Wednesday, February 15, 2012

New Age Cargo Cults - Part 2

Heaven's Gate Founder

This is part two of a three part series on New Age Cargo Cults and Critical Thinking.

Cargo Cult by Extension

Although the term cargo cult was used by anthropologists to describe a very specific cultural phenomenon, it found its way into the common vernacular to describe other phenomena not associated with the effects of a superior culture affecting a more primitive culture. The term began to represent any people who imitate a process or a system in a superficial fashion without understanding either its structure or the underlying substance.

The key point is that the islanders reversed the logical sequence of causation, mistaking a “necessary condition” (building an artificial representation for the receiving points of cargo) for a “sufficient condition” (building the infrastructure to actually manufacture cargo).    

What is indicated in the more general use of this term is that something is being promoted as true but is actually using a flawed model of causation. This more general definition has been used to describe poor scientific research methods as well as business models, plans and even software engineering.

I have now used it to describe erroneous methods and ideas that are promoted in the New Age and occult communities. The term generally has the meaning of a shallow imitation or attempting to gain true spiritual effects and personal transformation without applying any of the actual work or effort. Belief systems are usually not put to any kind of rational examination or testing, so at times even the most absurd concepts and ideas can be held as some kind of sacred truth, and in time, produce disastrous results.

An example is the New Age fascination with the book and the movie called “The Secret,” which has popularized the dubious “Law of Attraction.” I have already dealt with this issue in regards to the practicalities of magick, and you can find that article here. However, the Law of Attraction basically states that merely by projecting positive and empowering self affirmations, the desired state will somehow miraculously manifest. It belies the old adage that if you want something, you need to plan and work for it. Another example is the UFO cult Heaven’s Gate, whose members thought that by imitating the appearance and behavior of aliens they could attract a UFO to come down and take them away. As you can see, both of these examples are guilty of reversing causation, and thereby acting in a manner very similar to the cargo cults of the islanders.

One of the truisms of the New Age, which is actually quite misleading, is that people have the power to make their own reality. Of course, the opposite is also true and important, that reality shapes the minds and actions of individuals. By proposing one perspective and ignoring the other, people can act as if they have unlimited power to determine their fate, which is a false assertion. Actions are always limited by circumstance, which is obvious to most people, but the New Age would turn that bit of logic on its head. The lesson here is that critical thinking will automatically force someone to examine more than one possibility, and to see things in a practical manner - an important criteria for success. 

In the discipline of magick, flawed models of causation seem to abound, and many individuals appear to take quite literally what is, after all, a kind of imaginary speculation that is used to put the mind in places where it normally wouldn’t be able to go. This is what I call the “as if” paradigm of magickal operations; but just because someone uses a mental tool to gain a different perspective, it doesn’t follow that the underlying assumption represents a physical reality.

For instance, astral travel can be likened to a kind of visualization exercise, and at times can have a powerful and even physical kind of manifestation and corroboration. That doesn’t mean that operators who practice this technique can actually levitate or fly. It is an “as if” mechanism to aid the mind in its perception, and therefore, not to be taken literally.

Another example can be found in the list of attributes associated with Goetic demons, whose evocation will produce all sorts of miraculous occurrences, particularly those that can enrich the operator with unearned wealth. Although more complex and involved than the New Age maxim of the Law of Attraction, using Goetic evocation to somehow attract or acquire unearned wealth is just as erroneous. Still, many magicians ardently believe that their kind of magick is superior to New Age thought and will produce the desired results, even though they are actually making the same error of causation. 

(These are some of the same points that John Michael Greer has made in his class on pagan ceremonial magick, regarding certain cautionary issues confronting adherents of this path. He covered these points without giving any extensive examples, but I was on the same wave-length as him and have followed up with a more in-depth discussion. Thus, I have added these points to this article, but I must credit him for making them more apparent to me.)

Often imaginary speculation, which can be a powerful mental tool if properly used, can produce all sorts of unsubstantiated claims, all of which would be easily resolved and shown to be false if only they were subjected to a kind of rigorous examination and peer review. Since this does not typically occur, and in fact it is often harshly rejected as a kind of negative or offensive criticism, some very foolish notions and silly ideas seem to be shamelessly promoted by would-be enlightened hucksters. These will-o-wisps are then gobbled up by the unsuspecting masses, who think that they’re going to experience a wondrous change. Should we then find it so strange that the press has a field day with the practices and beliefs of cultists and their leaders? This bad press has the corollary effect of making the public suspicious of the research and experimental work of occultists who are legitimate.

The New Age has its own cargo cults, and in fact these organizations seem to abound, since they promise so much and require so little effort. Perhaps some common sense should tell us that if a proposition sounds too good, then it probably is. If someone wants to sell me a Rolex for $50, then I should be on my guard for a possible fake impersonating the real thing. Similarly, if some guru claims that he can help us attain perfect enlightenment without much in the way of work or effort, we should be just as skeptical if not outright scornful. What these scams do offer us is much more like the proposition of “just putting down your money and suspending your analytical faculties, and everything will be blissfully fine.” The odds are good that it will fail. 

Carefully examining the documentation and lore for legitimate spiritual paths has shown that any amount of self transformation, not to mention actual enlightenment, requires a lifetime of work and devotion. There are no shortcuts to this ultimate goal and nothing is certain.

Perhaps a useful analogy is the discipline required to become an athletic contender for any major sport. A person dedicates their life to the training and regimen and even then, there is no guarantee that he or she will defeat all other competitors and become preeminent. There are also the elements of innate talent, physical genetics and luck.

What I am proposing is that the process of becoming an enlightened sage should incorporate the same considerations as those impacting a professional athlete. Even a person who devotes their entire life to this work may do no better than anyone else who is not so intently engaged. The path of spiritual enlightenment is not like the Special Olympics, where everyone gets an award no matter how they perform. If anything, spiritual paths to enlightenment are probably a bit more like the real Olympics; for every winner there are a multitude of losers.

What makes the bogus promoters of a New Age cargo cult so appealing to average individuals is that they appear to guarantee their results, and that makes the harsh reality of living in a competitive world more palliative and easily swallowed. It mitigates the need for self examination or admitting one’s flaws, as well as celebrating the virtues. In a word, it creates a false and superficial understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. It creates a cargo cult of our life and our spiritual path, and in the end, all such activity is doomed to fail expectations.

However, not every modern spiritual path or undertaking is a cargo cult. Even the most popular trend may be indicative of an actual proven methodology that works. What is needed are a set of tools for measuring truth and validating that some technique or practice is indeed real and authentic. What I am going to attempt next in this article is to propose a set of steps that anyone can take to verify that a trend or spiritual technique is valid and authentic. However, keep in mind the old adage that “the proof in the pudding is in the eating.” Experience should be used to measure the efficacy of any spiritual system. Therefore, experiment, test, and then objectify what has been experienced!

(To be continued..)

Frater Barrabbas


  1. You mention Heaven's Gate, summoning Goetic demons and, generally, the New Ageism that we can create our own reality--but, somehow I'm left wondering exactly how you would classify the term New Age? In my own definition, the first 2 don't qualify, and I've heard other folks lump anything beyond major world religions including any type of magickal work as "New Age." I get where you're coming from with critical thinking, but I wonder if you could give a few more examples of New Age-type groups/concepts and how they exemplify your Cargo Cult premise. But if you're not comfortable getting too specific here on the blog, can I email you?

  2. @Rev Wes Isley - I believe that the focus of the article is the New Age, but also and more in general, occultists, such as ritual magicians, etc. This is to show that while some New Age groups are violating causality, they are not the only ones - lots of occultists do it as well.

    As for giving out more examples of specific groups, that would skew the article to a degree where I am unwilling to go. I think you can use whatever common sense you have (and the points made in this article) to judge whether an organization, group or individual fails this test. I am also unwilling to discuss this offline, either. It's just not the point that I am trying to make.

    More will be explained in the next installment of this article (part 3).