Vitz, P. (198x). Psychology as religion

Vitz, P. (198x). Psychology as religion

The proponents of New Age spirituality commonly present their position as a radically new worldview. In particular, they reject old cultural paradigms based upon science, secular philosophy, and traditional religion; these are all seen to have “failed,” to be part of the problem and not of the solution. The proponents of New Age believe that they have been empowered to initiate a “millennium of light that will redeem society from its obvious present ills. 2010

“Burrows describes some of these beliefs as follows: “Ultimate reality, or God, is pure, undifferentiated energy, consciousness or life force. It manifests itself in creation as the dynamic interaction of polarities, light/dark, male/female, aggressiveness/passivity, good/evil.”192 As this summary makes clear, New Age mentality attempts to break down distinctions between things and their opposites, and to claim that there are no seriously important boundaries. 2024

New Agers will include bits and pieces of all the major religions—as well as a good many other things. Russell Chandler points out: “For all its faddishness … the New Age is hard to define; its boundaries are fuzzy. It’s a shifting kaleidoscope of ‘beliefs, fads and rituals.’”199 Parts of Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufi mysticism, and Christianity are all represented in the general eclectic New Age soup. The blends of elements of various Eastern religions would certainly offend serious practitioners of any of them. This smorgasbord of religion seems to be peculiarly American and supported by the social, ethnic, and religious pluralism of American society. Each New Ager seems to revel in picking out those components of the world’s religions that he or she finds appealing. 2025

But psychology was one of the major intellectual and social forces that brought today’s movement into cultural prominence. One such source of support for New Age has come from Freud and Jung, who both, in different ways, emphasized the importance of the unconscious. These psychologists created a whole climate of opinion that made the unconscious, interior world seem more real than the conscious mind, with its awareness of external reality. 2113

A few writers, including New Age figures such as Ferguson, have pointed out the similarities between New Age systems and Gnosticism.210 Gnosticism arose in the Hellenistic period, apparently in the century or two before the birth of Christ. At the time of early Christianity there were many Gnostic sects, and in spite of the important differences between them they shared a number of features. First, as the name “gnostic” (or “knower”) implies, these systems proposed knowledge as the key to the meaning of life. In a sense, for all Gnostics, salvation comes through knowledge. Roughly two thousand years ago the kind of knowledge emphasized was philosophical or spiritual, usually of an esoteric (i.e., secret) kind. These sects combined various ingredients taken from a wide assortment of ancient religious and philosophical sources. Some Gnostics borrowed concepts or practices from Greek philosophy (such as Platonism); others were influenced by Indian religious ideas, others by Egyptian religion, and some by Jewish religious sources as well. With the rise of Christianity, there were a number of Christian Gnostic groups. This is not the place to go into the history of Gnosticism, which is both extremely complex and a source of considerable scholarly controversy. Nevertheless, there is consensus on the religious syncretism and esoteric nature of Gnosticism. New Age systems can be clearly seen as a recrudescence of Gnosticism, in a form quite similar to its ancient manifestations. Once again we have wide variations in general concepts, with only loose ties to particular practice. We again have syncretism, the mixing of Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian elements, with Native American features occasionally thrown in. Again we have a strong resistance to fixed doctrines or dogmas and a central belief that it is in knowing that we reach salvation. That is, we are saved, from whatever is the worst that can happen to us, by knowledge. In New Age this knowledge is often self-knowledge or knowledge about how to let go of or escape the self. 2175

“The New Age, however, knows no law of love. In part this is because it knows no laws at all, since laws imply a law-giver, and in part it is the result of the great focus on subjective experience, which is the fundamental reality. Since the new reality is the result of spiritual practices or enlightenment, any failures or tragedies in one’s life or in others’ lives are ultimately the individual’s responsibility. The poor, therefore, are seen as responsible for their own condition, and not as fellow humans to whom we owe love. New Age pessimism also follows from its rejection of the external world of reality, including our physical body. New Agers reject the body and the sexual character of our identity by emphasizing androgyny. The physical world is often interpreted as essentially an illusion. Bodies are arbitrary and can be manipulated at will. Moreover, in an earlier life one had a different body, and one may have other quite different bodies in the future.” 2218

In any case, it is the thesis of this book that the humanistic model of human behavior is fundamentally narcissistic, and that this has resulted in its widespread appeal in our culture. The consumer economy, combined with natural human pride (narcissism), has created a psychology that is focused on the individual’s glorification of his or her own self. Perhaps it should be made clear that by the word narcissism I do not mean the seriously disturbed narcissistic personality, but rather a kind of general, social narcissism—what Adler might have called a “style of life” narcissism. 2231

Second, as people aged, they realized that many of the things thought necessary for self-actualization would not be attainable in their lives. Besides interpersonal disasters, there were career failures, serious health problems, and many other disappointments. The discrepancy between the promised “high” of the Maslovian self-actualization or Jungian individuation and the reality of their lives created a vast disappointment and “credibility gap.” The belief that psychology could make you happy, that it was the answer, began to fade. 2231

Thus the thesis proposed here is that New Age spirituality is the transformation of psychological narcissism into spiritual narcissism. 2246