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27 October 2023

Spirituality is the only rational option

Woo-woo was once obnoxious. But with a material world in turmoil, atheism's proving illogical.

By Pravina Rudra

The fastest growing belief system in the UK is not atheism, but shamanism. Between 2011 and 2021, the census tells us, its followers increased tenfold. Shamanists believe in the existence of a cosmic world inhabited by spirits, accessible through altered states of consciousness (by consuming, say, the psychedelic ayahuasca). Think Jacob Angeli, the topless man who became the defining image of the US Capitol riot, wearing a horned fur hat with dangling ear-warmers.

Paganism (which sees holiness in nature) grew to 74,000 followers, and wicca (which involves witchcraft) is expanding too. In the US it’s common for those without a religion to describe themselves as “spiritual”, rather than agnostic or atheist – to believe there is something beyond the material world and demonstrate “awe” or practice rituals as a result. The West, and young Westerners in particular, are becoming more spiritual. Previous generations had anchors in their lives without having to have God, but now there are no guarantees when it comes to home ownership, peace, or even gender.

Spirituality provides something to hold onto. It last underwent a resurgence after the First World War, when parents used ouija boards and held séances to communicate with sons killed in battle. Millennials, Gen Z and progressives embrace spirituality because it mostly does away with religion’s strictness around sex, sexuality, and the place of women in society. It has no history of abusing schoolboys.

On dating apps people list their star signs and on TikTok influencers show you how to make vision boards. When I first went to Buddhist-run meditation classes eight years ago, they attracted the sorts who seemed to find it a sanctuary from a society that had rejected them. But now I find them filled with gregarious and cool types who fiddle with their piercings during chanting and flirt over mint tea during the breaks.

[See also: The witchcraft generation]

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Like many who were brought up religious and turned atheist, I’ve long distrusted anything “woo-woo” – as an adult, the smell of incense unsettled me. A belief in the metaphysical seemed to be accompanied by a lack of self-awareness and a far-fetched vocabulary. Earlier this year I went on a couple of dates with a man whose dating profile contained photos of him wearing tribal headdresses and body paint. He told me he’d been on a “contact improv” retreat in Bali – supposed to transcend materiality through dance involving, ahem, a lot of touching. While I suggested I had no interest in an open relationship, he happily informed me that he was concurrently figuring out his future with a woman he’d had tantric sex with as part of the retreat.

It wasn’t just me who found spirituality obnoxious. My friends would roll our eyes at how home water births divert resources from maternity wards in the case of emergencies. Girls who talk about their crystals vibrating were, let’s be honest, the kind who’d steal your boyfriend. Ultimately, spirituality felt illogical. Horoscopes strike a chord because they’re generic ego strokes: “You feel like people don’t recognise your abilities, but something good is coming your way.” And when was Mercury not in retrograde?

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But then, I increasingly wonder whether rationality is any more logical. Evidence suggests that atheists are just as susceptible to groupthink and other non-rational forms of cognition. The natural conclusion of believing that rationality has a monopoly on morality is surely the effective altruism (EA) movement. EA measures “quality-adjusted life years” such that it is self-admittedly more concerned with the prospect of AI killing us all rather than poverty or climate change (the sheer quantity of the people robots could kill, ie the entire human race, supposedly outweighs the improbability of the event occurring). Mathematicians and scientists come up against the limits of rationality every day through irrational numbers, Russell’s paradox and quantum mechanics.

And in a way, we’ve all come up against a wall with rationality. Many educated, anxious young people have done cognitive behavioural therapy; they’re versed in psychoanalysis. But they crave a sense that there’s something bigger looking out for them; something that binds humanity amid their everyday existence of exploitative landlords and faceless self-checkouts. When everything else feels unpredictable, nature’s steadfastness is compelling: the trees stand their ground and shed their leaves every autumn; the same sun has been rising for millennia. The pressing threat of climate change validates the sacredness of Mother Earth.

Meanwhile, science refuses to spurn spirituality: Mindfulness and acupuncture are NHS-funded, Nice-approved on the basis of increasing evidence of their efficacy. Yet the former is based on the practice of sati or awareness, part of the Buddhist path to enlightenment, and the latter on qi, the ancient Chinese concept of “life force energy” running through our bodies. A study at Johns Hopkins University found cancer patients given the active ingredient of magic mushrooms came to terms with their deaths after experiencing a feeling of interconnectedness with the universe (there is often a striking commonality in the visions of those who take psychedelics, involving nature and otherworldly gods). A Columbia University professor, Lisa Miller, finds that belief in a higher power significantly decreases the risk of mental health problems in adults and substance abuse in adolescents.

Spirituality’s beauty is that in an era of disappointment, it can’t disappoint. If you didn’t manifest your pay rise, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough or the universe didn’t want it – “if it’s meant to be, it will be”, they say. Spirituality is so vague as to be non-falsifiable: its open-endedness means it can’t hold higher powers (nor its believers) to account. But as we experience the ruinous effects of people who possess certitude on politics, culture wars and the Middle East, I wonder if spirituality might be the only antidote to this age of self-righteousness.

[See also: Britain’s crisis of unbelief]

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