It's a way with the fairies

A lesson in New Age beliefs is as valid as any academic discipline
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Do you believe in fairies? No? Then you aren't convinced that they played a role in the anti-road construction protests of the Nineties. Well, you're wrong.

Fairies, trolls and pixies in the eco-protest movement, which includes protesters' accounts of meetings with fairy beings, is a serious piece of research by a well-respected academic, Andy Letcher. Others research Origins of the New Age Triple Moon Goddess and The Influence of Popular Media upon Teenage Witchcraft in America. Academia has fallen under the spell of the New Age.

A recent conference on Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies (ASANAS), hosted by the Open University, attracted around 150 researchers from the US, Europe, Australia and Japan, as well as this country. The lecture list - A Course in Miracles, Popular Spell Books, Astrology, Magic and the Academy, Ireland's Neo-Pagan Community - reads more like something produced by Hogwart's School than a serious university. But the study of beliefs and practices once dismissed as "fringe" and "flaky" is not only well-established but, argue its practitioners, is a field as valuable and academically valid as any other.

Dr Marion Bowman, who is part of the Belief Beyond Boundaries Research Group in the OU's Religious Studies department, co-organised the ASANAS conference with Jim Lewis and Daren Kemp after running an annual Contemporary and New Age Religions Conference for 10 years. In her opinion New Age topics should be studied; but to do so requires a particular approach which is academic and at the same time respectful of its subject matter.

"Alternative spiritualities and religion exist, and they affect what people do, how they dress, who they socialise with, how they see the world," says Dr Bowman. "They are an important part of people's lives, and therefore worth studying.

"No matter what you think of religion, you cannot think it is irrelevant. There is a pressing imperative nowadays to understand how some people are seeing the world differently from others, so we might understand why people behave as they do."

Dr Bowman began her academic career at Glasgow University but switched to Lancaster University where she came under the influence of Professor Ninian Smart, who has acquired almost mythic status in the field of Religious Studies.

He inspired a new approach to the study of religion as a phenomenon in its own right. On the one hand it eschews the traditional theological approach that is concerned with religious truth and can be biased against other religions; on the other hand it avoids the reductionist sociological view which sees all belief systems as socially constructed. Dr Bowman says: "You are looking at beliefs and practices without getting involved in whether or not they are true or false. You are trying to see what's there, without imposing an agenda."

So you don't have to believe in fairies to study them - or rather, study the beliefs of those who do. After all, which of our beliefs can be objectively verified? "Even the rationalist's belief that there is no God, is just that - a belief," says Dr Bowman.

But defining and measuring "the New Age" is no easy task for serious researchers. It is very broad in scope. UFOs, astrology, sacred sites, paganism, healing, teen witchcraft, cyber-religion and the New Age in management were some of the main strands running through the ASANAS conference. And New Age groupings tend to be loosely organised - if organised at all.

"It's not easy to study because there are no buildings, for example, where you can say everyone who belongs to this group will be here at a certain time. It is much more about networks, informal groups and individuals following their own spiritual path," says Dr Bowman.

Take paganism. The label encompasses organised or semi-organised groups such as Druids and Wiccans, but a lot of pagans are, as Dr Bowman puts it, "free range".

Nor is all peace and harmony between the different spiritualities. There is considerable suspicion among many of the more dyed-in-the-woad pagans of the Eighties "spiritual entrepreneurs" who built businesses on the back of New Age pursuits.

The rivalry between the Fairies and the Trolls, groups of pagans camped at the same road protest site, is recounted in Andy Letcher's study. The Fairies are mostly vegetarian, non-violent beings who play mandolins and sing songs about seeking to protect the beauty of the world; Trolls eat meat, drink alcohol, adopt a confrontational attitude and ban "Fairy-ish" music.

But stare into the chaos, and a kind of order begins to emerge. "Behind all New Age and alternative spirituality lies the idea that every individual is responsible for their own spiritual development," says Dr Bowman. "If you are developing, you will use different spiritual tools - it could be yoga, meditation, personal experience, following a particular person's teaching. But you will not expect to stick with one thing for life."

A few themes reoccur - Eastern (as opposed to Western, Christian) forms of spirituality; concern for the environment; and the revival of indigenous traditions, which in Britain means pre-Christian religions.

It is hard to avoid the conclusion that what most individuals are seeking is the antithesis of urban, fragmented, mobile society which epitomises modern Western life. But in its preoccupation with choice the New Age would seem to reinforce, rather than undermine, a contemporary trend.

For the programme for the ASANAS conference, visit The New Age and the way religion is adapted to contemporary settings are examined in the OU course Religion Today: Tradition, Modernity and Change (code AD317). Contact 0845 3006090, quoting ALDOE, for details