Fleeing the darkness of New Age spirituality | WORLD
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Out of darkness

Those who once embraced the occult are exposing the dangers of practices that many consider harmless

Lily Hamilton, whose interest in the occult began at age 14 Lacy Atkins / Genesis

Out of darkness
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HANNA CASTAÑEDA rolled up her sleeves and trudged her stroller up a hilly path that’s shaded by oak trees and wraps around two small lakes. Her shoeless 2-year-old son Luka reached his hand up every few minutes for another piece of cracker. Castañeda, 31, never pictured herself doing everyday motherhood tasks. In fact, she once vowed not to have children.

Castañeda, who lives in Novato, Calif., spent most of her 20s couch-surfing or living out of her Honda CR-V in search of the next transcendent experience. Her interest in the occult started out small, with a curiosity about astrology and New Age spiritualism. To some, those might seem harmless enough. But by 2019, she felt gripped in an insatiable quest, one that led her deep into occult practices involving witchcraft, indigenous shamanism, and ceremonial rituals intended to summon demonic spirits. All of this was mixed with psychedelic drugs such as ayahuasca and LSD.

“At the core, I believed I was this divine self,” Castañeda said. “I was on a journey of peeling back the layers, going deeper and deeper into occult ­practices, so I could truly be free.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area, she considered herself fringe, a nonconformist among career-driven 20-somethings. But Castañeda never had trouble finding others who shared her curiosities or who also dabbled in some form of New Age spirituality. As a growing number of Americans consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious,” more are willing to mix and match different forms of spiritual practices associated with paganism and the occult. Now, though, new converts to Christianity are shedding light on the bondage they experienced and the spiritual darkness that permeates what many consider a benign belief system.

In recent years, researchers have focused studies on the rise of the so-called “religious nones.” Nearly 30 percent of U.S. adults are now religiously unaffiliated, up from 16 percent in 2007, according to a 2023 Pew Research Center survey involving more than 3,300 participants. But 7 in 10 say they are “spiritual” in some way. Most still claim they believe in God or a higher power. About half say spirituality is important to them.

Among the “nones,” many have adopted beliefs and practices associated with New Age spirituality. For example, about half say they practice meditation, yoga, or other modes of connecting with their “true self.” And most of those practitioners believe spirits, or spiritual energies, reside in animals, cemeteries, aspects of nature, and objects such as crystals. About 6 in 10 of all American adults, including self-identifying Christians, accept at least one New Age belief, according to a 2018 Pew study.

Castañeda’s fascination with the occult led her on road trips across the country and travels to South America to off-the-grid communities or ceremonies promoting “higher consciousness.” But by 2019, she was suffering from crippling night terrors, sleep paralysis, and demons she says tormented her constantly, urging her to commit suicide. Still, friends kept telling her to go deeper and “embrace her demons.”

“I was like a dog chasing its own tail, trying to unlock the inner divine powers I thought I possessed,” Castañeda told me. “It only took me into more and more darkness and despair.”

Castañeda: “Jesus told us to … deny ourselves, repent, and trust in Him.”

Castañeda: “Jesus told us to … deny ourselves, repent, and trust in Him.” Lacy Atkins/Genesis

THE PANDEMIC PROVED A BOON for the occult. In 2020, social media accounts connected to witchcraft amassed millions of followers and billions of views, the Financial Times reported. Today, the TikTok hashtag “#witchTok” has more than 55 billion views. Sales of tarot cards doubled between 2016 and 2021 and tripled during the first year of the pandemic, according to a 2021 Washington Post report. Sales of crystals, popularized for their perceived good energy and healing power, were “exploding at the seams,” one jewelry designer told The New York Times in 2022.

Hyperconnectivity and the “self-creating power of social media” have fueled a new form of individualized religious consumerism, one that readily embraces occult practice, Tara Isabella Burton wrote in her 2020 book Strange Rites: New Religions for a Godless World.

“More and more of us, even among the religiously affiliated, are religious hybrids: willing to incorporate non-Western or New Age spiritual traditions, or sources of spiritual energy, or regular meditative rituals within our spiritual diets,” Burton wrote.

Among the nones, Burton argues, institutionalized religion and “clear-cut metaphysical creedal doctrines” are being replaced by whatever appeals to people’s experiential emotions: Wellness culture, modern occultism, and “the grand narrative that oppressive societies and unfairly narrow expectations stymie natural—and sometimes even divine—human potential.” In a separate piece for The American Interest, Burton wrote that occultism has become “the de facto religion of ­millennial progressives.”

Celebrity tattoo artist Katherine von Drachenberg, known as Kat Von D, turned to New Age spirituality in her 20s as a way to cope with quitting alcohol and drugs. During a recent interview with Christian commentator and podcaster Allie Beth Stuckey, Von D, 42, recounted her upbringing as the Mexican-American daughter of Seventh-day Adventist missionaries and her lingering, unanswered questions about faith. Her rise to fame on the reality television show LA Ink sent her “searching for answers and meaning in so many of the wrong places,” she told Stuckey.

In an attempt to overcome addiction and “fix” herself, Von D says, she turned to self-help books, transcendental meditation, and other forms of New Age spirituality.

They were “short-lived Band-aids on a sinking ship,” Von D now says.

Two years ago, she told her 9.8 million Instagram followers that she was getting rid of a collection of tarot cards and books on Satanism, witchcraft, mysticism, and sorcery. In the caption to her post, the wife and mother wrote that she no longer wanted to invite those things into her life: “Right now, it’s never been more clear to me that there is a spiritual battle taking place, and I want to surround myself and my family with love and light.”

In October, Von D posted a video of herself at a church in Vevay, Ind. She stood in the baptistery, cloaked in a white choir dress. Plenty of tattooed guests watched from the pews as she clutched the arm of Switzerland Baptist Church Pastor Brian Shoemaker. “Upon your profession of faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and in obedience to His divine command, I baptize you, my sister, in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen,” Shoemaker said before he dunked Von D, who rose from the water amid showers of applause.

In her interview with Stuckey, Von D described the changes she’s experienced since converting to Christianity. “There’s been a deprogramming that has taken place. Things that I used to find attractive are disgusting to me,” she said. “I wish I could put into words how amazing those changes are.”

Source: Pew Research Center (Survey conducted in 2017 among U.S. adults)

OTHER FORMER OCCULT FOLLOWERS also are using social media to share their conversion stories, albeit on a smaller scale.

Lily Hamilton of Petaluma, Calif., 34, uses hashtags such as #witchesofig” or “#occultbooks” or “#shadowintegration” on Instagram in hopes that others might stumble upon her profile. Her bio states, “ex-occultist born again by the grace of God.” In posts and stories, Hamilton often addresses her conversion to Christianity after two decades involved in occult practice, including living as a witch and a New Age consultant.

I recently met up with Hamilton outside a Santa Rosa, Calif., café across the street from a concrete plant. Soft-spoken, she leaned in and raised her voice a little so I could hear her over beeping trucks revving engines. Hamilton’s eyes are blue and earnest, and the tips of her brown hair carry traces of her once bleach-blond locks.

Hamilton’s interest in the occult began at age 14, a few years after her parents divorced: “I was searching for any sense of control in my life.” She devoured the Harry Potter books and came to believe “magic is real.” Then, she made a friend at school who dressed in all black and described herself as “Wiccan.” At home, Hamilton turned to the internet to learn more about witchcraft.

That journey led her to massage school, where she learned about “energy healing modalities” and began leading meditation. Eventually, she started a New Age “personal coaching” business. In one recent Instagram story, Hamilton shared a screenshot of a post she made four years ago featuring a picture of her looking up at the question, “Which crystal are you?” In the ad for “Numerology with Lily,” she offered 30-minute readings on “life purpose” and “prosperity”—for $54 each.

Hamilton now calls the readings “divination” and “sorcery.” She thought of herself as her own goddess, a belief she now understands as self-deception. “I was a child of wrath, receiving the wrath of God in this life … it brought me to my knees at His feet for help,” she said.

During the pandemic, Hamilton’s life began to crumble. A business partnership fell through, bringing work to a halt. She struggled with daily migraines and with co-parenting a son she shares with a former boyfriend. The magical rituals she practiced more religiously only made things worse: “The fruit of it all was chaos.”

Hamilton’s boyfriend at the time was also involved in the occult and healing arts. He told her he believed he heard an angel saying they should live separately. That led to discussions about morality, truth, and the Bible.

Hamilton says they then began asking a once-unthinkable question: “What if the crazy Christians are right?”

It’s a self-centered gospel that desensitizes people to evil.

She recalls the first time she opened a Bible. She started reading Genesis 1 and found it remarkable that God created beauty out of chaos. “It was such a contrast to everything I tried to create and control in my life.”

It’s been nearly two years since Hamilton gave her life to Christ, got rid of her occult books and crystals, and began attending a Bible-believing church. She knows she still has a lot to learn. But she believes her background helps her engage with friends and social media users who are dabbling in the occult but don’t understand its dangers.

Hamilton has grown increasingly worried about self-identifying Christians who mix their faith with occult and New Age practices, such as crystals, tarot cards, or “grounding,” a belief that healing energy from the earth arises when a person walks barefoot. Hamilton believes some Christians underestimate the reality of demons and spiritual warfare. During one YouTube live session, she and another former occultist discussed the growing interest among Christians in the supposed healing powers of sound frequency.

“It’s a self-centered gospel that desensitizes people to evil,” she told me.

Lily Hamilton with her son in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Lily Hamilton with her son in Santa Rosa, Calif. Lacy Atkins/Genesis

HANNA CASTAÑEDA’S SEARCH for transcendental experiences eventually took her to Oregon, where she began living on a farm. While there, she took a large dose of psilocybin mushrooms. In her drug-induced fog, she says she heard a voice. “If you keep doing this, you’re never coming back,” it warned her. For the first time, she considered that there was a God who knew her. Until then, Castañeda said she had rejected God and organized religion after being raised in the Unification Church.

But after that encounter, her heart began to soften. A month later, Castañeda woke up on a friend’s couch in Oakland, Calif., to gospel singing coming from the Baptist church next door. She stumbled into the service and sat at the back. A woman noticed her crying uncontrollably and asked her, “Do you know Jesus?” Castañeda told her she was not into Christianity or Jesus. The woman then asked if she could pray for her. Castañeda agreed.

Shortly after this, while driving with her sister and two nieces in Colorado, she was involved in a near-fatal car accident. Their car was hit twice and crushed in the back. In a moment of terror, Castañeda called out to God. She and her nieces sustained no major injuries, but her sister still suffers physically from the accident. It caused Castañeda to consider the fragility of life and the reality of hell—both eternal damnation and the hell she was living.

Two days later, Castañeda’s cousin sent her a YouTube video of Steven Bancarz, a former New Age influencer. He described in a 2019 Fox 5 New York interview how he had turned to Christ. Bancarz now serves as a young adults pastor in Brantford, Ontario, and runs an apologetics website and YouTube channel called Reasons for Jesus.

Bancarz grew up in a Christian home. But in his teens, he developed a fascination with aliens. That led to a quest to unlock “secret knowledge and secret powers” through New Age spiritualism. In 2012, Bancarz started a Facebook page called “Spirit Science and Metaphysics” and quickly gained a half million followers. A subsequent website and a YouTube channel by the same name garnered hundreds of thousands of views a day. It earned him up to $50,000 a month in ad revenue. “I thought this was the universe blessing me,” he told reporter Dan Bowens.

Hanna Castañeda plays with Luka at home in Novato.

Hanna Castañeda plays with Luka at home in Novato. Lacy Atkins/Genesis

But Bancarz said he lived a double life, including what he described as a lust addiction. He says he came to a breaking point where he had to confess to people in his life. “I realized I was not fit to be lord over my own life,” he told Bowens. “I needed to start seeking [Jesus] for who He actually was instead of trying to fit Him into this box of mysticism.”

Bancarz’s testimony convicted Castañeda. “He basically debunked everything I believed … and he was free of everything I was in bondage to.”

In recent years, Castañeda has committed to courthouse marriage vows she once made on a whim with Luka’s father. Once a wanderer, she now stays home with her son and attends church and Bible study weekly. She says surrendering control of her life, something she once feared, has been liberating, even amid the challenges of child-rearing and marriage to a nonbeliever.

Back on the lakeside path, Luka points to a huddle of ducks near the water’s edge. His name means “bringer of light.” With his wide brown eyes and dark hair that curls down the back of his neck, Castañeda says Luka resembles his father, who is from Peru. Luka also reminds Castañeda daily of the changes she’s undergone since coming to faith.

Castañeda worries that Christians overlook demonic influences she says may lurk in wellness culture and New Age practice: “At the heart of all occult practice, it’s about looking inside yourself to find these hidden ‘truths.’ It’s about becoming your own god. Jesus told us to do the opposite … to deny ourselves, repent, and trust in Him.”

Mary Jackson

Mary is a book reviewer and senior writer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Greenville University graduate who previously worked for the Lansing (Mich.) State Journal. Mary resides with her family in the San Francisco Bay area.



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