As I started questioning the foundations of New Age thought, people around me became very uncomfortable. In response to this spoken and unspoken discomfort, my questioning became guarded and almost completely introspective. I stayed up late many nights, studying and researching – on the Internet, in books, or wherever I could find worthwhile information. I had a great number of subjects to research – and because I had always maintained a free and open dialogue with my readers and listeners, I also had access to constantly updated information about the New Age movement.
In just a few years, I had fielded thousands of letters, phone calls, and e-mails from people all over the world (my aura and chakras book was published in six languages). This allowed me to track New Age and metaphysical ideas and personalities as they moved from group to group and from country to country (like banned pesticides, many debunked New Age ideas and teachers magically reappear in distant venues where their past poor conduct is unknown).
I began to use the Internet to research New Age trends, teachers, and ideas – at proponent’s sites and at sites I found by adding the words “problems with,” “debunking of,” or “warnings about” to each of my search topics. I also repeatedly scoured my local library for balanced and measured books about the New Age, but I found very little – because most books in the genre were either unbendingly pro-New Age, or unbendingly anti-New Age. I found those one-sided books disappointing and tedious – so I relied more heavily on the web, where I could quickly click away from sites that were polarized and continue my search for something more balanced and perceptive.
I had also been the recipient of countless chain e-mails about spiritual cures, health warnings, virus alerts, and lost children – and I had learned to research them online before reacting or responding. This research led me to the brilliant, responsible, and wonderfully humorous Snopes Urban Legends site – which is devoted to tracking down and confirming or debunking chain e-mails, hoaxes, virus warnings, and the like.
I respected the Snopes site so much that it became my home away from home. I spent many hours at Snopes researching the wild hoaxes, sad misunderstandings, and outright lies that careen endlessly around the Internet.
The Snopes methodology – which treats each urban legend seriously (almost as an archaeological artifact) and traces it to its very beginnings – was exactly the kind of respectful and intensive research that I wanted to be able to do on New Age ideas. At Snopes, I didn’t see the condescension and polarization I saw in the anti-New Age books I had read, and I really appreciated it. As I delved deeper into the site and worked to understand the Snopes methodology, I clicked on many of the research links listed on its pages. In very little time, I ended up on the websites of the skeptical community.
Oil, meet water
Let me tell you now (if you don’t already know) that the skeptical community and the New Age community are like oil and water: They don’t mix. As I thought back to those tedious, one-sided library books that I had discarded as unimportant, I realized that they contained either full-on New Age faith, or full-on skeptical dismissal, with no middle ground whatsoever. Those tiresome books separated the world into two warring camps of believers and skeptics, with each camp slyly or not so slyly maligning the intelligence, the character, and the worth of the members of the other camp.
Although I was interested in what each camp had to say, I didn’t want to get involved in their pointless bickering. It was also personally painful for me to read the pro-New Age books and see so many things that I knew were untrue being trumpeted – just as it was painful to read the skeptical, anti-New Age books and see my community being treated so disrespectfully.
I felt extremely wary about the skeptical community, so I tread carefully on the skeptical sites I linked to from Snopes. At first, I had a hell of a time reading pages that used words like scam, sham, dupe, quack, absurdity, or fraud to describe my beliefs and my culture. While I agreed with much of the content on those skeptical pages (because I had witnessed so many New Age ideas that just didn’t work at all) I didn’t appreciate their tone, which was condescending, simplistic, and smug.
On those skeptical pages, the New Age was portrayed as an unregulated refuge for wild-eyed quacks and fortune-tellers, but I knew that portrayal to be unfair and untrue. The New Age certainly has its share of unbalanced people, but they’re not nefarious or immoral for the most part – they’re just seeking or offering answers in unorthodox ways, and learning the hard way about the limits of power and authority, and the pitfalls of being a healer or leader.
Even though I bristled at the insensitivity on the skeptical sites, they contained such a storehouse of vital information that I learned to read around the endless cultural prejudices. To be fair about this charge of prejudice, I have to point out that it is perfectly acceptable for New Agers (who are usually peace-loving light bringers) to demean and dehumanize skeptics – so it wasn’t as if the offensive tone of the skeptics had no basis or background. A feud exists between these two communities, and it creates bad feelings, bad behavior, and ugly stereotyping on both sides.
However, I skimmed over the feuding and the hot-button words so that I could understand what this community was trying to say – to itself and to the larger world. In my healing work with traumatized people, I had learned to search around and behind strong emotions in order to make sense of what was actually going on. These skills helped me tremendously in reading around the angers, rages, fears, moral panics, and resentments that course through the discourse of the skeptical community.
Enter Professor Carroll
One night in the spring of 2003, I landed at the site of the Skeptic’s Dictionary, where I found the writings of an educated and iconoclastic man named Robert Carroll. Carroll spent many years compiling his website, which contains alphabetized listings of hundreds of New Age, metaphysical, and spiritual topics – each defined and traced to its roots (The Skeptic’s Dictionary was published in book form in 2003 by John Wiley and Sons).
Robert Carroll was at that time a Philosophy instructor at Sacramento City College in California (he retired in 2007), and his site grew out of the research he did for the Critical Thinking courses he taught each semester. His website is a teaching tool that provides information, links, and background about New Age topics.
Many skeptical sites and books can be authoritarian and culturally insensitive in tone, but Skepdic shares its research openly and provides links for students to discover more on their own. I appreciated the site and Carroll’s attitude, both of which tended toward bemusement rather than cruelty (though sometimes, Bob can go on an irascible bender when too many commenters attack him. I empathize, but I also feel saddened by it).
Skepdic is similar to the Snopes site – it’s the work of an interested and interesting person who debunks not to be disrespectful (usually), but because discovering what’s true and untrue is a necessary function of intelligence.
As I had done at Snopes, I spent countless hours poring over everything on Skepdic, and following endless links. However, I tread delicately, because Skepdic covered subjects that were very close to my heart. At first, I clicked onto safe topics – topics that I knew from personal experience to be highly suspect or outright failures (breatharianism, est, orgone boxes, or urine therapy, to name a few).
When I saw how Carroll handled those clearly suspect topics, I began to trust his scholarship, and slowly, I circled around topics that were less safe for me … such as psychic skills, reincarnation, auras, chakras, and the foundation of all New Age and metaphysical thought: energy.
Cue the chipmunk!
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