Mitch Horowitz is the editor-in-chief of Tarcher/Penguin and the author of "Occult America," awarded the 2010 PEN Oakland/Josephine Miles Award for literary excellence. Horowitz has recently written for The Washington Post, U.S. News & World Report, and BoingBoing.
Horowitz is a Big Think Delphi Fellow.
Question: Is occultism still relevant in modern life?
Mitch Horowitz: I believe it is relevant and it can have a concrete and positive impact. People need doorways to explore universal religious and ethical ideas. Pope John Paul II probably beatified more saints than any other Pope in history. He understood that we need modern doorways in order to drink from very, very deep wells. And I think occultism or new age spirituality or alternative spirituality, rather than steering people into dark corners very frequently, particularly in our country, steers people toward a renewed interest in universal religious and ethical ideas that they might never encounter if they didn’t find a modern and novel door to enter the tradition with.
In my book, I write quite a bit about an early 20th Century psychic named, Edgar Casey. He was claimed to be a medical clairvoyant who could diagnose people's diseases, people that he had never met, people who were far away. His readings, his psychical readings also contained a great deal of ethical material. There’s a whole generation of people who I think came in touch with all kinds of eastern and gospel-based religious ideas because they saw Edgar Casey as a person who shone a modern light, as a person who was able to offer some kind of invisible help in the contemporary world. That’s the experience of people who encounter saints in the Catholic Church. We need to see people who look and talk and live and act like us sometimes before we can turn a knob and open a door. That’s what occultism has always provided.
In the mid-19th century, occult figures in this country were confirming the most radically held views that came out of the reformation. They were confirming an idea that each individual had a kind of birthright to a non-mediated encounter with the divine. And I think spiritualism, mesmerism, the mental healing movement, provided some people with the most meaningful experiences of their lives. These movements also demanded that religion not be just a salvational force but that it be a healing force as well. And that’s probably the most significant legacy of occult in this country.
Throughout this nation and throughout many parts of the modern western world, churches and religious organizations are required to address the practical needs of people’s day-to-day existence. Salvation as an aim hasn’t been jettisoned, but people demand that hand-in-hand with that the church play a therapeutic role. So you find that a self-help spirituality that spans our religious landscape—from the new age to evangelical medium ministries, the most easily adaptable occult idea has been what we basically call the positive thinking movement, which in its earliest inception grew out of mesmerist circles in this country in the mid-19th century, in New England and the "burned over district."
The idea that the mind had causative power was a concept that came out of mesmerism. That has been reworked across our social landscape. You find it in the speeches of Ronald Reagan, you find it in business motivation seminars, it’s the stock and trade of life coaches. You also find that idea in ensconced in the sermons that a figure like Joel Osteen will give every Sunday morning to a television audience of tens of millions of people. It’s also a new age idea that you find expressed in “The Secret.”
This concept that it had to be cathartic, religion had to be healing, religion had to be practical was unheard of say 150 years ago. You didn’t hear of that within the Catholic Church, you didn’t hear of that within the Calvinist Protestantism, you started to hear of it within occult circles and eventually that became an American innovation whose roots became somewhat hidden, but it just spread throughout the entire culture.
I think that’s been a positive trend. I think therapeutic spirituality has largely been a help in the modern world. So the fact that people can approach religion with practical needs. And sometimes that they feel the need to approach religion through either novelty or in some kind of modern terms, that is an aspect of human nature. And I think that anything that helps people draw closer to some sort of a universalist or religious ethic is probably for the net good in the end. And to me that’s part of the role that alternative spirituality has played.
Recorded on October 4, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller