Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD HANDBOOKS ONLINE ( © Oxford University Press, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a title in Oxford Handbooks Online for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 25 March 2019

Alternative Spiritualities, New Religions, and The Reenchantment of the West

Abstract and Keywords

This article asks if the West is witnessing a thoroughgoing erosion of belief in the supernatural. Is the loss of faith in otherworldly forces a linear, one-way, inevitable decline, or are there reasons to believe in the reemergence of religion in the West? On the other hand, if there is evidence indicating that the West is witnessing a gradual “sacralization,” should we abandon notions of “secularization?” Or are we in the midst of a much more complex process in which accurate analysis demands that we take account of both secularization and sacralization, disenchantment and reenchantment? It is argued that while disenchantment is ubiquitously apparent in the West, the forces of secularization have never quite been able to stifle the shoots of religion. Although traditional forms of institutional religion have been seriously damaged and do not seem to be able to arrest the process of erosion, cracks are appearing in the disenchanted landscape and new forms of significant spiritual life are emerging.

Keywords: Western secularization, religious belief, sacralization, spiritual life, supernatural

The disenchantment of the world” (Max Weber), which can be traced back to the Protestant Reformation, is the result of a network of social and intellectual forces. More specifically, it is arguable that the emergence of particular rationality and individualism have led, on the one hand, to the erosion of religion as a communal phenomenon and, on the other hand, to the implausibility of many of its beliefs. While this secularizing process is deceptively complex, the essential idea is simple: “Modernization necessarily leads to a decline of religion, both in society and in the minds of individuals.”1 For Weber, the disenchantment of the world (die Entzauberung der Welt) is the process whereby magic and spiritual mystery is driven from the world, nature is managed rather than enchanted, the spiritual loses social significance, and institutions and laws do not depend on religion for their legitimation.

While not denying Western secularization, this chapter asks whether it is the whole story. Is the West witnessing a thoroughgoing erosion of belief in the supernatural? (p. 40) Is the loss of faith in otherworldly forces a linear, one-way, inevitable decline, or are there reasons to believe in the reemergence of religion in the West? On the other hand, if there is evidence indicating that the West is witnessing a gradual “sacralization,” should we abandon notions of “secularization”? Or are we in the midst of a much more complex process in which accurate analysis demands that we take account of both secularization and sacralization, disenchantment and reenchantment?

While the current state of religion in the West is complicated and difficult to accurately map, and while simplistic analyses should be avoided, as the title indicates, overall I am persuaded that while disenchantment is ubiquitously apparent in the West, the forces of secularization have never quite been able to stifle the shoots of religion. Although traditional forms of institutional religion have been seriously damaged and do not seem to be able to arrest the process of erosion, cracks are appearing in the disenchanted landscape and new forms of significant spiritual life are emerging. As with all life, new conditions require evolution. Religion in the thin atmosphere of the modern West will necessarily evolve away from what we have become used to calling “religion.” Moreover, as future generations of alternative spiritualities become established, rooted, and increasingly mainstream, they may prove more hardy and resistant to the disenchanting forces that their antecedents were ill equipped to deal with. (Of course, that is not to say that there will not be new antagonistic forces.) Indeed, as Cheris Shun-Ching Chan persuasively argues in her study of the Hong Kong group Lingsu Exo-Esoterics, Western reenchantment may be characterized by new hybrid forms of religion which are the result of a dialectical process of the sacralization of the secular and the secularization of sacred.2

The Disenchantment of the West

Looking back over the past couple of centuries, it would seem overwhelmingly evident that religious beliefs, practices, and symbols are gradually being abandoned at all levels of modern society.3 As Steve Bruce commented in 1996, “Sales of religious books have declined. The space given to church and spiritual matters in the popular press is now vestigial; only a sex scandal (for the tabloids) or a money scandal (for the broadsheets) will get the church out of a bottom corner on an inside page.”4 Whereas a more scientifically educated, cynical, and less credulous public is an important factor in the process of disenchantment, it is not the only or even the principal factor. To quote Bruce again, “Increasing knowledge (p. 41) and maturity cannot explain declining religion. There are too many examples of modern people believing the most dreadful nonsense to suppose that people change from one set of beliefs to another just because the second lot are better ideas.”5 Rather, the reasons for disenchantment are primarily social, not intellectual.6 As noted above, secularization is intrinsically related to modernization, in that modern societies inhibit the growth of traditional, institutional religion. Central to societal modernization is the differentiation and specialization of social units. Commerce and industrialization have led to the division of labor and thereby to increasing societal fragmentation. Small, closely knit, family-based communities with the Church at the center, living under a protective “sacred canopy” (Berger), have been fatally eroded. Over the past few centuries religious authorities have lost their grip on the reins of economic power as the world of employment has been increasingly motivated by its own values. Gradually, education, economic production, health care, and a host of other activities have shifted from ecclesiastical control to specialized secular institutions. Consequently, religious influence has gradually weakened to the point that it is all but absent.

Central to this is, of course, the process of pluralization. Communities in which people operated with a shared religious worldview, a shared morality, and a shared identity, and within which an individual's material, intellectual, and spiritual sustenance was provided, are rapidly disappearing. “Kinship, politics, education, and employment all separate from an original unity and assume a dizzying variety of specialized forms. In the process, human society is transformed from a simple, homogenous collectivity into the pluralistic entities we know today.”7 Berger in particular has drawn attention to the fact that, unlike premodern communities in which a single religious worldview was dominant and permeated all areas of community life, in modern societies there are few shared values to which one can appeal and the beliefs an individual does hold cannot be taken for granted. The believer is constantly aware that a faith is a chosen worldview from a spectrum of available worldviews. The consequent popular relativism and the revision of traditional concepts of deity are further encouraged by contemporary consumer-centric cultures that are driven by an insistence on variety and individual choice. Hence, “by forcing people to do religion as a matter of personal choice rather than as fate, pluralism universalizes ‘heresy.’ A chosen religion is weaker than a religion of fate because we are aware that we chose the gods rather than the gods choosing us.”8 Religion is increasingly a private matter. It is not that religion disappears, but rather that it is relegated from the social to the private sphere—which is essentially what Weber had in mind when he referred to “disenchantment.” For example, a palpable consequence of this overall secularizing, relativizing shift in modern democracies has been a series of laws that have repealed certain sanctions in order to ensure the equality of most forms of religious expression. Hence, in Britain, the 1951 repeal of the 1735 Witchcraft Act was not (p. 42) an attempt to promote witchcraft, but rather a logical step in a modern, secular democracy. There is no longer an acceptable rationale for defending the rights of one religious belief system over another. Since religion is simply a matter of personal preference, and since concepts of religious truth have been relativized (there being little empirical evidence to establish the validity of one choice over another, or indeed to establish the validity of any of the choices), there are few reasons to limit choice. As Bruce comments, “Modern society seeks to assimilate all citizens into the mass culture of free-wheeling choice where community commitments are notoriously difficult to maintain.”9

Finally, “rationalization” is central to the secularization of modern societies, in that there is a “concern with routines and procedures, with predictability and order, with a search for ever-increasing efficiency.”10 Rationalization has therefore led both to increased bureaucracy and to an emphasis on process and organization. Everything can and should be done better, faster, cheaper, and more efficiently. Consequently, religious beliefs such as, for example, the value of petitionary prayer and divine providence are at odds with a culture that values predictability, order, routine, and immediate quantifiable returns. Many Westerners, including those with religious convictions, will implicitly or explicitly accept that there are better, more effective ways of getting through life than the traditionally religious ways. As such, secularization theorists point out that there seems to be relatively little left in the world for God to do. For example, in premodern societies immediate spiritual and moral connections would be made with tragic physical events, such as crop failure, and prayers of contrition would be offered. In the modern, industrial world, individuals instinctively seek a physical cause for a physical effect and, consequently, initially turn to physical remedies. Christians may pray for relief from a migraine, but few will not first avail themselves of the appropriate medication. Similarly, we can no longer accept that psychiatric disorders such as epilepsy and schizophrenia are the result of demonic possession. We know there are physical causes which can be very effectively controlled by the careful use of scientifically researched chemicals.

This then is the disenchanted world in which we live. The decline of the community, the proliferation of large, impersonal conurbations, the increasing fragmentation of modern life, the impact of multicultural and religiously plural societies, the growth of bureaucracy, the creeping rationalization, and the influence of scientific worldviews have together led to a situation in which religion is privatized, far less socially important, and far less plausible than it used to be in premodern communities. Certainly, a large question mark has been placed over the notion that there exists a single religious and ethical worldview which alone is true and, therefore, to which all good and reasonable people should assent.

(p. 43)

New Religions, Alternative Spiritualities, and Western Disenchantment

Bearing the above in mind, what are we to make of the emergence of new religions and alternative spiritualities? Do they not present a rather large fly in the ointment, in that their proliferation is hardly a ringing endorsement of the demise of religion in the West? Some theorists have insisted that this is exactly what they are. At best they are manifestations of “pseudoenchantment.”11 For example, Bryan Wilson has argued that, rather than being evidence of the resurgence of religion, they are actually evidence of secularization.12 New religious movements should not be regarded as revivals of a tradition, but rather

they are more accurately regarded as adaptations of religion to new social circumstances. None of them is capable, given the radical nature of social change, of recreating the dying religions of the past. In their style and in their specific appeal they represent an accommodation to new conditions, and they incorporate many of the assumptions and facilities encouraged in the increasingly rationalised secular sphere. Thus it is that many new movements are themselves testimonies to secularization: they often utilise highly secular methods in evangelism, financing, publicity and mobilisation of adherents. Very commonly, the traditional symbolism, liturgy and aesthetic concern of traditional religion are abandoned for much more pragmatic attitudes and for systems of control, propaganda and even doctrinal consent which are closer to styles of secular enterprise than to traditional religious concerns.13

Similarly, Bruce has recently argued that New Age spiritualities are little more than the dying embers of religion in the concluding stages of the history of the secularization of the West.14 Essentially, New Age and Pagan spiritualities provide privatized religion for disenchanted Westerners who want to hang on to the remnants of religious belief without inconveniencing themselves too much. Generally speaking, new forms of spirituality lack religious salience and function as weak substitutes for their dying predecessors. Western culture is increasingly characterized by forms of religion that do not claim absolute truth, do not require devotion to one religious leader, and do not insist on the authority of a single set of sacred writings, but rather encourage exploration, eclecticism, an understanding of the self as divine, and, consequently, often a belief in the final authority of the self.15 In summary, Bruce is confident that the number of people interested in new religions and alternative spiritualities is relatively small,16 “participation is shallow,”17 and their beliefs lack ideological weight. His argument is that “because they are not embedded in large organisations or sustained by a long history … many elements of the New Age are vulnerable to being co-opted by the cultural mainstream and trivialised by the mass media.”18 Indeed, as far as Bruce is concerned, as individualism and consumerism increase in the secular West, all forms (p. 44) of religion will become increasingly trivialized and subject to personal choice and whim.

There is much to commend in this assessment of the nature of the contemporary religious milieu. The disenchanted West has, as Olav Hammer has recently pointed out, “few generally accepted or imposed beliefs. Thus, those seeking religious answers will in a far greater measure be compelled to seek these out for themselves. The decline of religious monopoly in a secularized society may paradoxically lead to a proliferation of competing religious alternatives in a privatised spiritual market place.”19 Having said that, there are problems with this analysis of the situation. Indeed, some theorists are now arguing that this general model of secularization and, in particular, its interpretation of new religions is fundamentally mistaken. More significance needs to be accorded to the fact that, in line with the global trend of a gradual upsurge of religion, and along with streams of “fundamentalist” religion20 (in particular, we might think of the increasing numbers of young Egyptians attracted to conservative forms of Islam, or the challenges made by Hindu “fundamentalists” to secularism in India, or indeed, the emergence of conservative Christianity in Latin America and sub-Saharan Africa),21 there seems to be a subtle yet ubiquitous growth of new religions and alternative forms of spirituality in the West. Whether one accepts all their analyses or not, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the weight of evidence seems to favor the general thesis posited by Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge. Essentially, their contention is that religion per se is so psychologically and socially bound up with the human condition that it is unlikely ever to disappear. Similarly, in a recent revision of his secularization thesis, Berger, after predicting that the world of the twenty-first century will be no less religious than it is today, asserts that “the religious impulse, the quest for meaning that transcends the restricted space of empirical existence in this world, has been a perennial feature of humanity … It would require something close to a mutation of the species to extinguish this impulse for good.”22 Hence, it is reasonable to conclude, as Stark and Bainbridge do, that if mainstream religion loses authority, new forms of religion will evolve to compensate. Consequently, any apparent disappearance of religion is illusory. It follows therefore that the secularization thesis as developed by Wilson and Bruce is flawed.23 However, to accept this general position does not require the wholesale rejection of secularization. Stark and Bainbridge, for example, do not deny the existence of secularization, but rather understand it as part of a recurring process. The following statement is important:

Secularization is nothing new … it is occurring constantly in all religious economies. Through secularization, sects are tamed and transformed into churches. Their initial otherworldliness is reduced and worldliness is accommodated. Secularization also eventually leads to the collapse of religious organizations as their extreme worldliness—their weak and vague conceptions of the supernatural—leaves them without the means to satisfy even the universal dimension of (p. 45) religious commitment. Thus, we regard secularization as the primary dynamic of religious economies, a self-limiting process that engenders revival (sect formation) and innovation (cult formation).

The point is that those secularization theorists who regard new religions and alternative spiritualities as evidence of the ultimate demise of religion in the modern world fail to recognize that secularization is only a stage in a larger process, a stage which will be followed by the increasing significance of new religions. The process is, very briefly, as follows: churches/large religious institutions become ever more secular, liberal, diluted, and indistinct from their “worldly” contexts; consequently, they fail to meet the moral and spiritual needs/desires of their followers; revived breakaway groups (sects) or new, innovative forms of religion (cults) emerge; these grow larger and more established (e.g., sects become denominations); they, too, become gradually more secularized, and the long process continues.

In response to the argument that, relentlessly driven by modernization, secularization is a one-way process, accelerated and made all the more virulent and corrosive by the modern scientific worldview, Stark and Bainbridge again insist that religion will emerge as a dominant social and cultural force simply because science and secular worldviews in general are not able to satisfy fundamental human desires. More particularly, their argument is that naturalistic worldviews cannot offer the much-desired, large-scale rewards and “compensators” that religions offer (e.g., immortality/eternal life). The point is that, while religion cannot offer such rewards directly, it does offer attractive “compensators” which, while second best in comparison to direct rewards, are nevertheless very appealing.

A compensator is the belief that a reward will only be obtained in the distant future or in some other context which cannot be immediately verified.… When we examine human desires, we see that people often seek rewards of such magnitude and apparent unavailability that only by assuming the existence of an active supernatural can credible compensators be created.… Some common human desires are so beyond direct, this-worldly satisfaction that only the gods can provide them…. So long as humans seek certain rewards of great magnitude that remain unavailable through direct actions, they will obtain credible compensators only from sources predicated on the supernatural. In this market, no purely naturalistic ideologies can compete. Systems of thought that reject the supernatural lack all means to credibly promise such rewards as eternal life in any fashion. Similarly, naturalistic philosophies can argue that statements such as “What is the meaning of life?” or “What is the purpose of the universe?” are meaningless utterances. But they cannot provide answers to these questions in the terms in which they are asked.24

Stark and Bainbridge thus define religions as “human organizations primarily engaged in providing general compensators based on supernatural assumptions.”25

Bearing in mind the often mundane, self-centric, even body-centric nature of (p. 46) some contemporary “spiritualities,” I would argue that though this particular understanding of the compensator thesis requires some modification, its central thrust is surely correct. That is to say, although perhaps a significant proportion of those involved in contemporary alternative spiritualities do not belong to a particular “new religion,” “cult,” or “sect,” the point I want to make is simply that there will always be dissatisfaction with, and departure from, secularized worldviews and religions that dilute supernaturalism and thereby allow themselves to become internally secularized. As Christian theologian Vernon White comments, “The bracing world of modernity, with its own priests of rationality, liberated us from superstition. But it also left us a dull, one-dimensional, unconvincing world.”26 My point is simply that such a world will always be fertile soil for reenchantment. Unable to provide credible compensators, such internally secularized religions will decline and be replaced by new groups which either revive traditional compensators (sects) or develop new compensators (cults). This is why secularization is a “self-limiting process.” Because the religious appetite is more or less constant, secularization will always be accompanied by the formation of sects, cults, or (as I think is increasingly going to be the case) networks of individuals (perhaps meeting only in the chat rooms of cyberspace) and small localized groups which are, in turn, the beginnings of new forms of supernaturalistic religion. Disenchantment is the precursor to reenchantment.27

New Religions, Alternative Spiritualities, and the Reenchantment of the West

Not only is spirituality being explored in some unexpected areas of Western life (such as the world of business),28 but modern pluralized societies offer religious innovators an increasingly wide choice of beliefs and practices. Contemporary forms of spirituality may resemble traditional forms of Christianity or incorporate a range of beliefs informed by anything from the doctrines and practices of the world religions to ideas about UFOs. Hence, perhaps the first characteristic of contemporary reenchantment to note is that it is not a return to previous ways of being religious, but rather the emergence of new forms of spirituality and new ways of being religious. In other words, those who study contemporary religion in the West may need to reassess their definitions of religion and what it means to be religious.29 Otherwise it would be easy to survey the religious landscape and, using inappropriate criteria, either fail to notice some central features or else misinterpret them as temporary outcrops or minor seasonal variations. As David Lyon has argued, “Secularization may be used to refer to the declining strength of some traditional religious group in a specific cultural milieu, but at the same time say nothing of the spiritualities or faiths that may be growing in popularity (p. 47) and influence. If we view religion in typically modern, institutional fashion, other religious realities may be missed.”30

Evidence that the resurgence of religion in the West is taking a new trajectory is not difficult to find. For example, Michael York's recent study of alternative spirituality in Amsterdam, Aups, and Bath found that

While the numbers involved with new forms of religiosity remain hard to identify precisely, we can at least recognize the ubiquity and growth of the diffuse religious consumer supermarket which demonstrates an increasingly vital presence in both urban Holland and rural France. These areas are witness to the spiritual ferment which is either a product of, or concomitant with, the decline of traditionally Western forms of religion and the growth of secularization as the acceptable form of public life. Change occurs against a background of ubiquitous experimentation and innovation with regard to spiritual practice—one which eschews dogma, conformity and belief and emphasises both individual autonomy and direct experience.31

Whether he understands the nature of secularization quite as I do is not clear, but his emphasis on nontraditional religious vitality within a secularized context is important—sacralization is taking place as “either a product of, or concomitant with,” secularization.

Even in popular writing and the media, this nontraditional religious vitality is acknowledged. For example, a recent sympathetically written article on Wicca in America in a British teenagers' magazine makes the following interesting (if a little exaggerated) points: “Witchcraft, or Wicca, is the fastest growing ‘religion’ in the USA today. It is estimated that around a million and a half teenage Americans, often as young as thirteen, are practicing Wiccans. Television programs such as Sabrina the Teenage Witch and films like The Craft have sparked continent-wide interest in Witchcraft and awarded it the official Hollywood stamp of ‘cool.’ ”32 (It should be noted that a recent study has found that “while the earliest scholarly reports suggested that American witches predominantly were teenagers or very young adults, subsequent studies found that most of them were young to more middle-aged adults…. Our question about age produced the following results: 15.2 percent were 18 to 25; 26.7 percent were 26 to 33; 25 percent were 34–41; 20.1 percent were 41–48; 12 percent were 48 or older.”)33 This interest is, of course, not a new phenomenon. Nontraditional reenchantment has been a long time coming. In particular, over the past forty years or so there has been a sharp rise in not merely those tolerant of but also those taking a keen interest in new forms of spirituality and in what might loosely be termed “the occult.” For example, the fact that the percentage of “occult” books published since 1930 has more than doubled34 and, according to a recent report in the Economist, “sales of books about yoga and reiki … have exploded in the past 18 months”35 is indicative of the steady increase of popular interest in alternative religiosity.36 Similarly, Paul Heelas points out that not only have, for example, “New Age holidays … expanded (p. 48) rapidly during the last ten or so years,” but “there is no reason to suppose that … spiritual economics will not continue to prosper. Since the 1960s, we have witnessed a clear pattern of growth.”37 Hence, Heelas quite rightly notes that while “it would be misleading in the extreme to conclude that everything going on beyond the frame of institutionalized worship is of great ‘religious’ (or spiritual, paranormal, etc.) significance … many more people are (somehow) ‘religious’ without going to church on anything approaching a regular basis than are attendees.”38 In other words, not only has “religious belief beyond church and chapel … become progressively more significant relative to numbers going to traditional institutions,” but “it is possible to draw on statistics to argue that the numbers of those who have some kind of ‘religion’ without being involved in institutional worship has actually been increasing.”39

Bearing the above in mind, it is no surprise to discover that, according to recent polls, while the numbers of people claiming belief in God or in heaven and hell are decreasing, once questions are asked about non-Judeo-Christian beliefs, or framed in a non-Judeo-Christian way, a different picture emerges, one which shows that growing numbers of people are becoming interested in “spirituality.” Indeed, it is clear that while some people would not regard themselves as being “religious” (almost certainly because of the baggage that term carries), they do understand themselves to be “spiritual”: “31 percent describe themselves as ‘spiritual,’ compared with only 27 percent who say they are ‘religious.’ ”40 Again, while the 1994 British Social Attitudes survey reports 48 percent agreeing that too often people believe in science and not enough in feelings and faith, in 1998 this had grown to 50 percent. Moreover, there are more people who hold recognizably religious beliefs than who want to describe themselves as either “religious” or “spiritual.”41 Similarly, while the numbers believing in “God as personal” are falling, those believing in “God as spirit,” “universal spirit,” or “life force” are rising.42 Understandably this has led to reports claiming that “beyond the empty pews there is a spiritual revival…. Although the British are undoubtedly staying away from church, they are not abandoning spirituality.”43 The point I am making here is simply that, when exploring the contemporary alternative religious landscape in the West, account needs to be taken of those who may not belong to “new religious movements.” As Eileen Barker points out, “There are people who might be horrified at the thought they could be in any way connected with a ‘cult,’ but who are, none the less, ‘recipients,’ even carriers, of ideas and practices that are borne by, if not always born in, NRMs.”44 Some may even carry recognizably “spiritual” ideas and practices that are not borne by or born in NRMs. It is important to think of new religion/spirituality (and the amorphous term “spirituality” has perhaps found a worthwhile, distinct use in this context)45 apart from NRMs.

Interestingly, as I write this chapter, one of the main news stories in Britain concerns comments made by the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, (p. 49) Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, who told a conference of priests on 5 September 2001 that “Christianity was being pushed to the margins of society by New Age beliefs, the environmental movement, the occult and the free-market economy.”46 The reporting of his comments has been interesting. For example, Martin Wainwright of The Guardian writes:

On three counts, the cardinal's analysis was refreshingly blunt. First, he is right to claim that Christianity no longer has any impact on the majority of British people's lives and the moral decisions they make. Second, Christianity's influence on modern culture and intellectual life is nonexistent. Third, a growing number of people now gain their “glimpses of the transcendent” from the loosely labelled New Age…. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor is right. And he shows greater understanding than many of his fellow faith leaders in not equating this dramatic social development with secularization or “tacit atheism,” as the Archbishop of Canterbury described it last year. In fact, opinion polls repeatedly show that around 70 percent claim they believe in God. And while we may no longer believe in eternal life, we do (curiously) believe in reincarnation. In the place of the church or synagogue, people are putting together their own patchwork of beliefs, practices and rituals which provide the meaning, consolation and experiences of the transcendent. This DIY [do it yourself] spirituality gains inspiration from Eastern traditions (from Buddhism and yoga to Sufism) and psychotherapy, but it is now in the mainstream, no longer the preserve of New Age groupies. 47

While, as James Beckford has rightly warned, one should treat the often polarized and sensational media reports of new religions with caution,48 this assessment is broadly supported by a recent analysis of British Gallup Poll data by Colin Campbell:

Apparently straightforward evidence for secularization disguises the fact that this decline has been entirely at the expense of a Judaeo-Christian personal God. For when the question concerning belief “in a personal God” is distinguished from belief in “some sort of spirit or life-force,” then virtually all of the falling off in belief in God over this period is accounted for by the fewer people who are prepared to state that they believe in a personal God. Such people now represent only about one-third of the population when, not so long ago, they constituted over half. By contrast that proportion prepared to admit belief in “some sort of spirit or life-force” has actually increased slightly in recent years. [Concerning the afterlife] that proportion of the population prepared to say that they believe in standard Christian beliefs concerning heaven and hell has declined considerably (so much so that both are now minority beliefs very much on a par with belief in the Loch Ness Monster or flying saucers). However, belief in reincarnation … has actually been going up. About one-fifth of Britons subscribe to this belief, which is even more marked among the young.49

This relative popularity of the non-Judeo-Christian belief in reincarnation50 is interesting. Since the proportion of Hindus, Sikhs, or Buddhists in the West is (p. 50) relatively low (around 2 percent in Britain), it is significant, as Tony Walter points out, that surveys consistently discover that “around 20 per cent of the population of Western countries answer ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Do you believe in reincarnation?’ ”51 Indeed, some surveys indicate that a quarter of Europeans and North Americans do believe in reincarnation.52 Quite simply, there has been a substantial increase “since the middle of the twentieth century when British surveys found figures of 4 per cent and 5 per cent.”53 Moreover, while it may be tempting to simply categorize Western believers in reincarnation as “New Agers,” Helen Waterhouse has demonstrated that, while this may be true of some, many in fact operate within the mainstream of society and “appear to have derived their belief in reincarnation from outside the cultic milieu in which New Age religion operates and they hold their belief in reincarnation alongside more conventional and mainstream attitudes.”54 Consequently, it would seem that the claim that DIY spirituality is now in the mainstream, while perhaps a little exaggerated, is essentially sound. Spirituality is alive and well outside traditional and new religions in mainstream Western society.

Taking this line of thought a little further, an example of what I would understand to be “reenchantment” (i.e., alternative forms of spirituality which evolve, cease to remain purely private concerns, and start to “reenchant” the wider culture) is the way a typically modern, science-based profession such as medicine is now witnessing a rise of interest in what used to be called “New Age healing.” Manuals such as the Nurse's Handbook of Alternative and Complementary Therapies (produced by medical professionals) are being published, and alternative medicine, holistic approaches to illness, and “the spiritual” are increasingly being explored and utilized. This is not surprising given the general public's rising levels of interest. For example, in his now famous study, David Eisenberg of the Harvard Medical School found that ordinary Americans were annually spending more than $13 billion on alternative therapies and that “an estimated one in three persons in the U.S. adult population used unconventional therapy in 1990.”55 As the Nurse's Handbook notes, “Andrew Weil and Deepak Chopra have become household names, and their books espousing the benefits of natural and Ayurvedic remedies sell by the millions.”56 While it would obviously be misleading to claim that all such consumers hold alternative spiritual worldviews, it is significant that, even in the areas of medicine and health, there seems to be a trend away from trusting only the conventional to experimentation with or trust in therapies and medicines which are not only unconventional, but are often supported by spiritual terminology and nonrational explanations. Many of the therapies, for example, have their roots in Eastern religious systems. As the Nurse's Handbook points out (in a way that suggests some verification of their value—which is in itself significant),57 “many alternative therapies practiced today have been used since ancient times and come from the traditional healing practices of many cultures, primarily those of China and India.… The Indian principles of Ayurvedic medicine stem (p. 51) from the Vedas, the essential religious texts of Hinduism.”58 And, as one might expect in such a book, there are references, not simply to exercises and herbal remedies, but also to spiritual concepts and belief systems such as qi (or chi), qigong, prana, meridians, chakras, shamanism, prayer, Healing Touch, and yin and yang. All this and more in a nurse's handbook!

The point is simply that previously unusual spiritual beliefs and practices are being appreciated by and gradually absorbed into mainstream Western society. As Walter states regarding the belief in reincarnation, it is “not an exotic, fringe belief, but an idea that is being explored by a significant minority of otherwise conventional people.”59 This “deexotification” (if I can introduce another ugly term) of previously obscure and exotic beliefs is fundamental to and symptomatic of the process of reenchantment. While many of the particular new religions and alternative spiritualities may still be considered fringe concerns, increasingly their ideas and beliefs are becoming accepted as normal and incorporated into Western plausibility structures.

Secularization theory, as James Richardson has pointed out, “generally implies that religion is something of an anachronism in our differentiated and complex modern world. Anyone who believes is basically not ‘with it’ in the modern age … Rationality marches on and there is something odd about those who do not get in step, even if those discussing this inexorable process lament what they are describing.”60 However, we have seen that, in fact, the opposite is increasingly the case. The gap between religious “deviance” and “respectability” has considerably narrowed in recent years. Whether one thinks of spiritually informed environmentalism, the celebration of supposedly ancient traditions such as “Celtic Christianity,”61 New Age retreats and holidays, the variety of religiously informed remedies and procedures, or spiritualities and practices from astrology to feng shui, these increasingly fail to raise eyebrows in the contemporary West. It is not simply that there is a lack of consensus about what is deviant, but rather that beliefs once considered deviant are now acceptable, even respectable. Consequently, those who do view such ideas as deviant and raise a wary eyebrow are viewed as outdated, out of touch, not ‘with it.’ As Campbell observes, the ideas of organizations which were “clearly ‘fringe’ or ‘cultic’ groups in the years immediately following the Second World War”—the response to which was “typically one of incredulity or ridicule”—are today “commonplace, having entered the mainstream of cultural thought and debate.” He continues, “It is this shift which is significant; not so much the appearance of new beliefs, but rather the widespread acceptance of ones which formerly had been confirmed to a minority; a shift which, it appears, really dates from the 1960s, when they were espoused by that significant and influential minority who comprised the counter-culture.”62

One form of spirituality worth mentioning briefly at this point is contemporary ecological spirituality. Not only is there an apparent skepticism regarding aspects of the scientific worldview, but, as Bron Taylor argues, “earth and nature-based (p. 52) spirituality is proliferating globally,” and while those involved in counter-cultural environmentalist movements may be uncomfortable with the label “religion” (though, I suggest, not with the label “spirituality”), in fact many of the movements are essentially religious.63 For example, while the 1994 British Social Attitudes survey reports that 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that humans should respect nature because it was created by God, in 1998 this figure had risen to 62 percent (in Germany the 1998 figure was 74 percent, in Italy 84 percent, and in Ireland 90 percent).64 Whether one thinks of the increasingly popular “creation spiritualities,” the spiritual interpretations of the Gaia hypothesis, or deep ecology's shift from anthropocentrism to biocentrism, there has been a noticeable reenchantment of environmental concern.65

It should also be noted that, as Walter and Waterhouse have shown regarding reincarnation, Westerners tend to have detraditionalized, individualized understandings of the doctrine. In other words, the doctrine is enculturated or, to use the more managed and purposive Christian missiological term, inculturated.66 Religious belief is always interpreted and shaped by particular contexts, always in the process of becoming. Hence, when, for example, Bryan Wilson comments that new spiritualities are “adaptations of religion to new social circumstances,” or that “they often utilise highly secular methods in evangelism, financing, publicity and mobilisation of adherents,” or that “very commonly, the traditional symbolism, liturgy and aesthetic concern of traditional religion are abandoned for much more pragmatic attitudes and for systems of control, propaganda and even doctrinal consent which are closer to styles of secular enterprise than to traditional religious concerns,”67 he is doing little more than noting the strengths of what one would expect of an evolving religion in a Western context. Many new religions and spiritualities very effectively incarnate their theologies in contemporary Western culture. That they do so does not mean that they therefore trivialize religion and transform it into that which lacks depth and significance for its devotees. My own discussions with contemporary Pagans and New Agers suggest very much the opposite. The point is that, as supernaturalistic religions evolve, not only do they move away from traditional forms of religiosity which appear to offer little to those seeking an authentic spirituality, but they address concerns current in the cultures in which they are evolving (thus, in some cases, inspiring self-sacrificial, political, direct action), sometimes absorb myths which are popular in those cultures (UFOs, conspiracy theories, Gaia consciousness, etc.), utilize new practices, beliefs, ideas, and terms which are understood to more adequately meet spiritual needs, and promote these in effective new ways informed by their contexts. Hence, ideas such as reincarnation, feng shui, chakra, karma, prana, chi, nirvana, Brahman, yin and yang, tao, and meditation are not only entering mainstream Western thinking,68 but they are being reinterpreted and owned by Westerners.

While disenchantment is part of an accurate interpretation of the Western landscape and for many years has been the dominant interpretation, it is time to (p. 53) move on and recognize the emergence of new realities. In many ways I would concur with Linda Woodhead, who notes that “the twentieth century has both confirmed and confounded the ideas of scholars who predicted widespread secularization. While it is true that some forms of traditional religion have declined, it is also true that the late modern West has witnessed the spread of a “luxuriant undergrowth” of religiosity.”69

The Significance of Popular Culture

While I am wary of positing overly speculative theories, it would seem that popular culture is a key reenchanting factor which may have a far more influential role in the shaping and dissemination of contemporary thought than is often acknowledged. Indeed, a similar thesis was hinted at over a decade ago by Campbell and McIver in their examination of cultural sources of support for contemporary occultism.70 The study demonstrates the integration of occultic worldviews within contemporary Western culture. By so doing the study goes some way to explaining why “ordinary” individuals in the West can develop a commitment to apparently obscure occult practices and beliefs. The point is that this is important when it comes to mapping the gradual shift from disenchantment to reenchantment.

Popular culture has a relationship with contemporary alternative religious thought that is both expressive and formative.71 Whether musical, visual, or literary, popular culture is both an expression of the cultural milieu from which it emerges and formative of that culture, in that it contributes to the formation of worldviews and, in so doing, influences what people accept as plausible. Although not discussing religion, Elizabeth Traube nevertheless makes the relevant point that it matters little whether media professionals are concerned with the construction of subjectivities or with the simple telling of pleasurable stories, because the stories themselves “are vehicles for constructing subjectivities, and hence what stories are circulated is socially consequential.”72 My point is simply that, whatever is intended by the producers of popular culture, there is little doubt that people are developing religious and metaphysical ideas by reflecting on themes explored in literature, film, and video games73—which, in turn, reflect popular reenchantment and thus might be understood as part of a process of modern religious “deprivatization” (José Casanova). Moreover, it is not insignificant that producers of popular culture are increasingly interested in alternative religious and occult themes. As Campbell and McIver comment, “commercial interests dictate that the interests of the majority are catered for and hence the extensive treatment of occult themes is yet further testimony to a degree of popular occult commitment.”74

(p. 54)

While I am not claiming that this relationship with popular culture is a new development (for it clearly is not), the evidence seems to suggest that popular culture is both helping people to think through theological and metaphysical issues and also providing resources for the construction of alternative religious worldviews. Belief in astrology or in UFOs are good examples of popular commitment to such nonconventional, metaphysical themes.75 For example, there is evidence of a close relationship between the fact that, as John Saliba has noted, Western popular culture encourages “the idea that space people and/or invaders exist”76 and the fact that there are not only many people happy to entertain the existence of UFOs, but also many who are committed to notions of visitation, abduction, and related ideas. As Thomas Bullard comments, “Belief in UFOs was once an oddity, a badge of craziness in the routines of popular humour. But little by little this belief has become the norm, and nearly half of the population [of the U.S.] now affirms that UFOs are real.”77 In her intriguing book Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace, Jodi Dean argues for the existence of a close two-way relationship between popular culture and seriously held conspiracy theories regarding alien abduction. This rise of interest in UFO mythology and alien abductions is not only reflected in programs such as The X Files; it is also stimulated and shaped by such programs: “The X Files capitalizes on and contributes to pop-cultural preoccupation with aliens.” “Apparently, significant numbers of Americans are convinced. In June 1997, 17 percent of the respondents to a Time/CNN poll claimed to believe in abduction.”78 Similarly, Peter Knight's discussion of conspiracy culture notes that “more than a few X-Files viewers have come to take the show's conspiracy and fringe-science revelations as fact.”79 UFO mythology has not only begun to have a shaping effect on Western plausibility structures, but it is clear, that it has been an important source of inspiration for numerous occult/ metaphysical/New Age belief systems and that it is feeding into alternative spirituality more generally.80

As the connections between the occult and arts-based culture, particularly literature and film, are, as Campbell and McIver have argued, “obvious and indisputable,” it is not surprising that some works of art should be treated as sacred narratives.81 For example, in a recent conversation with one of the moderators of an occult Web site, the religious significance of certain films was explained to me. The Matrix, for example, is understood to be an “initiatic” film, in that it is believed to have been created (wittingly or unwittingly) with certain “trigger” symbols for “those who understand.” As such, it is one of a group of recent films which can initiate a person into a more enlightened, spiritual understanding of reality. Hence, for such alternative religionists (many of whom may only meet with other believers virtually on the Internet—which is, needless to say, becoming increasingly important as a source of spiritual input), understandings of reality and plausibility structures are directly informed and/or supported by such films.

As for literature, while it would be wrong to make too much of children's (p. 55) fantasy stories such as J. K. Rowling's tales of Harry Potter, the significance of such literature on contemporary worldviews is worth mentioning. Campbell and McIver conclude their examination with the following important comments:

No discussion of the sources of support for occultism would be complete without noting that there is at least one place where it has a secure and highly approved position within the culture of contemporary society, a place where it is not condemned but where it is heavily endorsed. This, of course, is in the context of the culture of childhood, which would be largely unrecognizable without the fairies, ghosts, alien beings and magical environments which are its stock-in-trade. Virtually all the themes of adult occultism are to be found in the books, plays and films aimed at children, although not, of course, in a fully elaborated form. Here the “rejected” knowledge of adults is presented as the “accepted” material for children, even if there is an attempt to do so within the framework of “a willing suspension of disbelief.”… [This] necessarily means that almost all members of modern society are introduced to occult material at a tender age. Occultism is thus a central part of the world-view which they inherit and one which they must subsequently learn to reject. It would hardly be surprising if some fail to do so.82

The argument of this chapter has been that, for various reasons, increasing numbers of Westerners are indeed failing to do so. Many are finding such narratives important spiritual resources. Hence, when it comes to thinking seriously about cosmologies and the construction of worldviews later in life, they have a store of terminological and conceptual basics on which to draw. “Fantasy does not necessarily misdirect people away from consciousness raising; it need not be an opiate, but can be the much needed catalyst for change.”83 Alan Garner's trilogy The Wierdstone of Brisingamen, Elidor, and The Moon of Gomrath (my own childhood favorites) are, as Harvey notes, “among the books most frequently mentioned as inspirations (and pleasures) by Pagans—who certainly contribute to their regular reprinting. Similarly, childhood pleasure in the adventures of Asterix the Gaul and his companions has prepared some contemporary Gallic Druids for their ritual ‘roaring at the sky.’ ”84

A particularly interesting example of the direct influence of fantasy literature upon religions and worldviews85 is the relationship that exists between Robert Heinlein's 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land and the establishment of the first Pagan group to obtain full state and federal recognition in America, the Church of All Worlds.86 Taking its name from the fictional religious movement described in Stranger in a Strange Land, the group claims that “science fiction [is] ‘the new mythology of our age’ and an appropriate religious literature.”87 Another example—perhaps the supreme example—of canonized fantasy is J. R. R. Tolkien's magnum opus, The Lord of the Rings, which itself draws on the cosmology of Norse Paganism. It would be difficult to underestimate the significance of this work. “It is arguable,” says Harvey, “that J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings provided (p. 56) metaphorical binoculars through which the realm of Faerie became visible again … Tolkien gave back the words for those other-than-human persons glimpsed at twilight in the Greenwood, declared Faerie to be vital and necessary—and a whole generation grew up in an enchanted, richly inhabited world.”88 Elsewhere he observes that, while academic literature has been important in the construction of contemporary Paganism,

Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and other fantasy writings are more frequently mentioned by Pagans. Fantasy reenchants the world for many people, allowing them to talk of elves, goblins, dragons, talking-trees, and magic. It also encourages contemplation of different ways of relating to the world.… It counters the rationality of modernity which denigrates the wisdoms of the body and subjectivity. Alongside Future Fiction, the genre explores new and archaic understandings of the world, and of ritual and myth, and attempts to find alternative ways of relating technology to the needs of today.89

Although, like C. S. Lewis, Tolkien was writing from a Christian perspective,90 and although many of his themes are, strictly speaking, antithetical to the Pagan worldview, The Lord of the Rings has encouraged a host of Tolkienesque fantasy works which are written from an explicitly Pagan perspective. The point is, again, that particular concepts and cosmologies explored in popular culture are not merely expressions of contemporary interests and concerns, but they lead, first, to familiarization and fascination, and second, to the shaping of new plausibility structures and worldviews. Hence, while there is a complex network of reasons for the rising interest in alternative cosmologies, it seems clear that cult television programs such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, or films such as The Craft or Star Wars, or books such as Terry Pratchett's numerous volumes,91 or the flood of fantasy video games, or the great variety of popular music inspired by Eastern, Pagan, and occult beliefs and practices,92 are in some way contributing to the reenchantment of the West.

To follow this line of thought a little further, it is interesting to compare contemporary “horror films” and films of the same genre made from the 1930s to the 1970s.93 Although there are still few films which wholeheartedly endorse the occult, there is a notable shift away from the unsympathetic treatments of Paganism as sinister, satanic, and dangerously deviant, to more positive portrayals of it as intriguing, sexually exciting, and darkly cool. Having said that, it should also be noted that portrayals of the occult as intriguing, mysterious, and not without an element of sexual appeal are not entirely new; these themes can be found in Gothic literature from Horace Walpole's The Castle of Otranto (1765) to Bram Stoker's portrayal of the iconic figure of a handsome, aristocratic vampire, the appeal of which seems perennial. However, earlier treatments of the occult tended to end with rational explanations for apparently supernatural events,94 thereby reinforcing the rationalist, secularized worldview, or they were essentially moral tales warning against dabbling in the occult and demonstrating the power (p. 57) of the crucifix as a symbol for vanquishing evil (most obviously evident in the vampire stories), thereby reinforcing the Judeo-Christian worldview. Nowadays, the supernatural world is a fact, skeptical rationalists are made to eat their doubting words, occult powers can be used for good as well as evil, Paganism is seen as an environmentally friendly alternative to oppressive institutional religion, and the symbols of Christianity (particularly the crucifix) are shown to be impotent. (Interestingly, when it comes to the forces of evil, particularly vampires, while contemporary films are keen to make the point that on the one hand in the words of the vampire hunter in the film Blade, “crosses don't do squat,” on the other hand, products of the natural world such as silver, sunlight, and garlic have a dramatic effect—their purity and goodness is swift in its destruction of all that is identified as “evil.”) Again, while this is not in itself an argument, in the current context it is significant as an indication of nontraditional reenchantment.

As noted above, a recent article in a British teenagers' magazine made the exaggerated claim that not only is Wicca is the fastest growing religion in America, with an estimated 1.5 million teenage converts; it is also currently viewed as “cool.” That it is cool is worth noting. Popular culture has shaped the thinking of certain sectors of Western society to such an extent that some forms of new supernaturalism are perceived to be cool. Certainly some Pagans are cautiously welcoming many of the increasingly sympathetic portrayals of their beliefs and mythologies in the visual and literary arts. Much of the emerging spirituality may be trivial, image oriented, and socially inconsequential, but some of it will not be.

The majority of alternative religionists are older (60 percent are between 35 and 54; 25 percent are over 55; and almost all of the remaining 15 percent are between 25 and 35), and this is to be expected. Is it surprising that many under the age of 25 would not be interested in attending workshops, lectures, exhibitions, and retreats run by those of an older generation? Is it surprising that they cannot afford to or do not want to spend their money on such activities? Having said that, my own impression of the average age of attendees at Pagan Federation conventions is that they are at the younger end of the spectrum.95 The reason for this is not simply that many Pagan activities are free or inexpensive, but, I suggest, that the Pagan community is less 1960s oriented, more in tune with contemporary concerns, and—while it can slip into folk music, sandals, and woolly jumpers—generally has a strong relationship with popular culture and mythology. Moreover, there is enough evidence to suggest that, just as baby boomers of an earlier generation make up the majority of today's alternative religionists, so today's young people, while not directly involved in spiritual networks, are familiar with the religious ideas and will settle into some form of alternative religion in the future. While the form it will take is difficult to predict, bearing in mind that Internet user statistics indicate that the majority of users are aged under 35 (72.3 percent),96 and that most of the sites surveyed by Lorne Dawson and Jenna Hennebry claimed that they respond to “several messages a day … one award-winning site claiming (p. 58) to receive ‘about 100 messages a day,’ ”97 it is clear that, as Dawson's and Hennebry's research concludes, “the new religious uses of the Internet are likely to exercise an increasingly determinant, if subtle, effect on the development of all religious life in the future.”98

Liminality and Reenchantment

Those familiar with The X Files will know that in Fox Mulder's office there hangs a poster on which there is a photograph of a supposed UFO accompanied by the simple statement, “I want to believe.” These words are indicative of what seems to be the liminal experience of many contemporary Westerners. In referring to the liminal stage, I am, of course, making use of the theories of the anthropologists Arnold van Gennep and, particularly, Victor Turner.99 Many years prior to Turner, Van Gennep identified three phases in rites of passage: the “preliminal,” the “liminal,” and the “postliminal.” The liminal, or the threshold phase, is the period during which a person passes from being an “outsider” to being an “insider,” but during which s/he is neither one nor the other. For Turner, liminality is an extremely important, creative, and transformative period in which real and profound changes take place. During this period the old ways of thinking and the old plausibility structures are questioned and may even be torn down as new ones are adopted and created. Indeed, a rite of passage is essentially a journey from structure, through antistructure, and back to structure as one passes from one's old ways of thinking and behaving, through a transformative stage, to a new world of ideas and practices. This liminal period of adjustment and change, which can be very brief or extended indefinitely, is a period of uncertainty, questioning, and preparation.

While Turner's theories have not gone unchallenged, I do think that many Westerners find themselves in just such a creative, antistructural, liminal period as their worldviews are gradually sacralized. Intrigued by new concepts and novel practices and therapies, many are beginning to dip into a range of spiritual and quasi-spiritual worldviews. Unsatisfied by secular worldviews, unhappy with traditional forms of institutional religion, inspired by an increasingly reenchanted popular culture, but not yet certain of new ideas that seem strange and irrational to their secularized minds, they move from the preliminal stage of detached curiosity to a liminal “I want to believe” stage in which new worldviews are entertained and old certainties are seriously questioned. Understood in this way, it comes as little surprise to read Melanie McGrath's account of New Agers as

suspicious … of the profanity of rationalism, and … a little afraid also of the pace and alienation of the times. Technology too had invaded and terrorized their spirits. The world, to them, seemed to be in the process of decline. They (p. 59) felt overwhelmed by loss—the loss of intimacy, the loss of community, the loss of symbolism, the loss of belief. Disillusioned by conventional religion, which called into question their right and duty to think as individuals, horrified by the rise of Christian fundamentalism, they had decided to make their own way towards meaningfulness.100

That such people are carefully feeling their way into new systems of belief is supported by James Richardson's research into conversion: “Converts to new religions are active human beings seeking meaning and appropriate life-styles. Rational decisions are being made through which self-affirmation is occurring. This affirmation may involve a rejection of past beliefs and behaviours, but converts are not just ‘running away.’ They are involved in an active searching that quite often includes serious negotiations with a group concerning required beliefs and behaviours.”101 However, whether one thinks of new religions or simply private alternative spiritual worldviews, the point to note is that many Westerners are serious seekers whose life is shaped by a search for and commitment to the sacred. “People seem to be taking their religion seriously and, even in the modern world, representatives of the most affluent and well-educated generation in American history are choosing to be religious.”102 While the insecure nature of new religious commitment may be obvious, and while much belief may be experimental and initially trivial, it needs to be understood within the wider context of a gradual, uneven reenchantment. This is a liminal period of unease and transition, the future of which is still unclear.


That secularization/disenchantment has reshaped Western societies cannot be denied. That said, it is myopic not to recognize the significance of the gradual and uneven emergence of personally and socially consequential new religions and alternative spiritualities. As Leonard Glick urges, “those of us who study people's responses to new religious ideas should not labour with the misconception that our world is one in which religion is disappearing. For, to the contrary, the evidence is that new religions are arising all the time, that people do not respond to new problems by abandoning religion but by developing a new religion on the ruins of the old.”103 It seems clear that religion/spirituality is able to sustain itself outside traditional institutions and indeed to thrive within a postmodern, Western consumer climate. That religion is reshaped and relocated (and, consequently, needs to be redefined—possibly as “spirituality”) does not mean that it is thereby trivialized. New forms of religion/spirituality in which the tensions between the (p. 60) sacred and the secular, the spiritual and the rational, the divine and the mundane, the body and the soul are greatly reduced have taken root in the West. Reenchantment is not a modern reconstruction of the enchanted landscape of the past, but new growth in a secularized, globalized, technologically sophisticated, consumer-oriented landscape. As Lyon comments, “religious relationships and movements … are of increasing importance in today's modern world. Much secularization theory produced earlier in the twentieth century mistook the deregulation of religion for the decline of religion.”104 Whether one considers the increasing significance of the body, the importance of virtual communities and the symbolic, or the sacralization of popular culture, just as we are witnessing a revolution in the way twenty-first-century religion/spirituality is lived, so there will need to be a revolution in the way it is studied and understood.


(1.) P. Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” in The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics, ed. P. L. Berger (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000), 2.

(2.) See C. Chan, “The Sacred-Secular Dialectics of the Reenchanted Religious Order: The Lungsu Exo-Esoterics in Hong Kong,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 15 (2000): 45–63.

(3.) See N. D. De Graaf and A. Need, “Losing Faith: Is Britain Alone?” in British Social Attitudes: The 17th Report, ed. R. Jowell et al. (London: Sage, 2000), 119–136; A. Greeley, “Religion in Britain, Ireland and the U.S.A.,” in British Social Attitudes: The 9th Report, ed. R. Jowell et al. (Aldershot: Dartmouth Publishing, 1992), 51–70.

(4.) S. Bruce, Religion in the Modern World: From Cathedrals to Cults (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 34.

(5.) Ibid., 38.

(6.) See B. Wilson, “Secularization: The Inherited Model,” in The Sacred in a Secular Age: Toward Revision in the Scientific Study of Religion, ed. P. E. Hammond (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), 9–20.

(7.) R. W. Hefner, “Secularization and Citizenship in Muslim Indonesia,” in Religion, Modernity, and Postmodernity, ed. P. Heelas (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 150.

(8.) S. Bruce, “Pluralism and Religious Vitality,” in Religion and Modernization: Historians Debate the Secularization Thesis, ed. S. Bruce (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 170.

(9.) A. Walker, Telling the Story: Gospel, Mission, and Culture (London: SPCK, 1996), 6.

(10.) Bruce, Religion in the Modern World, 48–49.

(11.) See W. Swatos, “Enchantment and Disenchantment in Modernity: The Significance of ‘Religion’ as a Sociological Category,” Sociological Analysi 44 (1983): 321–338.

(12.) See, for example, B. R. Wilson, Contemporary Transformations of Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976).

(13.) B. R. Wilson, “ ‘Secularization’: Religion in the Modern World,” in The World's Religions: The Study of Religion, Traditional and New Religions, ed. S. Sutherland and P. Clarke (London: Routledge, 1988), 207.

(14.) See S. Bruce, “The New Age and Secularization,” in Beyond New Age: Exploring Alternative Spirituality, ed. S. Sutcliffe and M. Bowman (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2000), 220–236.

(15.) A particularly strident account of the significance of new religions and alternative spiritualities can be found in Gregory Baum's Religion and the Rise of Scepticism (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1970), 186–197.

(16.) See S. Bruce, “Religion in Britain at the Close of the Twentieth Century: A Challenge to the Silver Lining Perspective,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 11 (1996): 261–274.

(17.) Bruce, “The New Age and Secularization,” 233.

(18.) Ibid., 234.

(19.) O. Hammer, Claiming Knowledge: Strategies of Epistemology from Theosophy to the New Age (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 31.

(20.) See C. Partridge, ed., Fundamentalisms (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 2002).

(21.) See the essays in Berger, The Desecularization of the World.

(22.) Berger, “The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview,” 3.

(23.) See, for example, R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion: Secularization, Revival, and Cult Formation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985); R. Stark, “Modernization, Secularization, and Mormon Success,” in In Gods We Trust: New Patterns of Religious Pluralism in America, ed. T. Robbins and D. Anthony (New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 1991), 201–218; R. Stark, “Rationality,” in Guide to the Study of Religion, ed. W. Braun and R. T. McCutcheon (London: Cassell, 2000), 239–258.

(24.) R. Stark and W. S. Bainbridge, The Future of Religion, 6–8 (emphasis in the original).

(25.) Ibid., 8.

(26.) V. White, “Re-enchanting the World: A Fresh Look at the God of Mystical Theology,” Theology 103 (2000): 347.

(27.) “Disenchantment…has more than one cause. Reason expelled magic and God from ordinary events of nature and history. But it also ejected other methods of knowing, relegating them to marginal, specialist interests, outside the public domain. The far point of separation is now most obviously recognizable in what is called postmodernism: A world in which any number of private interpretations of reality is allowed, but none trusted to lay claim to a common public arena.… In a further twist, radical postmodernism sees reason itself as privatized, distorted by personal agendas. So everything is fragmented and unreliable, nothing can be commonly held. Which brings us full circle. It is a recipe for new superstition and magic.… No wonder we would like to re-enchant the world” (ibid., 349–350).

(28.) As Ewert Cousins comments, “The term spirituality is beginning to appear in contexts where traditionally it has been ignored or banned. In fact, it seems to be encompassing all life. For example, it is emerging in the world of business, where the classical dynamics of spirituality are being tapped. In June 2000, the Chancellor of the University of Massachusetts, David Scott, a physicist trained at Oxford University, organized a conference entitled ‘Going Public with Spirituality in the Workplace, Higher Education and Business.’ We may be in a new phase of the awakening of spirituality that encompasses all of life.” Foreword to C. Erricker and J. Erricker, eds., Contemporary Spiritualities: Social and Religious Contexts (London: Continuum, 2001), xi. See also R. H. Roberts, Religion, Theology and the Human Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002), chap. 3; P. Heelas, “Cults for Capitalism? Self Religions, Magic and the Empowerment of Business,” in Religion and Power, ed. P. Gee and J. Fulton (London: British Sociological Association, Sociology of Religion Study Group, 1991), 27–41; P. Heelas, “God's Company: New Age Ethics and the Bank of Credit and Commerce International,” Religion Today 8 (1992): 1–4.

(29.) Surveys and discussions of trends in contemporary religion in the West focus on traditional institutional religion, particularly Trinitarian Christianity. Typical is Peter Brierley's “Religion,” in Twentieth-Century British Social Trends, ed. A. H. Halsey and J. Webb (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000), 650–674. While brief mention is made of the percentage of occult books sold (which, significantly, has more than doubled since 1930), the percentage of people who believe in phenomena such as ghosts (which has, again, more than doubled since the 1940s), the percentage of people who believe in God as spirit (which has risen since the 1940s), rather than believing in God as personal (which has dramatically dropped) and the importance of “implicit religion” (667), there is no significant discussion of the implications of such beliefs. They are simply mentioned as interesting asides in a discussion of the overall downturn of traditionally Christian belief and practice.

(30.) D. Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000), 21.

(31.) M. York, “Alternative Spirituality in Europe: Amsterdam, Aups and Bath,” in Sutcliffe and Bowman, Beyond New Age, 131.

(32.) Jane Brum, “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Marie-Claire (November 2000), 146.

(33.) D. L. Jorgensen and S. E. Russell, “American Neopaganism: The Participants' Social Identities,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 38 (1999): 330.

(34.) In 1930 occult books constituted 7 percent of religious books published. This gradually rose to 17 percent in 1990, dipped to 11 percent in 1995, and arose again to 15 percent in 2000. See Brierley, “Religion,” 666–667.

(35.) “The Road Well Trodden: How to Succeed in Publishing,” The Economist (19 May 2001), 35.

(36.) “Occult beliefs have increased dramatically in the United States during the last two decades. Far from being a ‘fad,’ preoccupation with the occult now forms a pervasive part of our culture. Garden-variety occultisms such as astrology and ESP have swelled.… Ouija boards overtook Monopoly as the nation's best-selling board game in 1967.… Occult beliefs are salient not only among the lay public, but also among college students, including those at some of our science oriented campuses. The occult trend shows no signs of diminishing.” B. Singer and V. A. Benassi, “Occult Beliefs,” in Magic, Witchcraft and Religion: An Anthropological Study of the Supernatural, 4th ed., ed. A. C. Lehmann and E. J. Myers (Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Co., 1997), 384. The article first appeared in American Scientist 69 (1981): 49–55.

(37.) P. Heelas, “Prosperity and the New Age Movement: The Efficacy of Spiritual Economics,” in New Religious Movements: Challenge and Response, ed. B. Wilson and J. Cresswell (London: Routledge, 1999), 71.

(38.) P. Heelas, “Expressive Spirituality and Humanistic Expressivism,” in Sutcliffe and Bowman, Beyond New Age, 240.

(39.) For Heelas's calculations, which are based, interestingly, on the figures Bruce uses, see, Heelas, “Expressive Spirituality and Humanistic Expressivism,” 240.

(40.) R. Brooks and C. Morgan, “Losing Our Religion,” Sunday Times (15 April 2001), 13.

(41.) Andrew Greeley's discussion of belief in God in Britain highlights the importance of using the right words to ask the right question in the right way. People are clearly sensitive about how they are perceived when it comes to religious belief. Greeley, “Religion in Britain, Ireland and the U.S.A.,” 66–68.

(42.) The Gallup Index of Leading Religious Indicators/Princeton Religion Research Index records the following: “Belief in God or a universal spirit: This percentage has been very high in the U.S. over the last six decades—consistently in the mid–90 percent range. However, considerably fewer (8 in 10) believe in a personal God, that is, a God who watches over humankind and answers prayers” ( [12 September 2001]). See also Brierley, “Religion,” 663.

(43.) Brooks and Morgan, “Losing Our Religion,” 13.

(44.) E. Barker, “New Religious Movements: Their Incidence and Significance,” in Wilson and Cresswell, New Religious Movements, 19.

(45.) Paul Heelas has recently identified the shift discussed in this chapter as a shift from “religion” to “spirituality.” See “The Spiritual Revolution: From ‘Religion’ to ‘Spirituality,’ ” in Religions in the Modern World: Traditions and Transformations, ed. L. Woodhead, P. Fletcher, H. Kawanami, and D. Smith (London: Routledge, 2002), 357–377.

(46.) M. Wainwright, “Church Fears Modern Beliefs Are Undermining Traditional Values,” The Guardian (7 September 2001), 3.

(47.) M. Wainwright, “Our Candid Cardinal: Empty Pews in an Age of DIY Spirituality,” The Guardian (7 September 2001), 19 (emphasis mine).

(48.) J. Beckford, “The Mass Media and New Religious Movements,” in Wilson and Cresswell, New Religious Movements, 103–119.

(49.) C. Campbell, “The Easternisation of the West,” in Wilson and Cresswell, New Religious Movements, 36.

(50.) While some New Agers have sought to convince me that this is not the case and that Jesus actually taught reincarnation, and although such thoughtful Christians as Leslie Weatherhead and, more recently, Geddes MacGregor have seriously considered the doctrine, in the final analysis, it is difficult to disagree with John Whale's blunt conclusion that “there is not a shred of evidence for this doctrine of Karma or a series of Reincarnations in the New Testament” (55). See G. MacGregor, Reincarnation in Christianity (Wheaton: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978); “Is Reincarnation Compatible with Christian Faith?” in A. and J. Berger, Reincarnation: Fact or Fable? (Wellingborough: Aquarian Press, 1991), 89–98; L. Weatherhead, The Christian Agnostic (1965; reprint, London: Arthur James, 1989), chap. 14; J. S. Whale, The Christian Answer to the Problem of Evil, 4th ed. (1936; reprint, London: SCM, 1957), 53–55.

(51.) T. Walter, “Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity,” Sociology 35 (2001): 21.

(52.) See Barker, “New Religious Movements,” 19.

(53.) Walter, “Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity,” 21.

(54.) H. Waterhouse, “Reincarnation Belief in Britain: New Age Orientation or Mainstream Option?” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (1999): 107; emphasis in original.

(55.) D. Eisenberg et al., “Unconventional Medicine in the United States: Prevalence, Costs, and Patterns of Use,” New England Journal of Medicine 328 (1993): 251.

(56.) Springhouse Corporation, Nurse's Handbook of Alternative and Complementary Therapies (Springhouse: Springhouse Corporation, 1999), ix. See also D. Rankin-Box, Nurse's Handbook of Complementary Therapies (Edinburgh: Bailliere Tindall, Royal College of Nursing, 2001).

(57.) See my discussion of the significance of the premodern in alternative religious worldviews: “Truth, Authority and Epistemological Individualism in New Age Thought,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (1999): 87–88.

(58.) Nurse's Handbook of Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 3.

(59.) T. Walter, “Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity,” Sociology 35 (2001), 22.

(60.) James T. Richardson, “Studies of Conversion: Secularization or Reenchantment?” in Hammond, The Sacred in a Secular Age, 107.

(61.) For an excellent, critical treatment of Celtic Christianity, ancient, modern, and postmodern, see D. E. Meek, The Quest for Celtic Christianity (Edinburgh: Handsel Press, 2000).

(62.) Campbell, “The Easternisation of the West,” 37.

(63.) B. Taylor, “Earth and Nature-Based Spirituality (Part 1): From Deep Ecology to Radical Environmentalism,” Religion 31 (2001): 175–193; “Earth and Nature-Based Spirituality (Part 2): From Earth First! and Bioregionalism to Scientific Paganism and the New Age,” Religion 31 (2001): 225–245.

(64.) R. Dalton and R. Rohrschneider, “The Greening of Europe,” in British (and European) Social Attitudes: How Britain Differs: The 15th Report, ed. R. Jowell et al. (Aldershot: Ashgate, 1998), 101–123; S. Witherspoon, “The Greening of Britain: Romance and Rationality,” in British Social Attitudes: The 11th Report, ed. R. Jowell et al. (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1994), 107–139.

(65.) For an interesting anthology see R. S. Gottlieb, This Sacred Earth: Religion, Nature, Environment (New York: Routledge, 1996). A helpful essay when seeking to understand the attraction of ecological spiritualities is Charlene Spretnak's “The Spiritual Dimension of Green Politics,” in C. Spretnak and F. Capra, Green Politics: The Global Promise (London: Paladin, 1985), 230–258.

(66.) As an aspect of the process of contextualization, the concept of inculturation has been developed within contemporary Christian missiology. For an excellent overview of contemporary Christian missiological usage of contextualization and inculturation, see D. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1991), 420–432, 447–457.

(67.) B. R. Wilson, “ ‘Secularization’: Religion in the Modern World,” in The World's Religions: The Study of Religion, Traditional and New Religions, ed. S. Sutherland and P. Clarke (London: Routledge, 1988), 207.

(68.) See Tony Walter's discussion of reincarnation in everyday conversation: “Reincarnation, Modernity and Identity,” 26–27.

(69.) L. Woodhead, “The World's Parliament of Religions and the Rise of Alternative Spirituality,” in Reinventing Christianity: Nineteenth-Century Contexts, ed. L. Woodhead (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001), 81. See also D. Martin, The Religious and the Secular: Studies in Secularization (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1969), 108; and Heelas, “Expressive Spirituality and Humanistic Expressivism,” 239.

(70.) C. Campbell and S. McIver, “Cultural Sources of Support for Contemporary Occultism,” Social Compass 34 (1987): 41–60.

(71.) R. Ohmann, ed., Making and Selling Culture (Hanover, 1996) is an interesting volume discussing the extent “moviemakers, television and radio producers, advertising executives, and marketers merely reflect trends, beliefs and desires that already exist in our culture, and to what extent … they consciously shape our culture.”

(72.) E. Traube, introduction to ibid., xvi.

(73.) It is significant that interactive video games in which fantasy worlds are explored, occult symbols deciphered, new ethical frameworks constructed, and supernatural powers utilized, are not only easily outstripping the sales of films and books, but also they are being discussed as important forms of art.

(74.) Campbell and McIver, “Cultural Sources of Support for Contemporary Occultism,” 46.

(75.) See J. R. Lewis, ed., UFOs and Popular Culture (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2000).

(76.) J. A. Saliba, “Religious Dimensions of UFO Phenomena,” in The Gods Have Landed: New Religions from Other Worlds, ed. J. R. Lewis (New York: SUNY, 1995), 20.

(77.) T. E. Bullard, “Foreword: UFOs—Folklore of the Space Age,” in Lewis, UFOs and Popular Culture, ix.

(78.) J. Dean, Aliens in America: Conspiracy Cultures from Outerspace to Cyberspace (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998), 25, 30.

(79.) P. Knight, Conspiracy Culture: From Kennedy to the X Files (London: Routledge, 2000), 47.

(80.) See C. Partridge, ed., UFO Religions (London: Routledge, 2002); J. R. Lewis, ed., UFOs and Popular Culture; J. R. Lewis, ed., The Gods Have Landed; A. Grünschloβ, Wenn die Götter landen …: Religiöse Dimensionen des UFO-Glaubens (Berlin: EZW, 2000).

(81.) Campbell and McIver, “Cultural Sources of Support for Contemporary Occultism,” 54.

(82.) Ibid., 58.

(83.) G. Harvey, “Fantasy in the Study of Religions: Paganism as Observed and Enhanced by Terry Pratchett,” Discus 6 (2000):

(85.) According to Aidan Kelly, “The only authors who are coping with the complexity of modern reality are those who are changing the way people perceive reality, and these are authors who are tied in with science fiction.” Quoted in M. Adler, Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today (Harmondsworth: Arkana, 1997), 285 (my emphasis).

(86.) The novel's influence is not limited to the Church of All Worlds. For example, certain words used by spiritually inspired environmental activists such as grock (meaning “understand”) are taken directly from the Stranger in a Strange Land. See Taylor, “Earth and Nature-Based Spirituality (Part 1),” 232, 242.

(87.) Quoted in M. Adler, Drawing Down the Moon, 286 (my emphasis). The works of H. P. Lovecraft have also had a direct influence on certain groups, not least Satanist groups. The influence is explicit in the writings of Anton LaVey, the influential founder of the Church of Satan.

(88.) Harvey, “Fantasy in the Study of Religions.”

(89.) G. Harvey, Listening People, Speaking Earth: Contemporary Paganism (London: Hurst, 1997), 181–182.

(90.) See C. Duriez, “The Theology of Fantasy in Lewis and Tolkien,” Themelios 23 (1998): 35–51.

(91.) Again, see Harvey, “Fantasy in the Study of Religions.”

(92.) Much contemporary “world music” explicitly religiously inspired, certain forms of rock music, “black metal” in particular, are (whether out of religious conviction or simply for the sake of rebellious imagery) inspired by occultic, sometimes Satanist, ideas, and much contemporary dance / “trance” music is Eastern and Pagan in orientation. An interesting collection of interviews with popular musicians about spirituality can be found in D. Ehrlich, Inside the Music: Conversations with Contemporary Musicians about Spirituality, Creativity, and Consciousness (Boston: Shambhala, 1997). For recent “music press” discussions of religious trends in popular music see P. Sutcliffe, “Go Forth and Rock,” Q 40 (May 1998): 68–78; P. Wilding, “Lucifer Rising,” Classic Rock 31 (September 2001): 52–59.

(93.) An early example would be the film the founder of the Church of Satan, Anton LaVey, described as “the best paid commercial for Satanism since the Inquisition,” namely Rosemary's Baby. LaVey himself served as a consultant on the film as well as playing the role of Satan, who impregnated Rosemary (Mia Farrow). For an interesting interview with LaVey in which the film is mentioned, see L. Wright, “Sympathy for the Devil: It's Not Easy Being Evil in a World That's Gone to Hell,” in Lehmann and Myers, Magic, Witchcraft and Religion, 393–404. The article first appeared in Rolling Stone (5 September 1991), 63–64, 66–68, 105–106.

(94.) While there are of course exceptions, it does seem to be the case that while the Enlightenment mind was fascinated with the occult, it was also dismissive of it. For example, Ann Radcliffe closed her novels with rational explanations for apparently supernatural events, and, as Gamer comments, while Walter Scott produced many works with occultic and supernatural themes, “he nevertheless moves from producing texts that celebrate black magic and the supernatural to debunking these same subjects in his critical writing—doing so with cool rationality in Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft (1830).” Michael Gamer, Romanticism and the Gothic: Genre, Reception, and Canon Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 33.

(95.) See, for example, M. York, The Emerging Network: A Sociology of the New Age and Neo-Pagan Movements (Maryland: Rowan and Littlefield, 1995), 180.

(96.) L. L. Dawson and J. Hennebry, “New Religions and the Internet: Recruiting in Public Space,” Journal of Contemporary Religion 14 (1999): 24. Interestingly, of all the areas supported by Oxford University's Computers in Teaching Initiative Centre, it received “more enquiries from the non-academic reader on the subject of religion than any other subject.” M. Fraser, “Religion and Theology,” in Guide to Digital Resources for the Humanities (Oxford: CTI Centre for Textual Studies, Humanities Computing Unit, University of Oxford, 2000), 167.

(97.) Dawson and Hennebry, “New Religions and the Internet,” 25.

(98.) Ibid., 36. See also J. Zaleski, The Soul of Cyberspace: How New Technology Is Changing Our Spiritual Lives (New York: HarperEdge, 1997); G. Chryssides, “New Religions and the Internet,” Diskus 4.2 (1996):

(99.) A. van Gennep, The Rites of Passage, trans. M. B. Vizedom and G. Cafee (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960); V. Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-structure (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991).

(100.) M. McGrath, Motel Nirvana: Dreaming of the New Age in the American Desert (London: Flamingo, 1996), 226.

(101.) Richardson, “Studies of Conversion,” 107–108.

(102.) Ibid., 109; emphasis in original.

(103.) Leonard Glick, quoted in ibid., 114.

(104.) D. Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland, 104.