I just finished watching The Workshop. (Netflix Instant View) For anyone wanting to see the “other side” of faith based thinking, this is a great movie. It doesn’t get any more pop psych, New Age wacko than this. Not in a mainstream film, anyway.
Filmmaker Jamie Morgan (who is famous for nothing I can dig up) decided to attend a ten day self-help workshop held by 72 year old guru Paul Lowe. While there is definitely a lot of self-examination and “therapy” depicted in the film, there’s a lot more nudity and examination of others. Some people might even accuse Mr. Lowe (who holds no clinical degrees I can determine) of charging people a lot of money to have a week long orgy. The accusation wouldn’t be too far off base if this film is any indication.
From the get-go, nudity is encouraged. In principle, there is some soundness to the idea that when we strip ourselves naked, we remove masks, boundaries, and limitations. Skinny dipping isn’t just popular because it’s a cheap voyeuristic thrill. Our clothes are part of our identity, and as such, part of the unconscious limitations we put on ourselves everyday. However, there’s a big, big jump from this psychological observation to the therapeutic benefit of getting fifty people to take their clothes off together an hour after getting to camp. (Disclaimer: I have no problem with nudist resorts or the nudist lifestyle, but that’s not what this is supposedly about. It’s about helping people who need help, so it’s a different animal altogether.)
The first day or so, the focus is on “opening up,” and getting in touch with your “true self” and being “free.” This is stage one of the brainwashing. Real psychology teaches us that there is no such thing as the “one true self.” Rather, we are all a conglomerate of genetic and environmental templates, and can adapt to a very wide variety of circumstances, beliefs, and practices. So right off the bat, we see a kind of brainwashing similar to that done by Christianity. You are not being your true self. You cannot be truly happy until you discard this false sense of self and experience total honesty with yourself and others. How similar is that to this: You are not being your perfect self. You cannot be truly happy until you discard the sinful man and experience total oneness with the heavenly father.
This is one of the dead giveaways of woo. Whenever we are told that there is some kind of super-secret thing that only this one path can provide, we are being sold a load of hooey. Again, the concept of the “true self” is bupkus. We are dynamic organisms responding to our environments according to a very flexible algorithm. If we change the environment, we literally change who we are.
In any case, if that were the extent of the woo, I wouldn’t have had much of a problem with it. If the worst thing that someone teaches is that self-honesty is a path to happiness, I can put up with a little woo. I think that’s mostly true. Unfortunately, the woo extended much farther. By day two or three, Guru Paul was telling everyone there — in no uncertain terms — “You are not monogamous.” Now, as everyone who reads my blog knows, science also tells us that we are not monogamous. But once again, woo twists science. True, we are not monogamous as a species, but all the indications are that the majority of us are best suited to serial monogamy with the occasional dalliance on the side. On the fringes are individuals who can practice non-monogamy in various forms, but make no mistake. Telling an entire group of people that they would all be better off practicing non-monogamy is crap.
Here is another hallmark of woo — especially New Age Liberal Woo. If you are told that you can think any way you want and be anyone you want to be, but in order to be truly happy, you should be X (whatever X happens to be), you are being misled. The truth is, monogamy is perfectly wonderful for a few people. Non-monogamy is good for a few. Serial monogamy is the most common practice, and most people are relatively happy with it. The scientific observation is that which of these makes you happy will depend largely on the environment you’re in and the cultural availability of options. Don’t believe anyone who tells you any one is inherently better than the others.
The rest of the film is devoted largely to an ongoing drama between the four or five prettiest people in the bunch. Lauren wants very badly to buy into the non-monogamy woo, so she spends the week hooking up with anyone she finds attractive, including Maddy, who is there with her alpha male boyfriend who practices yoga. (Lauren’s married, by the way. About midway through the week she calls to tell her husband that she’s “experimenting with her sexuality.”) Jamie, who is a participant as well as the filmmaker, has a crisis of conscience when he kisses a girl. He calls his girlfriend to tell her and then has to spend the rest of the week wondering if he’s just screwed up his relationship with a fine woman. Honestly, I could go on, but the details are longer than they are interesting.
Then the aliens come out. No, seriously. Somewhere between a fifty person orgy and a pool party, there’s five minutes about alien visitation, sex with aliens, and a bizarre moment where a woman speaks her “native alien language.” She’s from Planet Valtrex, or something like that. Can anyone say “Speaking in Tongues”? (See, Alison, I don’t single out theists and say they’re uniquely irrational. Get it?)
Interestingly, there’s one guy who doesn’t buy it. Brian, if memory serves. The whole week, he’s the one guy who says, ‘Wait a minute. I get that I’m supposed to be all happy with this non-monogamy thing, and aliens, and what not, but… um… I’m not sure.” The thing is, he’s surrounded. He’s with fifty people in the middle of nowhere, and he doesn’t really have a choice but to fit in. So he goes along with it. He never comes out and says, “This is a load of crap.” He would be a pariah if he did. (Can anyone say “closet atheists” in Small Town, USA?)
Enough about the movie. It’s interesting enough for an hour and a half of your life if you’re curious. There’s a broad concept I want to focus on. The content of woo is not nearly as important as the context. If I go up to a random person on the street and spend five minutes explaining to him that (1) Everyone should be nudists, (2) non-monogamy is the best mating arrangement for everybody, (3) aliens have sex with us in visions, and (4) let’s have an orgy tonight, what do you think would happen?
That’s right. I’d get laughed at, or politely brushed off by the overwhelming majority of people I talked to. A few people would probably invite me to accept the Lord Jesus as my savior, or tell me how sinful and evil I am. But curiously, if you begin with a problem, find fifty people who are experiencing this problem, put them in isolation from the rest of the world, and sell them the same four ideas, the overwhelming majority of them jump right in, literally and metaphorically.
The parallel couldn’t be clearer:
(1): You feel lost, right? There’s something missing from your life, and you feel like there’s got to be more to it than what you’re experiencing. I know exactly how you feel. I was there myself. Why don’t you come to church with me and listen to what Pastor So-and-So has to say. He really spoke to my heart, and he’ll do the same for you. Once you give up your pride, let go of all that you cling to in life, and let Jesus take control, your entire life is going to change.
(2): You feel lost, right? There’s something missing from your life, and you feel like there’s got to be more to it than what you’re experiencing. I know exactly how you feel. I was there myself. Why don’t you come to this retreat with me and listen to what Guru Paul has to say. He really spoke to my heart, and he’ll do the same for you. Once you come to realize that you can discover your true self, and that through shedding your inhibitions, your clothes, and your preconceptions about monogamy (oh, and have sex with an alien), your entire life is going to change.
Realize that to a non-believer, each of these sounds equally preposterous. However, for a believer in either one, it’s perfectly credible, and you can’t understand it until you give yourself over to it and experience it for yourself. More importantly, both sales pitches rely on something real — a feeling of something missing — to sell something with a facade of legitimacy. Christianity has the weight of thousands of years and millions of followers. Guru Paul has the weight of pop-psych, which often tells us that we are non-monogamous, but doesn’t explain how or why. He has half a century of alien abduction mythology. He has the real psychology behind nudity and orgies, which have been going on for all of human history, and probably most of prehistory as well.
So, what’s the moral of the story? Nobody is completely immune from woo, be it religious or alien. Big red flags ought to go up when one of three things happens: (1) you feel particularly vulnerable or anxious about an area of your life, (2) discovering the “truth” requires experiencing it with a group of people, and (3) you’re told to make up your own mind, but that (X) is the real way to the “One True (Y).”