Occultism has now settled comfortably into American culture. Even many Christians are involved in psychic or occult practices, directly or indirectly. However, occult revivals in this nation are nothing new. The mid-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries boasted significant occult activity. If we consider this phenomenon historically, we may understand the potential of occultism to shape our future. For example, in 1851 there were an estimated 1,200 mediums in Cincinnati, Ohio, alone—as well as hundreds of mediums in other major cities. By 1855, America boasted several thousand mediums and some two million followers, which led to an estimated eight to eleven million supporters by 1871.
These early “channelers” and their followers undergirded an entire century of American parapsychological research—the scientific study of the occult. This research, in part, finally helped to pave the way for our modern occult explosion.
For example, observe the consternation of G. H. Pember in Earth’s Earliest Ages. If we had not identified the date of publication as 1876, the reader could easily have assumed it originated with a modern author, so accurate is it in describing events of our own era:
Nay, almost every characteristic of antiquity seems to be reappearing. Open intercourse with demons is being renewed on a vast scale in the very heart of Christendom, and even among the hitherto somewhat Sadducean Protestants: numerous circles are carrying on magical practices: attempts are being made to restore the influence of those ancient Mysteries which are said to have been always kept up by a few initiates: the old mesmeric healings are again performed: star-gazers and planet rulers have greatly increased, while many amateur students are zealously assisting to re-establish the power of astrology over the human race: the use of the divining rod, and countless other practices of primal and medieval times, are once more becoming common. And, impossible as it would have seemed a few years ago, all these “superstitions” are floating back to us upon the tide of “modern thought.” They come no longer veiled in mystery, nor claiming to be miraculous or Divine; but in accordance with the spirit of the age, present themselves as the fruit of science, as an evidence of the progression of knowledge in regard to the laws of the visible and invisible worlds.
In our own period, a worldwide occult revival is mushrooming in obvious and less obvious guises—such as the human potential movement and certain psychotherapies in transpersonal and some forms of humanistic psychology. Even the military and some major corporations are turning to or promoting pseudo-science and the occult.
In 1979 Time magazine estimated some 40,000 witches were active in the United States. Today, the figure may have quadrupled, with an equal number of Satanists; regardless, over 300 universities, colleges, and educational institutions (over 75 are accredited or state-approved) now offer programs or even degrees on New Age topics; some 100 American universities also offer courses in witchcraft, and in Britain alone today there are an estimated 50,000 to 75,000 spiritists plus 40,000 to 100,000 witches and Satanists.Forty years ago all this was unheard-of.
Our current occult revival can be explained, in part, by the following factors:
1. The failure of rationalism, secular humanism, and materialism as comprehensive worldviews. While such ideologies have provided a welcome insulation against the occult, they have also indirectly promoted it by default. Millions of people have found such philosophies cannot meet their deeper personal needs, provide an outlet for spiritual expression, or offer a legitimate basis for genuine meaning in life. This explains why those who have no religious affiliation, far from being committed rationalists, are frequently the first to explore the supernatural.
According to the Bible, man is created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26,27), and has an innate need for fellowship with God. This explains why the history of mankind is the history of almost endless religious involvement—a search after divine reality. Unfortunately, men and women often turn to counterfeit religious expression in an attempt to satisfy these yearnings.
Thus, thinking the world of the psychic realm is something divine, many have turned to the paranormal, mystical, and occult in search of what they would not or could not find elsewhere.
2. A spiritual vacuum has resulted from the abandonment of orthodox Christianity, providing a cultural reorientation to greater acceptance of an occult/mystical worldview. Perhaps the most important cause of our occult revival is our nation’s turn from Christian faith. It is a simple fact that wherever Christianity is biblically practiced, occultism is rejected. Several decades ago there was at least a general consensus that the Bible was a divine revelation; that a personal God existed; that prayer was important—regardless of the number of people who actually lived such a philosophy in their daily lives. Even non-Christians benefited from a culture influenced by a Christian worldview. Such a cultural consensus provided a buffer against not only occult practice but also the barren implications and nihilism of non-theism.
However, our culture today has rejected even the minimal tenets of Christianity, and occultism, agnosticism, humanism, and religious and cultural relativism have come to power; as a result, in some ways our society is imploding from within. A substantial cultural shift is currently underway:
Recent developments not only in science but in the arts, politics, psychology, and religion indicate a broad shift in Western culture to increased acceptance of a common set of presuppositions that parallel the occult/mystical world view, which is in stark contrast to the biblical world view of historic Christianity.
The influence of an Eastern-occult/New Age-mystical world-view can be seen in education, literature and the arts, business, theology, medicine, psychology, government, science, popular movies, etc.—in virtually every segment of our culture. Witness as examples the modem influence of transpersonal (occult) education, the revival of spiritistic literature which now sells in the millions of copies, astrology and human potential seminars in the business world, the influence of parapsychology and cultism in Christian theology, the growing influence of New Age medicine, how Western psychologists are being powerfully influenced by Eastern traditions, how our own government now sponsors psychic research and, for lack of a better term, the various renditions of the new “physics mysticism” seen in Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics and other texts.
Well-known businessmen and movie stars routinely seek the advice of psychics and mediums; prestigious universities offer courses in the occult and conduct research into parapsychology; some hospitals even utilize the assistance of psychic healers, whom they may not identify as such to their patients lest they frighten them.
George Lucas, the cinema genius behind the Star Wars saga and the Indiana Jones movies, is only one Hollywood mogul who believes that cinema “should deal more with the occult.” Television now offers daily 900 ads or “infomercials” promoting psychic advice on half a dozen forms of divination (tarot, I Ching, astrology, etc.). These ads have reached and persuaded millions of people. Booklets are sold at supermarket checkout stands which are designed to enable the average person to “become psychic” and which encourage the development of psychic healing, spirit contact via the Ouija board, automatic writing, pendulum use, etc.
Researcher Brooks Alexander discusses how such metaphysical ideas have been successfully assimilated into our culture:
Eastern teachings have risen to prominence and prosperity in the West with remarkable speed…. As Eastern and occult ideas are propagated to Occidentals on a mass scale, they are filtered through the pervasive secularism of our culture. In this way, they are demystified without changing their essential content. The basic components of an Eastern/ occult world view are recast in forms of expression that are naturalistic, scientific, and humanistic in orientation. Occult philosophy is being secularized and psychologized with increasing refinement. In such forms, its fundamental concepts are easily adopted and easily applied by contemporary intellectuals.
Thus these mystical doctrines have influenced areas of society far removed from the sometimes bizarre world of the counterculture. Their underlying themes run through contemporary science, economics, politics, art, psychology, and religion.
3. The explosive growth of the new religions. The influx of Eastern gurus, and the emergence of hundreds of alternate religions and New Age seminars (e.g., Silva Mind Control, est/The Forum, Lifespring, MSIA, Actualizations, Mind Psibiotics, etc.) have provided another socially legitimate outlet for psychic participation. Indeed, literally scores of the most popular religious sects in this country—religions that influence tens of millions—either accept or promote occult activity.
Most Eastern religions are excellent breeding grounds for occult experimentation and development. Yoga practice, for example, characteristically develops psychic powers. In studying more than 20 modern gurus, we found that almost all promoted the occult and, further, described themselves (including their spiritual practices and behavior) in terminology that fits well with a hypothesis of their own spirit possession.
Finally, many of the new religions are fundamentally spiritistic in origin or practice. Our own findings after studying almost one hundred of the “new” religions are consistent with those of other researchers. For example, Brooks Alexander and Mark Albrecht of the Spiritual Counterfeits Project (SCP) in Berkeley, California, state: “Our research into [scores of] cults both large and small has revealed that the lowest common denominator is often that of direct spirit influence.”
Dr. Robert S. EIlwood, Jr., professor of religion at the University of Southern California, discusses over 40 of the new religions in Religious and Spiritual Groups in Modern America. He observes that they all have “striking parallels” to shamanism, a primitive form of spiritism. “The cult phenomena could almost be called a modern resurgence of shamanism,” he says. In that the new religions are fundamentally spiritistic, their promotion of the occult is not surprising.
4. Liberal Theology. Many people attend church hoping to find genuine spiritual reality and teaching. But thousands of churches in this country are theologically liberal. As such, they reject the divine inspiration of the Bible, deny salvation through Christ, and ridicule the existence of the miraculous. Thus indirectly, liberal theology is also one of the principal factors for promoting the occult.
When people find spiritual reality ridiculed in church, it is not surprising they might turn to other sources for spiritual nourishment, whether in the cults or the occult. Unfortunately, since liberal theology rejects the authority of the Bible, such people have no guidelines for evaluating or testing the validity of the spiritual experiences they encounter.
5. A new parapsychological/New Age view of human potential and the reclassification of occult powers. To classify occult practice as something entirely normal and/or as the proper means to contact God is to legitimize it in the minds of millions of people. Thus, various disciplines today are forging a new occult view of man which assumes that psychic development is inherently natural to the human condition and a process that leads to personal knowledge of God.
For example, a mystical approach to the “new physics,” transpersonal psychology, parapsychology, the study of higher consciousness, holistic health practices, and the New Age Movement all directly or indirectly promote the legitimacy of personal psychic development as an innate unfolding of psychological potential. The humanistic and transpersonal approach to psychology is a problem here since psychology as a discipline has little practical concept of evil to begin with. As noted psychiatrist M. Scott Peck points out in The People of the Lie, “The concept of evil has been central to religious thought for millennia. Yet it is virtually absent from our science of psychology—which one might think would be vitally concerned with the matter.” Thus, when segments of modern psychology begin to adopt occult philosophy and practice in purely psychological terms, it not only “naturalizes” occult powers, it a priori assumes their benevolence.
While parapsychology has placed a scientific credibility on developing psychic abilities, the New Age Movement in general has helped legitimize them as divine forms of spiritual expression. In fact, for dozens of religions, new and old, these new powers of the mind are seen as a means to divine health, wealth, power, and happiness.
Unfortunately, attitudes which legitimize psychic practices as “scientific,” exhibiting “human potential,” or “divine” mask the sinister reality of the occult as something neutral, benevolent, and/or benignly spiritual.
Most gurus, psychics, spiritists, mediums, and occultists stress their powers come “from God.” In a similar manner, the various “Christian” parapsychological societies reinterpret psychic abilities as the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and the New Age Movement reclassifies mediumism itself as a “channeling” of higher aspects of the divine mind.
Again, to claim your powers originate in God gives them divine authority and legitimacy. In times past, psychic powers were at least acknowledged as originating from the spirit world. But while the motives or character of mercurial “spirits” can easily be questioned, that which involves the activity of God cannot be doubted.
6. The reality of the supernatural. Ultimately, what explains our modern explosion of occult activity is the stark reality of the supernatural world. It does exist. Indeed, there are now literally millions of personal testimonies of people contacting this world directly.
But unfortunately, the pervasiveness of the occult in our society is underestimated by many rationalistic secularists who view it as “nonsense” or “a passing fad.” Even those who claim to be open-minded tend to debunk it. Thus, they fail to understand why converts to the occult continue to include all segments of society, including the intelligentsia: There really is something there.
A relevant example is Colin Wilson, an initial skeptic, whose seminal The Outsider and other works have had wide impact. Wilson went on to pen The Occult: A History (1973), Mysteries (1978), Dark Dimensions: Celebration of the Occult (1977), and other books on the occult which, worthy treatments to be sure, nevertheless have helped to legitimize it socially.
But with broader social legitimization, its absorption or redefinition by the secular culture makes its influence more subtle. As Robert Burrows argues, “Since the sixties, occult mysticism has widened its base. As it is filtered through the secularism of Western culture, it is increasingly difficult to detect. Mysticism in its secularized forms has gained the greatest ground, making its influence felt in every major facet of contemporary life.”
7. Freedom from conventional morality. Modern America has largely rejected moral absolutes. Indeed, national polls reveal that 70 percent of adults do not think there is such a thing as a moral absolute. If so, it would seem that around a hundred million people are now predisposed against absolute concepts of right and wrong. This might explain why many of them turn to the occult. Occult teachings offer a spiritualjustification for freedom from morality. Thus, occult participation represents a rejection of God’s benevolent desires for man as expressed in His law, and man’s own inclination to seek his own form of spirituality—a form which typically exalts moral independence. This allows man to live however he pleases (1 Samuel 15:23; Isaiah 5:12-30; 30:8-11; Jeremiah 5:30,31; 2 Timothy 4:3,4). As the notorious occultist Aleister Crowley emphasized, “The whole of the law is ‘Do what thou wilt.’” Several teenage “Satanists” have told us, “I’ve read The Satanic Bible and it says I can do anything I want. That’s why I like Satanism.” Neopagan feminist Margo Adler observes that witchcraft and neopaganism are “incredibly anarchistic movements” with hardly any dogmas, hence their popularity. In her book on the revival of neopaganism (Drawing Down the Moon: Witches, Druids, Goddess-Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today), she observes: “Many people said that they had become pagans because they could be themselves and act as they chose, without what they felt were medieval notions of sin and guilt.”
But “medieval notions” of sin and guilt reflect universal human experience. Occult philosophy will indeed free one from moral constraints—but at what cost?