I discover Yakaru has a blog! It’s got a good post on the front page right now: Blaming the Victim: Comments on Louise Hay. It deals with one of the familiar tropes in both religion and newage that serves to protect the higher-ups when they can’t make good on a promise. It’s given me some motivation to share my extended thoughts on newage culture.
Positive Thinking and Measuring Results
In mainstream religions, if prayer doesn’t heal as promised, believers can and often will blame the patient for the failure by pinning it on unspecified sins, even harmless ones, the patient’s alleged lack of faith, or if they really have to reach for straws, blame it on the patient’s sinful thoughts. It’s a convenient ad hoc hypothesis, and even if the victim did have nothing but “pure” thoughts, they wouldn’t be believed, anyway. That makes it rather easy to excuse any failure while still taking credit for successes.
It’s no surprise that this idea has been enthusiastically embraced by the newage culture. For the consumers, it feels empowering to think that we can change the world through sheer determination. On the surface, it sounds good, but there’s a dark underbelly of the “empowering” idea: That merely thinking “negative” thoughts can lead to self-sabotage. The Secret’s “Law of Attraction” is all about this. Reality doesn’t work that way. Many positive thinkers prosper because their mindset tends to make them more inclined to put in the necessary effort, not because “thoughts become things.” Patients who think optimistically are more inclined to comply with their treatment regimen and are probably less prone to stress and its physiological effects. Depressed patients who are convinced they are going to suffer no matter what they do are more likely to skip on their medication or avoid doctors out of fear that they would confirm a bad prognosis. Attitude is important, but it isn’t magic.
Of course, no matter how positive your thoughts are, circumstances can still conspire against you. That’s when the vicious side of this hypothesis reveals itself: If you don’t succeed, it’s not because of known causes, but because you didn’t think positively enough, or because you were subconsciously worried about negative outcomes. Humans have less control over their thoughts than they do over their actions. If you don’t occasionally worry, that’s probably a sign of a mental illness, not a healthy state to be in. It’s healthy and responsible to hope for the best and prepare for the worst. You can’t do that if you refuse to entertain all the probable outcomes. “Negative” thoughts are a natural part of being human. How you can handle positive and negative thoughts is what really matters.
Of course, as Yakaru points out in his post, this method of blaming the victim serves to shield newage teachers and practitioners from responsibility:
By this view, of course, the most tragic and horrifying events are inevitably portrayed as something the victims somehow brought upon themselves. Now, if anyone wants to tell me that people who got burned as witches brought it on themselves with their negative thoughts, they had better have a damned good argument for advocating such grotesque ideas. And they don’t.
But it also specifically clears Ms Hay of any responsibility for any damage her teachings may cause. No attempt was made here to address my specific accusations of cancer quackery. According to these standards, Louise Hay is free to claim whatever she wants. If someone dies, then it’s not a sign that Ms Hay’s methods and credentials need to be checked, rather, another thought process automatically and instantaneously kicks in. The fault can’t lie with the teachings, no matter how spurious. The fault must lie with the victim.
This is what consumer protection looks like in the New Age.
Got a complaint? It’s your own fault because you filtered out the positive values from your perceptions. Dead or injured? You failed to listen to your inner truth. See a possible problem? Look away and stop indulging in negative emotions.
I’m a big fan of consumer protection, and I’ve been seeing this trend lead into some disturbing territory, namely crony capitalism and the troll form of libertarianism. Let the buyer beware. If you get hurt by a product, it’s not the producer’s fault, it’s your fault for not having faith in the invisible hand of the market or for not being a Randian Mary Sue and lacking the motivation and expertise to research every single purchase.
We live in a complex world, now. It’s filled with frauds and self-deluded gurus who need to be exposed to scrutiny. We have regulatory bodies and watchdog organizations that use the scientific method to evaluate difficult questions like medical efficacy. They do much of the critical thinking and testing for us so that we can choose how we spend our time. They’re a part of the infrastructure that keeps our society together, just like electricians spend their time maintaining the power grid so we don’t have to. So many people have taken it for granted that the products we buy have to be tested for safety and efficacy that the critical scrutiny of watchdog groups has become invisible to the average person.
Quackery doesn’t work, and intentionally or unintentionally, quacks have influenced the newage culture in ways that prevent quack gurus from being subjected to scrutiny.
Quality control or checking the validity of claims is anathema to this ideology. No one has the right to do this, and metaphysically speaking, it is not even possible. Consumers learn quickly that they are not to see themselves as consumers with rights, despite paying up front (price set by “perceived value”) and risking their health, wealth and loved ones. Risks are not to be called risks. Again, their very existence is metaphysically impossible. Perceived successes include any seemingly positive event that can be in any way connected to the teachings. Failures are, as explained by the comment above, the fault of the consumer. The mere hypothetical possibility of deceptive practices does not enter into the equation anywhere.
That’s how ideas like “positive thinking” encourage fraud and self-deception. You can’t test the idea because it’s an unfalsifiable “heads I win, tails you lose” scenario. If someone gets lucky and recovers from a condition naturally (or through real medicine), the “positive thinking” treatment gets the credit and is praised. If the patient isn’t so lucky, the patient gets the blame for the deterioration, not the guru or the treatment. Real medicine doesn’t get to do that so easily. Real medicine has to be tested against placebo or other proven treatments in a large number of patients to see if there’s a statistically measurable improvement. If a generally proven treatment fails in a specific case, we want to be able to identify a specific, identifiable cause for the failure, whether it’s a circumstance or something about the patient’s physiology. Because of this approach to medicine, details in a patient’s history are often important for personalizing treatment for the best mix of expected benefits and possible risks. One drug might have higher risks for patients with heart conditions, for example. Another drug might not be as effective for people with certain genetic traits. There usually isn’t a single best treatment.
Unlike real medicine, “positive thinking” treatments are typically one size fits all, with a built-in excuse for failure that applies to any patient: Nearly everyone has “negative thoughts” at least on occasion, but that condition can be selectively applied whenever it’s convenient. The “negative thinking clause” is like over-broad laws that criminalize common behaviors (like over-broad copyright laws for example): Nearly everyone is guilty to some degree so tyrants can selectively apply those laws to certain groups instead of applying it equally. Nearly everyone is guilty of “negative” thoughts therefore you’ve got a reason for failure before you’ve even started treatment. Even if someone does manage to live without thinking “negative” thoughts, that person would have a hard time convincing anyone of that innocence.
The “negative thinking clause” and its ad hoc mentality is pervasive enough in newage that it can be extended into quackery that doesn’t explicitly base its success on positive thinking. It’s a useful marketing tool. For example, an ineffective but highly restrictive diet can blame failures on the dieter’s cheating, often by inflating the “unhealthy” attributes of forbidden foods to the point that splurging once allegedly undermines the entire diet. If a dieter fails to get results (whether weight loss or miracle cure), others will hurl accusations of “cheating.” If the accusations are true, the dieter is shamed into blaming himself. If the accusations are false, the critic is made into a social pariah for his alleged dishonesty, thereby discouraging others who fail to get results from criticizing the diet. As a result, people who fail to get results are implicitly encouraged to blame themselves for failure, even if they have to manufacture an excuse, or remain silent. Some might even feel pressured to lie about getting positive results for fear of being made into outcasts. Some may realize they’ve been fooled, whether they realize it through observing failures, doing deeper research and finding scientific disproof, or noticing the self-reinforcing marketing culture. They might become vocal critics and get dismissed by the community as shills for competitors, dishonest nihilists “who just want to tear everything down,” or people who just want to blame the guru for their own failures. They might instead feel shame for being fooled. Everyone makes mistakes, but not everyone has the courage to publicly admit it when it happens. The end result of all these gimmicks is a marketing-friendly collection of positive testimonials, with the few negative testimonials explained away with a variety of thought-stopping cliches.
In newage culture, there is a de facto hierarchy of persons, often with ancient gurus at the top, teachers and practitioners in the middle, and the consumers at the bottom. Blame almost always goes downward and almost never goes to the top. It’s very authoritarian in spirit, and it resists change.
In many ways, it’s like the hierarchy of a church, with infallible gods, holy texts, or a priestly caste at the top, going down to lower ranked clergy and finally the laity. If a low-ranked priest is caught doing something wrong, he can be censured, excommunicated, or otherwise punished. In some cases, an excommunicated priest might form his own church in opposition. If higher ranked priests are caught doing something wrong, apologia comes out to excuse his crimes and direct blame elsewhere. We’re seeing this with the Roman Catholic Church right now. If an evil is allegedly perpetuated by the god or gods at the top, commanded or condoned by the authoritative holy text, apologists offer strained rationales instead of simply acknowledging valid criticism.
A significant variation I perceive in the newage culture is that they allow multiple overlapping hierarchies for different subjects of belief. If one guru writes a book claiming that psychokinetic Egyptians built the pyramids with their minds, that will not interfere with a belief in chi and acupuncture. In the event of a conflict, such as a belief that psychic Egyptians built the pyramids and the belief that aliens built the pyramids, a newager can choose either hypothesis or even combine them. Criticism between separate hierarchies is discouraged. From a marketing perspective, this makes some amount of sense. Gurus don’t have to deal with criticism on the level scientists and historians do when they publish a hypothesis. Without this criticism, there is no need to research other gurus’ hypotheses or evidence. Gurus are free to write whatever comes to mind, and success is only measured in fame and book sales. Authority also tends to be measured in terms of popularity.
In a way, this “looser” style of belief strikes me as a more organic religion that feels free to borrow from the marketplace of ideas and “interpret” each other’s myths in terms of their own posited entities, the way that some common myths have been retold in different religions, substituting their own mythical figures. “Orthodox” religions like many branches of Christianity may be something of an exception people like myself once assumed to be the default model for a religion. Learning something about the canonization process and the ubiquity of “borrowed” stories and tropes from other mythologies has made me look at religion differently. Christianity’s “orthodox” nature may be an oddity that arose from a desire for authoritarian control, rather than the default template I once thought of it as. Of course, it does not strike me as unlikely that the diverse beliefs of the “New Age” movement may someday become codified into an orthodoxy, whether it comes from explicit councils or a self-reinforcing popularity the way “most liked” comments become the most viewed.
Acceptance and Authority
For now, however, I suspect newage will remain a loose counterculture opposed to both established science and the often overtly authoritarian Christianity. Newagers are generally free to cherry-pick their beliefs and criticism of this process is discouraged socially. This doesn’t strike me as all that unusual. Smaller religions tend to emphasize acceptance to attract new members. In an extreme version of this, cults will “love bomb” prospective members to encourage them to join and make them socially dependent on that support. Withholding that support then becomes a powerful manipulator, and many newagers will use it without even realizing it.
In an instance of a quackery belief, someone who begins to doubt the treatment will probably get some initial support to lift their spirits and encourage them to try to put a positive spin on subjective measures. Sometimes they’ll be directed to a different treatment the community believes in. If this doesn’t work, and the critic’s doubts grow, believers will often start accusations of being “negative,” “closed-minded,” or seeking someone else to blame. In short, those who begin to doubt are often subjected to the same treatment and accusations that are leveled against outsiders. Humans have strong tribalist tendencies, and such reactions are understandable, but the newage culture, like many religions and extremist political groups, seems to have no established procedure to counteract this human foible. This is similar to a common atheist experience: When a church-goer begins to doubt the existence of a god, there is often an extremely irrational hatred that develops in the faithful. Friendships and family ties tear apart with disturbing ease as the ex-convert becomes a pariah.
Outsiders who doubt newage beliefs are quite often subjected to an assortment of cynical accusations: that we’re profit-minded shills for a market competitor, that we have no values and only want to tear things down, that we’re worthless, untalented people and only criticize because we’re jealous of a guru’s talent or genius, that we’re chronically depressed and want others to share our misery. These sorts of accusations are painfully common ways for propagandists to erode empathy and understanding towards outsiders. We’re people. We live life. We care about other people. We feel moral obligations to society. We value truth because it’s a valuable tool for accomplishing anything.
Advice to my opponents: As skeptics, we generally criticize because we care. We’ve seen the harm that fraud and self-delusion can do. If we’re criticizing your beliefs, it’s probably because we’ve seen warning signs that indicate delusion or fraud. Yes, we sometimes jump to the least charitable conclusions about you. I’ve done it quite often myself out of frustration when I’ve argued with people who just can’t seem to listen. Sometimes we need reminders of your humanity when that happens. Sometimes I need reminding that there are people who honestly believe in an idea I think is wrong, not just conscious frauds. Just grant us our humanity when we argue against your beliefs. We could very well be honestly mistaken, and good evidence and logic will do more good than baseless accusations. I’ll renew my commitment towards being charitable at first encounter, so please do the same. Don’t simply jump into a skeptical thread and assume that we’re the scum of the Earth because we’re on the opposite side of a debate table. Pay attention to what you say. I’ve met far too many people who say the most horrible things about skeptics and atheists and then complain when I meet rudeness with rudeness.
Beliefs, Group Identity, and Escaping the Rat Race with Science
Many people end up associating some beliefs with their identity. The same goes with churches and political parties. This makes it much harder to criticize those beliefs without hitting emotional knots. I don’t think this is how people should think of themselves. It’s a natural part of life to change specific beliefs. Tying yourself down to a belief reinforces dogma and limits your adaptability. This is as true of newage beliefs as well as mainstream religions, even if it’s not quite as extreme in some cases. Everyone makes mistakes, and character is about how you handle those mistakes. All too often, I’ve heard some newagers take a slothful approach to human error, that we can’t know anything for sure, so we should pick and choose whatever feels good. Both Christians and newagers have told me that if I don’t believe in X, I can’t be a good person or that without that belief, I’m inevitably going to end up a member of some Nazi-Communist-terrorist-unAmerican-Borg-Accountant cult. All of them have made the mistake of associating everything good with their group and beliefs and associating disbelief with everything evil. They’ve fallen for the false dichotomy.
Contrary to many assertions, science is not a collection of fixed, dogmatic beliefs. If it was, scientists would be out of a job. Science and skepticism are methods for evaluating beliefs. New evidence provokes reevaluation. I’ve had a generally smooth journey through my religious life thanks to being raised with a scientific mindset. Moving from Christian to vague “spiritual but not religious” to “spiritual but not religious” atheism to materialist atheist didn’t change much about me as a person. I still care about my family and friends. I still want world peace. I still have artistic interests. I still enjoy life. Changing my beliefs didn’t change my core identity, just how I go about dealing with problems. For example, becoming an atheist who doesn’t believe in an afterlife has made me more concerned about justice and morality because I can’t simply believe that justice will be served by an omniscient judge or doled out in the next life by a karmic cycle.
If your beliefs are based on logic and evidence, there’s no shame in changing them as you find new evidence or a more logically consistent interpretation. Tribalism resists that simple idea. People make mistakes, and we have to acknowledge it. Defining a group on specific beliefs discourages adaptability and diversity. If you define your beliefs based on an organization’s, you’re allowing your growth as a person to be supplanted by the organization. Enshrining beliefs in dogma encourages arrogance, while freeing yourself to doubt yourself encourages humility and healthy self-awareness.
Scientists aren’t people who have been mystically empowered with authority. They’re normal people like you. They’ve just done a lot of the hard work for you, so try to understand their results and experimental designs carefully before you challenge their conclusions. They might know something you missed, so listen when they respond to your questions. Setting consistent measures for testing beliefs against falsehood builds a healthy level of confidence when they continuously pass tests they could have failed. If a belief turns out to be wrong, that means you’ve discovered something new to think about. If you’ve got a new idea, share it and ready yourself for criticism. There’s nothing wrong with entertaining a bad idea, so long as you’re willing to discard it when you find out something’s wrong.
Science and skepticism is about what you do to make sure you pick accurate beliefs and a willingness to correct yourself by looking for mistakes you might have made. A skeptic tries to bend himself to fit the universe. Faith is about wanting to have been right from the start. Faith has a vested interest in not admitting to error.