Paulo Coelho is not only the world’s best-selling Brazilian novelist,he is the world’s best-selling novelist, full-stop. Not only is he thebest-selling Portuguese-language author of all time, but he also holdsaGuinness world record for the most translations (53) of a single titlesigned in one sitting (45 minutes). Brazilians have recognised hismerits by appointing him to their Academy of Letters and the French bydraping aChevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres over his chest. In fact,Paulo Coelho has sold more books than, believe it or not, John Grisham,Tom Clancy and J.K. Rowling.

Alas for Brazil! In Borders you don’t browse for Mr Coelho’s booksunder fiction, but under “New Age” or “Mind • Body • Spirit”. MrCoelho’s fiction has made him so rich that he could afford to tell the London Telegraphrecently that “I always was a rich person because money’s not relatedto happiness.” He acquired the knack of transmuting thishappiness into gold with a short fable, The Alchemist, which was first published in 1988 and has sold about 12 million copies.

His latest novel, The Zahir, was released in May and shot toNumber 1 on best-seller lists in France, Mexico, Argentina, Bulgaria,Poland, Croatia, Estonia, Greece, Georgia and India, amongst others. The Zahiris a typical Coelho tale. It relates the journey (most of his books areabout journeys of the Mind • Body • Spirit) of a world-famous authorwho lives in France, writes in a foreign language and closely resemblesPaulo Coelho. His wife, his fourth wife to be precise, walks out on himand although he quickly finds another partner, he remains obsessed withfinding Wife No. 4. Which he does 300 pages later, after much journeying of theSpirit, in the steppes of Kazakhstan, where she has been rediscoveringher lost self amongst deeply spiritual nomads. When he walks intoher yurt, she is reading his latest novel to women and children, whichmakes him very happy, and is pregnant to some fellow, she can’tremember who exactly, which doesn’t seem to bother him. All that matters is that they havediscovered themselves by following their Dream. Read it. You’ll feelwarm and fuzzy.

New Age popularity
Paulo Coelho in CasablancaActually, this is an article on New Age, rather than Mr Coelho, sowe’ll be moving on to more spiritual topics. But his extraordinary successis evidence of how popular New Age ideas have become. It’s easy tolaugh at New Age, but it is impossible to laugh it away.Nowadays New Age books, therapy and paraphernalia are an enormousindustry. Walk into any bookshop and browse through shelves packed withtitles ranging from herbal medicines to self-help to witchcraft. Sugarystories about angels like What Dreams May Come and eerie paranormal thrillers like The Sixth Sensedraw big crowds. New Age motivators are hot on the business lecturecircuit, and some earn millions of dollars. Martha Stewart, who knows amarket when she sees one, owns Body + Soul, a holistic magazine of eating well, self-healing, inner bliss, connectedness and personal finance.  

Why do the feel-good, loopy ideas of New Age appeal to educated peoplein the year 2005, when the triumph of rationality in science andtechnology is visible everywhere?

Because its failures are just as visible. Technology promises toprovide a solution for every discomfort. Science is often touted as atotal explanation of the universe. But people are still stressed,miserable and restless. Surely, there must be something more to lifethan a great job, lots of “relationships” and fabulous holidays. Thegrowing popularity of New Age shows that many have had a gutful ofrationality; they want some spirituality.

And this is what the rainbow coalition of New Age gurus offers – thefeeling that everyday life has a meaning and we are moving towardsdestinies – but without a Christian commitment to doctrine and dogma,even though it may adopt traditional Christian motifs like angels.

American Demographics, a magazine for the marketing industry,once described New Age as a religion of the heart, not of the head.“It’s a religious expression that downplays doctrine and dogma, andrevels in direct experience of the divine – whether it’s called the‘holy spirit’ or ‘cosmic consciousness’ or the ‘true self’. It ispractical and personal, more about stress reduction than salvation,more therapeutic than theological. It’s about feeling good, not beinggood. It’s as much about the body as the soul.”

History of New Age
New Age is not new. Even when Western society was predominantlyChristian, there was an underground current of pagan and Gnostic ideaswhich re-emerged during the Renaissance. As Christianity lost its holdon intellectuals in the 19th and 20th Centuries, interest grew inEastern religions and the occult. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creatorof Sherlock Holmes, for instance, was a propagandist for spiritualism,despite his Catholic upbringing.

But New Age really took off in the 60s with the drug culture and thepowerful influence of writers like Carl Jung, the first majorpsychoanalyst to affirm the importance of spiritual experience.Nowadays what people are looking for seems to be the comfort of a vaguespirituality and the strength of inner empowerment.

“It certainly is the culmination of the 1960s generation coming intopower in American,” one of the largest distributors of New Age bookstold American Demographics. “As they’re getting older, they’rebecoming noticeably more focused on spirituality and healing becausetheir bodies are falling apart and death is becoming ever more of areality.”

Swimming with the mainstream

What makes it possible for New Age ideas and practices to flow from thefringe into the mainstream is four very mainstream convictions.

Your truth and my truth. Most people today are sceptics. Theydoubt whether it is possible for us to attain the deepest truth aboutthe reality of things – to prove that God exists, to discover what isright and wrong. Into this intellectual vacuum step New Age authorswith their message that we are responsible for creating your ownreality. However wacky it sounds, you can’t prove it’s wrong.

Unsurprisingly, New Agers are particularly hostile towards organisedreligion, especially Catholicism, which they regard as dogmatic andintolerant. “The age of turning our spiritual lives over to someoneelse to tell us what to do is over,” says James Redfield, the author ofThe Celestine Prophecy.

Agnosticism. Out-and-out atheists are rare, but agnostics areeverywhere. In many minds, the Christian belief that God has revealedhimself fully in Jesus Christ is antiquated and discriminatory. Thismakes it possible for people to accept that God exists and to welcome“spiritual” experiences, but he (or she) is everything or nothing, orpossibly even you! As Shirley MacLaine, the actress whose New Age bookshave been best-sellers, puts it: “Each soul is its own God. You mustnever worship anyone or anything other than self.”

If it feels good, do it. In the absence of sturdy religiousconvictions, many people have grown up with nothing to guide themthrough life except their feelings. So they respond when New Age gurusassert that feelings validate insight. It is certainly a lot easierthan following the Ten Commandments. In the words of Paulo Coelho in The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.”

A whole industry of New Age motivators now exists to exhort people to follow their dreams. Manifest Your Destiny: the Nine Spiritual Principles for Getting Everything You Want  or Joy Is My Compass: Taking the Risk to Follow Your Bliss are typical titles (they tend to have long subtitles, too).  

Consumer sovereignty. New Age is a spirituality tailor-made foreconomic rationalists and the “greed is good” generation. With itsfocus on personal feelings and its scepticism about truth, it fosters aculture of individualism and selfishness, despite its followers’ poeticwarblings about universal love. Furthermore, one of the characteristicfeatures of New Age thinking is that the energy you need to win liesunused within you. And if you don’t succeed, you have no one butyourself to blame. Individual success and self-satisfaction are itsgoals. You aren’t likely to find many of Deepak Chopra’s fans cuddlingAIDS babies.

Soon to be a major motion pictureIf readers accept these four notions, a clever writer can make them swallow anything. Take The Celestine Prophecy. It spent an incredible 145 weeks on the New York Timesbest-seller list in the mid 90s and still sells briskly. It iseven being made into a film which should be released soon. As a genre, it’s a bit hard to place. Perhaps the closest thing is The Da Vinci Code(another best-seller with New Age features) with some of the good bits,like plot, characterisation, style, and historical accuracy all cutout. It tells the story of an American searching for amanuscript written in the Biblical language of Aramaic in 600 BC andfound in (of all places!) Peru. This manuscript contains insights whichwill guide mankind into “a completely spiritual culture”. There’s onlyone problem: corrupt bishops and a vicious militaryregime are colluding to suppress it.

The book is atrociously written and leans heavily on pseudo-scientificinterpretations of evolution, the Heisenberg uncertainty principle andpsychoanalytic theory to support its absurdities. Inner harmony,transcendental meditation, tree-hugging, mysticism, significantcoincidences, significant dreams, synchronistic growth, ZPG, spiritualvibration, rain forests, evolution into higher energy states: it’s allthere in The Celestine Prophecy, 247 pages of codswallop scoffed up by millions of hungry readers.

More harmony than a barbershop quartet
No doubt the desire to remake reality according to your dreams whichunderlies much New Age hocus-pocus can be perverted into extremes ofslavish devotion to weird gurus or Satanism. But a more immediatedanger is seduction by best-selling authors whose books can be pickedup in any airport bookstand – Deepak Chopra, Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, or Carlos Castaneda, to name just a few.

These all make promises of harmony and love which much sound very muchlike the mysticism of Christianity without the trappings of ritual anddogma. Here are some of Wayne Dyer’s burblings: “The divine creativepower within me brings to me all that I want with happiness, love, andpeace… I am deeply thankful for all that I’ve received, and I enjoygiving to others in the spirit of love and service… I meditate each dayto increase my awareness of the divine power within me.”

Indeed, there is a lot of wisdom in their glossy books – after all, youdeserve something for your $24.95 – but it is the syrupy wisdom of thequotes on your desk calendar. As they leaf through the pages wearyworkaholics, love-starved divorcees and anxious salesmen can get groovytips about inner harmony and peace. At its best, New Age offers thecomfort of folk wisdom. At its worst, it offers a muddle of Christianplatitudes, Hindu mysticism, serene egotism and a virulent contempt fororganised religion.

In some ways, New Age has had a bad press. It merits serious study byphilosophers and theologians because its perplexing success reveals alot about the sceptical age we live in. Ultimately, its devotees areusing it as a guide to happiness without committing themselves to truthand a code of morality (which is basically the truth about what men andwomen are). But all they learn is how to maintain an inner calm bytelling themselves absurd fables.

Perhaps the spiritual yearnings of New Age signal the end of the roadfor materialism and relativism. Clearly people are looking forsomething beyond an ever-improving standard of living. And who canseriously maintain that truth and God don’t matter when millions ofeducated people at the beginning of the 21st Century are paying gurusto tell them lies?

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet