Innocence Lost

Definition of a teenager: someone who doesn't realise that one day they will be as stupid as their parents.
- unknown father

During nearly all of history people have believed without question in three things: the religion they were born into, the near-divine status of their king and that the social order was divinely determined. I call this state of affairs innocence. Innocence means that one's thinking is bounded by traditional beliefs. At some time during the twentieth century humanity lost this innocence. Losing innocence is learning that the religion and society one lives in is not the only one existing, and probably not the best possible. The result is that we live in a culture riddled by uncertainty and doubt.

A gulf separates people now living in the West from earlier generations. The spirit of our times is radically different from what it was at the beginning of this century. The difference can be summed up in a phrase: loss of innocence. The change is irreversible: we will never be innocent again.

Hopefully, broadened awareness leads to responsibility. A person who believes they are following God's will or living in 'the best of all possible worlds' does not need to learn to think for themselves. They need not worry about what their society is doing to itself, to other societies or to the earth. For the first time in the story of humanity, the human race needs to be responsible. Like a child, it resists assuming responsibility as much as it can.

How this article came about

Reading Ruth Park's autobiography, I was struck by how differently people thought and behaved in those days, especially as shown in patriotism, but also in other ways. The word that seemed to fit best was 'innocence', taken in a cultural sense, since it seemed analogous to the childish innocence that each individual loses at some stage in their life. This idea of innocence that I fastened onto was something at the same time glaringly evident and maddeningly elusive. I set about trying to elucidate what the difference was between people then and people now. I settled on the formula of belief in religion, ruler and society, but this conception is too concrete and misses the essence because cultural innocence cannot be neatly dissected. Nevertheless, here is my attempt. While it is true that I have extended the meaning of the word 'innocence', this is in keeping with its normal meaning.

The loss

The loss of innocence is sharply illustrated by the enthusiasm of young Australian men volunteering during the First World War to fight in a futile conflict that had nothing to do with them. Now in the West there is no more unthinking patriotism as there was until the last World War. Even the growth of cynicism has its plus side - people are far less gullible than they were fifty years ago. As a result the old conception of the leaders and the led does not apply as much as in the past. Due to loss of innocence, contemporary Westerners feel they have every right to disagree with those who govern them.

What has been lost is the belief in king, church and country. In cultures past these three were intimately linked, as in ancient Egypt and other theocracies. Since even highly educated people find it hard to articulate the assumptions that form the basis of their thinking, it should be clear that the beliefs of innocence are partly conscious and partly not. People in innocent societies believe that certain rules apply, such as the inferiority of women or even the necessity of clitoridectomy, without articulating these traditional beliefs. To them it is just the way the world is. The innocent is unable to analyse their own patterns of thinking because they can't detach themselves from the framework of their beliefs. They do not see the assumptions that constrain their thinking.

Although the loss of innocence is something that has happened within living memory, its roots stretch back to the Greeks, who launched us into abstract thought. They were the first to speculate, free of inherited orthodoxy, about the nature of the world and of society. Henceforth it was possible for a culture to make itself the object of its own thought. Another milestone was reached two thousand years later. According to HW Janson, "The Renaissance was the first period in history to be aware of its own existence and to coin a label for itself." The scientific revolution and the Enlightenment culminated in the breakdown of traditional thinking during our own era.

Once innocence is lost it cannot be regained, at least not in the same form. As Sartre memorably predicted, "Man is condemned to be free." By losing its innocence as a culture, the West has forfeited innocence on behalf of all humanity, since once knowledge is gained it inevitably spreads. Once one culture has thrown off the mental constraints of tradition others can follow.


The main bulwark of traditional thinking has always been religion. The most important spiritual development in the West in the last hundred years is the decline of Christianity. Consequently we live in the first secular society in history. There is an attendant philosophical and spiritual vacuum, which undermines value systems and makes moral values appear relative. No central principle has replaced religion. "Work, pray and breed" are no longer sufficient to give meaning to individual lives. Modern society is stuck with the existential problem. In other words, to find meaning in life has itself become a problem. Modern levels of leisure and our ability to have much more of a personal life make the problem more apparent. Those who live within the bounds of a traditional world-view do not need to search for the meaning of life. The existential problem is the best indication of our society's loss of innocence.


The decline of religion seems to be caused by the advance of rationality and in particular, science. In centuries past, whatever was not explainable was seen as an "act of God". As humanity acquired more knowledge, 'the God of the gaps' vanished away. In the modern scientific view there is little, if any, room for God to interfere with the workings of the universe. The Christian account of Creation and belief in miracles are not compatible with a rational outlook. As the scientific world-view gained ascendency, religious beliefs declined.

Darwin scandalised his contemporaries by tracing our family tree further than anyone cared to look. We have reluctantly come to accept that our species is just another animal. Thus began the end of the immemorial love affair with ourselves that is, in hindsight, called anthropocentrism. We know how insignificant is our position in the cosmos. To a modern mind it seems absurd that the entire universe would have been created for the benefit of a creature that eventually evolved on the surface of the third planet of an insignificant star in one galaxy among a billion others. This loss of self-importance has allowed us to see ourselves with some measure of objectivity.

While science has made unnecessary the idea of a celestial clock-maker and maintainer, it has also discovered serious limitations to the possible extent of human knowledge. The uncertainty principle at the heart of quantum mechanics is a mathematical expression of the limits of our physical knowledge. Equally radical is the realisation that the act of observation changes what is being observed. The world of modern physics challenges many of our basic ideas. Einstein showed that such basics as time and space are not what we normally think they are. In modern physics matter has lost its materiality. Sub-atomic physics tells us we can't decompose matter into independently existing smallest units. The properties of an 'elementary' particle can only be understood in terms of its effects on other particles and quanta. Modern science tells us that the world is stranger than we know and stranger than we can know.

There are serious doubts about fundamentals in the fields of psychology and science (for instance Kuhn pointed out that the history of science is one of revolutions followed by periods of consolidation) and even in the very foundations of mathematics. This new humility combined with openness to radically new ideas is the opposite of the smugness of the innocent, who is secure in their unchanging world-view. Doubt is the slayer of innocence.


Freud showed that our conscious mind is only part of the story. We are not the rational beings we think we are. Jung proposed that all of human nature, including the most demonic aspects, are contained within each one of us. We are beginning to realise how culture-bound and conditioned we all are. Sexual morality is an area where many people have particularly strong beliefs, eg lust was considered the worst of the seven deadly sins. Yet we know that sexual mores are mainly the results of cultural conditioning. Then there is the prevalence of projection: the world is not what we think it is. We mistake our ideas and prejudices for reality. We know that human nature is rife with paradoxes such as the fear of freedom. These insights force us to examine basic assumptions about ourselves.

Modern thought

Popper has suggested that the willingness to accept criticism is the best criterion of rationality. By contrast, cultural innocence is predicated on lack of criticism. Rationality is the greatest enemy of innocence. Royalty, organised religion, politics and modern medicine have all been debunked. Indeed, what hasn't been? There is also much disillusionment with the idea of progress. There are in the West no beliefs or institutions beyond challenge. Cynicism, scepticism, irreverence, rebelliousness, distrust of authority, and disdain for tradition are modern virtues.

Marx argued that the social order is not a given but the result of economic forces. In past times it was thought natural to have "the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate." Today no thinking person in the West believes that the current state of society is natural or divinely ordained. Nor is it comforting to reflect that our society is largely governed by its economic order, capitalism, which is based not on caring but on greed. As David Maybury-Lewis observed, "Our economics does not operate as if people mattered."

We do not live in 'the best of all possible worlds' and there is no guarantee of 'progress', even if it were possible to give this a meaningful definition. The universe was not created for our benefit; God is no longer an Englishman. These superseded beliefs mirror those of the innocent child, who believes that it is the most important person and that its parents are the best in the world.

The comfortable (for men) illusion of male superiority is another formerly universally held belief that is now seen for the falsehood that it is. The same applies to ideas of racial and cultural superiority, though the latter is a complex issue. In the West there has been an over-reaction against the cultural narcissism of our past, innocent state. This reaction has caused a tendency to glorify 'primitive' societies, with attendant Western guilt and a sense of inferiority. Before the loss of innocence every culture believes itself superior to all others. (I know of a Greek who used to claim that the world was composed of two kinds of people: Greeks and those who wanted to be Greeks.) Every people tends to think they are 'the chosen people' and that their religion is the only true one. As the old cliche has it, ignorance is bliss. Doubt is painful, but without the openness it makes possible, we cannot discover what is currently hidden from our understanding.

The frameworks of class, sex roles, religion and culture in general are now seen as man-made. Hence they are arbitrary and lack the force of necessity.

Nowadays in the West we are well aware, perhaps too much so, of the quixotic nature of idealism. This has been most clearly and tragically shown in the history of communism. We realise that no human society will ever be a utopia. It takes more than a revolution to sweep away suffering and injustice. As someone observed, the poor will always be with us. The failure of communism (USSR), Christianity (the Middle Ages) and Islam (Iran) as working social models illustrates this, as does the relative failure of liberal democracy and the welfare state, in which people remain dissatisfied and self-destructive.

The effect of these changes in our thinking is exacerbated by the rate and magnitude of social change. Another factor is the ever-increasing complexity, made worse by contradictory views, including among experts. Ever-changing health scares and dietary fads are an example. What is normally referred to as the knowledge explosion is also an explosion of ignorance: "Knowledge is an island. The larger the island, the greater the shore of the unknown." It is impossible for an individual to keep up with the output of new books and scientific discoveries. This is exacerbated by the multiplication of specialisations. The provisional nature of knowledge creates uncertainty, and its fragmentation precludes an overall synthesis, resulting in loss of vision.

It is reasonable to be sceptical of any scheme that analyses a complex phenomenon into simple factors. Marx tried to reduce history to economics, Freud initially based his conception of the psyche on sex; some people still believe that to solve our problems we need only return to traditional values. The problems of human existence are complex and intractable; simplistic answers such as these cannot help us. Likewise, spiritual questions cannot be settled by simply adopting a religious dogma.

Not only have we lost faith in systems as means of organising society, but there is a deeper loss of faith in symbolic (or abstract) thinking, which is seen as the ultimate veil of maya (illusion) in Indian thought. We are now aware that intellectual ideas refer not to reality but to man-made models. What we study is the map, which is not the territory. This is true of economics, political theory, psychology and even physics, where this insight is central to quantum mechanics. Einstein wrote, "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." He saw the scientist as a person who devises theories to explain how a clock functions, but without the power to open the clock to see how it actually works. To put it simply, abstract thought is at best a doubtful path to truth.

All these factors underline the centrality of doubt and uncertainty as characteristics of the modern Western world view.

20th Century History

This century has seen "the war to end all wars", tragically now called "World War I" and the demonic genius of Hitler and Stalin. We know the nightmare of totalitarianism: only a 20th century mind could have conceived of '1984'. We thought that by 1990 Europe was no longer prey to the worst excesses of tribalism, but now we watch the obscenity taking place in Bosnia on TV. The worst possible, most barbaric and inhuman behaviour on an unprecedented scale has happened in the 20th century. Terrorism is not a new phenomenon but unlike in the past, it is a serious threat to society, or at least it appears to be. The spectre of nuclear war watches over all post-Hiroshima generations. There are also the threats of bacteriological and chemical weapons, possibly as dangerous as the A-bomb. For the first time we have the power to cause the extinction of our own species and there is no safeguard to prevent it. The Great Depression dashed the dreams of the capitalist West and the possibility of a recurrence threatens us still. The Viet Nam war put an end to the attitude of "My country right or wrong". Ever since Watergate we know that the President of the US lies to the nation.

The world is united in terms of time, as well as space, for we are aware of past civilisations to a much greater degree than ever before. Hence we know that our civilisation is contingent on historical and geographical factors and that it may come to an end, as so many others have, mostly due to human causes.

These factors make it difficult to be optimistic about our future. The power of evil in the world cannot be glossed over. Who knows what sort of world our grandchildren will inherit?

Social factors

The radical weakness of our society is shown by the drug problem. It is a real threat to the lives of many young people. Increasing crime is another modern problem that indicates a basic weakness in society. Recently we have become aware of how widespread is child molestation. It is a problem that indicates something is rotten in us and it destroys the innocent belief that our society is enlightened. Both rising crime and drug abuse are arguably the effects of another modern problem that is characteristic of loss of innocence: alienation.

We live in affluence such as has never been seen before. The average Westerner is extremely wealthy by the standards of any past civilisation. Yet affluence has proved to be an empty goal, for it does not satisfy human needs. Indeed it creates new problems, especially alienation and crime. For the first time millions of people are living in societies where the struggle for food and shelter is not their lot, not even for those on the dole. Modern levels of freedom and affluence have not made us happy. Instead they have created the existential problem. Contemporary Westerners encounter psychological rather than physical problems, so that we need to look within, not without. People living in an innocent culture do not need to look inside themselves.

Planetary issues

We are all familiar with global ecological problems such as pollution, resource depletion, global warming and over-population. For the first time, we threaten to cause drastic and irreparable harm to the biosphere through pollution and climatic change. Traditional thinking has no answers to these problems.

We are no longer innocent because we know the state of the world: that in many countries there is extreme poverty, sometimes adjacent to extreme wealth and conspicuous consumption; that in some countries farmers destroy their produce in order to bulwark prices, while in others people starve or die of malnutrition; that there are extreme disparities of wealth even in the rich countries. World-wide the greatest amounts are spent on armaments, not to benefit humanity. It has been calculated that if all arms spending were diverted to producing and distributing food then no-one on the planet would be hungry or malnourished. We know that entire peoples live under tyrannies of various degrees of savagery (Iraq, Algeria, N. Korea, Indonesia). There are also some democratic countries in which police routinely torture prisoners or where officially approved death squads hunt down street kids.

We cannot plead ignorance, as would a bourgeois gentleman of the 19th century. He could believe he lived in a just and harmonious world where good triumphed over evil. We know that this was a false harmony. False because it was based on the exploitation of the lower classes of his own country and of subject peoples in other parts of the world. Today we live in a more chaotic but more just society. Colonialism is now regarded as indefensible. Only a century or two ago it was seen as normal that the stronger society would subjugate the weak.

Racism, religious fanaticism and nationalism are pernicious forms of innocence. In each case the part is mistaken for the whole, just as to the child its family is the world. We need to move from such a fragmentary outlook to global awareness, from forms of tribalism to awareness of, and concern for, humanity as a whole.

Perhaps the most important factor causing loss of innocence is the realisation among thinking people that humanity's greatest problems are self-caused. This is the rule with war, crime, poverty, starvation and tyranny, to which the occasional plague, earthquake or tidal wave is the exception. The fault is not in our stars but in our beliefs and the actions that spring from them. There is wisdom in HG Wells' question, "What on earth would a man do with himself if something did not stand in his way?" Loss of innocence is the uncomfortable realisation that it is we who stand in our own way, that the enemy is within. This also seems to be true on a personal level: each of us jealously guards the gates of joy and fulfilment against ourselves.

The status quo in the West

All the above factors have undermined traditional beliefs about God, society, and human nature. They create uncertainty and doubt at a deep level. We know enough to see that the old answers to the question, "How are we to live?" are inadequate. We don't know enough to frame new and satisfying answers. The only remaining certainties - death and taxes - are not a sufficient basis to give meaning to our lives.

Yet the situation is complex. Some people participate in our society's loss of innocence, others (such as fundamentalists) do not, and there are infinitely many shades in between. Obviously there are still many religiously devout people in Australia. Even people who are not religious may have an implicit (unarticulated) belief in their social role etc. Many feel that bringing up children is a deeply meaningful thing to do. I would class such people as being 'culturally innocent' even though they might not have a belief in any religion, ideology or other abstraction.

Another example of a de facto belief is workoholism. For some people, their work is enough to give their lives meaning. Whether such a belief is conscious or not is beside the point. Such people can also be classed as being culturally innocent. Whether or not their work is actually important is a separate issue.

In view of the above, the best criterion of loss of innocence is having the existential problem.

Innocent cultures

Reading John Hemming's book, "The Conquest of the Incas", it struck me that, apart from being technologically inferior, the Inca Indians were mentally no match for the ruthless, treacherous and cunning invaders. They seem naive, trusting, simple and child-like compared with the Spaniards. For instance, one of the sides in the Inca civil war believed that the Spaniards would install them as rulers of the Empire. It did not occur to them to question why the invaders would want to do so.

The missionaries had an easy time converting 'primitive' peoples who lacked their intellectual sophistication. Being a part of nature and lacking in self-awareness, their innocence easily fell prey to the material and religious colonialism of the invaders. They also proved vulnerable to the corruptions of materialism.

Being part of an innocent culture means that the accident of birth determines your beliefs about God, authority and society. This is seen in cultures such as those of China and Iran, which are still innocent. The dogmas of Marxist-Leninism and Islam cannot be publicly questioned in these two societies. The ultimate extreme of innocence is seen in Islamic 'martyrs', who murder and die for the sake of an idea. The Moslem terrorists believe they are carrying out the will of God and that He will reward them for their noble actions. They are innocent because they are ignorant of the evil of what they do. They illustrate Koestler's contention that devotion, not hate, is the root cause of the human predicament. The fanatic is always at bottom an innocent. The cruelty of the fanatic is similar to the thoughtless cruelty which children, in their innocence, are capable of. In essence, the innocent person is not morally responsible.

The fundamentalist leader in Algeria who pronounced that a woman should only venture out of her home to be born, wedded or buried was speaking out of profound ignorance of what women are. His innocence is such that he has no idea that he does not know. Perhaps the tragedy that is currently unfolding in Algeria can be seen as the results of a culture's premature attempt to lose its innocence. As in Iran, the pace of modernisation cannot be forced.

Goenawan Mohamad, an influential Indonesian writer observed, "I merely want to be part of a nation that can accept the possibility that it can do wrong, just like other people on other continents and in other times. We could progress from there."

Obedience to the will of God is not the solution to human problems. We know this because even the most devout people are capable of extreme cruelty. Examples are the Boers (who believed the Bible justified enslaving the Blacks), the ultra-orthodox Jews and fanatics of all persuasions. In Koestler's wonderful phrase, these people are "poisoned by holiness". When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross was caring for AIDS babies, the local ambulance drivers said to her, "You should know we are born-again Christians, but if you should ever call for an ambulance, we will not respond." Instead, bullets were fired through her windows. Roger Woolger explains, "Unfortunately, any philosophy, theology or metaphysics can all too easily become an ego defence against the shadow sides of the personality." The human capacity for self-justification is a terrible thing. People in innocent societies lack the capacity to question their own motives and behaviour unless it is in conflict with the precepts of their particular society.

However, it would be arrogant to claim that innocent societies are ignorant whereas we are not. We too are ignorant. The difference is that they hold onto traditional beliefs and we do not.

Personal innocence

Cultural loss of innocence is similar to the loss of innocence that we each experience during our teens or twenties. The child is born innocent and for years is protected from the harshness of the world by its parents. The transition to adulthood involves loss of innocence. While still innocent one is simple, guileless, lacking knowledge of evil, pure, and especially, naive and trusting.

The child or early teenager may have varied hobbies and interests, vague fancies of being a policeman, doctor, ballerina or astronaut. At some point this changes to a narrow focus, born of the uncomfortable realisation that not all things are possible for this particular person. One of the main differences between the world-view of the child and that of the adult is the adult's awareness of limitation. Another major factor is awareness of the prevalence of dishonesty, hypocrisy, expediency and unfairness. Simply put, that life is not fair. As one guru put it, life is like a black woman's left tit: it is not right and not fair.

A significant milestone is awareness of the mortality of one's parents and, more importantly, of oneself. Though this may be a merely intellectual realisation, it heralds an end to innocence. The discovery of one's own sexuality, charged as this is with social stigmas, is another rite of passage. Falling out of love for the first time is a further loss of innocence.

One woman related that until the age of 25 she never doubted she would be "beautiful, rich and happy". One day she found herself financially pressed with two babies in a foreign country and wondered, "Is this all there is?" Another woman's loss of innocence was caused by the dishonesty of her first lover. Loss of innocence is a different experience for each one of us. Not only do our lives take diverse routes, but what is traumatic or revelatory to one person may not be so to another. Nor is there a set timetable, such as the teens or twenties. Some people appear to retain their innocence into their thirties or beyond. The process is never complete, for even the practised cynic can be caught out in naivete on occasion. For that matter, the mid-life crisis is another phase of life in which innocence is lost (or perhaps regained).

I used to work with a woman who belonged to the Chinese Baptist church. She staunchly believed that anyone who failed to live by the precepts of her particular variant of Christianity would go to Hell. She was far from arrogant as a person, yet there was a monumental arrogance in her thinking, for she assumed that the sheer accident of her being born into this particular religion guarantied that it was the sole path to universal truth. This is how innocence leads to hubris.

We learn that the world is different from the rosy picture we had in childhood. Facing up to how things are leads to accepting responsibility for our own life. The child is not responsible, neither for itself nor for anything else. It assumes its needs will be met by others. Perhaps part of the angst of teenagehood is due to the unpalatable realisation that this situation will not continue, that one needs to give as well as receive. This can lead to resentment and rebelliousness. I know someone who gave $500 as an 18th birthday present to the daughter of a friend. He was surprised she didn't ring to thank him. Yet she is intelligent and mature for her years. I think it is simply because she has been used to receiving all her life without obligation. By contrast, one woman realised her son had grown up when he bought himself a toilet brush. Unlike the child, the adult is responsible. The young woman moves from seeing herself as a daughter to seeing herself as an independent being, culminating in becoming a parent.

The person who has lost their innocence has forsaken naive beliefs and comfortable illusions for an adult outlook based on knowledge. Since losing innocence is a process of disillusionment, many of us over-react to the bruising of our sensitivity by becoming somewhat sceptical or cynical. Some fall into full-on cynicism, hedonism or nihilism, especially if their life has not worked out as they wanted. By severing thought from feeling, cynicism is an escape from involvement. It also makes life flat and unsatisfying.

Similarity of personal and cultural loss of innocence

As with the cultural loss of innocence, loss of personal innocence is needed if we are to gain knowledge of the world as it is. What destroys innocence in both cases is knowledge. Personal innocence is lost when we come to knowledge through personal experience. Cultural innocence has been lost as a result of overall intellectual progress. Innocence is when you think you have knowledge, whereas you are limited by prejudices and beliefs, in the case of cultural innocence. Or by parental protection and the walls of the nursery, in the case of personal innocence. Hence Oscar Wilde's quip, "I'm not young enough to know everything."

Loss of cultural innocence is also a kind of coming to adulthood, for it entails the loss of that uncritical self-confidence and ignorance of one's weaknesses that innocent cultures still harbour. Like the teenager who learns they will soon have to fend for themselves, our culture's loss of innocence enables us to see that the earth will not sustain indefinite increase of population, pollution and resource use.

Whereas losing personal innocence involves discovering that life is unfair on a personal level, losing cultural innocence is related to the realisation that life is also unfair on a global scale.

Mirroring the attributes of personal innocence, cultural innocence means being unconflicted and without doubts; following the straight, socially-approved path; being ignorant of evil in one's own class, society and religion; being uncontaminated by foreign influences; and trusting in family, tradition and social institutions. There is some value in these attitudes but their cost is too great. It is a case of having to accept the entire package. For instance you cannot accept a traditional society but reject its sexism. We are stuck with the entire package.

Since we all share, in varying degrees, in the loss of innocence of our culture, the adult Westerner is doubly dis-illusioned. Knowledge of personal and cultural weakness, limitation and injustice is a burden.

Regaining innocence

Should we try to regain the innocence that we as a culture have lost? Yes and no. I think there is nothing to be gained by humanity returning to dogmatic slumbers, as the fundamentalists seek to do. When humankind was innocent, naive beliefs gave life meaning. Now that these beliefs are gone, or largely gone in the West, the meaning has correspondingly receded. The beliefs themselves are not worth reviving. These have always caused division and conflict between people (Crusades, nationalistic wars, racism), as well as being screens shielding us from knowing reality. What is most precious to human beings is meaning or purpose. "Give a man a why and he will put up with almost any how." What is worth recovering is a sense of purpose in our being here.

The question is, can we regain a sense of meaning without accepting some religion or ideology as absolute truth? Is giving up the freedom to think the price of having meaning?

There is also the regaining of personal innocence. Do we want to return to being simple, guileless, lacking knowledge of evil, pure, naive, trusting? Perhaps the answer is 'up to a point'. Being simple is better than being complex. Guile is only useful within limits. Naivete and ignorance of evil are best discarded. Trust is a prerequisite for a loving relationship, but needs to be exercised with judgement. Purity has two sides. There is the sense of being unmixed and unsullied by contact with life, unworldly and unsuited to reality. There is also a second sense: purity of motive, genuineness and sincerity. Purity in this sense is invaluable.

New Age

New Age is a response to the loss of innocence. It is an attempt to regain what has been lost, hopefully minus the ignorance. The aim is for an informed or wise innocence. Formerly we had ignorance with meaning. Presently we have knowledge (relatively speaking) without meaning. What we need is meaning that has a new basis, one in keeping with the lessons and intellectual progress of the twentieth century. New Age can help us regain both personal and cultural innocence by providing a positive philosophy of life. The old beliefs in traditional values and a patriarchal God are replaced by a new conception of transcendence and cosmic purpose.

By 'informed' innocence I mean a willingness to understand and take into account the factors mentioned earlier: the depths of cruelty and degradation to which human nature can descend; the illusory nature of idealism; the sterility of dogma; the blindness of belief and the limitations of rationality; to embrace the discoveries of science without being limited by the scientific outlook (because this is necessarily value-free); that it is only we humans who can generate meaning for ourselves and that each of us must do so individually; that there are many different paths to enlightenment; that each of us is master of our own life; the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth; ecological and global factors; that inner changes are needed, since the enemy is within each of us.

As for 'innocence' itself, this means affirming human values; respecting all our fellow human beings; the courage to seek meaning despite all disillusionments; trust that human nature is basically good, despite the terrifying perversions to which it is subject; that self-interest is an empty goal; the willingness to believe that we are here for a reason - or at least to act as if we believed this; that whatever happens to us is an opportunity to learn; seeing enlightenment as a goal of life; that we live in a friendly universe, of which each of us is a unique and precious part.

Diversity is the strength of New Age. Because it has no central core to be defended at all costs, it may not pass the same way as other spiritual movements. These have mainly ended up in bureaucracies and sterile orthodoxies. As far as I know, no single book is broad enough to serve as a handbook of New Age. Perhaps this is because New Age is a process rather than a product. Because of its fluidity, inclusiveness and indefinability, it allows one to accept it selectively and does not curtail freedom of thought. If New Age were to become a coherent system it would be another -ism, like the others, serving to divide humanity and setting people against each other. Admittedly, even in its present, fluid form, it divides people into those who accept and reject it.

Established religions are fixated on the past. They were moulded by the cultural norms, world-view, and the fears and aspirations of a distant time. They answered the needs of the 6th century BC or the 7th AD, but they have not adapted to the lessons, crises and doubts of the 20th. By contrast, New Age is looser, more flexible and eclectic, and is a product of contemporary, alienated Western society.

Paths to innocence

I suggest that innocence can be regained through love. In New Age, love is seen as the most important value, giving life its deepest meaning. We are here mainly to learn to love, especially to love unconditionally. Loving means wanting the welfare of the other person without any gain to ourselves. Love is its own motive. Being the ultimate source of motivation, it has nothing behind it. There are many other motives, such as pleasure, security, power, duty and achievement. These other motives lack the self-sufficiency of love. If you love someone, you care for them for their own sake, not for any benefit or effect they have on you. The person or thing you love has intrinsic value for you, ie value independent of your own existence. New Age practices (such as group work) help us to realise we are all the same inside and to feel a sense of connection.

Another central New Age idea is karma, which can be interpreted as the burden of separateness, ie the illusion that we are separate selves, one in each body. Love helps us overcome separation and ultimately to realise we are all united, that there is actually only one Self. The mystics tell us that we are islands in the sea - separate at the top but united beneath. Karma can also be seen as the set of lessons we still have to learn. That our current incarnation has been set up to allow a particular learning to take place in us. This can help answer the anguished question, "Why me?" when misfortune strikes us. The traditional interpretation of karma is that it is the spiritual law of cause and effect. This states that everything we do will eventually rebound on us, and that whatever happens to us is caused by our previous actions. This leads to the New Age concept of responsibility.

New Age teaches us that our problems are of our own creation or choosing. Most people do battle with the world, continually seeking external causes for what is wrong in their own lives. The notion that we choose all our experience and are hence are responsible for it is truly radical. It follows that we are entirely responsible for our own happiness. Not only do we, in some sense, choose all our experience, but we also choose how we respond to everything that happens to us. A consequence is the idea that all disease is emotionally based, in fact, self-willed. This helps us realise we are not victims.

Then there is the concept of personal growth. Essentially, it's the recognition that all of us are unfinished beings and that we have the option of manifesting more of our potential than we have so far. This involves 'working on ourselves' by striving to change our own feelings, attitudes and behaviours. New Age acknowledges that the human being is not a fixed object, the same at ages 30, 40 and 50. As Toynbee wrote, "Human nature is the most intractable and formidable part of Nature that Man has to deal with." So personal growth is not a small matter but a meaningful life goal and one that can never be fully achieved. It is an active approach of controlling and shaping one's thoughts and behaviours, rather than passively accepting that, "This is how I am and that's that."

The pursuit of personal growth can give meaning to every experience and to every moment, for something is always happening in our minds. Thoughts, memories, feelings, reactions and judgements are continuously cycling through our awareness and each one presents us with a choice of response. For instance, if I feel a flash of annoyance at someone's action, I can reflect whether my reaction is warranted. (It may help to remember a time when I did something similar.) There is something profoundly positive about a person who believes they can improve themselves and is genuinely striving to do so, by becoming more accepting, responsible, aware, sensitive and caring.

Part of the benefit of personal growth is a much better understanding of oneself and hence of the meaning of one's life. Self-understanding leads to better relationships with other people. If I know why I do what I do, including the barriers I erect against others, then I can begin to change. Insight gives me the ability to stand back from my ego to see how I really relate to people, if only once in a while. By taking responsibility for my own feelings I become an easier person to be with. Since much, if not most, of our meaning in life derives from interactions with others, improving the way we relate is of great importance.


Does New Age answer the challenge? Parts of it are naive, optimistically ignorant of evil. A major criticism of New Age thinking is that so much of it ignores the shadow side of the psyche and in general does not acknowledge the negative parts of life. Positive thinking sometimes degenerates into the naive belief that we can get anything we want simply by asking. There is ample room in New Age for humbug and the brandishing of unfulfillable claims, including various forms of cargo cult. So the innocence regained with New Age is not always a wise or informed innocence.

The mainstream media dismiss New Age as being egotistical and narcissistic. Perhaps at a surface level it is, but the underlying ideas, such as karma and love, aim at the dissolution of the ego. Finding meaning in life - which means moving beyond the ego - is the central concern of New Age. It teaches us to turn aside from cynicism and to re-involve ourselves.

Ordinary innocence can be summed up as not knowing that you don't know; informed innocence is knowing how little you know but choosing to care anyhow. Martin Flanagan said of a friend: "He didn't believe any of the answers, but he did believe the question." The acceptance of lack of knowledge is the first step to more intelligent living, in the same way as the admission of weakness is the crucial step in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar groups. For we are all addicted to ego, an addiction that takes the form of smugness, stubbornness, rigidity, over-estimation of our knowledge and judgement, as well as narcissism.

So New Age provides meaning in the way that religions do. Hopefully it can continue to do so without spawning dogma, intolerance and self-righteousness, as Christianity has done. It also remains to be seen whether New Age will remain an alternative phenomenon, embraced by only a small part of society.


Twentieth century Western culture has lost its innocence. It has lost the belief in religion, country and the social order that is common to all other civilisations. The loss has been largely caused by the decline of the Christian religion and the elevation of rationality as the first principle of Western thought. Religion is the foundation of traditional society and its beliefs. Hence the retreat of religion in the West is the main cause of our culture's loss of innocence. Belief has been replaced by doubt and uncertainty, which lead to the existential problem of modern individuals. The existential problem is the clearest indicator of loss of innocence, for it simply does not exist in an innocent culture.

Modern psychology leads us to examine our most basic assumptions about human nature. Rationality leads, seemingly inevitably, to doubt and debunk. We are aware that all social structures are man-made, as well as of the ugly underside of our society, causing more doubt. Twentieth century history makes naive optimism impossible and the very idea of progress uncertain. Drugs, crime, alienation and the unsatisfying nature of affluence raise further basic doubts about our society.

Ecological problems, world poverty and the level of arms spending world-wide rule out the smug belief that we humans are doing the right thing or living in a just world. We know too much about the world, including what is happening in remote parts of it; about the rise and fall of past civilisations; about the different societies now existing and how they clash; the threat of nuclear war; and about the structural weaknesses of our own society. Knowing the state of the world obliges us to step outside traditional thinking, which cannot cope with these issues. Worst of all, we know that the enemy is within, that human beings are causing nearly all the worst problems suffered by people around the world.

Innocent cultures are lacking in self-criticism and the ability to adopt a perspective wider than traditional bounds. In the West, traditional beliefs have been replaced by new awareness: that God is made in man's image; that all dynasties of kings had humble origins; that no social order has been divinely ordained. Modern thought questions every kind of intellectual and cultural assumption. In an innocent society these assumptions are dogma and there is little capacity to examine them. By contrast, our society is racked by uncertainty and doubt. Losing cultural innocence amounts to gaining awareness, thinking for oneself and hopefully, assuming responsibility. These changes are only possible after a culture frees itself from traditional restraints of thought.

Loss of cultural innocence parallels the loss of personal innocence, whereby a child loses its illusions about life. In both cases there is a growth of knowledge - of our weakness and limitations, naive beliefs, injustice and the need for responsibility. In both cases, loss of innocence has a positive and a negative side. We cease to wallow in smug ignorance and irresponsibility. The debit side is the loss of value, security and purpose. Can we regain the latter without the former?

One attempt in this direction is New Age, which seeks to regain meaning in a new way. The key ideas are the primacy of love, radical responsibility, personal growth and karma. These can lead to wise innocence. Does New Age succeed? I think a qualified 'yes'. It does provide meaning on philosophical and emotional levels, without the loss of the freedom to think.

Tad Boniecki

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