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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