From the San Francisco "Chronicle" Wednesday, April 25, 1990
Chronicle Poll: Last of Two Parts
Warning of New Age 'Threat'
Traditional churches decry 'glorification of self, not God'
By Don Lattin
Chronicle Religion Writer
From the halls of the Vatican to radio stations across the Bible Belt,
Christian leaders are warning their flocks to stay away form forms of
mysticism, occultism and meditation that do not keep Jesus Christ as the
undiluted center of religious contemplation.
Last January, from the podium of the National Religious Broadcasters
convention in Washington, D.C., televangelist Pat Robertson stood before
1,500 leaders of the Christian Right, looked into the 1990s and issued a
"There is something coming from the East," said Robertson, lowering his
voice to a whispery warning. "It's a modified version of Hinduism. It's
called the New Age. It's seeping into American businesses, the
classrooms of American, infiltrating into Europe. It's even in the
Several months later, from the podium of the Bankers Club atop San
Francisco's Bank of America skyscraper, pollster George Gallup Jr. told
a "Business of God" luncheon that church leaders should be concerned
about the pervasiveness of New Age thinking in this part of the
country." He called it "a serious threat to Christianity."
"It appeals to those who have little religious grounding but are looking
for meaning in their lives," said Gallup, an evangelical Episcopalian
and longtime pulse-taker of the American religious scene. "Its methods
-- such as meditation -- are fine. But its ends are the glorification
of self, not God. Christianity and New Age cannot possibly exist
According to a Chronicle Poll on changing religious beliefs, however,
Christianity and New Age _do_ exist side-by-side in Northern California.
In fact, they often exist side-by-side in the souls of individual
Although it is considered heresy by the their church, nearly 3 in 10
Roman Catholics believe in reincarnation, while nearly a third believe
in astrology. Overall, about 25 percent of Bay Area residents who
identify themselves as "Christian" believe in reincarnation -- roughly
the same as the general population.
More than a third of all residents of the nine-county Bay Area practice
some form of yoga or meditation at least weekly, and nearly four in 10
believe they can contact the spirits of the dead.
Northern Californians are just as "religious" as other Americans, the
Chronicle Poll found, but they ar more independent and open-minded about
matters of the spirit. Nearly nine in 10 of those surveyed "believe in
God or some transcendent spiritual force," but only 30 percent "attend
church or any organized spiritual service, seminar or workshop" on a
weekly basis. Forty-two percent of Americans surveyed in a 1988 Gallup
Poll said thy had attended church or synagogue within the previous week.
Almost eight in 10 Bay Area residents say religion or spirituality is an
important part of their lives. Thirty percent say its importance has
increased in the past five years. Only 7 percent say its importance has
While Bay Area residents are looking for new ways to explore their
spirituality, church officials are tightening the theological reins.
Resurrection and Reincarnation
During Easter week, for example, the National Association of
Evangelicals felt it necessary to issue a press release explaining the
difference between resurrection and reincarnation. The conservative
Christian organization blasted the New Age movement as a "shallow
pop-psychology of self-indulgent affirmations, a synthetic blending of
half-truths from a spirit world it doesn't understand."
Just before Christmas, the Vatican's Sacred Congregation for the
Doctrine of the Fath warned Catholics against practicing certain forms
of yoga, Zen Buddhism and Transcendental Meditation, saying they could
lead to "moral deviations, psychic disturbances and degenerate into a
cult of the body."
Evangelical publishing houses have issued a spate of books in recent
years calling the New Age movement everything from self-centered to
Meanwhile, leading New Age personalities are becoming more pointed in
their critiques of the Judeo-Christian tradition, which they blast as
outmoded, paternalistic religion that oppresses women and provides
divine justification for ecological doom.
Much of what is now called "New Age" is actually an "archaic revival" of
shamanism, goddess worship and the polytheistic "mystery religions" of
ancient Greece and Rome. It is the same pagan, nature-based spirituality
the early Christian church battle against nearly 2,000 years ago.
"We have a different approach to nature," said Terence McKenna, an
outspoken New Age leader from Sonoma County. "The Judeo-Christian ethic
is that man is the lord of creation and can do as he wishes. The pagan,
archaic-revival point of view is biological, ecological and stresses
co-adaptive relations. We are in a global, suicidal crisis -- and
Christianity has a lot to answer for."
According to the Chronicle Poll, Bay Area residents are still making up
their minds about the New Age movement. Twenty percent have a favorable
view and 28 percent an unfavorable view, while the majority (52 percent)
said they "don't know."
Some 42 percent agree with the statement that "what is misguided about
the New Age movement and Eastern mysticism is that people worship
themselves rather than God." Disagreeing are 31 percent, while 27
percent "don't know."
Satan at Work
About one in four Bay Area residents say they believe that "Satan, or
some demonic power, is at work behind a lot of the New Age movement and
Eastern gurus." Sixty percent disagree with that statement.
The Chronicle Poll, a telephone survey of 600 Bay Area adults, was
conducted March 16-19 by Mark Baldassare and Associates. It has a margin
of error of 4 percent.
Robertson -- who mounted a failed bid for the 1988 Republican
presidential nomination and heads the influential Christian Broadcasting
Network -- condemns the New Age movement as "blatant demonism."
"Young people are the target," he told the National Religious
Broadcasters convention. "We can either give over them the crack
dealers, or give them over to the pornographers, or give them over to
the New Age -- or we can move in with the fresh power of the Holy Spirit
and win this world for Jesus Christ."
Robert Bellah, a University of California at Berkeley sociologist and
leading observer of American religion, said the New Age movement could
replace Communism and "secular humanism" as the great satan of the
Christian Right in the 1990s.
"The fundamentalist mentality is prone to paranoia -- they have always
had a lot of enemies," said Bellah. "For 45 years we have been locked in
a struggle with the Evil Empire, and the collapse of that is really
something to think about. Now the worl d isn't doing too good, and we're
not sure who to blame."
Rather than condemning the New Age movement, Bellah said, mainline
churches should look at why Americans are gravitating toward meditation,
divination, Eastern mysticism, shamanism, mythology, humanistic
psychology and other spiritual practices outside the Judeo-Christian
"Mainline churches are bland," Bellah said. "People want something more
interesting -- like channeling or getting in touch with spirits."
Some mainline churches are trying to meet the challenge.
Churches across the spiritual spectrum are finding a place for ecology
in their theology. They are expanding their retreat programs and
weeknight workshops from traditional Bible studies and prayer groups to
encompass Zen meditation, dream analysis workshops and the teaching of
the late mythologist Joseph Campbell.
At Community Congregational Church, a Protestant church in Tiburon,
members praise Jesus on Sunday and get in touch with "the Tao" at
Saturday morning tai chi classes.
At Holy Names College, a Roman Catholic campus in the Oakland hills,
Native American spirituality, dance therapy, witchcraft, eco-feminism
and Christian mysticism all find a place in classes at the Institute in
Culture and Creation Spirituality.
At Grace Cathedral, the Episcopal Church has a program called "Quest,"
designed to cultivate " the art of living spiritually." This weekend,
Quest is offering a "pilgrimage" program with several leading
mythologists, an exploration of women's spirituality and "healing
arts," and a jazz concert to commemorate a 1965 Duke Ellington
appearance at the cathedral.
"We are seeing a revival of the sacred, a recovery of something we have
lost," said the Rev. Alan Jones, dean of Grace Cathedral, the seat of
the Episcopal Diocese of California. "What seems 'New Age' is really a
new constellation of old things. It's all part of a confused revolt to
insist the world is a sacred place. Modernity defined the world as a
place that is not sacred, and that world view is being challenged."
Jones said Grace Cathedral is "trying to build a bridge" to the New Age
"What saddens me is the church's failure to share its own treasures and
mystical tradition," he said. "What are emerging as 'new myths' are
deeply rooted in the Judeo-Christian story. Americans have such an
impoverished view of what Christianity is all about."
Nevertheless, some the ideas behind "New Age" thought, humanistic
psychology and Eastern mysticism are at odds with orthodox
Judeo-Christian teaching. Many adherents of New Age spirituality see the
divine in their own "inner Self" or think of God as an amorphous energy
force buzzing about the universe -- not the Biblical God who issues
commandments and judges humankind.
Most followers of the New Age and human potential movement have also
rejected or radically reinterpreted the Christian doctrine of original
sin, the idea that human kind has been in a fallen state since Adam and
Eve entered the world.
On perhaps the most basic test of Christian orthodoxy -- the divinity of
Christ -- the Chronicle Poll found Bay Area residents less orthodox than
Sixty-four percent of all respondents, and 82 percent of those calling
themselves "Christian," believe Jesus Christ is God, or the Son of God.
Some 25 percent -- and 12 percent of those identified as "Christian" --
prefer to think of Christ as "another religious leader like Mohammed or
Only 4 percent of Christians -- and 9 percent of all respondents --
surveyed in a recent national Gallup Poll put Jesus on the same level as
Mohammed and Buddha.
San Francisco Archbishop John Quinn said he is "very concerned" that
people calling themselves "Christians" would equate Christ with Buddha.
'Not the Real Christ'
"You can't put them on the same level. That would be absolutely wrong
and reprehensible," Quinn said in an interview. "That is not the real
Christ -- the Christ of the gospels or the Christ of the church. It's a
false idea, without foundation."
Quinn agreed that the church "could always do more" to clarify its
doctrines and offer Roman Catholics more opportunities to explore the
mystical realms within their church.
"We have a long mystical tradition, spanning 20 centuries," said Quinn,
who recently completed his own 30-day silent retreat. "We have seen
phenomenal growth in the retreat movement in the United States. These
programs all have waiting lists, and there is a great proliferation of
prayer groups and programs of spiritual direction."
Some New age leaders say Christian doctrine has become irrelevant to the
needs and spiritual aspirations of men and women in the modern world and
closed off to science and other systems of thought.
'Mary's a Nice Girl'
"Christian mythology is defective," said Robert Bly, the Minneapolis
poet and New Age workshop leader. "It provides no place for the divine
woman, other than Mary, who's a nice girl. That's very different from
the great female beings of India."
"I call myself a Christian, but it's as if I had to go to mythology to
find what really moved me and explained things to me," said Bly, who was
raised in the Lutheran church. "Your religion should be your mythology
and your cosmology."
Jones, the Grace Cathedral dean, separates himself from conservative
evangelicals who condemn New Age as satanic but nevertheless has his own
criticism of the movement.
"They are degenerating religion into a private, leisure-time pursuit of
the 90s," he said. "People into channeling, karma and reincarnation can
easily go of on private trips. People seem to use it in a way to be
indifferent to the poor and homeless. Those people are just working out
their own karma. They're all just following their own destiny."
* * * * *
The Chronicle Poll Results:
The Chronicle Poll was conducted by Mark Baldassare and Associates. The
survey of 600 Bay Area adults was conducted March 16 to 19 and has a
margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points. Bay Area regions
are: East Bay (Alameda, Contra Costa), North Bay (Marin, Napa, Solano,
Sonoma), San Francisco and South Bay (San Mateo, Santa Clara). Results
may not add up to 100 percent because of rounding. U.S. figures come
from various Gallup Polls conducted during the 1980s using identically
# How important is religion in your life?
# Compared to five years ago, how would you describe the importance of
religion or spirituality in your life today?
Stayed the same..............63%
# Which of these religions do you follow?
Other religion............... 7%
# How frequently do you attend church or any organized spiritual
service, seminar or workshop?
Less than annually..........29%
Less than monthly...........25%
# Do you think Jesus Christ was God or the Son of God?
# Do you think Jesus Christ was just another religious leader like
Mohammed or Buddha?
U.S. ....................... 9%
# Do you think Jesus Christ never lived?
Bay Area.................... 2%
U.S. ....................... 1%
# How do you feel about the statement: 'There are clear guidelines about
what is good or evil that apply to everyone regardless of their
Bay Area..................... 4%
U.S. ........................ 4%
# Do you believe that what is misguided about the New Age movement and
Eastern mysticism is that people worship themselves, rather than God?
# Do you believe Satan or some demonic power is at work behind a lot of
the New Age movement and Eastern gurus?
* * * * *
(C) 1990 The San Francisco Chronicle
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