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New Age Spiritualism: I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For

The Good Word

Karen Stollznow

October 12, 2009

A friend who owns a bookstore once told me, “Customers drawn to the New Age section seem to buy every book but never find whatever it is they’re looking for.”

New age spiritualism has its origins in the nineteenth century spiritualism movement that introduced the world to mediums, channeling, Ouija boards, and séances (and paranormal fraud). Today, spirituality encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices.

Is New Age Spiritualism a Religion or a Gateway to Leaving Religion?

Spiritualism in and of itself might not be religion, but it can include religion. Spiritualist beliefs often integrate facets of philosophy, culture, jargon, and rituals from historical religions blended with pseudoscience and the paranormal (like voodoo). Spiritualism draws mainly from Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism but also indigenous and other faiths.

Spiritualist beliefs can be polytheistic or monotheistic, and the theistic higher being could be a God, Goddess, Creator, Supreme Being, or Omnipotent Presence. However, spiritualism is not invariably theist. For those who perceive themselves as nontheistic but still “spiritual,” spiritualist beliefs are compatible with atheism. For these believers, the nontheistic higher power could be the Cosmos, Chi, Prana, Love, Light, or Life Force.

Spiritualism is often conceptualized as religion, much as atheism is, because the structure of religion is our comparative cognitive model. However, there is no clear-cut continuum of belief to nonbelief. There are parallels because spiritualism is a belief system, but it is eclectic, unstructured, dynamic, and idiosyncratic. People who practice some form of spiritualism might describe themselves as spiritual persons, but they wouldn’t necessarily employ spiritualist as a label of self-identification or spiritualism as a designation for their beliefs.

Without denominations or sects, spiritualism is composed of loose communities that often evade classification. Alternatively, there can be in-group categorization, such as the theory of homeopathy or the various schools of yoga. This broadness and factionalism gives rise to the continual emergence of new beliefs, like psychic medium Sylvia Browne’s “religion,” the Society of Novus Spiritus.

Many proponents value spiritual beliefs for this very lack of labelling and rigid structure. It is religion without a rule book. There is no unified theology, no universally defining characteristics nor collective history. There is no doctrine. The holy book of spiritualism is whatever self-help book is currently on The New York Times Best Seller list. The priests and popes of spiritualism are authors and celebrities, including fire-walking motivational mentor Tony Robbins, psychic medium John Edward, and Wayne Dyer and Phil McGraw, the prophets with PhDs.

The intersection of religion and spiritualism is often mysticism. Customs of the Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches, such as speaking in tongues, divination and healing through the Holy Spirit, are also spiritualist practices. But there is no single spiritual House of Worship; the temporary “church” is the yoga class or reiki workshop. Although there is no formalized liturgical service, spiritualism is often ritualistic. Advocates of spiritualism enact their beliefs and petition the powers not only with prayer but other forms of intercession, including meditation, mantras, Pilates, and positive affirmations.

Instead of entrance to Heaven, spiritualist beliefs have more esoteric goals of attaining enlightenment, consciousness, awareness, oneness, and mindfulness. Depending on cultural preference, its goal is an individualist spiritual quest to find your true self or is collectivist: you become part of the Greater Whole or Overmind.

Spiritualism offers not only salvation for the soul but also Chicken Soup for the Soul.1 It is concerned with mind, body, and spirit and promises a practical function. It is a religion of self-help that preaches to its parishioners about alternative medicine, aging, activism, diet, environmentalism, relationships, art, music, finance, career, peace, politics, psychology, science, sexuality, quality of life, and the afterlife.

God tells us to “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” but He can’t help you lose weight. Spiritualism is more holistic than holy and claims to treat a bizarre range of “life issues”: it teaches us how to develop confidence, read body language, interpret our dreams, boost brain power, develop our ESP, overcome stress, navigate gender differences, enjoy better sex, cure impotence, look ten years younger, win friends, and influence people.

God helps those who help themselves, but religion is often about fate and acceptance of one’s lot. Spiritualism doesn’t wait for God to reveal His plan; a psychic can do that. Nostradamus and the Bible Code provide us with prophecies (that are interpreted subjectively). Intuitives, sensitives, and astrologers supposedly offer us glimpses into the future (using cold reading). Why wait for God to remember you when your life will improve in the time it takes to read Enjoy Life and Be Happy in 30 Seconds?2

Spiritualism is instant karma! New age books are replete with spiritual quick fixes to transform your life—for awhile. Religion seems to be about the power wielded over us, but spiritualism promises to empower, affording us control over our lives. Advocates promise that reading their books and attending their lectures will be a life-changing experience…for a price.

For Mormon Elders and Jehovah’s Witnesses, their faith is free. It is “good news” to be shared, be it door-to-door or from the pulpit. Bibles are usually complimentary, and you will even find one in your hotel room should you forget to pack your copy. However, spiritualist promoters often have a we-know-something-you-don’t-know manner, although they are prepared to sell you this knowledge. The keepers of the secret have been silenced, until now. It’s a conspiracy. Like Kevin Trudeau’s books, this is information “they don’t want you to know about.”3

Celebrities become missionaries for their beliefs. If you loved their movies and music, now try their religion. Madonna promotes the Kabbalah, and Tom Cruise promotes Scientology. Spiritualism is also faddish. The latest products and techniques are hailed as miracles until they fail to work even as placebos. In a spiritualist treadmill, new concepts soon replace old ones. Believers go from wearing copper bracelets to magnetic necklaces and following macrobiotic diets to food combining, low-carb, Superfoods, and clean eating. Tahitian Noni Juice and Himalayan Goji Berries are modern snake oils claimed to be the elixirs of youth and eternal life. Hair shirts and self-flagellation are penance for sin, but in spiritualism the punishments are “treatments” of detox. The eleven-hour sessions of yoga, colloidal silver, ear candling, cupping, purgation, colonic irrigation, and nasal irrigation with a Neti Pot are so bad they must be good for you.

Like a cup of chamomile tea, spiritualism is soothing. It tells us what we want to hear. We have past lives and will continue to be reincarnated. We don’t die; our souls are in transition. There’s a spiritual afterlife where our guardian angels watch over us and protect us. Having passed on and crossed over to the Other Side, our loved ones await us there. Psychic mediums claim they receive messages from our friends and family if we’re satisfied with the stock message, “Your mother loves you.”

Spiritual beliefs can give people false hope. Alternative therapists claim to be able to cure the incurable. For thousands of dollars, a clinic in Tijuana guarantees to cure patients of cancer. For thousands more, a peculiar zapper device will supposedly heal your dysfunctional liver, purify your blood, boost your immune system, and cure you of illnesses you didn’t know you had. Chiropractors and acupuncturists promise to treat your chronic pain. Spiritual healers promise to heal terminal diseases with their bare hands without surgical instruments or anesthesia (or success). For a substantial “donation,” evangelists will perform miracles Jesus-style, wherein the blind will see and those in wheelchairs will walk again (because they are plants in the audience).

And if you don’t like it, don’t believe it. With no fixed ideology, believers can afford to go spiritual shopping. This gives rise to the ad hoc adoption (and abandonment) of beliefs and practices. Some see the freedom of choice as its strength, but this cherry picking often masks underlying problems, breeding hypocrisy. People try a bit of everything and discard what doesn’t work or suit their biases. Sylvia Browne’s motto summarizes the spiritualist ethos: “Take what you want and leave the rest behind.”4

Should Skeptics Be Skeptical about New Age Spiritualism?

Overall, spiritualist beliefs are pseudo-religious, but they are often pseudoscientific too. Belief systems tend to be outside the realm of skepticism for many skeptics, but irrational, dangerous, and unscientific practices are always our concern and are often testable.

Spiritualism is often framed as religion but also framed as science. This can be confusing for the consumer. Proponents claim that they too were skeptical until they were convinced by the evidence. Anecdotal evidence is still evidence, isn’t it? The homeopathic preparations are beside the aspirin on the pharmacy shelves. The herbs are natural so they must be safe. Traditional Chinese Medicine has been around for thousands of years. The naturopath has a nicer bedside manner than the medical doctor. The only thing that supersedes science is the exotic; if it is foreign (and especially Eastern), it is imbued with unquestionable authority and wisdom.

Science has credibility, and spiritualism can appear to be integrative. Parapsychology and Postmodernism have a scientific facade. Dr. Deepak Chopra is a medical doctor. Bruce Lipton aims to “bridge science and spirit.”5 Feng Shui is adapted for business, and there are psychic financial advisors. Homeopathic doses of physics are blended with hyperdimensional physics and linguistics with Neuro-Linguistic Programming. Astrology aligns itself to astronomy, and birth chart declinations give the semblance of science. Electromagnetic readers are scientific tools, used irrelevantly for ghost hunting. Spiritualism does not use the scientific method; its approaches are metaphysical, not empirical.

Some proponents of spiritualism promulgate inaccurate and often unsafe ideas. Anti-vaccination organizations engage in fear-mongering campaigns, leaving communities susceptible to contagious diseases. Moon landing conspiracy theorists jeopardize the public’s understanding of science. Historical revisionists rewrite history erroneously. Even if a spiritualist theory is proven wrong, it’s reinterpreted as “correct.” The end of the world is always nigh, but suddenly this becomes a metaphor for any current global problem. Of course, the next scheduled Armageddon is the real one!

Some spiritualism is guilty of undoing science and is harmful when it actively undermines what is known. Scientists turned pseudoscientists commit this academic irresponsibility. They disregard science and discard their formal education yet flaunt their qualifications, invoking the lexicon of science with convincing authority. The metalanguage of physics, math, and neuroscience is adopted to appeal to the intellect of consumers. Fringe scientists try to persuade the public with conventional yet ambiguous terminology like “quantum” and “energy.”

Recognizable, trusted terms are used to peddle spiritual concepts persuasively. Spiritual practitioners are psychic surgeons, psychic detectives, and herbal therapists. The unorthodox is portrayed as orthodox, giving us Ayurvedic medicine and Homeopathic vaccines. Science is name-dropped in The Science of Getting Rich6 and Christian Science. Scientologists and Raëlians blend science fiction into their theories.

“Gut feelings,” “intuition,” and “knowing” are employed to defend extraordinary claims for which there is no extraordinary evidence. Instead of addressing the Burden of Proof, claimants expect skeptics to disprove their outrageous claims. Correlation equals causation to some non-skeptics, and Occam’s Razor is simply ignored.

Cold Comfort or Culture?

New age spiritualism fills the void created by secularization. Spiritualist beliefs and practices try to address the shortfalls of religion and the gaps of knowledge, offering a modern alternative. Self-identifying as a “spiritual person” conveniently addresses the question, “What do you believe in?” Otherwise, you’re just a soulless, immoral atheist.

Spiritualism is not overtly religious, and perhaps this is why it appeals to some people as a non-committal, secular belief system for those not ready to give up the trappings of religion. But it is a break away from religion. Spiritual beliefs can be stepping stones on the path to letting go of religion.

Perhaps we’re all a little spiritual by social necessity. Spiritual beliefs and practices tend to reflect popular culture and lifestyle. In a sense, we’re merely living in our own times when we utter “Thank God,” speak of a “soul” or “spirit,” burn an incense stick, shop for organic food, read our stars in the newspaper, or self-medicate with vitamin supplements. These seem to be customary, but we don’t want to assign unrelated significance to these acts.

Some see spirituality in every experience. To pattern-seeking minds, a simple thought becomes an epiphany. Emotions become intuition. An earthquake becomes an Act of God. A solar eclipse becomes a bad omen. Bonding with an animal becomes mystical. Surviving an accident triggers religious sentiment. Birth becomes miraculous. Death becomes sacred.

Some find spiritual experiences in society. Coincidences become synchronicity. Luck is not made. Outside influences affect our lives. We choose our parents before we’re born. Our friends are kindred spirits. Our partner is our soul mate. We tend to observe the hits and ignore the misses. We recall that chance encounter that led us to meet our partner, but we forget the car accident and the unsuccessful relationships. Alternatively, we put these down to “bad luck” and read the failures as “life lessons” we’re “meant to have” on the path to finding our true selves.

Some find spiritual experiences in nature. The complexity of nature is misinterpreted as evidence for a creator or designer. We derive incredible emotional satisfaction from physical phenomena. Some wish on shooting stars and rainbows. Sunsets and night skies inspire romance, wistfulness, and hope. These powerful feelings can be so overwhelming that they seem to come from beyond, but they come from within. This is the naturalist connection to the universe of which Carl Sagan spoke7, but the sense of awe is misconstrued as divine.

Spiritualism is what we make spiritual. It is about meaning. We tend to think our “spiritual experiences” are unique and deeply meaningful, and they are…to us. They are no doubt profound, but they are human experiences and individual experiences. Assigning additional importance to them is a subjective attempt to understand the objective world.

For many, spiritualism is an ongoing quest. The search for truth ends in falsehood. The shamans and gurus are false gods. Enlightenment becomes disillusionment.

But many seekers of new age spiritualism never seem to find what they’re looking for…

Notes

  1. Canfield, Jack. 1993. Chicken Soup for the Soul: 101 Stories to Open the Heart and Rekindle the Spirit. Florida: Health Communications, Inc.
  2. Lluch, Alex. 2009. Enjoy Life and Be Happy in 30 Seconds: Daily Steps to Enrich Your Life. San Diego: W.S. Publishing.
  3. Trudeau, Kevin. 2005. Natural Cures "They" Don’t Want You To Know About. Birmingham, Alabama: Alliance Publishing.
  4. Sylvia Browne, www.sylvia.org/home/aboutnovus.cfm (accessed September 14, 2009).
  5. Bruce Lipton, www.brucelipton.com/ (accessed September 14, 2009).
  6. Wattles, Wallace. 2007. The Science of Getting Rich: Find the Secret to the Law of Attraction. Waterford, Michigan: Wilder Publications.
  7. Sagan, Carl (edited by Ann Druyan). 2006. The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. New York: Penguin.

Karen Stollznow

Karen Stollznow's photo

Karen Stollznow is an author and skeptical investigator with a doctorate in linguistics and a background in history and anthropology. She is an associate researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, and a director of the San Francisco Bay Area Skeptics. A prolific skeptical writer for many sites and publications, she is the “Good Word” Web columnist for the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, the “Bad Language” columnist for Skeptic magazine, a frequent contributor to Skeptical Inquirer, and managing editor of CSI’s Scientific Review of Mental Health Practice. Dr. Stollznow is a host of the Monster Talk podcast and writer for the Skepbitch and Skepchick blogs, as well as for the James Randi Educational Foundation’s Swift. She can be reached via email at kstollznow[at]centerforinquiry.net.