A recent article in the LA Times has sparked an interesting discussion online: what should Humanists do about the increasing interest among many younger people in practices like astrology, crystal healing, and tarot? (Thanks to Diane Burkholder and Josiah Mannion for kicking this one off.) I think the question is a good one, because one of the challenges for the Humanist movement, as we seek to grow, is how we can remain true to our core values while being welcoming to people who are spiritually searching, or who find value in ritual practices which they understand themselves not to be based on a scientific understanding of the world. This is something I face every day as a Leader at the Ethical Society of St. Louis, because while we promote Humanist values we are open to all – regardless of their beliefs about religion and spirituality.
I must admit a certain bias: for myself, as a queer person, I do not find these practices comforting or praiseworthy. In fact I find them scary and I do not feel welcome in places where they are being practiced. I grew up fascinated by tarot, astrology, crystals, parapsychology, and lots of other intriguing things, but I view it as an important part of my own intellectual and personal journey that I learned how to distinguish truth from falsehood. I came to recognize that these practices – while undeniably valuable for many people – are at least historically based on misconceptions about the world which can in some instances be incredibly harmful. I came to see myself as a truth-seeker – someone who values truth for its own sake and as a component of my own emancipation – and I value this when I see it reflected in the best of the Humanist movement.
I think Humanism should be a movement which quite fearlessly follows the best evidence, and which is willing to say: “This thing you really like – even sincerely believe in – is not based on secure evidence.” This aspect of our tradition is central to many struggles for justice, and it would be catastrophic for Humanists to simply overlook the undeniable fact that, historically speaking, things like crystal healing and astrology have been based on inaccurate understandings of the world, and have caused and continue to cause people significant harm. No movement which genuinely cares about human dignity could deny this and remain consistent. We also have a legitimate interest in the epistemic health of our community, and that can be undermined when people believe things which are not true. Even if no harm is obvious in the moment, we can never know where irrationality will lead.
At the same time, there is an undeniable sense of smugness and superiority which comes across when a lot of Humanists talk about these issues which is not only unwelcoming and mean, but also can be linked to all sorts of oppressive modes of thought which have no place in a Humanist setting. Too often it feels like people’s opposition to things like astrology is more about making Humanists feel smarter than others than about a principled search for truth. This is a tendency we should root out in our movement and in ourselves – I certainly have a lot of work to do still on that front.
Furthermore, to the extent that some of these practices are associated with the identities of marginalized people, it can be extremely difficult to critique them without furthering that marginalization. Anyone who appreciates why a Humanistic Jew might want to continue their Jewish ritual practice while understanding that much of it is historically rooted in a metaphysics they no longer hold, should also appreciate why indigenous people (for instance) might wish to maintain elements of their religious practice too, even if they reject the supernatural elements on which it may have been based. Humanists have a responsibility to be sensitive to the context and history of any spiritual practice – especially when majority communities and commentators pass judgment on the spiritual practices of marginalized people.
This presents something of a dilemma for those of us who lead Humanist communities: how should we react when increasing numbers of young people (people my age, actually!) turn toward astrology, crystals, tarot etc. for spiritual benefit? Personally, I think we need to be welcoming and non-judgmental toward people, and still insistent regarding our search for truth. Are people who are into crystals welcome at the Ethical Society of St. Louis? Absolutely yes, please come along! Our commitment to upholding your worth doesn’t vanish because you have different spiritual practices. Are we going to have a program promoting crystal healing, or a group offering tarot readings? No, I think we are not – just as we don’t have Bible reading groups. We have the responsibility to maintain the integrity of our own community, and to keep it a safe and welcoming space for those who have been harmed by the unscientific elements of these practices.
This may be a challenging position to take – it risks pleasing nobody and upsetting everybody – but I think it is the right one, because it is the only way to honor people’s dignity and their intellect, all at once.
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