Andrew Fiala

Some see spirituality in the natural world, some don’t. The point is to seek meaning

Demonstrators participate in a prayer and drum circle near Cannon Ball, N.D., to protest the expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a water source close to the Stand Rock Sioux Reservation. They were supporting others who stood in a tributary of the Cannon Ball River, seen behind, against a line of local police. Officers in riot gear clashed again Wednesday with protesters near the Dakota Access pipeline, hitting several dozen with pepper spray as they waded through waist-deep water in an attempt to reach property owned by the pipeline’s developer. (AP Photo/John L. Mone)
Demonstrators participate in a prayer and drum circle near Cannon Ball, N.D., to protest the expansion of the Dakota Access Pipeline under a water source close to the Stand Rock Sioux Reservation. They were supporting others who stood in a tributary of the Cannon Ball River, seen behind, against a line of local police. Officers in riot gear clashed again Wednesday with protesters near the Dakota Access pipeline, hitting several dozen with pepper spray as they waded through waist-deep water in an attempt to reach property owned by the pipeline’s developer. (AP Photo/John L. Mone) AP


A number of Americans have “new age” beliefs. According to a recent Pew Center report, 41 percent of Americans believe in psychics. Forty-two percent believe that spiritual energy can be located in physical things. Twenty-nine percent believe in astrology. And 33 percent believe in reincarnation.

New age beliefs are highest among those who are “spiritual” but not affiliated with any religion. Sixty-one percent of these folks believe that spiritual energy can be located in physical things. Fifty-two percent believe in psychics.

This makes sense given that new age spirituality develops as an alternative to traditional religion. It also makes sense that new age beliefs are lowest among atheists.

Atheists tend to view the cosmos in natural and materialistic terms. They are as skeptical of spiritual claims about crystals and psychics as they are about traditional religion. They think consciousness is based in the brain. They don’t believe that the stars influence human destiny.

It is odd, then, that some atheists believe in reincarnation (7 percent) and astrology (3 percent). But even more surprising is the fact that a significant number of Christians have new age beliefs.

Forty percent of Christians believe in psychics. Twenty-nine percent think there is reincarnation. Twenty-six percent believe in astrology.

But Christian theology typically teaches against astrology. There are references to astrology in the Bible. But those passages are usually interpreted as rejecting astrology. Billy Graham’s website explains, “Astrology is offensive to God because it attributes to planets and stars the power that belongs to God alone.”

Christians also reject reincarnation. Graham explains, “Scripture makes it very clear that we live only once and that when we die we go into eternity.” The Catholic Catechism agrees, stating, “Death is the end of man’s earthly pilgrimage… There is no reincarnation after death.” The Christian idea is that you get one chance for salvation, which follows the narrow path illuminated by Christ.

It is obvious that there are deep questions here. Is the cosmos a mechanical or spiritual process? Is there a soul that leaves the body after death? Or is consciousness extinguished when the last neuron dies?

It is also obvious that people are conflicted and confused about the answers to these questions. In previous centuries, questions and answers were strictly regulated by the combined power of church and state. Today there is an open marketplace for religious ideas. People shop around. They change religions. And they combine spiritual ideas in previously unimagined ways.

Unfortunately, in our secular era we lack instruction in thinking about all of this. People rarely receive comprehensive instruction in metaphysics. In the old days, people might learn some of this at their church or temple. But there is a growing number of non-religious people in the U.S. — estimated at somewhere between 20 and 29 percent. People are teaching themselves metaphysics and creating do-it-yourself spiritual systems.

This is an era of freedom and diversity. The fact that some Christians believe in reincarnation and some atheists believe in astrology is a sign of our freedom. We have the right to believe whatever we want about these things.

But freedom without instruction can result in incoherence. This is exacerbated by confusion and ignorance. People do not understand the basic beliefs of the world’s religions. They often don’t understand the metaphysical commitments of their own religious traditions. And sometimes they don’t think carefully about how things fit together.

One obvious solution is more and better education about religion and philosophy. We have comprehensive sex education in the schools. Why not also have comprehensive metaphysical education?

Some may worry that this would violate First Amendment principles of religious liberty. But discussions of religion and metaphysics can be conducted in ways that are open-minded and academic. The point is not to tell people what to think about ultimate reality. Rather, the point is to provide them with tools, ideas, and theories that help them reach their own conclusions.

Metaphysical questions are about the ultimate meaning of life. No topic is more important—or more complicated. There will always be sharp disagreements about these issues. Liberty is essential. But we should also be interested in learning more and thinking better about life, the universe, and everything.

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