Lao Tzu

"A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu

Friday, October 4, 2013

What’s the Matter with Supernaturalism?

A funny thing happened on the way home from Oz.  We discovered that clicking the heels of your ruby slippers and repeating, “There’s no place like home,” can’t get you there —it was just a dream— and whether wicked or good, of the North, East or West, witches with true supernatural powers do not exist.

Birds may fly over the rainbow, but humans without airplanes can’t. Why, oh why? Alas, you’ll get the same answer from Mother Nature that you heard from your own mother— “Because I said so!”

Regardless, behold the website Afterlife101*.   Note well the website’s claim: Spirits freed of their mere human bodies by physical death —“spirit guides”— dictated its text to mediums here on Planet Earth. See how the website presents advice on living our lives, yet offers no wisdom beyond anything offered to us already by human voices past and present, and without the superior eloquence you might expect from the spiritual realm, nor even respect for proper grammar!* 
" the spiritual world we know there is no such things as war and hatred and anger and fear and distrust..."
This website cannot be serious, I say to myself. Yet, hold on— 21% of Americans believe that people can communicate mentally with the dead, and three out of four believe in the paranormal, generally.    Furthermore, 74 percent of us believe that there is a heaven, at least according to a 2007 Pew study.   

That is to say, three out of four Americans engage in magical thinking... and will defend it to the death, I might add.

So, what’s the matter with that? Witch hunts are long-gone (except in some places), so what’s wrong with a little harmless supernaturalist entertainment? Well, not an insignificant number things, according to the eloquent words of one living human being whom I consider to be among the most perspicacious social critics of our time, Chris Hedges, writing in Empire of Illusion:

"Pseudo-events, which create their own semblance of reality, serve in the wider culture the same role creationism serve for the Christian Right. Pseudo-events destabilize truth. They are convincing enough and appear real enough to manufacture their own facts . . . The use of pseudo-events to persuade rather than overtly brainwash renders millions of us unable to see or question the structure and systems that are impoverishing us and in some cases destroying our lives. The flight into illusion sweeps away the core values of the open society. It corrodes the ability to think for oneself, to draw independent conclusions, to express dissent when judgment and common sense tell you something is wrong, to be self-critical, to challenge authority, to grasp historical facts, to advocate for change, and to acknowledge that there are other views, different ways, and structures of being that are morally and socially acceptable. A populace deprived of the ability to separate lies from truth, that has become hostage to the fictional semblance of reality put forth by pseudo-events, is no longer capable of sustaining a free society.

Those who slip into this illusion ignore the signs of impending disaster. The physical degradation of the planet, the cruelty of global capitalism, the looming oil crisis, the collapse of financial markets, and the danger of overpopulation rarely impinge to prick the illusions that warp our consciousness. The words, images, stories, and phrases used to describe the world in pseudo-events have no relation to what is happening around us. The advances of technology and science, rather than obliterating the world of myth, have enhanced its power to deceive. We live in imaginary, virtual worlds created by corporations that profit from our deception. Products and experiences – indeed, experience as a product – offered up for sale, sanctified by celebrities, are mirages. They promise us a new personality. They promise us success and fame. They promise to mend our brokenness...

...Blind faith in illusions is our culture’s secular version of being born again. These illusions assure us that happiness and success is our birthright. They tell us that our catastrophic collapse is not permanent. They promise that pain and suffering can always be overcome by tapping into our hidden, inner strengths. They encourage us to bow down before the cult of self. To confront these illusions, to puncture their mendacity by exposing the callousness and cruelty of the corporate state, signals a loss of faith. It is to become an apostate. The culture of illusion, one of happy thoughts, manipulated emotions, and trust in the beneficence of power, means we sing along with the chorus or are instantly disappeared from view like the losers on a reality show."

I bring this up not to attack religion. Religion has its place, where metaphor, myth and mystery serve the spiritual, psychological and emotional well-being of believers. Like art, religion is one way to meaningfully encounter the central questions of our lives— love, beauty, existence, loss, suffering, and our connection to the world. But like art, it belongs in the mythos side of things and should remain there, in the realm of what Hedges refers to as the “non-rational,” rather than attempting to squeeze it into the box of literal truth.

In this humble blogger’s view, the essential mistake of New Age mysticism and Spiritualism is that it attempts to render the mysterious real, to yank it out of the mythos side of things and into the logos side of things. Rather than allowing the dead to rest in peace in a realm unknown and unknowable to the living, that is, in the realm of the mysterious, Spiritualists insist on reviving the dead to a literal place, where our dearly departed’s lives continue energetically and without end, in merciless conscious awareness.

Rather than accepting the mystery of our lives and our ultimate vulnerabilities, New Age mystics grant literal mass, force and power to human brain waves, believing delusionally that such “vibrations” can literally control destiny. In particular, the Law of Attraction, a pet theory advanced by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, claims that our thoughts emit energy strong enough to create events and attract either good or bad into our lives. Most disturbingly, believers employ pseudoscience and misinterpretations of real science to bolster their delusions. This would be a harmless popular phenomenon, except that it develops into a kind of tyranny, which puts the onus of disaster and disease on victims for their “negativity,” as opposed to demonstrating understanding, compassion and sympathy. 

Additionally, the attitude becomes an ideology of intolerance, with contempt for the “weak” being one of its characteristics. That is, no New-Age mystic or positivity cultist, likes a person whose “vibrational frequency” is apparently too low to be read as human, or who criticizes belief in the supernatural. It’s like how nobody likes a wet dog, or “bitch,” especially when she shakes off the water in your face.

Barbara Ehrenreich learned this, when she sought solace on a website for breast cancer survivors. Rather than receiving comfort, sympathy and validation from her fellow BC survivors when she expressed anger over the cancer industry and treatments, she incurred hostile and patronizing suggestions that, among other rejecting responses, she needed to adopt a more positive attitude or get therapy, because, as the majority of this group inaccurately believed, “cancer is fed by anger.” (completely untrue) Well, that painful experience resulted in the book, “Bright-Sided, How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America.”  Thus, out of decidedly negative responses from the positivity junkies, came a hugely positive book— that is, if you consider factual insights into a particularly irrational craze in the U.S. to be positive, as I do. 

The point is, despite what looks superficially like the life-affirming perspective of New Age religions, such as Science of Mind and Spiritualism, the practical effect becomes one of unloving and careless rejection of those who do not subscribe to the ideology.  That is to say, “love” becomes something to be enjoyed by one’s fellow true-believers, while outsiders get the shaft.

"Mass culture is a Peter Pan culture. It tells us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultrual retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, Hollywood, or Christian preachers, is a form of magical thinking...

...The world that awaits us will be painful and difficult. We will be dragged back to realism, to the understanding that we cannot mold and shape reality according to human desires, or we will slide into despotism...

But even if we fail to halt the decline, it will not be the end of tyranny in history has crushed the human capacity for love. And this love—unorganized, irrational, often propelling us to carry out acts of compassion that jeopardize our existence—is deeply subversive to those in power...” —Chris Hedges

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