When I was a child, I had an elderly aunt (a Great-Aunt in fact) who lived down the long dirt road into Eagle Bay, BC. Twenty miles off the highway to Salmon Arm, on the edge of Shuswap Lake, this was the country of homesteaders and summer people – my Aunt Frances being from the former camp. For many years she ran the only general store and the post office out of the front of her house, but by the time I came along she was retired and her store had been replaced by the mini-mart run out of a doublewide trailer down the road.
I don’t have a lot of memories of my Aunt Frances except for her faith in Sai Baba which she was insistent on prostelytizing whenever she got the chance. He was said to work miracles, and she would often grab my arm and say, “What would you think of a man who could make candy fall from the sky? Wouldn’t you believe in him?” Although I was quite young, I remember thinking that while it would be quite nice to meet such a person (Candy!), she seemed a bit crazy and she was simply stuck in a fairy tale.
My mother, to her credit, used my aunt’s insistence as a teaching moment. She said that my Aunt’s belief was proof that you shouldn’t believe everything your read in books or in the newspaper. That even though there were publications about Sai Baba, it didn’t mean that what they said was real. And so it went, my aunt was harmless but regarded as a little crazy and she died still believing in her Indian miracle worker.
Fringe spirituality aside, when it came to religion in general we were raised pretty much without it. God just was not a topic of discussion in our home, and although we attended the occasional Anglican service or day camp in the summer (for lack of anything better to do), faith was not particularly encouraged. The relationship I had to religion was that it was something you did because other people did, not because you believed in God. As my mother had always said – just because there is a book about it don’t make it true.
So how to explain my mother’s conversion over the past ten years to a wholesale belief in new thought mythology and mantra? And I don’t mean just some of the more grounded stuff – but all of it – Ramtha, the Secret, the Toltec mysteries, 2012, crop circles, light beings… really she is willing to give any of it a chance. To her credit, she eventually discards some of the wackier stuff, or at least stops talking about it, but the fact that she can believe in channeling ancient Atlantians in the first place is slightly shocking to me.
Lately she has been volunteering for a workshop series (which I will not give the name of here because I don’t want to give it any advertising) – which seems to largely be some type of constructed encounter group experience lead by a man who has no identifiable credentials. No counseling credentials anyways. His biography on the website is vague and although he claims to have run his program through the US Prison system at one point, I can find no reference to it anywhere on the web save for his website. (I am skeptical that the US Prison System would let someone in to teach classes who doesn’t have a degree or any credentials.)
Whatever. The upshot of it is that my mother is into the program and volunteering at the workshops – which at least gets her in the door for free. And while I don’t think it’s a harmful program, and perhaps even gives fundamental help to people (though I’m not convinced of any long term effectiveness), it sounds to me like a seventies encouter group with a bit of primal scream therapy thrown in.
By far though, the stuff I find the hardest is her insistence that “science” is about to prove the existence of God. In particular, the branch of quantum physics known as string theory is supposedly right on the cusp of grand unifying theory that will once and for all settle the debate. Now, not only is string theory hotly contested in the world of people who actually understand quantum physics (that would not include myself or my mother), but I have to wonder about a “faith” that continually seeks proof. Particularly when that proof comes in the form of snake oil science and unsupportable pronouncements. (There are many good scientific websites that debunk much of the “science” the new thought movement bases its theories on).
Really, I understand that people believe in God in all its incarnations (from the old Christian God to the new unified field god), and I support anything that gives people comfort and community in this crazy world. Despite my rational upbringing, I too have felt the pull of faith during some of my darker moments. But while I might consider myself spiritual (and by that I mean willing to entertain the possibility of things beyond this realm), I have never been able to find true belief in any system. And I am highly skeptical of any individual, group, program, spiritual centre, ashram, church, etc. that claims to be purveyors of the truth. Particularly when that truth seems to come with cost after cost (expensive courses, large donations, book and dvd sales, and pricey retreats being the norm rather than the exception in “new thought”).
I suppose what is most difficult for me to fathom is that someone who I was raised by and am so close to has such a different take on reality that I do. That she does not see through the snake oil and the hokey language to understand it as a consumer movement more than anything else. And although part of me wants to chalk it up to age – I think it is probably more a matter of brain chemicals or brain structure (I have obviously inherited more of my father’s skeptical mind). According to some studies, some people do have more of a propensity towards belief than others based on the amount of L-Dopa present in the brain.
For the record, Sai Baba is still alive and has a relatively large following. And my mother, for all the lessons she taught me as a child has decided that perhaps he’s not a fraud after all. Then, I ask you, where is that damned candy that is supposed to fall from the sky?