All posts about "closed cultures/religions" are really frustrating and confusing. It seems that some cultures are trying to keep their teachings "off-limits" when the west is adopting them too fast to contain it. It's impossible to go anywhere today without running into dreamcatchers and chakras. At this point, there's very little open in New Age concepts. It's ridiculous. Isn't there a line? Like being TOO PC? We can't just stop with smudging, chakras, & adopting beliefs that speak to us...
My commentary is so long because cultural appropriation and people’s negative response to it is pretty complicated and it’s worth laying out. I also mention America a lot because the New Age, which you mention explicitly, was especially influential here.
Cultures don’t choose to make their religions closed to outsiders because they want to be assholes. There are solid, very legitimate reasons. We have links in the FAQ and Resource page about this, and there are plenty of blogs run by people of actual closed religions that talk about it.
I do actually understand your frustration, anon, in terms of being attracted to a particular practice but unable to do anything with it on a level that’s more than academic. And you’re right in that much of it has become so distilled through mainstream non-native culture that it seems like, what’s the point? But it’s precisely because these things have become so distilled that we need to consciously reexamine how we engage with them.
The New Age movement as we understand it now from the 70s onward was largely a response to the materialism and capitalism of American culture and a rebellion against what’s considered conventional, both secular and religio-spiritual. Unfortunately, it ended up perpetuating those very things when expensive weekend getaways, workshops (”Come join us for a few days and find your spirit animal!”), aesthetic, and people’s habit of wanting to collect stuff became common. It quickly became a movement of commodification, not appreciation. (Children of the New Age by Steven Sutcliffe is a good analysis of the New Age movement.)
The largest demographic of New Age practitioners – and Neopaganism, for that matter – is white and middle-class, which comes with some very strong social and economic privilege. It also comes with the American struggle with identity: what does it mean to be American? Uncle Sam and barbecues on the Fourth of July? The lack of a common cohesive cultural identity, especially strong among a white demographic, contributes to the reason why many Americans cling so hard to their ancestry even if their family left that homeland over 300 years ago.
It’s one of the big reasons New Age and Neopagan people are so quick to appropriate other cultures. It’s a way to connect to a cultural depth and heritage that many Americans otherwise lack. Unfortunately, white-identified people have grown up in a society of colonization that encourages a sense of entitlement towards others, so our perception of what constitutes “appreciating and sharing other cultures” is, in reality, often condescending and fetishizing. The fact that no other subject gets so many people so defensive so quickly is testimony to this sense of entitlement. There’s an element of “the Noble Savage” in there, too, especially when it comes to the First Nations. Then it all gets strained through that sieve of commodification into the repackaged products that make it easier for outsiders to consume. We just don’t see it because we’ve never had to.
The prevalence of all this doesn’t excuse it, just as the pervasiveness of oversexualized misogyny in popular media doesn’t excuse its existence.
There are lines in cultural appropriation. Like, eating out at an Indian restaurant isn’t appropriating. It’s when things that are sacred or otherwise integral that it becomes an issue. We really can stop doing these things. The beauty (and curse) of contemporary religion and spirituality, including New Age and Neopaganism, is how flexible they are, allowing for innumerable alternatives that don’t perpetuate a culture of colonization. Instead of dreamcatchers, try witch’s ladders. Instead of calling yourself a shaman, try “hedgewitch” or “spiritworker.” Instead of chakras, you can use the imagery of the Kemetic soul alignment or the three cauldrons in Irish polytheism. We have so much room for creativity and crafting paths that are meaningful without being problematic! I truly believe that’s a beautiful thing and that we’re wasting our potential. But throwing up your hands and saying, “This is too complicated, it’s too late, whatever,” indicates a lack of sensitivity to cultural dynamics and continued participation in a toxic social institution. Sometimes – sometimes – just changing the word and not trying to pass off your actions as the equivalent to actions of a closed practice is enough. Pagans and witches know the power of words, after all.
No, not everyone agrees on exactly what constitutes cultural appropriation, and it becomes more complicated when there’s conflicting opinion within the same group. For example, some say that Kabbalism is closed to non-Jews, but then, I know of an individual Jewish Kabbalist who will accept non-Jewish Kabbalists as long as they really make an attempt to understand the Kabbalah within the actual Jewish paradigm and don’t try talking over Jews because they think they know better. In those cases, all I can recommend is proceeding with respect, learning, and listening to people native to that culture even if you don’t like what you’re hearing, including, “Stop.”
We may feel “called” to a particular religion, but we don’t live in a spiritual vacuum. Even the gods need to respect boundaries, and as a friend suggested to me, it could even be a test to see how you respond. It’s up to you to evaluate who you are, what culture you feel called to, and whether or not it means engaging in the above-described toxicity.