Sunday, July 19, 2015

“Can we reconcile the emergence of the new age movements with the theories set forth by E.B. Tylor?”

At the basis of the work of E.B. Tylor is the evolutionary understanding of societies, and the belief that as societies have evolved and progressed so have the religions that these societies have chosen. In that sense the work of Tylor is set around two fundamental principles that define religion in society: in the first place the idea that there is an evolutionary, progressive relationship from primitive to modern cultures (EB) that has taken place and that through these societies and religion naturally evolved in parallel; in the second place that we can study religions through and observational detached approach of cultural anthropology, a discipline that he invented for this purpose. In this paper I would like to argue through the counter example of the New Age Movement and the development of what is broadly defined as spirituality in the last century that religion is not merely a way to influence the world as we know it, nor is it an attempt to do magic really, rather than it responds to a deeper human need that is now widely defined as spirituality.  (Pals, 2006, 2008)
It has been interesting to observe that in the last century when it was not relevant to follow a religion the peoples who have been emancipated seem to in fact turn back towards a religion. The world in the 20th century went through the experiment of communism and it was a period where vast populations were denied access to religion. I am thinking of course in particular of the Soviet Republic and the People’s Republic of China and their satellite counties of influence. It has been interesting to observe that the leaders of China eventually went back on their original thinking and allowed religion in a manner of tolerance to be a part of the cultural backdrop. Or that in the evolution of the new Russia, President Putin has very tight and strong links to the Orthodox Church.
We have been observing in the last decades the development of what has been called, for lack of a better word, the “New Age Movement”, maybe named after the idea that we are entering the new age of “Aquarius”. The New Age Movement is an amalgam of practices, rituals, traditions that developed in the Western Nations in the 1970s. Rhodes (1995) defines the new age movement as a loosely structured network of individuals and organizations who share a vision of a new age of enlightment and harmony, sometimes referred to the “age of Aquarius” and share a common worldview based on monism (all is one), pantheism (all is God) and mysticism (experience of oneness with the divine). The New Age movement is certainly influenced by Eastern Philosophies and a not unlike the internet it cannot be controlled or contained precisely because of its decentralized and like a lotus pod with seeds of many colors and flavors it seems to be simply coming out of nowhere and yet it is there.  There seems to be an esoteric component to this movement, there seems to be a link between the new physics movement and explanations of the world, there seems to be a focus on the self and self-realization and there seems to be a focus on healing and spiritual healing. There also seems to be a pattern that there is no organization, no core, no leader, no common myth, and no common rituals. “No one person speaks for the entire New Age Movement”.  In a sense it is not a religion and yet there seems to be a movement that could be termed a religion at one point in the future or there seems to be some commonality, and that commonality centers around a central thread of inquiry into deeper states of spirituality and awareness.
Tylor determined that there was a functional basis to the development of religion that he believed was universal, which of course invites for an easy disintegration through a very limited set of counter-examples. A statement “the main tendency of human society during its long term of existence has been to pass from the savage to the civilized state” invited me to pick the new age movement because it clearly is a new movement towards animism as Tylor defines it and yet it comes out of the world’s evolved nations by all the standards that Tylor defines. Animism as Tylor defines it “is its full development includes the belief in souls and in a future state,  controlling deities and subordinate spirits, these beliefs resulting in some kind of active worship” and in so he gives a tentative definition of what the religion would in his view become. Now let’s take the example of an actor that somehow professes “love”, Russell Bran. He seems to be someone that would belong in the new age movement not because he is a religious leader but because he calls for the ideals of that movement in his revolution calls, cleverly noticing the word “love” hiding as “evol” in revolution. (RBW) Or let’s take the example of the countless at this point examples of channels and mediums out there receiving messages and guiding thousands upon thousands of people. The success of the movie “the Secret” was a testament to the popularity of these channeled ideas from “the Abrahams” a group of entities described by Jerry and Esther Hicks. (AHW) In these two examples there is no common thread except that they both want to wake people up and they would both be included in the new age movement.
Tylor refuses to acknowledge personal revelation as relevant and he only allows it to exist as a type of personal confession that is absolutely not related to the development of religion. Tylor in fact compares the development of religion to the development of mathematics and language. Yet in my view if religion was an organized and structured way of the magical or the animistic thinking evolution he seems to forget that he himself determined that magic was developed as a way to explain the unexplainable, as a way to control the world yes but also as a way to bring into focus what only previously existed as a very personal experience. Magic was what the shaman for example shared in a small group of people, his tribe’s men and women and eventually philosophers were involved and created a more organized form of belief. If math was developed at the basis for counting it would be ludicrous to say that once we talk about derivatives then the numbers are only a personal experience and counting sheep is only relevant to the I farmer and as such a personal experience of his and irrelevant to the subject or development of mathematics. So an evolved farmer would not need to count his sheep anymore?
Tylor is easy to critique centuries after his writings became a central part of the way we view the world because certainly today we have the tools and the abundant knowledge to go back and observe the differences. Yet I greatly admire the man and his work and I do look forward to exploring more. And even though some of this theories have not stood the test of time they are not without merit. I look at the very forward thinking of this man and I am truly wondering what the world would look like today if Tylor had not done the work he did so many years ago. Few people have left such a deep change in the world around them.  Even though a dispassionate observational approach is a great way to collect primary data for study, and that maybe it had a function in the integration of many new cultures as they were being discovered by the colonialist Europeans, there might be something deeper that religion, or spirituality in this case, addresses and that religion is not merely a societal force that has developed in parallel with art and science. Tylor seems to bypass that step and yet evolution of society in the form of inclusion of the New Age Movement comes to disprove him.


Abraham Hicks website (AHW) “”
Encyclopedia Britannica (EB) “Sir Edward Burnett Tylor”
Pals, D. L. (2006) “Eight Theories of Religion” Oxford University Press
Pals, D. L. (2008) “Introducing Religion: Readings from the Classic Theorists” Oxford University Press
Tylor, E.B. (1971) “Primitive Cultures”
Rhodes, Ron (1995) “New Age Movement” Zondervan Publishing House, MI     
Russel Brand website (RBW)

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