Strongly Held Views About the New Age
Cultic Studies Journal, Volume 11, Number 1, 1994, pages 1-28
Strongly Held Views About the New Age: Critics Versus Experts
Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P.
University of Pennsylvania
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
American Family Foundation
In this article, one of a series based on surveys about the New Age, we compared "52 Critics" with 85 "Experts" in respect to their strongly held opinions as measured by 196 five-point Likert items. We selected for consideration those items concerning cults, the occult, and New Age which were rated by one or both panels at the extremes as indicated by means and percentages. Findings confirmed that defining the New Age was difficult, but the panels agreed about its eclecticism and Eastern origins. After redefining the New Age movement, we concluded that the most strongly endorsed items supported and enhanced our previous findings: that the Experts were more varied than the Critics' stereotype of the New Age, and that mutual understanding and respect between the Judeo-Christian and New Age paradigms were desirable.
In this article we compare two panels -- one of Critics and the other selected as Experts" in respect to their most strongly held opinions about the New Age. We defined a strong opinion as an item in a survey that was endorsed at one of the extremes of a five-point Likert scale by 80% or more of a group and which yielded an extreme group average. For example, the term cult was rated 1.41 by the Critics and 91% considered it "harmful" or "very harmful."
This is one of a series of articles based on surveys about the New Age. We first applied a Delphic method (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1990) to selected leaders of the American Family Foundation (AFF)Ca group critical of cults" and the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of the Paranormal (CSICOP)"a group that is critical particularly of occult claims. This panel of experts agreed that the New Age was cultlike and somewhat harmful and that it was "an eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques that are rooted in Eastern mysticism, lack scientific evaluative data, and are promoted by diverse ideological leaders claiming transformative visions" (p. 69). One of the products of this study was a 196-item questionnaire which assessed views about cultic, occult, and New Age terms, statements, and practices.
We next reported on a survey of 58 Critics (not in the first study) and 85 Experts, selected because of their familiarity with the New Age (Dole, Langone, & Dubrow-Eichel, 1993). When 26 factor scores were treated as dependent measures, the Expert panel differed significantly from the Critics on 21 factors. We found that the panel of Experts on average rated New Age terms and practices in the neutral to mildly beneficial range and agreed, but rather mildly, with New Age beliefs. In comparison, the Critics were consistent with the previous panel (Dole et al., 1990) in reflecting a severely negative view of the New Age. The Experts and Critics agreed about the essential aspects of research on the New Age, the harmfulness of the occult, and the eclectic character of the New Age, but the Experts rejected an essentially cultic definition of it. However, the Experts were mildly negative in responding to cult items; we considered them much more tolerant of New Age practices and beliefs than the Critics.
In a separate report, Dole (1993) examined qualitatively the 86 written comments of the two panels. In general, the findings were consistent with those yielded by the statistical analyses. Thus, the Expert panel was much more tolerant about the New Age and cults than the panel of Critics. The New Age was frequently characterized by the Experts as diverse, dynamic, complex, humane, and spiritual. Dole concluded that skeptics and anticult specialists may have to change their conceptions of the New Age.
In our reviews of the literature (Dole et al., 1990, 1993), we identified a number of authorities in disciplines ranging from religious studies (Lewis & Melton, 1992) to clinical psychology (Dubrow-Eichel & Dubrow-Eichel, 1988), and philosophy (Kurtz, 1989). A group of theologians (LeBar, 1989) and an exit counselor (Garvey, 1992) have pointed out linkages between the New Age and cults. Some writers (Ferguson, 1980; MacLaine, 1983) were supportive and others (Gordon, 1988; Rosedale, 1989; Langone, 1989) critical of the New Age, but few have attempted to examine systematically the opinions of informed adversaries, neutral observers, or sympathizers. An exception is Feher's (1992) study of the views of women astrologers in respect to the New Age.
In this article we analyze the two panels' responses to 196 items that were presented in five groupings: characteristics defining New Age; statements of importance for a scientific study; terms; statements of opinion; and practices associated with children, adolescents, and youth. In order to supplement and expand the findings previously presented (Dole, 1993; Dole et al., 1990, 1993), in this report we identify and consider critically those items that were strongly rated by the Critics, the Experts, or by both panels, and we determine the extent, if any, to which the two panels differ in mean ratings and in percentages.
The 58 Critics included executives, psychologists, professors, writers, and therapists; all were leaders of either AFF or CSICOP, whereas the Expert panel was comprised of managers and publishers associated with New Age enterprises, chiropractors, teachers and trainers, astrologers, and others. Members of both panels were close to 50 years of age and included more men than women. The Experts belonged in larger proportion to unconventional religious groups. For further details on the panel characteristics, questionnaire, procedure, and data analyses, see Dole et al. (1993).
For each of the 196 items, there was a five-step Likert-like response scale. The items were presented in five groupings:
1. Ten characteristics of the New Age such as "rooted in Eastern mysticism" were presented as "The following criteria have been suggested as defining the New Age ... rate each 5"very characteristic, 4"characteristic, 3"cannot say, 2"not characteristic, and 1"not at all characteristic."
2. Respondents were asked to rate each of six statements which described "a scientific study of the effectiveness of a New Age program ... 5"very important, 4"important, 3"cannot say, 2"not important, 1"not very important."
3. For 82 terms and concepts, such as "New Age Times," "Sun signs," and "Hypnoregression," panelists were instructed “indicate the extent to which you think the term represents something beneficial or harmful: 5 "very beneficial, 4 "beneficial, 3"neutral/cannot say, 2"harmful, and 1"very harmful."
4. For 59 statements such as "The New Age is dangerous," respondents were asked "the extent to which you agree with the following statements: 5"strongly agree, 4"agree, 3"neutral, cannot say, 4"disagree, and 1"strongly disagree."
5. Panelists rated 39 items which described a "practice involving a child, teenager, or youth" such as "Satanists stage an aggressive recruitment drive in area schools" on a scale from 5"very beneficial, 4"beneficial, 3"neutral/cannot say, 2"harmful," to l"very harmful."
We wrote the items on the basis of New Age books, periodicals, advertisements, brochures, focus groups, and on personal experience and expertise (Dubrow-Eichel & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985; Langone, 1989). We also added items concerned with cults and the occult about which we have written (Dole & Dubrow-Eichel, 1985). We tried to use exact quotations when possible. As reported in Dole et al. (1990, 1993), the items, presented in a longer form, were pretested in three Delphic surveys and reviewed by three specialists on the New Age. However, it is important to note that the three authors were sponsored by AFF and therefore cannot be considered entirely objective.
Fifty-one AFF board members, who had not participated in preceding surveys, were invited by mail or in person to participate as specialists highly familiar with cults. Of these, 42 (84%) provided usable responses. To this panel of Critics, we added 15 fellows of CSICOP (29%) as specialists on pseudoscience.
Each of the 85 persons in the Expert panel had been randomly selected from a commercial list or from New Age publications and invited by mail "as a leader who understands New Age activities." We concluded (Dole et al., 1993) that the Expert panel, because of an approximate 10% return from our mailings, was not necessarily representative, but other evidence suggested that the Experts were indeed knowledgeable about the New Age. Many were involved with New Age practices, and yet they were for the most part not zealots or cultists.
After each of 196 items was rated by the Critics and Experts, we identified those that yielded a mean at one of the two extremes of the five-step scale (1.00 to 2.00 and 4.00 to 5.00). We also calculated percentages by panels and tested the significance of the differences.
We reasoned that items rated at one of the extremes by one or both panels would reflect a strongly held view and be of particular interest. Also, we believed that they would be more reliable. On the other hand, items that yielded moderate to neutral, cannot say, or no answer (means of 2.01 to 3.99) by both panels would be eliminated from consideration here. For example, a description of the New Age that seemed insufficient, a term that was unfamiliar to most respondents, a statement that appeared ambiguous, or a practice that was unclear or which the panelists felt depended on the circumstances would be discarded.
We also subjected the data to factor analyses, analyses of variance, and correlations with religion, age, and gender, and analyzed written comments qualitatively (Dole, 1993; Dole et al., 1990, 1993). These analyses are available from the authors on request.
Results and Discussion
Characteristics of New Age
Of 10 characteristics presented to the panels, 4 were supported strongly by most of the Critics and 1 by the Experts (see Table 1*). Neither panel rated on average any criteria as not characteristic.
The Critics, much more strongly than the Experts, considered characteristic of the New Age "inadequate scientific data regarding effectiveness," and "Create zealous promoters." At least three quarters of all respondents in both panels agreed about the characteristics "Eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques" and "Rooted in Eastern mysticism."
These findings confirm the difficulty in defining the New Age movement but support agreement about its eclecticism and Eastern origins (Lewis & Melton, 1992).
As in our Delphic study (Dole et al., 1990), the Critics were sensitive to the commercialism they linked to the New Age, considered it cultic, and were skeptical of its claims. According to Dole's qualitative study (Dole, 1993), the questionnaire omitted items that would have characterized it as humane and tolerant.
When the two panels were asked to rate six statements on their importance in a scientific study of the effectiveness of a New Age program, Critics and Experts did not differ significantly in agreeing that on average sources of funding, beliefs of the investigators, peer review if published, behavioral measures, and use of a control group were important (rated 4.00 or above). These data are not presented in table form.
Beneficial and Harmful Terms
Of 82 terms associated with New Age, cult, and occult, the Critics rated 15 as harmful or very harmful, but the Experts only 1"fundamentalism (see Table 2). The Critics rated three terms beneficial and the Experts eight. Only one item "psychology" attained an average above 4.00, although consciousness was close (3.94) among the Critics. Note that CUT and Church Universal and Triumphant, which refer to the same religious group, were presented twice as a check on reliability. The Critics were more consistent in their ratings than the Experts, who gave CUT a more neutral rating, perhaps because of unfamiliarity.
The anticult orientation of the Critics appears to be reflected in their negative responses to Scientology, Dianetics, cult, CARP, est, CUT, Lifespring, the Forum, Hunger Project, and TM. Three New Age terms "Ramtha, channeling, and levitation" were included in the harmful grouping. Only fundamentalism was rated harmful by the Experts, and it was the only strongly rated term about which the two panels did not differ significantly. These findings reflect the specific items about which the Critics were most strongly less tolerant than the Experts as reported previously (Dole, 1993; Dole et al., 1993).
Statements Rated Agree and Disagree
Both panels were asked to rate their agreement or disagreement with 59 statements. The Critics averaged strongly agree on 2 items and agree on 7, strongly disagree on 8 and disagree on 13, whereas the Experts supported 2 statements at the 4.00 average level or more, rated 1 statement disagree (see Table 3). The panels differed significantly on all of these 33 statements; however, there was no item on which both panels took an extreme position.
If, as reported in Dole et al. (1993), the Critics were negative about the New Age, what aspects specifically concerned them strongly? They singled out mandated New Age techniques for employees, the lack of scientific evidence supporting most New Age concepts, and channeling. They also agreed that the New Age movement had "a strong potential for the development of cultic modes of relating" and that it is dangerous. "Thinking that one is God" is ridiculous, a narcissistic delusion, and spiritual arrogance. They disagreed very strongly with such conceptions attributed to the New Age as
There is no sin.
Spiritually advanced people succeed at everything they attempt.
Mankind is at the threshold of a great evolutionary leap of consciousness.
If people really understood the New Age they would become part of it.
They disapproved of spiritual exercises, channeling, and astrology. They rejected the following, taken verbatim in the majority of instances from self-identified New Age books, periodicals, brochures, and advertisements:
Failure can be avoided if one understands life properly.
An energy or force ... will lead to a happy, peaceful new world.
People are totally responsible for everything that has happened to them.
Mankind is at the threshold of a great evolutionary leap of consciousness to new beliefs.
In the final analysis, reality is agreement.
Sin is simply a learning experience.
The effectiveness of an action depends on the person evaluating it.
Truth depends solely on the individual's perspective.
When people disagree they almost always agree at a deeper level.
If everyone had his consciousness raised, the world would be at peace.
In other words, the Critics gave almost no support to statements reflecting moral relativism or belief in powerful forces and heightened consciousness as paths to happiness and peace. Incidentally, a nonsense statement about "holistic channeling of the kundalini" drew the rather typical rejection by the critics in contrast to the "neutral/cannot say" response of the Experts.
Although the Experts on average avoided the extremes of agreement or disagreement, they did agree that ARaising individual consciousness is necessary to save the world," and “Fundamental breakthrough insights tap an innate capacity of the unconscious which all can learn to apply"; and they rejected “Life has no purpose." Thus, the Expert panel seemed rather optimistic; they were neutral (2.80) in respect to the cult-associated Forum, which the Critics considered a “rip-off."
That there was considerable variation in Experts' ratings of statements (and, therefore, more discernment than Critics might be inclined to attribute to Experts) is revealed by the substantial minority, and in one case a majority, of Experts who agreed with Critics on items such as the following:
New Age techniques when mandated for all employees are an invasion of privacy (rated agree by 97% of Critics and 71% of Experts).
Channeling is a fraud (86% of Critics agree; 20% of Experts).
Most New Age concepts are not supported by scientific evidence (91% of Critics agree; 33% of Experts).
In the New Age movement the combination of Eastern mysticism, experimental approaches to psychotechnology, the emphasis on experience, the desire for transformation, and the profit motivation combine to create a strong potential for the development of cultic modes of relating (72% of Critics agree; 47% of Experts).
Thinking that one is God is ridiculous (83% of Critics agree; 26% of Experts).
Morality is a matter of personal preference (11% of Critics agree; 22% of Experts).
Beneficial and Harmful Practices
The authors were interested in the two panels' views regarding 39 particular practices involving a child, teenager, or youth. We had taken these items verbatim from either periodicals and brochures, newspaper clippings, or our direct personal knowledge (Dubrow-Eichel & Dubrow-Eichel, 1989; Langone, 1989). These practices were associated with the New Age as well as with cultic and occult groups. Which practices would the panels consider beneficial or harmful? (See Table 4.) The Critics rated 11 practices as very harmful and 15 as harmful. The only statement they rated as beneficial, with the Experts concurring, was "High school group stages a peace rally on athletic field." (This alludes to a controversy in Pennsylvania between a school administration, supported by its community, and students, supported by the ACLU.) Thus, both panels distinguished a civil liberties issue from practices they considered destructive.
The Expert panel did not differ significantly from the Critics on seven practices that they also considered very harmful and on one practice that fell in the harmful range. They rated only one practice beneficial.
The following statement was taken almost verbatim from an advertisement in a New Age periodical: "A coed with PMS and frequent digestive upsets has bought a book and is following its program which claims that "Many of the common ailments of modern life ... can be dramatically improved or completely corrected without drugs or invasive medical procedures." Half of the Critics but fewer than one tenth of the Experts checked this hazardous medical procedure as harmful or very harmful.
Inspection of the practices presented in Table 4 suggests that whereas the Critics considered those we would classify as cultic, occult, or New Age rather uniformly as harmful, the Experts were more selective. That is, they were negative--though slightly less than the Critics--about a number of cultic and occult practices, as well as recruitment drives in schools by Baptists; and, as might be expected, they were slightly (but not strongly) positive about New Age practices. Dole (1993) has reported that in written comments by a number of Experts, they distinguished benign, sensitive, humane New Agers from exploitative, money-driven con artists who used similar language.
The Critics rated very harmful a personal improvement course offered to Army recruits by Scientology and brainwashing by the Creative Community Project; they rated harmful a TM course "to improve your grades" and an aggressive recruitment drive in the schools by Jehovah's Witnesses--three of which are often associated with cultic practices. The Creative Community Project, for example, was a front for the Unification Church which was exposed in recent litigation as applying undue influence upon Molko and other converts (Nievod, 1993).
Both panels considered harmful or very harmful such occult practices as ritual sex abuse, Satanism, animal sacrifice, and witchcraft. The Critics rated the following New Age practices as very harmful or harmful, but the Experts on average placed them in the 3.00 to 3.99 range (cannot say or somewhat beneficial); no more than a third of the Expert panel considered them harmful or very harmful:
A community college student consults a psychic.
A woman promises college students to channel ascended masters.
Mafu sends messages through his channeler to a high school group.
A high school social studies teacher offers a course in global mind change.
A social worker reads Tarot cards to truants.
Children use extrasensory perception, hypnotic procedures, past-life regression, subliminal message tapes, chanting, meditation, levitation, and crystals to increase their effectiveness.
On the other hand, Experts rated harmful a practice that some associate with the New Age denial of medical treatment to a 6-year-old on the advice of "her spirit ancestor," and Experts were ambivalent about the college sophomore who "drops out to live near a 40-year-old woman who claims contact with a 35,000-year-old wise man." Yet, again demonstrating greater variability than Critics would expect, as much as one third of the Experts agreed with the Critics on many of the preceding.
Thus, this selected group of Experts were moderately favorable and discriminating in their judgments about the New Age movement, rather than zealous and fanatical. As reported in Dole's (1993) analysis of the written comments, a number of Experts argued that the practices presented on the questionnaire were slanted toward the extreme and bizarre and that we had neglected some of the New Age's positive, optimistic, and deeply religious aspects. These accusations raise the possibility for us that the periodicals, books, and brochures we quoted may not be truly representative of current New Age thought. For example, we failed to include items about the conservation, animal rights, and native people's movements which Lewis (1992)--published after data collection--identified as New Age emphases in the 1990s. We did not account for "the process of transformation which the New Age community is constantly experiencing" (Lewis, 1992, p. 11). On the other hand, we are not sure there is one distinct community.
New Age Redefined
As a counterpoint to the Critics' definition of the New Age given at the beginning of this paper, we propose the following as a definition that we believe most Experts would agree with--and probably most Critics:
The New Age movement is an alternative religious paradigm that is rooted in Eastern mysticism, eclectic in its practices and beliefs, tolerant (or undiscerning, depending upon one's perspective) of nontraditional practices and beliefs, and optimistic about humanity's capacity to bring about a great evolutionary leap in consciousness.
Within this diverse movement one can find many who fit the stereotype of the Critics. But this stereotype applies only to a minority; the majority is much more varied. Some are occult "flakes" who are as likely to be criticized by members of the Expert panel as by the Critics. Some are thoughtful intellectuals who, though rejecting fundamental tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition, are neither moral nor epistemological relativists. And some, as with many who ostensibly call themselves Jews or Christians, concentrate their attention on specific causes (e.g., animal rights, environmentalism, or increasing respect for Native American culture) and don't think much about religious and philosophical issues. This group's religious beliefs, though "New Age" in basic outline, may be as confused and inconsistent as the personal belief systems of many Christians and Jews.
This study concentrated on the extreme views held by selected specialists termed Critics and Experts. By and large the most strongly endorsed items were consistent with our findings when quantitative (Dole et al. 1990, 1993) and qualitative (Dole, 1993) methods were applied to the survey responses. These strongly held terms, statements, and practices permit a clearer and more specific comparison of the two panels. They illustrate some of the particular items supporting the general finding: that the Critics were almost uniformly negative about cults, the occult, as well as the New Age, while the Experts tended to support the New Age rather mildly, rejected the occult, and were somewhat tolerant of cults.
Since the present series of studies was sponsored by an educational and research group that is critical of cults (the American Family Foundation), we think there is need for further studies. Such studies might be conducted by researchers with other orientations. They might employ other methodologies that reveal the diversity, fluidity, and dynamic characteristics of the New Age point of view and that sample other New Age constituencies. Furthermore, we need to know more about how cultic groups misuse New Age practices and concepts (Garvey, 1993).
Despite the variability and confusion of the Judeo-Christian and New Age paradigms as they reveal themselves in individual lives, these paradigms are clearly distinct in their essence. At their cores they seem to be incompatible. And they most definitely are competing for adherents in today's religious marketplace. If they are to compete fairly, however, they must understand each other better than is now the case. We hope that the series of studies of which this article is one component will advance mutual understanding and respect by at minimum demonstrating how little genuine understanding currently exists.
Table 1. Criteria Defining the New Age Rated Characteristic by Critics Versus Experts: Means, Standard Deviations, and Percentages
Note: * p < .01
Each criterion statement was rated 5"very characteristic; 4"characteristic; 3"cannot say; 2"not characteristic; or 1"not at all characteristic. Table includes only statements with means from 4.00 to 5.00 (characteristic and very characteristic) for at least one group. No means were below 2.00. Characteristic and very characteristic percentages are shown in the % column. The number responding varies slightly.
Table 2. Terms Rated Beneficial and Harmful by Critics Versus Experts: Means, Standard Deviations, and Percentages
* p < .05; ** p < .01
Note: Table includes only the means of those terms rated from 1.00 to 1.99 (harmful) and from 4.00 to 5.00 (beneficial) on a five-point Likert scale. Percentages represent total of harmful and very harmful or beneficial and very beneficial ratings. Ns vary slightly from term to term.
Table 3. Statements Rated Agree and Disagree by Critics Versus Experts: Means, Standard Deviations, and Percentages
* p < .05; ** p < .01
Note: Table includes only statements with means from 4.00 to 5.00 (agree and strongly agree) and from 1.00 to 2.00 (strongly disagree and disagree), plus percentages of agree and strongly agree.
Table 4. Beneficial and Harmful Practices Involving a Child, Teenager, or Youth Rated by Critics Versus Experts: Means, Standard Deviations, and Percentages
* p < .05; ** p < .01
Note: Table includes only the means of practices from 4.00 to 5.00 (beneficial and very beneficial) and from 1.00 to 2.00 (harmful and very harmful), plus percentages of harmful and very harmful. Ns vary slightly from practice to practice.
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Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., A.B.P.P., is Professor Emeritus, Division of Psychology in Education, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., is editor of the Cultic Studies Journal and executive director of the American Family Foundation. He is editor of Recovery from Cults: Help for Victims of Psychological and Spiritual Abuse (W. W. Norton, 1993).
 * Because of their length, all tables are placed at the end of the article.
 ** CUT and Church Universal and Triumphant, which refer to the same religious group, were presented separately to check reliability.
 *** Fundamentalism was the only term rated harmful by the Experts.