New Age Spirituality is No More Pure than Old-Time Religion

We must make this article required reading for Mystery School members.
By Robert Wright
July 29, 2009

Wouldn't it be great to be back in hunter-gatherer days? Back before the
human spiritual quest had been corrupted by the "relentless onslaught of
Western scientific materialism" and "dogmatic male-dominated religion"? Back
when there were shamans -- spiritual leaders -- who could plug us into "the
realm of the magical," show us "the reality behind apparent reality," and
thus lead us to understand "how the universe really works"?

The quotes come from Leo Rutherford, a leading advocate of neo-shamanism,
which is a subset of neo-paganism, which is a subset of New Age
spirituality. But the basic idea -- that there was a golden age of spiritual
purity which we fallen moderns need to recover -- goes beyond New Age
circles. You see traces of it even in such serious scholars as Karen
Armstrong, who wrote in A History of God that early Abrahamic religion had
created a gulf "between humanity and the divine, rupturing the holistic
vision of paganism."

As the author of the just-published book The Evolution of God, about the
history of religion, I'm primed to do some debunking. But before I start, I
want to stress two points:

1) I think it's great for people to find spiritual peace and sound moral
orientation wherever they can, including neo-paganism;

2) I don't doubt that back before Western monotheism took shape there were
earnest seekers of a "holistic vision" who selflessly sought to share that

What I do doubt is that these earnest, selfless spiritual leaders were any
more common in the heyday of shamanism than today, or that the spiritual
quest was any less corrupted by manipulation and outright charlatanism than
today, or that there was a coherent philosophy of shamanism that makes more
sense than the average religion of today.

Of course, there's no way to resurrect long-dead cultures to find out, and
there is by definition no such thing as a written record of prehistoric
societies. But we have the next best thing: accounts from anthropologists
who visited hunter-gatherer societies before they had been corrupted by much
contact with modernity. These anthropologists observed shamans doing what
shamans do: prophesying, curing people, improving the weather, casting
spells, casting out evil spirits, etc. And the anthropological record
suggests the following about the age of shamanism.

1) There was a lot of fakery. Eskimo shamans have been seen spewing blood
upon contact with a ceremonial harpoon, wowing audiences unaware of the
animal bladder full of blood beneath their clothing. The sleight of hand by
which shamans "suck" a malignant object out of a sick patient and then
dramatically display it works so well that anthropologists have observed
this trick in Tasmania, North America, and lands in between. Other examples

2) Shamans -- lots of them -- were in it partly for the money. In exchange
for treating a patient, a shaman might receive yams (in Micronesia), sleds
and harnesses (among the Eastern Eskimo), beads and coconuts (the Mentawai
of Sumatra), tobacco (the Ojibwa of northeastern North America), or slaves
(the Haida of western Canada). In California, if a Nomlaki shaman said,
"These beads are pretty rough," it meant that he would need more beads if he
was to cure anything that day.

3) Shamans -- some of them, at least -- were in it for the sex. In his
classic study The Law of Primitive Man, E. Adamson Hoebel observed that,
among some Eskimos, "A forceful shaman of established reputation may
denounce a member of his group as guilty of an act repulsive to animals or
spirits, and on his own authority he may command penance. An apparently
common atonement is for the shaman to direct an allegedly erring woman to
have intercourse with him (his supernatural power counteracts the effects of
her sinning)." Nice work if you can get it. Sometimes the magic-for-sex swap
was subtler. Ojibwa shamans, one anthropologist reports, received "minimal
remuneration," working for "prestige, not pay. One of the symbols of
religious leadership prestige was polygyny. Male leaders took more than
one wife."

4) Shamans -- some of them, at least -- ran protection rackets. Here is
anthropologist Edward Horace Man on shamans in the Andamanese Islands: "It
is thought that they can bring trouble, sickness, and death upon those who
fail to evince their belief in them in some substantial form; they thus
generally manage to obtain the best of everything, for it is considered
foolhardy to deny them, and they do not scruple to ask for any article to
which they may take a fancy." Among the Ona of Tierra del Fuego, payment for
service was rare, but, as one anthropologist observed, "One abstains from
anything and everything" that might put the shaman "out of sorts or irritate

As for the "philosophy" of shamanism -- the vision that, in Rutherford's
words, shows us "how the universe really works": Well, for the most part,
the worldview of shamans was a lot like that of followers of early Abrahamic
religion, except with more gods, more evil spirits, and more raw
superstition (though there's more raw superstition in the Bible than most
people realize).

Of course, some shamans did have the advantage, compared with biblical
figures, of psychedelic drugs. An Amazonian drug, as described by one
anthropologist, led the shaman to lie in his hammock, "growl and pant,
strike the air with claw-like fingers," signifying that "his wandering
soul has turned into a bloodthirsty feline."

So if shamanism is so crude, how did it get glamorized? In 1951, the
esteemed scholar Mircia Eliade published a book called Shamanism. While he
didn't whitewash shamanism, he did his best to see its more refined side. He
wrote that Eskimo shamanism and Buddhist mysticism share as their goal
"deliverance from the illusions of the flesh." And shamanism, he said,
features "the will to transcend the profane, individual condition" in order
to recover "the very source of spiritual existence, which is at once 'truth'
and 'life.' "

It's certainly true that ordinary consciousness could use some transcending.
Thanks to our designer, natural selection, we tend to be self-absorbed, with
a wary sense of separation from most of humanity. And it's true that various
shamanic techniques -- fasting, for example -- can improve things in this
regard (though fasting can also, as in the Native American "vision quest,"
convince you that you've been adopted by some spirit that will, say, help
you kill more people in battle). Anthropologist Melvin Konner once partook
of the Kung San curing dance, which can last 10 hours and send the dancer
into a trance state that converts his or her healing energy into useful
vaporous form and fosters discourse with gods. Konner didn't speak to any
gods, but he did report getting "that 'oceanic' feeling of oneness with the

I'm for that! In fact, I once did a one-week Buddhist meditation retreat
that gave me just that feeling. And there are traditions within Judaism,
Christianity, and Islam that are big on oneness. I recommend trying one of
them -- or trying neo-shamanism. But if you try neo-shamanism, don't be
under the illusion that you're helping to recover a lost age of authentic
spirituality. Religion has always been a product of human beings, for better
and worse.
Robert Wright's new book The Evolution of God is here: