From voodoo to woo-woo

Voodoo dollWoo-woo:
adj. concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey. Also n., a person who has mystical or new age beliefs.

OK, that’s a dictionary definition of the term Woo-woo (or simply Woo) but what’s it all about and is it contagious?

Woo has been with us in one form or another for a very long time. Ever since the first snake-oil salesman showed up claiming to cure your herpes/headache/hemorrhoids with a bottle of his magic tonic (Today only – buy one get one free!) there have always been those only too happy to provide the ‘solution’ for certain basic human needs and desires, for a price. What desires are those I hear a throng of at least four voices enquire earnestly? Well I’d say it mainly comes down to our craving for easy answers or instant cures for what ails us.

Whether it’s crystal-healing or reading tea leaves, astrology or lucky charms, most people have a tendency to allow their emotions and imaginations to rule over their critical faculties. It doesn’t help that critical thinking is not generally taught in schools and most young minds are exposed to a wide variety of religious or non-rational ideas long before their brains are capable of distinguishing facts from fairy tales.

A big challenge for those of us wishing for a more rational society is that the human mind is not by default tuned for rationality, logic or scepticism. Our minds are highly receptive to stories, powerful narratives that make compelling colourful tales seem believable, even when a more logical analysis would render them fantastical fictions. Big-foot, alien abductions or the Loch Ness monster may be just stories, but they gain traction in our minds in ways that scientific scepticism and logic find hard to counter.

Looked at from one perspective (a slightly cynical atheist curmudgeon’s perhaps..) religion is the ultimate woo-woo. It is the supreme blend of purest snake oil, curer of all ills, solver of all problems and righter of all wrongs. It claims to provide exactly what every buyer needs. Of course the sellers will always say only their blend is the real deal, those other blends are clearly fakes. Here comes the collection plate, all cheques and credit cards accepted.

The core narratives of religion that help provide many with a sense of meaning, comfort and hope, are rarely judged by the same criteria as any other stories. If you arrive in town claiming you flew in on an invisible magic unicorn, folks tend to adopt a somewhat sceptical stance. You may encounter laughter, mockery or even end up in a locked room with unusually thick wallpaper. But if the fundamental belief system you were raised in tells you its tenets were beamed directly into the mind of your most holy prophet, as he flew into town on a invisible magic unicorn, people will generally give it the benefit of the doubt. Go figure, as they say.

We tend to believe what suits us and reject the more likely but less comforting truths. I might want to believe I am one day going to have the book sales of JK Rowling, the mind of Stephen Hawking and the animal magnetism of a young Brando. This is not at all realistic, but if I find a book in the self-help section tomorrow that promises all this and more,  has really good reviews on the back cover and says its methods are all rigorously scientific, I may just be tempted to buy me some of that snake-oil.

One major problem for humanity is that the rather credulous nature of the human mind leaves us open to exploitation by those who would seek power, wealth or prestige. Whether it’s prophets or profits, there are always opportunities for the cunning or the confidently deluded to hoodwink us into believing them. From ancient beliefs in magic, curses and demonic possession, to modern-day cults like Scientology, people are often only too willing to open their minds, their hearts and their wallets to the woo.

I’m all for freedom of personal belief, providing your beliefs do not cause you to infringe anyone else’s basic human rights. What I am much less tolerant of is ignorance. This is the 21st century and we ought by now to be a lot less gullible, less willing to be hoodwinked by a tall tale and a smooth patter. It’s high time we learned to ask questions, check sources and take people’s claims with healthy pinch of sceptical salt. As Carl Sagan memorably put it: ‘Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.’  If something sounds too good to be true, it usually is.

If you feel like hedging your bets, you could always follow in the footsteps of the famous Danish physicist Niels Bohr, who was supposed to have been posed the following question about the ‘lucky’ horseshoe mounted over his door:

“Do you, a sober man dedicated to science, really believe in that superstition?”

“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I’ve been told that it’s supposed to be lucky, whether you believe in it or not.”

For many of us, battling the woo of anti-science and superstition feels like an on-going daily task, and a Sisyphean one to be sure. But we all need something to believe in, and nobody is completely free from the many cognitive biases to which we are all prone. I know this, just as a wise old gypsy once predicted I would.
 
Copyright J.Lennick 2015 All rights reserved.
 
Image via: wix.com
 
 

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14 thoughts on “From voodoo to woo-woo

  1. It sounds like we may have similar attitudes to a lot of these questions. I always describe myself as a “no-leaning agnostic” whenever questions about religion come up. I don’t think this is a cop out. I don’t feel comfortable calling myself an agnostic because there is just so much I just don’t know, and as I get older, I feel I’m becoming increasingly aware of just how unimaginably vast my ignorance really is. My strong suspicion is that there is no supreme creator — I haven’t seen much in the way of evidence for His (or Her) existence — but I’m not going to claim knowledge I don’t have.

    In addition, although I’m rather suspicious of religion, I have many friends and family members who are religious but are not zealots and not idiots. I sometimes get a little uncomfortable with the stridency of certain atheists, even though I agree with them on the specifics.

    One of my two all-time favorite books is “The Demon-Haunted World” by Carl Sagan (which I’m guessing you’ve probably read). I think he got the tone exactly right. The most moving section for me was the part where he talks about his parents and says how much he wishes he could see them again, but then adds that he’d rather have the truth than a comforting fiction. In his writing, he is full of compassion for his fellow man, but feels he has to follow the truth where it actually leads, not where he would prefer it to go. That’s pretty much how I feel about it too.

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    • I usually confess (when threatened with torture by the comfy chair..) to being an agnostic-atheist. I don’t pretend to know anything about the existence of a creator, only that it seems very very unlikely and quite unnecessary as an explanation. I do agree on the whole vastness of our ignorance point, I think many great scientists and philosophers have recognised this too. (Demon Haunted World has been on my ‘must read’ list for ages)

      We’ve all seen where militant and literalist religious faith takes us, or indeed any extreme ideology. I can only hope for a future where such faith that does still exist is more in the form that it is practised here in Denmark. It more a set of traditions and cultural rituals, marking various life stages. Nobody seems too bothered about god and nobody is ready to kill or spread bigotry in the name of their faith. That’s the only type of religion we can live with as a species, the other forms are simply too divisive and destructive.

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      • Yep, I agree with all of that. (You should read the book if you get a chance, by the way. It really is very good.)

        I have the greatest respect for people like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, Daniel Dennett and the rest who are outspoken athiests/agnostics and usually find myself agree with the content of almost everything they say, but I do sometimes think their frustration with the illogicality of believers sometimes leads them to be overly dismissive of them at times.

        Many, probably most, people have religious beliefs not because they have reasoned things out logically, but because they are afraid of dying, or they want to be reunited with their dead loved ones, or they want to be part of a community, or they want their life to have a purpose.

        I don’t think as a matter of fact that religion is can give them most of these things, but I understand the impulse and I don’t sneer at it.

        The situation in Denmark sounds quite good. It really seems to depend on the country, though. In the United States, for example, it seems no politician can finish a sentence without asking God to bless his country. I’ll bet any Belgian Prime Minister who said “God bless Belgium” every five minutes would be laughed out of office.

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  2. The problem with rationality is that it doesn’t make us laugh or cry, love or hate. It’s dry, cold and removed from our most important experiences. Unfortunately, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, it’s only the marketing and advertising cretins who seemed to have realised this. The ‘scientification’ (?) of western society is why nobody engages with it anymore.

    My belief in god isn’t based on rationality, but then neither are most of the things that give me satisfaction, purpose and pleasure in life?

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    • I don’t think a rational mindset in any way detracts from appreciating humour or love or music or any other aspect of life. Believing a god created it all doesn’t really add anything to the picture. It simply tries to answer one mystery with another mystery.

      People engage with great narratives, so clearly science will tend to struggle to capture hearts and minds if it is presented as something dry and cold and carried out in laboratories.

      Science has helped to free us from the mental slavery of superstitions and dangerous beliefs. But science alone cannot solve all our problems, which is why I believe it needs to be closely allied to an inclusive humanist-type philosophy, one that celebrates life in all its diversity, without making us slaves to divisive ideologies.

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      • I wasn’t suggesting a rational mindset detracts us from anything, I was just offering a possible reason as to why people may not be attracted to it.

        There is however, a side-effect to having such a dominant scientific mindset in the West, and that is that other areas of human activity can sometimes be devalued and even belittled? I feel I’m able to think rationally, when being rational is what’s required. I’m also fascinated be scientific thought and theories. But for me personally, the arts will always be more important. Art in the West is becoming less and less valued.

        As I said, a belief in god isn’t about rationality, it isn’t about answering questions. All ideologies can be misused, and scientific discovery has led to many dangerous ‘beliefs’?

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  3. Just read your very interesting post and noticed that we both wrote about religions within days of each other, only differently, and you as usual a bit deeper and funnier, but I can live with that 🙂 Thank you for sharing lovely new words too.
    And because you are asking for self-help book tips (not), here is one which is great: Julia Cameron The Artist Way (on Amazon used for £3). She was married to Martin Scorsese in the swinging seventies and also a recovering alcoholic, and what she came up with is pretty good.
    I saw that you don’t have a ‘follow me’ button on your page for others to get email notifications every time you post something new. Maybe think about it, because I have so many things in my reader that at times I feel overwhelmed by the amount and avoid it for days. I know, makes a lot of sense. But emails I always check.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you Jason. I think our entire personal life is pretty much a woodoo performance.Never tried, proofed and experienced before but we are acting it confidently, often happily, sometimes bravely or proudly. Great unic ART.

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  5. I am not religious either so anything relating to invisible beings in the sky is something that has me glazing over within 0.01 seconds. But there are things that I believe, or at least would like to believe that the logical brain may have difficulty with.

    I would love to believe the healing properties of Aromatherapy for example, I have even bought a bunch of oils and such to “help” with my ills, both real and perceived (mostly real though). I would love to believe that reflexology will help sort out “issues” with the various body parts that it allegedly is supposed to sort out. Do they work? I’ve not idea but I would like to think that they do.

    Also with the internet there is so much information out there and so much of it is false or embellished that no one, especially Joe Bloggs layman like me can even begin to understand it. It is an interesting subject though for sure.

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    • It is so difficult to find reliable info online and there are so many ‘gurus’ with their own wares to peddle, despite their complete lack of knowledge or qualifications. A lot of what makes some cures helpful is down to the placebo effect – our belief in it makes us feel better.

      There are sites like this that may be of use: https://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/

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      • thanks for the link. I’ll check it out when I am at work.

        I think I am especially suseptable to the “snake oil” charms as I have an auto immune condition called Sarcoidosis. although I am “lucky” and only have a mild form

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