Soon after I started my blog, I wrote “Fakirs” and set up an Archive category called Fakirs for essays about New Age spirituality, New Age science and cults. I have been writing about strange beliefs, and trying to understand why people embrace them. A few weeks ago I read Wendy Kaminer’s book Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials, The Rise of Irrationalism an the Perils of Piety. She has a Chapter about the New Age called “Gurus and the Spirituality Bazaar” which addresses many of the issues I wanted to address.
A Bazaar is a marketplace. People come to the market for their own reasons, and with their own deep needs. In the spirituality marketplace, people look for a feeling of rightness. There are complex unidentified emotional needs to feel safe, respected, and powerful as frail mortals in a world full of uncertainty, risk, and fear. Many people meet those needs without an identified religion, by taking care of themselves and doing their job and maintaining a social life and hobbies, and by trying to live a respectable and moral life. Some find comfort within the established and conventional religious tradition – sometimes in the ones inhabited since childhood, and sometimes in traditions embraced in the course of their life. Some turn to, or stumble into Alternative religious practices and therapies. They go to the Enlightenment Bazaar. Fakirs exploit the needy and the gullible.
Both atheists and disciples of New Age religions will claim that Alternative spirituality is as an alternative to participating in a conventional religion. I think New Age practices are fundamentally religious, but there are some differences. Conventional religions all embrace the irrational through internal mythologies and cosmologies, conventional religions are open about what they teach and believe, and support their adherents in their lives in the real world. New Age cults are secretive about their beliefs. They recruit – but they sensitize and groom their recruits before indoctrinating them. They make claims of special knowledge and wisdom, and claim to be more highly evolved than conventional religions. They appeal to people who want to be part of something unique and superior. New Age religions depend, far more than conventional religions, on personal prayer or prayer-like practices and meditation practices and on social reinforcement to maintain the beliefs and loyalties of their members. New Age religions depend, far more than conventional religions, on rewarding their members with intensely gratifying experiences that convince their adherents that they are in touch with the divine.
New Age religions tend to justify the impulses of their adherents, rather than to challenge people to examine their impulses and to act ethically. New Age religions less concerned with social and political issues. They address and engage with the rest of the world with the scorn of the enlightened for the unenlightened masses.
I think the metaphor of the Bazaar helps to address and explain how New Age religions and cults work, and I changed the category name from Fakirs to The Bazaar.