Why are unscientific beliefs increasing among millennials?

We don’t have to stop inquiring or wondering about the far-flung vistas of reality, we just need to do it with some good old-fashioned logic.


We live in a strange and magnificent world. Throughout our species' time on Earth, humans have looked to the stars and the world they inhabit for answers. Babylonian mathematicians, Mayan astronomers and the vast enterprise of scientific and philosophic inquiry endemic to Greco-Roman society—these were just some of the many cultures and civilizations throughout the ages that dared to question and learn about the cosmos around them. It is because of these intellectual giants through antiquity and beyond that we know so much about the world.

Isaac Newton said: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

That is by and large how our understanding of the world grows beyond our first feeble grasp of it in all areas of logical inquiry. Whether it be science, history or philosophy, we build on the knowledge of our past. Yet there has always been an undercurrent of superstition, illogical thinking and general quackery afoot that's ready to chip away at what we have gained.

Now, we're all entitled to our fair share of weird ideas and mishaps; Newton himself was an alchemist and spent years of his life trying to decode the Book of Revelations in the Bible. But don't forget, the man also created calculus and threw us into a scientific period of understanding, which coined the Newtonian worldview before Albert Einstein usurped him. But he was also simply a product of his time, so we can excuse him for any lapse in ecclesial judgment.


Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton in old age by James Thornhill, 1709-12. (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, we have the entire wealth of human knowledge literally at our fingertips. You'd think that'd pave the way for a cultural renaissance of sorts that might eclipse our 15th-century Florentine forefathers. But that hasn't quite been the case.

Many of our millennial cohorts have entered into a strange unscientific and irrational milieu. Astrology is gaining steam as a theory of personality; flat-Earthers are actually growing in number, and you don't even have to stray that far from your local street-corner preacher anymore to hear wild denials of the moon landing and other unqualified pundits propagating absurd conspiracies.

So what got us into this mess and why do so many people—millenials and other generations included—believe in such nonsense? Let's start with the stars.

Astrology is finding a growing audience among millennials

Astrology as a system of belief has been around for thousands of years. It implies that the location of the stars and planets at the time of someone's birth determines their personality and life course. Those astrologers dedicated to the process write horoscopes and claim that they can predict your fate and reveal your true nature through zodiac charts.

Astrology has always been alluring to youth movements and has featured in youth culture from the 1960s onward. In a time when the younger generations are less religious, but still considered spiritual, it's no surprise that astrology has become so popular again with the youth.

Stuart Vyse, psychologist and author of Believing in Magic: The Psychology of Superstition, has written on the subject of millennial astrology:

“The rise of a generation that is not as traditionally religious as previous ones but still seeking a kind of spiritual satisfaction, combined with the vanquishing of liberal politics in the United States and abroad, has created a fertile environment for this form of superstition and unreason."

Vyse, citing a Finnish Study that gave questionnaires to people signed up for adult education classes, explains that those signed up for astrology courses were more prone to have recently experienced more crises in their life.

His takeaway from this was that: “So, it appears that when people lose their footing and are shaken by the world, astrology provides a sense of order and control."

It seems that in the absence of religion people are more willing to believe in other non-scientific and unreasonable ideas.

“Over the past two years, we've really seen a reframing of New Age practices, very much geared toward a Millennial and young Gen X quotient," Lucie Greene, the worldwide director of J. Walter Thompson's innovation group, a consumer trend think tank, says to The Atlantic.

'Unreality', a 2016 trend report by the J. Walter Thompson innovation group, found that: "Astrology apps, psychic consultations over Skype and online tarot readings for those seeking direction are on the rise, apparently mirroring an increase in the diagnosis of anxiety disorders in young women. Clinical psychologist Jessamy Hibberd claims the link between the two is due to uncertainty about the future and a desire for a more directed destiny."

Astrology is arguably an inane and harmless belief. Aside from you wild Scorpios butting heads with a quick-tempered Aries, it's safe to say that astrology isn't that big of a problem. Rather, it's the underlying mindset that leads to trouble. Carl Sagan said that "Science is more than a body of knowledge. It's a way of thinking," then, worryingly, perhaps unscientific reasoning is a way of thinking too.

Superstitious thinking and grand conspiracies

Challenging questionable status quos of history and scientific inquiry is good for the advancement of knowledge. Challenging settled, indisputable, immutable, historical events and observable—without a shadow of a doubt—natural phenomenon is an exercise in pure delusion.

Unfounded claims and arguments that we never landed on the moon and that Earth is flat have tired themselves out to any rational-minded person. There's really no need anymore to defend against these ridiculous claims. Just one study by Dr. David Robert Grimes puts into perspective what it would take for these and other conspiracies to remain hidden taking into account the sheer number of people that would be involved in one.

Rather than waste valuable time debunking the treadmill of conspiracies, we instead need to look at why these views are taken up in the first place.

Conspiracies, astrological love charts and the like stem from a feeling of powerlessness or the need to feel that you have special knowledge over others. Psychologist, Jan-Willem van Prooijen conducted a number of studies which correlated higher educational levels and feelings of control inversely with the belief in conspiracies.

That is to say, with increased education levels came a feeling of being more in control which then lead to lessened belief in conspiracies or other kinds of superstitious thinking.

Van Prooijen goes on to say that:

“By teaching children analytic thinking skills along with the insight that societal problems often have no simple solutions, by stimulating a sense of control, and by promoting a sense that one is a valued member of society, education is likely to install the mental tools that are needed to approach far-fetched conspiracy theories with a healthy dose of skepticism."

A lack of agency grasping at a need for stability

One reason for the pervasiveness of groundless ideas and theories is that they serve as a way to make sense of a chaotic world. People would rather believe that they're ill-fated by a bum roll of the astrological dice or that a secret order is the reason they can't get ahead in life.

Sometimes tragic events happen for no good reason. They're simply churning out of the chaotic pool of randomness. It's a much more comforting psychological function to believe that someone or some cabal is behind it all. Unfortunately, this leads many would-be skeptics away from solving real problems or even real political conspiracies that do occur.

Here's a prime example.

Robert Anton Wilson was an unconventional science-fiction writer and provocateur from the good old Age of Aquarius who was responsible for bringing back an old and defunct secret society into the cultural consciousness. In his Illuminatus trilogy, Wilson, who wrote in an unbridled and self-professed guerilla ontological manner, played hard and fast with the rules of storytelling and general conspiracy literature.

This lead to one of the many favorite conspiracies of millennials, the Illuminati, a secret cabal that's not only controlling the strings of hundreds of disparate countries and running the world but also taking the time to throw in some occult references in at the latest Super Bowl halftime show.

This alone illustrates a pertinent point about conspiracy and unscientific thinking. Wilson was a nuanced and general trickster when it came to writing. Not many people realize that this erudite and often ridiculous story was an in-joke that evolved into the grand conspiracy it is today amongst the youth.

A word of advice, when you're bordering on the edge on inquiry, you may find yourself in conspiratorial waters. Whether it be supposed messages from the stars or an insidious faction plotting your demise, one must be careful not to stray too far into tinfoil territory.

Ironically enough, ethnobotanist and psychedelic lecturer, Terence Mckenna, who had his own share of wayward ideas, put it quite eloquently when he said:

"Conspiracy theory is a kind of epistemological cartoon about reality. I mean isn't it so simple to believe that things are run by the Greys, or isn't it comforting to believe that the Jews are behind everything, or the communist party, or the Catholic Church or the Masons. I believe that the truth of the matter is far more terrifying that, the real Truth that dare not speak itself is that no one is in control."

Our current generations could use a good dose of Occam's razor among other sturdier ways of thinking. Lack of agency and not having a firm learned background or grasp of reality to fall back on can lead us astray.

We don't have to stop inquiring or wondering about the far-flung vistas of reality, we just need to do it with tact and some good old-fashioned logic.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

Antonio Masiello/Getty Images
Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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