So, You Thought Skeptics Were Immune to ‘Spiritual’ Nonsense? Ha.

So, You Thought Skeptics Were Immune to ‘Spiritual’ Nonsense? Ha. November 8, 2018

Until yesterday, I felt relatively content to include myself as a kindred “spirit” (so to speak) among atheists, agnostics and the religiously unmoved and apathetic.

new age skeptics
Street sign of horoscope reader in Washington, D.C. (Elvert Barnes, Flikr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

But then I read two stories that actually startled me. There appears to be pretty good evidence, apparently, that unchurched, ostensibly secular folk can be as fantasy-addled as Christian zealots.

I almost wept.

After all, how can one argue with the Pew Research Center, which regularly conducts thorough, respected, scientifically within-the-pale surveys of religious belief and behavior around the world?

As a staff blogger for Patheos’ Nonreligious blog channel, I probably should have known that even a brief tourist stop at Patheos’ sister Evangelical channel could prove dicey. But I do like to keep up with what the kindly opposition is thinking.

Still, there I was reading a post in Gene Veith’s Cranach blog titled “Most ‘Nones’ (& Lots of Christians) Believe in New Age Religion.”

The gullible ‘nones’

The most disturbing take-away from the article was that Americans unaffiliated with any religion who spiritually self-identify as “nothing in particular” were abundantly — 78 percent —the most likely among Americans to believe in at least one of the New Age standards: psychics, reincarnation, astrology, or the idea that “spiritual energy can be located in physical things.”

Members of historically black American churches were the next most New Age-susceptible subgroup at 72 percent, followed by Catholics (70 percent) and mainline Protestants (67 percent). U.S. Christian denominations overall ranged from 47-70 percent, and good old naysaying atheists (thank God) are apparently the least susceptible to New Age touchy-feelyness, at an encouragingly low 22 percent.

Surprisingly, the recent Pew survey data indicates that, next to atheists, Christian evangelicals expressed the most skepticism toward New Age beliefs, with only 47 percent believing in at least one type.

Even worse for “nones,” the Pew data suggests that deep down we may not be all that different than true-believing zealots. The Cranach post points out:

“Notice that the majority of those whose religion is ‘Nothing in Particular’ believe in things with spiritual energy, psychics, and reincarnation, with almost half (47%) believing in astrology.  Furthermore, they believe in such things at a higher rate than do members of any other religious demographic.”

Are irreligious part of religious demographic?

Note that irreligious people, who logically speaking shouldn’t be included in any religious demographic (by my stars), may according to this data have religious impulses — inclinations toward unverifiable, supernatural assumptions — even more pronounced than those of actual believers.

There, I’ll say it: Yikes!

I guess it’s too soon to conclude that America’s growing herd of “nones” — those unaligned with any religion — is necessarily signaling a sea change in U.S. religiosity. Unfortunately, it appears it may be way more complicated than that.

Men, especially of the more patriarchal, chauvinistic, non-touchy-feely breed, can take some solace in Pew’s data showing that women are significantly more likely than men to embrace New Age beliefs. Overall, 70 percent of women subscribe to these avant-garde spiritual notions but only 55 percent of men.

Who are these people?

I have no idea what to make of the Pew data that indicates the people most likely to be charmed by New Age fantasies are adults under 65, college non-graduates, racial and ethnic minorities, plus Democrats and Democrat-leaning folks.

I could have sworn it would be Republicans, but it appears GOP adherents may be so devoted to their Christianity that every other spiritual proposal seems heretical.

Perhaps most disturbing about the Cranach post vis-à-vis the Pew data is blogger Gene Veith’s self-congratulatory Christian take on all this Age of Aquarius infatuation. Veith writes:

“How do you account for the popularity of these New Age beliefs among both non-Christians and Christians?  It isn’t because of some greater rationality and the march of scientific progress.  Christianity is surely more rational and scientific than worldviews that are open to astrology and reincarnation.  But that so many non-believers are open to such mystical beliefs is a good sign, suggesting that their supernaturalism might be directed to the true supernaturalism that also embraces what is natural.” (italics mine for emphasis)

A fatal assumption

Veith’s paragraph above contains almost everything I believe is fatally wrongheaded about Christian apologetics: they’re always circular. It just begs the question by assuming that since people seem to naturally express “spiritual” inclinations, meaning imaginary and unverified thoughts, then divinities and God and Christianity must all be “natural” and true.

Thus — Voila! — Christianity is “rational” and not some crazy, mindless cult. But even if you spend just 30 minutes trying to deconstruct the mind-numbing rubber-band-ball of scholastic explanations by 13th-century Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinus, you realize Christianity is anything but. Aquinus’ torturous arguments are what you get when trying to explain the clearly-invented-yesterday as immortal.

In addition to seeing the tendency of religious and irreligious human beings to embrace new-wave nonsense as vindication of Christian doctrine, Veith also sees it as a great fuel-injector for wider proselytizing and indoctrination of the faith. He suggests:

“In fact, it suggests that Christian beliefs that come close to these beliefs or that fulfill the yearning for them might be points of contact for reaching these folks.”

Heaven help us.

What can we atheists do except urge people when they pick up their daily newspapers and flip to the ever-present daily astrology page, to remind themselves that it’s pure, out-of-whole-cloth entertainment, not reality.

But, as the Pew data suggests, good luck with that, right? Even with ostensibly rational people.

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