Traditionalism Without Tradition: On the Issue of New Age Spirituality Measurement

Author: Andrei Tiukhtiaev

In this essay, I am going to talk about one paradox of social belonging that can be found among followers of New Age spirituality. I encountered this paradox during my fieldwork on a pilgrimage in southern Russia. Organizers and active participants of New Age pilgrimages frequently make traditionalist statements at public performances while at the same time expressing doubts about the possibility of reconstructing traditions in personal conversations and interviews.

Over the past decades, social scientists have conducted many quantitative studies of New Age and esotericism (sometimes also called ‘alternative spirituality,’ ‘holistic spirituality,’ or ‘cultic milieu’) (Fisk 2007). Their results reflect two contradictory trends: On the one hand, the number of New Age practitioners and of people who explicitly identify themselves with specific movements and communities is small and usually represents 1–2 % of the population (Heelas 2006; Lynch 2007, 4; Berger 2009). On the other hand, individual beliefs in various esoteric ideas prove to be quite popular, both in Russia and the West: For example, a 2006 study in Britain found out that 28 % of British residents believe in astrology (Fisk 2007, 111–113), while a 1998 survey in the Netherlands revealed that at least 15 % of the population associated themselves with core ideas of New Age spirituality (Houtman & Mascini 2002, 463). In Russia, researchers discovered that 15 % of Russians believe in divination, omens, and astrology (Sreda 2012b), and 9 % of the residents of major Russian cities trust ufology (Sreda 2014).

These results were obtained primarily in two ways, first, by studying people’s attendance at certain practices by the use of questionnaires and, second, by measuring beliefs and identities on the basis of the respondents’ agreement with certain statements. I would like to consider the most frequently used type of design in quantitative studies of religion, namely measuring the popularity of beliefs and identities.

In 2012, the research team “Sreda” organized a project to study the country’s religiosity, called the Atlas of Religions and Nationalities in Russia (Sreda 2012a). In Russia, researchers discovered that 15 % of Russians believe in divination, omens, and astrology (Sreda 2012b). Unfortunately, the project did not include a category of New Age spirituality, so I assume it to be likely that New Age followers can be found in two other categories – ‘neоpaganism’ and ‘Eastern religions and philosophies.’ Their number was about 1 %. In the case of neopagans, the scholars expected that they must agree with the statement “I practice the traditional religion of my ancestors, I worship the gods and forces of nature.”

The pilgrimage in Zhane River valley in Krasnodar Krai that I have studied presents an example of New Age traditionalism. The primary sacred objects there are the dolmens – monuments of the Bronze Age. Hardly anyone has shown more interest in them in recent years than the followers of the new religious movement “Anastasia” and other sympathizers of New Age ideas.

Their interest stemmed from the book series The Ringing Cedars of Russia written by Vladimir Megre, since he mentioned dolmens in one of his texts. Megre’s books describe the traditionalist utopia containing the critics of the modernization and idealization of natural life. The central idea of both the books and the Anastasia movement itself is the need to live outside urban areas and establish ecological settlements for that purpose. Thus, dolmens became the sites that ‘Anastasians’ see as the monuments of “ancient wisdom.” According to Megre, these were the sites where representatives of the mysterious ancient civilization (the so-called “vedrussy”) were buried.

At the end of the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s, Megre’s readers began to create a pilgrimage infrastructure in the Zhane River Valley. By 2005, they had established the center “Ascent” (Восхождение), which is still functioning today. The center organizers hold an annual festival, and during the holiday season, many pilgrims are trying to live their versions of a “natural” and “traditional” life in a tent camp. Activists and guests of the center organize concerts, yoga and meditation classes, pagan festivals, and spiritual practices of different kinds.

It is easy to expect that the organizers and activists of the Ascent center would agree with a statement like the one offered to the respondents by the “Sreda” research team. Some of the organizers are members of the Anastasia music band called “The Solar Bards’ Caravan of Love” (Караван любви солнечных бардов), and their songs very often express traditionalist ideas. At one of the ‘Caravan’s’ concerts, one of its members and curator of cultural events in the Ascent center presented a fragment from Megre’s book that explains the origin of the very concept of “solar bards:”

Long before Christ’s birth there lived certain people on the Earth – our forefathers, who were called Celts. Their wise teachers were known as Druids. Many people inhabiting the Earth at that time knelt before the Druid’s knowledge of the material and spiritual world. Not a single Celtic warrior would dare unsheathe his sword in the presence of a Druid. To be awarded the title of Druid even at the starting level, they had to undergo at least twenty years of arduous training at the hand of a spiritual teacher – a Druid priest. Those who were consecrated in this domain were known as Bards. They alone had the moral authority to go out among the people and sing about and inculcate the light and truth contained in their song, using the word to project images and heal people’s hearts. (Megre 2005, 75–76)

I am not going into the details of the alternative history plots implied in the text. What is important here is their traditionalist meaning and their attempt to create a continuity between contemporary ‘Anastasian’ musicianship and the romanticized culture of Celtic bards.

However, this is the level of texts and public performances. But what happens when an ethnographer talks to people directly, interviewing them? For example, when I asked my interlocutors what possibilities for the revival of traditions we had today and how to understand whether these traditions were authentic or not, I heard reflections as such in response:

When it comes to traditionalism, I’m skeptical about the revival of something. Because actually, Megre’s books don’t say how to revive traditions. They just describe that it would be wonderful to live like that or represent a Russia of the future where people restore some traditional things. But it’s a personal choice for everyone, whether to revive these traditions or not. I think that society is permanently developing, at least I’d like to think so [laughing], and the return to old forms will lead to the same mistakes made in the past.

I can’t say for sure that certain traditions really existed. Yes, there are some fairytales and songs, but it demands so much studying. I’m just for common sense, right? Let’s start with the simple one: They say, for example, that women had been wearing skirts, so to speak. I wear long skirts; like them, I feel comfortable. So, it’s a lived tradition for me. When, for example, I wear ochel’ie [очелье, a traditional Slavic headdress – AT], well, it’s uncomfortable. I tried so many times; it’s uncomfortable. But if it’s made of nettle, then I like it and I wear it. That is the tradition that must be lived. If we follow the tradition just as ritual and don’t fill it with meaning, with content, then it’s not a lived tradition but a theater. And why do we need it then?

Well, perhaps, I’m about to say something terrible, but it’s not so valuable for me, I mean the revival of these traditions. Reviving traditions is very controversial for me because people often revive traditions that had existed several hundred or thousands of years ago… and who told you that people had been on the high level of mindfulness thousands of years ago and that their tradition is worth reviving? […] All traditions concerning the health, pravilo [правило, а type of amateur stretching machine popular among Anastasians and neopagans – AT], for example. Well, I’m myself a massage therapist; I’ve been giving massages, visceral and old-Slavic ones, for more than ten years. So, I know it, I practice some gymnastics, it’s all interesting for me because I see from my experience that it has a good effect on the human body, and that it can help you.

It turned out that reviving traditions was a topic for discussion among my respondents. What matters is not whether a garment, a massage, or a practice is ‘traditional,’ but whether it is comfortable and valuable for the individual. Thus, tradition is not an imperative, it is optional.

The persons quoted above are active practitioners of New Age spirituality. They have been members of esoteric communities and social networks for many years. They largely contributed to establishing and supporting one of the country’s most popular New Age sacred sites. But what would happen, if a sociologist asked them to agree or disagree with statements, such as “I practice the traditional religion of my ancestors, I worship the gods and forces of nature”? Even if we consider the negative attitude of New Agers towards the concept of religion and therefore reformulate the question, there will still be a risk of missing a significant number, not just of those interested in New Age spirituality but also of its active participants.

References

Berger, Helen. “Contemporary paganism by the numbers.” In Handbook of Contemporary Paganism, ed. by J. Lewis and M. Pizza, 153–170. Leiden: Brill, 2009.

Fisk, Liselotte. “Quantitative Studies of New Age: A Summary and Discussion.” In Handbook of New Age, ed. by D. Kemp and J. Lewis, 103–122. Leiden, Brill, 2007.

Heelas, Peter. “Challenging Secularization Theory: The Growth of “New Age” Spiritualities of Life.” Hedgehog Review 8, no.1/2 (2006): 46–52.

Houtman, Dick, and Peter Mascini. “Why Do Churches Become Empty, While New Age Grows? Secularization and Religious Change in the Netherlands.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41, no. 3 (2002): 455–473.

{Kolkunova} Колкунова, Kсения. “«Духовные, но не религиозные» респонденты в современных исследованиях [‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ Respondents in Contemporary Research].” Вестник РСТГУ 6, no. 62 (2015): 81–93.

Lynch, Gordon. The New Spirituality. An Introduction to Progressive Belief in the Twenty-First Century. London, New York: I. B. Tauris, 2007.

Megre, Vladimir. The Ringing Cedars of Russia. Book 2. Paia, Hawaii: Ringing Cedars Press, 2005.

{Sreda 2012a} Среда. “Атлас религий и национальностей России [Atlas of Religions and Ethnic Groups of Russia].” Исследовательская служба «Среда», 2012. Accessed March 14, 2021. http://sreda.org/arena.

{Sreda 2012b} Среда. “Вера в астрологию, приметы и гадание [Belief in Astrology, Omens, and Divinations].” Исследовательская служба «Среда», 2012. Accessed March 14, 2021. http://sreda.org/opros/42-veryat-li-rossiyane-v-astrologiyu-primetyi-i-gadaniya-portret-suevernyih-rossiyan.

{Sreda 2014} Среда. “Жители городов-миллионников чаще всех увлекаются сверхестественным [People from Big Cities Are the Ones Most Interested in the Supernatural].” Исследовательская служба «Среда», 2014. Accessed March 14, 2021. http://sreda.org/opros/zhiteli-gorodov-millionnikov-chashhe-vseh-uvlekayutsya-sverhestestvennyim.


Featured Image “Pagan Gods in the Ascent center” ©Andrei Tiukhtiaev, 2018


Read this blog post in Russian.

Cite this article as: Andrei Tiukhtiaev, “Traditionalism Without Tradition: On the Issue of New Age Spirituality Measurement”, in New Age in Russia, 28/08/2021, https://newageru.hypotheses.org/?p=5995.


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