FROM THE VENTURE-CAPITAL-BACKED PILGRIMS TO the Methodists and Baptists and Christian Scientists, from L. Ron Hubbard to the Christian Broadcasting Network and today’s numberless nondenominational churches, American religion has always been entrepreneurial. By this, I don’t mean it’s therefore insincere or dominated by charlatans. I mean simply that American religious visionaries have always created independent enterprises to distribute and promote their magics as they see fit.
Therefore what I’m calling New Age, even though it consists of a zillion different small and large businesses (and nonprofits), still constitutes an American religion. Like our Protestantism, it’s a movement that shares mystical and supernatural beliefs and attitudes, a basic ontology in pursuit of truth, bliss, self-improvement, and prosperity. Like our Protestantism, it’s expansive and eclectic, variously subjective and experiential and doctrinal, with hundreds of different denominational start-ups, sects, practices, tendencies, and prophets. It thinks of itself as anti-Establishment even as it has become Establishment. New Age is a breath mint and a candy mint, part of the fantasy-industrial complex and a loose religious faith.
Unlike most standard religions, New Age doesn’t have a single agreed-upon supreme being or messiah or creation myth—but that means it can coexist and cross-pollinate with Christianity and Judaism and other more formal religions. Although some Christians fight perpetual border wars against the Oprahs and Deepak Chopras, calling them the Antichrist’s advance guard, there’s also plenty of common ground. The American ecumenical mantra used to be We all worship the same God. In Fantasyland, it’s essentially None of us are sticklers for reason.
The term New Age comes with pejorative baggage, so believers seldom call themselves that—just as Puritans and Shakers resisted identifying as Puritans and Shakers, and lately fundamentalists as fundamentalists. A great many say they’re “spiritual but not religious.” Like the evangelicals who aren’t chronically angry and the charismatics whose supernaturalism isn’t so demon-haunted, New Agers are mainly seeking personal happiness. In Religion Explained: The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Thought, the Washington University anthropologist and psychologist Pascal Boyer points out that providing bliss in the present and reassurance about the future hasn’t been the main point of most religions. “Reassuring religion, insofar as it exists,” he writes, “is not found in places where life is significantly dangerous or unpleasant, quite the opposite. One of the few religious systems obviously designed to provide a comforting world view is New Age mysticism. Note that these reassuring, ego-boosting notions appeared and spread in one of the most secure and affluent societies in history.” Indeed, the emergence of all the American New Age precursors through the 1800s—homeopathy, phrenology, water cures, New Thought, spiritualism, Transcendentalism, Christian Science, theosophy—perfectly tracks our shift from a rough, poor start-up nation into a prosperous, secure one.
DURING THE 1980S and ’90s magically healing crystals, each associated with a particular invisible bodily chakra, became a thing. Non-Christian faith healing such as Reiki became a thing. Channeling the spirits of the dead once again became a thing. Unlike old-fashioned spiritualism, in which people believe they’re communicating with dead relatives, celebrity channelers were possessed not so much by your late Uncle George as by entirely fictional celebrities, such as Seth and Ramtha. A woman in Washington State named Judith Darlene Hampton renamed herself Judy Zebra Knight, JZ for short, and became rich and famous by pretending to speak as Ramtha, a Stone Age warrior from the legendary land of Lemuria who’d fought a war against the legendary land of Atlantis and conquered most of the world before becoming an all-knowing demigod. JZ Knight attracted a ton of followers, including Shirley MacLaine.
“Harmonic convergence” became a thing. Over two days in the summer of 1987, a psychedelic visionary from Boulder, Colorado, had extraordinary success organizing big gatherings of people in many locations to engage in what he called Globally Synchronized Meditation, meant to neutralize bad vibrations and keep the planet from going haywire. The timing was derived from his understanding of ancient Amerindian calendars. The world did not end in 1987; therefore harmonic convergence must have worked; and so a Fantasyland fiefdom focused on Mayan and Aztec mythology and cosmology was fully launched.
By the 1990s, there was a big, respectable, glamorous New Age counter-Establishment. The late Jane Roberts and her cosmic entity Seth, their books republished, were now revered figures, on their way to becoming almost a Joseph Smith and angel Moroni of the movement. Marianne Williamson, one of the new superstar New Age preachers, popularized another “channeled” book of spiritual revelation first published in the 1970s, A Course in Miracles: the author, a Columbia University psychology professor who was anonymous until after her death in the 1980s, claimed that its 1,333 pages were more or less dictated to her by Jesus. Her basic idea, like her predecessors from Mary Baker Eddy to Roberts, was that physical existence is a collective illusion—“the dream.” Endorsed by Williamson, the book became a gigantic bestseller.* Deepak Chopra had been a distinguished endocrinologist before he quit regular medicine in his thirties to become the “physician to the gods” in the Transcendental Meditation organization, and in 1989 he hung out his own shingle as wise man, author, lecturer, and marketer of dietary supplements.
Out of its various threads, the philosophy now had its basic doctrines in place: rationalism is mostly wrong-headed, mystical feelings should override scientific understandings, reality is an illusion one can remake to suit oneself. The 1960s relativism out of which all that flowed originated mainly as a means of fighting the Man, unmasking the charlatans-in-charge. But now they were mind-blowing ways to make yourself happy and successful by becoming the charlatan-in-charge of your own little piece of the universe. “It’s not just the interpretation of objective reality that is subjective,” according to Chopra. “Objective reality per se is a concept of reality we have created subjectively.”
Exactly how had Chopra and Williamson become so conspicuous and influential? They were anointed in 1992 and 1993 by Oprah Winfrey. Winfrey’s daily show had started airing nationally in the mid-1980s. In the 1990s twelve or thirteen million devotees watched it every weekday. Through her magazine O, started in 2000, she reached millions more. More than any other single American by far, outside conventional religion and politics, Oprah Winfrey is responsible for giving a national platform and credibility to magical thinking, New Age and otherwise. In her broad domain, she is the Cotton Mather, John Wesley, Brigham Young, and Billy Graham, the first New Age pope. If Ronald Reagan was the first king of his Fantasyland realm, Oprah Winfrey is still queen of hers. Like Reagan too, I believe she’s both sincere and a brilliant Barnumesque promoter of her dreamworld.
She has been an inclusive promoter of fantasies—extraterrestrial, satanic, medical, paranormal, all sorts of spiritual, sometimes Christian. When a Christian questioner in her audience once described her as New Age, Winfrey was pissed. “I am not ‘New Age’ anything,” she said, “and I resent being called that. I am just trying to open a door…and perhaps be the light to get them to God, whatever they may call that. I don’t see spirits in the trees, and I don’t sit in the room with crystals.” Maybe not those two things specifically; she’s the respectable promoter of New Age belief and practice and nostrums, a member of the elite and friend to presidents, five of whom have appeared on her shows. (Billy Graham didn’t speak in tongues, but he was fine with his fellow Christians doing it.) New Age, Oprah-style, shares with American Christianities their special mixtures of superstition, selfishness, and a refusal to believe in the random. “Nothing about my life is lucky,” she has said. “Nothing. A lot of grace. A lot of blessings. A lot of divine order. But I don’t believe in luck.”
Williamson, Chopra, and most of the best-known prophets and denominational leaders in the realm owe their careers to Winfrey. Her man Eckhart Tolle, for instance, whose books The Power of Now and A New Earth sold millions of copies apiece, is a successful crusader against reason itself. “Thinking has become a disease,” he writes, to be supplanted by feeling “the inner energy field of your body.” The two of them conducted a series of Web-based video seminars in 2008.
New Age, because it’s so American, so utterly democratic and decentralized, has multiple sacred texts. One of the most widely read and influential is The Secret, emphatically placed in the canon by Winfrey as soon as it was published a decade ago. “I’ve been talking about this for years on my show,” Winfrey said during one of the author’s appearances on Oprah. “I just never called it The Secret.”
The closest antecedent to The Secret was The Power of Positive Thinking in the 1950s, back when a mega-bestselling guide to supernatural success still needed an explicit tether to Christianity. Reverend Norman Vincent Peale’s book has a couple of hundred references to God and several dozen to Jesus. In The Secret, on the other hand, Rhonda Byrne mentions Jesus only once, as the founder of the prosperity gospel. All the major biblical figures, including Christ, she claims, “were not only prosperity teachers, but also millionaires themselves, with more affluent lifestyles than many present-day millionaires could conceive of.”
The Secret takes the American fundamentals, individualism and supernaturalism and belief in belief, and strips away the middlemen and most of the pious packaging—God, Jesus, virtue, hard work rewarded, perfect bliss only in the afterlife. What’s left is a “law of attraction,” and if you just crave anything hard enough, it will become yours. Belief is all. The Secret’s extreme version of magical thinking goes far beyond its predecessors’. It is staggering. A parody would be almost impossible. It was number one on the Times’s nonfiction list for three years and sold around twenty million copies. Its sequels (The Power, The Magic) sold several million more.
“There isn’t a single thing that you cannot do with this knowledge,” the book promises. “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you are, The Secret can give you whatever you want.” Because it’s a scientific fact.
The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law of gravity is….
Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts….
In the moment you ask, and believe, and know you already have it in the unseen, the entire Universe shifts to bring it into the scene. You must act, speak, and think, as though you are receiving it now. Why? The Universe is a mirror, and the law of attraction is mirroring back to you your dominant thoughts….
It takes no time for the Universe to manifest what you want. Any time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the place of believing.
To be clear, she’s talking mainly not about spiritual contentment but things, objects, lovers, cash. “The only reason any person does not have enough money is because they are blocking money from coming to them with their thoughts….It is not your job to work out ‘how’ the money will come to you. It is your job to ask….Leave the details to the Universe on how it will bring it about.” She warns that rationalism can neutralize the magic—in fact, awareness of the real world beyond one’s individual orbit can be problematic. “When I discovered The Secret, I made a decision that I would not watch the news or read newspapers anymore, because it did not make me feel good.”
Right around the time The Secret came out, habitués of its general vicinity started buzzing about the year 2012. Ancient Mesoamericans, people were saying, had predicted that in 2012 humankind’s present existence would…transition. The source of this hysteria had appeared in the late 1960s—a passing bit of speculation by a Yale anthropologist. “There is a suggestion,” he wrote of the Mayans’ belief about one of their calendar systems, that when the current 5,125-year-long period ends, “Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation” and “our present universe [would] be annihilated.” That apparently works out to December 21, 2012, which excited New Age religion makers: now they had their own ancient prophecy for their own dreams of something like a near-future Armageddon and supernaturally wonderful aftermath. Like the Christian prophecies, this branch of apocalypse belief also has its own history of cockeyed literalism, with accompanying debates about whether collapse will precede the happy ending and niggling pseudorational arguments about timing.
I’m sure it’s only coincidence that Winfrey ended the daily Oprah broadcasts in 2011. A month before the final episode, she interviewed Shirley MacLaine for the millionth time and asked about 2012: “What’s gonna happen to us as a species?”
“We’re coming into an alignment,” MacLaine explained. “It is the first time in twenty-six thousand years—thirty-six thousand years—twenty-six thousand years, I’m sorry, that this has occurred….You have an alignment where this solar system is on direct alignment with the center of the galaxy. That carries with it a very profound electromagnetic frequency—”
“Vibration,” Winfrey interjected.
“…vibration,” MacLaine agreed, “and gravitational pull. Hence the weather. What does that do to consciousness? What does that do to our sense of reality?” It’s why people feel rushed and stressed, she said.
Winfrey asked her audience for an amen: “Are you all feeling that?” They were.
“So my stuff isn’t really that far out. But what’s actually happening, Oprah,” MacLaine continued, explaining how the relevant astrology proved the supernatural inflection point was exactly 620 days away. “It’s the end of that twenty-six-thousand-year procession of the equinox” and “the threshold of a new beginning. And I think what this pressure, this kind of psychic, spiritual pressure we’re all feeling is about, is that your internal soul is telling you ‘Get your act together.’ ”
When the “threshold” passed normally, 2012 Mayan end-time believers decided that the ancient prophecies must have been misinterpreted and misunderstood. American end-time Christians have had centuries to realize that setting particular dates is a bad idea; for their New Age equivalents, newer to the game, 2012 was a learning moment. Indeed, exactly like Christians who leap on every bit of bad news as proof of their end-time prophecies, the New Age millennialists still think that global warming and terrorism, for instance, are foreshocks of “the Mayan Apocalypse.” Like the prophecy-Protestants, they simply know a glorious new age is inevitable. That was the take of Daniel Pinchbeck, a New Age evangelist-author who wrote 2012: The Return of Quetzalcoatl—and then had a charming whoops-sorry essay ready to publish on December 21, 2012. Don’t lose faith, Pinchbeck says, because we can all see there’s a “growing realization” that “the rational, empirical worldview…has reached its expiration date.”
* Williamson was present at a spectacular episode of Fantasyland convergence: just before Halloween in 1991 at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, she officiated at Elizabeth Taylor’s eighth marriage, to a man she’d met when they were rehab patients at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. The wedding guests were almost outnumbered by a small army of one hundred security guards and Nancy Reagan’s Secret Service detail.