New Age fundamentalism

Published on May 7, 2013 by      Print
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By Scott Robinson

When my wife was teaching me to sail, she would say things like, “The boat’s thinking about jibing now.” Which is nonsense, of course; boats don’t think. But it was a useful and even poetic distillation of what was happening, and of what I needed to do about it—which was, of course, how I took the statement. (Not that I didn’t end up capsizing us anyway.) If I had taken it literally, it would, besides being of no use, have remained the nonsense that it appeared prima facie. And there’s a word for that: “fundamentalism.”

You hear a lot of this sort of thing among New Agey-type folks.  Someone once advised me to “let the negative energy flow out through the soles of your feet into the ground.” Which is, once again, patent nonsense; energy is neither “positive” nor “negative,” and anyone who tells you otherwise is betraying an appalling ignorance of physics. But like my wife’s statements, this one is a useful description of a type of experience, as well as a guideline for how to have the experience. Unfortunately, an awful lot of people, it seems, take this sort of statement literally—which makes no more sense than Young Earth creationism, if you ask me. Happily, no one is pushing to have this sort of thing taught in our public schools (yet).

My own Christian tradition conveys its teachings primarily through narrative, rather than aphorisms and precepts.

Jesus, after all, only gave only one recorded sermon—but He told a lot of stories. And stories of and about Jesus have inspired some incredibly heroic people: Mother Constance and the Martyrs of Memphis, Charles Lwanda and the Martyrs of Uganda, Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement, Oscar Romero, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Maximilian Kolbe, Cesar Chavez  and Martin Luther King, Jr., to name a few.

But the story-based approach is also a liability for the Gospel faith, because it lends itself so readily to fundamentalism. When people tell their children that the fossil record (which, interestingly enough, corroborates the creation story of the first chapter of Genesis on many points) was put there by God to test our faith, they may preserve their literal interpretation of a metaphorical-poetic story, but they don’t do anything for our scientific competitiveness. And they end up wasting colossal financial, political and emotional resources trying to force their worldview on our public institutions.

For me, one of the most damaging effects of this kind of fundamentalism is that it sets up a straw man for the most militant and—dare I say it?—fundamentalist brand of atheists to attack.  By engaging exclusively with the most dunderheaded versions of the Divine, as set forth by our most unevolved religious thinkers, they render it all but impossible for a non-dualist like me to make them understand how very much we have in common, and how very little we differ.  All they can see is their “Flying Spaghetti Monster,” and I am deprived of fellowship with some otherwise formidable minds.

What about your tradition?  What fundamentalisms do you run up against in your practice of Yoga, Buddhism, Sikhism, Pastafarianism, atheism or what-have-you?

About Scott Robinson

Scott Robinson heard Krishna Das say, “I don’t think my high school guidance counsellor had ‘kirtan walla’ on his list of professions,” and every day he feels better for having heard that. In his mid-forties, Scott gave up college music teaching and embarked on full-time a kirtan/spiritual direction/dad track in 2009. He is currently finishing up study in spiritual direction at the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, and has begun study at the New Seminary for Interfaith Studies in New York. He lives in Philadelphia with his wife, two brilliant daughters and two incessantly shedding dogs. You can learn everything you ever wanted to know about Scott’s work and more at .



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  1. Louis says:

    I’m afraid that is the risk inherent in telling stories. There will always be people who take them literally. Couldn’t we have a general rule that would mandate a disclaimer before the telling of each story? Something that would warn the person about to read or hear the story that it is a totally fictional account, not to be taken literally and its only purpose is to teach a lesson through allegory.
    I agree with your point that the dunderheaded views of the divine become a stumbling block to the intelligent exchange of honest insights. I just don’t see any way around that without a complete and final expurgation of myths, fairy tales, stories, parables and the rest of similar fiction. Unfortunately, most people cling to the story more than the message.

    Response posted on May 7th, 2013 , 1:26 pm Reply
    • Scott Robinson says:

      Trouble is, Louis, that stories are such fine teaching aids. The story about Milarepa putting his head in the demon’s mouth has done more to help me face my own demons than any amount of “clear information” could have, for instance.

      Response posted on May 7th, 2013 , 1:58 pm Reply
  2. ronald says:

    Being a fundamentalist to a narrative is almost unavoidable. Most people have a personal narrative that creates an identity, “I am a __. I won’t/must __.” Sometimes when I don’t know why I’m doing what I’m doing or thinking, recalling my various narratives helps with the explanation, and finding a way out. I think most of the trouble arises when I assume these narratives are a closed and inevitable set, the only ones possible, and often the narratives themselves encourage this. This is what I think causes trouble for some atheists, as being one outloud in the present day requires being against something, and so reenforces blockages and closure to other narratives, other people’s experiences. Dropping fundamentalism and making an open set means dropping the surety of one’s own experience and narratives, who one is or might be as an individual. Thank you for reminding me of this.

    Response posted on May 8th, 2013 , 4:27 am Reply
    • Scott Robinson says:

      Thank *you*, Ronald; very good point.

      It’s also interesting to me that people who are fundamentalist about “negative energy” or what-have-you can be some of the loudest detractors of those who take *stories* literally.

      Response posted on May 8th, 2013 , 5:38 am Reply
      • ronald says:

        I am not sure what you mean. If you get a chance and could expand on what you mean, I am interested. The people I have met who strive to keep all “negative energy” away (including anyone who disagrees with them) seem uninterested in stories of any sort, instead trying to preserve or manufacture a very precise ideal of what they or their life should be. There is another attitude which is what I think is more what you are getting at, that dives into conflict and uses “negative energy” to address stories, and seems to want to create something by destructing or dissecting what doesn’t match what is readily verifiable.

        Response posted on May 9th, 2013 , 3:19 am Reply
  3. YogaNerdMD says:

    This SO PERFECTLY distills how I’ve always seen the non sequiturs used by the yoga community. These aphorisms are descriptive of what you can feel or visualize, but not statements of scientific fact.
    I’ve always thought that belief in crystal healing is pathognomonic for New Age nuttery.

    Response posted on May 9th, 2013 , 8:40 pm Reply
  4. Trevor Ronson DeFries says:

    Good article but perhaps because I’m old as hell I take a more cynical view. (If you live long enough you get to see it all come back). When New Age was peaking with Windham Hill records and Ram Das I pegged the “movement” as just a pick up scene, which, in my mind, is what it was first and foremost. It was just another twist on late 60s culture. Instead of people asking, “What’s your sign”, it became “what crystal color do you prefer”. I suspect that some of the more dedicated were actually on the level but from what I saw it was just another scene for hooking up. I worked at a health food collective in the late mid 80s and it was worse than any singles bar I had been in. So sure there are some people who might be employ New Age concepts in their approach to living – perhaps at a fundamentalist level. And it is reasonable to debate if that is a good idea or not. But for me the NEw Age scene was just a front for social interaction overlaid with an alleged agenda of spiritual development.

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