I recently summarized the story of Karla McLaren, a New Age practitioner who gradually embraced science and turned her back on poorly evidenced New Age claims.
Most Christians critique New Age thinking as harshly as any atheist and find McLaren’s analysis compelling. I encourage Christians to hang on to that skepticism as we consider the parallels between New Age and Christian thinking. Let’s first look at four lessons for Christians and then four lessons for atheists.
1. Maybe it’s all wrong.
McLaren was skeptical . . . to an extent. Her ability to reject silly beliefs within her own community convinced her that she was sufficiently skeptical and able to winnow the valid beliefs from the false ones, but this token skepticism deceived her. She rejected some New Age beliefs, which was good, but she was slow to consider that it might pretty much all be nonsense. When science conflicted with her beliefs, she stayed within comfortable New Age boundaries.
Christians also reject silly supernatural beliefs (the claims of the other guy’s religion). But just because you’ve rejected some supernatural beliefs doesn’t mean that you’re entitled to hold on to the ones you still fancy. We must always be on guard against confirmation bias, wishful thinking, and all the other human mental maladies that protect our beliefs from critique.
2. Accept that we just don’t know everything.
McLaren turned popular New Age thinking on its head when she realized that it’s not the New Age practitioners who embrace mystery. Instead, skeptics accept that science has plenty of unanswered questions that may or may not be resolved in their own time, and it’s actually the New Agers who must have an answer to everything. She said, “Critical thinkers and skeptics don’t create answers just to manage their anxiety.”
Similarly, many Christians have little patience for ambiguity. Though they rarely put it this bluntly, their arguments are sometimes, at root, nothing more than, “Science has unanswered questions; therefore, God.”
These Christians insist that they know what caused the Big Bang and how life came from nonlife—God did it. They have no scientific evidence for it, but that doesn’t matter. God still did it. The problem is that “God did it” is too powerful. It answers any question and can never be proven wrong. By being unfalsifiable, this claim is useless.
3. Personal experience? Maybe not that reliable.
McLaren “knew” that her metaphysics was true because she experienced it herself, but we have many ways by which we deceive ourselves. She realized that personal experience wasn’t so reliable after all.
Christians may also want to reevaluate how they know what’s true. Personal experience may be less reliable than what science tells us.
4. Fear of not knowing leads to unjustified confidence.
McLaren says that the “incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of [New Age] culture’s disavowal of the intellect.” If reason doesn’t give an answer, New Age thinkers appeal to some vague spiritual reality as a way to understand reality.
Similar thinking underlies many Christians’ low opinion of science and skepticism, giving confidence that more satisfying truth can be found through the “spirit.”
5. Just because there are scammers doesn’t mean there aren’t honest practitioners.
McLaren argued that she honestly believed what she was selling and had no intention of scamming anyone. I can believe that.
Similarly, there are television evangelists and revivalists like Benny Hinn, Creflo Dollar, and Rod Parsley who may be unethical or know that their claims are bullshit, but we must remember that many preachers and evangelists honestly believe that they’re helping spread the truth.
6. They can’t hear you if your message is belligerent or culturally insensitive.
James Randi is a shrewd and incisive intellect who debunks pseudoscience. To me, he comes across as a gentle and wise elf motivated solely by a desire to help the public avoid being taken advantage of, but not everyone agrees. McLaren says that New Agers responded to his attacks on spoon bender Uri Geller in the 1970s by doubling down on their beliefs.
Reaching Christians also requires tact and patience. Remember the lesson of Daryl Davis.
7. Beware the Backfire Effect.
Yes, skeptics, you’re correct that New Age thinking is wrong, but there are right ways and wrong ways (mostly wrong ways) to convey this information.
Atheists, you’re right as well that Christianity is largely built on legend and wishful thinking. Nevertheless, the wrong approach won’t help and may simply reinforce a Christian conclusion.
8. Consider what you’re asking them to do.
The skeptics are simply asking that we accept reality—a reasonable request, right? How hard is that?
Sometimes, quite hard. McLaren says about her own journey out of New Age:
In essence, I had to throw myself off a cliff. I had to leave behind my career, my income, my culture, my family, my friends, my health care practitioners, most of my business contacts, my past, and my future. I say this not to garner sympathy but to show what the leap truly entails….
Skeptical information can be threatening and unwanted.
This is similar to the path that atheists ask some Christians to take. The more central Christianity is to someone’s life, the more difficult to abandon it. It’s not surprising when they respond to challenges by mentally curling up like an armadillo. (I’ve written more on the difficult process of leaving religion here. For more on the Clergy Project, which supports hundreds of pastors who have concluded that Christian faith is unjustified, see the Rational Doubt blog.)
I would ask you to respect our humanity, and approach us not as if you are reformers or redeemers. I would ask you to approach us as fellow humans who share your concern and interest in the welfare of others.
I’ll try. I’m sure this will be an ongoing process.
while the real communication
falls into the chasm that divides us.
— Karla McLaren
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/29/14.)
Image via Mary, CC license