The New Age Movement: Fad or Menace
Cultic Studies Review, 7(1), 1990, 26-40
The New Age Movement: Fad or Menace?
Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D.
American Family Foundation
Steve Dubrow-Eichel, Ph.D
In order to shed light on the much-used but ambiguous term "New Age," two panels of experts, one consisting of scientific skeptics and the other consisting of cult researchers, were asked to rate 340 items deemed at least remotely related to the concept "New Age." Subsequent ratings and statistical analyses permitted the identification of six statements that appear to characterize the "New Age." As rated by these groups of experts, the New Age is an eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques that are rooted in eastern mysticism, lack scientific evaluative data, and are promoted zealously by followers of diverse idealized leaders claiming transformative visions. We also inquired about recommended criteria for research on effectiveness of New Age techniques, the relative harmfulness or benefit of practices and terms, and the acceptability of philosophies associated with the New Age. These findings are deemed tentative. Additional groups, including New Age proponents, must be surveyed before the "New Age" can be defined with confidence.
The so-called New Age movement has spawned a mass of popular books and journals, courses and workshops, proponents and critics, and offbeat and unusual practices which seem to have a strong appeal around the world. The media, including television, the popular press, movies, and bookstores, frequently feature ghosts, Satanism, astrology, crystals, etc. In allegedly espousing magic and mysticism, the New Age has evident linkages to certain strains of contemporary thought in religion, philosophy, psychology, and psychiatry. It has been said to offer to the public, especially to the gullible, easy answers to difficult problems.
Defining the New Age is not easy. The concept has been applied to the serious and the bizarre, to transpersonal psychologists writing in respected journals and to attempts to improve health by wearing pyramid-shaped hats. Further muddying the water is the ambiguity surrounding the concepts "cult" and "occult," both of which appear to overlap "New Age" to some degree. These three phenomena, which may have their roots in (far from new) eastern mysticism, folk religion, or ancient superstitions, have stimulated considerable media attention. But only cults, particularly those with a religious bent, have attracted much attention from serious researchers. When we generated a list of over 1500 citations to cult and occult topics, only 7% concerned the New Age. Typically, these were critical analyses (Alexander, 1987; Dubrow-Eichel & Dubrow-Eichel, 1988; Kurtz, 1989; Langone, 1989; Raschke, 1989; Rosedale, 1989; Shore, 1989) from the perspectives of theology, philosophy, social psychology, sociology, law, or clinical observations. It is noteworthy, however, that at least two scholarly journals, the Cultic Studies Journal and the Skeptical Inquirer, are hospitable to articles about the New Age.
In this study, which is part of a larger examination of the New Age, we asked panels with recognized expertise for their opinions on five major topics: (1) defining characteristics, (2) the important characteristics of research on effects, (3) the extent to which practices involving teenagers, children, and youth were harmful, (4) the extent to which terms associated with the overlapping categories of cult, occult, and New Age were harmful, and (5) the degree to which statements culled from the New Age literature were endorsed or rejected. In this particular study our focus was primarily on identifying survey items for which consensus was evident. We were not interested in comparing groups.
We drew our panels of experts from two somewhat different groups -- advisory board members of the American Family Foundation (AFF) and fellows of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP). Although emphasizing research and education about cults, AFF has also sponsored publications and workshops on Satanism and on the New Age. CSICOP, which stresses critical analysis of occult phenomena, views the New Age from a factual, scientific perspective.
We were also interested in comparing those items associated with the New Age, Satanism, and cults about which the AFF and CSICOP panels agreed. We recognized that certain New Age programs might employ cultic techniques of persuasion and control and might also employ occult practices (e.g., channeling). Furthermore, we realized that while secular cult experts distinguish the New Age from Satanism, Christian fundamentalists often do not. Therefore, we generated a large and diverse item pool.
Since in this particular study we were most interested in identifying those opinions about the New Age and associated phenomena which experts agreed upon, we adopted a descriptive design. Modifying the Delphi procedure in which specialists are asked to make predictions, we compared items on Likert scales, looking for consensus on the extreme positions. Although we used two somewhat different panels, we postponed systematic comparisons between them. Instead we stressed agreement.
The primary panel included 20 advisory board members of the American Family Foundation (AFF). AFF's mission is to encourage education and research about cultic groups and psychological manipulation. Board members are selected on the basis of expertise and leadership. The AFF panel included 11 men and 9 women, with ages ranging from 38 to 72, and an average age of 50. Seven described themselves as Jewish, six Protestant, five Catholic, and one had no religious preference. Four listed themselves as leaders of anti-cult organizations. Two were editors of periodicals critical of cults. Two were academics in major research universities who were recognized for their research on new religions. Two were active as therapists and exit counselors. Two were distinguished theologians. Other participants included an engineer, a personnel director, and a veterinarian.
Of the 20 people on the AFF panel, 7 completed the survey a second time (AFF 2). Following Delphi procedures, this subset of the AFF panel was provided with the mean response on the first administration in order to encourage consensus and to identify stable items.
Eight fellows of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal comprised the third panel. CSICOP, which publishes the Skeptical Inquirer and sponsors an annual conference, attempts to evaluate allegedly paranormal phenomena, such as ESP, psychics, and Transcendental Meditation. Seven CSICOP panelists were men and one a woman. Their average age was 57, with a range from 34 to 81. Six indicated no religious preference and two classified themselves as humanists. Of these well-known intellectuals, two were professional writers and two scientists, while the other three were, respectively, an executive officer, a philosopher, and a fund-raiser.
New Age Survey
The New Age Survey included 340 items classified into five parts. Panelists were presented with:
65 terms and asked to indicate their extent of acquaintance on a five-step Likert scale (5--very well acquainted to 1--not acquainted) and "the extent to which you think the term represents something beneficial or harmful" (5--very beneficial; 4--beneficial; 3--neutral/cannot say; 2--harmful; 1--very harmful).
82 statements, including New Age philosophies and opinions about New Age, and asked to "please indicate the degree to which you agree or disagree" (5--strongly agree; 4--agree; 3--cannot say; 2--disagree; 1--strongly disagree).
14 criteria which "have been suggested as defining the New Age...rate each" (5--very characteristic; 4--characteristic; 3--cannot say; 2--not characteristic; 1--not at all characteristic).
12 statements to be rated for importance for "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).
67 statements describing "a practice involving a child, teenager or youth" (5--very beneficial; 4--beneficial; 3--neutral/cannot say; 2--harmful; 1--very harmful).
The New Age Survey took about 60 minutes to complete. Comments were invited.
In developing the survey, we interviewed experts, invited groups of them to brainstorm in open discussion, reviewed New Age publications, scanned publisher's listings, and examined articles in the popular press as well as the Skeptical Inquirer and the Cult Observer, a bi-monthly magazine that reviews press accounts concerning cultic groups. We also drew on our personal experiences. Verbatim statements of New Age philosophy were selected empirically from publications and advertisements which described themselves as New Age. We made no assumptions as to what New Age beliefs were and relied as much as possible on public self-descriptions. To verify respondent cooperativeness and alertness, we introduced a few trick items (e.g. "Meta-analysis" is a term from statistics) and duplications. We piloted the survey on three experts not associated with AFF and CSICOP. Finally, we constructed the New Age Survey as an exploratory instrument and postponed consideration of its psychometric properties in the traditional sense, as will be further addressed in the analysis section.
With the cooperation and sponsorship of AFF we mailed an invitation to participate to 71 advisory board members: "As a result of your standing as an expert on cults, as well as your active membership in the American Family Foundation, your considered opinion would be highly valuable to the outcome of this study." The 20 usable responses represented a 28% return. Respondents were also advised that the second questionnaire would be forthcoming "to obtain and refine group judgments." Approximately 6 months after the first administration, identical New Age Survey forms were distributed first at the AFF annual meeting and then by mail to those not replying. Of 29 returns, 7 had participated in the first administration and were set aside for this analysis. (The 22 "new" panelists were reserved for inclusion in other studies.) With the cooperation of the chairman of CSICOP (Dr. Paul Kurtz), 48 fellows were invited by mail to participate "in a research project designed to measure knowledgeable opinions about the New Age Movement." The 8 usable replies (17%) comprised the CSICOP panel. Replies from a second mailing to CSICOP fellows and proponents of the New Age have been set aside for possible subsequent analyses.
In this exploratory study we were interested in identifying items on which experts had a consensus, rather than comparing subgroups or identifying correlates of respondent characteristics. Thus, we were evaluating the validity of opinions by examining agreement as reflected by positions on Likert scales, especially extreme positions such as "very harmful" and "harmful." If the AFF panel and the CSICOP panel each yielded skewed means (4.00 or higher; 2.00 or lower) in the same direction, this would be further evidence of item validity. Therefore, we calculated means on the 340 items for the two panels separately. We then identified in rank order by AFF mean within the five classifications the most strongly endorsed items.ÿ_ÿ_Single items on surveys are notoriously unreliable by and large. We reasoned that if the AFF2 panel agreed about the extreme for an item at least 71%, and preferably 100%, we could consider that the original AFF mean was stable. Applying these criteria, we eliminated from the list of strongly endorsed items those about which AFF2 panelists disagreed. By inspection of the 165 items we also eliminated any in which AFF panelists indicated in a majority of instances (11 or more) that they were slightly or moderately acquainted. Despite the admittedly small and unrepresentative nature of the panels, we believe that the five lists of items yielded by these procedures are reliable and meaningful. On the other hand, we have less confidence in the items which did not survive these procedures. Nor can we justify comparisons among the three panels. Larger samples and more sophisticated analyses, however, may eventually enable us to compare AFF with CSICOP as well as with proponents of the New Age.
Results and Discussion
New Age Characterized
We identified six statements (Table 1) as characterizing the New Age:
"An eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques.
"Inadequate scientific data regarding effectiveness."
"Create zealous promoters."
"Rooted in eastern mysticism."
"Idealization of a leader who claims founding transformative vision."
"Contradict my beliefs."
The statement, "psychological manipulation and coercion" almost met our criteria for inclusion. Because these characteristics are shared with many cults, they may help account for AFF's concerns about the New Age.
Items Rated Very Characteristic or Characteristic of New Age by AFF Panels, Plus CSICOP Mean
Note. Fourteen items were rated on the following scale: 5--very characteristic; 4--characteristic; 3--cannot say; 2--not characteristic; 1--not at all characteristic. Items exceeding a mean of 3.90 for AFF panel are presented above in rank order.
Interpretation of columns. AFF = American Family Foundation panel (n = 20). M = Mean. AFF2 = American Family Foundation repeat panel (n = 7), % = percentage rating item characteristic or very characteristic. CSICOP = Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal panel M = Mean.
Items Rated Very Important or Important for a Scientific Study of the Effectiveness of a New Age Program by AFF Panels, Plus CSICOP Means
Note: Nine items were rated on the following scale: 5--very important; 4--important; 3--cannot say; 2--not important; 1--not very important. Items with an AFF mean of 4.00 or above and AFF2 % exceeding 70% are presented above in rank order.
Of nine statements, four (Table 2) were considered by the panels as important for a scientific study of the effectiveness of a New Age program: "Peer review," "source of funding," "used control group," and "behavioral measures." Rigorous well designed objective studies of New Age practices are scarce and certainly needed
Of 67 practices, 30 were rated (Table 3) as harmful or very harmful to children, teenagers, or youth. The 10 most harmful practices with ratings of 1.00 to 1.21 were:
"Teenagers join satanist group and make a murder suicide pact."
"Woman operates day care center which participates in ritual sexual abuse."
"Minister persuades children to have sex to remain in God's good grace and build your demon-fighting powers."
"A teenager is brainwashed by the Creative Community project."
"After a period of prayer, meditation, and fasting, a high school freshman sacrificed a goat at the command of his Satanic guru"
"Army draftee is ordered to take a personal improvement course offered by the Church of Scientology."
"Teenager sacrifices rats during a mystic ceremony led by a witch."
"Woman claims her son joined Temple of Brotherhood of the Ram and threatened to kill her."
"Satanists stage an aggressive recruitment drive in area schools."
"A teenager is brainwashed by the Creative Community project." (Note that the "brainwashing" item was presented twice as a rough check on response consistency.)
"A college sophomore drops out to live near a 40-year-old woman who claims contact with a 35,000-year-old wise man."
On inspection, the first three practices are clearly violations of law; other practices evidently are bizarre, but some which appear innocuous were rated harmful by panelists with specialized knowledge. For example, courses which purport to improve concentration, raise grades, and enhance personality often involve psychological manipulation. Incidentally, academics, theologians, and legal authorities differ as to whether or not brainwashing exists and is harmful. The AFF panels' rating of brainwashing, however, was supported by the skeptics.
Practices Involving a Child, Teenager, or Youth Rated Harmful or Very Harmful by AFF Panels, Plus Mean Rating of CSICOP Panel
Note. Sixty-seven items were rated on the following scale: 5--very beneficial; 4--beneficial; 3--neutral, cannot say; 2--harmful; 1-very harmful. Items with an AFF mean of 2.00 or below and 3.30 or above and AFF 2% exceeding 70 are presented above in rank order.
It is also noteworthy that the most harmful practices were, by and large, associated with Satanism and cults, not the New Age, which these panels of experts apparently distinguish from the former.
Terms Rated Harmful
Table 4 presents the 26 terms which were rated by the AFF panel from 1.00 to 2.42 on a harmful/beneficial Likert scale. Of the 165 terms presented, the 10 rated most harmful were:
Thus, the list includes terms associated with four religious cults and two personal growth program. "Cult" (1.50) outranked "occult" (1.82) and "New Age" (2.05). On the other hand, a number of terms selected from New Age publication ("natural healing," "rebirthing," "channeling," "levitation," "palmistry," "crystals," "astral projection," and "spiritualism") made the top 26 group.
The panelists were not well acquainted or only mildly acquainted with many of the terms which we had culled from New Age publications. It should be mentioned briefly here that the AFF experts differed both in acquaintance and harmful/beneficial ratings on many terms from the CSICOP fellows. We were impressed in our review of New Age publications with the very large number of terms, many of which are largely unknown except to proponents and devotees. Variety and complexity also appear to characterize the New Age. (These characteristics account for the length of our survey.)
Among the terms presented to the panels were 20 "New Age groups as a random sampling" identified by Eddie Noonan and published in the U.K. Of these 12 received an acquaintance rating below 2.00, suggesting that a substantial proportion of New Age groups are local in character. (The inclusion of Unitarians on Noonan's list -- rated 3.11 on acquaintance and 3.31, on the beneficial end of the scale -- raised the ire of three panelists who belonged to this denomination!).
Terms Rated Most Harmful/Beneficial by AFF Panels, Plus Mean Rating by CSICOP Panel
Note. One-hundred-sixty-five terms were rated on the following scales: Extent of acquaintance: 5--very well acquainted; 4-- well acquainted; 3--moderately acquainted; 2--slightly acquainted; 1--not acquainted. Extent beneficial/harmful: 5--very beneficial; 4--beneficial; 3--neutral, cannot say; 2-- harmful; 1--very harmful. Items with an AFF mean of 2.42 or below or 3.55 or higher and AFF2 % of at least 80 are presented above.
A majority of this panel indicated they were slightly or not acquainted with this term (CAN = Cult Awareness Network).
These terms were presented twice as a rough check on response consistency.
Opinions and Beliefs
Of 82 statements that the panelists rated on a 1 (strong disagreement) to 5 (strong agreement) Likert scale, 30 are presented in Table 5 as most accepted or rejected. These statements included expressions of New Age philosophies and opinions about the New Age. Three statements were rated 4.50 or above (strong agreement):
"Channeling is a fraud
"New Age techniques, when mandated for all employees, are an invasion of privacy
"Most New Age concepts are not supported by scientific evidence."
Eight statements were rated 1.50 or above (strong disagreement):
"Once you realize that you are God, you understand all."
"Spiritually advanced people succeed at everything they attempt."
"Because man is a deity and can do no wrong, there is no sin, no reason for guilt."
"If people really understood the New Age, they would become part of it."
"Mankind is at the threshold of a great evolutionary leap of consciousness-transformation guided by an omnipotent energy or force that will lead to a peaceful, happy, united new world."
"Channeling is a skill that can be used by anyone who wants to connect with universal needs, higher self, or spirit guide."
"The purpose of life is to realize that one is God."
"There is an energy or force in the universe that will lead to a happy, peaceful new world."
Recalling that the AFF panel was comprised proportionately of Jews, Catholics, and Protestants and included several who were employed by various denominations, we hypothesize that the New Age philosophies may have been offensive to those of traditional theological beliefs. Nor, by and large, were these philosophies acceptable to the scientific skeptics.
New Age Philosophies and Opinions About New Age Rated by AFF Panels Plus Mean Rating by CSICOP Panel
Note. Eighty-two statements were rated on the following scale: 5--strongly agree; 4--agree; 3--neutral, cannot say; 2--disagree; 1--strongly disagree. Statements with an AFF mean of 4.00 or more or 2.00 or less and an AFF2 % of 80 or more are presented above.
The results of this survey suggest that a number of comments may be made with confidence about the consensus of American Family Foundation advisory board members with respect to the New Age. They defined New Age as an eclectic collection of psychological and spiritual techniques rooted in eastern mysticism. Although viewed as less dangerous than Satanism and religious and self-improvement cults, New Age programs were considered similar in their dependence on idealized leaders and use of psychological manipulation. Practices associated with cults and especially with Satanism were rated harmful to children and youth. The New Age was not viewed as a passing fad, and its philosophies were offensive. In addition to Scientology, the Church Universal and Triumphant, EST, and Lifespring, channeling, astral projection, levitation, crystals, and rebirthing were considered harmful. Courses which purport to improve grades, concentration, or personality or to use psychotechnology for personal growth were rated more harmful than beneficial.
Were the panelists qualified to evaluate the New Age? AFF advisory board members, selected for expertise and leadership in cult matters, rated themselves well-acquainted with the New Age (4.11 on a 5 point scale). Several had written books and articles (e.g., Raschke, 1989; Rosedale, 1989) and lectured at professional meetings on the New Age. They were, incidentally, traditional in religious preference. Unlike the skeptics, they could hardly be accused of bias against all religions; rather, their responses to the survey suggested they were attempting to sort out harmful from beneficial practices. If Unitarians were acceptable, CARP (Collegiate Association for Research of Principle) advocates were not.
Is the charge of brainwashing unfounded? Whether presented as "brainwashing" or the more sophisticated "psychological manipulation and coercion," the AFF and CSICOP panels rated such behavior very harmful. However, our data do not fully support the conclusion that brainwashing is an integral feature, or even a commonly observed feature, of the New Age. In contrast, two of us (Dole and Dubrow-Eichel, 1988) have reported that AFF panelists consider the use of "brainwashing" techniques to be a major destructive characteristic of some new religions. On the other hand, our AFF and CSICOP panelists agreed that "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."
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This research was supported by the Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania and by the American Family Foundation. George Woodruff was a research assistant. An earlier version of this paper was arranged for presentation by Dr. Patricia Cautley, on behalf of Dr. Dole, at the International Council of Psychologists in Tokyo, Japan, July 1990.
Arthur A. Dole, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor, Division of Education in Psychology, Graduate School of Education, University of Pennsylvania.
Michael D. Langone, Ph.D., Editor of the Cultic Studies Journal, is Director of Research and Education for the American Family Foundation.
Steve Dubrow-Eichel, Ph.D. is Director of RETIRN (Re-Entry Therapy, Information & Referral Network), a cult counseling facility, and Supervising Psychologist and Clinical Director of the St. Francis Home for Boys in Bensalem, Pennsylvania.