A Sociological and Political Look at the New Age with Raphaël Liogier

Citta Vritti met with sociologist and philosopher Raphaël Liogier, a university professor at the Institute of Political Studies in Aix-en-Provence, director of the Observatory of Religion from 2006 to 2014, and an associate researcher at the Sophiapol laboratory at the University of Nanterre. His research focuses on beliefs, values, religions, new religious movements, cults, and cultural globalization. When asked what his work consists of, he responds: "I am interested in the changes in human identity, that is, how humans look at themselves, believe in themselves, and organize their lives according to these paradigms".We focused this interview on New Age spirituality, its values, and the circulation of its ideas in contemporary society, through which we tried to decipher our beliefs, our lifestyles, and our behaviors.

Citta Vritti | What is the New Age ?

Raphaël Liogier The New Age is the deployment, starting from the 1950s, of a core of beliefs that began to develop as early as the 18th century, simultaneously with modernity, but which was more or less crushed by the more materialistic industrial revolution in the 19th century. The 18th century dreamed of Nature and a form of universality, both politically and spiritually. The idea being that there is divinity, an Absolute, conveyed by all traditions and all religions but that all cultures have partly lost it. Since we, in our own tradition, have lost the essence, the only way to find it again is by journeying towards others. That's when we began to develop an implicit religiosity based on the idea that all traditions carry something in common, but if they wage war against each other, it's because they have strayed from what they were originally.

What types of beliefs is the New Age based on ?

The belief in energy is fundamental and it had started in the 18th century in the West with what was then called animal magnetism. Or with the notion of fluid, which we even find in Balzac. The fluid is compatible both with our industrial belief since we are in a moving world. It seems at once very material and at the same time, we can give it a spiritual meaning because it's invisible. Energy itself becomes a universal language. Whether it's in India with the chakras, the bindu, the nadis or in China with Taoism, the Qi, or in the West with alchemy, hermetism. Energy can be divinized, worshiped, and be invisible at the same time. These belief schemas could take root in what we believe we know. That's why the New Age is rooted in quantum mechanics, new sciences, on what we believe today is matter.

Is it a counterpoint to religion ?

Religions were considered negative in their institutionalization, that is to say, linked to historical processes that have progressively blinded men. The idea of spirituality is to remove the institution from religion. Which is - in my view - false: I consider that spiritualities themselves are institutions. And that's what makes me say that spirituality has become the religion of our time. Since the word "religion" has been discredited, we end up calling religion "spirituality". So the very idea of spirituality is the religion of our time. Thus, within each religion, there would be this common foundation that we need to find, and to recognize it, we need to go look for in others what has been lost in ourselves, hence my idea of "individuo-globalism".

What is "individuo-globalism" ?

It is the tension between extreme individualism and extreme globalism. It's an experience towards the other that allows me to reconstitute myself. That's how theosophy, anthroposophy, or even freemasonry, for example, were formed. The New Age develops in a process of inertia of the old world: the refusal of this freedom offered in the 18th century, to arrive at the end of industrialism and a form of rationality in the 19th, then, in the 1950s-1960s, we have the destructive experience of rationality with the two world conflicts and totalitarisms. With the advent of the "Trente Glorieuses" (Thirty Glorious) we have a Europe that is not economically beaten down and yet there is this emptiness of the meaning of existence in an industrial world and a critique of the consumer society.

At the spiritual level, there will be the remobilization of the 18th-century concepts: this principle of an origin that would have been lost but adding a process of regeneration and transformation: it is the famous Age of Aquarius. There is the idea that we are reaching the end of an era with the mobilization of concepts that already existed in ancient India like the famous Kali Yuga [the dark age]. This will allow us to do what religions always do: interpret, give meaning to the world. A world that has become industrial and in which we feel increasingly bad but with a touch of hope since we are reaching the end of this period and regeneration is coming: it is the New Age, the new era. The problem is that this regeneration should have taken place at the end of the 20th century, but it didn't really happen because we still feel just as bad, if not worse.

What makes the success of Eastern wisdom and the Far East in New Age religiosity ?

Eastern wisdom and the Far East in New Age religiosity? For me, it's the factor of distance. What we knew best, since we lived in it, we can't bear it anymore. The farther away it is, the more extraordinary it is, and the closer it is to the source. Naturally, because the more remote it is, the more I can have an interpretation that is mine, since no one will come to contradict me because no one knows it well. It's related to the very mystery of the horizon. Moreover, we have reconstituted what is even further away in time: primal religions. We are going to invent universal shamanism. A mix between energy, chakras, Nature, rediscovering one's deep self, rewilding... And then we can mix with a bit of yoga, Buddhism, or mindfulness. But shamanism is something very specific that exists especially in Siberia and has been modified by people who wanted to have a shaman master or to initiate into shamanism, giving birth to massive shamanism, deepening workshops. This is what I call the staging of the world, with levels. As we could have levels of Orthodox Christianity! It's the same with Reiki, yoga, etc. Which is linked both to rationality and to the idea that it is regressive: the higher I go in level, the closer I get to the origin.

So we are going to have a hierarchy between the different religions according to their distance from the Truth. They all carry the Truth, but the farther they are, the less they have strayed, and vice versa. Christianity has strayed much more than Buddhism, but we can still detect in it traces of this Truth thanks to Buddhism. And you are going to have priests who, thanks to meditation, will rediscover the message of Christ. Monk Thomas Merton said he rediscovered through Christian mysticism what Zen Buddhism had already discovered. This is what will lead some to assert that in the end, the Hebrew letters are yoga positions, that everything is One, and that we can only find this misguided unity through individual practice. So yoga is ideal. And there is also this notion that the West would have divided body and spirit, but yoga or martial arts allow to reaffirm a union between the two. But it's not a questioning of transcendence or even salvation, it's looking for forms of salvation beyond what we were provided with as a ready-made solution like Marxism or secular religions, to speak like Raymond Aron.

In the risk of turning towards an "exoticization" of otherness ?

This is what I call the hypertrophy of the other. "Hyper" in Greek means "more than". We make the other be more than he is. We make him overflow from his being. And if he doesn't correspond to this pattern, we can denigrate him, find that it's not true, not good. This is exoticization. It is the other that we take out of himself, that we will purge from himself. And if he wants to survive, because we are the ones with the money, he is forced to self-exoticize. That is, he is obliged to become his own folklore, he folklorizes himself. For example, I worked in Australia as a visiting professor at the University of Sydney where a colleague specializing in Aboriginal people explained to me that part of the Aboriginal people refuse the qualification of shamans. This conflicts with another part of them who say that they do because tourists come for that: they are made to do the Aboriginal dream journey, like an amusement park, where tourists pay, which allows the community to live. So there is a debate. The community can survive but at the expense of its identity, resembling "hyper-Aboriginals".

What does the New Age tell us about our modern societies and our relationship to religion ?

First of all, there is a critique of industrial society coupled with the development of what the World Values Survey [one of the largest international survey projects conducted in 1981] calls "well-being values" or so-called "post-materialist" values. There are three types of values: traditional, industrial or materialistic, and post-industrial or post-materialistic, i.e., focused on well-being, self-knowledge, etc. This survey observes that these well-being values are starting to overwhelm everything from the 1970s onwards. Therefore, there must be fundamental beliefs that adapt to this, and this is the case with the New Age. On fundamental beliefs, it is a recovery of the beliefs of the 18th century by saying that there is a transcendence in all religions and that its authentic dimension has disappeared under the institution.

How do you interpret our adherence to these beliefs ?

My theory is that belief is constructed from our desires. We develop theories, fundamental beliefs that allow us to justify ways of life that are exactly what we want to do. For example, we believe in energy both because we find it cool to get massaged and also because it helps circulate energy. But as humans can't just do something for the sake of doing it, they need to narrate what they're doing. This is what I call the "desire to be".

We cannot just be in life, survival, or objective comfort, i.e., just in the technical aspect, we must be in the desire to be. We see this in relation to clothing. Normally, clothes allow us to survive in difficult conditions or even live because it is a greater comfort. But when you dress, you say something: it's spirituality all the time. And in the end, you even end up having things that are like clothes but serve no other purpose than to say something. So this is the dimension of the desire to be that is omnipresent in humans. It is there constantly to narrate what we do because we can afford to do it.

Our fundamental beliefs come to justify a type of behavior that is unfolding. We see it at all levels, such as in the world of yoga or Buddhism for example. There is the institution and then the diffusion takes place throughout society through ways of eating, activities: yoga, organic food, ecology, various diets (vegetarian, vegan, paleo, raw, fasting etc.), cures, retreats... are synonymous with more authentic, purer, more traditional. These beliefs will influence our way of doing business, enjoying things and the world. In the past, they were the prerogative of marginal groups or hippies, whereas today we find these values in companies.

You say in your book "Soucis de soi, conscience du monde" (Self-Care, Awareness of the World, in english) that New Age beliefs have infiltrated society, particularly through business. Is this a good thing? Is it a victory for neoliberalism ?

I believe that we can't escape these new belief schemas, but for me this New Age mythology is positive! However, it has been co-opted by industrial development, even though it was designed to break away from it. Industrialism has seized it and made it the ultimate source of profit, using techniques that were supposed to free us from the industry. From bungee jumping, to meditation, to yoga poses, businesses are using all these techniques, diverting them towards a performance logic. Something that is typical for me in this transfer is the idea of mindfulness. The idea that mindfulness will give you psychic skills where the mind itself will become the object of capitalization. You are going to fill up on awareness as you would fill up on gas, while the purpose of meditation is to empty oneself. This is what some call spiritual materialism, where it becomes a matter of gaining skills. The same goes for yoga: if you analyze the language of some yoga teachers, ultimately, it is about acquiring something. So, under the pretext of getting away from neo-liberalism, it has become its ultimate and more effective resource than anything else. Neoliberalism reverses the adaptation process where industry will adapt humans who would not be adapted enough to industry themselves. And this is what we can see with yoga, which will serve to adapt humans even more to the industry than before, making them individuals eager to use their own organism as a source of energy to be more efficient.

How did this reversal happen ?

It is the paradigmatic journey from Berkeley to Silicon Valley, in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those who wore sandals and had long hair went down into the valley, a bit like Moses, and then their hair got a bit shorter, they stayed just as cool in appearance, aged a bit and replaced their leather strap sandals with sneakers. The first self-managed hippie communities were replaced by start-ups. For me, even a crushing behemoth like Google remains a startup: it is not defined by the fact that it starts, but by an eternal renewal. Besides, this is what Google does: finance eternal youth or eternal life. This is a model of a so-called community and egalitarian living space represented by a guy like Mark Zuckerberg, an eternal child in sneakers and t-shirt, even if he's worth 100 billion dollars. All this "coolness" is a corporate communitarianism where you are more effective than during the hardest hours of the industrial revolution. As Michel Foucault said, it's the fact of having an external authority forcing you to work. But it will never be as effective as transforming the human to give him the desire to kill himself at work because he has the impression that it is his salvation, that it is for his well-being. So people end up staying at work from 6 am to midnight because they feel they are developing. Capitalistic values have become part of their spirituality.

Is New Age religiosity the religion of the privileged ?

I say that there is a global division of religious labor today. Those who are best endowed with global capital, to speak like Bourdieu, that is to say both in symbolic and material capital, have "new-aged." Conversely, those who are dominated in economic capital are rather the movements that promise material enrichment (because they don't have it) such as evangelical, Pentecostal movements and which are dispersed in the poorest places on the planet. And there are those who are poor in symbolic capital and therefore in self-recognition with symbolic frustration (which can be the result of colonization for example without necessarily being poor from an economic point of view), these are predominantly the Arab countries with fundamentalist Islam. But among us, even in a minority way, Christians who feel overwhelmed without necessarily being poor also become fundamentalist. So there is a distribution of the three but when you are well endowed with global capital, both symbolic and economic, you tend to new-age because it's the heart.

It's not just Western whites who believe in this kind of thing but as they are dominant, it becomes the dominant belief except that not everyone can afford it. Even evangelical movements are in the trope of energy, with an idea of material prosperity. It's the idea that miraculously it's enough for you to be true to yourself, authentic, good, happy, to make money, to become a "money magnet." What's troublesome is that this creates processes of economic inequalities.

Why is criticism of our beliefs necessary ?

We confuse criticism with negative criticism. But not all criticism is negative. With New Age, it's exactly the same. Criticism is not a lack of faith but on the contrary, it puts it to the test to deepen it even more. Not being afraid to look at the reality of what we are in the face. This does not mean that we will throw away what we are but that we are not afraid to do so because we are convinced that what we do is justifiable and we are not afraid to let any criticism free. On the other hand, when we are increasingly afraid that what we believe is not true, we need external evidence and this externalization is dogma. We feel the need to forbid others to behave in contradiction with what we are supposed to believe because that would be the proof that perhaps we are wrong. So we need to moralize others, forbid criticism, because we have the feeling that if we let it happen, we will end up not believing ourselves. And so gradually we will dogmatize, or even radicalize, which can lead to violence.

So for you, the main subject is our need for transcendence?

Transcendence is what fundamentally, metaphysically justifies our existence beyond everything. And what individuals need to validate their existence and believe that they have a destiny, whatever it may be, that they are in a narrative and that there is a desiring tension that makes them want to get up in the morning to live the next day. This is what is most fundamental. From there I have practices and the way I articulate them is what we call practical reasons (to speak like Kant), that is, morality.

The list of Raphaël Liogier's publications can be found her

Also read : "L’influence de l’orientalisme et de l’ésotérisme sur le yoga moderne" (The influence of Orientalism and esotericism on modern yoga, in english)

2 responses to “A Sociological and Political Look at the New Age with Raphaël Liogier”

  1. […] Pour aller plus loin, lire aussi : Un regard sociologique et politique sur le New Age avec Raphaël Liogier […]

  2. Gaëlle avatar

    Merci pour cette interview, le sujet est très intéressant et cela fait vraiment réfléchir ! Merci merci.

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