This is just what a Gemini would write. Air-sign motherfuckers.

Expand full comment

I wonder how much of both religion and belief in woo-woo is loneliness and the need to have someone listen, attentively and patiently.

A friend’s dad went to confession every week and spent an hour with the priest each time. He was a lovely, kind, generous man. I can’t imagine he had all that much to confess. My friend thought he used the priest as a therapist, because for men of his generation therapy was taboo.

Another friend consulted a pet psychic when his dog was old and very sick. She talked with him for a long time, really listened to him, and helped him to make the decision to put his dog to sleep.

Maybe we would all be better off if everyone were perfectly rational or were able to ask courageously and honestly for help and attention. But we don’t live in that world, and in the one we’ve got, religion and woo alike are giving people what they need.

Expand full comment
Jul 19, 2022·edited Jul 19, 2022

I agree with much of this but I think you're missing a critical point: People can't thrive without meaning and the kind of meaning offered by perspectives like yours about God / Death etc are just never going to work for most people.

I know many educated people will absolutely loathe what I am going to say - to the point it makes them weirdly angry - but zero faith isn't a real option for our society. You get to choose either nihilism or some kind of woo-woo. Even most existentialism is on the woo-woo scale if we're going to be really, devastatingly honest. Why do people matter? In a *solely* material universe they really don't - AT ALL. And no amount if "I make my own meaning man - people just matter man! Isn't it all tragically beautiful in some way!" is going to change that. You think life is worth preserving? You think its all tragically beautiful somehow? You think the truth matters more than choosing whatever the socially optimal woo-woo would be? Great. People, truth, beauty whatever - none of it is objectively worth *anything* because there are no objective values: its oxymoronic! Values are just chemicals reacting and neurons firing to help our genes propagate on the savanna and there's no reason to be bound to any of them.

The debate about whether God exists or not is *way* less pressing than the debate about what we should do in the face of people *wanting* the mystical. Because I think this explosion in hot garbage ersatz religious stuff is the inevitable and highly predictable consequence of the squeezing out of religion so completely. The choice is really between a) nihilism and b) the best version of woo-woo mysticism we can have. My bet is that is probably a mature religious tradition, layered in doubt and healthy humility for most people but YMMV.

Expand full comment
Jul 19, 2022·edited Jul 19, 2022

"This is frequently chalked up to living in an increasingly stressful era; I have never seen satisfying proof that there’s anything more stressful about now as compared to, say, George W. Bush’s United States, but thus the story goes."

That wouldn't be unprecedented. WWI and the 1918 pandemic are often credited with a big uptick in spiritualism.

As for comparisons to W's America, you had a quip a while ago that I liked so much I wrote it down: "In recent decades it's felt like everything has been undermined and nothing has been built. We churn out college graduates who can critique everything but create nothing." For whatever combination of reasons--polarization; disinformation and social-media echo chambers; America's weakening economy and obviously declining influence in the world; formerly revered historical figures being (rightly or wrongly) rejected as racist monsters, etc--the feeling that everything is falling apart and circling the drain is, to me at least, much stronger than it was during W's tenure. Back then, if you thought we should go to war with Iraq, you had a cause to believe in, and if you didn't, well, you had a cause to fight for as well. Now we all seem to hate each other (online, at least), and institutions like legacy media, the public health establishment, and the police have all lost the more-or-less default trust that most people once placed in them.

When everything in the visible world seems to be slipping through your fingers like sand, a lot of people will turn to the invisible world, which conveniently can be anything you want it to be. It's probably related to the decline of traditional religion as well--people generally need to believe in something, and if they stop going to church they will still fill the hole with tarot or Q-anon or politics.

Expand full comment

Unfortunately a lot of today's mysticism comes not from evangelicals, but from the academy (power posing, priming) and the workplace (mindfulness, non-big 5 personality tests).

Expand full comment

Modern astrology and witchcraft, especially as practiced among millennials and younger, is so popular because it slots perfectly into modern consumerist identity-formation, easy to wear, easy to perform. It’s suddenly popular because there are 12 Zodiac signs and you can start a social media account that caters to all of them - guaranteed hits on every video, because you can encourage everyone to click on the content for their sun, moon, *and* rising. Look, I made this especially for you - I’m looking directly at you.

Crystals, herbs, candles, smudge sticks, altar cloths, flowy black clothes with botanical patterns on them, mugs and tshirts and jewelry with your astrological sign on them -- these are things you can buy. You can make haul videos about your witchy shit. You can compare your crystal collections to your friends’. The religion of self-conscious millennial woo is about buying the accoutrements to deck out your public persona and then using it as a cutesy ironic social crutch. Nothing more fun than being in a circle of friends, all of whom are happy to play pretend with you and admire your stuff while constantly reminding each other that all of you are in on the joke, that none of you think this is *real*.

Expand full comment

Jokes aside, once a tarot card reader at an insufferable hipster party in Bushwick accused me of stealing her money, CALLED the police on me, and then when I was like, "Dude. Why would I steal your $25, I have a job (this was when I had a job) and she was like, "ARE YOU SAYING TAROT CARD READING ISN'T A JOB!?!?!?"

Expand full comment

On Saturday I attended my uncle's memorial service. It was the first time I've been in a church building in 5 or so years. I felt comforted by the gentle support of the believers, and I felt their sincerity deeply. The old songs and scriptures (selected for the sombre moment) were beautiful. But their belief felt alien, incomprehensible as literally true, even though I used to think the same as them.

During the service, a huge storm rolled in. Loud thunderclaps shook the chapel. While the preacher shared a word of encouragement, a water leak suddenly burst through the ceiling in the hall. Later, when the Spanish-speaking church minister was talking of hope, everyone's phones started loudly beeping with a flash flood warning.

The religious could take all of those facts and discern the presence of God. The woo could take all those facts and discern the movement of spiritual energy. To me, they were just things that happened. Proof that life on the surface of this planet teems on, that the tadpoles in our backyard wouldn't dry up, and that my ephemeral grief is real, if not invested with any universal meaning.

Expand full comment

Just want to point out skepticism and atheism aren't necessarily synonymous. I'd consider myself a skeptic by disposition, and I'm definitely not a believer, but I can't fully embrace the "atheist" label.

The backlash to New Atheism happened partly because its adherents could be so dogmatic, so contemptuous of any objection to their narrow, brittle version of rationalism. And, I think many people who believe in God are capable of a healthy skepticism on most matters in life. Faith doesn't mean you automatically embrace any old dubious claim made by religious authorities. Just look at how many ardent churchgoing people switch denominations or traditions at some point in their lifetimes because they're searching for something that rings truer to them. In its own way, that's a type of skepticism -- and I'd say it takes more courage and deeper self-interrogation than the casual lifelong atheism of a person raised as a nonbeliever.

I want a culture in which there's more skepticism, more critical thinking, more opprobrium towards religious hucksters of all kinds, from Prosperity Gospel scam artists to astrology bullshit. But I don't think that's necessarily the same as an irreligious culture.

Expand full comment

I’m amazed that you’re amazed that the god-shaped hole keeps getting plugged with an odd assortment of stuff.

Expand full comment

I suppose this is an unusual position, but I do not think the existence of god matters even a little bit.

If god is not real, then life carries on as it does now. If god is real, it also carries on as it does now. God's reality wouldn't spring into existence the moment we make such a discovery (assuming such a discovery were possible), and so we've been living as a species for 100,000 years under the same supernatural conditions.

I don't see why that would substantially change because we discovered that there is proof of a god or gods.

Belief seems to be the real aspect that influences behavior. And the believers will never be convinced by evidence that god is not real. They would also always be convinced that their god is the god that got proven to be scientifically real. And their belief and behavior would likely look identical to how it currently is.

Expand full comment

If all beliefs about fates, attraction between people, destinies, predictions about the future, but most importantly the morals & values conveyed through those belief systems are untrue — then there is nothing left to live for but overt materialism.

That is where we are today as a society — it is clear that the “purpose” of life for much of the atheist-science-bearing-neoliberal-class is to accumulate as much wealth, status, and power as possible. You crunch 1s and 0s all day so you can make a paycheck from a company, and then go home and tell your friends that you make said paycheck for said company. You are a cog. And moreover, we can see in today’s economy of NFTs and seemingly valueless purchasing that so much meaning is just derived from speculative exchange, from the need to assign value to items in order to feel a purpose in your economic position — what are all these rich kids supposed to do with all this money? With this college degree? Oh, so I can afford an NFT! It’s like purchasing a long CVS receipt just to show your friends.

Anyway, “pure” science (i.e. objectivity, atheism) independent of firm moral guidance (like helping others, the betterment of humanity, etc.) has led to this present era in which pharmaceutical giants withhold rather than distribute medicines, vaccines, and patents; hospitals are privatized, the best medical care is saved for the best health insurance, wealthiest cities/countries, etc. Pure science left without a moral compass simply yields more materialism — yes, we develop new vaccines and medicines, even electric cars and space travel, but only insofar as they yield more profit and status for those buying and selling them.

On the flipside, one might infer that institutions of “belief systems” — Greek and Roman mythology, Judaism, Christianity, all of the world’s religions, paganism, astrology, etc — is to harbor meaning independent of materialism. While, yes, we know that every religious institution under the sun has been guilty of profiteering, scams, etc, it is massively cynical to assume that the belief systems that dominated and continue to dominate humanity are purely born out of scamming profiteers. When you look beyond the layer of “superstition” in any belief system — God, the astrological houses, gods in the sky, etc — you will find an articulation of social meaning codified independent of material reality.

Some people want more to life than to crunch numbers to make money to buy food to then shit it out. And, in my opinion, the insistence on crude materialist-atheism above all else is tantamount to siding with the CEOs of big companies who want to continue to burn the planet to the ground.

Finallt, It’s no coincidence that many leftists have religious or “spiritual” roots or investments during their lifetime — MLK, Malcolm X, Chris Hedges, Cornell West to name some big ones, or even the ubiquity of astrology in today’s queer/trans community. You can also find a whole lot of interest in various healing practices among American BIPOC community organizers and leftists, usually with the intention of finding spiritual refuge from all the pain and suffering they’re exposed to on a daily purpose. I would argue that the withdrawal of America’s neoliberal class from spiritual practices represents an avoidance of reminders (like sermons) of their materialist exploits, while the reemergence of spiritual practices like astrology reveals a need to pursue purpose beyond pure materiality.

Expand full comment

Looking back at the Bush years (the earliest era that I was politically self-aware enough to follow the rhetoric, since I was too busy playing in the sandbox at recess to care about the Yugoslav war or the fall of the Berlin Wall), it does kinda seem like most of the Atheism vs Christianity arguments and polemics were proxy wars. Arguing whether or not God exists was what people did instead of arguing about gay rights and the War on Terror. Obviously, the best argument against gay marriage and lifestyle is that it is a taboo, aka, God Said So. Likewise, the justification of invading Muslim countries in self-defense was best done by crusader rhetoric, aka, God Said So (it certainly wasn’t justified by rational self interest).

So New Atheism was never (at least in my conception of it) about the metaphysical question of where the universe came from if not from a Creator God. It was an attack on the justifications that underpinned the whole ethos of neoconservatism at home and abroad.

And the moment the Bush era was over, the sword of New Atheism was beaten into a plowshare and abandoned, because who cares about debating theology now that gays can marry and Obama now justified the War on Terror by claiming it was just rational self-interest to drone strike Afghan rednecks and Iraqi gangbangers?

Expand full comment

As a Unitarian any debates I'd get into about the existence of God would become tediously semantic... but I'd like to think a lot of people use Tarot as a storytelling tool, effectively.

I think irrationality's often good for art. Most socialist realist art was kitsch at best.

The problem comes when people try to make arguments for political or ethical positions based on hookum, rather than hookum per se.

Expand full comment

It’s pretty obvious to me why humans have a tendency toward the irrational. You know how some evidence has shown depressed people have a more accurate perception of their own circumstances i.e. “Depressive Realism”? Accurately assessing the world and your meaning in it isn’t always the most beneficial way to go about guaranteeing survival. I think humans evolved a positive bias as a survival tool. The illusion that we are special, the illusion that we have control when we don’t, the illusion that meaningless things have meaning. Sure, much of the time it’s all just pointless fantasy, but I think it triggers the motivation to act and take control of what we can. If you accurately assess the meaninglessness and hopelessness of your situation it can demotivate you to do anything about it. Thinking you have the moon and stars on your side can make you think you have a chance and the minority of time it pays off makes it worth it on an evolutionary level. We have fire, agriculture, the internet, space travel. All of those are based on moon shots.

Expand full comment

I went 30 years on this earth without ever hearing anything about Mercury being in retrograde and somehow have heard it dozens of times in the last 2. I would like to go back.

Expand full comment