Sunday, 28 October 2007

Materialism and the mystical

Nick Cohen takes aim at the 'pseudo-science' of homeopathy here, and his opinions tend to be shared by bloggers whose views I normally find sympathetic. If my own attitude is more equivocal, it's partly because (as I reported here and here) I've recently turned to homeopathy in pursuit of a non-invasive cure for a persistent health problem. Has it worked? Well, my homeopath would say it's too soon to tell. There have been some positive signs, but sceptics would probably attribute these to the placebo effect.

I've been surprised, though, by how many acquaintances whom I had categorised as progressive, materialist types (and with whom I had been shy about admitting my own indulgence in alternative medicine) have confessed to using homeopathy, and to believing in its efficacy. In other words, a rational, scientific world-view doesn't necessarily translate into scepticism about alternative therapies.

It's a reminder that the materialist and the mystical have always been curious bedfellows in the history of the contemporary left. The 'moment' that gave birth to the New Left - the events of 1968 or thereabouts - also gave rise to the New Age, and the two have been closely intertwined ever since, with rational political currents not easily disentangled from more mystical, spiritual trends. (All of this is dealt with brilliantly in Sheila Rowbotham's memoir of the Sixties, Promise of a Dream.)

Does the current argument over alternative therapies bear any relation to the renewed debate about 'faith' on the left? Is there a connexion between those progressives who have a new-found respect for belief - and a tolerance of new age therapies? Conversely, does scepticism about 'pseudo-science' coincide with a suspicion of renascent religiosity and a robust secularism?

I'm not sure it's quite so simple. Even among those of us of a secular cast of mind, there's a longing for therapies that offer a more holistic view of mind and body, self and the world, to be 'true', even as our scepticism nags away at us to dismiss them, as Cohen and others do, as mere quackery.

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