What is Woo-woo? Is it not a derogatory slur used to pre-judge and dismiss ideas we find threatening? My fellow humanists, we may find ourselves slipping into the same dogmatism we strongly (and rightly) protest in religion. I confess, I am guilty–when I left religion I thought anything called “New Age,” “spiritual,” or “woo” was bullshit. It was just more of the same dangerous religious superstition, re-packaged and cleverly marketed to a new generation of non-religious spiritual seekers. It was dangerous, I thought, because it was so damn anti-scientific. I saw it lead people to the same ungrounded decision-making I saw in Christians who thought they were hearing the voice of God. It’s hard to apply critical thinking to the voice of god, or open it up to criticism–including science. Ungrounded spirituality is when my spiritual experience bears the weight of divine authority, and I risk losing touch with reality. This is really another form of dogma (spiritual dogmatism): making my spiritual experience (or my teacher’s experience) infallible. Dogma happens wherever openness ceases to exist.

This does happen within spirituality. Part of the problem is that spiritual seekers tend to resist criticism and critical thinking, making study and the material world inferior to spiritual experiencing–as if the true were somehow separate endeavors. I do see spiritual people getting involved in all kinds of cult and crazy.

Yet, there are fundamental differences between many ideas deemed “woo” or “spiritual” and religious dogma. Mainstream science has only begun to integrate the practices and teachings of so-called mysticism, which are rooted in thousands of years of experiential practice. Mindfulness is now commonplace psychology, but secular psychologists used to dismiss it was “woo woo” or Buddhism. They did this because of mere association, not research or critical thinking. The principles we hold dear as humanists require us to be responsible with our judgments and labels. We must apply the same kind of open, unbiased scrutiny to matters of “woo” as we do to anything else we study. After engaging in serious inquiry, we may find ourselves agreeing with our initial observations and dismissal. But there is a critical difference: avoiding dogmatic approaches to knowing.



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