I was tempted to title this post ‘Self Deluding Woo Merchants’ but whilst that might be true, the pejorative tone is just the kind of thing which guides us away from an answer to the question which perplexes us all. “Why can they not see? How can they choose to be so wilfully blind to crystal clear and blindingly obvious evidence?” I wonder if the answer to this question lies in the weasel word, and weasel concept, ‘spirituality’.
A quick diversion to question what exactly spirituality is. A thesaurus suggests mysticism or holiness,; the dictionary defines it as being to do with the spirit, the soul or religious beliefs. Unfortunately these are all concepts I find vague and ill-defined as they can be stretched to mean almost anything. In another sense though, everyone has experienced what might be described as spiritual feelings: that sense of oneness, of being part of something larger, of a sense of love for all things – even if we’ve needed some serious repetitive beats to get there. It will come as no surprise to many that descriptions of medieval religious ecstasy, attained by fasting and meditation, would be totally recognisable to recreational MDMA users.I contend that spirituality is just a feeling, and like any other feeling it is probably instinctive and biochemical; it probably had a good evolutionary function, once.
Spirituality (whatever it may be) is often deferred to in society – we are taught that we should respect a person’s irrational beliefs, as long as they are about religion. This links to the concept of overlapping magisteria, as this feeling (spirituality) is accorded high status. It links also to the concept of ‘faith’: to a believer, faith is all the more praiseworthy when it is clung to in the face of evidence to the contrary. We might see this faith-against-all-common-sense as an epiphenomenon of spirituality, shaking our heads in sorrow and disbelief – but maybe this should be avoided, and instead we should see it as central to an understanding of spirituality, perhaps as a parallel to falsifiablity for sceptics.
In a fascinating article, Karla McClaren talks of the importance of this ‘spiritual’ world to New Agers, and of their distrust of what they see as imbalances of the intellect or the emotions, when either dominates the spiritual. As she says,
‘…people in my culture hear what they deem to be hyper-intellectual and emotionally charged attacks upon their cherished beliefs… personal attacks are considered an example of emotional imbalance (where your emotions control you), while deep skepticism is considered a form of mental imbalance (where your intellect controls you)…
This really is faith in the teeth of evidence, so how much more spiritual and praiseworthy can one possibly be?
How can we tackle this? Talking of helping scientologists to escape the cult, Michael Leonard Tilse describes how important it is not to challenge cherished opinions, even when someone’s belief is wavering. This is easy to understand, after all we can criticise those close to us, but woe betide anyone else who tries; we can all defend the indefensible when its ‘our’ indefensible! Tilse suggests instead asking questions about their beliefs, leading them to contradictions so that they spot them themselves; people tend to believe things that come out of their own mouths. It may take longer, but at least some people will get there in the end instead of going into defence mode and entrenching beliefs.
I am suggesting that people believe absurd things because they have ‘felt’ them to be true, because they have a cohort of like-minded people and they have not had the opportunity to learn critical thinking. Beliefs then get entrenched by fighting for them against unbelievers. Challenging false beliefs head on only entrenches them further, we can only educate in critical thinking and guide people towards spotting the fallacies.
I for one am grateful for the education, courtesy of enlightenment attitudes, which has given me the armoury to see through…what can I all it…I really don’t want to say woo.