“Bridging the Chasm” follow-up for skeptics

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This past week, a link to an article from Skeptical Inquirer was making its way around Twitter. The article from 2004 was by Karla McLaren, a New Age author who had stepped away from that community to take an objective look at it. She shared her unique viewpoint with skeptical readers providing insight as to why skeptics make no inroads communicating with New Age folks and advice on how we might be able to do that someday.

Link to Skeptical Inquirer article

Since the article was several years old and Ms. McLaren left an open ending as to what life’s path held for her, I Googled her name and found her web page that conveniently give me an update.

While she explains she got great feedback from her SkepInq article, she did not feel comfortable involved so directly with the skeptical community. She went on to pursue a degree in Sociology. Today, she says she identifies not with skeptics or believers but more with the great researchers – those that “do the work required to question the universe, and [are] humble enough to listen to the answers they get.”

Still curious about some things, I contacted her through a social network and asked her a few followup questions. She allowed me to post the answers.

What were the circumstances that led up to writing for Skeptical Inquirer back in 2004?

It’s a detailed story! I wrote about the entire transition in a book called Missing the Solstice. It is unpublished, but excerpts of some of the chapters are up at my website: http://www.karlamclaren.com/missingsolstice.html

Do you feel that you belong to any group now?

No, I don’t belong deeply to any group except my family and my singing group. This micro belonging is excellent. As for larger groups, I have been a peripheral person all of my life. Even when I was in the New Age, I wasn’t in the center of it. I was on the margins, engaging in dissent.

Do you think it’s a privileged view to have experienced both sides of a worldview? Is it the BEST choice or is it easier to live totally immersed and fully ignorant of the opposite view?

I think it is privileged, but it is also isolating. People seem to prefer to join groups that define themselves by whom they exclude. But sometime during adolescence, I began to find that kind of “us vs. them” behavior offensive. When I discovered the psychological framework of the shadow, I felt, finally, able to articulate my distaste for belonging at the expense of my compassion for others.

However, in today’s miserable political climate, many groups have become so excruciatingly polarized that it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate my compassion. I understand the fear and anger people feel, but it’s getting completely out of hand.

I don’t know if avoiding closed-minded, us-vs.them groups is the best choice for everyone, but it’s the best choice for me.

What aspects of each worldview did you find useful in your recent studies?

I actually didn’t take either of them with me, because neither is particularly effective. I tried to strip myself of identity as much as I could, so that I could actually learn instead of just lacquering education on top of preconceived notions of how the world worked. It was strangely perfect for me to have chosen a sociological degree, because stripping oneself of socially-created expectations and standpoints is one of the most important prerequisites for sociological research. Talk about mind-expanding!

Are you involved at all in the skeptical community anymore? How about the New Age community?

I’m a free range skeptic, and I’m sort of feeling my way into being available as a safe, loving, reliable, and sensitive source of information for people who still need to believe in magic or the paranormal. Many of my friends now send me e-mails or show me things they’ve gotten in the mail, and they sort of check in with me to see if things are legit. That’s fun — presenting critical thinking and research as an engaging activity that fosters community and social networking. Of course, I’ve also got people I rely on for their skepticism and their insider’s information as well.

And yes, I’m involved in the New Age community second-hand, because the lion’s share of my friends and family are involved in it, in one way or another. I’ve also been asked to rewrite one of my previous books from the perspective I have now. That’s humbling … to have a second chance, to maybe be able to get things right. We’ll see how I do.

Is New Age a religion?

I call it “the Pick and Pull lot of the soul.” It’s filled with people who often hate organized religion for its many flaws, yet it borrows from pretty much all of them.

I think a main thrust that I see in the new age, and it was certainly one of the reasons I was there, is that people want to reduce the awfulness of religion while keeping what people see as the good parts, like the love, the community support, the belief in spirits and the afterlife, and all that.

But in a sociological definition, the new age is a religion. It’s a new religious movement, it’s a splinter religion, it’s a part of the millenialist movement … it’s all kinds of things. It’s like a handful of salamanders, trying to nail down what it is, because there are more offshoots every 6 months or so, but, yeah, it’s a religion (with pretty bad gospel music).

Finally, Ms. McLaren also related to me an interesting perspective about viewing media in terms of a paranormal belief system:

I remember the excitement that would arise in my friends and I when something inexplicable would show up in the news or something. It would help us reinforce, reframe, and add to the sense we had of the paranormal.

And it is not unlike the excitement scientists have when some random fact appears and leads them to a further understanding of their particular research interest.

I think that’s one of the biggest myths about interest in the paranormal – that it is inherently unscientific or nonrational. All of us were using our brains, our intellects, our rationality, and our science muscles. We were just working with information that wasn’t worthy of the attention we were giving it.

Ms. McLaren said she wrote the SkepInq article as “a thank you letter to the skeptical community”. Many of us feel the same knowing that the skeptical viewpoint has allowed us to fully embrace reality and appreciate the natural world.

Her discussion can spin-off hours or days worth of worthy conversation among rationalists. But, there is specific take home lesson here. As the skeptical movement grows, the old guard gives way to a younger contingent eager to use new social tools and fresh approaches, we can find a lot to chew on from Ms. McLaren’s admissions. Sure, there are still those who call people “stupid” and lose patience with those who have invested their lives in false science and mystical fiction. Yet, I see a more tolerant, friendly, flexible community that can help a lot of people make some life decisions correctly, if not every one. That’s a start.

I’m appreciative that she shared her conclusions, giving us the seed to sprout better habits and communication skills we should practice every day.

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4 thoughts on ““Bridging the Chasm” follow-up for skeptics

  1. TonyaK

    That is all definitely food for thought. Thanks for taking the time to communicate with her and get further clarification.

    As a teacher, I can definitely see the value in this information. One cannot effectively teach if one does not have good data regarding where students already are. This same notion can be applied to any attempt to help others think more critically about the information flying at them day to day.

    The current perspective that many in the paranormal community currently share is that skeptics are all cynical beasts sitting on their sofas immediately scoffing at any paranormal claim placed in front of them. It is time to help change that perspective!

  2. Thanks for the follow-up! The repost of Ms McLaren’s essay provided very interesting fodder for discussion between myself and my more “New Age inclined” friends. I’ll have to forward on the link.

    I applaud any efforts at understanding between people. I am a big fan of reducing the US and THEM divide. However, I do think that in many ways Ms McLaren’s writing, then and now, still reflects a defensive posture with regards to New Age.

    We all have biases. We should recognize them and determine their value or lack thereof. I’m constantly dealing with people who claim to be “above the fray” or “politically agnostic” when it is patently untrue.

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