M. York. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 1995, 373 pages.
Once in a long while a book comes along so outstanding as to merit a “must buy” recommendation. This is such a book. It is more comprehensive and better referenced than the vast majority of other books on the subject, and it examines and evaluates both New Age and neo-pagan movements. There is a 20-page bibliography, augmented by extensive end-of-chapter notes, a comprehensive index, and eight tables. The author is Director of the Academy for Cultural and Educational Studies, and has a Ph.D. in theology from King’s College, London. His specialty was (and is) the sociology of religion and new religious movements.
The book’s goal is to increase understanding of New Age and neo-pagan movements, the human potential movement, and the occult metaphysical tradition. It achieves this goal by describing similarities and dissimilarities within these movements and by using church-sect and other typologies to compare them with established mainstream religions. What is refreshing about the book is the absence of bias or advocacy of one religion or movement over another. In this sense it is more objective than many current texts on the subject.
Chapter 1 describes the author’s methodology and the development of new religious movements from such precursors as transcendentalism, theosophy, spiritualism, and Swedenborgianism. A distinctive feature of current movements is what York terms an Age of Aquarius “quantum leap of consciousness.” He differentiates New Age from neo-pagan: New Age seeks an awakening of “transcendent metaphysical reality” by innovative eclectic methods; neo-pagan seeks re-awakening of past beliefs in a search for an “immanent locus of deity” (p. 2). Both reflect Aa theological perspective with sociological consequences,” according to York. Because they are new, literature and research studies on them are limited, so York studied media coverage, observed and interviewed participants, and used survey questionnaires to collect his data. He then applied theological and sociological constructs to further refine his formulation. He has done so exceptionally well.
After an impressive review of literature, he likens the current situation to Augustus’s Rome, when there was a “vast intrusion of cults and foreign sects.” Not in his book, but reinforcing that observation is historical evidence of strong competitors to early Christianity such as the cults of Asclepius and Eleusis in Greece, Isis in Egypt, and Mithras among the Roman legions. York comments that whether or not a new religion will emerge from New Age or neo-pagan groups Alike nascent Christianity is a question only time can answer” (p. 5). He suggests that the new movements are due to “disenchantment with an increasingly disenchanted society” (p. 5). People seek more personal involvement or experiencing, more direct reward for their efforts, more insight relative to their everyday life situation, which in their experience is not available in mainstream, traditional religion. This renders them more susceptible to charismatic leaders with attention-getting techniques and teachings.
York applies theory to current practice. He observes that new movements “make little or no appeal to cognitive understanding,” but use experiential exercises such as chanting, silent repetition, posturing, breathing, meditation, or movement “to connect with sources of peace and power” and replace everyday language with a specialized vocabulary of foreign or ancient words and references (p. 11). Throughout the book, current New Age and neo-Pagan organizations are analyzed and compared in easy-to-read descriptions against a backdrop of state-of-the-art knowledge and theory. York describes a cult’s appeal and followers’ needs in terms of the current diffusion of personal identity (Beckford), the popularity of human potential groups and humanistic and transpersonal psychologies (Wallis), reaction to rapid social change (Jones), the allure of gurus and healers and placebo effect (Easthope), and the power of self-authenticating and self-transcending experiencing (Bird).
If this were the only book you could have on “new religions,” it would very well satisfy the need. It offers a concise overview of the field, an excellent review of relevant and significant literature, includes more New Age and neo-pagan groups than most other texts, and applies established theological and sociological theories to them. Highly recommended!
Frank MacHovec, Ph.D.
Center for the Study of the Self
Cultic Studies Journal, Vol. 13, No. 2, 1996