When I write about religion and religious belief, I tend to write about the Big Ones. The famous ones, the powerful ones, the well-organized ones with millions of followers or more. The multinational brands; the Coke and Pepsi of spirituality. (Christianity, mostly, since, as an American, it’s the one I’m most familiar with, and the one that’s most in my face.)
But a comment on this blog made me realize that I need to talk about woo as well. In my Bringing Up Kids Without God post, I’d said, “It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, ‘God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven’ didn’t mean, ‘It’s okay to believe anything I want.'” The commenter replied:
Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? Why ISN’T it ok? It’s one of the fundamental things our country was built on. It’s considered part of freedom. Freedom of (and I add “from” as well) belief.
I can see why belief in God can be problematic (well, actually, I don’t see why belief in just simply the concept of God itself is problematic, but rather the belief in all the dogma and crap that the Church piles on with it), but what about the other things? How does believing in, say, subatomic particles with free will hurt? As long as you’re not being held back by dogma, as long as something isn’t hurting you emotionally, as long as you don’t hurt others with it, why not do it? You once said you were GOOD at reading tarot cards back in your woo-woo days… if it works for you and it works for others, as long as reason stays the guiding point of your life, why not do it?
I’ve seen this attitude a fair amount among progressives and lefties. “The problem with religion isn’t the spiritual belief, but the power structure.” “I don’t belong to any organized religion, but I have my own spirituality.”
And while I see where this attitude comes from — and while many people I respect hold it, including this commenter — I don’t agree with it at all. Yes, I think the power structure of religion is harmful… but I think that spiritual beliefs are harmful as well. Even without the power structure.
So I want to talk about woo.
Neo-paganism. Wicca. Goddess worship. Astrology. Telepathy. Visualization. Psychic healing. The hodgepodge of Eastern and pre-modern religious beliefs imported into modern America — reincarnation, karma, chakras, shamanism etc. — that have been jumbled together and made palatable to a Western audience (what I call “Pier 1 spirituality”). Channeling. Tarot cards. Etc.
And I want to talk about why I have a problem with it.
I’ll say this right upfront: While I do think woo is harmful, I certainly don’t think it’s as harmful as mainstream religion. Mostly because it’s not as powerful. It’s not as widespread, as wealthy, as symbiotically intertwined with governments — either subtly or overtly — as, say, The Big Three, Christianity and Judaism and Islam. So please don’t come back at me in the comments with, “How can you compare Wicca to Christianity?” I’m not. There is a difference of degree, and it’s a big one.
But the fact that it’s not as harmful doesn’t mean it’s not harmful at all.
There’s an obvious, practical, direct way that woo can do harm. And that’s the fact that false premises lead to bad decisions. Woo beliefs are untested and untestable at best; tested and demonstrably false at worst. And basing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. Garbage in, garbage out, as the data processors say.
And I think this shows up most obviously when it comes to medicine.
When I was working as a counselor for the birth control/ abortion clinic, we had a client who had come in for a cervical cap. I asked her what birth control method she was currently using, and she answered, “Visualization.” Really. She and her partner protected themselves from unwanted pregnancy by visualizing a protective barrier of white light over her cervix, shielding it from the sperm. (She had decided to switch to the cap, not because she’d decided that visualization was bullshit, but because she was concerned that she unconsciously wanted to get pregnant, and feared that this would make the visualization ineffective. Poke holes in the white light diaphragm, I guess. Talk about an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If she didn’t get pregnant, visualization worked; if she did, it’s because she wasn’t doing it right.)
So that’s part of what I’m talking about. If you believe in the visualization method of birth control, you’re a lot more likely to get pregnant when you don’t want to. If you believe in psychic healing or the manipulation of the ki energy or whatever, you’re a lot less likely to seek tested medical help for your injured leg or your cancer or whatever. (And you’re more likely to give up on conventional medicine when it takes longer than you want it to, or takes more work and trial and error than you’re willing to give it, or is partly effective but not completely.)
That’s some real, practical, physical harm done by woo.
But this principle doesn’t just apply to medical woo.
I once worked in an office with cats (no, this isn’t a tangent, bear with me), one of whom was pathologically shy and terrified of most people, but had come to trust me and be very attached to me. Pretty much to the exclusion of everyone else. When I left that job (I’d been there for several years), I was worried that the cat would freak out without me around, and asked my boss if I could take the cat home with me. Rather than consider the question on its own merits, my boss called an animal psychic… who did a consultation over the phone, and told her the cat wanted to stay in the office. My boss explained this to me, as if it had the force of complete authority. As if the psychic’s verdict completely and inarguably settled the question.
I’m not saying this was an easy decision to make. I’m saying it should have been made by me and my boss, who knew the cat and knew the situation. It should not have been made by a pet psychic, who never met any of us in person, and who made the decision over the phone.
(Slight tangent: If you want to read one of the funniest things ever about telephone animal psychics, read this SF Weekly piece from The Infiltrator, who called several pet psychics and asked them to do readings on his dog… a dog who did not, in fact, exist.)
I could give example after example of this. If you believe that your horoscopes and Tarot readings are all pointing to “serious love relationship coming soon,” you’re not going to make smart or careful decisions about your dating life. If you believe in reincarnation, you’re going to be a lot more careless about taking advantage of once- in- a- lifetime opportunities and experiences. If you believe that the Tarot is telling you to weather the rough spots in your current relationship and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, you’re going to stay in a bad, destructive, hopeless relationship for a lot longer than you should. You might even marry the guy.
All examples from my own life, by the way.
So that’s the most direct and immediate way that woo can do harm. False premises lead to bad decisions. And untestable hypotheses make it impossible for you to evaluate your decision-making process and make changes to it. Garbage in, garbage out
But there’s an equally important, if less immediate, way in which woo can do harm.
And that’s that it leads people away from valuing reason, and evidence, and reality. Woo, like every other religious or spiritual belief, ultimately prioritizes faith over reason; personal experience over external evidence.
I’m not saying that religious and spiritual belief completely eradicates reason or concern for evidence. (More on that in a later post.) I’m saying that, when it comes down to a hard choice between the two, it encourages people to reject reason and evidence in favor of personal feeling and experience.
Religious and spiritual belief encourages people to believe in their own feelings and instincts… even when those feelings and instincts are contradicted by reality or logic. It discourages people from being aware of the fact that their feelings and instincts can be easily deceived, played on by con artists and charlatans, or just by our own wishful thinking. It discourages people from being aware of this well-documented fact, and trying to stay vigilant about it. Every unsupported belief you hold makes you that much more vulnerable to other ones… and that much less likely to value skepticism and critical thinking at all.
I think this is important. I think reality is important. I think reality is just about the most important thing there is. And I have a serious problem with any belief system that actively encourages people to ignore it. It’s hard enough to be vigilant and conscious and skeptical about your own biases and blind spots when you do prioritize reason and reality over instinct and personal feeling… without throwing spiritual faith into the mix.
Now, as Ingrid keeps pointing out when we discuss this, there are some woo believers — neo-pagans and Wiccans especially — who take it all with a gigantic grain of salt. There are believers — I guess a better word would be practitioners — who see the ideas more as useful metaphors, and who see the rituals as comforting and beautiful rather than literally effective. They see woo as a way of altering their consciousness, re-wiring their own heads, rather than a way of directly changing external reality.
And that kind of woo, I don’t have a huge problem with. In fact, if that’s really and truly how someone is practicing it — and they’re not using it as a substitute for medicine or something — I don’t think I have a problem with it at all.
But I also think this can be a very dicey path to walk, a tricky balance to maintain. I remember, from my own woo days, how vague and half-assed my beliefs could be. And I remember how easily I would slip back and forth between thinking of my beliefs as literal, and thinking of them as metaphorical. Mostly, they would slip back and forth depending on how hard they were being questioned. When I was with someone who was more skeptical, I’d lean toward the “useful metaphor” end of the spectrum; when I was with other believers, I’d lean toward the, “Wow, isn’t this freaky, something weird must really be going on here!” side.
And I know from experience that other woo believers do this as well. I think that, if you’re going to go the “powerful metaphor/ useful practice” route, you need to be careful to do that consistently and with integrity, and not just as a way of dodging skeptical critique.
But why? Why do you need to do this? Don’t people have, as c4bl3fl4m3 asked, a right to believe whatever they want to believe?
Of course we have a right to believe whatever we want. I will defend that right passionately and ferociously. We have the right to believe that a mystical spirit guides the Tarot cards; that subatomic particles have free will; that the moon is made of green cheese; that Jesus Christ is our personal savior and anyone who doesn’t agree is going to hell.
But that doesn’t mean it’s right for us to do so.
When I say that it’s not okay to just believe anything I want, I mean that I can’t do so and be honest with myself. I can’t do so and retain my intellectual integrity. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks that good decisions have to be based in reality — the best possible understanding of reality that we have. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks reality is more important, and more interesting, than her own wishful thinking. As the saying goes, you have a right to your own beliefs, but you don’t have a right to your own facts.
And besides, our beliefs affect our behavior. Not just our decisions about our own lives, either. They affect how we treat other people. My decision to stay in a bad relationship because the Tarot told me to didn’t affect only me. My boss’s decision to consult a pet psychic about our office cat didn’t affect only her. (For one thing, she spent money on the psychic at a time when she was having a hard time paying her staff.) Our beliefs affect our behavior towards others.
And that makes our beliefs, not just a personal question, but an ethical one.
If it were possible to believe in woo — not in a “useful metaphor” way, but really believe in it — and not be held back by dogma, not be hurt emotionally, not hurt others, not lose reason as the guiding point of your life… then no. I wouldn’t have a problem with it.
But I just don’t think that’s possible.