It’s not just Christians who engage in wishful thinking, in belief in an afterlife and the soul and that the children from Newtown are all in heaven. It’s also the hordes of people who now define themselves as “spiritual but not religious.” While Christians, especially evangelical Christians tend to drift right, those who identify as “spiritual but not religious” tend to drift left. While I resonate much more with this choice, it doesn’t mean that their thinking is any more rigorous.
For example, I have several friends who believe in a hodge-podge of guides and spirits and angels. They believe that there are angels all around. To achieve their intervention, one just has to make “direct requests” of them. There is the popular CD The Secret, which proposes the notion that all you have to do to get a particular thing is to want it bad enough. They believe in the “Akashic record” or the “Great White Brotherhood” (which is not as racist as it sounds). There was a book called the “Disappearance of the Universe,” in which author Gary Renard claims to have been in dialog through seventeen “appearances” by two ascended masters over the course of nine years. There were the readings with an astrologer. There were studies in the Enneagram. There was the “Course in Miracles,” and psychic readings, and consultations with the I Ching, and the throwing of Runic dices on New Year’s Eve, and weeklong excursions to the Omega Institute to see João de Deus (“John of God”), a Brazilian Faith Healer who has even caught Oprah Winfrey’s attention
While any of the beliefs that underlie these practices could be true — although that is frankly unlikely — what is absolutely certain is that they can’t all be true. The reincarnated doctors who do the secret work for João de Deus cannot exist in the same world with the Great White Brotherhood and the Akashic Record and they mystical forces which govern the alignment of the stars and a veritable menagerie of angles and guides. This represented wishful thinking. This wasn’t about what was true. This was about what was wished for.
I had the chance to accompany a former President of the British Society of Dowsers and an apprentice on an assignment to do “earth acupuncture.” The target was a Unitarian church up somewhere in the Northeast and the idea was to clear the space, to rid the church of bad spirits, to relieve some of the conflict in the congregation. What my friend and his apprentice did was to place two metal rods into the ground, keep them there for a period of time, and eventually dribble some fragrant essences over the rods, before removing them again. We were all offered the opportunity to place our hands on the rods, and encouraged to touch them as if they were animals. We were then asked to touch the rod and then touch it again after a period of time. What I found surprising was how much of a tremor or pulse that I felt. I imagine this was mostly a function of my blood pressure and that I was holding my hand down, so that blood was rushing into it. In any case, when I touched the rod a second time, after the “energy had shifted,” it felt exactly the same to me. The “pulse” that I felt was exactly the same and, as I suspected before, most probably caused by my blood pressure. I can imagine that if you touch the rods with the intention of feeling a difference that you will feel a difference.
Did this change anything at the church? I have no idea. There’s a good chance that it changed the belief of the minister, in that with her belief changed that she approached the people in her congregation differently. And if that did happen, then it would obviously be perceived as evidence that the space had, in fact, been cleared. Of course, drawing such a conclusion would most likely be the consequence of confusing correlation with causation. It is highly unlikely that anything was cleared in the process, other than the anxieties of our minister.
A lot of these kind of spiritual beliefs have been lumped together under the classification of “new age” beliefs. Googling the term “new age” quickly makes it clear that there is not a common definition of what sets of beliefs or practices actually count as being included in the new age. Still, there are certain common themes in new belief systems, and there is a certain common history we can deduce.
What is the New Age?
The term “New Age” derives from the Astrological Age of Aquarius, which arrived, depending on your point of view, either in 1844 or at some other time, or hasn’t yet arrived. The term “new age” was first used in 1875 connection with German philosophical movement of theosophy. But most people have it connected with the late 1960s and early 1970s, the time of the hippie movement, when many of the new age practices were really popularized. Despite being a Western spiritual movement, the new age movement draws a great deal from various Eastern spiritual traditions, and also from other more ancient spiritual traditions such as astrology; it has infused these traditions with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, alternative health practices, parapsychology, consciousness research and even quantum physics; it incorporates Gaia philosophies and eco-friendly politics; and the movement is “holistic” in the sense of trying to synthesize all of these disparate elements.
New age thought is also characterized by both the philosophical concepts “vitalism” and “dualism,” although these philosophies tend not to be explicitly articulated; they form more of a background belief. In any case, “vitalism” is the philosophical doctrine that life has a quality independent of physical and chemical laws, such an immaterial soul; it is also the basis for the modern spiritual belief in a “life force” or energy. “Dualism” (in the “philosophy of mind” sense) is the related belief that the mind and the brain are separate, and that the mind has an independent existence.
There is no definitive list of new age practices, and searching the topic indicates that there are many different ways to slice this pie. One way to slice it is to break new age practices down into four general categories — those related to the mind, the body, prophecy and the sacred. Practices which are part of these groupings include things like visualization, shadow work, psychokinesis, homeopathy, naturopathy, reiki and yoga, astrology, geomancy, tarot card reading, the enneagram, mysticism and fire walking.
New Age Examples: Homeopathy, the Enneagram and John of God
One could write at length about new age practices – and other authors have already done so – so here I will select only three examples for a short discussion. My “A Skeptic Goes” series will look more in depth at a number of new age practices that I have some personal experience with.
– The practice of Homeopathy
The practice of Homeopathy, created by the German physician Samuel Hahnemann in 1796, is based on the principle of “like cures like,” or the theory that a substance that causes the symptoms of a disease in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people. Hahnemann came to this conclusion after experimenting with using a substance known as “cinchona” bark and whether it, as alleged, was actually useful in curing malaria. Hahnemann ingested some of the bark specifically to see what would happen, and found himself experiencing fever, shivering and joint pain, symptoms similar to those of malaria itself. From this, Hahnemann came to believe that all effective drugs produce symptoms in healthy individuals similar to those of the diseases that they treat, in accordance with the “law of similars” that had been proposed by ancient physicians.
In practice, what a homoeopathist prescribes for their patients is sugar pills. To be sure, they are sugar pills that have been doused with minuscule doses of certain remedies, but these doses are so minuscule as to have no active ingredients. The remedies are diluted over and over again, so many times, until no active ingredients are left. In fact, mathematical calculations on the dilution ratios have determined that in many homeopathic preparations there are only a few molecules of the original remedy, and in some preparations, no molecules at all. That does not mean, however, that homeopathy is completely ineffective. It can be helpful at times, but not for the reasons claimed by homoeopathists.
I once went to the homoeopathist. I didn’t have a particular ailment, but went at the suggestion of my former partner; I thought it might be interesting at least to talk about my tinnitus, which I’ve had since I was sixteen. I found the homoeopathist to be a very caring, charming man. Although some of his questions seemed odd, I had the sense that he really cared about my well-being; unlike most doctors, he was not in a rush and took his time. There was a palpable sense of being “cared for.” And this, more than the phantom ingredients of his sugar pills, could have made a difference. This phenomenon actually has a name: it’s called the “therapeutic” effect. That and the placebo effect is what scientists believe can cause homeopathy to be effective. In my case, unfortunately, it was not effective. At least it was not effective in treating my tinnitus, which is what I would have wanted it to be effective at.
– The Enneagram of Personality
he Enneagram is a popular personality-typing system, based on a nine-pointed mandala, looking a bit like a simplified horoscope. The origin and current ownership of the enneagram is a bit controversial. On the one hand, an anagrammatic system was part of Sufi mysticism; on the other hand, a similar system has also been attributed to the Christian monk and mystic Evagrius Ponticus, aka “Evagrius the Solitary” (345-399 AD). More recently, the Russian “Fourth Way” mystic George Ivanovich (G.I.) Gurdjieff is credited with making the enneagram figure commonly known; he did not, however, develop the nine personality types now associated with the Enneagram. The credit for that goes to Oscar Ichazo, the Bolivian-born founder of the Arica School, which he established in 1968.
The idea was further developed by Claudio Naranjo, a Chilean-born psychiatrist who had been a student of Fritz Perls, the founder of Gestalt therapy. Naranjo first learned about the Enneagram of Personality from Ichazo during an intensive self-realization program Ichazo offered in Arica, Chile in 1970. Naranjo began developing and teaching his own understanding of the Enneagram, and eventually brought it to the United States in the early 1970s. Naranjo used his background in psychiatry to further elaborate the alignment between the nine types described by Ichazo and other psychological categories he had learned, including personality disorders, various defense mechanisms, and other personality theories; in addition, he translated many of Ichazo’s ideas into English.
Naranjo’s teachings developed its own following, including the Jesuit priest Robert Ochs and the author Helen Palmer. Ochs transmitted some of Naranjo’s interpretation to other Jesuit priests and seminarians around North America, who made use of it for spiritual counseling; Palmer, on the other hand, eventually wrote a book called “The Enneagram: Understanding Yourself and the Others in Your Life,” published in 1988. Ichazo apparently did not like Naranjo’s “psychologizing” of his materials, and he really didn’t like Palmer’s use of Naranjo’s materials for her own book, which led him to break off relations with Naranjo and to sue Palmer for copyright and trademark infringement. See Arica Institute v. Palmer, 761 F.Supp. 1056 (S.D.N.Y. 1991). The lawsuit hinged on the question of whether the work of Gurdjieff and the preceding Sufi mysticism was the real source of the enneagram work, and had just been appropriated by Ichazo. In any case, Ichazo and the Arica Institute lost their case when the court sided with Palmer’s contention that Ichazo’s attempt to halt the release of the paperback edition of her book was just an effort to prevent “heresy” and not copyright infringement.
All of which makes for a competitive environment when it comes to the interpretation of the Enneagram. It also leads to the various personality types, and their ego fixations and vices. The “vices” identified in this system are, by the way, simply the “seven deadly sins” of Catholic theology (anger, pride, envy, greed, gluttony, lust and sloth) plus the addition of two new sins, self-love and fear.
The Enneagram may be descriptive, but it is not necessarily prescriptive. Even so, there are now counselors and even some therapists who use the Enneagram personality-typing system as part of their work, especially in couples counseling and family dynamics. The system can be useful in helping people understand that their partners or family members aren’t trying to be difficult, they simply have different wants and needs and ways of expressing themselves. If a personality-typing system like this can help people get there, then that seems to be a benefit for all.
– John of God
João Teixeira de Faria, better known as John of God, is a Brazilian faith healer who has found tremendous popularity here and internationally. Some of that popularity has been reinforced by coverage on CNN, a story on ABC news, and his promotion on the Oprah Winfrey show. João is, by his own admission, illiterate and he does not speak English; he started working at the age of six in his father’s tailor shop, then became a well digger and bricklayer, and eventually a rancher; as with many mediums he discovered his gift by accident. João claims to “incorporate” thirty separate “entities,” including specifically named deceased doctors and saints. When incorporating these personages he is not aware of his own actions, or not really in his body.
Not just a faith healer, João is also a “psychic surgeon.” Among other things, he engages in healing practices that involve scraping the eyeballs or putting forceps down a patient’s naval cavities. However, while he can do that at his center in Abadiânia, where he is based, he’s not allowed to do that in the United States when he comes here. In any case, João now appears annually at the Omega Institute in Rheinbeck New York, co-founded by another Oprah Winfrey favorite, Elizabeth Lesser. It is here that João annually presents a four-day workshop attended by over 1200 participants. The number of participants is so large that Omega shuts down all their other activities and programs to be able to manage the influx. João claims that he can “incorporate”33 named entities, including King Solomon, St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier, Dr. Bezerra De Menezes, Dr. Augusto de Almeida, Dr. Oswaldo Cruz, Dr. José Valdivino, as well as two dozen other particular persons. It is these entities that do the “work” of healing the persons appearing before João. This “phalange” of entities travels with João — they do not simply stay in Abadiânia, where João is based — and it is their job to “detach” us from less well-intentioned unincorporated spirits that are the source of our suffering. James Randi, the retired stage magician and scientific skeptic best known for his challenges to paranormal claims and pseudoscience, asserts that both of João’s most impressive feats of visible surgeries which are the scraping of the eyeballs and the putting of forceps up a patient’s nose, are “old magicians tricks” that anyone can learn. While some people who have appeared before João have claimed to have been healed in some way — most likely as a consequence of the placebo effect — most people appearing before him are not cured of anything. And he makes no guarantees.
The New Age Intellectuals
The new age movement also has its intellectuals, including Eckhart Tolle, Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen, among others.
– Eckhart Tolle
The diminutive German-born sage, Eckhart Tolle, became famous with his book The Power of Now can be described as a combination of cognitive psychology and Buddhist thinking. The central theme — that one should be conscious of the “present moment” and not concern themselves with the past or future — is similar to the advice not to engage in “negative self-talk” commonly found in cognitive psychology texts. The product of a broken family, Tolle was largely home-schooled by his father in Spain. He subsequently studied philosophy, psychology, and literature at the University of London and did some post-graduate research at Cambridge University. At around the same time Tolle — who had suffered for a long time from depression and anxiety — had a “conversion” experience, which allowed him to experience a state of “deep bliss.” Tolle stopped studying for his PhD; he stayed with friends, in a Buddhist monastery, or otherwise slept outside on Hampstead Heath. After this period, former students and people he had met by chance began to ask Tolle about his beliefs. He began working as a counselor and spiritual teacher, moving first to Glastonbury — the center of new age culture in England — and eventually to Vancouver in British Columbia. Eighteen years later, Tolle published “The Power of Now.” Only 3000 copies were published of the first edition. Three years later, Oprah Winfrey recommended the book to the readers of her magazine, and by August of 2000 it had reached the New York Times Best Seller list for Hardcover Advice. And the rest, as they say, is history.
– Ken Wilber
Another step up on the intellectual ladder brings us to Ken Wilber, the oracle of Oklahoma City. Ken Wilber completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and biology and a master’s degree in biochemistry from the University of Nebraska at Lincoln; his expertise, however, is in “integrating knowledge from different fields.” He wrote his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness in 1973, which has since been characterized as a “synthesis of religion, philosophy, physics, and psychology” that began the movement towards “transpersonal” psychology. Altogether he has published thirty-two books and counting, his two most famous are “Sex, Ecology, Spirituality,” his magnum opus published in 1995, and A Theory of Everything. Neurobiology, Jungian archetypes, horticultural societies, hermeneutics, Hegelian dialectics, systems theory, Zen koans, post-structuralism, Vedantan Hinduism, capitalist economic systems, transpersonal states of consciousness, neo-Platonic forms, they’re all integrated in Wilber’s work. Ken Wilber is not light reading.
– Andrew Cohen
Then there is Andrew Cohen, a spiritual teacher so controversial that even his own mother denounced him in “Mother of God,” her memoir of being his disciple. An admittedly brilliant teacher, who has developed a path to spiritual transformation that he calls “evolutionary enlightenment” that synthesizes teachings about enlightenment from Eastern traditions with a Western scientific understanding of evolution, Cohen has been denounced not only by his mother, but also former followers André van der Braak in Enlightenment Blues: My Years with an American Guru and William Yenner in American Guru: A Story of Love, Betrayal and Healing, as well as through the websites What Enlightenment? and EnlightenNixt.
Born in New York City in 1955 in an upper-middle class secular Jewish household, Cohen’s life was transformed by a spontaneous experience of “cosmic consciousness” at the age of sixteen. He eventually met the Advaita Vedanta master H. W. L. Poonja in 1986, and after spending only three weeks with Poonja, Cohen began to teach. Philosophical and personal disagreements created a split between the two, after which Cohen began teaching his spiritual philosophy on his own.
Gurus accused of sexual harassment or other scandals
Andrew Cohen is, of course, far from the only guru who has been accused of scandal or an abuse of power. The number of gurus falling into that category are surprisingly large. For example:
- Amrit Desai, the founder of the Kripalu Center, had to resign in 1994 after it was discovered that he was bedding three of his female students, despite having preached abstinence for the unmarried;
- John Friend, the founder of Anusara, one of the world’s fastest-growing styles of yoga also had to step down after infidelities with female students in 2012;
- Bikram Choudhury, the founder of the eponymous Bikram Yoga, had five women suing him with allegations including sexual harassment and sexual assault as of 2014;
- Swami Satchidananda was accused, in 1991, of exploiting a number of his female followers sexually despite his own vows of celibacy;
- Swami Nithyananda was also accused in June of 2012 of raping by an Indian-born American citizen, who went on Indian television accusing Nithyananda of doing so for several years;
- Asaram Bapu was recently accused of sexually abusing a 16 year old, of allowing a gang rape on his compound, as well as of illegal land encroachment; and
- Rodney Yee, another famed yoga instructor, was sued by former instructor Susannah Bruder for breach-of-contract lawsuit, alleging that Yee and his wife terminated her employment after she accused him of carrying on extramarital affairs with female students, two of which were subsequently admitted.
But it’s not just sex scandals that has brought notoriety to gurus: Sant Rampal, an Indian religious leader of Kabir Panth, often described as a self-styled godman, was arrested on suspicion of murder and criminal conspiracy in November of 2014; and another Indian guru, Baba Ramdev has been accused of financial irregularities and tax evasion, as well as of using human bones in the preparation of medicines.
Someone wise than I once said that one should “separate the message from the messenger,” but I don’t know. I think they are integral in some way. The issue of hypocrisy is also a major phenomenon of the authors and leaders of the self-help movement.
 Commentator and blogger Mark Manson has recently written an interesting piece entitled “The Rise and Fall of Ken Wilber.” Manson, a long-time admirer of Wilber, argues persuasively in the piece that Wilber and his followers have become more insular and essentially more irrelevant over time.