27 July 2011


Chris Edwards. Spiritual Snake Oil: Fads and Fallacies in Pop Culture. See Sharp Press, 2011.

In many ways this book follows on from Stephen Law's Believing Bullshit, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, only Edwards takes on specific targets.
These are the New Age writers Robert Pirsig, author of Zen and the Art of Motor Cycle Maintenance; James Redfield, the author of the Celesetine Prophecy; Rhoda Byrnes, author of The Secret and Depack Chopra (in particular his book Afterlife), a couple of Christian apologists, Francis Collins and Dinesh D'Souza; and two representatives of what might call scientistic religion Ray Kurzweil and Simon Young.

Perhaps the unifying theme behind all these apparently disparate writers is a kind of total egotism, and from the New Age 'philosophers' an extremely unpleasant 'blame the victim' ideology which perhaps reaches its nadir in the vomit-inducing The Secret which is little more than a gospel of the crudest kind of money obsessed, to hell with the poor, go ahead capitalism. On the other hand, as Edwards argues, the argument by Francis Collins that his daughter's rape was part of God's plan to teach him forgiveness, may outdo even Byrnes on the egotism stakes.

Edwards will have none of this, and is very good at disposing of many of the arguments of New Agers and various religious apologists. Like Law he takes on the notion of an interventionist God and shows its numerous contradictions. Of course many Christians (and I suspect Jews and Muslims also) have given up on the idea of an all powerful God and relegated him/her/it to the role of an agonised spectator.

Clearly Edwards sees science as the path to salvation, however he is alert to the dangers of scientistic religion, the sort of stuff such as Kurzweil's 'Singularity' or Young's 'Transhumanism', both of which represent fairly radical interpretations of what Mary Midgley called escalator evolutionism, the notion that there is a purpose and direction to evolution which will lead to some transhuman condition. Kurzweil and Young simply extrapolate from current trends in computing and biological sciences to suggest exponential developments in a few years time. They forget, though Edwards reminds them, that forty years ago people were predicting infinite velocities on the basis of then current developments. In fact air travel has barely progressed in those forty years, perhaps even regressed with the scrapping of Concorde, and the era of human space flight may well be coming to an end.

Edwards takes a strong atheist line, which seems to be a product of the US culture wars, but the critic might well argue that this kind of atheism is just another faith, and that like those with strong and secure theistic faiths, those with strong and secure atheistic faiths fail to grasp how anyone could possibly not share their world view. Like many religious writers, Edwards tends to the glib answer, and to be shy of complexity and doubt. For example he disposes of Near Death Experiences as just ordinary dreams, but that is one thing even the most sceptical researchers are sure they are not; the complex question as to whether mathematics is discovered or invented, which has been a puzzle to mathematicians and philosophers for ages, is disposed of (mathematics is just a language) and his comments on the Schrodinger's Cat thought experiment suggest he doesn't understand quantum physics anymore than the people he criticises. -- Peter Rogerson

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