Mar 26 2012

Escape to Newage Mountain

Part of the human struggle is to understand the world around us, to understand ourselves, and to have some level of control of our lives by being able to predict at least the basic patterns and rhythms of the world. Ancient cultures made calendars and monuments to help them predict the seasons, for example. Accurate knowledge is difficult, however, especially since we live in a world that is far more complex than the one in which our poor monkey brains evolved.

One advantage of the skeptical world view is that it seeks to understand the weaknesses and biases of human cognition, and it respects accurate knowledge over our emotional desires and needs. Skeptics attempt to see the world as it actually is, not how they might want it to be. Examples of what can happen when you take an unskeptical view abound.

Take, for example, the people gathering at the small French village of Bugarach. In their attempts to understand the world and have a sense of control of their lives by predicting important events in the future, they have come to the come to the conclusion that the world is going to end on December 21, 2012. The end of the world is a pretty big event, and if you truly believed this was going to happen that would be very disturbing. It is no surprise, therefore, that this commune of New Age believers gathering in Bugarach have a second belief that is their salvation.

They believe that a mountain near the village, Pic de Bugarach (pictured here) is a magical mountain. It’s part Roswell and part Shangri La. They believe that the mountain has magical energies, and is a focus of alien attention, sometimes called the “alien garage.”

The result is a confluence of superstitious belief – Mayan calendar end-of-the-world predictions, new age magical energy/mystical locations, and UFO religious cult. One of the new agers, who calls himself “Jean”, summarizes it nicely:

 ”The apocalypse we believe in is the end of a certain world and the beginning of another,” he offers. “A new spiritual world. The year 2012 is the end of a cycle of suffering. Bugarach is one of the major chakras of the earth, a place devoted to welcoming the energies of tomorrow.”

The UFO component appears to be plugged in directly from movies, showing how entertainment both reflects and influences culture. The fact that UFO’s like to visit mountains that peak up over their surroundings is right out of Close Encounters and the Devil’s Tower. The notion that aliens would come to the earth to save a select few from the end of the world is the plot of the 2009 film, Knowing.

Some local officials are apparently worried that the local hippie UFO commune will turn into another Heaven’s Gate. It is concerning that they believe they will be given a ride on a UFO and taken to a “spiritual world.” Perhaps they will reason that you have to shed your physical body in order to get to spirit land. This view may become more compelling when it is apparent that no physical flying saucer is arriving to take them away.  I hope not, and feel this is probably unlikely. It would probably require an influential cult leader to orchestrate a repeat of Heaven’s Gate, and this situation sounds more like a commune, but we will have to wait and see.

Of course the Mayan calendar nonsense has been deconstructed by skeptics many times. There is no reason to think that the end of a calendar means the literal end of the world. There is no evidence that the Mayans even believed this. Further, the Mayan calendar, while pretty accurate for its time, missed certain astronomical details like the need for leap years, and so the world should have ended last year if there were any truth to the Mayan prediction thing (or I guess next year, depending on how you look at it).

From a skeptical point of view the show affair is rather sad. These people are trying to understand their world and just have some sense of control over their lives, but their methods are hopelessly dysfunctional. They have been lead to the conclusion that the world is going to end but they, the enlightened few, will be saved by magical beings from the sky, only to enter a new spiritual age. The thematic resemblance to the Christian Rapture is probably not a coincidence.

What will happen when the world does not end on December 21, 2012? We have the past to help us predict what is likely to happen. True believers who predict a major event that does not come to pass generally do not experience a loss of faith, as you might predict. They do have a crisis which causes considerable cognitive dissonance, but they generally do not resolve that dissonance by concluding that they were wrong, their methods were therefore wrong, and that perhaps they should be more skeptical in the future. Rather they tend to double down, invest even more in their faith, and find some way to rationalize their apparent failure. Harold Camping, for example, when the apocalypse did not occur last Spring, concluded that it did occur, it was just an invisible apocalypse (he claimed it was a “spiritual” apocalypse not visibly apparent to anyone but him).

I therefore predict that those heavily invested in the 2012 end-of-the-world belief will conclude that we experienced some sort of spiritual transformation – an invisible end of the world. Can’t you feel it? I also predict that the failure of the end of the world to take place by the end of 2012 will not in the least dissuade the next apocalyptic prophet from predicting the end of the world.

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15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Escape to Newage Mountain”

  1. locutusbrgon 26 Mar 2012 at 9:21 am

    Part of our evolutionary “Monkey Brain” is fear of the unknown. If we saw lions where there were none we were much more likely to survive than other primates who were more dismissive. Even if we were wrong most of the time there was an evolutionary benefit. People find it easy to fear, to imagine the panther in the tree, it is instinctual. When we are given scant evidence we find plenty to fear. Death will come, but when? Fear of the unknown is ever present. When we operate on principles of fear rather than reason this what you get. End of the world, vaccines give us autism, god is angry…. name it. Frank Herbert may be a “science fiction” writer but he got it correct when he wrote.
    “I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
    ― Frank Herbert, Dune
    I have family members that really belief that the end of the earth is approaching next winter. Not much I can say to them except how is that millennium bug working out for you? ;)

  2. Kawarthajonon 26 Mar 2012 at 1:20 pm

    People have been “predicting” the end of the Earth for millennia – it’s even written into the Christian bible! I’m afraid a few skeptics won’t make a dent in this trend any time soon. No amount of evidence to support the idea that the world won’t end will have any impact on the “end of the worlders’” belief systems. Their internal logic is sound and they will not accept another point of view by entertaining outside evidence. It is a function of human psychology. It is somewhat entertaining to listen to their beliefs, although it is also a little sad at the same time.

  3. mdstudenton 26 Mar 2012 at 3:02 pm

    “These people are trying to understand their world and just have some sense of control over their lives, but their methods are hopelessly dysfunctional.”

    Sad indeed.

  4. BillyJoe7on 26 Mar 2012 at 4:26 pm

    “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    This is how I overcame panic attacks. It was my own solution, though, so it’s strange to see it written down here by someone else who obviously found the same solution. The second sentence especially. Permitting it to pass over and through you – as in looking at yourself from a sort of third person perspective – really helped to tame the monster.

  5. Dirk Steeleon 26 Mar 2012 at 6:04 pm

    @ BillyJoe7

    I did the same. I then lost my fear of fear.

  6. SARAon 26 Mar 2012 at 10:24 pm

    # locutusbrg – I have a similar thought. I think that animals have adapted so well to blending into the surroundings, that have the ability to find the pertinent pattern in the landscape is an advantageous gene to keep. If you can’t find the leopard that is going to jump out and kill you – you aren’t going to last long. Try to find the cat in the picture. Its nearly impossible. http://www.citehr.com/346496-find-cat-picture-very-interesting.html

    Here’s what I think would be an interesting thing to know (study). What if a our ability to see patterns falls along a scale. With people who are just more naturally skeptical and less likely to attribute special patterns or even see special patterns on one end. And on the other end are the folks who see them in everything and live their life reveling in conspiracy theories.

    I have no evidence for this. But it would be an interesting way to explain why some folks never seem to have any skepticism and others do.

  7. eiskrystalon 27 Mar 2012 at 4:27 am

    Not much I can say to them except how is that millennium bug working out for you?

    I really wish people would stop using this.

    The millenium “bug” got fixed. That’s why not much happened. And even if it had “happened” big style, then a load of computers would have shown the wrong date and messed up some financial transactions. It was hardly the 2nd coming of christ.

    There was hysteria about it because some people will get hysterical when the internet is down for half an hour.

  8. ccbowerson 27 Mar 2012 at 9:43 am

    “What if a our ability to see patterns falls along a scale”

    I’m not sure if this is what you meant, but I think it has less to do with the ability to see patterns and more to do with thinking about apparent patterns with the proper perspective. What I mean is that a skeptic can see these apparent patterns, but realize that one can find apparent patterns in otherwise random events. In other words, I don’t conspiracy thinkers as a group are better at finding that cat in that picture that you link to, but they are sure its there

  9. ccbowerson 27 Mar 2012 at 10:02 am

    …and it’s up to no good.

  10. Bronze Dogon 27 Mar 2012 at 12:54 pm

    “I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”

    This is how I overcame panic attacks. It was my own solution, though, so it’s strange to see it written down here by someone else who obviously found the same solution. The second sentence especially. Permitting it to pass over and through you – as in looking at yourself from a sort of third person perspective – really helped to tame the monster.

    Not quite the same, but it strikes me as kind of similar in a vague way to what I do for the times I have to deal with medically-related pain, like needles. I’m not exactly “afraid” (as long as I don’t have to watch it being done), but it takes a bit of nerve to prepare for it. What I found useful for dealing with the prospect of an imminent sharp pain is “putting it in the past tense.” It’s going to be over quickly, so I might as well think about it as if it’s over, instead of a looming experience that’s going to happen any second now.

    I still have trouble not preemptively blinking with the gizmo at my eye doctor’s lab that blasts a puff of air in my eyes, though. That one’s probably more hardwired.

    On the main topic, it really feels strange to think about what “newage” beliefs are, since they’re typically a grab bag from multiple sources, and a lot are probably contradictory (Did aliens build the pyramids, or did psychokinetic Egyptians?). But in a way, that’s probably how the now-mainstream religions got started. Newagers are probably a lot looser because they don’t yet have organized counsels and inquisitions to enforce a particular canon. The mainstream religions probably feel more “solid” because they’ve been around so long and allegedly have a single source document (canonized from multiple sources plus popular “fanon”).

    At the moment, it’s something of a cultural “strength” of newageism to lack a canon, since a lot of newagers are people who became dissatisfied with dogmatic religions or having their wishful thinking shot down by cold, hard facts about reality that have been demonstrated by science. The lack of a central dogma gives them a lot more socially acceptable wiggle room for cherrypicking among the various beliefs.

  11. DOYLEon 27 Mar 2012 at 3:08 pm

    At the heart of this fellowship of dunces is a queen bee.The end of days prattle is usually authored by a partriarch soothsayer whos magesty for cosmic puzzle solving is just patent,clumsy “craft”.The practice is a fraudulent knitting of popular fictional genres meant to direct attention to a narcissistic wand waver.

    It only gains traction if it has an audience,those who because they lack a career in critical thinking are constantly looking to find a new psyhic-cognitive status quo

  12. Mlemaon 27 Mar 2012 at 8:33 pm

    Dr. Novella, I totally get what you’re saying, but I can’t manage to tie the beginning of this article to the end.

    How is today’s world more complicated than the one our “monkey brains” evolved in as far as “being able to predict at least the basic patterns and rhythms of the world”?

    Also, I don’t see these people in France as trying to understand and control their world. It seems to me they’re not trying to understand anything at all, and that their activities are more akin to operating by those “emotional desires and needs” you talk about. They apparently are really hoping that there will be some big transformation, or they are very afraid, and hoping that by gathering there they will save themselves. They are expecting someone ELSE to control their world!

    Pointing out the nuttiness of these types of groups of people does little to support the “advantage of the skeptical world view”. It supports the common sense world view.
    Well, maybe that’s what skepticism is. Never mind. :)
    But take heart, I think in this case most of the world is of the skeptical viewpoint.

  13. cwfongon 27 Mar 2012 at 9:23 pm

    Miema, agreed.

  14. 2_wordson 28 Mar 2012 at 1:31 pm

    I’ve always found these scenarios troubling. As I cannot claim to specifically choose the factors that have created the particular view point that I am. I doubt anyone can.

    What choices do we have in the creation of our own behavior and beliefs? Which cultural, biological, logic systems have informed the individual to believe what they do?

    As such, when a group is created on an ideal that closes them off to internal/external critique and loops back into itself, a reasoning process still occurs within it. But the verification, the consensus of that reasoning is group determined. It will only regard it’s own particular “truth” as truth. When a community only self-identifies, they only check their reasoning against others like themselves. The self-interest of the group depends upon agreeing with the others, or the “leaders” claims of whatever. They cannot doubt, dissent, or voice skepticism as the group will select against those that do so. Our evolutionary experience has shown that outcasts do not survive.

    When agreeing with whatever the group or leader describes as truth is the sole criteria for group membership, it is essentially a trap for minds. As once you have been informed by their “reasoning” and have seen their “truth” it becomes a self-interested process to quiet your own dissent, skepticism, and doubt.

    That is at least how the biological and cultural systems that have informed the view-point that I am, sees it.

  15. rootsmusicon 29 Mar 2012 at 11:07 am

    I’d like to know why alien spaceships get to traverse freely in and out of the spiritual realms of space and our meager space flights just get to go up and come down.

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