What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?

When I write about religion and religious belief, I tend to write about the Big Ones. The famous ones, the powerful ones, the well-organized ones with millions of followers or more. The multinational brands; the Coke and Pepsi of spirituality. (Christianity, mostly, since, as an American, it’s the one I’m most familiar with, and the one that’s most in my face.)

But a comment on this blog made me realize that I need to talk about woo as well. In my Bringing Up Kids Without God post, I’d said, “It took me years — many, many years — to figure out that, ‘God/ the soul/ etc. can’t be definitively disproven’ didn’t mean, ‘It’s okay to believe anything I want.'” The commenter replied:

Ok, maybe here’s where the believer in me comes out, but… what’s wrong with believing in anything you want? Why ISN’T it ok? It’s one of the fundamental things our country was built on. It’s considered part of freedom. Freedom of (and I add “from” as well) belief.

I can see why belief in God can be problematic (well, actually, I don’t see why belief in just simply the concept of God itself is problematic, but rather the belief in all the dogma and crap that the Church piles on with it), but what about the other things? How does believing in, say, subatomic particles with free will hurt? As long as you’re not being held back by dogma, as long as something isn’t hurting you emotionally, as long as you don’t hurt others with it, why not do it? You once said you were GOOD at reading tarot cards back in your woo-woo days… if it works for you and it works for others, as long as reason stays the guiding point of your life, why not do it?

I’ve seen this attitude a fair amount among progressives and lefties. “The problem with religion isn’t the spiritual belief, but the power structure.” “I don’t belong to any organized religion, but I have my own spirituality.”

And while I see where this attitude comes from — and while many people I respect hold it, including this commenter — I don’t agree with it at all. Yes, I think the power structure of religion is harmful… but I think that spiritual beliefs are harmful as well. Even without the power structure.

So I want to talk about woo.

Neo-paganism. Wicca. Goddess worship. Astrology. Telepathy. Visualization. Psychic healing. The hodgepodge of Eastern and pre-modern religious beliefs imported into modern America — reincarnation, karma, chakras, shamanism etc. — that have been jumbled together and made palatable to a Western audience (what I call “Pier 1 spirituality”). Channeling. Tarot cards. Etc.

And I want to talk about why I have a problem with it.

I’ll say this right upfront: While I do think woo is harmful, I certainly don’t think it’s as harmful as mainstream religion. Mostly because it’s not as powerful. It’s not as widespread, as wealthy, as symbiotically intertwined with governments — either subtly or overtly — as, say, The Big Three, Christianity and Judaism and Islam. So please don’t come back at me in the comments with, “How can you compare Wicca to Christianity?” I’m not. There is a difference of degree, and it’s a big one.

But the fact that it’s not as harmful doesn’t mean it’s not harmful at all.

There’s an obvious, practical, direct way that woo can do harm. And that’s the fact that false premises lead to bad decisions. Woo beliefs are untested and untestable at best; tested and demonstrably false at worst. And basing your life on a false premise is going to lead to you bad decisions. Garbage in, garbage out, as the data processors say.

And I think this shows up most obviously when it comes to medicine.

When I was working as a counselor for the birth control/ abortion clinic, we had a client who had come in for a cervical cap. I asked her what birth control method she was currently using, and she answered, “Visualization.” Really. She and her partner protected themselves from unwanted pregnancy by visualizing a protective barrier of white light over her cervix, shielding it from the sperm. (She had decided to switch to the cap, not because she’d decided that visualization was bullshit, but because she was concerned that she unconsciously wanted to get pregnant, and feared that this would make the visualization ineffective. Poke holes in the white light diaphragm, I guess. Talk about an unfalsifiable hypothesis. If she didn’t get pregnant, visualization worked; if she did, it’s because she wasn’t doing it right.)

So that’s part of what I’m talking about. If you believe in the visualization method of birth control, you’re a lot more likely to get pregnant when you don’t want to. If you believe in psychic healing or the manipulation of the ki energy or whatever, you’re a lot less likely to seek tested medical help for your injured leg or your cancer or whatever. (And you’re more likely to give up on conventional medicine when it takes longer than you want it to, or takes more work and trial and error than you’re willing to give it, or is partly effective but not completely.)

That’s some real, practical, physical harm done by woo.

But this principle doesn’t just apply to medical woo.

I once worked in an office with cats (no, this isn’t a tangent, bear with me), one of whom was pathologically shy and terrified of most people, but had come to trust me and be very attached to me. Pretty much to the exclusion of everyone else. When I left that job (I’d been there for several years), I was worried that the cat would freak out without me around, and asked my boss if I could take the cat home with me. Rather than consider the question on its own merits, my boss called an animal psychic… who did a consultation over the phone, and told her the cat wanted to stay in the office. My boss explained this to me, as if it had the force of complete authority. As if the psychic’s verdict completely and inarguably settled the question.

I’m not saying this was an easy decision to make. I’m saying it should have been made by me and my boss, who knew the cat and knew the situation. It should not have been made by a pet psychic, who never met any of us in person, and who made the decision over the phone.

(Slight tangent: If you want to read one of the funniest things ever about telephone animal psychics, read this SF Weekly piece from The Infiltrator, who called several pet psychics and asked them to do readings on his dog… a dog who did not, in fact, exist.)

I could give example after example of this. If you believe that your horoscopes and Tarot readings are all pointing to “serious love relationship coming soon,” you’re not going to make smart or careful decisions about your dating life. If you believe in reincarnation, you’re going to be a lot more careless about taking advantage of once- in- a- lifetime opportunities and experiences. If you believe that the Tarot is telling you to weather the rough spots in your current relationship and that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, you’re going to stay in a bad, destructive, hopeless relationship for a lot longer than you should. You might even marry the guy.

All examples from my own life, by the way.

So that’s the most direct and immediate way that woo can do harm. False premises lead to bad decisions. And untestable hypotheses make it impossible for you to evaluate your decision-making process and make changes to it. Garbage in, garbage out

But there’s an equally important, if less immediate, way in which woo can do harm.

And that’s that it leads people away from valuing reason, and evidence, and reality. Woo, like every other religious or spiritual belief, ultimately prioritizes faith over reason; personal experience over external evidence.

I’m not saying that religious and spiritual belief completely eradicates reason or concern for evidence. (More on that in a later post.) I’m saying that, when it comes down to a hard choice between the two, it encourages people to reject reason and evidence in favor of personal feeling and experience.

Religious and spiritual belief encourages people to believe in their own feelings and instincts… even when those feelings and instincts are contradicted by reality or logic. It discourages people from being aware of the fact that their feelings and instincts can be easily deceived, played on by con artists and charlatans, or just by our own wishful thinking. It discourages people from being aware of this well-documented fact, and trying to stay vigilant about it. Every unsupported belief you hold makes you that much more vulnerable to other ones… and that much less likely to value skepticism and critical thinking at all.

I think this is important. I think reality is important. I think reality is just about the most important thing there is. And I have a serious problem with any belief system that actively encourages people to ignore it. It’s hard enough to be vigilant and conscious and skeptical about your own biases and blind spots when you do prioritize reason and reality over instinct and personal feeling… without throwing spiritual faith into the mix.

Now, as Ingrid keeps pointing out when we discuss this, there are some woo believers — neo-pagans and Wiccans especially — who take it all with a gigantic grain of salt. There are believers — I guess a better word would be practitioners — who see the ideas more as useful metaphors, and who see the rituals as comforting and beautiful rather than literally effective. They see woo as a way of altering their consciousness, re-wiring their own heads, rather than a way of directly changing external reality.

And that kind of woo, I don’t have a huge problem with. In fact, if that’s really and truly how someone is practicing it — and they’re not using it as a substitute for medicine or something — I don’t think I have a problem with it at all.

But I also think this can be a very dicey path to walk, a tricky balance to maintain. I remember, from my own woo days, how vague and half-assed my beliefs could be. And I remember how easily I would slip back and forth between thinking of my beliefs as literal, and thinking of them as metaphorical. Mostly, they would slip back and forth depending on how hard they were being questioned. When I was with someone who was more skeptical, I’d lean toward the “useful metaphor” end of the spectrum; when I was with other believers, I’d lean toward the, “Wow, isn’t this freaky, something weird must really be going on here!” side.

And I know from experience that other woo believers do this as well. I think that, if you’re going to go the “powerful metaphor/ useful practice” route, you need to be careful to do that consistently and with integrity, and not just as a way of dodging skeptical critique.

But why? Why do you need to do this? Don’t people have, as c4bl3fl4m3 asked, a right to believe whatever they want to believe?

Of course we have a right to believe whatever we want. I will defend that right passionately and ferociously. We have the right to believe that a mystical spirit guides the Tarot cards; that subatomic particles have free will; that the moon is made of green cheese; that Jesus Christ is our personal savior and anyone who doesn’t agree is going to hell.

But that doesn’t mean it’s right for us to do so.

When I say that it’s not okay to just believe anything I want, I mean that I can’t do so and be honest with myself. I can’t do so and retain my intellectual integrity. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks that good decisions have to be based in reality — the best possible understanding of reality that we have. I can’t do so if I’m going to be a person who thinks reality is more important, and more interesting, than her own wishful thinking. As the saying goes, you have a right to your own beliefs, but you don’t have a right to your own facts.

And besides, our beliefs affect our behavior. Not just our decisions about our own lives, either. They affect how we treat other people. My decision to stay in a bad relationship because the Tarot told me to didn’t affect only me. My boss’s decision to consult a pet psychic about our office cat didn’t affect only her. (For one thing, she spent money on the psychic at a time when she was having a hard time paying her staff.) Our beliefs affect our behavior towards others.

And that makes our beliefs, not just a personal question, but an ethical one.

If it were possible to believe in woo — not in a “useful metaphor” way, but really believe in it — and not be held back by dogma, not be hurt emotionally, not hurt others, not lose reason as the guiding point of your life… then no. I wouldn’t have a problem with it.

But I just don’t think that’s possible.

What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?

30 thoughts on “What’s the Harm in a Little Woo?

  1. 1

    Wow, this makes a great deal of sense. I’ve been commented a lot recently in various places about how religion and dogma are so destructive but that faith itself isn’t really so bad. I suppose that it isn’t as bad but you’ve certainly demonstrated how it can be bad. Maybe a 5 (out of 20) on the hoverFrog badness scale.
    Most recently I’ve been talking with a woman in America who hold to a literal belief in Satan. I’ve been trying to explain that Satan as an anthropomorphic embodiment of evil (20 on the hoverFrog badness scale) isn’t so bad but that thinking that he’s a real person is just plain crazy.
    Anyway here is the crux of my argument: Let me explain my problem with such a belief, if I may. Blaming evil acts on Satan, transferring the act or the intent of evil onto an external being strips away the opportunity to own the act. A lack of ownership means that you can never seek forgiveness and never atone for the act. Not in any meaningful and genuine way. It strips people of their responsibility and allows them to do unspeakable things. I’m not saying that this is conscious but I do feel that the world would be a better place if responsibility were taken for things done.
    You said it better though. 😉

  2. 2

    In my day job, I work in a bank call center. In my second career, I do content writing for websites. One contract I had was for a “nutrition” store; you know the type, homeopathic medicines, Kevin Trudeau books all over, and lots and lots of crystals and herbs.
    I felt like a whore, the dirty kind who doesn’t really like sex. One of the pages I had to do for it involved crystals. I had to describe 25 different crystals and what were the unique “properties” of each one; strengthens chakra, attracts good people, promotes prosperity. That last was my favorite recurring theme, btw. The ones that promoted prosperity did a good job for the seller, if not for the buyer.
    The web designer I was working for knew I was skeptical and he said he would carefully edit the page to make sure I wouldn’t slip anything skeptical in the copy. I didn’t have to. The sellers did it for me. They had written a disclaimer for me to add at the bottom of the page.
    “The scientific evidence for the efficacy of crystals has not been demonstrated. In the end, all of the positive needs in our universe can be met with Love, simply Love.”
    But, love don’t pay the bills, does it?

  3. Ben

    Thank you for this post. I have close friends—rational people—who fall for some of this stuff. Feng shui, spirit animals, astrology, etc.
    I still don’t understand. But at least I’m not alone in not understanding.

  4. 5

    “Visualization”? The mind boggles!
    There’s another important downside to believing in woo, which this post alluded to: it makes you a sucker for con artists. Hardcore woo believers waste tremendous amounts of time, effort and especially money obtaining treatments that don’t work and advice that’s useless. All they’re doing is enriching fraudsters and throwing away money that they could have spent on more useful endeavors for themselves.
    Oh – and thanks very much for that link to the pet psychic article! I have a family friend who’s into this sort of stuff, big time. I wanted to call the pet psychic myself and invent a nonexistent pet, like this guy did, to prove that she was making it up… but then I wondered, was this really the best use of my skepticism? Proving that pet psychics can’t really communicate with animals telepathically? It seemed to me that doing that would be like picking a fight with a small child. But I’m still glad someone did it! 😉

  5. 7

    This is superb! It needs to be published and disseminated as widely as possible, along with the “Atheists and Anger” blog.
    Great work, and thank you for writing it!
    ~David D.G.

  6. 9

    see i m not much of a frequent blogger and dont discuss religion much…just 19 years old .and live in india.and i agree to not following any religion blindly..i believe in doin good,ie the proper karma and not thinkin about the result or the effect..all religions tell us the same thing.buddha tells the same …dont desire of anything..ur action should be done free from the thought of effect.u have to do ur duty.ur karma properly.
    BUT !!!! Woo….hmmm i have some doubt…i dont believe all this blindly ….the medicinal effects and all that.but i have seen and experienced 1 ritual for sure.In dussehra festival in india
    in the month of october in kullu(state himachal pradesh)..the local gods are worshipped and they are brought to a common place that very day.from different valleys on palanquins .and its quite easy to believe by watchin them that the direction in wich they move is reallysomething determined by them and the people carrying them just follow the direction…u can feel it very simply.i was never told this by anyone…like my parents or frens.just by watchin it i can make out..and i even know people who didnt believe this and tried to carry it and really got grilled…and everyone who tries to chek gets convinced 100% that its moving on its own will…
    …..u need to see this

  7. 10

    Rahul, thank you for writing, and welcome to the blog! But the problem with what you’re saying is that personal experience of the sort you’re describing is a very unreliable form of evidence.
    Our human minds are very easily fooled. And not just by charlatans who are consciously trying to fool us. We’re fooled by other people who are as eager to believe as we are; we’re fooled by our our own tendency to see what we want and expect to see. And — most pertinently when it comes to religious and spiritual experiences — we’re fooled by our brain’s tendency to see intention, and pattern, even when there isn’t any.
    I haven’t had the specific experience you describe. But I’ve had many other experiences that, at the time, I was absolutely convinced could not possibly be explained by anything other than the supernatural. Now that I’ve done some wider reading on this type of experience, I realize that every single one of those experiences did have a natural explanation — usually having to do with my own perception, and my ability to judge the accuracy of my own perception, being imperfect.
    That’s why “Everyone who tries this feels something!” is not a good source of evidence. That’s why experiences like the one you describe need to be subjected to rigorous scientific inquiry — to screen out our minds’ tendency to be fooled.

  8. 11

    I just bookmarked a dozen of your posts. They are great. They elucidate core topics of atheism and skepticism in ways that are understandable even to believers.
    Thank you.

  9. 12

    Great post, good points.
    One issue that’s alway bugged me (I don’t if you’d consider it “woo”) is the idea of free will.
    By free will I mean fullblown, not determined by the laws of physics but by some vague thing called “you”, indeterminite free will.
    Rationally, I think it doesn’t exist, I’ve never heard a coherent account of it that is plausible (i.e. doesn’t resort to spirits, or free-will having subatomic particles or somesuch).
    But in some situations it seems almost undeniably better to believe in such a falsehood than the truth. The idea that someone could have acted differently in the past than they actually did is sometimes harmful, but often seems a very important part of growth or even basic happiness.

  10. 13

    Great post, good points.
    One issue that’s alway bugged me (I don’t if you’d consider it “woo”) is the idea of free will.
    By free will I mean fullblown, not determined by the laws of physics but by some vague thing called “you”, indeterminite free will.
    Rationally, I think it doesn’t exist, I’ve never heard a coherent account of it that is plausible (i.e. doesn’t resort to spirits, or free-will having subatomic particles or somesuch).
    But in some situations it seems almost undeniably better to believe in such a falsehood than the truth. The idea that someone could have acted differently in the past than they actually did is sometimes harmful, but often seems a very important part of growth or even basic happiness.

  11. 15

    I tend to be a Wiccan of the useful metaphor school myself. I used to own a New Age store and my ex-business partner and many of the customers were twoo believers. At least I think my ex-business partner was a believer; she could certainly talk a good line of BS when she got going.
    Let me tell you though, some of those twoo believers are nuts. There was one woman, who thankfully never came into the store AFAIK, who called up one day looking for help to get a hex taken off her husband. Somewhere in the tale of woe, she let slip that he was military and had been deployed to Iraq. Apparently, when he got back, he’d changed drastically. Light bulb goes on over my head. I tried pointing out to this woman that being in a combat zone has that effect on people and if they don’t get counseling, it can be long term. I don’t think I ever got through to her about that one; she was too wedded to her woo explanation to listen to a suggestion that maybe the problem was PTSD. For me though, the more she talked, the more convinced I was that her problem was utterly mundane. In fact, I was starting to suspect a positive feedback loop (in the engineering sense which is bad), i.e. he came back traumatized, she reacted badly which pushed him away. She freaked out which pushed him farther away, etc. I suppose you can add this to the list of harm woo can do. I do find it ironic though, that the owner of the New Age store (me) was the one being skeptical.

  12. 17

    I had no idea there was an entire field of pet psychics.
    As for the rest of your post: Whoo-hoo!
    Woo is not just all over the Right; the Left is rotten with it. We, the radical Left, really need to reclaim our fine anticlerical heritage and apply it rigorously to all forms of Woo. Criticism of mainstream this and that is good. Following it up with uncritical acceptance of alternative Woo is bad.

  13. 19

    Not sure how I got linked here, but I had to comment and leave you some massive props for this entry.
    You said a lot, and you said it well. My personal experiences in life have shown me time and time again just how damaging woo can be to people.
    Love how you tied in the old programmer mantra “garbage in, garbage out” — I never thought of applying that reasoning to critical analysis of mystical belief structures, and I applaud you for it!

  14. 20

    I keep stumbling back here. Good post, nice blog.
    My thoughts on the subject are very similar. I also think that the right to believe whatever one wishes is vital, though I’d just as soon see superstitious nonsense eradicated. But abolish the right to believe and we may end up imprisoning the next Galileo.
    I’ve always said I’ll respect one’s right to believe even if I think the belief itself is ridiculous (usually when I call something silly and and met with the old “But that’s what I believe, you have to respect that!”).

  15. 21

    I must say that you are wrong. I know plenty of functional, intelligent people who believe in what you call “woo” and they are fine to do so. I think it is all just fantasy personally, but they are not obsessed with their belief to the point that it obstructs their ability to reason and understand reality.
    You are wrong because most woo beliefs are irrelevant to most of daily living and only have a noticeable impact in reality when something serious happens: Like when concentrating solely on “reality” would be pointless in that there would be nothing you can do to change it – like when a family member dies.
    People find comfort in believing that there is more than “reality” and may live more balanced, happier, more productive lives as a result. Perhaps some of the greatest artists and writers were inspired by a few casual woo beliefs they had.
    There are plenty of cases in which embracing nothing but the hard science of reality is harmful. Some people have a hard time stomaching the idea that their actions are all predetermined, or that one will permanently cease to exist when he dies and never get to see any of the people he loves ever again. Sometimes this way of looking at the world is harmful in that it leaves very little room for one to cope.
    “Woo” has its place – in some cases it is a coping mechanism, in some cases it is a motivator, and in some cases it simply spices up life for some people. In summary, there is NO SUCH THING as this one, perfect belief system that satisfies every need. If I don’t want to believe that my grandmother – and everything about her that made her a wonderful and special person – is rotting in a hole, then you should damn well respect that.

  16. 22

    WhiteDragon103: There’s a lot I could say to this. But I don’t debate religion with people who are grieving or in crisis, and who are currently, at that moment, relying on their religious beliefs to support them.
    I know that many atheists, including myself, have found ways to deal with death, grief, loss, and crises without religion. But I would never try to persuade someone out of a religious belief in a difficult time when they feel they need it. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your grandmother, and my hopes that you get through your grief in whatever way you need to.

  17. 23

    What do you mean that Greta should “respect” your beliefs about the afterlife? She didn’t seek you out personally to overturn your beliefs. Are you saying that no one should publicly argue against a belief because someone somewhere likes that belief?

  18. 24

    Beautifully written post. You strike to the core of it, but graciously. I am a hardliner when it comes to belief systems. I tend to see people who pay cat psychics as mentally ill and distrust them in all things, for if a person’s hold on reality is nebulous in one small instance how can I trust them in anything? Beyond the damage a woo believer does to her own identity there is the little matter of the messes that the rest of us have to deal with. A local example for me is the Mormons buying their way into heaven with babies. Polluting the earth with excess people is ugly but always a personal decision, however, polluting the school system with excess pupils is a drain on the other tax-payers.
    Your argument stands invincible: reality is everything; deny it and it bites you, and the rest of us with you.

  19. 25

    So true, Greta. The bit about people using their own woo-related intuitions over obvious evidence reminds me of something I heard in relation to an article about the human sense of direction: it’s usually okay, but if it goes wrong, makes a mistake, that intuition can completely override the evidence then presented to them.
    The example the article gave was, if a person is told to navigate a maze or route, and intuitively believes that there’s, say, the town hall off to the right, then even if you can see it over to the left they’ll still go right to get there, trying to justify it to themselves by saying it’s the museum, not the town hall, that they can see. That’s the problem with woo: it’s a way of thinking which actively encourages people getting lost.

  20. 26

    I am always grateful to see atheists writing about the “religious left” as I call them; a critical analysis is rare. I dislike atheists’ tendency to only harp on Christianity (sometimes thinking Paganism/new age is benevolent, and sometimes even defending Islam). I am an ex-pagan and was never Christian. Paganism has more cult-like tendencies b/c of the practice of covens (dysfunctional circles of frenemies who hate each other but convince themselves they have perfect love and perfect trust)and the fact that it is less organized means that any egomaniac can manipulate a group of people. I wasted a lot of time and lied to myself, basically b/c I wanted to fit in. Ideas like “I always knew I was different, unique” (often said by Wiccans) are attractive, and people want to feel that about themselves. It is also a bad influence on young people; the last thing we need is more teenagers thinking they have magic powers.
    Other woo beliefs (the law of attraction is a poster child, but there are others) are similar to mainstream religions in their victim-blaming. Either bad things happened to you b/c you sinned or didn’t believe enough or it’s karma or, the most insulting, you attracted it with your own thoughts. People will do anything to avoid facing that life is unfair.
    An example of how people straddle between literal/figurative is a list of things that are needed in a spell, and then if those things are not available, “well, all you really need is your mind”. Well, you either need it or you don’t. Otherwise why would you waste your time and money acquiring this junk?

  21. 28

    “I tend to see people who pay cat psychics as mentally ill and distrust them in all things, for if a person’s hold on reality is nebulous in one small instance how can I trust them in anything?”
    OrugTor, that’s not very reasonable. It’s human nature to compartmentalize ways of thinking to the context in which you learned them. A brilliant scientist with a firm grasp of statistics and the scientific method, who would reject the God hypothesis outright if he came across it as a novel idea in his research, can lose all that rationality and become as credulous as anyone else the moment they walk into church.

  22. 29

    Great post, as usual. As a Pagan, I get really sick of the lack of critical thinking in my community- I feel like something of a heretic for not believing in astrology, magic, reiki etc. Oh well, no one’s going to burn me at the stake! Though I do think some forms of alternative medicine can be effective (ex: chiropractics, acupuncture), they shouldn’t completely replace mainstream medicine. Each practice & technique should be carefully weighed first.

  23. 30

    “If you believe in reincarnation, you’re going to be a lot more careless about taking advantage of once- in- a- lifetime opportunities and experiences. ”

    I have a much worse example, someone who was actually careless with her life because of belief in reincarnation. Fortunately having a kid made her come to her senses. A little woo might possibly do no harm if acted exactly like a person who did not believe in it. Humans do not work that way. What we believe affects how we act.


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