(See a blog version of this episode below the show notes.)
Science and spirituality — are they opposing concepts? This episode dives into the use of the term woo-woo, conspirituality and the rise of the Qanon goddess, the energetics of intention and the science of intuition, and what happens when science can’t prove your spiritual beliefs.
Referenced in this episode:
- “The complexities of the menstrual cycle are considered major barriers to the inclusion of women in clinical trials.” British Journal of Sports Medicine.
- “The Emergence of Conspirituality.” Journal of Contemporary Religion.
- “TheThe Only Way Out Is Through: The Peril of Spiritual Bypass.” Counseling and Values.
- “The Science of Spiritual Narcissism.” Scientific American.
- Understanding Medical Research: Your Facebook Friend is Wrong (FREE on Coursera)
- “The Energetic Heart: Biolectromagnetic Interactions Within and Between People.” The Neuropsychotherapist.
- “Modulation of DNA Conformation by Heart-Focused Intention.” HeartMath Research Center.
- Village Silversmith
Some would say science and spirituality are opposing concepts, but they aren’t mutually exclusive. Embracing a spiritual life does not have to be in direct conflict with science. They can exist alongside each other and they often complement one another. We can believe in both magic and in medicine, as one of my favorite witches, Pam Grossman, has said.
Science and spirituality are often framed in this binary way where you can’t possibly believe two things at once. But 90% of people pray to something, so there are millions of people out there who believe in both some higher power and science. Isaac Newton was an occultist. Albert Einstein was quoted as saying “religious experience is the strongest driving force behind scientific research.”
For many people, science affirms their spirituality, it’s not in direct conflict.
You might notice that the more that certain rhetoric leans towards the science-only side, believing in only the things that can be studied, then everything else in that context tends to be trivialized and referred to as “woo-woo.”
Why I don’t say woo-woo anymore
I am consciously trying to remove this from my vocabulary. Here’s why.
Think about when you’re describing something that way — what do you actually mean by it? For me, I would use it when I was worried someone would judge me for my spiritual practice. If I referred to something as woo-woo, it would kind of acknowledge that I was aware of how it sounded and that whoever I was talking to might think I’m a little bananas.
But I don’t actually feel that way about my beliefs. Sure, I’m self-aware and I know how it might sound to other people who don’t have the same belief system, but why does that mean I have to diminish my spirituality for the comfort of others?
I’ve had to learn this as a solo practitioner, not having a community of people around for regular affirmation. In this case, you just do things privately and keep it to yourself and downplay it.
It wasn’t until I found more people like me that I felt like I could open up. Before that, I felt like I had to guard my practice in a way that was ultimately dismissing it by calling it woo-woo.
Woo-woo is ultimately belittling and I don’t want to do that to something that has brought me so much joy and that is part of my identity.
Also when we think about not just why we use the term, but the types of things that we use it for, you might notice that it’s all focused on things that can’t be empirically proven, or it can’t be tested in a lab. Western culture is heavily focused on evidence, repeatable systems, and tangible results. It’s focused on having physical proof for everything or else it’s garbage. It dismisses the more abstract ideas and things that we simply just cannot prove in that way, although they have just as much value.
The term woo-woo perpetuates the idea that it’s all crazy, that it’s pseudoscience, that it isn’t worthy. But again, what are those things that we’re talking about?
They’re practices that are embracing of the divine feminine, they’re maybe things that are traditionally practiced by women, they’re indigenous or ancient Eastern practices. Smudging would be considered woo-woo, but it’s a very serious ceremonial Native practice, a lot of Chinese medicine is considered woo-woo. A lot of the work I do, the lunar aspect to my work, also would fall under that category. And to dismiss these things becomes a dismissal of religion and culture and really sacred rituals and these parts of ourselves that we hold in reverence. We’re disrespecting ourselves this way.
Woo-woo is defined as unscientific, but many of us believe in science. Two things can be true. We can honor the mystical and unexplainable while also believing in research. And we can also recognize that a lot of science is skewed by patriarchal beliefs in science and education. So that dismissal of these more intuitive, communally focused, holistic practices, it’s a symptom of our culture.
When it comes to healing, physical observations are not always part of it, there is so much that we still don’t know. Just because we can’t pinpoint the mechanism of action of a change, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. Just because we don’t know an answer right now, doesn’t mean we’ll never know. It might, but science is ever-evolving. We don’t have all the answers to life’s complex questions.
You and I know that real magic, real witchcraft, real energy behind spiritual practices regardless of your religion or your what you call your work — we know that it’s powerful. So to use the term woo-woo dismisses our personal knowledge and experience and reverence in order to make other people comfortable.
One thing I’m not talking about here, however, is conspirituality. The rise of the QAnon goddess. The people who funnel through the wellness-to-Qanon pipeline. This gives the rest of us a bad name. This is the science denier, the spiritual bypasser, the spiritual narcissist.
This has become more popular over the last year as there’s been a huge rise in people in the spiritual community sharing QAnon conspiracies and anti-vax propaganda, the people who say love can cure COVID and fear is why you caught it in the first place.
There’s a lot of distrust in authority, which on its own I think is fine. We have every right to question authority because there is a lot of corruption around us, there is a lot of bias in research, but the misinformation is where it devolves. There is such a lack of trust for science that goes from healthy skepticism, where you’re looking for possible conflicts of interest and dissecting how the research was done, to downright harm that makes a mockery of the hard and incredible work that researchers have done and that hospital workers have endured over the last year.
Instead of facing challenges, they send love and light. This is spiritual bypassing. Spiritual bypassers tend to be the science deniers. They preach about personal sovereignty.
That phrase means supreme power or authority over one’s self, which is a right we all have. Making ourselves a priority is important to a point, and then beyond that point it turns into willful ignorance and disregard for the people in your life or your community. It’s individualism. It’s ignoring science because it’s inconvenient.
They say “do your research, you decide what’s best for yourself.” But I have seen the research!
When it comes to public health, a matter of their actions deeply impacting others, it’s not really a matter of “you do you.” It’s not a personal decision because they say it’s a personal decision, it’s actually very public when the people around them might suffer the consequences of their actions.
It’s really spiritual bypassing, which is using your beliefs as a way to absolve you from any personal responsibility.
There is an actual study on spiritual bypassing that ended up recommending psychologists and therapists look out for that behavior when counseling patients. They define it as “the unhealthy misuse of the spiritual life to avoid dealing with psychological difficulties.” Or when people “seek to use their spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences to avoid genuine contact with their psychological ‘unfinished business.’”
It’s an avoidance function, and it can get so bad that it becomes a form of spiritual narcissism.
It’s when we’re so focused on personal development and doing our spiritual work but like not actually examining our shadow side and doing the hard work of integrating that. “Self-enhancement through spiritual practices can fool some of us into thinking we’re evolving and growing when all we’re growing is our ego.”
Dealing with science deniers
It’s natural for humans to cling stubbornly to something in the face of contrary information. Cognitive dissonance is hard to deal with and it can be isolating as you lose family and friends over these things, which makes you want to stick to it even more because what was it all for if you give up now, right? It’s natural to double down when you’re wrong.
So keep that in mind, but also check in on them. How are they doing mentally, physically, emotionally? Since this is can be an avoidant behavior, getting hyperfocused on anti-vax propaganda or hyperfocused on the universe protecting your immune system is bypassing something. Trying to get a sense of the why behind it all might be helpful.
You can help them figure out if they’re reasoning with information, meaning they’re thinking critically about it and deciding what it means for them, or if they’re rationalizing it, bending it to fit their predetermined beliefs.
You can also help debunk some information but that’s less likely to work, again if they’re deep down the anti-science rabbit hole there’s only so much that we can do there, so I’d focus more on what else is going on in their life that they feel compelled towards… alternative facts. Maybe invite them to hang out or do something that takes them out of their echo chamber.
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries if you need to, whether you clearly let them know what you’ll talk about and not talk about with them, or if you need to cut them off.
The energetics of intention
There are people who believe and science and acknowledge that they don’t know everything and there is always more to discover, and then there are people who straight up deny what science shows.
My point with all of this is that science and spirituality can co-exist in ways that complement each other, affirm each other, and they’re not things we need to be divisive about. We can have both. A lot of the science and research we have today came about because of the questions that were asked in spiritual or religious contexts.
And science can actually measure a lot of our energetic efforts! It may not be able to confirm for you exactly that the prosperity bath you took is what made you rich or if your house-hunting spell is what truly led you to your dream home, but the energetics of intention can be measured.
It’s very easy to write things off as placebo effects. This happens a lot in the holistic health space, because there’s limited or no research, and why is there no research? Because some things are not considered worthy of study.
I love some healthy skepticism, some thoughtful inquiry; it’s cynicism I don’t like. Lack of evidence to disprove something doesn’t necessarily mean it’s untrue (this is in opposition to what we just talked about with science deniers where there is plenty of evidence to disprove certain things).
You have heard me say that with rituals, with spells, all you need is your own energy. Crystals are sparkly and pretty and candles are fun and you can have all the bells and whistles to help you out, but at the basis of it all is energy.
How do we infuse our energy into our rituals? It’s thought-based, it’s emotion-based, it’s really feeling your feelings and believing in your intentions.
Emotions can be studied. Emotions are energy and can influence us on a cellular level. Now does this explain how love spells work? Not really, but maybe! A HeartMath Institute study claimed that physical aspects of DNA strands could be influenced by human intention. What they did was have participants hold test tubes that contained DNA and they were instructed to generate feelings of love and appreciation with the intention of causing the DNA to wind or unwind. What they found was the positive emotions influenced the DNA by up to 25%, and that intention was an important factor in the changes.
So how does this apply to spirituality? We pray, we venerate, we perform spells and rituals, all of that requires intentionality. Again, it’s all energy. Is it all you need with your rituals? For the most part, yes.
But is it all you need to ensure the outcome? Not exactly. You need more than energy and intention for your magic. You also need action, otherwise it’s just the law of attraction, which is a form of spiritual bypassing, not taking any responsibility for what happens or leaving it up to the universe. It takes away your own agency really.
It was a small study, but the research here is onto something — you’re changing something inside of you that can also propel you forward, that can also motivate you to take action towards your goals. The ritual is a symbol of your desire, it’s not fully complete without the things that you do after the ritual, after you speak your intention, that help make what you want to happen, happen.
I don’t think we need science here to tell us that, and again, it was a small study, but this is a case where science affirms spirituality.
Now what happens when science can’t do that for you?
When science can’t prove your beliefs
Someone asked me recently about how to reckon with this, and as an example mentioned crystal healing, that there’s no science to prove there are energies helping them but they still felt like it all worked.
Who’s to say it works? Who’s to say mint is good for prosperity and rosemary is good for protection? It may very well be a placebo but who cares? This is folk magic and folk magic goes so far back in history, there’s a reason that it has stood the test of time. Whether it’s just tradition or if there are energetics behind it yet that we simply haven’t discovered yet, that’s to be determined.
I do feel though, that we all have relationships with minerals and with plants and with earthly objects like this. Some people are more attuned to them than others, some people are attuned to the spirit of plants and communicate with them intuitively. In herbalism, on the more practical side, a monograph from one herbalist might say completely different things than another’s, and both can be true! Both of them can have had completely different experiences with a plant and both can be correct.
For the things we can’t measure, I don’t think we have to discount our own personal experiences. If a crystal helps you, it helps you. But let’s consider this — some watches use quartz to regulate timekeeping. How does that work? It’s piezoelectric, meaning when you apply pressure, it generates electric voltage, and if you apply voltage, it vibrates at a certain frequency, which is how it’s used in watches to keep the clock ticking.
Not all crystals are piezoelectric, but all matter has frequency. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible that it influences us on a certain level, but there are currently no studies to support crystal healing. Anything written about it talks all about the placebo effect, and I wonder why that’s such a bad thing if that is the only explanation. Placebo effects can provide real biological results. But it’s always just dismissed as the power of suggestion. And that may be, and it may not.
I don’t think you throw it all out because science can’t prove it’s helpful for you. Especially if it’s harmless. Having a crystal collection isn’t the same as managing a Qanon Facebook group. I think it just means you follow your intuition with it.
In the science community, the belief is that our intuition is located in the right side of our brain. The tissue that connects the right and left side of the brain is actually thicker in women’s brains, and I think I’ve talked before about how in your menstrual phase, there’s more activity between the left and right brain at that time and so you may notice that your intuition is stronger. The right brain is associated with gut feelings, which makes sense because the gut and brain are connected, the gut is actually referred to as our second brain, while the left is more logic-focused and that’s a recipe for making quick decisions.
Intuition is just unconscious information, it’s faster than rational thought which is why it seemingly comes out of nowhere. But since it’s based on information and our experiences and our interpretations of those things, it can also be wrong sometimes.
So it’s good if you’re asking this question and not blindly following your intuition. It’s good that you’re examining it, because blindly following it is what can lead you from harmless things like carrying an amethyst in your bra to taking that amethyst and throwing it through Nancy Pelosi’s window.
Let’s also consider meditation. There are tons of studies on the mental and physical benefits of meditation, but the spiritual benefits? Ones that we know, ones that you’ve likely experienced yourself? How can you measure that? Can you go to an Ashram in India and tell its guru that their stress levels might be pretty low but that doesn’t mean they’re talking to God? Of course not!
There are no absolute truths in science
Science is still young. We like to think we know everything, but we don’t. We’ve only been doing this for a couple hundred years. I believe there are many things bigger than the human experience, bigger than we can even fathom that we don’t have the capacity to study, or that simply isn’t meant to be studied.
Science and spirituality both come down to the same thing, seeking answers. Just think about the Big Bang Theory. It is just a theory, after all, we don’t really know! We’re all just searching for answers.
Science wants to find the why behind spirit and spirit wants to find the why behind science. One way I’ve read it is that “physical scientists are trying to prove God to themselves through the outer eyes and ears, while the spiritual scientists are trying to prove God to themselves through their inner eyes and ears.”
We’re looking for the same things in different ways. Neither way is better than the other, it’s when they can come together that they can be most powerful.