Think of the Lady as an Old World grandmother: sometimes she gives you cookies, but she won't hesitate to take you out to the woodshed when necessary.)
I am not suggesting that we should be constantly biting our nails over peccadilloes. Neither do I suggest that everlasting torment is the fate of the unenlightened. (One must do something really bad to deserve something like that.) From Hellenic sources, we are told that the afterlife is rather dreary and boring -- sort of like a Monday back at work, just a little longer. Those who took part in the Mysteries (the most famous of which was taught at Eleusis) got to live eternally in a much more cheerful place. And those few who did abominable deeds or committed presumption against the Gods were consigned to Tartaros, where they got eternal punishment. (The idea of Hell being a fiery realm of unending torture for the unbelievers actually comes mostly from Islam.) As it happens, the Egyptian concept of the afterlife is a good deal more exacting -- a good whopper of a lie could cause one's soul to be devoured after death. I don't have any direct evidence to support my position (although others may confirm some of this), but the way I see it is that the afterlife is much like a dream which lasts for years. Those who have done evil deeds, will get their noses rubbed in their crimes until they become intimately aware of the gravity of their actions. Neither do I advocate excesses of guilt. I stand for a middle ground -- if one does something wrong, one should feel guilty about it. But to feel guilty about acts one is not personally responsible for having done, for instance things done by the ancestors of one's kinfolk, is uncalled for and morbid.
So, how will Paganism in the modern day stand on this? Are we going to embrace the New Age "less filling, tastes great" approach, or should we instead take the time to delve into the classics and learn what our ancestors really believed? (And no, let's not assume from the outset that these core values happen to be identical with our personal wishes or our political aspirations.) There are those who get involved in Paganism because they think it's a do-what-you-want religion where they get to throw out the rulebook -- where following their whims is a Divine commandment. Many of these are what have become known as "party Pagans". I won't go into specifics for reasons which I hope are obvious, but already we are faced with an embarrassing spectacle. Those of us into Paganism for theological reasons don't have the luxury to turn a blind eye to this indefinitely. The longer our heads are stuck in the sand, the more people we will attract who use our religion as a safe haven to do things that are unacceptable in broader society. We do not need to follow the New Age example and become a circus side show. Word does get around. And yes, Virginia, public image really does matter: we are members of society who live in the real world, not some alternate universe where (Burger King fashion) you get everything your way. Paganism is not supposed to be some fringe element: it shaped Western civilization in the ancient world, and its influences on our present-day culture are far-reaching. So we are perfectly within our rights to say "wait a minute" to those who are into it for the partying and hedonism. (I am not projecting a dichotomy between having fun and spirituality; the well-balanced individual may participate in both. The Apollonian and the Dionysian impulses don't need to overwhelm one another, but rather find their proper proportion. In the end, moderation is the rule, and that's where we need to use our discretion.) If the party Pagans refuse to listen, then perhaps they need to deal with any public relations problems that they cause, by themselves.
This is something that needs saying, even if it is likely to be quite unpopular amongst the party Pagans. Perhaps there are those who would admonish me to be more open-minded, and some may even claim that I am trying to "persecute" them. First of all, it is not my intention to antagonize anyone; some party Pagans eventually get beyond that stage. A father isn't persecuting his son when he advises him to refrain from the sorts of impulsive behaviors teenage boys often do. Open-mindedness, in the true sense of the term, means that we should examine other people's viewpoints objectively and maintain that all people have a right to their opinion. But that does not involve embracing a pre-determined conclusion that all viewpoints are equally valid in every case, or that all actions are equally meritorious. The fact is, not all viewpoints are equally consonant with reality, and not all actions are equally conducive to civil society. If "open-mindedness" is just a Sybarite slogan used to demand a moral blank check, then it has no value. As beings endowed with the power of reason, people are under no obligation to stick their heads in the sand, or turn a blind eye to things which are likely to cause problems in the future.
Finally, the objection may arise that hedonism isn't hurting anyone. But is that really so, or is it just self-serving denial? Sticking one's head in the sand is not a virtue. We should look not only to the immediate results of our actions, but to what the long term consequences (tangible or otherwise) may be. That's why people need to start giving a damn. For instance, if you discover that your friend has a substance abuse problem, then it is your right -- if not your duty -- to give warning and offer help. Your friend might be put off by that, but you are being a better friend by calling attention to it before your friend's health and money are gone. If your 13-year-old daughter is dating a 25-year-old man, then you are perfectly within your rights to intervene. Your daughter and her boyfriend won't appreciate it, but if you don't put a stop to it in due time, there is a good chance that the usual problems will manifest themselves. It is clear that we not only should consider whether or not someone will be immediately injured by a given action, but we should also ask ourselves, "What would things be like if everyone did that?"
So, how would the Pagans of old have regarded the New Age phenomenon? David Ronfeldt of the RAND Institute provided a summary of the characteristics of hubris, which should be instructive:
It is "a state of mind in which man thinks more than human thoughts and later translates them into act. It is an offense against the order of the world".Does any of this sound familiar? The ancients were in agreement that hubris was a transgression that could cause the downfall of even the highest and mightiest. When we see this very presumption being promoted in the name of the "New Age", then we would do well to distance ourselves from it. The New Agers often will claim that "You are God." Well, we need a few qualifications here. In the beginning, everything originated from a single Source (an event which scientists describe, less poetically, as the Big Bang). From this Source originated God and Goddess in Their most primordial forms. And from Them the rest of the Universe began in all its complexity. In that respect, we people are part of that Source, and God and Goddess are our ancestors. (In fact, the same can be said for all other energy and matter.) In a more narrow sense, we possess intelligence and the power of reason, which are recognized to be Divine attributes. But to equate the incarnate ego to one of the archetypal principles which we Pagans know as Gods -- Lady Wisdom, the Thunderer, Mother Earth -- is high presumtion. Surely it is even worse to put onesself at the same level as the ultimate Source of the Universe, or the Eternal Masculine, or the Eternal Feminine. (And all theological considerations aside, it just ain't true.) If the Gods dislike that sort of overweening pride, then New Age solipsism amounts to pushing one's luck.
For thousands of years, religions all over the world have exhorted people to strive toward excellence. So, are we Pagans of the modern day going to pursue wisdom, courage, self-discipline, justice, sensibility, fair-dealing, industry, and all the other noble virtues of our ancestors -- or are we going to go the New Age/Religion Lite route in which "anything goes" is the last word in philosophy? Obviously I cannot speak for everyone, but as for me, I choose excellence.
A Rational Approach to Religion
The intellectual love of the mind towards God is part of the infinite love wherewith God loves himself . . . The love of God towards men, and the intellectual love of the mind towards God, are identical.
Above, I have illustrated several epistemological flaws in New Age thinking. It is easier to argue against something than to argue for something. So, in the interests of not leaving the reader unsatisfied, it might do to switch to a positive direction and illustrate a better approach.
All scriptures are mythology. I do not say this to diminish the importance of scriptures, but only to illustrate its proper context. Many mythological works are based on a kernel of truth, to a greater or lesser extent. Others are ficticious. In either case, they do have a great deal of meaning, but mostly below the surface. When taken literally, mythology usually appears implausible or even absurd. Much can be gained by the interpretation of myths. Incorporating mythology directly into literal doctrine is not a good idea; doing so often leads people to miss the entire point, and it may cause unnecessary conflicts with science. Also, the fact that one body of myths may be highly inspiring does not diminish the value of all the others. Indeed, there is a great deal to be learned by studying the collected wisdom of other cultures. Not all viewpoints may be reconciled without bending them out of shape, but at least it should be a learning experience. Just remember to check your premises, and then figure out what makes the most sense.
Religions often ask a great deal of us, so don't get stuck on the small details. Concentrate on what matters the most. Pursuing excellence is important. Figuring out what your mission in life is, and working single-mindedly to achieve it, is important.
Truth, divinity, and grace are not confined to any single institution. Neither are they found only in one body of mythology. Nor are they the exclusive property of any clergy. All of the foregoing may well be helpful, but truth, divinity, and grace are potentially accessible by anyone. The relationship between God and Man is the object of religion. The sole determinants of this relationship are the deity in question and the human in question.
We should remember that God is not a big Santa Claus, the Earth is not a paradise, and we shouldn't be disappointed by this. In a world governed by free will, bad things can and will happen. Misfortune will occur sometimes, and we shouldn't curse the heavens for it. We must understand that life itself, no matter how long it lasts, is a miracle.
Lastly, there are good ways and bad ways of arriving at beliefs. To blindly follow scriptures is not a good way. Likewise, blindly following the word of any given guru, philosopher, or third grade social studies teacher is likely to lead to trouble. Experience is a good measure of proof ("seeing is believing"), but it also must be kept in mind that memories and perceptions are by no means perfect, and that people tend to be rather suggestible. Therefore, if I saw Bigfoot, I would start believing in Bigfoot -- but if I had been drinking heavily at the time, that would cause me to doubt the experience. So, one should always ask, Does this make sense? Does this square with my experience and observations of reality? Are the premises plausible, and the reasoning sound? Is there a more prosaic explanation? It is acceptable to believe something which has been verified by reliable personal experience, or is plausible enough. But to believe something which lacks any real evidence and any possible credibility may very well lead to problems. As Celsus said, "Before accepting any belief one ought first to follow reason as a guide, for credulity without enquiry is a sure way to deceive oneself." I am not saying that one must reject everything religious or supernatural out of hand. Rather, before believing in these things, examine each claim made. Examine these claims in light of reason and experience. Learn about logic and fallacy, learn about suggestibility, and learn about cold reading. Thoughtfully examining one's beliefs is not an easy thing (rarely is anything worthwhile easy), and it should be done with utmost care. It's your brain, after all.
Appendix: A Catalog of Silliness
Is it easier to believe that nature has gone out of her course or that a man would tell a lie?
Let us examine, for a moment, some of the chief New Age notions, superstitions, and mummery. I'm not going to ridicule New Age practices which actually have some farily tangible basis in reality, such as herbal healing. (Though I should point out that I would go to a doctor long before I'd go to an herbalist -- I prefer medications which have been meticulously studied using proper scientific protocols, manufactured in precisely measured doses, and prescribed by someone who has gone through years of formal medical training. But, hey, that's just my opinion.) One more word of warning -- I'm not pulling any punches in this section. If you didn't like the foregoing, you really will hate this.
This mummery is quite unworthy of free men, even more so of real Pagans. When you hear New Agers going on about getting probed by grey aliens, cleaning their chakras by "colonic irrigation", being healed of dreaded diseases by the power of smells, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what New Agers could make of it with superstition and futile wishful thinking. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need to turn back the clock on science until it resembles that of the Middle Ages, nor does it need a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered by ignorant men who, as members of a technological society, really should know better. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not a retreat to an imaginary dream world, a hollow, sugar-coated fantasy which doesn't hold an ear candle to the technological society (imperfect, but nonetheless real) that our intelligence has created.
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