New Age may be mainstream, but it's a mistake

Science is our triumph over nature, and we should not be seduced by hokum such as the Mind Body Spirit Festival
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A woman was holding a small glass crystal up to the light, dangling it on a silver thread. "It is to help me sell my house," she explained. "He told me to take it up to the top left-hand corner of the house - that's where the money aura is - and swing it about by the window. It'll be sold in no time."

This is the ideal home exhibition of the interior world - the Mind Body Spirit Festival, now filling London's Royal Horticultural Halls. Here the New Age lays out its myriad stalls each year - and each year there are more of them. Hocum and snake oil is a booming multi-million pound industry. Many of its products routinely find their way onto the counters of Boots, and the New Age and therapy sections in book shops crowd the shelves. Up to 50,000 people flock to this festival, and with an pounds 8 entrance fee and an average pounds 15 per personal consultation, this is serious money.

There are, to be sure, a few aged hippies with thinning pony tails, frayed Indian waistcoats and nose flutes slung round their necks. But what strikes one most forcefully is the ordinariness of most of the visitors, eagerly buying into inner harmonising, Tarot - the doorway to the subconscious, UFOs, shamans, psychics and inner alchemy. Middle-aged, Marks and Spencer- dressed, normal-looking people with ordinary jobs fill the hall, on both sides of the counter. This is not "alternative" any longer; this is mainstream. These are not the anti-establishment Yippies of yesteryear, they are accountants from Croydon and bathroom salesmen from Basingstoke. You might find the same sort of people at a Methodist conference or a bowls tournament - respectable, home-owning, salary-earning solid citizens who think a bit of soul physics, an Indian head massage, a spot of freeze-dried algae or a session in the gongmasters workshop might do them some good.

Gaston, an elegantly dressed Frenchman in his late sixties, opted for inversion therapy. Once all the money and keys were removed from his pocket, therapist Paul lay on his back and bent Gaston backwards over his upraised feet and kept him upside down, balanced for 10 minutes. Meanwhile changes in the colour of Gaston's aura were monitored on a Toshiba laptop to which his wrist was attached. Onlookers might have been more worried about changes to the colour of his face.

The National Federation of Spiritual Healers (a registered charity, but what isn't?) had a flotilla of practitioners laying hands upon eager clients - eyes closed, intense concentration. "Anything from the trivial to the terminal," one woman healer said. "The power will just home in on it wherever it is, with just a tad of a tingling, that's all." One healer, Steve Sharpe, explained how he was called. "I was picked out of the congregation and told I was a psychic. Not me, mate, I said. I'm a down-to earth London cabbie." He still drives his cab by day, but heals by night. "I had one guy, had a tumour on the lung. His doctor couldn't believe the improvement I'd made." Where is he now? "Oh, well he passed on. But I tell you, we're talking bones mending and the like".

Behind the counter of the Aetherius Society is a small, balding computer technician in ordinary life, but in contact with the Gods from Space the rest of the time. The Cosmic Masters of the universe with their flying saucers will come and rescue us all in the Aquarian age. Indeed the coming millennium features frequently here. We are living in The Last Years.

Elsewhere a large chart of the feet explains reflexology. This is a treatment, like aromatherapy, that has become so common that quite apparently sensible people swear by it. The chart explained that massaging just under the big toe connects up with the medulla oblongata; the right eye is to be located under the third toe; the right testicle in the centre of the heel, just a bit down from the rectum. I was once dragged off to a French reflexologist by a credulous friend, but it tickled and I giggled which made him angry: "You have no sole!" I thought he said.

The cults are not like conventional religion because they have no social dimension. They are entirely self-centred, without a communal aim. They connect to no general conception of "the good", apart from the incidental consequences of being at peace with self. Workshops have names such as "Understanding and Befriending Myself" and "If All the World's a Stage, Why Can't I Have a Better Part?"

At one stand I heard a counsellor advising a 13-year old girl. She had just spent pounds 10 having her aura photographed and the polaroid snap showed a big blob of green above her head. "Ah, green," said the aura-imager. "It means you are always trying to please other people, and not asking for what you need. Am I right?" Of course the girl nodded in vehement agreement.

This is a world where everyone is sick. We are stressed out, full of toxins, our minds clogged with memories of past lives, psychically blocked, out of touch with nature and our true selves. East is good (forget tiger economies, think Reiki and Feng Shui) and West is bad (except for Native Americans' holistic synergy with nature). Science and reason are destroying the environment and our psyches, dragging us further from our mystic roots.

New Agery is sentimental, ersatz stuff. It is sugary sweet and cosy. "Nature" to the cultists is an advertising slogan "full of natural goodness". This is feel-goodery without grit or honesty. Death is just an out-of- the-body virtual reality. This is nature seen through the picture window of a centrally-heated, all mod cons home, with the GP reassuringly down the road.

But does it matter? Is there any harm in it? Why shouldn't people clutch whatever they can to see them through? What is wrong with illusion and fantasy as a survival strategy? The answer is tough and unbending - superstition diminishes us. Nature is the enemy, red in tooth and claw. It killed most babies, gave us smallpox, famine, plague and a life of unremitting toil followed by early death. Science is our triumph over nature. Truth - demonstrable, provable - matters.

Toleration for this brain-rotting stuff is fashionable, but we should be harsher rationalists. Humanity is humiliated when people are drunk on delusions. What hope for progress if we abandon reason in droves to seek out sentimental escapism? It is distressing to watch grown-up people foolishly seduced by fairy tales.