Wednesday, May 14, 2008

New Religiosity; If Not New Age, Then What?

Kennet Granholm, University of Amsterdam

A report on three sessions at CESNUR 2008....

Two sessions on “Western Esotericism and New Religiosity” at CESNUR 2008 included papers dealing with everything from contemporary Satanism to terrorism with New Age undertones in Chechnya.

  • A reccurring theme was the critical assessment of different theories and perspectives on Western Esotericism, something included to some extent in almost all of the papers.
  • Of particular interest were
    • Openings for Power-Oriented Conceptualizations of Western Esotericism” by Nina Kokkinen (doctoral student, University of Turku, Finland). This drew on critical studies of religion where the understanding of religion as a demarcated social institution is strongly criticized, and endeavoured to employ similar mechanisms in conceptualizations of Western Esotericism. In short, Kokkinen suggested that Esotericism should not be construed as a strictly separated domain, but rather a human undertaking which has close connections to material, political and social dimensions of human life.
    • “New Age Terrorists from Chechnya and Anthroposophist Presidents from Georgia: How ‘Western’ is Western Esotericism?” by Eduard ten Houten’s (University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands). This discussed the important issue of what “Western” means in conceptualizations of Western Esotericism. This is a question which too frequently remains overlooked, with the focus most often being on the second word of the concept, Esotericism.
    • Other interesting papers were
      • Gordan Djurdjevic (University of British Columbia, Canada), "The mage Aleister Crowley and his Thelema as a postmodern religion."
      • Fredrik Gregorius (University of Lund, Sweden), "The reawakened interest in 'tradition' as a legitimating tool in esoteric new religious movements."
      • Thomas Karlsson (University of Stockholm, Sweden), "The political implications of the worldview of the Rune-Gild."
      • Jesper Aagaard Petersen (Norwegian University of Science and Technology), "Contemporary Satanism and the interplay between the secular and the esoteric."

In a session on “If Not New Age, Then What?” George D. Chryssides (University of Wolverhampton, United Kingdom), Steven Sutcliffe (Edinburgh Divinity School, United Kingdom), Liselotte Frisk (Dalarna University, Sweden) and I discussed the “to be or not to be” of the New Age concept.

  • Whereas Chryssides defended the continuing use of the term, the rest of the speakers were more critical.
  • In my own opinion, New Age is in essence a “non-category” which brings with it far more problems than it has any chance of ever resolving. One of the central problems with New Age is that scholars have been generally unsuccessful in defining it in any satisfactory manner. This, in turn, has often resulted in the creation of cumbersome and all too inclusive lists of “Wittgensteinian family resemblances,” through which basically anything could be defined as being New Age. My suggestion for solving the problem is to forgo the term and concept altogether and instead shift the focus to the mass-popularization of esoteric discourse and themes. This shift of perspective to processes of religious change would provide many benefits, not least of which would be the discarding of the necessity to posit the coming into being of a “new” form of spirituality in the West.
  • One of the points in Steven Sutcliffe’s presentation was the critique of extensive, essentially normative, categories. For example, he discussed the problematic categories of "World Religions," and illustrated how they are the result of power relations where certain forms of religiosity are valued more highly than others. In addition, large categories such as these tend to have the effect of downplaying differences between phenomena while at the same time overstressing similarities (and at times even inventing non-existent similarities). Instead of being consumed by the allure of constructing categories we should focus on specific religious phenomena.
With the massive amount of papers on esoteric subject presented at the conference, it is impossible to provide even brief accounts of everything that was discussed. The above therefore focusses on three sessions that I convened.

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