After the secularization of modern societies, Westerners increasingly lost confidence in their traditional religious institutions, but they still wanted answers to their existential questions. They became seekers and sought answers in both ancient and Eastern traditions, deemed heretical or blasphemous by the Church, and in modern science. So began the New Age movement over the last couple of centuries, in which modernists combined mystical or esoteric teachings with contemporary scientific formulations so that they could be unashamed of their spirituality.
You can find numerous New Age gurus on YouTube. For example, with their mellifluous delivery, the young and beautiful MaNithya Sudevi (20,000 subscribers) and Teal Scott, called the Spiritual Catalyst (45,000 subscribers), teach all manner of radical contentions. Sudevi says she’s a starseed, an alien being in a human body sent to Earth to enlighten us about the nature of reality. She speaks of the power of crop circles, of the harm that fluoride does to the third eye, and so forth. Scott applies the New Age cosmology to practical questions of whether we should worry, whether happiness is selfish, or how to manifest money.
The New Thought Fiction
Here’s the basic New Age cosmology, as far as I can tell. God or Source energy is the fundamental reality. God created a world in she could lose herself in projections, in beings who are misled into believing that they’re merely material, alienated individuals. Matter isn’t a domain of impersonal spatial and temporal dimensions but is a machine that serves God’s purpose of teaching her projections about their true, divine identity. That is, God wants to know herself, but to do this, she has to fragment and delude herself to test whether she can regain her self-awareness. One such delusion amounts to philosophical naturalism, the worldview in which mindless matter is fundamental, we’re merely individual animals that evolved accidentally, and there is no God or perfect self that unites all things and guarantees a happy outcome for us.
The truth, according to New Thought proponents, is that material things are projections of our thoughts, so that we create our reality by means of the law of vibrations or attraction. Depending on our vibratory frequency, we attract certain experiences that match us and repel those that don’t. We can co-create experiences if we have similar vibrations, but each person as a projection of Source energy literally lives in his or her own world. As Teal Scott says, physical reality is a mirror hologram that reflects our thoughts. Instead of a multiverse based on quantum fluctuations, we have an ideational multiverse based on the frequencies that distinguish us as unenlightened individuals, or individuals who don’t yet fully identify with God. For example, as Scott says in the last cited video, when a murder happens, both the murderer and the murdered person create the act in that they’re vibratory matches to it. Or to take another example, when we worry, we ironically bring about the dreaded event, because we focus our mind on it and thus attract that which matches our vibration.
This worldview is an eclectic mix of mystical ideas from Hinduism and of scientific concepts, like the concepts of a natural law and of a quantum mechanical vibration. Curiously, gurus like these two women display absolute confidence that their worldview is correct and they seem to pity naturalists and traditional theists for not waking up to the truth. A new atheist would respond by going line by line through their metaphysical doctrines and showing that they’re illogical and contradicted by science. But this would be a mug’s game. New Age is a religious movement and New Thought is a collection of myths, not arguments or scientific theories. To the extent that speakers like Teal Scott maintain that their worldview is factual, empirical, and logical, they too are mistaken and are bound to be disappointed. As a challenger to naturalism on philosophical or scientific grounds, New Thought is glaringly inadequate. For starters, New Thought is unfalsifiable; New Age gurus have an answer for everything because they’re free to reinterpret their teachings at will or to add or subtract from them, and their terminology is metaphorical rather than quantified. For example, Sudevi was influenced by a Hindu sect which critics called a cult, but then she came under the influence of a Catholic priest and so she added some Christian theology about Christ consciousness to her New Age synthesis. Is Christianity consistent with Hinduism? Of course--when you’re free to ignore parts of the religions. And were Teal Scott to take her talk of vibrations to an actual quantum physicist, the physicist would toast her over an open fire, as it were; the pwnage would be epic. But were the physicist to think that refuting New Thought on those grounds is scientifically useful, she would have badly missed the point.
New Thought is clearly a work of art, a collage of ideas. That’s why the teachings of these gurus are untestable; the seekers are in the business of imagining self-contained, fictional worlds, like the world of Harry Potter. Proving scientifically that Harry Potter doesn’t exist is as asinine as searching for Noah’s Ark. The story of Harry Potter isn’t meant to tell us the facts; the story operates as a metaphor about growing up with your friends in school. Other sorts of art, like paintings, movies, sculptures, and performance pieces are meant to challenge your perspective, to engage with your emotions, and to guide you as you make your life choices. The question, then, isn’t whether the Law of Attraction is true as a matter of fact, but whether the law works as a metaphor or as a test of our character. New Thought proponents likely don’t regard their spiritual beliefs as mere metaphors and fictions, but those beliefs nevertheless don't rest on rational arguments or on scientific theories, and they function as guides for some creative liberals. The point of the Law of Attraction is that you should be optimistic, not pessimistic. When the so-called law is interpreted instead as a statement of fact, New Thought becomes pseudoscientific and a fair target for rational obliteration.
The Arbitrariness of New Age Optimism
So how does New Thought fare on aesthetic grounds? I think New Thought is superior to postmodern Christianity in terms of the former’s greater originality (its synthesis of ancient and modern ideas), but while the hideousness of exoteric Christianity is unrivalled, due to the historic depths of Christian hypocrisy, New Thought practitioners too are liable to use their worldview as a front for capitalistic concerns. Take, for example, Teal Scott’s talk on why we shouldn’t worry. She rightly points out that worry has a clear naturalistic role, which is that worry is a painful warning that’s supposed to prevent greater harm. We worry about an possible unpleasant turn of events and the worry motivates us to take steps to avoid it. But if we’re really all God rather than separate beings, and nature is an illusion that exists only as a field of holographic manifestations of our thoughts, worry becomes a counterproductive absurdity. By worrying, we bring about the very harm we wish to avoid; we live in fear and attract the associated experiences.
Again, taking for granted that the world doesn’t literally correspond to this fiction, that there’s no rational basis for believing that mind has such power over matter, I’d go ahead and question the ethical implications of this fiction. Just as we understand our favourite novels by considering the background events that establish the characters’ motivations, to understand the function of the Law of Attraction we need to interpret this “law” in the context of the larger New Age mythos. So why should we think positively? Because we’re meant to be happy and not to suffer, and thinking positively attracts pleasurable experiences. Why ought we to be happy? Perhaps the inner logic of the myth at this point rests on the Golden Rule: we should treat others as we treat ourselves, and the New Thought reason for such consistency is that we’re all one in Source energy. We’re all projections of God’s mind, just as the worlds of our experience are projections of our thoughts, given the self-contained New Age fiction. The more we identify ourselves with God, the more we’ll identify with other projections of God, and so the more we’ll empathize with their plight just as we feel strongly about our personal problems.
But optimism and the prescription of happiness don’t follow from the Golden Rule or from New Age mysticism, not even if we’re talking only about the narrative’s inner logic. Just because we shouldn’t make an exception of ourselves, given that we’re all one, doesn’t mean we should be kind to others. What if we happen to loathe ourselves? In that case, consistency demands that we treat others just as poorly. And why would we loathe ourselves, given that we’re mental projections of God’s mind? Well, why should God love herself? That’s the fundamental ethical question for the New Age seeker. The guru who’s lost in bliss is supposed to be expressing God’s self-love, because the guru identifies herself with God, and so the guru’s contentment is God’s. But why would Source energy be content rather than anxious, or benevolent rather than malevolent?
Buddhism to the Rescue?
Maybe the reasoning here is of the Buddhist variety: malevolence is a kind of suffering, suffering is caused by ignorance, and the guru who identifies with God is enlightened rather than ignorant; thus, the more we know of spiritual reality, which is to say the more we engage with the New Age fantasy and let it shape our character, the less we suffer. But this still leaves the question of why knowledge of everything’s unity should make us euphoric rather than, say, appalled or aghast. Suppose that just as you might entertain the fictional world of Game of Thrones or Adventure Time, you come to ponder the fantasy that God wanted to know herself indirectly by playfully fragmenting herself and testing the fragments’ ability to see past the natural illusion of their finitude. Why is such playfulness automatically worthy of respect or love? What sort of character is this Source energy? Is Creation just a game to pass her time? If she can grow bored, perhaps she can also be corrupted by her power. The problem is that the idea of God is of an absolute, transcendent singularity, whereas our emotions are responses to particular situations. There’s just as much reason for a guru to preach that spiritual knowledge should make us miserable and pessimistic, precisely because we would then have to identify with the mercurial and lonely deity who imagines herself surrounded by invisible friends, namely the mental projections that think of themselves as mortal individuals. We might as well pity this deity rather than bask in her majesty. And so worry isn’t ruled out by this mythos. The more we identify with God, the more we might dread that identity and thus the more we might come to express God’s self-loathing.
Buddhists are more logical when they prescribe mere detachment to those who see through the illusion of the independence of material things, because the oneness of everything couldn’t amount to an ordinary person who experiences emotions that make sense only as limited natural phenomena. But Buddhists too speak of the need for compassion and love. Should an enlightened Buddhist remove herself from society and seek nirvana, because all else is folly, or should she help others reach the same insights? Should she abandon the world or help improve its condition? Mysticism implies that we should free ourselves from ignorance and from maya, from the world of illusions, not that we should be selfless rather than selfish. Ignorant people might naturally be selfish since they’ll be led by their primitive impulses, and enlightened ones might naturally sacrifice themselves, since they’ll identify with a transcendent wholeness rather than with a particular physical body. But if only the interconnected whole can matter, because the parts of that whole are nothing in themselves, why should a Buddha figure sacrifice herself, say, to save a child? A Buddha would perceive the child not as a limited being, but as a part of the interconnected whole, but then we’re back to the question of why the knowledge of everything’s unity should inspire altruism and peacefulness rather than subversion and horror. The enlightened Buddhist won’t care about the results of her actions, but why would she act in one way rather than another, without any emotions to motivate her? This enlightened person might just as well let a boy drown to teach people the worthlessness and emptiness of natural life, since the boy would likely be thoroughly deluded about his identity.
The upshot is that the mystical aspect of the New Age mythos makes New Thought not nearly as salutary as gurus like Sudevi and Teal Scott would have you believe. Like shining, happy salesmen peddling a mass-produced bauble, these gurus pretend that the fictions they uphold can only improve your life, that the “knowledge” they offer will bring you peace and happiness, but as is the case with all salesmanship, their propaganda oversimplifies, because the happy-talk is a step in an underlying inhumane process—and that’s so regardless of whether you’re a naturalistic atheist or a New Age mystic. The naturalist understands capitalism and religious movements in terms of power games we instinctively play. Although New Thought doesn’t entail optimism or altruism, gurus spin their stories for mass consumption because they’re not withdrawn from the play of nature, after all, but have items to sell and they know there’s a much greater demand for happiness than for misery. After all, there’s a New Age industry out there, including markets for New Age books, lectures, massage therapy, health food, yoga classes, crystals and hippie garments, and so on. The New Age guru herself should be just as realistic about the underlying processes, regardless of how she’s forced to publicly interpret her mysticism, to preserve her dignity.
The Egoism of New Age Spirituality
Let’s turn, then, to Teal Scott’s talk on why happiness isn’t selfish. Those she calls bleeding-heart liberals sometimes criticize her New Age philosophy by saying she’s actually teaching people to be selfish, by counseling them to seek their inner spiritual fulfillment rather than sacrifice that project for the sake of actually helping other people. Scott replies that the naturalistic liberals who think the world is independent of us are the real egotists, because they’re caught up in the illusion of their separateness from other people. So the liberal who works for an NGO in Africa, building schools for starving children, is actually behaving selfishly, because she labours under the misapprehension that those children are independently real, whereas they’re really just that liberal’s mental projections. All the liberal can do is work on improving her inner space, rather than being misled by the illusion that there’s an outer one. So if she wants to end poverty, she should stop co-creating poverty by worrying so much; instead, she should change her thought vibrations so that poverty no longer shows up in the world of her mental projections—or something like that.
Unfortunately, this response is sophistical. Scott equivocates when she speaks of egoism. The liberal’s objection is that Scott’s teachings imply that we should act to benefit mainly ourselves, so that our benefit becomes the object of our actions. But Scott’s reply moves the goalposts, so that egoism becomes the belief that our actions are caused by separate selves. The bleeding-heart liberal is supposed to be selfish even though she intends the beneficiaries of her actions to be starving children, because the liberal also assumes her actions are caused by her ego. So egoism becomes the belief that egos exist rather than the belief that each ego should act to benefit herself rather than some other ego. This is an equivocation. Moreover, if egoism has to do just with the assumed isolation of each self, the New Age guru is surely the biggest egotist of them all, because she’s a solipsist! She thinks there’s only one true self, God, who is perfectly alone. So how could God fail to be selfish in both senses? She must be the cause of her actions or her mental projections, since there is nothing else, and for the same reason she must ultimately think of herself as the sole beneficiary.
Scott’s myth implies that the idea of altruistic action is incoherent. Imagine you were the proverbial brain in a vat, like in the Matrix movies. Should you then help other people? Well, you couldn’t because they too would be brains in vats and you’d be dealing just with your mental projections of them. All you should do is to learn to treat the people in your world as mere mental projections, until you wake up to reality and leave behind the illusory world inhabited by them. So would there be any harm in slaughtering people that you think of as mere mental projections? The Matrix movies deal with this ethical question by positing a naturalistic reality underlying the matrix, and by assuming that if you kill someone’s mental projection you kill the brain in the vat.
But New Thought has no such restriction. Instead, the guru says that murder is wrong because it’s bad for the co-creators of that event in their respective holographic worlds. By killing a person who is only one of your mental projections (you being a projection, in turn, of the higher self who is God), you’re only hindering your spiritual evolution by attracting negative experiences that prevent you from reaching deeper spiritual insights. And the same is true if you create your own murder in your world. That’s a necessarily egoistic condemnation of murder, since in the New Age mythos, there’s no material connection between people and everyone is locked in his or her private fantasy world. So just as you can’t physically help anyone, neither can you physically harm anyone. All you can do is elevate or degrade yourself, spiritually speaking. The idea of murder, then, assumes naturalism or at least some nonsolipsistic metaphysics, but mysticism is ultimately solipsistic. Therefore, mystical morality is egoistic. If there are no separate selves, there’s just God playing with her virtual realities.
The Aesthetic Inferiority of New Thought
This is why New Thought aligns with consumerism: both encourage selfish behaviour, albeit for very different reasons. Capitalism assumes social Darwinism and thus philosophical naturalism. Animals struggle for power because they’re machines programmed by genes that mindlessly seek their perpetuation by using those machines as vehicles. The power struggle ends in dominance hierarchies which distribute the power of those vehicles according to their social standing. So more powerful people exploit weaker folks, resorting to all manner of mischief, including the lies that fill the public spaces dominated by advertisements. We should be hedonistic to support the economy, seeking our personal pleasures, because there’s no afterlife and we’re caught in a competition in which we can either win or lose in evolutionary terms, all else being frivolous delusion. From the naturalistic perspective, New Thought is a bizarre ideology propped up for economic, materialistic reasons. In any case, New Age spiritualism is consistent with consumerism on the point of egoism. Either way, we should concentrate on our welfare and should even look down on others as animalistic competitors or as second-degree mental projections. Also in either case, the egotist must wear a mask in public, pretending that she’s motivated by some high-minded ideal. Thus, the libertarian will act as though she worships individual freedom (even though she presupposes that we’re slaves to our evolutionary programming or else she appeals to math as a substitute theology, as in neoliberalism), while the spiritual seeker will seem to be preoccupied with esoteric, transcendent matters. The noble lies are needed to protect the underlying process: for the naturalist, this is evolution or some other cosmic regularity, while for the spiritualist this is the play of Source energy.
Aesthetically and ethically speaking, then, New Thought doesn’t inspire me. As works of science fiction, the myths have some merit because of their coolness factor. The core ideas are just the ancient Eastern ones, but New Age seekers give them quasi-scientific formulations to make them palatable to a postmodern Western audience. But just because the appeal is to those cynical, nihilistic postmodernists, the old ideas must be distorted and the result is a lower class of art. Is there an alternative? Remember that the New Age movement began as an attempt to naturalize ancient spiritual teachings. Whereas fundamentalists react to the rise of science by preferring the most irrational and literalistic readings of their scriptures, New Age spiritualists wanted to work with science to reconstruct the old teachings using the new vocabulary. These spiritualists should be applauded for their creativity and for the disdain they have for exoteric theism, but they lack existential authenticity; they take on board only some scientific vocabulary rather than the substance of philosophical naturalism. Thus, they deceive themselves with their pseudoscience and lose themselves in their fictions.
We do indeed have spiritual questions and we express our answers in some religion or other, including the atheistic religions of consumerism, scientism, and transhumanism. But I think modern science obligates us to establish our existential authenticity as the starting point of our spiritual journey. Science is only the messenger, however; personal authenticity means that we’re condemned to suffer, to some extent, rather than lose ourselves in blissful ignorance of natural reality. The harsh facts of life force on us a mournful sort of spirituality. We should begin with atheistic existentialism, which assumes philosophical naturalism both as a rational obligation and as a worst-case scenario to test our mettle, and then we should create art that makes natural life more bearable, telling stories that inspire us to act heroically in the real world.