Lessons from New Age Thinking

Lessons from New Age Thinking October 18, 2018

psychic fortune teller

Most of my posts are something of an attack on Christian thinking, but this is different. The atheists and Christians should be on the same side of the table on this one.

Karla McLaren had been a leader within the New Age community. She spent her life in that mindset and had written nine books on auras, chakras, energy, and so on. After she made the (surprisingly painful) trip from her world into that of a skeptic, she wrote an insightful article to help skeptics understand the hold that that kind of thinking can have on someone and the ways skeptics ruin any chance of constructive discussion (“Bridging the Chasm between Two Cultures”).

It’s like she’s been to another planet and is back to report.

The life of a New Age believer

McLaren says that she encountered New Age thinking in 1971 when her mother took up yoga and experienced relief from arthritic symptoms that she hadn’t gotten from conventional medicine.

She says that personal experience taught her that much of New Age metaphysics was correct, but she also was skeptical of scams, fads, and cults such as “est, Scientology, breatharianism, [and] urine drinking.” She was able to use her skepticism to separate the accurate teachings from the false ones. If you’d demanded that she be skeptical of New Age thinking, she would’ve agreed and said that she already was.

She became a professional in the field, driven by a strong desire to help people. She believed every claim she made and never tried to scam anyone, and she says that the same was true of her colleagues.

The skeptical community? Not helpful.

But eventually she couldn’t dismiss the problems.

After a time, though, I began to question the things I saw that didn’t fit—the anomalies, the cures that didn’t work, the ideas that fell apart when you really looked at them, and so forth. I wrote passionately about the trouble I saw in my culture, and I even became a voice of reason. Sadly, though, every time I tried to research the things that disturbed or troubled me, I hit a wall.

She sought scientific critiques of New Age thinking but found two problems. First she was in too deep to accept the critique:

I couldn’t access any of that information because I simply couldn’t identify with it. Until now. . . .

The lion’s share of people from [New Age culture] can’t really hear much (if anything) from the skeptical culture. And that’s a real shame.

Problem two was that critiques of pseudoscience seemed unnecessarily harsh. For example, illusionist Uri Geller appeared several times on both the Merv Griffin show in 1973 and the Mike Douglas show in 1975. James “the Amazing” Randi responded to Geller’s popularity by publicly performing all of his tricks to prove that Geller’s claims of supernatural ability were lies.

You might think that that was that. How could Geller’s claims stand when they’d been shown to be mere stage magic?

But McLaren had seen the popular television shows that validated Geller’s abilities. She concluded at that time,

Some people just had it in for healers and people with paranormal gifts….

James Randi’s behavior and demeanor were so culturally insensitive that he actually created a gigantic backlash against skepticism, and a gigantic surge toward the New Age that still rages unabated.

(This response is another example of the Backfire Effect, about which I’ve written recently.)

In a 2014 New York Times magazine feature on Randi, Geller recounted his humiliating experience on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Randi had advised Carson how to avoid Geller’s deceptions. As a result, Geller sat there for 22 minutes on television, unable to do anything. Afterwards, he was certain that his career had been very publicly destroyed, but he was then booked immediately for his first Merv Griffin appearance. The public failure actually made his career. (More on Uri Geller here.)

McLaren said about Randi:

I certainly understand and support James Randi’s anger, frustration, and even vitriol now (especially after having lived through the New Age for so many decades), but all I could see then was a very sarcastic man who seemed to attack Geller personally.

She says that within New Age culture, personal attacks come from someone ruled by their emotions, and serious skepticism comes from someone ruled by their intellect. Neither extreme is acceptable, and New Agers focus instead on “the (supposedly) true and meaningful realm of spirit.” Randi might have helped dabblers steer away from some New Age thinking, but by showing that he didn’t understand or care about their culture, Randi did nothing to dissuade serious believers.

Mystery in the New Age community

Within this community, it’s popular to imagine that skeptics have no tolerance for mystery while New Agers do, but she now says that this is backwards.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don’t have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don’t create answers just to manage their anxiety.

Christians show that same insistence for answers and intolerance for mystery. When science doesn’t have an answer, they will happily point out that their religion does. That there is no good evidence for “God did it” is no concern.

Most Christians are as skeptical about poorly evidence claims as atheists are—when they choose to be.

We are a people, not a problem.
— Karla McLaren,
about the New Age community

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(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 12/27/14.)

Image via Anthony Easton, CC license

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  • RichardSRussell

    Most Christians are as skeptical about poorly evidenced claims as atheists are—when they choose to be.

    Certainly they’re almost all skeptical about the claims of rival religions — claims which are no more outlandish than their own.

    • Ignorant Amos

      Exactly.

      Which is why they are so reluctant to take The Outsider Test for Faith, or even think about it, or they claim it doesn’t apply to them because, well, they are special and their faith is a special case. Not realising that is exactly the point.

  • epicurus

    Urine drinking was a fad?! Yuck!

    • Greg G.

      They said that when Y2K came, we would be drinking our own urine within three weeks. I stockpiled about 50 gallons of it ahead of time.

      • Michael Neville

        And now your roses look magnificent.

        • Illithid

          Negative, that’ll kill ’em. Lived for a few years with the toilet a longish walk away from the house. My dad and I carved a ten-foot-long path into a large clump of bushes near the door.

      • epicurus

        I picture the scene of Leonardo Di Capro as Howard Hughes naked and locked in his room full of jars of his own urine. eeewwww.

        • Greg G.

          Leonardo Di Capro naked. eeewwww.

          Kate Winslet, though!!!

        • Illithid

          Meh, he’s no Chris Hemsworth, but I wouldn’t kick him out of bed.

      • You’re prepared! I want to be your next-door neighbor, just in case.

      • Jim Jones

        FWIW, you can drink the contents of your hot water tank in an emergency.

        • Illithid

          I tell people this every time there’s a hurricane scare. Makes me laugh to see the grocery store shelves all bare of bottled water.

        • Ignorant Amos

          Yip…Bear Grylls has his celebrities drink their own wee-wee on his survival shows…though Obama bottled it apparently.

      • Ignorant Amos

        It should be nearly matured by now Greg…get it decanted and let us know the outcome.

        • Greg G.

          It’s still about free beer quality.

      • al kimeea

        I overheard two people talking about stockpiling water etc pre-calamity-that-wasn’t and then moaning after it didn’t happen that the stores wouldn’t do returns…

        • Greg G.

          At least they are prepared for Y3K.

    • Ficino

      Ancient Roman texts talk about that. They thought “lotium” had healthful properties.

      • epicurus

        I know they used to collect buckets on the street to be used to clean laundry

        • Otto
        • epicurus

          My favorite line over the years from that movie was “It’s good to be the king.” Must have been on trump’s mind when he bragged about groping women.

        • Otto

          My wife says that line all the time, usually after I get my way about something.

        • epicurus

          haha

        • Ignorant Amos

          I thought it was for tanning animal hides?

        • epicurus

          Yes, that as well, and apparently a whole bunch of other things as well, including toothpaste, according to this article. On the farm I grew up on, when we spread the liquid manure from the pig barn on the fields, rule number one was make sure you are upwind of the spreader!

          https://www.ancient-origins.net/history-ancient-traditions/money-does-not-stink-urine-tax-ancient-rome-003408

        • Some guy

          They had to make that a rule?!

        • epicurus

          How ‘bout “best practices” 🙂

        • al kimeea

          Tony Robinson, Blackadder’s dogboy, hosted a tv show about the dirtiest jobs in history. One described making linen using two week old piss and woolen cloth, stomping them together like grapes in a big basin.

          I have read that large commercial mmmm pork farms have large problems with manure that are more extensive than the great odor. I can see three farms from my kitchen sink, so we’re familiar with fresh country air. If it were one of these factory farms, we’d prolly be wretching.

        • epicurus

          Yeah, pretty terrible. Even cattle feed lots, though generally not as smelly, can cause feuds. In the mid 90’s a guy in the district of my parent’s farm (but not close to them) started a feed lot and some of his immediate neighbors were complaining. I’ve heard there are also concerns about contamination of ground water sources from large hog and cattle operations. It seems just bad all around. But, if we want to feed a meat hungry world and keep it relatively cheap, it seems to be the only way so far.

        • The $2B Brightwater waste water treatment is fairly close to where I live. It’s in a residential/rural area. I went on a tour, and they said that they had a lot of not-in-my-back-yard problems. Their initial pitch was that once in a great while, on a hot summer day, there’d be some smell, but they kept getting pushback. So they finally declared that there’d be no smell, and they added air scrubbers to the design. They’ve installed sensors around the perimeter to verify.

          They still get the occasional complaint, but they’ve gotten good at tracking down the distant farm that is the actual source of the smell. From your vantage point, these people were pretty whiney.

        • epicurus

          Is that a municipal waste water treatment plant?
          I think most ( but I’m not well read on the topic ) feedlots and hog operations spread it on fields or store in vast outdoor pits.

        • epicurus
        • Yes, it handles municipal waste water. Given its insanely high price tag (mostly to bore a pipe to dump the clean water into the sound), I’m surprised that it doesn’t serve more people.

          https://www.water-technology.net/wp-content/uploads/sites/28/2017/12/5-Brightwater.jpg

        • epicurus

          Thanks, I need more coffee this morning. Now I see what you were meaning – the smells are actually coming from a farm/feedlot.

        • Ficino

          There is the story in Suetonius, that when Vespasian’s son Titus complained about the disgusting nature of the urine tax, his father held up a gold coin and asked whether he felt offended by its smell (sciscitans num odore offenderetur). When Titus said “No”, Vespasian replied, “Yet it comes from urine” (Atqui ex lotio est).

          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pecunia_non_olet

        • Greg G.

          Vespasian was a comedian.

      • MR

        No wonder the Roman Empire fell. Texting about piss is one of the signs of a degenerate society.

    • Ignorant Amos

      It still is….

      Urotherapy is the latest buzz-word among the self-styled health elites. Just type it into Google and see how many blogs, videos and endorsements appear. And it’s not just celebrities like Madonna who revel in the joys of a number one (she wards off athlete’s foot by peeing on her feet in the shower), or indeed Kesha (who, frankly, can’t be trusted as an expert on anything except how to expose one’s nether regions on the web). Boxer Juan Manuel Márquez urinates straight after his fights – and then drinks the entire thing. Likewise, baseball player Moisés Alou says that he pees on his hands to maintain their game-worthy condition. Even winner of the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize and notable holy man Swami Agnivesh is
 a seasoned urotherapy fan. My thoughts? There has to be something in this madness. (Or at least I hope there is.)

      Read more at https://www.marieclaire.co.uk/news/beauty-news/drinking-urine-urotherapy-21425#zQxJblv4D4x7m4Q7.99

      • epicurus

        yikes, what a strange world. Guess I need to get out more!

        • Some guy

          Yeah. Just look at what you’re missing. 😛

      • Greg G.

        I wonder if Madonna would get pissed off if I pissed on her foot, just to ward off athlete’s foot.

        Funny how piss can prevent athlete’s foot and maintain game-worthy athlete’s hands.

        • Some guy

          I’d rather have athlete’s foot.

      • Phil

        They’re just taking the piss!

    • Michael Murray

      Not just a fad but a long Hindu tradition

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Urine_therapy

  • skl

    “Why do so many millennials believe in horoscopes?
    … According to a study, 58 per cent of 18-24-year-old Americans believe astrology is scientific.”

    https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/horoscopes-millennials-why-do-so-many-believe-zodiac-star-signs-a7531806.html

    • And more than zero people believe the earth is flat, and that number is increasing.

      • Ignorant Amos

        And the fairy believers…they are still out there….literally…no pun…

        http://www.fairyist.com/fairy-beliefs/

        • They exist because I want them to exist.

          Why do you insist on making it hard?

        • Ignorant Amos

          Why do you insist on making it hard?

          Is that not my purpose?

      • Benny S.
        • Ignorant Amos

          Well that’ graphic is a loada pish….the Flat Earth is a disc…..that’s obvious.

        • Phil

          And standing on the back of elephants

        • Michael Murray

          I’m on the side ??? Thanks a lot 🙂

      • Max Doubt

        “And more than zero people believe the earth is flat, and that number is increasing.”

        Yep. And when that number reaches 51%, the earth will be flat. How could you not understand such a simple concept?

  • Some guy

    I’ve been an atheist since my mid-teens, but I’m happy to say James Randi snapped me out of a woo-woo period in my twenties that I’m not proud of. Guess that makes me one of McLaren’s “dabblers”?

  • I identify a lot with this, having been raised to accept many such ideas, and attended a school run by a New Age group (though many of its beliefs were not explicitly stated). Like the author, I believe they are woefully mistaken, but these people weren’t frauds. They simply believe it is true. Which is not to say that no frauds exist, and they prey on people like I knew, but they aren’t all. Much of the language skeptics use can alienate them. I sure didn’t like to hear from skeptics at first, partly because of this. While people such as Randi and Martin Gardner have done important work, I notice in many cases they don’t show why an idea is wrong, but only ridicule it. That is fair somewhat (though it can be alienating as said before), since certain ideas are indeed absurd. Yet millions of people disagree, and it is not enough to just say they’re being ridiculous. There is also as she says a failure to understand the beliefs of New Agers in many cases, which doesn’t help. In some cases too they can be partly right, or right for the wrong reasons, which is important to admit. Even so, the process of convincing someone they’re wrong is always difficult, and hardly guaranteed, but more understanding with less name-calling will help I think.