Beware of New Age Gurus

 

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Unlock the Seven Spiritual Laws to Awaken Now the Enlightened Giant within Your Unleashed Inner Child from the Hidden Dimensions of Your Soul: a Spiritual Guide to Harnessing Perfect Health, Infinite Power, and Success without Limit, to Create and Heal a New, Reinvented You of Boundless Potential!

 

The weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness.

~Pierre-Simon Laplac

T
he current Wikipedia entry on pseudoscience is excellent:

Pseudoscience is a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status. Pseudoscience is often characterized by the use of vague, exaggerated or unprovable claims, an over-reliance on confirmation rather than rigorous attempts at refutation, a lack of openness to evaluation by other experts, and a general absence of systematic processes to rationally develop theories.

New age gurus trumpet the failings of science when it suits them. They’re equally happy, however, to boast about whatever scientific findings seem to support their cockamamie world views (usually taken out of context). And even as they complain about the limits and the arrogance of science, they litter their patter with scientific jargon. They love to suggest that the weirdest discoveries of quantum mechanics (which are weird indeed) are confirmations of their own theories, as if cutting edge science were just catching up to their uneducated pontifications. They descant with bravado on the spiritual laws of the universe as if speaking of obvious and irrefutable facts. How do they know the spiritual laws of the universe? They just do!

When you consider the vast wealth that these gurus accumulate, it sure appears that they’re exploiting the neediness of the destitute for their personal benefit. Spirituality has ever been fertile ground for profiteering. The gurus behave as if they’re philanthropists. But it’s not philanthropy if you make a fortune from it; it’s a business. And the business of healing souls is an ugly one.

One is reminded of slick television evangelists. If there were a Satan, his first priority would be to dress his minions up in fancy suits, buy them leather bound Bibles, teach them to sermonize about love and morality, and put them on television. He’d ask them to spread hatred, intolerance, greed, and selfishness in the name of God. In return he’d promise them wealth, fame, and sex. And he wouldn’t even ask them to worship him, for he’d know a better trick for enrolling the corrupt. He’d only ask that they worship themselves.

In fact, there are so many similarities between television evangelists and new age gurus that they might be considered two snarling heads of the same hydra.

An evangelical minister named John MacArthur, in a laudable effort to police his own, seeks to expose televangelists for what they are:

Someone needs to say this plainly: The faith healers and health-and-wealth preachers who dominate religious television are shameless frauds. Their message is not the true gospel of Jesus Christ. There is nothing spiritual or miraculous about their on-stage chicanery. It is all a devious ruse designed to take advantage of desperate people. They are not godly ministers but greedy impostors who corrupt the Word of God for money’s sake. They are not real pastors who shepherd the flock of God but hirelings whose only design is to fleece the sheep. Their love of money is glaringly obvious in what they say as well as how they live. They claim to possess great spiritual power, but in reality they are rank materialists and enemies of everything holy.

His criticism of televangelists is two-fold: a) their teachings are anti-Christian, and b) they’ve been corrupted by the love of money.

MacArthur claims that Joel Osteen, a popular, charismatic, and genuine-seeming televangelist, has dressed the Law of Attraction (a new age fad) in Christian clothing, and has strayed from the teachings of Jesus Christ in the Bible. Every Christian believes their brand of Christianity is the correct one and all others are perversions, but MacArthur is probably right on this point. Osteen’s liberal brand of Christianity could be no worse than MacArthur’s fundamentalist one, and is probably better in that it is a few degrees more tolerant of gays and non-Christians, but it incorporates doctrines that sound more like Oprah than Jesus. So MacArthur’s first criticism of televangelists is irrelevant to non-Christians, but Christians who revere the Bible should find it compelling.

But his second criticism is spot on. Televangelists are “religious mountebanks,” described aptly in the Bible as “men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, who suppose that godliness is a means of gain” (1 Timothy 6:5).

The scam they operate ought to be a bigger scandal than any Wall Street ponzi scheme or big-time securities fraud. After all, those who are most susceptible to the faith-healers’ swindle are not well-to-do investors but some of society’s most vulnerable people—including multitudes who are already destitute, disconsolate, disabled, elderly, sick, suffering, or dying. The faith-healer gets lavishly rich while the victims become poorer and more desperate.[1]

Kudos to the minister. He’s right. And this criticism ought to extend to new age gurus, who are nothing but old fashioned witchdoctors and enemies of the scientific method.

The new age pseudoscience of the day appeals frequently to quantum mechanics. Science writer Margaret Wertheim explains:

History abounds with religious enthusiasts who have read spiritual portent into the arrangement of the planets, the vacuum of space, electromagnetic waves and the big bang. But no scientific discovery has proved so ripe for spiritual projection as the theories of quantum physics, replete with their quixotic qualities of uncertainty, simultaneity and parallelism.

She calls this new age movement “quantum mysticism,” and sees a connection to creationism, despite the fact that one movement seems to embrace science and the other openly rejects it.

Quantum mysterions may embrace science in principle, but they have little more interest than creationists in learning about it in practice. Under their adoring gaze, the mathematical formalisms of quantum mechanics, which make concrete predictions accurate to dozens of decimal places and which underlie the technologies of microchips and lasers, are stripped of all empirical content and reduced to a set of syrupy nostrums. At the same time, quantum mysticism promotes a vision of spiritual satisfaction achieved not by the hard transformative work of ritual or study, but by the mechanism of consumer choice. In the infinite sea of possibility here promoted, nothing is real except what you choose to accept. Which is not that far from the creationist position — there, too, empirical evidence is brushed aside and reality becomes what you’d like it to be.[2]

Richard Dawkins likes to quote the esteemed physicist Richard Fennyman: “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” The point is that if one of the greatest physicists who ever lived thought quantum mechanics an impenetrable mind fuck, then quantum mysterions who pretend to understand it perfectly have probably got the science wrong.

By the way, watch out for the day when the new age gurus hear that all the stuff with which we’re familiar in the universe (free hydrogen and helium, stars, neutrinos, and heavy elements) adds up to only 5% of all we know must exist. What is the rest of the universe? 25% is dark matter, which accounts for the gravity we know exists in galaxy clusters. Most of this matter is nonbaryonic, which means, in a nutshell, that it’s really weird. A whopping 70% of the universe is dark energy, which accounts for the acceleration of the galaxies away from each other. Supernaturalists love to fill gaps with their theories, and dark matter and dark energy provide roomy gaps.

New age gurus frequently criticize conventional medicine. Their criticisms are sometimes correct. Conventional medicine currently does not focus enough upon prevention, and often is corrupted by the profit motive. It is not overly cynical to notice that the pharmaceutical industry makes a fortune by treating symptoms and does not seem to be in a hurry to cure underlying diseases. Neither is it overly cynical to suspect that doctors prescribe procedures that may be unnecessary, just to mitigate the risks of malpractice lawsuits or to make a few extra bucks. Primum non nocere, ha! Our doctors pump our bodies with drugs that promise severe side effects, and they slice into our flesh willy-nilly. They assume that an absence of evidence of negative effects is evidence of absence. Their treatments leave scars that are sometimes worse, and often only fractionally better, than the original conditions. Patients cannot be blamed for concluding that conventional medicine, though it pretends to be advanced, is in its infancy, and is primitive, brutish, and often ineffective.

Conventional medicine is to healing as democracy is to government. It’s the worst form of healing imaginable… except for all the alternatives.

None of the faults of conventional medicine legitimize new age quackery, which is only gentler because it makes no real effort to cure anything. New age medicine works on the mind. This is sometimes helpful, as there certainly is a mental component to healing (that is all too often overlooked in conventional medicine). Nevertheless, the theories behind new age medicine are flapdoodle, and the treatments are – by definition – less effective than scientific medicine, because they are simply window dressing upon the placebo effect, and treatments in scientific medicine are only accepted if they’re shown to be superior to the placebo effect. In the words of entertainer extraordinaire Tim Minchin, “Do you know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”[3]

What new age gurus are really trying to do is to generate fear and suspicion of conventional medicine, so that they may then sell their own cruddy products. If they can cast a dark cloud over the scientific method by pointing out a few cases of malfeasance by scientists, they can cover over the fact that their own therapies have no scientific basis, have no evidentiary support beyond dubious anecdotes, and in many cases have even been proven to be no more effective than sugar pills. They are quick to denounce the profit motive in “big pharma,” but equally swift to line their own pockets.

I am not a fan of the Law of Attraction. It ascribes a supernatural cause to what is quite obviously the result of a natural, commonsensical process. It assumes there is a universal law where there is really at best a rule of thumb with countless exceptions. It wears the guise of spirituality when in truth it focuses on material acquisition. And it leads its adherents down paths of fuzzy thinking and constant disappointment, and pitilessly blames them for the “law’s” failures.

The Law of Attraction says, “You can have anything you want if you just wish hard enough, if you just believe.” The subtext is, “And if you don’t get what you wished for, it’s because you’re a fuck-up. It’s not my fault it’s yours. But keep trying.”

Let’s throw out the Law of Attraction. But let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

Your expectations often do have an impact on your experience, for better or worse. A cheerful mindset might reduce stress and in that way help the body fight stress-related disease. If you pursue something confidently you’re often more likely to acquire it than if you pursue it diffidently. Visualizing positive outcomes helps you clarify to yourself what you want and plan a course of action, and thereby helps you materialize your wishes. Why do people act as if there any mystery at all to these phenomena?


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  1. [1] John MacArthur, http://www.gty.org/Blog/B091207
  2. [2] Margaret Wertheim, “Quantum Mysticism”, LA Weekly, Jun 10, 2004, http://www.laweekly.com/2004-06-10/columns/quantum-mysticism/
  3. [3] See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhGuXCuDb1U
 Posted by on February 19, 2012
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