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New age nonsense

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Now that's a relief.

Now that's a relief.

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they believe in everything," wrote English author GK Chesterton.

It's a rather apt description of many God-sneering Australians who've turned their back on organised religion but embraced the kooky catch-all of "spirituality".

Aside from "pull my finger", the line guaranteed to get me exiting a conversation is "I'm really spiritual". The speaker often thinks this marks them as open-minded or non-conformist but to my ear signifies someone willing to believe endless varieties of horseshit.

Astrology, animal allies, auras, aromatherapy, astral travel, Ayurvedic healing - that's just the nonsense I could think of beginning with the letter A - there's truly no irrationality that won't find gullible adherents expressing an eerily similar certainty to that of many church-going faithful.

As any scientist will tell you, certainty is the enemy of reason. Some of science's greatest "truths" are at best provisional, destined to be found wrong when future discoveries lead to new "facts". For all its advances, science still can't answer enduring questions such as "the meaning of life", "what happens when we die?" and "what is a human soul?".

What it can reliably tell us, however, is that a vial of water, a coffee grounds enema or crystal pressed to your forehead will not cure headaches, let alone cancer. This is why a knowledge of science is indispensable for scattering silly fantasy and its sillier disciples. 

The Chesterton quote above comes from a recent article by T. Michael Ellis in the Journal of the Rationalist Society of Australia, a century-old organisation whose mission is to "support reason against prejudice, science against superstition, evidence against blind faith".

A former member of the association, Ellis believes Australians are increasingly scientifically illiterate and thus lack the education to spot hokum.

"Children leave school not knowing a single thing about science. I'd hazard a guess only one person in about 10,000 in this country would know precisely why there are seasons*," writes Ellis.

"And yet this is 450 years after Galileo, and 2200 years after Erastosthenes! This is simply not acceptable in a first world country ... [and] leads to a much wider problem than religion, namely widespread superstition."

Superstition is "belief entertained regardless of reason or knowledge", and it multiplies. Once you believe the planet Pluto can influence your love life and finances, it's easier to accept fluoridated drinking water harms you, immunisation causes autism, sugar is a poison or anthropogenic climate change is not happening.

You don't have to be an idiot to entertain any of these fashionable delusions, however, you do need to be scientifically ignorant. Precious few credible scientists still argue against man-made climate change or affirm such bull's wool as iridology, homeopathy, reflexology or meridian therapy.

Worryingly, there are millions of Aussies who do.

"Education used to be centred on the three Rs, but today we live in the scientific age. We should be concentrating on RRRS," writes Ellis, suggesting General Science should be compulsory for all students up to Year 10.

"For those not specialising in one of the sciences (such as biology, geology, chemistry or physics), General Science should still be compulsory until Year 11 (and must be passed).

"When society is scientifically literate, religion and superstition wither away," writes Ellis.

The weed, he argues, is scientific ignorance, the roots of which die when exposed to reason and logic and take with them a host of nutty falsehoods best left in fairytales and magic shows.

*Earth experiences seasons because it is tilted on its axis by 23.5 degrees.

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237 comments

  • With only one science trained backbencher and no Minister for Science our present government is unlikely to make things any better.

    Commenter
    BB
    Location
    Western Vic
    Date and time
    November 12, 2013, 6:50PM
    • The current government plays by manipulating the ignorance of the people.

      'There is no climate change', 'There are WMDs in Iraq', 'refugees are throwing their children overboard'.

      It is in their interest to have an ignorant population, all the better to manipulate.

      Commenter
      denier
      Location
      australia
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 1:24AM
    • Science for all its achievements, not least the discovery of objective reality, having overthrown superstition and the pre-scientific Weltanschauung, has failed to then turn around and understand the human psychology and need behind religion.

      Dawkins response to believers is to say Jesus is invalid because if you had been born a Muslim you would would worship Allah/Mohammad. if Hindu you would worship a Hindu god etc. Ie they can't all be right. All the while being blind to the ubiquity of the human use of a god image! And the central place of god images in the environment of evolutionary adaption, and the species need for them. Daft stuff.

      So spouting off at the obvious nonsense of the new age, the author could research into subjective human experience. Whether there is a God or two out there or not. is not the only point.

      The author comes across as not having read much of philosophy/art/religion and its expression of the human condition.

      Rationality (ie the use of reason, ie consciousness) is the modern prize (rightfully so), however we deny our inherent irrationality at our peril. So much of our life is governed by irrational motivations, which we implement with impressive instrumental reasoning. However the ability to win a war does not mean one should wage it, as WW2 or Iraq or the GFC etc demonstrate.

      Science is not immune from the irrational. Is science its own master? Or the servant of corporate power? What actually happened at Fukushima? And are people who are scared of nuclear power irrational, well yes, but wrong, probably not.

      Commenter
      ian
      Location
      brisbane
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 10:34AM
    • (the rest of my post that did not make the 300 word limit, sorry should not have been a reply to BB)

      I wouldn't be so certain the spiritual is valueless.And what we hate is usually the denied of our own self. Although we have gone from earthly god images to sky god images with the rise of reason (consciousness) and now feel alienated from nature and our own nature.

      Couldn't agree more with giving people a scientific education. However what of a moral education? Has mankind morality kept pace with her technical ability? What about a spiritual and/or artistic education, ability to love and to interact with ones own subjective psyche (human nature)?

      Is a scientist in love any less a fawning simpleton and blithering idiot than the rest of us?

      Commenter
      Ian
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 12:44PM
    • So true. Playing on the public's fear and ignorance (and apathy) is the Government's greatest weapon when it comes to manipulating the mindless masses. Whipping up public support for Australia's involvement in foreign wars is just one classic example.

      Religion was an effective way of controlling the fearful, ignorant (and sometimes angry) masses in the good old days - it still is in some places.

      Commenter
      Elizabeth
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 2:30PM
  • Spirituality/religion are part of the same crutch that the desperate and ignorant lean on to allay their insecurities.

    Altohugh, I think more than 1 in 10,000 know the reason for the different seasons. That's a really depressing assertion for many reasons.

    Commenter
    Bender
    Date and time
    November 12, 2013, 9:10PM
    • 1 in 10,000 is hopefully pessimistic, but when half of the population don't know what or why a year is and a quarter think humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time (http://www.science.org.au/reports/science-literacy.html) perhaps not.

      Commenter
      Harvey KTel
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 5:11AM
    • The trouble with science is there is always something between Science and You. Usually the media putting their spin on things.

      Unless you are qualified and involved in a particular study then you have to BELIEVE what you are being told. Is that really any different to religion?

      I am atheist, only the truth matters.

      Commenter
      Master of Sparks
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 7:54AM
    • I remember reading that, Harvey. I couldn't bear to delve into it further to find out if it was just a poor study with poor questions and thus a poor outcome.

      But it shows there should be an intelligence test for voting. Believing in creationism should be one thing to rule you out.

      Commenter
      Bender
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 8:42AM
    • Would that therefore invalidate Abbott as PM because he believes in a God and allows his perceived ideas of what his God wants, to affect his view of what he thinks I want, and therefore infects his policy judgement.

      Not only that but surely if he does not repeal any Abortion legislation and also make the use of contraception illegal, then surely he is being a hypocrite as he can't really be Catholic as the church prescribes against both of these.

      Therefore I would say to all 'true believers' you assume only the bits of your doctrine that you like and gleefully and sinfully ignore everything else.

      Religion on your terms not Gods.

      I'll stick with science, discovery, and the belief that my kids will outlive me and by my demise, I make room in this small and limited World of ours for their children.

      Commenter
      Joe the Atheist POM
      Location
      Geelong
      Date and time
      November 13, 2013, 10:15AM

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