Archive for the ‘New Age’ Category


Modern esoteric spirituality is built on Christian foundations laid by Descartes

November 13, 2017

It is common for spiritual teachers to rant against “materialist reductionist science”, that reduces living beings to mere machines. Those of an academic bent usually trace the origins of this “dogma” back to the age of Newton and Descartes, and see modern science, especially biology, as simply an extension of Descartes’ mechanistic philosophy from the mid 1600s.

Their criticisms of Descartes — that he saw animals as machines and simply ignored basic questions about what life is and how complex animals arose — are in fact well justified. Or at least, well justified in relation to Descartes. They are in fact identical to the objections that were raised against Descartes in 1650. But modern biology is not simply an extension of Descartes’ ideas. the history of science shows, in fact, that modern biology developed not only the genuine advances that Descartes made (such as conceiving of living creatures as self contained ‘mechanical’ systems), but also took on and developed ideas from his most trenchant critics.

Here we could broadly mention alchemy as holding a door open to a conception of chemistry wherein atoms have dynamic qualities (in contrast to Descartes’ clunky “billiard ball” conception of atoms); and vitalism which treated the nature of life itself as an issue worthy of serious inquiry. (Descartes ignored this issue almost entirely.)
Today, we would consider vitalism as a ‘spiritual’ idea, but for many centuries, the possibility of a ‘life force’ (similar to the recently discovered electricity and magnetism) was scientifically plausible and in need of serious investigation. Spiritual teachers astutely ignore the centuries of hard scientific labor that were devoted to investigating this question.

This is ironic, as this is an area where ‘spiritual’ (and even supernatural) ideas made important contributions to scientific progress. The story belongs as much to the history of spirituality as to the history of science. But by refusing to acknowledge the way that scientific progress transformed vague ideas into testable hypotheses and eventually into working, factual parts of scientific theory, spiritual teachers also ignore the contributions to science of some of their greatest heroes.

(Paracelsus, for example, predated Descartes, but had a more modern and more empirical approach to chemistry than Descartes. The famous alchemist van Helmont seriously investigated vitalism, and speculated that chemical reactions may underlie all of life. Both made considerable contributions to science, but as science built on and surpassed the ideas they contributed, this contribution is erased from spiritual history. Paracelsus, in fact, was more empirical than many of his modern fans in alternative medicine, having argued that miners’ lung diseases were caused by silica dust, rather than by mountain demons. His view that the metabolic processes of the human body are akin to what happens in an alchemist’s lab, is far more modern than the ideas of Louise Hay or Bruce Lipton.)

Authoritarian Christianity

Even more ironic is that by denying both the history of science and spirituality’s contribution to it, modern spirituality has failed to develop beyond the *foundations* laid by Descartes, in the religious topography of the 17th century. To a very large degree, modern spirituality is Cartesian, not only in its dualistic ideas about the ‘body/mind split’ (borrowed directly from Descartes), but also its conception of chemistry as consisting of the study of billiard ball-like atoms crashing off each other. (It is against this backdrop, and not that of modern chemistry that the excitement among spiritual teachers about quantum physics is set.)

It might seem odd to call this materialist atomism ‘deeply Christian’, but it plays directly into the idea that living creatures cannot arise “merely by random chance”, and that they need some higher power to organize them, or boss them about. The authoritarian power structure implicit in Church theology was also implicit in Descartes’ scientific conception.

This power structure is a little more difficult to recognize in modern esoteric spirituality, but it is certainly there. I’ve covered the way Neale Donald Walsch smuggles it into his sales pitch, and in the way that James Arthur Ray deliberately presented himself as a god-like authority.

It’s not as malicious as in the Church, but it’s good marketing practice to present yourself as an authority, and use it to trigger instinctive submissive behaviors.


Rene Descartes was born in 1596 and died in 1650. He was a brilliant mathematician as well as brilliant and influential philosopher and ‘scientific’ researcher. He appears to have been rather vain, arrogant and extremely ambitious. (It was probably these qualities that led to his demise. He accepted a position as tutor to a Swedish princess and moved to Sweden. Unfortunately she wanted her classes at 5 am. Having to get up so early was too much for the habitual late riser, and he died.

As a young man, Descartes had written a vast philosophical text, his Treatise on the World, but decided not to publish it when he got news of the condemnation of Galileo in 1633, clearly fearing the same fate for himself. Rather than abandoning his aim of developing an all-embracing materialistic worldview, it appears he added two more goals: casting his philosophy in a form that would protect him from heresy charges, and to reinvent Christian philosophy in a form that would prevent the Church from rejecting the benefits of progress. In other words, protecting himself from the Church, and the Church from itself. (Bertrand Russell found reason to accept Descartes’ proclamations of faith as genuine.)

The result was a philosophical system that Robert Boyle later termed the “Mechanical Philosophy”. All living creatures, according to Descartes are machines — ‘earthen machines’ in his terminology.

I should like you to consider that these functions (including passion, memory, and imagination) follow from the mere arrangement of the machine’s organs every bit as naturally as the movements of a clock or other automaton follow from the arrangement of its counter-weights and wheels. (Descartes, Treatise on Man, p.108, quoted by Wikipedia)

By this measure, the difference between a clock and a dog is simply a degree of complexity. Pull out the works of a clock, and it stops working; same with a dog. Death is just stopping working. Life, in the case of an animal, is qualitatively no different from the ticking of a clock.

Humans are also earthen machines, but, unlike animals, we also have a rational, immortal soul. This soul looks out through the eyes, and is confronted by the soulless alien landscape of the world.

The soul is also immaterial. This throws up the problem of how it can influence the physical body. Descartes’ solution was the same one that has been tried by spiritual folk ever since: he declared a part of the brain as ‘the seat of the soul’.

According to Descartes’ reasoning, this is the pineal gland. This singular structure, unique, he thought, among the otherwise paired structures of the brain, sits between the hemispheres, held in place by fine threads. Thus the pineal is uniquely positioned to vibrate and dance to the winds of the spirit, like a spider web responding to a gentle breeze. The vital fluids in the brain can be directed by the pineal down the various pipes and tubules, to activate the levers and pulleys of the gross anatomy. Only humans have this structure, Descartes believed, and so only the human body can be moved by the soul. And only humans are truly alive — life meaning consciousness; meaning life is uniquely a soul property.

(This belief, incidentally, about the pineal as the seat of the soul was picked up by esoteric folks, and eventually made its way into Madame Blavatsky’s Theosophy of the late 19th Century. Here it was associated with the 6th Chakra, an idea itself lifted from Hindu and Yogic philosophy, also known as the Third Eye. The association has become part of the furniture of modern esoteric ideas.)

Unfortunately for Descartes, studies by subsequent anatomists found that the pineal is not supported by threads at all. And many animals including mammals and birds and some reptiles also have a pineal gland. (By a quirk of evolutionary history, in some reptiles, including salamanders, a homologue of the pineal gland is indeed light sensitive — a genuine ‘Third Eye’.)

By separating soul and body like this, Descartes was probably hoping to hold the door open for the study of anatomy, having theologically fenced off a special place for the human soul in a realm impenetrable to the materialistic sciences.

Banishing God, founding science

However, as if often (rightly) pointed out by spiritual folk, this effectively banished the soul from nature, and left no role for God to play in the every day running of the world. God for Descartes had merely created everything, and effectively wound up animals and set them ticking along randomly, while He sat back and watched idly, with nothing else to do. It was only a matter of time before followers of Descartes simply removed God and the soul altogether. The Cartesian system functioned just as well, if not better, without God.

This is often assumed by spiritual teachers to be the foundational moment of modern science (especially biology). Scientists, they believe, simply continued from that point, studying the animal-machines in ever greater detail, and dogmatically refusing to ask where the complexity and diversity of the natural world came from, and denying the very existence of life itself.

Spiritual teachers have looked at this fossilized shell of a worldview with the soul — and mystery and wonder — driven out of it, and simply did the opposite. Instead of driving out the soul, they envisioned the soul descending into nature, and into the bodies of animals and trees, and into the whole of nature itself. This is certainly more aesthetically and emotionally pleasing; and also keeps certain paths of inquiry into nature open, that were closed to Descartes.

But by assuming that modern science is built largely upon this watershed moment, modern spiritual folk have missed not only important aspects of modern science, but also missed out on the scientific ideas of the Romantics. This late 18th and early 19th century movement (primarily in Germany) was not only profoundly spiritual, but also a powerful philosophical reaction against the materialism of the Newtonian (and Cartesian) worldviews.

Rather than seeing soul as alien to nature, the Romantics, especially Schelling and Goethe, saw the soul as a product of nature, and the inner life of the soul as a reflection of nature. Artistic genius was a necessary tool for the scientist to use in conceiving of nature; capable of creatively drawing truths of nature out of the inner world.

Much ranting and hot air could be spent on this idea, and its success could be deemed as limited, but it influenced the work of Alexander von Humboldt, a truly great scientist, whose methodology involved drawing on as many methods of investigation as possible, and using them to conceive of nature as a unified whole.

Humboldt in turn profoundly influenced the young Darwin, who read Humboldt during his voyage in The Beagle, and said he learned to see nature through Humboldt’s eyes. this approach, it has been convincingly argued, helped Darwin envision the unity of nature, and the possibility that all life forms are interrelated.

With one blow, Darwin demolished the idea that humans are somehow alien to nature, or not of this world; set atop an earthly hierarchy and granted dominion over nature by tyrannical God.

Why is it so normal for people of a spiritual or mystical bent to find Darwin’s extraordinary discovery of the transcendent unity of life such an abhorrent idea?

I can only trace it back to having inherited an implicitly Christian implicitly hierarchical, implicitly authoritarian worldview from Descartes.

Posted by Yakaru


The New Age: Elements of Religion

December 16, 2012

This post started off as a comment in the discussion from the previous post. It started getting a bit long, and I wanted to add some references, so I decided to put it here as a separate post. It dives abruptly into the topic and assumes a great deal, so it’s meant more as a bunch of sign posts for discussion, rather than a finished or complete statement.

I see religion as being a bunch of psychological quirks which have been bundled together and labeled “religion”, and treated as if it’s a unified whole. Modern religion is a modern invention and bears little resemblance to the “religion” of previous epochs. The psychological quirks which modern religion exploits, however, are as old as the hills. Just don’t expect to find any sophisticated theology or philosophical musings to appear on the list. Those appeared much later, as a tool of political power. In Europe, for example, the unified philosophy behind Catholicism beat all other religious competitors in the dark & middle ages (according to Bertrand Russell), and despite all the professed sincerity of theologians, I see it as a “top down” ideology rather than anything to be equated with the ancient and primal impulses that make religion a virtually universal human trait. 

After reading a bit and thinking over the last few years, I’d argue that the individual psychological elements that lead to religion include:

* Sacrifice – the idea of offering something to a higher power in return for protection seems a very straight forward extension of a social exchange within a hierarchy. (Animals who live in hierarchical groups seem to share this, eg., cats who bring their owners dead birds seem to be doing some form of this.)

* Life after death – seems a very straight forward continuation of “object permanence” (infants learn that an object continues to exist even when they don’t see it), linked with social cognition and memory of individuals. (Again animals have this too, though probably lack the ability to become theologians)

* Ideas about causation (/active agents) – we’ve only sorted this stuff out recently, but we still find ourselves imagining that the bus company deliberately draws up its timetable exactly so we’ll see the bus pulling away just as we come out the door. There need be no surprise that people have seen dragons in lightning, or a god in the western wind.

* Hierarchy – we’re basically happy and function well if someone says they’re the boss and starts ordering people around. If that person says they also have a boss who’s much bigger and grumpier, it works all the better. Like other animals, we have a whole set of behaviors related to our perception of our place within particular hierarchies, so it’s easily exploited.

* Male fear and anger towards women – men are stronger than women, and have difficulty understanding that this doesn’t automatically grant either the right or even the means to have dominion over women in the way they have dominion over cows and sheep. Religion in its modern form allows men to say that sex is wrong (and women who arouse them sexually are evil), so they don’t need to feel how much they desire it, nor risk feeling the pain and humiliation of rejection. Religion is the perfect vehicle for this form of male stupidity and cowardice. (See footnotes)

These single elements are found in the animal kingdom too, which I note in order to point out that these behaviors sit very deeply in our neuroanatomy. 

People today often talk about all forms of religion as if it’s a single phenomenon. But its “unity” is a modern invention, These elements used to be deeply embedded in everyday life as well as in ritual events and artistic expression etc. Today, given that science has proved more useful at explaining and utilizing the forces of nature, thereby ripping the old culture of ritual etc to shreds, religion has learned to throw a blanket over the damage and maintain power for its priests, as well as on a personal level, maintain some kind of psychological satisfaction for people who find science a bit hard to swallow (or don’t have the time or inclination to try)

New Age spirituality has managed to distance itself from all the mainstream religions exactly enough to be seen as providing an alternative, without abandoning its access to the psychological wellsprings of religion. It has managed to avoid the worst excesses, while exploiting the same psychological quirks as mainstream religions for its own profit and maintenance of power:

* Sexuality/ Oppression of Women – The one area where New Age spirituality has contributed something positive is that it has a fairly healthy attitude to sex, and relations between the sexes. For this, I think, it deserves some acknowledgement. It could easily be written off as pandering to a market, but a case could be made that many have found its healthier attitude to sexuality liberating.

However, in every other element in the above list, it has basically pulled the same or similar tricks that the big religions have pulled over the centuries.

* Sacrifice – As well as the normal hope and optimism that makes people over-estimate their chances of success, this impulse is also specifically targeted by many New Age teachers. Paying up front with your credit card (aka “investing in your future”) with practically no recourse to a refund. James Ray’s promises of breakthroughs that follow hard work used this impulse as a cover for psychological manipulation and sadism.

* Hierarchy – chimps have to claw and tear their way to the top of the hierarchy; but New Agers have found an easier way: simply form a hierarchy underneath you. An upcoming post (don’t hold your breath) will look at the way Neale Donald Walsch has done this, but for now I’ll just note: invent your own teachings and you’re immediately a leading expert on them; invent your own God and you’re immediately sitting at his right hand. Thanks to the psychological frailties of human nature, some people will inevitably be drawn to you, and bingo, you’re at the top of a hierarchy.

* Belief in life after death, and ideas about causation – The New Age has been far more successful in incorporating science into its propaganda than any of the big religions. Where Christianity gets laughed at for promoting Creationism, the New Age has Deepak Chopra lecturing physicists about quantum mechanics. Nuff said.


References etc.

This post, Medieval Quantum Theology, covers a debate between Deepak Chopra and Sam Harris. Chopra doesn’t quite seem to know what hit him, but scrambles out of a tight corner when confronted by a leading physicist in the question time. Eventually Chopra wrote a book with the physicist, demonstrating, for my tastes at least, that some people are way too accommodating when it comes to dangerous self serving bullshit like the quackery that Chopra serves up.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell, has an incredibly insightful coverage of the development of religious thought. Free (legal) PDF here

Breaking the Spell is a book by Dan Dennett, which deals with the origins of religion. Here’s a lecture on the topic.

Regarding the use of religion as a tool of oppression of women, this post, Pakistani Actress Fights Fire With Fire, shows an extraordinary clip of an incredibly brave woman standing up to a Muslim cleric who is attacking her like a yapping terrier. She’d already received death threats from the Taliban, but she expresses her attitude clearly: I’m more angry with you people than you are with me.” 


Spirituality: WTF???

December 12, 2012

The name of this blog (spirituality is no excuse) side steps many of the questions about spirituality itself. The main focus is on the way spirituality is used as a cloak for scamming and killing for fun and profit.

I’m an atheist; and I see no reason to believe in any spirit world or subtle energies or precognition or esp; but this is not strictly speaking a “skeptic blog”. Partly that’s because I lack the science background to investigate topics with the thoroughness and fairness good skeptic sites undertake. But mostly it’s because I was, for some reason, just totally outraged and unspeakably infuriated and sickened by the deaths caused by James Ray. I have felt like I belong, at least socially, to what could be called the international “spiritual community” for most of my adult life, and my atheist perspective is as much a product of my subjective inquiries through meditation as it is my reading of science.

I guess that’s why Ray’s crimes pissed me off so much. Seeing the photos of the people he killed reminded so much of people I know and love, and could easily have wound up getting themselves drawn into his racket. And it makes me painfully aware of how exposed many of my friends are to quackery, emotional, sexual and financial exploitation, and believing ideas that are not designed to serve their best interests. I want to do something to stop people spreading these ideas, and to encourage people to start thinking a bit more critically about the exploitive and dangerous spiritual culture that has developed in recent decades.

Many people get the feeling that something’s wrong with it all, but don’t quite know where or how to start criticizing it. Once you know how to do it, it looks easy, but for those who have lived mostly in the warm and (seemingly) protective cocoon of the New Age, the intellectual skills involved seem strange and cold. Sometimes it’s genuine curiosity and concern for the truth that makes them pick up that cold spanner on a frosty morning and start unscrewing things. Often it’s pain that has raised the bar for belief, and made them want to check out if this stuff is really true. 

Whatever the case, initial discovery that one particular set of New Age teachings is bullshit, is often followed by the discovery that a second set of New Age teachings is also baloney. At this point, I notice, some people like to scurry back to the cocoon. Others keep on tugging at the loose strands and eventually notice that the whole fabric of New Age culture is indeed cut from the same cloth and it just keeps on unraveling.

So, what’s left after all that unraveling?

I think that some of it was wrapped around some things of real value, like for example alternative medicine makes good use of relaxation and positive fantasies to induce desirable physiological changes. Such techniques are (or should be) used where possible by mainstream medicine. There’s certainly nothing mysterious about them, but it could be argued that having been wrapped in woo clothing, they are now more widely accepted and their worth more clearly recognized. It’s also conceivable that we might stumble on new ways of using them that might not have been discovered had they not been used in a woo setting.

The term “spirituality” might also have some value, beyond its use as a label for cultural beliefs and practices. I could imagine it being a useful “placeholder” for subjective experiences which we can’t really pin down, but are nevertheless too important not to talk about somehow. Or maybe not.

Comments are open!


New Age Horse Botherers

September 13, 2012

I can’t do it. I don’t know what to write about this video. I guess you’ll understand why if you watch it.

Conscious Horse, Conscious Rider


I know it’s cheap just to just link to a video like that, so…..

I’ll offer free prizes for anyone who can provide some witty or insightful commentary.

1st Prize — A free face-lift from the Louise Hay Clinic

2nd Prize — A set of paradigm-shifting spanners

3rd Prize — A free subscription to @Conscious Horse on twitter


Documentary Film: The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back

November 15, 2011

I’ve devoted some space on this blog to the bizarre case of Marlo Morgan, enemy of the indigenous people of Australia. Her fake story about the extinction of “true” Aborigines (along with her claim of being their guardian and messenger to the world) is the most sickening case of identity theft and cultural assassination in the history of publishing. 

Morgan’s book Mutant Message Down Under is also the most widely read book on Australian Aborigines. It’s been translated into 26 languages and been read by tens of millions of people the world over. Clearly the majority of readers fail to pick up on the surreptitious but profound racism. Clearly too, most readers lack the knowledge of the subject matter that would allow them to quite swiftly see through the hoax. (Not only is Morgan’s representation of Aboriginal culture inaccurate to the point of being surreal, but even her mere descriptions of the Australian landscape are so inaccurate as to almost be offensive.)

The biggest tragedy is that her success is built upon a genuine worldwide interest in the subject. Millions of people read that book on the understanding it’s a true story. In fact readers have paid for a dose of racist poison. Aborigines earned the interest themselves through two centuries of struggle in the face of genocide and oppression that continues to this day. International recognition of their culture is important to their continued survival, especially given that their real history is little known, even within Australia.

A series of documentaries made in Australia about Aboriginal history, oppression, and survival has recently been made available on the internet by the film maker. I will be posting them here, with a little commentary for each.

The first is The Secret Country: The First Australians Fight Back, from 1985. It deals with the Aboriginal resistance to the invasion and colonization of their land. Read the rest of this entry ?


Marlo Morgan: Lies Don’t Count as “Fiction”

July 17, 2011

I’m a little surprised to see that one of the most popular searches that bring people to this blog is “Marlo Morgan hoax” (and occasionally a rather hopeful sounding “Marlo Morgan true”). I am pleased about this, because there is surprisingly little on the internet about what is one of the more curious cases of fraud in the history of publishing. The fraud was unmasked before her book Mutant Message Down Under was even published, yet was snapped up by Rupert Murdoch’s Harper Collins and relabeled “fiction” to avoid prosecution.

(See my earlier article for more details, and this article by Cath Ellis, for a more detailed account of the whole story.)

One of the most common responses from fans when they discover that the story is a hoax is try and fudge the importance of its authenticity. They try to argue that it is “still inspiring even if it is a work of fiction”, or that somehow it could be true in some mystical sense. For example, this reviewer claims:

If the reader approaches the book as non-fiction, then he or she is challenged to believe that certain events could have actually occurred, even though they might seem implausible at first, and in the process challenges the reader’s worldview to expand to consider possibilities beyond the ordinary.  If read as a work of fiction, the tale becomes a mythical metaphor…

This kind of apologetics ignores not only the atrociously inaccurate and deeply racist portrayal of Aboriginal culture in the book, but also sidesteps the fact that Morgan has repeatedly and explicitly claimed her story is literally true, and her status as messenger to the world for the last “true” Aborigines is authentic.

Just to put this on the record, I am linking to and transcribing (below) the entire text of an interview in which Morgan makes these claims. Her stupid book has been on numerous university courses, including ecology and anthropology, not to mention being extensively and uncritically used in primary and high schools. She has toured the world giving lectures as an expert on “Aboriginal Culture”, a subject of which she is entirely ignorant. Her last appearance I am aware of was in 2004.

Her book has been translated into 26 languages. (Ironically, the book seems to actually gain something in translation. The original self published book was the worst piece of prose writing I have ever read.)

It is unusual for liars to be as blatant and brazen as Morgan has been, and the interview below is a demonstration of her skills in this regard. (She seems to come a bit unstuck in a different interview, where the interviewer doubts her and questions her unexpectedly on a few details. She is floored, for example when asked for details about exactly what kind of health work she was doing in Australia.) 

This, along with first hand accounts of her behavior and the general way this fraud has unfolded, make me suspect Morgan is suffering from a clinically identifiable form of psychosis, possibly bi-polar disorder. I offer this speculation merely as an attempt to comprehend how Morgan seems to have convinced herself of her story.

Here is a link to the audio of the radio interview. The transcript is below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry ?


The Strange Case of Marlo Morgan

October 6, 2010

Back in the days before the internet took off as an effective means of opposing new age fraud, an American woman, Marlo Morgan, pulled off possibly the most brazen, stupid and above all, bizarre scam in the long history of bizarre new age scams.

It’s a story that illustrates the damage that can be done by a “positive” message. The entire indigenous population of Australia had its identity quite literally stolen, and suffered a form of cultural assassination. And of course, tens of millions of fans world-wide lost their cash and believed a whole lot of utterly fake information. 

Very simply stated, Marlo Morgan travelled to Australia in the late 1980s and returned with a bizarre story about meeting a hitherto unknown Aboriginal tribe, travelling with them through the desert for about three months, learning their secrets and being chosen by them to be the final guardian of their culture and their messenger to the world.

Marlo Morgan: self declared “guardian” of Aboriginal culture 

In fact the tribe doesn’t exist and Marlo actually spent her time working in a pharmacy in Brisbane, not wandering about in the desert. Aborigines themselves found her writings so offensive that they have unanimously demanded that Morgan admit the fraud and acknowledge that she does not speak for Aborigines. Read the rest of this entry ?