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Wow, this makes a great deal of sense. I've been commented a lot recently in various places about how religion and dogma are so destructive but that faith itself isn't really so bad. I suppose that it isn't as bad but you've certainly demonstrated how it can be bad. Maybe a 5 (out of 20) on the hoverFrog badness scale.

Most recently I've been talking with a woman in America who hold to a literal belief in Satan. I've been trying to explain that Satan as an anthropomorphic embodiment of evil (20 on the hoverFrog badness scale) isn't so bad but that thinking that he's a real person is just plain crazy.

Anyway here is the crux of my argument: Let me explain my problem with such a belief, if I may. Blaming evil acts on Satan, transferring the act or the intent of evil onto an external being strips away the opportunity to own the act. A lack of ownership means that you can never seek forgiveness and never atone for the act. Not in any meaningful and genuine way. It strips people of their responsibility and allows them to do unspeakable things. I’m not saying that this is conscious but I do feel that the world would be a better place if responsibility were taken for things done.

You said it better though. ;)

Mike Haubrich, FCD

In my day job, I work in a bank call center. In my second career, I do content writing for websites. One contract I had was for a "nutrition" store; you know the type, homeopathic medicines, Kevin Trudeau books all over, and lots and lots of crystals and herbs.

I felt like a whore, the dirty kind who doesn't really like sex. One of the pages I had to do for it involved crystals. I had to describe 25 different crystals and what were the unique "properties" of each one; strengthens chakra, attracts good people, promotes prosperity. That last was my favorite recurring theme, btw. The ones that promoted prosperity did a good job for the seller, if not for the buyer.

The web designer I was working for knew I was skeptical and he said he would carefully edit the page to make sure I wouldn't slip anything skeptical in the copy. I didn't have to. The sellers did it for me. They had written a disclaimer for me to add at the bottom of the page.

"The scientific evidence for the efficacy of crystals has not been demonstrated. In the end, all of the positive needs in our universe can be met with Love, simply Love."

But, love don't pay the bills, does it?


Thank you for this post. I have close friends—rational people—who fall for some of this stuff. Feng shui, spirit animals, astrology, etc.

I still don't understand. But at least I'm not alone in not understanding.


Another ripper of a post.

You know, I wish I had these in book form.


"Visualization"? The mind boggles!

There's another important downside to believing in woo, which this post alluded to: it makes you a sucker for con artists. Hardcore woo believers waste tremendous amounts of time, effort and especially money obtaining treatments that don't work and advice that's useless. All they're doing is enriching fraudsters and throwing away money that they could have spent on more useful endeavors for themselves.

Oh - and thanks very much for that link to the pet psychic article! I have a family friend who's into this sort of stuff, big time. I wanted to call the pet psychic myself and invent a nonexistent pet, like this guy did, to prove that she was making it up... but then I wondered, was this really the best use of my skepticism? Proving that pet psychics can't really communicate with animals telepathically? It seemed to me that doing that would be like picking a fight with a small child. But I'm still glad someone did it! ;)


Another articulate, well thought-out post. And I couldn't agree more.

David D.G.

This is superb! It needs to be published and disseminated as widely as possible, along with the "Atheists and Anger" blog.

Great work, and thank you for writing it!

~David D.G.

the chaplain

Excellent post. Thanks for putting so much effort into reasoning it out and stating it so clearly.


see i m not much of a frequent blogger and dont discuss religion much...just 19 years old .and live in india.and i agree to not following any religion blindly..i believe in doin good,ie the proper karma and not thinkin about the result or the effect..all religions tell us the same thing.buddha tells the same ...dont desire of anything..ur action should be done free from the thought of effect.u have to do ur duty.ur karma properly.
BUT !!!! Woo....hmmm i have some doubt...i dont believe all this blindly ....the medicinal effects and all that.but i have seen and experienced 1 ritual for sure.In dussehra festival in india
in the month of october in kullu(state himachal pradesh)..the local gods are worshipped and they are brought to a common place that very day.from different valleys on palanquins .and its quite easy to believe by watchin them that the direction in wich they move is reallysomething determined by them and the people carrying them just follow the direction...u can feel it very simply.i was never told this by my parents or frens.just by watchin it i can make out..and i even know people who didnt believe this and tried to carry it and really got grilled...and everyone who tries to chek gets convinced 100% that its moving on its own will...
.....u need to see this

Greta Christina

Rahul, thank you for writing, and welcome to the blog! But the problem with what you're saying is that personal experience of the sort you're describing is a very unreliable form of evidence.

Our human minds are very easily fooled. And not just by charlatans who are consciously trying to fool us. We're fooled by other people who are as eager to believe as we are; we're fooled by our our own tendency to see what we want and expect to see. And -- most pertinently when it comes to religious and spiritual experiences -- we're fooled by our brain's tendency to see intention, and pattern, even when there isn't any.

I haven't had the specific experience you describe. But I've had many other experiences that, at the time, I was absolutely convinced could not possibly be explained by anything other than the supernatural. Now that I've done some wider reading on this type of experience, I realize that every single one of those experiences did have a natural explanation -- usually having to do with my own perception, and my ability to judge the accuracy of my own perception, being imperfect.

That's why "Everyone who tries this feels something!" is not a good source of evidence. That's why experiences like the one you describe need to be subjected to rigorous scientific inquiry -- to screen out our minds' tendency to be fooled.



I just bookmarked a dozen of your posts. They are great. They elucidate core topics of atheism and skepticism in ways that are understandable even to believers.

Thank you.


Great post, good points.

One issue that's alway bugged me (I don't if you'd consider it "woo") is the idea of free will.

By free will I mean fullblown, not determined by the laws of physics but by some vague thing called "you", indeterminite free will.

Rationally, I think it doesn't exist, I've never heard a coherent account of it that is plausible (i.e. doesn't resort to spirits, or free-will having subatomic particles or somesuch).

But in some situations it seems almost undeniably better to believe in such a falsehood than the truth. The idea that someone could have acted differently in the past than they actually did is sometimes harmful, but often seems a very important part of growth or even basic happiness.


Great post, good points.

One issue that's alway bugged me (I don't if you'd consider it "woo") is the idea of free will.

By free will I mean fullblown, not determined by the laws of physics but by some vague thing called "you", indeterminite free will.

Rationally, I think it doesn't exist, I've never heard a coherent account of it that is plausible (i.e. doesn't resort to spirits, or free-will having subatomic particles or somesuch).

But in some situations it seems almost undeniably better to believe in such a falsehood than the truth. The idea that someone could have acted differently in the past than they actually did is sometimes harmful, but often seems a very important part of growth or even basic happiness.

Christian Bachmann

Wow. Wow. Wow. You are just great.

Inquisitive Raven

I tend to be a Wiccan of the useful metaphor school myself. I used to own a New Age store and my ex-business partner and many of the customers were twoo believers. At least I think my ex-business partner was a believer; she could certainly talk a good line of BS when she got going.

Let me tell you though, some of those twoo believers are nuts. There was one woman, who thankfully never came into the store AFAIK, who called up one day looking for help to get a hex taken off her husband. Somewhere in the tale of woe, she let slip that he was military and had been deployed to Iraq. Apparently, when he got back, he'd changed drastically. Light bulb goes on over my head. I tried pointing out to this woman that being in a combat zone has that effect on people and if they don't get counseling, it can be long term. I don't think I ever got through to her about that one; she was too wedded to her woo explanation to listen to a suggestion that maybe the problem was PTSD. For me though, the more she talked, the more convinced I was that her problem was utterly mundane. In fact, I was starting to suspect a positive feedback loop (in the engineering sense which is bad), i.e. he came back traumatized, she reacted badly which pushed him away. She freaked out which pushed him farther away, etc. I suppose you can add this to the list of harm woo can do. I do find it ironic though, that the owner of the New Age store (me) was the one being skeptical.

Duke Euphoria De'Gryn

There's no need to invent God or Goddess to commit senseless acts of kindness and random beauty.

You have written well. Thankyou.

laura queue

I had no idea there was an entire field of pet psychics.

As for the rest of your post: Whoo-hoo!

Woo is not just all over the Right; the Left is rotten with it. We, the radical Left, really need to reclaim our fine anticlerical heritage and apply it rigorously to all forms of Woo. Criticism of mainstream this and that is good. Following it up with uncritical acceptance of alternative Woo is bad.

Jason Failes


Not sure how I got linked here, but I had to comment and leave you some massive props for this entry.

You said a lot, and you said it well. My personal experiences in life have shown me time and time again just how damaging woo can be to people.

Love how you tied in the old programmer mantra "garbage in, garbage out" -- I never thought of applying that reasoning to critical analysis of mystical belief structures, and I applaud you for it!


I keep stumbling back here. Good post, nice blog.

My thoughts on the subject are very similar. I also think that the right to believe whatever one wishes is vital, though I'd just as soon see superstitious nonsense eradicated. But abolish the right to believe and we may end up imprisoning the next Galileo.

I've always said I'll respect one's right to believe even if I think the belief itself is ridiculous (usually when I call something silly and and met with the old "But that's what I believe, you have to respect that!").


I must say that you are wrong. I know plenty of functional, intelligent people who believe in what you call "woo" and they are fine to do so. I think it is all just fantasy personally, but they are not obsessed with their belief to the point that it obstructs their ability to reason and understand reality.

You are wrong because most woo beliefs are irrelevant to most of daily living and only have a noticeable impact in reality when something serious happens: Like when concentrating solely on "reality" would be pointless in that there would be nothing you can do to change it - like when a family member dies.

People find comfort in believing that there is more than "reality" and may live more balanced, happier, more productive lives as a result. Perhaps some of the greatest artists and writers were inspired by a few casual woo beliefs they had.

There are plenty of cases in which embracing nothing but the hard science of reality is harmful. Some people have a hard time stomaching the idea that their actions are all predetermined, or that one will permanently cease to exist when he dies and never get to see any of the people he loves ever again. Sometimes this way of looking at the world is harmful in that it leaves very little room for one to cope.

"Woo" has its place - in some cases it is a coping mechanism, in some cases it is a motivator, and in some cases it simply spices up life for some people. In summary, there is NO SUCH THING as this one, perfect belief system that satisfies every need. If I don't want to believe that my grandmother - and everything about her that made her a wonderful and special person - is rotting in a hole, then you should damn well respect that.

Greta Christina

WhiteDragon103: There's a lot I could say to this. But I don't debate religion with people who are grieving or in crisis, and who are currently, at that moment, relying on their religious beliefs to support them.

I know that many atheists, including myself, have found ways to deal with death, grief, loss, and crises without religion. But I would never try to persuade someone out of a religious belief in a difficult time when they feel they need it. Please accept my condolences on the loss of your grandmother, and my hopes that you get through your grief in whatever way you need to.

Neil Bishop


What do you mean that Greta should "respect" your beliefs about the afterlife? She didn't seek you out personally to overturn your beliefs. Are you saying that no one should publicly argue against a belief because someone somewhere likes that belief?


Beautifully written post. You strike to the core of it, but graciously. I am a hardliner when it comes to belief systems. I tend to see people who pay cat psychics as mentally ill and distrust them in all things, for if a person's hold on reality is nebulous in one small instance how can I trust them in anything? Beyond the damage a woo believer does to her own identity there is the little matter of the messes that the rest of us have to deal with. A local example for me is the Mormons buying their way into heaven with babies. Polluting the earth with excess people is ugly but always a personal decision, however, polluting the school system with excess pupils is a drain on the other tax-payers.
Your argument stands invincible: reality is everything; deny it and it bites you, and the rest of us with you.


So true, Greta. The bit about people using their own woo-related intuitions over obvious evidence reminds me of something I heard in relation to an article about the human sense of direction: it's usually okay, but if it goes wrong, makes a mistake, that intuition can completely override the evidence then presented to them.

The example the article gave was, if a person is told to navigate a maze or route, and intuitively believes that there's, say, the town hall off to the right, then even if you can see it over to the left they'll still go right to get there, trying to justify it to themselves by saying it's the museum, not the town hall, that they can see. That's the problem with woo: it's a way of thinking which actively encourages people getting lost.


I am always grateful to see atheists writing about the "religious left" as I call them; a critical analysis is rare. I dislike atheists' tendency to only harp on Christianity (sometimes thinking Paganism/new age is benevolent, and sometimes even defending Islam). I am an ex-pagan and was never Christian. Paganism has more cult-like tendencies b/c of the practice of covens (dysfunctional circles of frenemies who hate each other but convince themselves they have perfect love and perfect trust)and the fact that it is less organized means that any egomaniac can manipulate a group of people. I wasted a lot of time and lied to myself, basically b/c I wanted to fit in. Ideas like "I always knew I was different, unique" (often said by Wiccans) are attractive, and people want to feel that about themselves. It is also a bad influence on young people; the last thing we need is more teenagers thinking they have magic powers.

Other woo beliefs (the law of attraction is a poster child, but there are others) are similar to mainstream religions in their victim-blaming. Either bad things happened to you b/c you sinned or didn't believe enough or it's karma or, the most insulting, you attracted it with your own thoughts. People will do anything to avoid facing that life is unfair.

An example of how people straddle between literal/figurative is a list of things that are needed in a spell, and then if those things are not available, "well, all you really need is your mind". Well, you either need it or you don't. Otherwise why would you waste your time and money acquiring this junk?


R.R: I agree. Religion is rather marginalized in my country, but the rest of the woo is strong over here.


"I tend to see people who pay cat psychics as mentally ill and distrust them in all things, for if a person's hold on reality is nebulous in one small instance how can I trust them in anything?"

OrugTor, that's not very reasonable. It's human nature to compartmentalize ways of thinking to the context in which you learned them. A brilliant scientist with a firm grasp of statistics and the scientific method, who would reject the God hypothesis outright if he came across it as a novel idea in his research, can lose all that rationality and become as credulous as anyone else the moment they walk into church.


Great post, as usual. As a Pagan, I get really sick of the lack of critical thinking in my community- I feel like something of a heretic for not believing in astrology, magic, reiki etc. Oh well, no one's going to burn me at the stake! Though I do think some forms of alternative medicine can be effective (ex: chiropractics, acupuncture), they shouldn't completely replace mainstream medicine. Each practice & technique should be carefully weighed first.

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