Science, Religion and the New Age

This article was first published in Conjunction, magazine of the Astrological Psychology Association, around the turn of the millenium. I believe it is still relevant today.

In the recent media attention given to attacks by scientific and religious personalities on aspects of ‘New Age’ thinking you can almost hear the sound of paradigms shifting. The frozen floes are beginning to crack. In his Structure of Scientific Revolutions Thomas Kuhn did great service in clarifying the nature of the learning process of the scientific community, indeed of any human communities of common interest. He showed how the existing shared viewpoint (paradigm) is defended at great length by the current ‘establishment’ until finally it gives and is overwhelmed and superseded by a new and more encompassing paradigm.

We can see a parallel in the recent media discussions. Scientists attack the New Age as representing unscientific, woolly thinking, which threatens their rationalist paradigm; it is in some way even more threatening than religion, which is regarded as equally woolly – but which they have learned to live alongside and dominate. Religionists attack the New Age as primitive and dangerous mysticism which threatens the ‘true’ paradigm they have constructed over the nearly 2000 years AD.

Astrology, Astronomy and Paganism

It is interesting that astrology and paganism bear much of the brunt of these attacks. Both are more ancient than today’s science and religion. From the days of the ancient Greeks astrology and astronomy were a single field of study, until sundered by modern science. Many leading exponents in the early days of modern science were indeed astrologers, such as Johannes Kepler and Tycho Brahe.

Paganism as a loose and embracing term was there before Christianity. Many of its features were incorporated into Christian practice to ensure acceptability to the populace. Most celebratory events such as Christmas happen at the time of pagan festivals. Many churches are built on ancient sites of worship and incorporate pagan symbols such as the Green Man. They also include astrological symbols.

New Age interest in astrology and paganism is thus in part a return to our roots. It is understandable that science and religion should be suspicious of that which they thought they had superseded. Our concern should perhaps be that they have thrown out the baby with the bath water.


The essence of science is its objectivity and insistence on proof by the experimental method. Its extreme proponents deny anything that is not amenable to this approach, and insist that the material world and its mechanistic operation according to scientific laws is all that there is. Modern physics has tended to retreat from this position as relativity and quantum theory have demonstrated that the objective separation of observer and observed is not possible.

We have perhaps put science on too much of a pedestal. It is after all only about the construction of models of reality, and not about reality itself. History tells us that today’s model which seems so natural will tomorrow become discredited by a better model. For example the ‘flat earth’ theory with the sun going round the earth was eventually superseded by the ‘round earth’ theory with the earth going round the sun.

It is difficult to see why scientists attack phenomena for which there is extensive subjective evidence, such as telepathy and spiritual development. Explanation of these phenomena is clearly beyond the capability of current scientific models, but their subjective reality is surely undeniable. A true scientific attitude should surely see this as the spur to developing new models, rather than reject the reality of the phenomena.

Mathematics has provided a salutary message in this context. Gödel’s theorem tells us that in any model that we construct there will be things that we can neither prove nor disprove – they are outside the scope of the model. A model of everything is impossible. Thus extremist science appears to be being unscientific, what about religion?

Church as Institution

If we look at the evolution of Western Christianity since the time of Christ we can see the construction of the Church as an institution. A theology of accepted belief has been developed – a paradigm. The history of the Catholic church contains a story of evolution of doctrine, with corresponding ideas outside the doctrine being regarded as heresies. Eventually the universal paradigm proved unsustainable and the Protestant movements in particular broke away.

The Catholic church provided the pathway to God, with the priests as mediators between the individual and the divine. The Gnostic traditions, which provided for the individual approach to God independent of the church as institution, were rigorously suppressed at the early stages of this process. Signs of resurgence were equally repressed, such as that shown by the Cathars in 13th century Languedoc. Thus was individual spirituality channelled through the church or suppressed.

Crisis of spirituality

In the modern world the church has lost much of its power and influence, contributing to a crisis of spirituality. If you doubt this look at our modern buildings and their lack of soul; stand in a field of modern agriculture with its loss of vitality; see world poverty and injustice with its lack of compassion; see the pollution of our earth and the loss of species,… You will only truly ‘see’ these if you open your heart and perceive as a whole human being, rather than just using your mind, and particularly your logical left brain.

Compare this modern evidence with the flowering of that which is highest and best in man during those special eras of the ancient Greeks, the early Gothic cathedrals and the Renaissance. It is surely the search to resolve this crisis of spirituality that much of the New Age is about.

New Age

Let us sum up. Science has led us too much into the limitations of an objective, left brain, mind-dominated world view, belittling the complementary parts of our nature which are subjective, right brain, and of the heart.

Religion is not providing for most the route to the spiritual that the testimony of the ages tells us is there. It is these chasms of malaise at the heart of today’s Western societies which the New Age is destined to resolve.

The paradigms of our science and religion must come up to date and become part of our solution. The strong reactions of those fundamentalists deeply embedded in the current paradigms are an encouraging sign that the change is beginning to take place. The ice is beginning to melt.

Featured image shows sunrise over tessellated pavement, courtesy of JJ Harrison and Wikimedia Commons

A Tale of Renewal

We first went through Winnington, near Northwich, Cheshire, in 1970 in our first car – a split-windscreen Morris Minor affectionately called ‘Creeping Moses’. I have a vivid memory of the grey ash that covered everything in Winnington – bushes, trees, terraced houses – in the vicinity of the enormous Imperial Chemical Industries chemical works with huge industrial buildings and smoking stacks. It was like an abandoned land at the end of some SciFi catastrophe.

It was only a few miles from our destination of Marbury Country Park, a former country house and WW2 prison camp which had even then become quite a pleasant park between Budworth Mere and the Trent and Mersey Canal. It was bordered by a huge stretch of lightly used industrial land belonging to ICI, spanning several miles between Winnington and another huge ICI factory at Lostock Gralam. Apart from the country park, this was definitely an area to avoid.

Over the intervening years, things have changed. The great ICI conglomerate was broken up and much of the chemical work has, I believe, moved elsewhere (perhaps that pollution is now in China?).

Anderton Boat Lift

The boat lift at nearby Anderton, linking the canal with the much lower River Weaver, was refurbished in 2002 and made into a visitor attraction, complete with cafe and boat trips. As part of the Mersey Forest initiative, Anderton Country Park and Northwich Community Woodlands were established on the former ICI land linking the two sites – now fully connected with Marbury giving a much larger country park, and also linked by footpath to central Northwich.

There is a fine set of well-maintained footpaths criss-crossing the entire area, and we find it ideal for a Sunday walk, as do many dog walkers and cyclists. The area is still home to old industrial pipes, some apparently still in use, but they do not intrude. The only problem I could find was the succession of dog waste bags that have been attached to or thrown into bushes, rather than the provided bins – now what is that all about?

newmans flash
Neumann’s Flash
Crested Grebe

The settlement ponds have become nature reserves for birds, with bird watching hides. On our visit yesterday we saw swans, coots, tufted ducks, moorhens, shelducks, crested grebes, a buzzard and the ubiqitous canada geese, mallard and gulls, also a clacking of rooks. Only a grebe came close enough to capture on our small travel zoom camera. Neumann’s Flash is usually a good place to see hundreds of lapwing, flying in formation with those lazy flapping wings, but yesterday we were restricted to a token flyby of around twenty.

What a transformation of this area over 45 years from industrial wasteland to a haven for wildlife and recreation. It does show what can be done, and we should never despair at the depradations done to our environment. It will recover, but slowly, and I suspect that the biodiversity of this area is still somewhat limited – at least in terms of butterflies, bees, hoverflies and the like. But nothing can recover the lives that were undoubtedly blighted by that pervasive pollution.

It was interesting to drive home through Winnington. The grey ash is long gone. The (now) Brunner Mond chemical works are still there. Some of the old industrial buildings are obviously derelict but still standing, some are in process of being dismantled, and new housing estates are rapidly expanding into the area being freed up. There is even a garden centre. This area truly is being renewed, bit by bit.

Plant Intelligence and the Imaginal Realm

Beyond the doors of perception into the dreaming of the earth

Review of a book by Stephen Harrod Buhner.

plant_intelligenceFor some time since reading Stephen Buhner’s book, I have been struggling to comprehend the full richness of what he puts forward. It is a book about how we perceive the world, about perceiving the depth, rather than the surface, of the world. For example, in this quote from Manuel Cordova Rios:

“As my glance wandered in the treetops I became aware of undreamed beauty in the details of the textures of leaves, stems, and branches. Every leaf… seemed to glow with a greenish golden light. Unimaginable detail of structure showed… A nearby bird sang… Exquisite and shimmering, the song was almost visible…”

Many people have had similar deep experiences, but the problem is to keep alive to them in a world dominated by surface things.

Buhner suggests that by opening up to and accepting our true selves we begin to see the world from a deeper perception than the mere surfaces of social conventions and laws.

Henry David Thoreau was one of the most eloquent exponents of our deep connection with nature. Robert Bly speaks of his books:

“As we read Thoreau’s work… we slowly become aware of a light in and around the squirrel, the ant, the woodcheck, the hawk, that belongs to them and not to the eyes observing or the brain producing words.”

Buhner states that his book “is about developing the skill of intentionally altering perception in order to perceive the light in and around the squirrel… about learning how to consciously use it as a tool of perception and cognition…” Now that is ambitious.

Let us get a sense of the work by looking at some of its main themes.

The doors of perception – sensory gating

Buhner suggests that every organism is deeply interwoven into the ecological matrix from which it is expressed. At the interface are located specific organs for perception of the exterior world in order to survive. The implication is that all life forms are self aware and intelligent and can determine meaning from the environment. Sensory gating allows the organism to focus on a limited aspect of world, rather than the myriad inputs; otherwise we would be overwhelmed with input. The gating becomes unconscious habit. We perceive what we expect to perceive.

Children are expected to fit into a defined ‘normal’ range of gating. The more wide open their gating channels, the more likely they will be seen as ‘not normal’. Newborns have minimal gating, so it develops during childhood. They don’t have the intermediary of language and see and hear ‘the old way’ before language. Developmental stages have different function and gating dynamics. Earlier stages can be reverted to at any particular point in time.

People trained in exterior focus (c.f. modern education) get stuck on surfaces and in language and can no longer find depths. This is pretty apparent in today’s Western societies.

Modern science has gated the meanings that come from the world, such as synchronicities, empathy with other life forms, and astrological significances – because they cannot be measured.

Opening the doors

“…the door to the soul is unlocked; you do not need to please the doorkeeper, the door in front of you is yours, intended for you, and the doorkeeper obeys when spoken to”

Robert Bly

Intentional activity or attention can override habitual gating. Once open more widely the gates can stay open; it is repetition that habituates the skill.

Goethe said: “every new object, clearly seen, opens up a new organ of perception in us.” Paying attention, even at a later age, on a regular basis, can reset unconscious gating and make us more sensitive, eg to music. The capacity for opening the doors of perception is built into us. This gives a way through the problem articulated by Einstein (I paraphrase) “We cannot solve the problems of today with today’s thinking” …which tends to be interpreted in a purely logical way as a ‘paradigm shift’, but probably more importantly relates to the need to actually change our perception of the world.

Other ways are identified to override gating, include meditation, halluicinogenics, focus on feeling perception.

Once gating is more open, we become sensitive to more meaning. The existentialist despair at the loss of meaning in the world was actually a disease of the scientific enlightenment.

Opening to the feeling sense

Reclaiming the feeling sense, and developing it as a primary sensing tool, is one of the main ways to begin to enter more deeply into the metaphysical background of the world. The key is practice and focus on How does it feel? Every physical object has its own distinct feeling sense.

“recovering the response of the heart to what is presented to the senses”

James Hillman

Absorbed reading, writing, creative science, playing music can all involve a shift in consciousness involving feeling and invoking the ‘dream state’.

But in feeling, you will see the dark as well as the light. It takes courage to keep feeling and not close down. The first step is to feel everything you come into contact with. Determine whether you like it or not – get a sense of its underlying nature. ‘Why this response?’

Buhner covers issues that may arise, such as how to handle self caretaking, sensory overload, depression, taking on other people’s stuff and other issues. He references inner child / inner council work of e.g. John Bradshaw and Eric Berne.

Everything is intelligent and inextricably intertangled

The reductionist scientific viewpoint has led us up the garden path. The world is far more complex than that. It is living intelligence, described by concepts such as complex systems, self organisation, state changes, symbiogenesis, autopoiesis etc. Intelligence is manifested by all organisms – bacteria, plants, animals, ecoranges, the earth as Gaia… This was actually the direction of thinking taken by Darwin in his later works, eg seeing the root of a plant as its brain, sensitively using intelligence to navigate through the soil. Evolution sees common patterns emerging from bacteria through plants to animals and humans,

The natural world from which we are expressed when we are born is a context or scenario, continuously evolving, fluid not static, dynamic and co-evolving. The biosphere is so complex and evolving that we cannot know the consequences of anything we do.

Background and foreground are tightly coupled. There is a “softness of the boundary between inside and outside” (Lewontin). Opening of sensory gating channels leads to thinning of the boundary between self and nonself.

Golden threads of connection run through the world. We should trust our response to world; it has meaning. These threads touch us because something deep inside us needs what’s on the other end of that thread. [c.f. synchronicity, astrology.] We can immerse in the thread through feeling…

Reductionist education discourages this capability that is in us.

Psychotropics in the ecosystem

Psychotropics such as serotonin, psilocybin, DMT, cannabinoids are deeply interwoven into the structure of life, where they play a role in reducing gating. History shows such drugs as playing a role in ‘depatterning’ a certain percentage of the population to subsequent advantage. The explosion of creativity from the 1960s provides a fairly convincing example eg 1960s western music, Steve Jobs et al and the creation of modern IT. However:

“Those who open sensory gating are a danger to the fundamental underpinnings of the reductive paradigm.”

The psychotropics have been long banned by conventional society.

Natural Science and the Imaginal World

The naturalist Barbara McClintock was ostracised because not she was not reductionist. Her approach was to have the “patience to hear what the material has to say to you”, approach the world with a childlike self.

“the first step in the ecological reclamation of the self is to feel, to reclaim the parts of ourselves that feel and feel deeply.”

This ‘seeing’, rather than ‘looking’, requires empathy with the material. Something new arises. Meaning is grasped. This was the essence of Natural Science, and was the science of Goethe.

Sensory perceiving is what you do instead of thinking with your mind; it is ‘the old way’. This can lead to the encounter with other intelligence, such as the dolphin. Becoming aware of the living contextual field, we touch the one livingness, the Tao.

Science vs Barbarianism

In every field, the original pioneers who followed their heart without formal training are followed by the sober well-prepared ones, who have little wisdom to offer. We might take the example of the development of modern psychology and its subsequent codification, or the distortion of the ideals of the USA by some of its modern ‘leaders’.

Also, the early pioneers’ gating channels narrow with age… they become more conservative and pass this on to those following. We have only to look at the later Freud resisting the advances of those who came later to build on his foundations.

The disadvantage of formal schooling is that it takes a long time to discover that one has been poorly educated, to realise that what one was taught is a mere map giving but little insight into reality. I well recognise this syndrome.

Buhner is hard on science, suggesting that most published research claims are false, due to the influence of large scientific journals, sponsors, referees, and money. The dissociated mentation that has come from science – communication devoid of feeling – is seen as the hallmark of the ‘reasonable man’.

He suggests that sensory gating is a lot more open in every other culture on earth (compared to Western)! Yet we want to impose top down solutions on the rest of the world.

We have to use a different kind of thinking, step outside normal channels. We must become the new barbarians, asking “How does this feel to me?”, the crucial question every time… We will begin to be truly ourselves; our words beginning “to take on a depth that is truly alien in our time”.


This book is a tour de force presenting a world view that is immensely appealing to this reviewer, consonant with the views of many working towards a New Renaissance, and profoundly disruptive of the current Western majority paradigm. It requires a change in the way we perceive the world. This is what the real world is about.