Why I Am Not a Believer in the New AgeBy Lucia K. B. Hall
A talk given at a meeting of the
San Diego Atheist Coalition, November 25, 1997
To explain why I was once a believer in New Age thought is easy. To explain why I am not now a believer in New Age thought is hard.
I became a believer in the New Age because I lived in Marin County in the sixties and early seventies. Those of you who have lived in or visited Marin County will understand why. For those of you who haven't, as California lead the nation in the embrace of New Age thinking and beliefs, so in the mid-1960's Marin County lead California.
So it was for me. I grew up surrounded by the wonders of the New Age, and I eagerly became acquainted with every aspect of it I could find: acupuncture, archetypes, astrology, Atlantis, auras, biofeedback, biorhythms, Edgar Cayce, chakras, channeling, Christianity, collective unconscious, crystals, dream interpretation, ESP, Essene philosophy, faith healing, fortune telling, ghosts, graphology, guardian angels, Hare Krishnas, heaven, herbs, hypnosis, I Ching, immortality, Jainism, Jesus, Jung, karma, Kirilian photography, kundalini, Lemuria, life after death, meditation (transcendental and otherwise), nirvana, numerology, OBE's, Ouija boards, palmistry, parapsychology and paranormal events, psychics, psychic surgery, quack medicine, reincarnation, remote viewing, silver cords, tarot, trance mediums, UFOs, vibrations, vegetarianism, water witching, yoga, and Zen -- a veritable alphabet soup of mysticisms. And I did so with the noblest of motives: I wanted to save the world from itself. (After all, it was quite clear in the sixties and seventies that the world seriously needed saving.) Down with the Old Establishment, the Old Materialism, the Old Religion! Up with the New Age, the New Thought, the New Understanding!
My plan of attack was pure and simple: subversion. And I planned this subversion very craftily, at least for a thirteen-year-old. Along with my desire to save the world through such Higher Truths, I also wanted to save the world by becoming a doctor. Of course I was going to be a real doctor. I'd look like an ordinary doctor because I'd go to medical school and take all that narrow-minded, limited, materialistic, uncaring, unenlightened, unpleasant medical science stuff. But I was also going to be an expert in the real, spiritual ways of healing, using the power of positive thinking, meditation, natural herbal remedies, the balancing of energy fields and the heeding of the wisdom of the body. This meant that I would have to go through some science classes, of course, but that didn't bother me. Once I had a conventional MD degree as camouflage, I could attack the bastions of narrow-minded materialistic medicine directly from within, and subvert it for its own good, before it was too late. I was learning about science only to scientifically prove science to be mistaken!
It was all so delicious. I went to my junior high and high school classes "undercover," secretly knowing the Truth that was hidden from my "blind" classmates. Ordinary and mild-mannered on the outside, on my own time I feverishly studied everything I could about New Age Truths. Never mind the drivel I was learning in school -- this stuff was REALITY.
I plunged into my studies with great energy and enthusiasm, reading everything I could get my hands on and my limited budget could afford. And there were special events, too. I had my aura read by a lady in Oakland across the Bay who described to me a dozen or so past lives I had experienced, and told me that my present life was one of the seven most important of my hundred or so incarnations. I was so impressed that I made a needlepoint coat of arms, if you please, establishing for all time the Truths that she had discovered about me. Here it is.
I also went to a "trance medium" by the name of Betty Bethards, who "channeled" a 40,000 year old Peruvian Indian by the name of "Uvalla." Betty Bethards and all her "spirit guides" were heavily into reincarnation, Higher Selves, the coming of the Aquarian Age, auras, guardian spirits, and spiritual healing. She held monthly meetings when she would sit on a dais before a crowd of people sitting on folding chairs, go into a trance, and channel for the entire evening. It was not easy for me to get to the meetings. Her sessions were held quite some distance from my home, I had just learned to drive, and it was very scary and tense to take that long drive there once a month, on the freeway, at night. It was hard to keep paying the $5.00 "donation" every time, too. But I went often enough that I became known as a "regular." I even ended up in the audience during the taping of a television show with her. She did all her usual stuff: trance channeling, meditation, sending "healing" to the crowd. The way she did this "healing" was to hold her arms outstretched, palms parallel to the floor, and slowly wave her hands up and down. It was a really remarkable effect; she'd have her arms pointed to a far-off part of the audience, and she'd slowly swing her arms toward you. You'd sit and wait, excited, not feeling anything, and then her hands would be pointing to you and you'd feel this wonderful rush of warmth and joy completely envelop you. You could actually feel it in waves, in pulses, like heat, in time to the motion of her hands. (When I watched the show later on television, I discovered that I could feel those same healing waves perfectly well, although I hadn't expected to. Whatever it was actually got captured and recorded on the video tape and passed along to the viewers at home!)
I hadn't saved the world yet, but I was learning valuable information at every turn. All I needed was to find someone who knew how to put it all together. And so I I took a course on the Tarot, given by a soft-spoken, friendly astrologer at the College of Marin. It was a very elaborate course, taught for three hours one evening a week for several weeks. Virtually ignoring the Minor Arcana, we immediately took on the Major Arcana, and all the mystical secrets therein. The teacher had made some beautiful slides of the cards, and we would gaze up at them while he told us what all the hidden meanings were. I had been interested in the Tarot before this, of course, and had even played with a little divination. But this was different. Here I was going to learn, not from dabblers like myself, but from a Real Expert; and I wasn't going to learn just piddling little bits and pieces, snatches here and there of knowledge, but How It All Fit Together. Here was depth, here was significance.
And it certainly seemed so. Everything interrelated with the Tarot cards. They were stuffed with elegant and arcane reiterations and resonances with literally every other occult and mystical understanding known to man. Each card was associated with a particular Hebrew letter, astrological sign, position on the tree of life, numerological significance, metal or other element, characteristic color, chakra, and even sound. Tarot cards were neither more nor less than the distilled wisdom of all the greatest sages of all the centuries. It was neat, it was wonderful, it was marvelous, it was endlessly absorbing. These simple, direct drawings and fine, pure colors held The Secrets of the Universe, all in one easy, compact form. I immediately went out and got myself my own copy of a B.O.T.A. deck, and spent hours patiently coloring all the Major Arcana and the face cards (Page, Knight, Queen, King, Ace) with colored pencils. Now I was really ready to take on the universe!
Except for one very disturbing fact: even with all this knowledge, even after all this effort, even after reaching what seemed to be the very pinnacle of mystical understanding, I still couldn't figure out how to apply all this stuff to the real world in order to save it from itself! Nothing I had learned taught me anything useful, other than rather vague advice which seemed pretty obvious, along the lines of the Golden Rule and at least some variation on most of the Ten Commandments. I had it all, all the myriad, colorful, sparkling threads of deep and arcane knowledge, and was now ready to weave it into the proper spell to rescue mankind. But all the bright, shining strands unraveled as fast as I wove them together. Nothing stayed together, nothing stuck, nothing seemed to give me anything solid. Against all my infinite wisdom, the problems of the world remained stubbornly intractable.
And then, of course, all along I heard information that seriously conflicted with this infinite wisdom. I heard that one of those Brazilian surgeons had been proved a fraud. I discovered that the astrological characteristics of an Aquarius depended on what book you read. The wonderful lady who read my wonderful aura said that she never gave second readings, and I found myself wondering if she would she see the same aura the second time, if I came back a year later. And then (horror of horrors!) I discovered that the great Uvalla, in spite of his 40,000 years of experience and vantage point from the Higher Planes, didn't know beans about chemistry or biology. This, in particular, came as a great shock to me. Here, I thought, was the chance to get the Real Story about the physical development of the universe -- seen from a spiritual plane, of course -- without my having to go back in time to do the field studies. But not only did Uvalla not know the answers to my questions, he couldn't even understand the questions half the time!
I complained about this to my New Age friends. If the techniques of psychic surgery were so well known and so easy, why did anyone have to cheat? If all of astrology was so clearly written in the stars, how come everybody seemed to disagree so much about your sign's characteristics? And how come Uvalla had so much trouble with what seemed to me to be simple questions of science, and indeed questions to which I already knew at least part of the answer? (If he didn't know it or had forgotten it, he should have been able to read it right out of my mind using telepathy!)
Most of my friends didn't see that there was any sort of a problem. When I persisted, I was told, sometimes subtly and sometimes directly, that the fact that I found this situation either incomprehensible or lacking self-consistency only served to prove that I was Asking the Wrong Questions (or even worse, Looking at Things With a Narrow and Closed Mind). So what if one of these surgeons was found to be a fraud -- that doesn't prove the others are, does it? Or so what if Uri Geller got caught cheating sometimes -- doing psychic stuff was hard work, especially with so many unbelievers in the world, and just because he was cheating this time didn't mean that he was cheating all the time -- it just stood to reason that most of the times had to be valid, or he wouldn't make the claim, right? After all, a fraud should be easy to spot. Or so what if Uvalla can't tell you anything about the characteristics of the material world -- after all, the material world is the absolute rock-bottom of existence, and these Higher Beings had trouble in forcing their "vibrations" to such a low level, and the answers didn't make sense to me because they were right and I was wrong and none of the material world is important anyway. Stop being so impatient, my friends counseled me, and All Would Be Revealed In Time.
Well, this kept me quiet for a while, but after a few years the excuses started wearing pretty thin, and the amount of contradictory evidence I came across just kept on growing. I discovered that all of New Age thought was not new at all, but very old, that it had been around literally for centuries, and that, while it got a new dress or a new face-life now and again, the substance of it never changed, nothing new ever came from it, and all the wonderful claims and hopes for the future of mankind never materialized.
I discovered that even the most "scientific" of the ESP experiments were shown, on closer examination, to be either fraudulent or poorly designed. I had believed that all this New Age stuff would always perform better than science, and found out that it couldn't perform even as well as science.
I discovered that there wasn't any "psychic power gap" between Russia and the United States because there weren't any psychic powers -- none that were consistent, repeatable, and immune to so-called "skeptic" effects, and that all the psychic predictions I had ever heard, when viewed honestly, never predicted anything with any more accuracy than a good guess.
I discovered that Las Vegas hadn't closed its doors, in spite of numerous claims of precognition. The old excuse of "If you use your psychic powers for material gain, you lose them as a penalty" didn't wash after a while. Surely somebody would have tried, and succeeded for at least a while?
I discovered that the old refrain of "The entrenched materialistic medical establishment doesn't like the competition of the Brazilian surgeons (holistic medicine/ megavitamins/ meditation/ chiropractic/ acupuncture/ homeopathy/ fill in the blank), so they shut us out" was nothing more than a way to deflect close scrutiny of a quack medicine.
I discovered that psychics, astrologers, palmists, graphologers, what-have- you-ologers were all quite willing to tell you anything you wanted to know (for a fee, of course), but if later proved wrong, "The vibrations weren't right that day" or "I must have gotten some incorrect information from the lower planes" or "It's true on a Higher Plane, you just can't see it now."
I discovered that reincarnation ceased being a warm and satisfying philosophy the moment I really looked closely at some of the suffering that people are forced to go through in their lives, and realized that it did not explain the reasons behind the miseries of the world so much as it succeeded in heaping guilt upon the victims. Nor did it solve one's personal problems. Karma, the "law of cause and effect," multiplied causes for single effects, rather than simplifying or clarifying them. Knowing that you might be having trouble with a particular co- worker because you had known one another in a previous life and one of you had been murdered by the other's hand, however dramatic and emotionally satisfying, not only did not solve the problems you were facing at the moment, it removed them one, or two, or twenty steps beyond your reach. Reincarnation was not empowering, it was debilitating. It "solved" your problems only by permanently postponing them.
I discovered that knowing that my life was guided by a Higher Power did not strengthen my ability to act, it weakened it. It heaped upon me responsibility and blame for all my wrong actions (which might be any actions, since I couldn't know for sure until I had achieved a "Higher Plane" of existence), while taking credit for itself all the good actions.
I discovered that believing that I would live forever did not, as I had been told and as I had first believed, cause me to value this life more or make it seem to have more meaning. On the contrary, it made this life seem worthless and pointless. It insulated me from all change and sucked all urgency out of personal events. People who are told they have a year to live suddenly find their lives valuable, and every moment precious. I suffered from the exact reverse, a sort of enervating lassitude. Life became nothing more than a boring dress rehearsal for the Beyond at best, and an irritating illusion at worst.
I discovered that, while I had been told all along that I had limitless potential, limitless life, limitless opportunities, limitless knowledge, limitless powers of mind and thought, living a life without limits was like swimming in lukewarm jello. It was comforting, soft, warm -- and nearly impossible to avoid drowning in.
I discovered, to my considerable astonishment, that there was more useful, practical, and real information to be had in a single, balanced chemical equation than in everything I had learned in all the New Age books I had ever read.
And I discovered that the certainties, absolutes, and perfect knowledge of the New Age were really nothing more than uncertainties, approximations, and imperfect understanding merely dressed up in fancy clothing and lied about. Not only did I discover that the emperor had no clothes, I discovered that he was just the town drunk and the village idiot putting on airs.
Instead of teaching me how to save the world, or change it, or even affect it, time and time again my mystical world-view prevented me from touching and being touched by life, from feeling it, from experiencing it, from participating in it, from becoming engaged with it, from believing, in my heart of hearts, that it was real. I had come to the New Age to discover the Answer to Life, and discovered that all they had to say was that Life Was Not the Answer.
Science was a different matter. I had to learn some science, of course -- you don't get into medical school without it, and I needed my cover, after all -- so I had to take a lot of biology and chemistry and physics. I thought I would use science merely as a tactic, a method, a stepping-stone to Higher Truth. But things didn't work out the way I expected. First of all, especially once I got into high school and even more once I got into college, science turned out to be a lot more fun and a lot more interesting than I had ever imagined. Other-worldly as I was, I found it impossible not to be delighted with flatworms, or astonished that I could actually calculate a pretty good equilibrium constant from my own set of standard solutions and unknowns, or fascinated by tesseracts, or intrigued by black holes and the particle zoo. Secondly, science, rather than distancing me from the world, engaged me in it. I couldn't do science without being directly involved with my subject matter, after all. And the more I became involved with the world, the more I realized that, whatever it was those mysterious guys had Up There, this world, this awful, horrible, bottom-of-the-barrel, lowest-of-the-low vibrational level of existence, seemed a lot more fun and a lot more real. And finally, to my considerable surprise, science enabled me not only to interact with and affect the world, but to have those interactions make sense. Science, it turned out, didn't care whether you "believed" in it or not, whether you were "enlightened" or not, whether you were "holy" enough or prayed properly or meditated marvelously or waited until the stars were in the right conjunction or followed the teachings of this that or the other guru or vast mystical system of thought -- it just worked. It didn't depend on the spiritual state of the person who used it, only on following some very simple, straightforward rules that anyone could understand. All that was required was patience, humility, and honesty.
It seemed that, the more I demanded of the New Age, the less it gave to me. I could dig into New Age thought only a little way, really, before I was met with blank stares and the sense that I had committed a faux pas by rudely questioning the words of those wiser than me. And to the extent that I got any answers at all, they were either the same vague statements over and over again, or they were something which seemed either obvious or metaphorical or just plain silly or even just plain wrong. After years of unrelenting effort, all New Age thought gave me were tiny shreds of mystery masquerading as understanding; "knowledge" that required the infinitely subtle interpretation of a Being from an unreachable Higher Plane in order to be understood; impossible, contradictory, and strangely changeable superlatives, absolutes, and certainties; limitless, but featureless, vistas; and answers that comforted me at the same time they prevented me from dealing with the world. It shrank from my gaze, avoided my questions, and fell apart under the most elementary probing.
The more I asked of science, however, the more it seemed to give, although I did not understand the value of the gifts that it gave me at first. It gave me tools I could use to understand anything I wished. It gave me limits to my knowledge, limits which allowed me to build a sturdy and solid understanding of the world. It gave me answers I could use to both affect and understand the world. It gave me a world filled with detail, richness, and depth. It withstood my most intense scrutiny and did not flinch. It gave everything I asked from it honestly and generously.
And the three finest gifts it gave to me, the most subtle and beautiful and the hardest to understand, were about knowledge itself. First, it taught me that approximate knowledge is all we have. I didn't have to keep "scientific" and "mystical" knowledge separate from each other, for the rules and limitations that apply to scientific knowledge applied to all knowledge. Second, it taught me that approximate knowledge is enough. I didn't have to know something absolutely in order to know something well enough to live, to make choices, to act, to understand. Third, it taught me that approximate knowledge can be effectively evaluated. Knowing how well I knew something was more valuable that simply knowing it.
At length I was forced to conclude that all this wonderful New Age stuff, this wonderful vision which at first had seemed so fraught with marvelous possibilities and alternatives, really had nothing there at all. Like the scented rushes that Alice grasped for in Through the Looking Glass, only to find "The prettiest are always further!" or like the shelves in the sheep's shop which, though they seem to be crowded full of wonderful marvels when looked at from a distance and are found to be quite empty when looked at closely, I discovered that New Age thought promised everything, but couldn't deliver anything. Far from explaining the way the universe worked, I found that the New Age couldn't even explain itself. It was all just dream- rushes and empty shelves. My mystical beliefs had not swallowed my scientific understanding, the reverse had occurred instead. Against my will, my questions won the battle, and my will to doubt proved stronger than my will to believe. I had not subverted science, it had subverted me. And my beloved New Age beliefs simply collapsed of their own dead weight.
And that is why I am no longer a believer in the New Age.
But is that really what happened, or is that just what I think happened, is it just the story I have told myself so often that I have come to believe it? If I really believed in New Age thought, would I not still believe it now? Perhaps I did not so much succeed in disbelieving the New Age as I had simply, in spite of all my efforts, failed ever to believe in it. Maybe I only believed I believed it.
I feel this is important to mention because, in all honesty, I have to admit that I really have no idea why the change occurred. A lot of it came about because of a number of very personal experiences which I have not discussed, and because of a number of unusual people I met in my life, including my husband. If we were to take every believer in the New Age, and put them in a virtual reality generator or a Star Trek holodeck, and get them to experience my life exactly as I experienced it, would they, too, become believers in materialism, in science, in Humanism, in the necessity of doubt, in the value of science? Or was there something intrinsic within me that just didn't know enough to stop questioning, that was somehow not pleased with the answers that felt so good but seemed so lacking in tangible substance?
Can someone's belief in the New Age, in Religion, in mysticism, in pesudoscience, be simply eroded away by the acid of persistent questioning, worn away with the grit of doubt, dissolved away with the solvent of counter-examples? We as materialists must hope this to be so, if there is to be any chance of freeing the human race from the mists of illusion that have ensorceled it for so long. But I do not know if my own life story points us to this conclusion, or encourages this hope. And I think that it would be well worth a discussion.
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