Long Live the Occult

Over at BigThink, Mitch Horowitz gives a whirlwind tour of American occultism, from its Renaissance origins to New Age spirituality, from Lincoln’s White House séances to quantum physics, from the Ouija board all the way to Jay-Z.

Horowitz, the author of Occult America: The Secret History of How Mysticism Shaped Our Nation, strikes a fine balance in his treatment, approaching American occultism as a sensitive disbeliever. Just as notable, however, is the sheer excitement he brings to the topic; I haven’t seen anyone discuss the finer points of 19th century religious developments while smiling.

With the same enthusiasm, Horowitz explains the influence of occult movements upon feminism, radical communalism, and American identity. So why are we still teaching bored teenagers potted histories of sexually repressed pilgrims while all of the interesting stuff gets overlooked?

Although his analysis is historically grounded, Horowitz is highly attuned to contemporary spiritual needs. In his emphasis upon individual access to universal truths, there are echoes of Joseph Campbell and Mircea Eliade, but Horowitz’s focus on the American occult restrains the universalizing tendencies that contributed to those thinkers’ fall from academic grace.

Still, like Campbell and Eliade, Horowitz’s respectful analysis, even of the easily-mocked Ouiji board, provides a fine model for discussing traditions that, like religion itself, show no sign of disappearing. Recent analyses have even indicated that belief in the paranormal is more common among those without institutional ties to religion. So when Bill Maher insists, “The plain fact is religion must die for man to live,” perhaps his sentence needs to be appended: “…with UFOs, ghosts, and Bigfoot.”

Ideologues on both sides of religious debates in America would be well served by emulating Horowitz’s respect for the “irrational.” In his discussion of contemporary science, for example, Horowitz both warns against the New Age appropriation of quantum physics (“because when you’re seeing something that extraordinary in a particle accelerator, it doesn’t mean that’s what’s going to happen to me in a corporate board meeting”), and the tendency of the scientific establishment to disparage this interest, thus stifling public conversation.

The New Age interpretation of physics may be overeager, but it seems to me that the error lies not in the intention, but in the choice of discipline. This month’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology includes Cornell psychologist Daryl Bem’s study on precognition and premonition. The article, entitled “Feeling the Future,” ends on a note that, I think, Horowitz would appreciate:

Near the end of her encounter with the White Queen, Alice protests that “one can’t believe impossible things,” a sentiment with which the 34% of academic psychologists who believe psi to be impossible would surely agree. The White Queen famously retorted, “I daresay you haven’t had much practice. When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” (Carroll, 2006, p. 166).

Unlike the White Queen, I do not advocate believing impossible things. But perhaps this article will prompt the other 66% of academic psychologists to raise their posterior probabilities of believing at least one anomalous thing before breakfast.

I would like to suggest that, with hindsight, the impossible beliefs of occultism may also appear merely anomalous. After all, occult impossibilities once included feminism and the abolition of slavery.

Watch the full interview with Mitch Horowitz at BigThink.

Access a pre-publication version of Bem’s paper here.

Garrett Baer is a graduate student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.