Monday, December 28, 2009

New Agers and Creationists

In an interesting piece that has nothing to do with film reviews, Roger Ebert asks why the left has a double standard when it comes to New Age philosophy:
I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn't evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying.
I'm not sure I quite get it, either.  My impression is that a lot of folks on the left see adherence to Christianity as a proxy for political conservatism, and they shun it.  New Age philosophy, meanwhile, is associated with elements of the left, so it's safe.  So people are reacting to the politics rather than the theology.  I honestly don't know what people on the right think of New Age philosophy, if they think about it at all.

Now just why we'd see creationists on the right and New Agers on the left isn't quite obvious, either.  I suppose a charitable explanation would be that folks on the far left define themselves, at least in part, through their rejection of traditional forms of authority.  So they reject the faith in which they were brought up, but still have the same spiritual needs (questions about origin, purpose, life after death, etc.) as folks on the right, so they join newer faiths that don't carry the same sort of millennia-old baggage.

Of course, some of these New Age faiths aren't so new anymore.  So are the children (or grandchildren) of the flower children adhering to the same spiritual practices, or do they rebel by joining more formal religions, or do they just become atheists or Unitarians or something?  Does anyone know of some decent sociological studies along these lines?


Jonathan Bernstein said...

The only thing I would add, in addition to your request for data, is that Rod Dreher seems to spend a fair amount of time complaining that a lot of Christians seem to manage to hold very non-Christian beliefs. In other words: I'd like to see more systematic data.

Nan said...

Interesting questions. Glad, and scared, to see mainstream Americanists asking them.

Yee who cry for see systematic data know not how vast the data sources are (since you're political scientists, and political scientists tend to be oblivious to religion). Places to start are the Pew Forum on Religion in Public Life, the Princeton Center for the Study of Religion, and the CUNY American Religious Identification Survey--though there are lots of others you could find through the American Academy of Religion.

That said, the answer to the broader question is pretty complicated, though I'm not highly versed in this lit. First, undertand that Americans whose spirituality counts as New Age, New Thought, etc. get grouped in the 2.2% called "other"--so they're a tiny bunch indeed, at least those who get counted. (A much larger group has some beliefs that might "count" in those categories, but never attend any organized religious forum like Mile Hi Church in Lakewood (my church)).

A lot of Christians (and others) do hold, or at least dabble in non-Christian beliefs. The Pew Forum recently showed that, rather than there being groups like Catholics OR people who see fortune tellers, lots of adherents to mainstream religion ALSO buy into astrology, etc. ( Lots of Americans, in short, like to throw their faiths in the "melting pot," too. A more substantive and interesting development is the incorporation of Zen Buddhist techniques into evangelical Christian prayer practices in the last 10 years.

People on the orthodox end of the Christian spectrum have long been more suspicious/paranoid about "pagan arts" like Astrology, seeing them as signs of Satan, or at least "false idols." Thus, yes, conservative Christians, especially who attend church regularly, are going to be about the LEAST likely to read The Secret. Here is where knowing a little about the CONTENT of religion matters. (Sorry, it's a critique of poli sci I've been developing in my book on evangelical racial change efforts. It bothers me that we're interested in affiliation but seek to understand so little about theological content or religious history.)

Other thoughts/guesses based on what I do know about religious sociology in the U.S.:

- It's not that Lefties are New Agers per se. It's that New Agers are way more likely to be Left-leaning, as are most Americans who identify as atheist, agnostic, secular, or "spiritual but not religious." John C. Green's American Religious Landscape & Politics report discusses this ( It's also true that the less often you attend religious services, the less religious you're likely to be.

- You'd see creationists on the right because that position comes from a long tradition of fundamentalism in Protestantism that, after Scopes in 1925, was never aligned with and by the 1960s became hostile to the left. Conversely, leftists, religious or not, are generally not creationists (or ascribe to some hybrid theology of creationism, like God created evolution) BECAUSE THEY ARE ALIGNED WITH MODERNISM, out of which creative muck evolutionary science itself crawled.

On Seth's last question paragraph, it's a combination. Some younger generations who were raised with non-traditional religion or none at all do gravitate toward more established traditions (joining up with a nice Episcopalian church, say). But Catholics and Protestant mainliners have also been flocking out of "boring old" church into evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal, and New Thought churches. The New Thought movement (which includes Mile Hi Church, part of United Church of Religious Science) is one of the few fast-growing religious movements right now and most members are ex- something elses. (I can't remember which report that comes from, but it's somewhere in my office.)

Maybe that's at least a start.

Nancy Wadsworth

Nan said...

p.s., Seth, you're right, I think, about secularists of whatever variety often still feeling some kind of spiritual need. That puts them into the religious sociology category of "seekers," some of whom do lean toward New Age traditions that aren't going to jump all over them with "sin," rule-, and fear-based theologies. Also, to Ebert, I'd suggest that just because people don't believe in God doesn't mean they're consistent rationalists. People like to believe in magic, after all. And other see something like Astrology is, in fact, a material-energetic system (whether they're wrong or not).

Seth said...

Go Nancy! I can't respond to all of this right now, but on your last point, I don't think Ebert is quite saying that all atheists are rational. It's just that if you've publicly professed a belief that is outwardly hostile to rational thought and the scientific process, you should be disqualified from holding high office.