On New Ageism and western appropriations of eastern religion

By ‘New age’ I mean the uprooting of concepts from eastern religions and their implementation into a western, specifically capitalist culture.

The possibility of such an implementation is consequent on the way eastern religious concepts capitalize on tensions between a) those aspects of society that are vestiges of a civilization animated by Christianity, and b) enlightenment rationalism, and c) the demands of a growing consumer culture oriented around the conspicuous consumption of purchased goods.

Relative to western monotheistic counterparts, eastern religions accord less importance to both concrete events (and consequently to both symbolism and history),and to the concepts of sin and final judgment. Instead of these, eastern religions tend to be more abstract and ahistorical, are more likely to conceive of good and evil in terms of cosmic balance rather than personal sin and righteousness, and provide concepts of cyclical death and rebirth in place of those of final judgment and reward.

Relative to western enlightenment rationalism, eastern religions – like the east generally – are understood to be mystical rather than rational. Hence, eastern religious discourse is understood to speak to ethical or emotive concerns, in contradistinction to factual matters. In this respect, 20th and 21st century western appropriations of eastern religion in the New Age movement are analogous to 19th century Romantic appropriations of the middle ages.

All of the above are characteristics where New Age religion compares well with the aims of American consumerism precisely where they conflict with traditional western monotheism. The tendency to downplay positive ethical action and motivations and instead emphasize the contribution to the whole mirrors that found in capitalist understandings of the human person as producer contributing to value-indifferent measures like GDP: the whole appears to work even if its participants are motivated by greed and self-interest. The ahistoricity and non-symbolic bent of eastern religion works against both specifically Christian sacramentalism and the attachment to events and places common across Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. In this respect, it provides support to enlightenment rationalist traditions relative to older religious traditions. But against rationalism and in accord with modern consumerism, it elevates will and feeling against reason. In this way, it provides weight to the consumerist tendency to view things in terms of their ability to satisfy desires or to interfere with inner tranquility, thereby providing incidental support to the effort to monetize the satisfaction of these desires and the maintenance of a state of personal equilibrium –as is seen, for instance, in yoga studios and meditation apps. The absence of a central notion of final judgment is leveraged to minimize self-harm and foster an attitude of self-esteem, the latter of which is strengthened by the pantheistic elements within eastern religions which encourage self-identification with a deity.

But New Age religion stands with western consumerism, against historic eastern religious practice, in several important respects. First, it presupposes a late western distinction between the mystical and the rational precisely to set the former off in a realm where its claims cannot be rationally judged. Next, it while eastern religions do place less emphasis on symbolism and historicity than their western counterparts, New Age appropriations minimize this role further, downplaying the role of symbols and storytelling in eastern texts like the Baghavad Gita and the Zhuangzi. Third, having focused on the more abstract content, it then interprets this in accordance with a western distinction between the internal self and the external world as a one between realms of values and facts. In this way, rather than being instantiated in group practices, New Age treatments of eastern religion almost entirely internalize and psychologize them. In this way, those practices which are appropriated become subsumed under western categories of mental and physical wellness, where they can be marketed to those unsatisfied with their current life in just about any respect. In this way, they serve as a monetized, purely internalized substitution for traditional communal western monotheistic practices of redemption of the self.


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