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Le Défi magique, volume 1

François Laplantine
Jean-Baptiste Martin

Le Nouvel Age

The New Age in Britain

Eileen Barker


La Grande Bretagne a une histoire qui, à bien des égards, l’a préparée pour la venue du Nouvel Age. Depuis les mégalithes préhistoriques de Stonehenge que l’on associe (probablement à tort) avec les Druides, en passant par les dieux et déesses celtes, jusqu’au développement du spiritualisme au XIXe siècle avec Annie Besant, Alice Bailey et Aleister Crowley, des traditions ont pris corps et ne demandent qu’à renaître dans le pluralisme tempéré et sécularisant de la société britannique contemporaine.
Il est impossible de dénombrer avec exactitude les Britanniques attirés d’une façon ou d’une autre par les idées du Nouvel Age. Un million (2 % de la population) reconnaîtraient peut-être une participation active aux théories et aux pratiques du Nouvel Age, mais plus nombreux sont ceux qui ont subi l'influence du Nouvel Age, et plus nombreux encore ceux qui éprouvent de la sympathie pour la majorité des thèmes (féminisme, holisme, écologie, médecines douces, potentiel humain, développement spirituel, astrologie, monde occulte) qui caractérisent au moins certains aspects du Nouvel Age.
Simultanément, on assiste à un développement du christianisme évangélique qui considère les théories du Nouvel Age comme une menace dangereuse s’attaquant aux bases mêmes de l’édifice social. Les médias ont contribué à répandre les options du pluralisme moderne, mais aussi à polariser les différentes positions: parmi celles-ci, le Nouvel Age n’est qu’un produit disponible, avec bien d’autres, dans le supermarché britannique contemporain.

Texte intégral

  • 1 Brian Wilson, Religion in Secular Society, London: Watts, 1966: 14.

1Let me start by describing Britain, that is England, Wales and Scotland, as a country that can, on the whole, be characterized as exhibiting a gentle, secularising pluralism. If one were to take Brian Wilson’s definition of secularisation as a ‘process whereby religious thinking, practice and institutions lose social significance’1, it is not difficult to see that it is a process applicable to Britain over the past century-the secularisation that has occurred is one tied intrinsically to such variables as industrialisation, modernity, urbanisation, rationalisation, bureaucratisation, societalisation and both structural and functional differentiation. It is, at the same time, a process by which religion has become increasingly a privatised and/or individualised leisure pursuit.

2The pluralism to be found in Britain is not a pluralism of fierce composition, nor yet is it one of complete laissez faire. It is not a pluralism devoid of tension, nor yet it is one fundamentally undermined by tension. It is one in which geographical, occupational, and social mobility have contributed to the erosion of the ties of family and tradition; it is a pluralism that is fed by the media and the educational system, both of which, while embracing homogenising tendencies towards a monolithic culture, also encourage seekership, the questioning, even ridiculing of authority, and an emphasis upon the primacy of individual freedom and choice.

3It is a pluralism that extends beyond the mainstream Christian traditions; beyond the nineteenth century sects, most of which were drawn from the Judaeo-Christian tradition; beyond the Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist and other traditions that have entered the country through successive waves of immigration; and beyond the most recent wave of new religious movements which have become visible, as in the other parts of the West, since the 1960s.

4Most of these religions are ones to which people belong; groups or movements with which people identify. Included among such groups are several New Age groups, some of which I shall talk about, but perhaps the most significant – and the most elusive – fact about the New Age movement in Britain is its frequently invisible or unrecognised interaction with British culture both at the popular and at a more sophisticated level.

  • 2 My nominalistic views on the use of concepts are rehearsed in « But is it a Genuine Religion? in Ei (...)

5The concept of the New Age is most impossible to define. I shall, purely for the purposes of this talk, at this conference, draw upon a wide, imprecise usage of the term which will cover Neo-paganism, the Human Potential movement, Wicca, Eastern mysticism and, perhaps more unfairly, Satanism and beg the forgiveness of those who may feel offended at being included or excluded by what I say. My purpose in the brief time available is to impart some information about the ‘scene’ in the U.K., not to make any point about what really is or is not ‘New Age’2 – except, perhaps, to insist that, unless one defines the New Age as merely that ‘dawning of consciousness’ associated with the celebration of the Age of Aquarius in the second half of this century in California, or in the peculiar modern synthesis of ancient knowledge in the East with contemporary concepts of the West, there is remarkably little to be found in the New Age that has not been present in some form or other in an older Age – which is not, of course, to deny that there are new terms, new combinations, new organisations and new packagings.

  • 3 Further informations may be obtained from two excellent source books: John Button and William Bloom (...)

6Assuming that readers of this volume will have some general knowledge of most of the groups about to be mentioned, detailed descriptions of internationally known beliefs, practices and groups will not be rehearsed in what follows3.

1. British input to contemporary New Age beliefs

  • 4 David Burnett, Drawing of the Pagan Moon: An Investigation into the Rise of Western Paganism, Eastb (...)

7New Age can be, and has been, found across Western industrialised society – most visibly in North America and Western Europe, but already there are many signs that it is becoming increasingly visible in Eastern Europe too. But while the New Age is by no means a peculiarly British phenomenon, it is one that can be seen to have had many of its roots either directly or indirectly planted and/or nurtured in British soil. Like most European countries, the United Kingdom has its own rich tradition upon which to draw for the more pagan elements of its New Age. The Celtic gods and goddesses were shared under different names by a number of European cultures, but some have survived – or been revived – as English, Scottish, Irish and/or Welsh in their territorial allegiance. The Druids too, whether or not they were really connected with Stonehenge, have certainly claimed an ancient heritage of English soil – modern Druidism can be traced to the eighteenth century in both Wales and England4. Other ancient monuments, standing stones and numerous lay lines have waited thousands of years for a popular sacredness to be reinvested – be they at Avebury, or Glastonbury (one of the sites of the celebration of the Harmonic Convergence), or elsewhere.

  • 5 Ibid., p. 57.

8From the Middle Ages, Julian of Norwich (cl342-after 1413) is being accorded a new recognition within a more popular mystic tradition. Although England did not suffer the worst excesses of the witch hunts, it had its fair share of witches – defined still in English law as « a person who hath conference with the Devil to consult with him or to do some act », the last execution in England being in the mid-17th century, but in the eighteenth century in Scotland5. In Victorian times, there was considerable interest in the paranormal-spiritualism, occultism and astrology. Turning to the esoteric tradition, Annie Besant (1847-1933), a Briton who worked with Madame Blavatsky, ‘discovered’ the young Krishnamurti and was President of the Theosophical Society from 1907 until her death in 1933; Alice Bailey was born in Victorian Manchester in 1880. Gurdjieff’s disciple, P.D. Ouspensky, moved to London at the outbreak of the Russian Revolution; and Aleister Crowley (1875-1947) and Gerald Gardner (1884-1960), both of whom remain major ressources for modern practitioners of maick, were Britons.

9I could go on, but the only point I want to make here is that various expressions of the New Age can be found to have roots in the UK whether one goes back to the earlier part of this century, the nineteenth century, the Middle Ages or to the pre-Christian period.

2. New Age Networking

10As elsewhere, the New Age in Britain is characterized by the way in which individuals and organisations network and overlap with other likeminded individuals and organizations. Perhaps, as space is limited, I could use a brief, personal story to illustrate this.

  • 6 The Findhorn Foundation Guest Programme April-October 1993, p. 2.
  • 7 Ibid.
  • 8 For further information about the Findhorn Foundation, see Carol Riddell, The Findhorn Community: C (...)

11Starting from one of the earliest and now most influencial New Age centres in Britain, the Findhorn Foundation is a spiritual community in the north of Scotland, founded by Eileen and Peter Caddy and Dorothy MacLean in 1962 « on the principles that God, or the source of life, is accessible to each of us at all times, and that nature, including the planet, has intelligence and is a part of a much larger plan »6. The Foundation has no formal doctrine or creed, but its members subscribe to the belief that « an evolutionary expansion of conciousness is taking place in the world, creating a human culture infused with spiritual values »7. There are now about 140 residents members of varying ages and nationalities living in a number of sites in the area, but a far larger number of people are to be found at Findhorn at any one time, attending one or other of the numerous programmes that are on offer throughout the year. One of the most popular of these courses is the ‘Experience Week’, which attracts participants from all over the world8.

12At a week that I ‘experienced’ at Findhorn in 1991, there were 6 South Africans (4 from one family); 5 Germans; 3 Dutch; 2 Irish; 1 Swede; 1 Greek; 1 English and 3 Scots (including me). I had at least one contact (ranging from their staying in my house to the exchange of letters) with nine of the group within the following 12 months. With Margaret, a fellow ‘experiencer’ who was visiting London, I attended an event at St. James’s Piccadilly – a Church in the centre of London’s West End where one can find ‘Alternatives’ providing a motley assortment of New Age talks and experiences, the Centre for Health and Healing, Creation Centred Spirituality, based on the teachings of Matthew Fox, and several other projects and foci for meetings – one Wednesday evening, for example, I climbed the rickety spiral staircase in the Church tower to join in a Zen Buddhist meditation.

13On the evening Margaret and I were at St James’s, we were celebrating the summer solstice with the Monday night ‘Alternatives’ group. Afterwards, still in the main body of the church, we partook of vegetarian food supplied by Krishna devotees from ISKCON and some cheap, but palatable wine supplied by the Alternatives team. We met several others who had been to Findhorn, a Jungian, a herbalist, an est graduate and some lonely students; we also met an erstwhile LSE student, Rachel, who, the previous year, had invited me to talk to an interfaith group she organized and where the audience had included a Zoroastrian, members of the Emin Foundation and a motley selection of occultists, healers, therapists, and others, some of whose faces were familiar as attenders at the weekly meetings of the Alice Bailey ‘World Goodwill’ series of lectures in the Charing Cross Hotel.

14Rachel invited Margaret and me to a party where I chatted to an anthroposophist, a colour therapist, a reflexologist, a Rolfer, the compiler of Holistic London and Survivors London: London’s New Alternative Guide, and a spiritual healer who invited me to attend a gathering of healers that was to be held a few weeks later; Margaret met an est graduate, an acupuncturist, two sufis, one shaman and a gentleman who claimed to be proficient in the marshal arts.

15Two weeks later, I attended the spiritual healer’s gathering where I wandered around the stalls and watched a fascinating massage given by a 3HO adept, listened to subliminal tapes, and bought literature from people who told me that X or Y had told them about me – and who invited me to come and meet them on their home ground. I also found myself greeting people whom I recognised from the occult Predictions Festival, to which I had been taken by a ritual priestess who had kept meeting and introducing me to passing witches, sorcerers – and the occasional wizard or anthropologist.

  • 9 INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) is an organisation I founded in 1988 with (...)
  • 10 For further discussion about some of the methodological challenges of becoming part of one’s own da (...)

16Indeed, one could argue that the academic community plays no insignificant role in reinforcing the New Age/Pagan/Occult network. Peter Clarke has invited several participants of the New Age, including Goddess worshippers and the President of the Pagan Federation to seminars that he has organised at King’s College; at the request of the worried Church of England, I organised a seminar on the New Age at the London School of Economics for INFORM a couple of years ago9; and, at the request of the Bishop of London, I am conducting an investigation into the New Age at St James’s Piccadilly – during the course of which, as I have tried to illustrate, I find myself inevitably functioning as a further link in the British, and, indeed, international New Age network10.

  • 11 Michael Otto York, A Sociological Profile on the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, unpublished Ph.D. (...)

17Again, I could elaborate, but I can hope to do little more than communicate something of the flavour of the extraordinary ‘intercommunication’of the New Age scene, and of its sundry SPINs-Segmented Polycephalous Integrated Networks – a term used by Michael York in his excellent discussion of the membership and the organisation of New Age and Neo-pagan groups in England11.

3. Statistics

  • 12 European Values Study Group 1990 Value Survey Report Vol I, London: Gallup, p. 187.

18Let us now turn briefly to some statistics – although both confusions of definitions and paucity of data make any attempts to count highly preoblematical. It is possible that a million Britons (2 % of the population) would themselves admit to some kind of commitment to some New Age ideas or practices, but many more will have been subjected to New Age influences and still more will claim to be sympathetic to many of the concerns that are to be found within at least sections of the movement – the feminine, holism, ecology, global awareness, personal responsibility, alternative healing, human potential, personal growth, spiritual development, astrology, the occult, etc. In what is considered a predominantly Christian society, with established Churches of England and Scotland, 24 % of British respondents to the European Values Survey reported in July 1990 that they believed in reincarnation12.

  • 13 T. M. Luhrmann Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England, Cambridge Ma (...)
  • 14 Ibid., p. 7.
  • 15 Ibid.

19According to Tania Luhrmann, there are several thousand – possibly far more – who practice magic as a serious activity as members of organised groups in England13, and who have learned to accept the core concept of magic: « that mind affects matter, and that in special circumstances, like ritual, the trained imagination can alter the physical world »14. Luhrmann characterises these people as ‘ordinary, well-educated, usually middle-class people’ who are neither psychotically deluded, nor driven to practice magic out of socio-economic desperation15.

20A large mail-order occult store (which was burned down by, according to the owner, evangelical Christians) has over 25,000 customers who have placed more than 2 orders since the early 1970s. The esoteric magazine Predictions has a circulation of 32,000 and organizes an annual festival in London, where store holders sell books and a motley assortment of crystals, pyramids, ritual swords and other paraphernalia, and there is an abundant offering of lectures, demonstrations, readings and other occult and magical services. The Festival of Mind, Body and Spirit attracts thousands more, and yet other, sometimes overlapping, thousands have attended courses organised by the Findhorn Foundation, the Wrekin Trust, World Goodwill, and ‘Alternatives’ at St James’s Piccadilly. Over 150,000 Britons are said to have received their mantra for Transcendental Meditation.

4. New Age groups indigenous to Britain

21Among the numerous New Age/occult movements that are indigenous to Britain are the White Eagle Lodge, founded in London as long ago as 1936 by Grace Cooke after White Eagle « a very wise and loving teacher in the world of the spirit » started to guide her; the Findhorn Foundation I have already mentioned; the Wrekin Trust developed under the guidance of Sir George Trevelyan, but has recently been sinking due to financial difficulties. Another early movement related to the New Age scene is the School of Economic Science, founded in the mid-1930s by Nadrew MacLaren. The School incorporates a number of ideas, including those of Gurdjieff (1866-1949) and Ouspensky (1878-1947); later when the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi came to London in 1960, Transcendental Meditation was used to achieve the goal of ‘surrendering to the Absolute’ advocated by Gurdjieff.

22The Aetherius Society was founded by the Metropolitan Archbishop, His Eminence Sir George King, O.S.P, Ph.D., Th.D., D.D., an erstwhile London taxi driver who, on 8 May 1954, received the command ‘Prepare yourself! You are to become the voice of Interplanetary Parliament’. Aetherius is a Cosmic Master from Venus from whom Sir George claims to have channelled many messages to this planet. Among the many activities of the Society is the storage of spiritual energy in a special battery. Then there is the Nessie cult, which has an expanding international membership worshipping the Loch Ness Monster under the guidance of its Scottish High Priestess.

23The Emin Foundation is an esoteric group led by ‘Leo’ which now has a thriving Kibbutz in Galilee. TOPY (The Temple of Psychic Youth) was started by the pop singer, Genesis P. Orridge; it draws heavily on the writings of Aleister Crowley. It was TOPY which producted a ‘promotional’ film depicting some very nasty rituals that was recently shown on television as ‘proof’that Satanic child abuse and the sacrifice of children was taking place in Britain – the chief ‘brood mare witness’ was a woman who had, it has since been claimed, been totally unaware of having had the child that was allegedly slaughtered by another satanic group until she was ‘saved’ by a group of evangelical Christians. Chaos Magic is another comparatively new movement in Britain, Chaos Magicians incorporating some ideas taken from chaos theory into Crowleyan ‘Do what you will shall be the whole of the Law’ principles, resulting in the apparently paradoxical conviction about the controllable power of both chaos and magic.

5. Dissemination of New Age ideas

24One of the most important differences that exists in contemporary society that has not been available to anything like the same extent in earlier times is the institution of the mass media. Almost every member of the population is exposed to sensationalist newspaper reports, sober documentary films, television plays about New Agers, astrologers, occultists and magicians – some serious, some comedy. Today, there are few secrets left unexposed. There is generous access to (and plenty of parking outside) the contemporary New Age supermarkets. Anyone can attend a course on instant enlightenment, shamanism, herbal medicine, self development, occult magic, sex magick (with or without a k) or any other esoteric gnoses – even local authorities put on evening classes in Tai Chi and various kinds of yoga. Specialist bookshops such as Mysteries, Compendium, Watkins and so on, have mushroomed; there, as in the Bodhi Tree, the curious may garner books, periodicals, leaflets and advertisements offering, for a few pence (or several pounds), all manner of information on beliefs, rituals and techniques. And big businesses, including multi-nationals are sending their management on courses where they are not only taught TM or Silva Mind Control, but also take part in various techniques, including yoga, meditation and the use of the I Ching – ‘to make their thinking more flexible’.

6. Reactions to New Age practitioners

25This unprecedented availability to the populace at large is very worrying to those within the New Age movement who consider themselves to be genuine adepts with a firm grounding in their own particular tradition, and who see instant enlightenment being offered without the safeguards of a time-honoured knowledge and experience; the power of magic is, it is claimed, misused or even abused; money or power, rather than spirituality is, it is said, the underlying motive of the false prophets, inept practioners or incompetent teachers. By bandying about half-truths and by practising half-learned techniques, the New Age is given a bad name – and all, they complain with some justification, are tarred with the same brush.

  • 16 See James T. Richardson, Joel Best and David G. Bromley (eds), The Satanism Scare, New York: de Gru (...)

26It is indeed true that there is considerable suspicion about the New Age in most of its manifestations – particularly among the evangelical Christians who have been growing in number and intensity since the 1970s. The House Church movement, NeoPentecostalism (Restorationism), and the Charismatic movement are the more visible signs of these revivalistic enthusiasms among the young and not so young. Numerous organisations have been founded to alert the young to the dangers of the New Age in general and the occult in particular. Parents lobby for Halloween’s parties to be banned; for Dragons and Dungeons and similar games to be outlawed; and, above all, for the horror of ritual child abuse to be exposed in all its gory details. The evidence for organised Satanic crime involving children has, however, been as elusive of investigative enquiry in Britain as it has in the United States16.

  • 17 Robert Towler, The Need for Certainty: A Sociological Study of Conventional Religion, London: Routl (...)
  • 18 On the other hand, the television producer received an unprecedented number of enquiries congratula (...)

27It was the Church of England’s Board for Mission and Unity that suggested that INFORM should organise a Seminar on the New Age; it was as a result of a vitriolic attack on St James’s Piccadilly by an Evangelical Church in the Diocese that the Bishop of London asked me to write a Report on St James’s and the activities of the Alternatives groups. Later, when a television programme portrayed aspects of the New Age being celebrated in the church, the Bishop received a number of letters demanding that the Church ought to do something. The letters were not as numerous as those received by John Robinson, the then Bishop of Woolwich, when he published Honest to God in 196317; or by the Archbishop of York when David Jenkins was made Bishop of Durham and ‘God struck York Minster with lightning’, but they made it quite clear that a sizeable proportion of the public was upset at what was happening not only to religion, but to England when such things were going on under the nose of the Established Church. In other words, the New Age is greeted with a suspicion that is not merely because it is seen as a competing religion or philosophy in an already pluralistic and secularising society, but because it can be seen as a very real threat to the very fabric of British society18.

7. Concluding remarks

28There are many explanations offered for the growth of New Age ideas and for the current interest in the occult. One of the most popualr is that Satan is at work – but this, although it may well be true, is not an explanation that can be espoused by the social scientist who is tied to an empirical and, therefore, theologically agnostic methodology. Another, more mundane, explanation is that, in a society in which people’s lives are increasingly fragmented, where individuals are often cut from the ties of the family by geographical and social mobility, and where their work is oriented according to the material, rational goals of others, there is a need for a feeling of being ‘at source’, of having some access to control over one’s own life, and perhaps over that of others and of the planet or event the cosmos – or to have at least some knowledge of what is going on, rather than being a mindless cog in an impersonal, bureaucratic machine. There is quite a lot of prima facie sense in this theory when it is applied to a country, such as Britain which, I suggested at the beginning of this paper, is one that exhibits a gentle, secularising pluralism. It does, however, need to be recognised that it is frequently those in occupations where job satisfaction and control over one’s own life would appear to be greater than average that one finds the most active adherents to New Age beliefs and practices. It may be that these are people who have been given the opportunity to glimpse at a promised land which has not yielded the promised results. Much more work needs to be done – not just on those who explore the many options of the New Age, but, if we wish to make genuinely testable statements, comparative research, investigating differences between different societies, both now and in the past, as well as the differences between those who turn to the New Age, those who turn to evangelical Christianity, and those who turn to nothing very much. Perhaps this volume will provide further inspiration, and further clues, for further research.


1 Brian Wilson, Religion in Secular Society, London: Watts, 1966: 14.

2 My nominalistic views on the use of concepts are rehearsed in « But is it a Genuine Religion? in Eileen Barker, Report from the Capital, April 1991: 10-14. More references on the New Age scene in Britain (and the USA) can be found in Eileen Barker, New Religious Movements: A Practical Introduction, London: HMSO, 1989: 188ff.

3 Further informations may be obtained from two excellent source books: John Button and William Bloom (eds), The Seeker's Guide: A New Age Resource Book, London: Aquarian, 1992; or J. Gordon Melton, New Age Almanac, New York: Visible ink, 1991.

4 David Burnett, Drawing of the Pagan Moon: An Investigation into the Rise of Western Paganism, Eastbourne: Marc, 1991: 22; 66.

5 Ibid., p. 57.

6 The Findhorn Foundation Guest Programme April-October 1993, p. 2.

7 Ibid.

8 For further information about the Findhorn Foundation, see Carol Riddell, The Findhorn Community: Creating a Human Identity for the 21st Century, Forres: Findhorn Press, 1990; Paul Hawken, The Magic of Findhorn, Glasgow: Fontana, 1976; and Aileen Caddy, Foundation of Findhorn, Forres: Findhorn Publications, 1978.

9 INFORM (Information Network Focus on Religious Movements) is an organisation I founded in 1988 with support of the British governement and mainstream Churches, its main aim being to provide information about new religious movements that is as objective and upto-date as possible.

10 For further discussion about some of the methodological challenges of becoming part of one’s own data in such studies, see Eileen Barker-Brahmans Don’t Eat Mushrooms: Participant Observation and the New Religions », LSE Quarterly June 1987: 127-152.

11 Michael Otto York, A Sociological Profile on the New Age and Neo-pagan Movements, unpublished Ph.D. thesis, King’s College, London, July 1991. See p. 308ff for a discussion of the SPIN.

12 European Values Study Group 1990 Value Survey Report Vol I, London: Gallup, p. 187.

13 T. M. Luhrmann Persuasions of the Witch’s Craft: Ritual Magic in Contemporary England, Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989: 4.

14 Ibid., p. 7.

15 Ibid.

16 See James T. Richardson, Joel Best and David G. Bromley (eds), The Satanism Scare, New York: de Gruyer, 1991.

17 Robert Towler, The Need for Certainty: A Sociological Study of Conventional Religion, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984.

18 On the other hand, the television producer received an unprecedented number of enquiries congratulating him on the programme and asking how the enquirer could get in touch with the various groups which had been portrayed on the omniscient screen.

© Presses universitaires de Lyon, 1994

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