“The New Age? It’s just the old age stuck in a microwave oven for fifteen seconds.” – James Randi
I was struck the other day seeing yet another sign on the street for Tarot readings and various psychic services. Folk belief is a hard thing to displace, but I still have to shake my head that in 2019 people pay for palm readings and check their horoscopes.
The persistence of these little rituals is an interesting phenomenon when considered in the cultural context of the United States and its religious history. A Pew Research survey this past fall showed that 40 percent of American Christians believe in psychics and 26 percent believe in astrology.
While these beliefs definitely have no basis in any mainstream Christian doctrine I am familiar with, these could perhaps be relegated to the level of a minor spiritual concern (comparable to how often people break Lenten vows) depending on how doctrinaire a believer one is. If one is a believer in the most devout way, these beliefs alone might be considered sinful, blasphemous, or even gateways to demonic possession. Recall the warning in Exodus 22:18 (“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live”), Leviticus 19:31 (“Regard not them that have familiar spirits, neither seek after wizards, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God”) and so on. On the other hand, pagan or non-Christian beliefs have lived alongside ironclad Christian orthodoxy for centuries (e.g. the Evil Eye in Southern Europe), so this may not be as totally jaw-dropping as it might seem at first.
However, even if taking a relatively lenient view toward the occasional psychic consultation and horoscope check, the fact that 29 percent of American Christians in general (and, strikingly, 36 percent of American Catholics) profess a belief in reincarnation is what absolutely floored me. This enters into the territory of utter heresy, at odds with all mainstream Judeo-Christian theory of soul that I have ever encountered (readers are welcome to correct me here).
It would be interesting to determine what proportion of American Christians professing this belief are in fact unaware that it is anathema to any mainstream catechism and how many are aware of this but nonetheless find it comforting to feel the prospect of not only eternal life but the chance to live other corporeal lives as well.
I was curious how this translated into New Age belief rates in Western European society, given that most, but not all, EU member states share largely the same Dark Ages Christianity-then-Enlightenment cultural genesis as the U.S. but are now, on average, arguably secularized to a further degree than the U.S. (Although, traditionally strongly Roman Catholic countries report rates of being “religious” either similar to the U.S. in the case of Portugal, or not tremendously far behind, in the cases of Italy, Spain, and Ireland.)
I also wanted to provide a backdrop of the state of conventional religion in Western Europe before delving into the alternative spiritual practices. To start, the famously secular Scandinavian and Low Countries show the lowest rates of reporting as either “religious” or “spiritual.” The polling structure and wording between polls in America and Europe is unfortunately not always identical, or it is divided among multiple polls. However, on average 53 percent of Europeans describe themselves as “neither religious nor spiritual” compared with 18 percent identifying as such in the U.S. A different poll given directly to all of the above countries saw a significant disparity in importance of religion in life: 53 percent were affirmative in the U.S., and only 23 percent were affirmative on average across Europe, with Canada clustering with Europe at 27 percent. Church attendance was similarly skewed, with 36 percent weekly attendance in the U.S. compared to rates always below 25 percent—and usually below 20 percent—in Europe and Canada.
Against this backdrop, eight spiritual practices or beliefs were queried (three of which overlapped with the U.S. poll: belief in astrology, belief in spiritual energy in physical things, and belief in reincarnation). Among the general population, not subdivided by belief category: 23 percent of Europeans believe in astrology compared with 29 percent of Americans; 23 percent believe in spiritual energy within physical objects compared with 42 percent of Americans; and 20 percent believe in reincarnation compared with 33 percent of Americans. What I found striking, similarly to the Roman Catholic poll responses in the U.S. mentioned above and perhaps due to a shared cultural origin, is that the more religious countries in Europe also tended to be the countries responding more favorably toward New Age beliefs. Belief in astrology was 35 and 37 percent in Portugal and Spain, respectively. Belief in spiritual energy inside of physical things was 37 and 49 percent, respectively, and belief in reincarnation polled at 31 percent and 24 percent, respectively. In contrast, countries that came in above the median in being “neither religious nor spiritual” also tended to be the countries polling below the median for New Age beliefs. For example, Sweden and the United Kingdom polled at 66 and 55 percent, respectively, for “neither religious nor spiritual” and were also at or below the median for astrology, reincarnation, and energy within objects.
Interestingly, Portugal and Spain both polled at about the 40 percent median of Western Europe for mostly/totally agreeing with the statement “When people die, that is the end; there is NO life after death” and slightly above the 48 percent median for agreement with the statement “There are NO spiritual forces in the universe, only the laws of nature.” Likewise, they were roughly at the 32 percent median for the statement “Science makes religion unnecessary in my life,” with Portugal slightly below and Spain slightly above. Taken as a whole, these data suggest that the secular/scientifically oriented proportion of the population in Iberia is comparable to anywhere else in Western Europe; the disparity seems to be on the other side of the spectrum, specifically in how religious and/or spiritual the religious and/or spiritual respondents are.
In both Europe and America, a striking trend was that the “spiritual but not religious” and “unaffiliated” that still believe in “God or a higher power” (these categories were determined by different sets of questions but presumably involve significant overlap) were the most likely to indicate involvement with New Age practices and beliefs. In the U.S., this seemed to be reflected in three ostensibly disparate categories: the “Diversely Devout,” the “Spiritually Awake” and the “Religion Resisters”—semantics and perception of what constitutes “religion” could play a role in whether one considered practicing alternative or nontraditional faiths (Wicca, etc.) to be “diversely devout” or “resisting (mainstream) religion.”
Tellingly, only 7 percent of the “Religion Resisters” declared lack of belief in a higher power, suggesting that wording is a factor. Of these three groups, an astounding 95, 99 and 98 percent, respectively, believe in spiritual energy within physical objects. Likewise, responses in the affirmative are at 68, 72 and 62 percent for belief in psychic ability; 63, 61 and 49 percent for reincarnation; and 47, 63, and 44 percent for astrology. It seems something of a misnomer to put the “Religion Resisters” in the nonreligious category, as roughly half to nearly all believe in at least one supernatural aspect of the universe/unfalsifiable hypothesis for which science and reason make no room. They appear to have been made a category of their own due to their rejection of Heaven and Hell (only 12 and 5 percent of Religion Resisters respondents, respectively), rather than rejection of religion outright (57 percent believe God loves all people).
In the U.S., the self-described “solidly secular” are by far the least superstition- and/or deity-driven, though somehow 12 percent profess belief in reincarnation, and only 52 percent go on the record as not believing in a higher power. Forty-eight percent undecideds notwithstanding, this “solidly secular” is the category in which I, and likely some readers, find myself. It is undeniable that for many people around the world, the vague notion of a loving deity is comforting in times of distress (and sometimes a very specific and dogmatic vision of a judgmental deity is also comforting to some, unfortunately). Likewise, it is not surprising that family members and friends, in their grief and sense of loss, would readily turn to a hoaxer happy to sell them warm platitudes about their loved one “being in a better place” or “being at peace” and in the company of other beloved deceased relatives—for a service fee, of course.
This piece has its origins in my reaction to seeing psychic reading/Tarot card/astrology advertising. It gained momentum in my head when I saw an article about police forces still relying on psychic detectives from time to time (and subsequently founding a for-profit conference where you too can learn to become a psychic detective for a modest fee!)
I do find those particular flavors of belief especially embarrassing and laughable in the modern age, and even more particularly for people, both in Europe and the U.S., who describe themselves as otherwise secular. I admit I don’t follow the premise of being able to distance oneself from belief in a creator-being while remaining emotionally/psychologically attached to the notion of magical forces emanating from concretions of space dust and gas in highly categorical ways, depending on where the Earth was in relation to the Sun when one happened to be born.
Admittedly, less violence has been visited on people by New Age practitioners through the centuries than by intolerant monotheists with military and/or political backing, for sure. I can’t help but feel disappointment, though, that such beliefs persist in any significance at all. Eighteen percent of Americans apparently sincerely believe (or did in 2009, at least) that they have seen a ghost at some point in their lives. Somewhat counterintuitively, this is double the proportion who responded in the affirmative in 1996. Comparing these data with Gallup data from the same years, we see mainstream Christianity slowly shrinking in the U.S., so one cannot help but wonder whether broader spiritual views, rather than truly secular evidence-based worldviews, are filling that vacuum. This might account for the increase, rather than decrease, in belief in spiritual energy within objects, reincarnation, and astrology in Americans in the age eighteen to twenty-nine and thirty to forty-nine brackets relative to the fifty to sixty-four and sixty-five and over brackets. The older brackets fall more within the traditionalist Christian worldview and are significantly more likely to both believe in God with certainty and to accept scripture as divinely revealed truth. Again, getting away from the ideas of sin relating to sexual choices, creationism at the expense of science, and so on is indisputably progress to be praised—it just strikes me as unfortunate that these appear, to some extent, to have given way to New Age beliefs instead of solely critical thinking.
Within this landscape of beliefs, secular thinkers both American and European may wish to think about priorities in our cultural discourse. Depending on how uphill the battle is, belief by belief, is it essential to dispel as many superstitions as possible? Or is checking a daily horoscope a minor grievance as long as the people checking can still be convinced of evidence-based medicine and science? How do we go about dispelling the more pernicious New Age beliefs (e.g., healing with crystals, Steve Jobs fighting his ultimately fatal cancer with only fresh pineapple and other fruits by most accounts)? Are superstitions, religions, and general beliefs in supernatural forces without evidence things that can ever be completely overcome? Or do they represent something that is inherent in human psychology, in at least some individuals, no matter what? These are not questions to which I have ready-made answers; policy answers at the societal level will ideally come from broad-based evidence accumulated with time, and I am curious to hear what others have to say.
Caveat: the Pew and Gallup polling data did not provide statistical margins of error/error bars in the polling writeups.
Sources for the above-cited polling results: