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Religion

New Age is the New Jesus

Roger Ebert has a new blog post in the Chicago Sun-Times, in which he discusses various aspects of the double standard in faith based tolerance.  He’s not framing it in those terms, but that’s what he’s talking about.

New Age beliefs are the Creationism of the Progressives. I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn’t evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying. Palmistry and phrenology have pretty much blown over.

If you were attending a dinner party of community leaders in Dallas, Atlanta, Omaha or Colorado Springs and the conversation turned to religion, a chill might fall on the room if you confessed yourself an atheist. Yet at a dinner party of the nicest and brightest in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and (especially) Los Angeles, if the hostess began to confide about past lives, her Sign and yours, and her healing crystals, it might not go over so well if you confessed you thought she was full of it.

One of my first blog articles was a declaration of intolerance for religious moderates.  This is a position shared by many prominent atheist authors, including Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

Unfortunately, it’s a dangerous position to hold, even for progressives, liberals, and freethinkers, because damn it to hell, we have our own faith based beliefs, and it turns out that progressives don’t like being told their beliefs are total shit anymore than conservatives.

The fact is, faith based belief is not restricted to Bible-thumping arch-conservatives and Muslim terrorists.  Several years ago, I conducted an informal and only mildly scientific study in which I presented myself to two separate groups of casual friends as having two different abilities.  To one group, I explained that I was a master astrologer.  I told the other group that I was a master at cold reading and the science of body language.  Both of these groups were made up primarily of college undergraduates and grad students.  Neither of them had a lot of Christians.

Over the next few weeks, I performed cold readings and astrological readings to various members of both groups, using exactly the same techniques for both readings.  The “astrology group” accepted me with open arms.  In fact, there was one girl who wouldn’t go out with a new guy until she’d called me to see if it would work out based on their sign compatibility.  I was paraded in front of friends and friends of friends as an astrology genius.  When I gave “astrology readings,” my subjects were cooperative, open to suggestions, and pretty much told me everything they wanted me to tell them.  It was easy.

The other group was not so easy.  In fact, I had to give up the experiment after a few tries.  My subjects fought me at every turn.  When I guessed something about them, they tended to deny it — even when I was plainly correct.  When I tried to use the same cold-reading techniques of letting them tell me what they wanted to hear, they saw through it and clammed up for the rest of the reading.

Let’s not make light of this.  When I told them I could work magic, they believed me.  When I told them I could work science, they scorned and rejected me! Even though I was using exactly the same techniques in both cases.  Most of these folks have rejected religion, and scoff at Christians who believe in virgin births and animals in arks.

To be fair, I must perform a mea culpa before continuing.  During my transition from theism to atheism, I spent some time contemplating and at least partially accepting astrology.  After all, I reasoned, it’s possible that the ancient inventors were onto a real phenomenon, even if it had nothing to do with the placement of stars at the time of a person’s birth.  Maybe there was some sort of testable, scientific explanation for a pattern of personality types that could be corresponded to birth months.  My experiment in astrology/cold reading was made possible because I had spent some time studying astrology and thinking about it uncritically.

And therein lies my current dilemma with New Age quackery.   How should we as good critical thinkers handle our progressive friends who believe in astrology or spirit guides or “alternative medicine”?  The boorish fact is that they’re just as nuts in those beliefs as Christians who believe that saying magic words will convince God to let them win the lottery.

But are we wise in alienating everybody?  How do we, who value the objective truth above all else, manage to stay true to ourselves in questioning anything based on faith, while staying friends with the considerable number of otherwise rational people who happen to have kooky faith-based woo-woo beliefs?

The unfortunate truth is that New Agers get just as offended as Christians when you tell them they’re full of shit, and that their entire world-view is wrong.  (For comparison, try arguing epistemology with a Wiccan sometime.  If anything, they get more upset than Christians.)  But, are we being hypocritical by strongly criticizing the faith based right while quietly acquiescing to the “harmless eccentricities” of the liberal left?

I don’t know the answer to this question.  I wish I did.  Personally, I can count the number of  my friends without woo-woo beliefs on one, maybe two hands.  I really don’t want to go down that road with the other friends.  Am I rationalizing my silence?  After all, I accepted years ago that I will probably not have any close Christian friends.  Must I also accept that I will probably not have any friends who believe in astrology?

At what point does loyalty to the scientific method turn from good critical thinking to pompousness?  Can we draw a line in the sand and declare that any woo-woo on this side of the line is harmless enough that we can leave it alone?  But if we do that, aren’t we giving in to faith based reasoning in the same way as moderate Christians?

This is more than a passing thought for me.  I’ve been struggling with this question on philosophical grounds for a long time.  For me, it’s not as crucially important as it might be for others, since I confine my criticism of religion to my online persona for the most part.  I generally only talk about this sort of thing with my real life “inner circle” of friends.  In polite company, I observe the polite rules when others are gauche enough to parade their faith-based beliefs in front of the group.

Is that enough?  Can we win the war of reason online while maintaining a polite air of acceptance in public?  Is that hypocrisy?  If so, is it a necessary concession to keep from becoming that which we are already accused of being?  Is there a real difference between allowing New Age faith based reasoning and allowing Christian faith based reasoning?  Was Nancy Reagan better than George W. Bush because she consulted psychics instead of the Bible?

What do you think, gentle readers?

Roger Ebert has a new blog post in the Chicago Sun-Times, in which he discusses various aspects of the double standard in faith based tolerance. He’s not framing it in those terms, but that’s what he’s talking about.

New Age beliefs are the Creationism of the Progressives. I move in circles where most people would find it absurd to believe that humans didn’t evolve from prehistoric ancestors, yet many of these same people quite happily believe in astrology, psychics, reincarnation, the Tarot deck, the i Ching, and sooth-saying. Palmistry and phrenology have pretty much blown over.

If you were attending a dinner party of community leaders in Dallas, Atlanta, Omaha or Colorado Springs and the conversation turned to religion, a chill might fall on the room if you confessed yourself an atheist. Yet at a dinner party of the nicest and brightest in New York, Chicago, San Francisco and (especially) Los Angeles, if the hostess began to confide about past lives, her Sign and yours, and her healing crystals, it might not go over so well if you confessed you thought she was full of it.

One of my first blog articles was a declaration of intolerance for religious moderates. This is a position shared by many prominent atheist authors, including Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, and Sam Harris.

Unfortunately, it’s a dangerous position to hold, even for progressives, liberals, and freethinkers, because damn it to hell, we have our own faith based beliefs, and it turns out that progressives don’t like being told their beliefs are total shit anymore than conservatives.

The fact is, faith based belief is not restricted to Bible-thumping arch-conservatives and Muslim terrorists. Several years ago, I conducted an informal and only mildly scientific study in which I presented myself to two separate groups of casual friends as having two different abilities. To one group, I explained that I was a master astrologer. I told the other group that I was a master at cold reading and the science of body language. Both of these groups were made up primarily of college undergraduates and grad students. Neither of them had a lot of Christians.

Over the next few weeks, I performed cold readings and astrological readings to various members of both groups, using exactly the same techniques for both readings. The “astrology group” accepted me with open arms. In fact, there was one girl who wouldn’t go out with a new guy until she’d called me to see if it would work out based on their sign compatibility. I was paraded in front of friends and friends of friends as an astrology genius. When I gave “astrology readings,” my subjects were cooperative, open to suggestions, and pretty much told me everything they wanted me to tell them. It was easy.

The other group was not so easy. In fact, I had to give up the experiment after a few tries. My subjects fought me at every turn. When I guessed something about them, they tended to deny it — even when I was plainly correct. When I tried to use the same cold-reading techniques of letting them tell me what they wanted to hear, they saw through it and clammed up for the rest of the reading.

Let’s not make light of this. When I told them I could work magic, they believed me. When I told them I could work science, they scorned and rejected me! Even though I was using exactly the same techniques in both cases. Most of these folks have rejected religion, and scoff at Christians who believe in virgin births and animals in arks.

To be fair, I must perform a mea culpa before continuing. During my transition from theism to atheism, I spent some time contemplating and at least partially accepting astrology. After all, I reasoned, it’s possible that the ancient inventors were onto a real phenomenon, even if it had nothing to do with the placement of stars at the time of a person’s birth. Maybe there was some sort of testable, scientific explanation for a pattern of personality types that could be corresponded to birth months. My experiment in astrology/cold reading was made possible because I had spent some time studying astrology and thinking about it uncritically.

And therein lies my current dilemma with New Age quackery. How should we as good critical thinkers handle our progressive friends who believe in astrology or spirit guides or “alternative medicine”? The boorish fact is that they’re just as nuts in those beliefs as Christians who believe that saying magic words will convince God to let them win the lottery.

But are we wise in alienating everybody? How do we, who value the objective truth above all else, manage to stay true to ourselves in questioning anything based on faith, while staying friends with the considerable number of otherwise rational people who happen to have kooky faith-based woo-woo beliefs?

The unfortunate truth is that New Agers get just as offended as Christians when you tell them they’re full of shit, and that their entire world-view is wrong. (For comparison, try arguing epistemology with a Wiccan sometime. If anything, they get more upset than Christians.) But, are we being hypocritical by strongly criticizing the faith based right while quietly acquiescing to the “harmless eccentricities” of the liberal left?

I don’t know the answer to this question. I wish I did. Personally, I can count the number of my friends without woo-woo beliefs on one, maybe two hands. I really don’t want to go down that road with the other friends. Am I rationalizing my silence? After all, I accepted years ago that I will probably not have any close Christian friends. Must I also accept that I will probably not have any friends who believe in astrology?

At what point does loyalty to the scientific method turn from good critical thinking to pompousness? Can we draw a line in the sand and declare that any woo-woo on this side of the line is harmless enough that we can leave it alone? But if we do that, aren’t we giving in to faith based reasoning in the same way as moderate Christians?

This is more than a passing thought for me. I’ve been struggling with this question on philosophical grounds for a long time. For me, it’s not as crucially important as it might be for others, since I confine my criticism of religion to my online persona for the most part. I generally only talk about this sort of thing with my real life “inner circle” of friends. In polite company, I observe the polite rules when others are gauche enough to parade their faith-based beliefs in front of the group.

Is that enough? Can we win the war of reason online while maintaining a polite air of acceptance in public? Is that hypocrisy? If so, is it a necessary concession to keep from becoming that which we are already accused of being? Is there a real difference between allowing New Age faith based reasoning and allowing Christian faith based reasoning? Was Nancy Reagan better than George W. Bush because she consulted psychics instead of the Bible?

What do you think, gentle readers?

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Discussion

8 thoughts on “New Age is the New Jesus

  1. I remember telling my mother I didnt believe in “God” and she simply wouldn’t accept it. She said “Yes you do”, and even now I agree, atheists and non-conformists to faith-based beliefs in both gods and alternative medicines are severely looked down upon. A friend of mine recently went to seminar in which the lecturer gave a 2 hour speech on the healing and positive healing factors of a mystical salt – and she went out and brought the salt from one of these new age health stores and after a week she told me she was anew person and it had cleansed her etc and I just rolled my eyes and then I was accused of being a negative person with negative energy when I tried to get factual answers on what the salt and where does it come from.

    I just wonder what is so wrong with these people that they need to full for such obvious bullshit, and the fact is alot of these New Age masters, stores and groups are literally ripping gullible people off of thousands of dollars (my friend paid $250 for that seminar and the mystical salt cost nearly $100 a kg). I don’t see them being any different from say scientologists which is quite obviously just a business run like a dictatorship that defrauds gullible, stupid people.

    Posted by Bri | December 3, 2009, 5:24 pm
  2. I think there are two observations to make on this point.

    One observation is simply that many people – not necessarily a majority, but a significant minority – who embrace various New Age-y or pagan (which are NOT equivalent) or other “alternative” beliefs are quite content to admit that these are purely subjective beliefs, and because of this they are not interested in either (1) persuading or convincing anyone else, or (2) claiming to *know* anything. In other words, they frankly admit that they aren’t really following any sort of objective or rational epistemology in adopting such beliefs, but they also aren’t making knowledge claims: Rather, they typically indicate something along the lines that they find astrology or paganism or whatever a *subjectively* useful framework for interpreting or perceiving certain things, regardless of whether there’s any objective/intersubjective validity to that framework – and the “things” they typically interpret or perceive using such frameworks aren’t usually the sorts of things where there are a lot of cut and dried objective facts of the matter, purely social/psychological issues of meaning and emotion and such.

    In short, while such people may indulge something that looks something like faith, they keep their faith penned within the bounds of clearly labeled and admittedly subjective beliefs – the same bounds wherein “beliefs” like one’s taste in fiction and art are contained. Call it “aesthetic faith” if you will. Aesthetics would seem to be the paradigm subject matter where even the most epistemologically responsible person can have passionately held opinions which are admittedly not rational and objective – and where even when one thinks there are some sorts of objective factors that play a role (things that make good music genuinely good), one can recognize that one ought to maintain considerable and appropriate caution about what those objective factors might be and how much one’s opinion is shaped by those objective factors as opposed to more subjective ones.

    Of course, this sort of faith – which it may not be proper to call “faith” at all – is in marked contrast to most Christians and other traditional religious believers who DO think they know something objectively true about the universe outside their own heads – that there is a God in it who has certain characteristics (goodness, purpose, power, etc.) – and who are generally VERY interested in convincing others to adopt their beliefs. And who, while they are often willing to admit that faith is not itself an exercise of reason, perpetually pretend that faith is ultimately and fundamentally compatible with reason when it simply isn’t – and go to great lengths to deceive themselves and others on that point. Such believers, of course, never keep their faith beliefs penned within the bounds of subjective beliefs and attitudes.

    All things considered, the former make much better neighbors and friends than the latter, so it’s worth taking care to pick one’s battles and be always diplomatic if/when addressing their woo. Of course, all the New Age-y/alternative/woo believers who are convinced that they’re onto something objectively real and true belong in the same category as traditional religious believers, and their beliefs ought to be confronted as directly and forthrightly as serves the immediate purpose. Frankly, I prefer my genuinely thoughtful Christian friends – Episcopagans one and all, unsurprisingly – to the sort of clueless twits who think The Secret is profound and interesting and worthwhile: Oprah and her woo-enchanted devotees are every bit as repellent as, say, Rick Warren and his army of self-righteous, godbothering asshats. (Anyone who accrues wealth or power by selling woo to others, whether they genuinely believe the woo or not, is on the same moral level with clergy – that is, a very low level indeed. Frankly, I don’t care very much whether or to what degree you buy your own harmful bullshit when you spend your life harming others by spreading it.)

    Actually, that last parenthetical point brings me to my other observation, which can be made more succinctly: Harm matters. Traditional religion has a great deal of political influence and promotes many actively harmful ideas which you regularly talk about here – beliefs about women, about gays, about sex, about hell, about the way the universe works. That harm must be opposed vigorously by every means available, which in the realm of ideas means that every form of logical and rhetorical criticism can and should be aimed at it. And where alterna-woo also does harm – anti-vaccinationist crankery, for example – every logical and rhetorical weapon should be brought to bear on it to oppose that harm. Frankly, though, I think most alterna-woo beliefs have considerably less harm potential than traditional religious beliefs. Most people who pay attention to astrology, for example, don’t take it all that seriously and plan their life in accord with it – and since astrology just serves as a mental/emotional/semantic mirror on which people impose whatever they start with (as your cold reading experiment showed so clearly), the woo doesn’t seem to add anything of significance for good or ill. (But what do I know? Geminis don’t believe in astrology.)

    Posted by G Felis | December 4, 2009, 12:55 am
  3. Well, first: Do you know who’s coming to Calgary (my current city of residence) in February? Deepak fucking Chopra. I thought about attending the lecture so that I could create an uncomfortable moment when it came time for the Q&A period… but it turns out he doesn’t offer his ‘Happiness’ lecture without cost.

    Fucking $300.00 a head. And guess what? Despite having just started advertising for the event, it’s sold out.

    The city literally cannot convince most people living here to go to the hospital and get Goddamn free vaccinations for H1N1 (“THEY HAZ MARQUERY IN EM!!”), but people will fucking flock to buy 300 dollar tickets (in the middle of a recession, when everybody claims to be broke) to hear Deepak tell them about how they can use magic powers to make their lives perfect.

    Second: to be fair, and I know that Hamby has said this elsewhere, it’s not strictly stupidity or wishful thinking. A lot of it is, frankly, just about sex.

    You go listen to Deepak, and you drag your old ball & chain with you, and he gives a convincing (well, convincing to anyone willing to ‘open their mind’ until their brain falls onto the floor) argument for why you should be allowed to go into those strange New Age parlors staffed by pretty young girls who wave LEDs over you and give you a massage (as well as an awkward boner you try your damndest to conceal). I mean, hell – he has an M.D., right? That means he went to school and everything! So, duh, of course you’ve got to take his advice and go get a message from giggling teenagers – it’s a matter of staying in good health, dammit!

    People buy the pills and the drinks just to reinforce the idea that it’s all about keeping healthy. The drinks are maybe consumed once, then kept in the fridge; the pills sit on the counter in perpetuity until it’s time to move and they get tossed.

    Third: While it’s not all about stupidity, people really are Goddamn stupid. I just completed four night courses at a city college as part of a really simple Graphic Design certificate course (I’m about halfway through it); A+, A, A+, A+. This shit is easy – I never make those kind of grades.

    Guess what? Half of my class, on average, just plain flunks out. They can’t manage to get better than a fucking C in a night course that is so brain dead simple that a jackass like me lands straight As on.

    A lot of people say that a lack of education is the big culprit when ti comes to issues like this. Before I started going back to school, I was one of those people.

    Lack of education is not the problem. Too many people have just plain become uneducatable. They are not interested in learning; they’re interested in text messaging their friends, updating their Facebook and going out to party. And I’m not even just talking about teenagers.

    New Agey bullshit is just trendy along with that attitude. Flunk a course? It’s not that you’re lazy or apathetic or untalented; it just wasn’t for you (I’m being a bit too cynical, there – people really do perform better, individually, in some fields than they do in others – but this truth has been stretched until it’s a perverse parody of it’s former self). Or you weren’t in harmony with that topic. Or you were so talented that the instructor was blind to your genius.

    The thing is, I’m not sure how entitled I am to make morally judgmental statements about such a trend. If that’s what everyone wants to do… well, I guess that’s what everyone wants to do. If it fucks up our industrialized civilization or our ecosystem, I guess it fucks it up. It’s not like either wholly belong to me – and the will of the majority just plain carries all of the weight.

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | December 5, 2009, 12:45 am
  4. Oh, one other thing:

    It’s hilarious to me that Roger Ebert thinks this must be a ‘liberal thing’. Obviously he’s not aware of the numerous anti-vaccination rants of Fox News, Stan Jones’s development of argyria as a result of deciding to ingest silver as opposed to real medication (lolz) or Alex Jones’s myriad rants on all of the evil conspiracies surrounding medication (…then again, Alex Jones is so batshit insane that perhaps he shouldn’t count).

    Posted by Kevin R Brown | December 5, 2009, 1:05 am
  5. I blog on a site devoted to those who have left the cult of transcendental meditation. The ex members understand the misuse of science by the TM organizations and understand that they were misled into a cult. But there are many ex members who comment on the site expressing their distrust of modern science, especially medical science, but do not express the same distrust of alternative medicine other than TM.

    Realizing that TM was a bunch of garbage does not necessarily translate into knowing other garbage when you see it. It doesn’t mean that critical thinking is improved.

    It is like the anti-vaccine people who tend to be smart and upper middle class. Critical thinking and rationality takes work. Just because you are smart and middle/upper class doesn’t mean that you will do the work.

    For the most part, I am live and let live on an individual basis, whether it is Christianity or TM. My sister is religious, I don’t give her a hard time about it. I make my noise on the net and leave my friends and family alone unless life or health is at risk. FWIW.

    Posted by ruth | December 6, 2009, 11:28 am
  6. Yes, you have to call them on it. Hypocrisy is the death of integrity.

    I have always called my friends on their woo-woo shit. Admittedly that has made me unpopular to many people. But the ones that stick around are worth it. And over the years some people have come to appreciate the value of my point of view.

    I disagree with G Felis: I think the woos think their crap is just as real. The difference I perceive is that the woos know their views are controversial and not everybody believes them. In my experience this is what allows me to be friends with woos but not with Christians: the Christians simply cannot accept that anyone thinks differently. Most woos have been forced to accept that through sheer pragmatism.

    So yes, you have to call them on it. They have to know that you think it’s batshit crazy, and they have to be OK with that. By the same token you have to be OK with them. You can’t expect anyone to be perfect. You have to accept people for what they have to offer – but they have to accept you on the same grounds.

    Posted by Yahzi | December 6, 2009, 12:48 pm
  7. Yahzi, you can’t reasonably disagree with me about people who I know and have talked to about such things and you have not. Of course, you *can* reasonably disagree about how significant a percentage of people take the approach I described. Maybe I just know a better class of woo-inclined people than you do…
    🙂
    G

    Posted by G Felis | December 6, 2009, 10:25 pm

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