Since the 1970s in the West, and from at least the mid-1990s in Japan – from where I write these words – there has been a particular way of describing eclectic, alternative and sometimes counter-cultural forms of individual religious behaviour: ‘New Age’ or ‘Spirituality’. Critics and defenders of this way of thinking seem to agree that part of the population of the late modern industrialized world has been showing an increasingly consumerist attitude towards beliefs and practices formed in opposition to – though they often aim to compromise with – both modern science and doctrinal faith.
The Japanese ‘spiritual therapists’ whom I have been surveying in the last four years, and who make a living out a variety of alternative therapeutic techniques such as hypnotherapy, spiritual counselling or reiki are undoubtedly part of this New Age / Spirituality paradigm. But recently I’ve come to believe that we don’t have to look at the ‘spiritual business’ (a concept associated with the money transactions involved in the exchange of ‘spiritual’ experiences) exclusively as either a bastion of secular capitalism or the new/next form of religious behaviour.
Nor am I alone in this. Matthew Wood has argued that the manner in which New Agers interact with various sources of religious authority is due neither to some capitalist eclectism nor to a more religious self. Instead, it is about secularization at an individual level.
Another difficulty is how to escape the Western-centric origins of the terms we use when we debate these phenomena. A potential solution offered in recent research is that the true opposite of science is not religion or the sacred, but rather delusion and superstition.
In a fascinating account of the history of religion in Japan, Jason A. Josephson argues that one of the ‘watersheds of modernity’ has been a shift from religion-vs-superstition to science-vs-superstition. As superstition fades away, religion sticks around as ‘the superstition that cannot be expelled’.
So what looks like the popular reactionary rise of New Age/Spirituality as ‘individualized religion’ might in fact be the continuation of science’s attempt to exert control over its true enemy: superstition.
Meanwhile, in Depression in Japan: Psychiatric Cures for a Society in Distress, Junko Kitanaka shows how, whereas medicalization in the Western context has largely entailed the reduction to biology of ever larger swathes of human experience, in Japan the medicalization process has seen these biological narratives interwoven with holistic and social elements that appeal to the Japanese sense of self.
For example, according to many Japanese psychiatrists depression is an illness of the whole body, frequently observed in individuals who have specific personality traits – such as diligence – that rendered them especially weak in the recent, prolonged economic recession. Kitanaka argues that ‘this psychiatric discourse – in sharp contrast to the psychologizing and individualizing discourse in the United States – gives Japanese a language to express their suffering in a ‘socializing’ manner’.
Building on this, perhaps the New Age/Spirituality phenomenon has emerged from a trend towards the ‘medicalization of superstition': taking anything that is not regarded as scientifically valid and calling it a medical problem of one sort or another.
Let me give you three examples of how this trend is playing out in practice:
First, metropolitan doctors tend to pathologize certain beliefs and practices that are generally regarded as ‘superstitious’, alienating their patients and causing them eventually to prefer the label of ‘superstitious’ over that of some psychiatric disorder or other. As an example, one of the informants in my research – let’s call her Ms Aoyama – started having experiences, not long after the sudden death of her partner, when her surroundings seemed to be lit up as if a lamp had been placed behind or within them. Her doctor told her she was depressed, but unsatisfied with this she interpreted her visions as a kind of ‘spiritual power’, studied ‘reconnective healing’ – a type of New Age therapy – and went on to open a therapy salon.
Secondly, professional therapists working in this ‘superstitious’ realm frequently adopt language and strategies that mirror those of psychiatrists – as observed by Kitanaka. Through various relaxation techniques, they urge clients to cultivate an objectivized, alien sense of their own bodies; they encourage clients to regard their problems as arising from an ‘abnormal’ state, shifting the locus of agency to the realm of the supernatural by blaming, for example, a wrong deed committed in a past life, or the influence of some malicious energy; and they call attention to social pressures, thus further shifting responsibility away from clients and even suggesting the latter’s victimhood. My informants often explained the average age of their mostly female clientele – mid-thirties – by referring to Japanese social pressures that force women to quit work and build a family by this stage in their lives.
Thirdly , the academic writing that helped to construct the idea of ‘New Age/Spirituality’ in the first place closely resembles medicalization rhetoric. It has tended to depict the kind of people who get involved in this world either as using magical-mythical thinking to sacralize individual liberty – in order to cope with a fast-paced, alienating world – or as victims of a secular worldview that associates self-realization with consumer capitalist values. In both cases, the weight given to socio-economic conditions as an explanatory factor for any human behaviour labelled ‘superstitious’ is a feature reminiscent of medicalization. In this sense, the New Age/Spirituality paradigm seems to legitimize and even affirm the scientific paradigm when it comes to human experience.
A thorough analysis of the practice of spiritual therapies in Japan promises to reveal not only a fascinating example of the glocalisation of ‘New Age/Spiritual’, but also a new perspective on the relationship between science and religion.
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