New Age Beliefs Among Atheists: Religion Is Just One Of the Hydra's Heads

hydra monster

I suspect that most of you are aware that many people believe in things like Tarot cards, astrology, crystals, psychics, homeopathy, the presence of spiritual energy in physical objects, reincarnation, etc. You are probably also aware that many nonreligious people believe these things too. Is "New Age beliefs" the best way to collectively refer to these things? Should they be separated out from more traditional religious beliefs like faith healing, demonic possession and exorcism, the power of prayer, heaven and hell, etc.? I mean, there's no more evidence to support any of the New Age beliefs than there is to support the old school religious beliefs. Do we have a label that encompasses both? "Woo" comes to mind as a candidate that could include both (and more), but I am having trouble coming up with another.

I've never been a fan of the commonly heard argument that humans need to believe things that aren't true. Of course, the evidence that many atheists believe in ghosts or hold various New Age beliefs does seem consistent with such a claim. I've known atheists who are quick to explain that they do not believe in gods due to the lack of evidence for their existence but do believe in other forms of woo. The lack of evidence there either doesn't bother them or they've managed to persuade themselves that there really is evidence to support this stuff. In that way, they don't see any inconsistency. There is no evidence for gods, but there is evidence for astrology, etc.

I find this puzzling for a variety of reasons, but one of the big ones is that many of the New Age beliefs are much easier to test than something like the existence of gods. And it isn't just that they are easier to test; those that have been tested have failed miserably. In my youth, I read nearly every book related to skepticism I could find at my local public library. This included countless reports on the tests of alleged psychic powers conducted in the parapsychology labs at research universities. Rigorous lab-based testing of ESP and other psychic phenomena yielded nothing. The "psychics" performed no better than chance (i.e., what any one of us could accomplish by guessing). None of that deterred those who want to believe in psychics from doing so.

We are currently experiencing at least two potentially civilization-altering crises that are directly connected to anti-intellectualism, the lack of skepticism, and an ever-growing hostility toward science and expertise. First, we have the global COVID-19 pandemic. Who could have predicted how many people would be killed by vaccine and mask refusal fueled by a bizarre cocktail of anti-skepticism, anti-science attitudes, belief in conspiracy theories, and lack of basic empathy for others? Second, we have the growing climate crisis. Same sort of problems but occurring on a much larger and scarier scale.

I think the mistake many of us have made, including myself, has been one of failing to connect the dots. It is so tempting just to mock those who believe in woo and move on. We've all done that. The problem is that belief in woo could be a symptom of a far more extensive pathology, one that has many other symptoms, some of which may even prove fatal to humanity. Why do people believe in woo? Might the reasons tell us something about how people approach public health or climate change? Instead of merely trying to inform people that their woo-beliefs are false, we might be advised to identify and correct whatever is leading to them.

I can't help thinking that if we have atheists, some of whom presumably do not believe in gods because they recognize that evidence matters, believing in New Age nonsense, we have a buried problem that too few of us are addressing. I can't pretend to know that this problem is the same one getting in the way of effective responses to public health or climate crises, but I suspect that it might be. I'm not even sure what to call it; I just have this vague notion that it underlies many of the problems we face.

Recall the mythical beast that was the hydra. Remember how one could cut off one head only to have more quickly present themselves and continue to cause problems? It feels like that's what we've been doing. Most of us have successfully cut off the head containing gods, and some of us have dispatched heads containing other forms of woo (though some of have not). There are still plenty of heads left, and the body linking them all together lives too. We need to destroy that body, whatever it is. I'll admit that I'm not sure what it is, but I find myself thinking that we need to figure it out before it is too late, assuming it is not already too late.