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Bridging the Chasm

2010-08-10 15:43:11.299226+00 by Dan Lyke 7 comments

Bridging the Chasm Between Two Cultures. Karla McLaren, author of 9 books in the metaphysical/"New Age" genre, talks about her becoming a skeptic, and why there's a communication gulf between the capital-S Skeptic culture and the New Age one.

One of the biggest falsehoods I've encountered is that skeptics can't tolerate mystery, while New Age people can. This is completely wrong, because it is actually the people in my culture who can't handle mystery—not even a tiny bit of it. Everything in my New Age culture comes complete with an answer, a reason, and a source. Every action, emotion, health symptom, dream, accident, birth, death, or idea here has a direct link to the influence of the stars, chi, past lives, ancestors, energy fields, interdimensional beings, enneagrams, devas, fairies, spirit guides, angels, aliens, karma, God, or the Goddess.

We love to say that we embrace mystery in the New Age culture, but that’s a cultural conceit and it’s utterly wrong. In actual fact, we have no tolerance whatsoever for mystery. Everything from the smallest individual action to the largest movements in the evolution of the planet has a specific metaphysical or mystical cause. In my opinion, this incapacity to tolerate mystery is a direct result of my culture’s disavowal of the intellect. One of the most frightening things about attaining the capacity to think skeptically and critically is that so many things don't have clear answers. Critical thinkers and skeptics don't create answers just to manage their anxiety.

And I think there's lots in there about talking between different cultures with different philosophical bases that's worth reading.

Via this Metafilter thread where several early commenters are clearly part of the problem.

[ related topics: Religion Books Health Sociology California Culture Philosophy ]

comments in descending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-12 18:06:33.483226+00 by: ebradway

Petronius: I think it's important to differentiate between spiritualism and religion. Ann Rice recently made the news in her splitting from the Catholic church and spends a great deal of effort in delineating how she could still believe in Jesus Christ and yet not consider herself a Christian. What I'm getting at is that if you get deep enough into the spiritual aspects of pretty much any faith, they all start blurring together a little more. Many New Age gurus try to help people get to that deeper state with less effort. In the end, you just don't reach enlightenment without effort.

Dan: What McLaren really is outlining is a common thread in social theory: phenomenology. As a social scientist, you have to be very careful about imposing your own conceptualization of reality (derived from your own socialization) upon the society you are trying to understand. Skeptics follow a similar thread as Objectivists: there is one reality. Skeptics (and Objectivists) struggle to keep their conceptualization aligned with the "one reality" via the scientific method (or logical positivism in phenomenology terms). The scientific method is a means of abstracting one's perception of reality from reality itself. Our minds don't experience external reality directly - it's filtered through our senses and ultimately our conceptions of reality. New Agers use a different set of filters in their experience of reality. To understand people using different filters, you cannot change their filters or make them feel inferior because of the way they understand the world. Hard-line skeptics may think they have the ideal way to view the world - but their imposition on others is not unlike the Catholic Church imposing their ideal way to view the world on the indigenous people. Skeptics should adopt the Prime Directive from Star Trek.

While it can be argued that one set of filters may be "better" than another, even this ends up being subject to the individual's experience of the world. For instance, many people find the filter provided by Alcoholics Anonymous to be "better" for them than a purely objective or logical positivist filter which might suggest that a little drink every now and then may not be a bad thing. As you said, many of the New Agers in Marin have become adept at combining elements that are effective at helping individuals deal with reality. Reading McLaren website (where she still describes herself as an "empath") tells me that she is still, largely, doing the same thing.

Asha's work is also similar. She has a doctorate in physical therapy and basically does the some thing that a PT would. Except that she uses concepts drawn more directly from yoga to help her students. A PT in a clinical setting has a harder time dissociating a physical debilitation from what may actually be an emotional issue. Sometimes Asha's work involves having her clients focus on breathing or maybe simply sitting in meditation for a few minutes. Because science wants to treat the human body as simply a collection of cells, clinical PTs don't look for symptoms (or causes) that may be more related to psychology. In yoga, which I've referred to as "Aryuvedic physical therapy", the physical is used to challenge the psyche. The connection between the mind and the body, even in things like how one walks, is assumed to be the source of the problem rather than some external trauma.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 20:13:40.907226+00 by: petronius

I think what bugs traditionally religious people about New Age stuff is that it uses the cafeteria approach of a little Hinduism, a tad of Zen, some newspaper astrology and the more simpleminded approaches to Christian prayer. If hinduism is right, than Christianity is wrong, and combining the two insults both seems to be the theory. To people who actually know their faiths, both spiritually and intellectually, the "every way has a bit of the path" sounds like a cop-out. To people who study Aquinas or Maimonides, the ancient secrets as revealed by the like of Elizabeth Clare Prophet are childishly ludicrous.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 14:35:34.147226+00 by: Dan Lyke

Thanks, Eric, I'd gone to Karla McLaren's web site and hadn't noticed the hiatus she'd mentioned in the article. In fact, in reading through the articles I'm running into less of the citing and careful language that I'd expect from a self-proclaimed skeptic. Which is fine, but it does make me look again at how skeptics approach their communications a bit more.

I think that Larry's point about fire and brimstone is important: Preaching like that isn't designed to convert, it's designed to rile the righteous, and, unfortunately, I think a lot of what the capital-S Skeptic movement preaches is about riling the righteous, not about carefully examining the issues. Which, of course, sets the Evangelical Christians (among others, I've just been hanging out with some of them recently) right up for the "secular humanism is a religion too!" argument.

I think my major issue is that many of those who spend a lot of time ragging on "New Age" give traditional religions and some of the worst bits of "skeptic" zeal a pass, while ignoring that a good bit of "New Age", at least as I saw it practiced in the oft-maligned Marin, is about deconstructing and reconstructing rituals so that they're relevant and effective.

The MeFi thread isn't all bad, if you start about 40 messages into it and only read every third message or so, but there's a distinct lack of insight there.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 10:50:40.675226+00 by: DaveP

When I noticed the link on MeFi (after seeing you post it on FB, I think), I decided I wasn't going to read that thread. Took a brief peek this morning, and it was almost exactly as I expected. Another reason I'm less than enchanted with MeFi again.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 03:10:39.827226+00 by: ebradway

And Here's more from the author over at Care2.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 03:09:19.463226+00 by: ebradway

MetaFilter must have been dredging for content. McLaren wrote that essay in 2004! No wonder her website looks like it fits what she was "hoping" to create in the essay. She's also still leading workshops at Kripalu. And she has a great recommended reading list (I'll be expanding my Amazon Wish List again).

I was hoping to track down an email address for her. I was interested in starting a discussion with her about quantitative vs. qualitative methodologies in studying social science.

#Comment Re: made: 2010-08-11 00:23:35.627226+00 by: Larry Burton

It boils down to the fact that you aren't going to bring someone to your way of thinking by denigrating their way of thinking. That's why preaching hellfire and brimstone to the heathens just doesn't work.