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Books -- July 1996

The Latest Fashion in Irrationality

When the inner child finds a guardian angel,
publishers are in heaven

by Wendy Kaminer

FINALLY, after nearly ten years of getting in touch with their inner children and recovering from abuse, millions of consumers of personal-development ideas have found the perfect parents. Guardian angels watch over all of us, books picture best-selling books about angels proclaim. Like Superman, they swoop down and save us from sudden death--lifting us out of the way of oncoming cars or catching us when we fall off cliffs. Like Mr. Chips, they nurture and inspire us: "We were given an angel to help us in the creation and writing of this book," Alma Daniel, Timothy Wyllie, and Andrew Ramer, the authors of Ask Your Angels, confide, describing angels as the "social workers of the universe." They give us unsolicited, unconditional love.

Descending from heaven, or wherever, not bound by the mere material world, angels also give us proof of immortality and the comforting belief that there is no death, only some sort of energy transformation, which is confirmed by other best-selling spirituality books. The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield, assures us that what we imagine as death is a happy transition to a higher spiritual plane: a new Eden awaits us in the next millennium. Books about near-death experiences describe the brief sojourns in heaven of people who died but were sent back to earth by God, or God's minions, to complete their missions or simply to spread the word: there is no death. Books about reincarnation promise us many lives before we achieve spiritual perfection and ascend in the end to--whatever. For Americans who are depressed about the future of this material world and anxious about violent crime, income inequality, inadequate health care, war, global warming, or the decline of the nuclear family, there is incredibly good news about the cosmos.

Publishers of popular spirituality books have already died and gone to heaven. The Celestine Prophecy recently passed its hundredth week on the New York Times best-seller list. Embraced by the Light, Betty J. Eadie's report on her near-death experience, held the No. 1 slot on the New York Times list for more than thirty weeks. Sales of Sophy Burnham's A Book of Angels have reached about 750,000. Angel books have sold millions of copies, as have books about alien abductions. Abduction, John E. Mack's 1994 account of his interviews with "abductees," and Whitley Strieber's Communion, a firsthand account of abduction, have been best-sellers as well.

The abduction stories are not simple anodynes; aliens are a lot scarier and more aggressive than angels. In some ways they are like the bad parents of recovery books. Indeed, aliens engage in the worst form of abuse--sexual molestation. (And abduction stories rely on the reader's belief in "recovered-memory syndrome," popularized by the recovery movement.) But extraterrestrial abuse often turns out to be a form of tough love, or at least a necessity: the aliens are mating with us, creating a hybrid, higher life form. Although tales of alien abduction generally begin in terror, they end in enlightenment--the revelation that we are not alone in an indifferent universe. Usually the aliens want to save us from an impending apocalypse.

Like established religions, mass-market spirituality books often differ ideologically--some tell us we only live once, while others preach reincarnation--but they share a general belief in immortality and the presence of extraterrestrial or celestial beings devoted to our welfare. They share as well a general disdain for reason, enshrined by the therapeutic culture. Drawing on popular psychology even more than on religion, experts on angels, aliens, and life after death traffic in "feeling realities." John Mack, a psychiatrist, writes that he took seriously an alien-abduction story if "what was being reported was felt to be real by the experiencer . . . and communicated sincerely" (as if sincerity in these cases might not be simply a measure of the intensity of delusion). The truth lies in what you feel, personal-development experts assert, not what you "know in your head," much less what you can prove. People who have talked to their guardian angels, ET, or God can only agree.

Spirituality authors, who are generally forgiving of most human foibles (people aren't bad, only good or less evolved), take a hard line on intellectualism. Murder they can rationalize: murder victims are spirits who volunteered to be "part of some other soul's enlightenment test," Marlo Morgan reports in Mutant Message Down Under, a best-selling story of spiritual encounters with aborigines. Skepticism they view with contempt, as the refuge of the unenlightened. The Celestine Prophecy workbook, a guide to using The Celestine Prophecy, begins by reminding us that "those who take a strictly intellectual approach to this subject will be the last to 'get it.'" To change the world we must "break through the habits of skepticism and denial."

Like virtually all books of its genre, The Celestine Prophecy can confidently demand that readers suspend their disbelief because it tells so many people precisely what they want to hear. Its message is that there is no such thing as a coincidence; there are no chance encounters, no arbitrary events, no reasons for existential angst. There is only cosmic synchronicity, to which we become attuned as we evolve spiritually. (The assurance that events are not random, that we live in a universe ordered by a benign supernatural being, is repeated in many popular spirituality books.) We have, then, no reason to worry about the future; it holds the promise of paradise. According to The Celestine Prophecy, in the future humankind will evolve into a spiritually enlightened culture of peace and harmony.

In this new Eden critical thinking will be unnecessary. Truth will be self-evident and accessible to all. People will simply "intuit" the answers to global problems like pollution, and to individual problems as well. "Guided by their intuitions, everyone will know precisely what to do and when to do it." Who would choose the hard work of thinking over the serenity of knowledge bred in the bone?

So reason is reduced to a mere developmental stage for humankind. The Celestine Prophecy provides a summary history of the past thousand years. Born out of the secularization of human culture, science was useful in providing us with a map of the material world; but it cannot help us to understand the nonmaterial world of interpersonal energy or the spiritual questions that confront us as we approach the millennium. As one of the characters in the book explains, a "particular attitude known as scientific skepticism . . . served us well with the more obvious phenomena in nature, with objects such as rocks and bodies and trees, objects everyone can perceive no matter how skeptical they are." But, she continues, thanks to Einstein we now know that "the basic stuff of the universe" is "a kind of pure energy that is malleable to human intention and expectation . . . our expectation itself causes our energy to flow out into the world and affect other energy systems." Most scientists simply can't take this notion seriously, she laments.

You can hear in this denigration of science an attempt to appropriate its credibility, which is typically New Age. (Angel books, for example, talk about doing scientific research on the existence of angels.) Einstein is on the side of The Celestine Prophecy, we're told. Most scientists are not sufficiently evolved to carry on his work. After all, they would not take seriously the assertion that in the future human beings will be raised "to higher and higher vibrations." (There is much talk about vibrations in pop spirituality books; highly evolved people usually vibrate more.) The Celestine Prophecy reports that as we evolve, vibrating at higher levels, we become invisible to the less evolved among us. As distilled spiritual energy, we achieve virtual immortality.

All these insights into the meaning of everything are delivered in what the flap copy for The Celestine Prophecy calls "a parable filled with vital truths"--a description bound to lead an unsophisticated reader to believe that this book is fact, not fiction. It is, however, a dime-novel adventure story about a man who goes on a quest in Peru to discover an ancient Mayan manuscript containing the Nine Insights that will save humankind. The story is told in the first person; the style is testimonial and borrows liberally from popular notions of spirituality and personal development. Mutant Message Down Under is equally coy about the veracity of the author's reported adventure with aborigines: the flap copy labels the book fiction, but in her preface Morgan claims that it was "inspired by actual experience." She writes, "It is sold as a novel to protect the small tribe of Aborigines from legal involvement." In other words, it's a docudrama, which some readers are apt to consider literally true.

For people who believe in angels, to be sure, believing in The Celestine Prophecy isn't much of a leap--angel books tell similar truths. According to A Book of Angels (which started a publishing trend), angels and other supernatural beings are constantly intervening in our lives. Whatever we consider coincidence is evidence of the divine. And we can facilitate divine intervention through prayer: "It is the pleasure of the universe to give us what we need." This means that mind and spirit are stronger than matter. We can control events, making wishes and dreams come true. The Celestine Prophecy makes a similar claim: "When you have acquired enough energy, you are ready to consciously engage evolution . . . to produce the coincidences that will lead you forward." Angel books, however, require a little less initiative: you don't "consciously engage" evolution yourself; you simply ask your angel.

THE appeal of these books is clear. They promise us bliss--a world of no evil (only spiritual retardation), fear, loneliness, pain, or death. The failure to deal with evil is striking. In near-death-experience accounts God, or the "Being of Light" who greets us when we die, is nonjudgmental. Like a wise but indulgent parent, He, She, or It smiles ruefully upon us when we review our sins, knowing that we will do better next time. It's easy to sell good news like this, and the authors confidently rely on classic fallacious arguments. They argue by declaration, which is what makes the books so amusing. In matter-of-fact, authoritative tones, the authors tell us how plants and human beings exchange energy--or they describe what angels look like, whether or how they're sexed, how they communicate with human beings, and how they differ from ghosts. Readers might be expected to wonder, How do they know?

What makes fantastic declarations believable is, in part, the vehemence with which they're proffered. Again, in the world of spirituality as well as of pop psychology, intensity of personal belief is evidence of truth. It is considered very bad form--even abuse--to challenge the veracity of any personal testimony that might be offered in a twelve-step group or on a talk show, unless the testimony itself is equivocal. Once, I landed on a radio show with a woman who claimed that she and her family had been abducted and sexually molested by aliens. When I said that it might be difficult for some people to accept her tale at face value, she angrily offered as evidence of her encounters bodily markings, memories, and (in a stab at empiricism) "metallurgically flattened shrubbery" outside her house. I told her that I was sorry for her trouble. Sometimes I, too, feel as if I'm sleeping with an extraterrestrial. Ubiquity of belief is also offered as evidence of truth. Ask Your Angels asserts that the references to angels in popular culture--in songs such as "Teen Angel" and "Johnny Angel," and in movies such as It's a Wonderful Life and Heaven Knows, Mr. Allison--constitute evidence that angels exist, as do the popularity of angel books and the willingness of the industry to publish them. Whatever sells, whatever many people believe strongly, must be true. There are, however, exceptions to this reliance on feelings as evidence of truth: if, for instance, your feelings lead to disbelief instead of belief, they're apt to be dismissed as some form of denial. This is not a common problem. Usually intellectualism, not "feeling reality," is blamed for disbelief. But, some angel experts suggest, there may be emotional as well as intellectual barriers to belief: unwillingness to believe in angels can reflect low self-esteem.

These are perfectly closed belief systems; the possibility of error is never considered. If you don't see angels, or energy fields emanating from your rhododendron, you simply don't know how to look for them. The possibility that some people who believe that they commune with angels or ghosts or enjoy mystical out-of-body experiences may be hallucinating is given little credence. Like detective stories, spirituality books usually discard the most plausible explanations and adopt the most implausible ones for the mysteries they encounter. Rational, alternative explanations for a belief don't, after all, assume the truth of whatever is believed.

All these styles of argument--arguing by declaration, arguing from intensity and ubiquity of belief, and arguing from a conclusion--are routinely employed by personal-development experts, including codependency gurus and a range of inspirational and motivational speakers. So it is easy for readers to switch from one belief system to another--to turn from codependency books to books about angels.

In fact, authors and publishers expect that many of these books will share an audience, and they offer similar solace. They present solutions to both global and individual problems: focusing on personal spiritual evolution and the evolution of humankind, they're not above giving advice about how to get a better job. Norman Vincent Peale's best seller The Power of Positive Thinking has the same preoccupation with the metaphysical and the trivial: it will cure existential anxiety and improve one's golf game. Virtually all personal-development and spirituality books partake of the positive-thinking tradition, which pre-dated Peale by at least a hundred years. They also cross-reference one another. Ask Your Angels, for example, includes a twelve-step angel program. The Celestine Prophecy talks about codependency, and The Celestine Prophecy workbook cites the best-selling alternative-medicine guru Deepak Chopra.

These books offer membership in a spiritual elite. Indeed, the authors tend to see themselves as messiahs, chosen by aliens, angels, or various "Beings of Light" to help save the world. (People who claim to have been abducted by aliens often observe that they have always felt "special" and now know that their alienation was literal.) But a spiritual encounter isn't necessary to join the elite; merely reading these books and being open to their messages is cited as a means to enlightenment.

Belief systems like this demand very little of us. A good attitude substitutes for good works. Self-absorption may be a spiritual imperative. Nineteenth-century revivalists, late-twentieth-century recovery-movement experts, and an expert on spirituality like James Redfield tell us that by working on our own religious, psychological, or spiritual evolution, we are working on the world. "Your own willingness to take time to study The Celestine Prophecy is part of the evolutionary process," Redfield writes. "The amount of consciousness you bring to the collective mind is part of your contribution."

Activity is not required; in this world there is no such thing as a sin of omission. Popular spirituality books involve even less self-help than popular psychology, with its exaltation of experts; instead of working through the twelve steps or any other technique, you can now wait for angelic intervention. But what is perhaps even more troubling than the childlike passivity encouraged by these books is their denigration of skepticism and their encouragement of habits of unreason, which carry over into political and work and home life. The elevation of personal truths and personal testimony over logic and verifiable fact which links popular psychology and popular spirituality today also infects other kinds of belief.

Consider the militia movement, which invests the New World Order with demonic power. Propaganda of the extreme right (like propaganda of the extreme left twenty-five years ago) employs the same techniques of argument found in popular spirituality books. Propagandists argue by declaration, relying on intensity and relative ubiquity of belief. (Genuinely ubiquitous beliefs, however, lose the power of cultism: if the participation of some people in the belief system provides a reality test and a source of solidarity, the participation of many people makes the system less special.)

There are also clear analogies between the denial of coincidence that's central to popular spirituality literature and the embrace of conspiracy theories. If angel books reflect the need to believe in omnipotent, absolute good, extremist political groups reflect the need to believe in omnipotent evil--in the form of the U.S. government or the New World Order. There are virtually no political accidents in the view of a conspiracy theorist; whatever happens happens for a reason, generally the worst.

It's not surprising, then, to find crossovers from New Age beliefs to the militias. I know a convert to the militia movement who was once deeply enmeshed in the Church of Scientology and remains an avid believer in the paranormal. She has always thrived on the presence of enemies, and so, in a way, do popular spirituality authors. Even if there is no evil in the benevolent universe they depict, only unenlightenment, there are still enemies: notably science, rationalism, and established religion, which is almost always distinguished from spirituality as doctrine rather than feeling. (In The Celestine Prophecy the primary villains are not scientists but priests.) Despite their majoritarian appeal, mass-market spirituality books offer the pleasures of membership in a besieged minority. Like extremist political movements, they shine with moral vanity.

Illustration by Dominique Vitali

Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; July, 1996; The Latest Fashion in Irrationality; Volume 278, No. 1; pages 103-106.

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