I WAS a religious child, convinced the devil was watching my every move, eager to entice me into the greatest sin I could conceive of at that time — stealing penny sweets. (I never did, by the way. A jelly snake didn’t seem worth spending an eternity hanging out with Satan.)
I even harboured a short-lived ambition that I might become a nun and I still think that, in another life, I would have thrived in an enclosed order. The routine of it, the satisfaction gained from steady work, the all-encompassing silence in which to centre myself.
In my teens, disillusioned with certain tenets of organised religion that proved incompatible with my political beliefs, I turned to new age spirituality to appease my need for something sacred. I first read You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay when I was 16, moving on to Angel Therapy by Doreen Virtue a couple of years later. As a teenager who had been steeped in Catholicism for most of my life, the idea of guardian angels seemed a reassuring bridge between my new and old beliefs, some of the same names I had prayed to at bedtime as a child — Archangel Michael, Gabriel, etc — cropped up in Doreen Virtue’s work.
Virtue seemed to make a highly lucrative living spreading the word of angels, and she was highly prolific; there were countless books, audiobooks, angel cards, and apps released every year, as well as the workshops and training courses that she gave so people could practice as Angel Therapists under her name.
It was a huge shock to many in the new age community when, after what Doreen described as a “life-changing vision of Jesus” in 2017, that she completely rejected everything she had previously advocated for, stating in a blog post: “Someday, everyone will learn the truth: the devil runs the new age.”
She then published an A-Z of new age practices to avoid if one wanted to escape hell, including horoscopes, mindfulness, saying OMG (it violates the third commandment), using peace signs (“the underlying meaning of the circle with downward pointing fork is ‘the total death of man’”) yoga (“much more than stretching exercises,” apparently, but actually a worship of pagan deities) and Harry Potter as, “these seemingly innocent novels introduce children and adults to witchcraft,” she writes, “and make it sound harmless and inviting.” Be careful, Doreen. I wouldn’t mess with the Potter Stans, they will come for you.
Virtue’s conversion to fundamentalist Christianity may strike some readers as similarly ridiculous as her previous devotion to angels and fairies, but her sudden fervour strikes me as indicative of a larger cultural issue. New age spirituality, however far-fetched it may seem to you, does at least encourage a sense of personal autonomy. You’re encouraged to develop spiritual practices that feel significant to you, to trust your own instincts while still endeavouring to be kind to those around you.
It’s non-denominational and therefore accepting of all religions and faiths. In a fundamentalist religion, however, you are told that your religion is the ‘only way’, that your god is the one true god, that yours is the only path to heaven and everyone else is doomed. Such fundamentalism forces followers to reject nuance, open dialogue, or an ability to accept differing beliefs and opinions. Instead they believe that they are right, they are the chosen ones. Sound familiar?
I read Doreen Virtue’s A-Z list a few days after my grandmother had died. Luckily enough, it made me laugh. (Unicorns were described as neon-coloured images that can be “used by the devil to mesmerise us into his kingdom, where glitter substitutes for the bright light of Jesus”. I mean…)
My grandmother was a devout Catholic, but she did once take a yoga stretching class for the elderly at her day care centre, and although she thought horoscopes were complete nonsense, she must have glanced at them in the Examiner once or twice in her 85 years. Am I supposed to believe that one of the kindest women I have ever known was thrown out of heaven for reading Harry Potter aloud to my younger cousins?
While I do have sympathy for Virtue and for all those who live in fear of such a vengeful, unforgiving god, I also feel anger on behalf of the recently bereaved who might read such a list and fail to find the humour in it, as I did. Who might, in fact, become frightened and upset at the prospect that their deceased loved ones could be enduring such horrors?
I worry too about people who buy into these ideas wholesale, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or otherwise, and take drastic measures to ensure that neither they nor their family face damnation. What happens if your child is LGBTQ+ but your religion insists that homosexuality is inherently wrong? Can you take a step back and realise that no compassionate god would believe that someone’s sexuality makes them unworthy of love? Or, in an attempt to ‘save’ your child, does something like gay conversion therapy become a legitimate option rather than an atrocious human rights violation?
Where do we draw the line? “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” This, the so called ‘golden rule’, is found in all religions. It’s about choosing to treat all people, even those who hold different beliefs to you, with respect and tolerance. It’s just a pity that so many religions don’t practice what they preach.
If Only I Could Tell You by Hannah Beckerman. A tale of family secrets and the choices that tear us apart, this is a moving, poignant book. Avoid reading it on public transport — it will have you in floods of tears.
The Wych Elm by Tana French. This stunning exploration of what it means to be a victim makes for fascinating reading in a post-MeToo world. I know already it’ll be on my ‘Best of 2019’ list next January.
- Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks