I recently enjoyed listening to two Occult of Personality podcast interviews with guest Mitch Horowitz, author of Occult America, The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation. (Part 1, Part 2).
Does the very premise seem implausible to you? Is not America in a culture war between religious conservatives and secular liberal humanists? What does mysticism have to do with it?
But let's consider the ideas Horowitz outlines as the foundations of the New Age:
1. Belief in the therapeutic value of spiritual or religious ideas
2. Belief in a mind-body connection in health
3. Belief that human consciousness is evolving to higher stages
4. Thoughts, in some greater or lesser measure, determine reality
5. Spiritual understanding is available without allegiance to a specific religion or doctrine
It is hard to imagine anyone, no matter how religiously orthodox, conservative, or fundamentalist, who does not at least partly agree with these points.
1. You never hear a testimony like "I had a lot of fun with a lot of women, but then I found out I was going to hell if I kept it up. So I became a Christian and gave up all the women. This really sucks, but at least I'm going to heaven when I die." Instead, you hear, "My life was empty, and so I tried to fill it with sex . . .(etc.) until I found Jesus."
2. Likewise, almost everyone grants the reality of the placebo effect, where thinking that the medicine will cure you is itself the cause of the cure, even though all you took was a sugar pill. So there's at least half-agreement on #2 without invoking religion at all. Religion just advances the concept by saying "prayer works" and "your faith has made you well."
3. Aside from members of apocalyptic religions, almost everyone has hope for a better future of peace and good will - where everyone will have a more advanced consciousness.
4. Consider one with low self-esteem with another person with high self-esteem. If their raw talents and abilities are equal, who can you count on to be more successful? Their expectations shape their actions which shape their reality.
5. Every religious tradition knowingly borrows from sages and spiritual traditions that differ from its own. Aristotle didn't have to be a Christian for Christians to quote him as an authority. Gandhi didn't have to be a Christian for Martin Luther King to be inspired by him.
According to Horowitz, the idea that there were spiritual solutions to material problems did not develop until the 20th century, when the positive thinking movement came into being. It was built on mental science/healing which built on spiritualism - all of which came about from the Masonic commitment to religious, spiritual, and intellectual freedom. Self-help "emerged from American occult subcultures, and these ideas are embraced almost as common sense by most people today," says Horowitz.
So it's not just Oprah-style spirituality, or the Law of Attraction teaching of The Secret, but American Christianity itself has been shaped in part by the mysticism and knowledge of previous generations of American occultists.
It could also be said, on the other hand, that America has also provided the seed of very rigid and doctrinaire forms of religiosity. But that was to be expected. New ideas, whether they originated here or not, found their largest and most devoted adherents in America. America is also the mother of countless cults - some fleeting, some growing.
One could almost say there's been a "free market" in religion in America, about as close to one as there's ever been in world history. And relatively few have felt threatened by it. Who really believes their denomination should be funded by tax dollars? Or believes that non-Christians should have fewer rights and freedoms on account of their beliefs?
Indeed, the absence of State churches have worked to Christianity's advantage in America in contrast to Europe and Canada, where certain churches had established, favored positions yet weekly church attendance is less than half - often a quarter or a tenth - of the U.S.'s 40% figure.
True, Christianity had the stronger "market" position in America from the beginning, just as it had in Europe. But unlike in Europe, no single Christian sect enjoyed a government-protected monopoly on our souls. There were many different "brand names" which were tolerated. If one didn't suit you, you could try another. In America, one had the right to walk away from one church and join another - or start another - with no legal and few significant social repercussions. In medieval Europe one could be burned at the stake for one's heresy; in America, heretics could start their own settlements.
And, just as the market does, American religion caters to individuals. In traditional Europe, one's affiliation with the state church was part of their national identity. If you rejected it, there weren't too many other options on the table. It is no wonder, then, that American Christianity did, in some degree, adopt these individualistic "self-help" methodologies and philosophies of mystics and occultists. If your mainline church's Jesus threatened you with hell, whereas the mind-science lecturer down the street said the "Christ in you" could bring you happiness and prosperity, your church was bound to, if not steal the rival philosophy outright, at least borrow its methods and promises.
And, as Horowtitz says, this may have been the purpose of the Masonic founders of the Republic all along. "A new order of the ages" would be a regime that encouraged new and unprecedented religious ideas and spiritual pursuits. Not by promoting them or subsidizing them, but by merely tolerating them. Toleration - freedom - was all that was needed.
But religious and spiritual freedom are just one aspect of this new way to live. The "new order" is incomplete; while freedom in religion has been widely tolerated, freedom in body and mind have been suppressed by social engineers and prejudiced voters. It is as if allowing one to believe as he chose about God and spirit were fine, just as long as everyone thought alike and acted alike in every other area.
Imagine, for instance, that we didn't have the First Amendment and the government favored and subsidized the Catholic Church, and every theologian who wanted a government grant or any employment or prestige at all had to pretty much adopt the government-Catholic line. You would hear it said, "No respected theologian objects to the validity of the doctrine of transubstantiation."
We would laugh; we would think that the government funding would undermine the credibility of the claim, rather than advance it. And don't think I'm picking on Catholicism; insert "Presbyterian" and "predestination" instead, or "Lutheran" and "faith alone" or any sect/doctrine you want. The government's theologians would be rejected because they're from the government. No wonder the European people rejected Christianity.
But when we hear, "No respected scientist [or economist, or historian] . . ." we count this appeal to authority to be valid - even though almost all of these researchers and scholars are paid, directly or indirectly, by the government.
When government gets entangled in religion, it corrupts both government and religion. Just about everyone would agree; government wouldn't be advancing religion, but rather using religion to advance its own ends. But when government gets involved in the natural or social sciences, it is assumed that knowledge and progress will result. The idea that the government is using those disciplines to advance its own ends is viewed as nutty and conspiratorial.
Finally, the war on the body, the idea of victimless crimes - activities that can not result in anyone bringing suit for damages, yet are nevertheless punishable by the State - is in many ways worse than State sponsorship of religion and science. It is at war with reason itself.
If there is indeed an ultimate Moral Law, those who abide by it can neither be threatened or permanently persuaded by alternatives. The quickest and easiest way for this Moral Law to triumph is to allow complete freedom of (victimless) action. Adding perverse choices such as jail time for gambling in poker but not in horse racing, or for smoking pot but not for drinking, will only confuse the issue and delay the time it takes for people to see the truth of the Moral Law.
Only freedom can allow people to see the error of their ways as soon as possible. Those imprisoned for victimless crimes will rightly see themselves as victims of oppression. Those who may stand to profiteer in the black market of victimless activities will be drawn into them rather than resist them.
And so it is that freedom of religion has served America fairly well. But it would have served us better, sooner, had our nation also understood the necessity of complete intellectual and moral freedom. Only in such an environment could we have learned from each other's mistakes the fastest, and thereby progressed individually and as a people.