Horoscopes, guardian angels and meditation: a few decades ago there were only a few, often clearly defined groups like the hippies who were interested in certain esoteric practices. Today it is different: esotericism has arrived in the middle of society. For example, according to a You-Gov survey in 2016, every second person believed in guardian angels. A third of those questioned were convinced that some people can see clairvoyance – and 30 percent can imagine asking a healer from the esoteric scene for help or have even already done so.
The esoteric boom is offset by the fact that more and more people are leaving the church. Last year there were more than half a million who turned their backs on the Catholic and Protestant Church – more than ever before. Overall, only about every second person in Germany is a member of one of the two large churches. What has happened there?
“Esotericism is an expression of the loss of authority by large institutions and great narratives,” says Kai Funkschmidt, esoteric expert at the Protestant Central Office for Weltanschauung questions. For a long time, large organized and structured communities, especially those from the Christian-Jewish tradition, had dominated religious and social life.
With the Enlightenment, the rise of the natural sciences, and political and economic upheavals, these communities were increasingly called into question. “They lost their plausibility in the 19th century,” says Funkschmidt. The fixed spiritual frame of reference to which people orientated suddenly was missing. “In this vacuum people began to look for something else.”
Modern esotericism is an expression of an individualistic and capitalistic society
Funkschmidt differentiates between organized ideological groups such as the anthroposophists, as they emerged increasingly at the beginning of the 20th century, and the commercialized scene, the “free religious market”, as he calls it. The latter in particular has gained massively in popularity since the 1980s.
The scene is characterized by its easy accessibility and non-binding character, he says. Many followers choose their preferred esoteric practices according to the modular principle. A broad-based market that primarily advertises with “individual offers” and “personal advice” – that is perfect for an individualistic and capitalistic society that places high demands on the individual.
The term esoteric is derived from the Greek and originally referred to a secret “inside knowledge” of initiates. The focus of esotericism is on “special and higher knowledge”, which in the past were only accessible to particularly enlightened people. A surprising number of esoteric practices such as astrology, witchcraft or fortune-telling are very old or come from cultures from distant countries, such as shamanism, Hinduism or Buddhism. In the right-wing esotericism, on the other hand, they are mainly oriented towards the Germanic peoples.
This alleged “primal knowledge” of mankind is what makes it so attractive, says Funkschmidt: “The belief that you can gain access to something buried or hidden has a certain appeal.” But religion and esotericism are not strictly separated areas. “There is no evidence that there is less interest in esotericism among Christians, rather the opposite,” says Funkschmidt. “But it is also somehow logical that a staunch rationalist is neither interested in religions nor in esotericism.”
“Esotericism is I-related”
Most people are a bit superstitious: Many airlines do not have a row of seats with the number 13, in China cell phone numbers with the lucky number 8 are popular and many athletes also practice superstitious rituals. Remember the hype surrounding the blue “lucky sweater” from national coach Jogi Löw during the 2010 World Cup.
And many statues also have to serve for superstition. They have already been completely torn off in certain places because it is said to be lucky to touch them on the nose or hand. In the Paris Pére Lachaise cemetery, the grave statue of a man who died young had to be fondled in a completely different place by women who wanted to have children.
Many of these practices have also been incorporated by the major churches. “There has always been superstition, it is a human universal,” says the esoteric expert. “Some of it has also been integrated by the major religions.” The boundaries are often fluid: Adoration of saints, holy water or miraculous healings, as practiced in the Catholic Church, also have esoteric features. “The great theoretical belief has to be broken down for everyday life,” says Funkschmidt. “The Protestant Church was not very good at it for a long time.”
A crucial question here is: Are not esotericism and church one and the same? No, says Funkschmidt. “Esotericism is related to me: it’s always about optimizing myself.” In the Christian faith, on the other hand, the focus is not on the ‘I’, but on God and the community.
What drives people to become gurus in an enlightened knowledge society?
Some esotericists are skeptical and suspicious of the church, but also of politics and science. Institutions are rejected as “cerebral”, the self, one’s own feelings and one’s own experiences are the ultimate authority – up to and including “experience fundamentalism”, as the expert calls it: “Here, someone puts their personal worldview above everything and supports other explanations no longer accessible. ”
The Society for the Scientific Study of Parasciences has set itself the task of scientifically unmasking the mechanisms behind esoteric practices. Those who prove their psychic abilities in a test can win 10,000 euros from the company. So far nobody has taken the money home with them.
But what drives people in an enlightened knowledge society to become gurus or energy crystals? Why do even politicians like Francois Mitterrand go to a fortune teller, why did a tech genius like Steve Jobs initially resort to alternative treatment methods such as fruit juices and acupuncture when he was diagnosed with cancer?
“There is the thesis of the re-enchantment of the world,” says Funkschmidt. Counter-movements such as Romanticism followed the Enlightenment. Since then, science and technology have made a much bigger triumphant advance. Hunger and bitter poverty have almost disappeared in this country. Medicine has made huge strides. The fact that mothers die in childbirth or children die before adulthood has become a sad exception from everyday life. “Life expectancy has skyrocketed. Prosperity is also growing more and more, but it is no longer really satisfying, ”says Funkschmidt.
“Many providers don’t get rich with it”
According to him, people now have more time to devote themselves to the search for the meaning of life. In addition, science is still unable to answer key questions in life – such as what happens after death.
The more successful medicine is, the more unbearable it appears when it cannot help. “Despite medical advances, we still have to die,” says Funkschmidt. “Life is finite. Religion is a way of dealing with it. ”Science can meet many needs, but not the desire for comfort. Many a person looks for blows of fate and in life crises in esotericism for them.
The first contact is often through friends. Although the industry is estimated to have an annual turnover of between 20 and 30 billion euros, Funkschmidt sees little interest in the providers in exploiting others: “Many providers don’t get rich with it. They do it because they really believe in it. “
Still, some commercial interest can be suspected. Ex-television pastor Jürgen Fliege had to take a lot of criticism for the sale of blessed water, which he was selling for 39.90 euros per 99 milliliters. The Indian guru Bhagwan lived for a time in tremendous luxury thanks to donations from supporters and bought a fleet of several dozen Rolls-Royce cars.
Health, love, job and money are the big issues in esotericism
It is noticeable that a particularly large number of women are interested in esotericism. Why do you? “I’ve often asked myself that too,” says the expert. Women are generally more open to religiosity, and in the church they are often the more committed parishioners. There are many possible reasons: the ability to have children and experience the “miracle” of childbirth firsthand may give women more access to the spiritual, he believes.
Age could also provide an indication. Because according to the survey results, it is mainly women between 30 and 40 who deal with esotericism. These are crucial years for many women, both privately and professionally. There is a risk of loss of childbearing potential, perhaps the partnership or pregnancy will not work out. Perhaps the professional path is not going as well as expected.
Quite a few women should feel for the first time in this phase that they are not in control of everything in life. Funkschmidt thinks this is plausible: “Women experience powerlessness more often and more intensely.” Health, love, work and money are the big issues in esotericism. And esoteric practices could be a strategy for dealing with it.
For most of them, reading their horoscope or wearing a lucky charm is primarily entertainment or a little positive support in everyday life. Funkschmidt considers esoteric practices to be harmless in most cases. “But it becomes problematic when certain techniques become life-shaping. If, for example, I cancel an examination or an appointment for an operation because the day is supposedly a bad day. “
Anyone who believes that mysterious forces can have a positive effect on life can also use this as an explanation for negative events. “Then cancer becomes a consequence of negative thoughts or other people are blamed,” says Funkschmidt.
In medicine, incorrect information can quickly become dangerous
Caution should also be exercised with conspiracy myths and “alternative facts” on the subject of health and medicine. Opponents of vaccinations have been around for almost as long as vaccinations themselves. In the past, science skepticism, the conviction that you shouldn’t “mess with God” is more prevalent today, according to the esoteric expert: “At All justified criticism of lobbying in the pharmaceutical industry is overshooting the target: In their imagination, the pharmaceutical lobby not only wants to make profit, but actively harm people. “
Especially when it comes to vaccinations, these people are often not aware that even with so-called childhood diseases, some can be seriously harmed. About one in 1,000 children with measles dies, plus permanent damage and possible long-term effects such as the incurable encephalitis SSPE, which also leads to death.
In addition, vaccinations also protect particularly vulnerable people who cannot be vaccinated, such as babies under one year of age, from the highly contagious disease. More recent studies also provide evidence that surviving measles weakens the immune system and does not strengthen it, as some opponents of the vaccination propose.
“It goes well until you get sick yourself. Most of them give in when things get serious, ”says Funkschmidt. However, a child cannot decide for themselves whether or not to be vaccinated. The esoteric expert therefore thinks it is good that the legislature has intervened to a certain extent: “A healer-guru is now punishable by calling for children not to be vaccinated.”