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Magical thinking

Americans—including some churchgoers—are showing an increasing interest in New Age beliefs and practices

Magical thinking

Deborah Hanekamp gives a shamanic medicine reading at Maha Rose healing center. (Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux)

Maha Rose, a crystal shop and reiki healing center in Brooklyn, asks clients to remove their shoes when they enter, so on a Tuesday afternoon Brooklynites were quietly padding around tables of crystals in their socks. The crystals, priced from $6 to $40, each have descriptions of what they do: Citrine “raises self esteem,” black moonstone “enhances fertility,” and labradorite “calms overactive minds.” For tangerine quartz, “singing to it while it is in your pocket cultivates a more positive future.”

Sadie Kadlec, the resident crystal guru who does crystal-healing sessions, came out from the back. “What’s twinkling to you?” she asked me, meaning that I should point out what crystals I was drawn to. She’s worked at Maha Rose for five years, and the place has doubled in size over that time.

Throw rugs led the way through hallways piled with large rose quartz crystals, back to healing rooms where Kadlec works, placing crystals on different parts of people’s bodies to send particular spiritual “energies” to heal them. Kadlec comes from a Christian background and went to a Christian school but said she has been spiritually drawn to crystals from a young age.  

As we talked in an open area near Maha Rose’s temple in low voices, a woman all in flowing white clothes came to shush us. But soon after, children poured in from the street, laughing loudly and running around.

“The fairy school,” Kadlec explained.

Americans have a returning appetite for New Age beliefs and practices. Tarot card sales have been steadily climbing, according to distributor U.S. Game Systems, and over the last five years adults’ use of meditation tripled while it also increased tenfold among children ages 4 to 17, according to the National Institutes of Health.

“New Age” refers to a 1970s movement that incorporated occult and metaphysical beliefs and practices, including meditation, medium readings, astrology, and alternative medicines as the means to personal and social transformation. 

New Age is also chic now: Dior featured tarot card designs from a 1970s deck on its clothes in a 2017 fashion show—sending sales of that particular deck rocketing. Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop employed an in-house “crystal healer” and shaman and has an online section to shop “cosmic health.” On Goop’s website one crystal healer sells $27 “psychic vampire repellent.” (Instructions: “Spray around the aura to protect from psychic attack.”)

Piotr Redlinski for <em>The New York Times</em>/Redux

Customers shop at Maha Rose (Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux)

A recent Pew Research Center survey showed that 62 percent of Americans hold at least one New Age belief, whether that be in the power of crystals or astrology or reincarnation. What’s more surprising is that about half of those whom the Pew survey categorized as “Sunday Stalwarts” (most of whom go to church weekly and describe their faith as the single most important source of meaning in their life) also hold at least one New Age belief. The Pew survey questions were straightforward, asking whether the subject believes in psychics, astrology, and so on, with definitions for each.

For self-described evangelicals, 19 percent said they believe in reincarnation, and 33 percent said they believe in psychics. About 30 percent of Sunday Stalwarts responded to the Pew survey saying they believe spiritual energy is focused in physical objects like crystals and mountains. That number was much higher among Catholics (47 percent) than evangelicals (24 percent).

Stepping into mediums’ offices and crystal healing centers and talking to those who burn sage or use tarot cards reveals vastly different approaches and levels of commitment to these practices. Some burn sage to have a relaxing smell in their home. Others dig more deeply into the troubling spiritual side of New Age, seeking out crystals for “spiritual energy” or trying to channel the spirit of a dead friend through a medium.

Dónal O’Mathúna, a bioethics professor at the Ohio State University College of Nursing, finds anecdotally that most Christians who engage in New Age practices like crystal healing often get into it by a friend’s word of mouth, without doing extensive research on either the scientific benefit or the theological roots of the practice. 

“The first thing is that you have to go beyond the anecdotal report, that my cousin tried this or my sister tried this and they felt better,” said O’Mathúna.

O’Mathúna and Dr. Walt Larimore, both members of the Christian Medical & Dental Associations, wrote Alternative Medicine: The Christian Handbook, a book that looks at some of these practices. They aren’t universally dismissive of everything New Age–related. Having a beautiful rock or the scent of burning sage that helps you relax is not a problem, O’Mathúna said.

“Paul’s teaching on meat sacrificed to idols is the closest I think we can get to guidance on this,” said O’Mathúna. “There’s nothing in the meat itself that is bad, but if you understand the spiritual aspects behind it, at times it can be good to stay away from it. When someone understands the roots of it, they may not want to be involved in those practices even if someone else may say there’s no problem with it.”

So, for example, he cautions against the Japanese energy healing called reiki, which he says is in its essence a practice to connect to the spirit world: “We’re given clear teaching in the Bible that there are spiritual beings out there, and they’re not all good.” He also recommends going to health practitioners in one’s church to talk about evidence-based practices. He finds there is a slice of Christians that is often suspicious of mainstream medical studies.

Studies have debunked crystals’ healing power, except to show a placebo effect. But clients come to Kadlec, the crystal healer, who have “tried a lot of other things,” she said, including “Western medicine,” without success. Kadlec personally says certain crystals help her with muscle or back pain.

Kadlec carries a pouch of stones everywhere with her and, depending on the day, carries one or two larger stones. Every morning she does a crystal meditation, to “reflect on the energy properties.”

Piotr Redlinski for <em>The New York Times</em>/Redux

Customers participate in a breathing workshop. (Piotr Redlinski for The New York Times/Redux)

When Kadlec does a crystal healing session, she lays out stones, then has the client close her eyes, and guides her through a meditation. Then the client opens her eyes and picks stones. Then the client lies down, and Kadlec places the stones on the person’s body, before guiding the client through another meditation.

“I don’t say this will cure you,” she said. “But it’s a great tool to supplement emotionally what you’re going through healthwise. A lot of time when people get colds, they’re over-extending themselves.”

Kadlec was not surprised at the Pew results showing an overlap of belief in the spiritual power of crystals and Christianity. She cited the special priestly breastplate in Exodus 28 that had 12 different gems for the 12 tribes of Israel, as evidence of the historic “creation power” of stones.

Though she doesn’t call herself a Christian, Kadlec said her Christian family has become more open to her crystal practice. She’ll post images of crystals on her Instagram account, and family members will comment on which ones speak to them.

One woman, Janet McKnight, wrote to me on Twitter about Christian households getting into essential oils and crystals and said: “When we’re ill, our frequency drops. The sicker we are, the lower our frequency. … Using things like oils & crystals to help raise our frequency is just 1 mode of healing … not all EO [essential oil] use is New Age, same with crystals. The creation glorifies the Creator.”

Tim Greenway/<em>Portland Press Herald</em> via Getty Images

People look at healing stones and crystals in Portland, Maine. (Tim Greenway/Portland Press Herald via Getty Images)

BACK IN MANHATTAN, a “Certified Psychic Medium & Tarot Advisor” showed a New Age practice that appeals to mainstream professionals. Dressed all in black, with black fingernails and sleek cherry-red hair, Marina Margulis caters to New York’s highly educated class. She thinks crystal healing is goofy and better left to doctors. She doesn’t advertise anywhere, but her business is thriving. 

Margulis’ office by Lincoln Center has no candles or crystal balls or incense, but instead is sunlight-filled with a leather couch and several vases of tulips, like a therapist’s. That’s how Margulis fashions herself, with the side specialty of talking to the dead. Looking for help getting pregnant? Go to a gynecologist, she says. Predicting the future? Forget about it. 

Margulis is Jewish but not observant, has a Brooklyn accent, and brings up Albert Einstein and Carl Jung more than any Eastern philosopher. Her chow chow, Loki, whom she refers to as her “assistant,” shuffles around behind her at her office. Her day was booked solid with tarot and mediumistic readings, with appointments until 7:30 p.m., which seemed pre-emptively exhausting to Loki, who was soon curled up and snoring through our interview.

Clients come to Margulis about two things: their careers and their love lives. She says she can help clients “fulfill their destiny” by tuning “into the World of Spirit to connect to your loved ones that have passed over” and, in some cases, by using tarot cards. For Christians, her business is clearly at odds with Leviticus 19:31 (“do not turn to mediums or seek out spiritists”) and 20:6, just for starters.

But some things she won’t do. Several times a week she will get a phone call from someone wanting her to remove a curse or spell, which she rebuffs; she doesn’t think spells and curses are real. In some ways she is less astrally minded than many in New York’s professional class who come to her.

“Logical people need to find a source of why things don’t go your way,” she said. “It’s easier to believe that you’re cursed, rather than turning a finger at yourself: Where did I go wrong?”

One woman came to her for a second opinion after visiting a fortuneteller in Hell’s Kitchen in order to remove a curse. The fortuneteller had told the woman she had to do 10 sessions, at $400 a session, to remove the curse.

Margulis was in disbelief. “This is an educated woman I am talking to!” she said. “People cling to this glimmer of hope that their problems will go away because of magic. That to me is scary.”  

O’Mathúna said there is research that supports the idea that “better-educated people” want to direct their own healthcare—a potentially good thing—and so tend to get into alternative medicine, which often leads to New Age practices.


Marina Margulis (Handout)

Ben Jacobs was one of those who took a path of alternative healthcare. Ten years ago, Jacobs had a 16-hour surgery to remove a tumor at the base of his brain. His neurosurgeon wasn’t sure he would make it through the surgery, and when he did wake up, the doctor told him simply to rest and heal. But for two years after that Jacobs was in misery, at 40 percent of his mental capacity and having gained over 50 pounds from his limited physical capacity.

The neurosurgeon who took his case post-surgery only physically touched him once in that recovery period, he said, to check his scar, and then simply had him fill out a pain journal so she could prescribe him more pills. Jacobs ran into a friend from high school, who recommended he try an energy healer she knew.

“At that point if you had said, ‘Here is some bat blood,’ … I would have knocked a small child over to get it,” Jacobs said. He went to the energy healer and got treatment he describes as deep tissue massage that finds “energy blocks” in the body, and he began feeling better within two weeks.

Since then he has continued going to an energy healer and after some research added acupuncture, meditation, and eating a more organic diet. Jacobs, now 40, grew up in the church and reads Scripture every day, but he has now incorporated these more Eastern practices into his life.

Jacobs’ frustrating experience with traditional doctors is not a surprise to O’Mathúna, who said alternative therapists often have a better bedside manner than traditional doctors, taking time to listen to people about their stresses. 

“That’s where the placebo effect can be much more powerful, when you trust the practitioner who takes a half hour with you, versus the doctor who takes two minutes with you. Whatever they suggest to you, you might have more trust in,” said O’Mathúna. “But the question shouldn’t just be, ‘Does it help me feel better?’ What is the power or the energy behind this thing? What’s the evidence that this is a benefit? … Just critically examine things.”

Emily Belz

Emily Belz

Emily is a senior reporter for WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously reported for the The New York Daily News, The Indianapolis Star, and Philanthropy magazine. Emily resides in New York City. Follow her on Twitter @emlybelz.


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  • Narissara
    Posted: Fri, 03/15/2019 12:33 pm

    The use of essential oils and natural remedies seems to me to be putting to use knowledge Adam and his descendants possessed from the beginning of time.  Western medicine has failed too many people to ignore it.  In that sense, I could agree with the statement “the creation glorifies the Creator.”  I don’t know if I can say the same about crystal healing, except to the extent they may contain minerals that are essential to good health and can be absorbed.   But like anything, man has a way of taking knowledge God meant for good and distorting it.  

    There’s a big difference between christianizing something and syncretizing it.  Syncretism tries to sanction pagan practices by comparing them to practices found in the Bible, or applying the tenets of Christianity, by extension, when they are so far removed from the Truth there isn’t any other way to rationalize them.  Drawing a connection between the twelve gems on the high priest’s breastplate and crystal healing is a perfect example.  Whatever you believe about the effectiveness of crystal healing, it’s reading too much into the Scripture to say there was any creation power in the gems.  

    Syncretsim is how the antichrist is going to draw people away — by making them believe they’re exercising  their liberty in Christ when in reality they’d be thumbing their nose at Him.  

  • Midwest preacher
    Posted: Sun, 03/17/2019 06:56 am

    I'm not an expert but I have watched people for many years.  I notice a trend where we say, "Well, it works for me".  With regard to pain there may be something to that but we should also remember that some things that "work for us" may be contrary to what the Bible teaches.  The level at which we care what the Bible says may tell us a lot.  Do we dig and study to find what God has to say about a subject or so we use Google or Facebook as our primary source?  Idolatry is not just something from long ago.  Be "fruit-inspectors" of those with a product or a belief to sell.

  • Laneygirl's picture
    Posted: Mon, 03/25/2019 12:01 pm

    It's not only New Age practice that infiltrates, twists, and dilutes Biblical, Christian faith. Consider how many church people use the term "Mother Nature". If God is the Creator of heaven and earth, then who is she and what did she do? Why do we give "her" command over nature? 

  • Steve Shive
    Posted: Tue, 03/19/2019 06:06 am

    Thank you Emily for this timely article. You have covered some important topics and presented helpful information. One item does come to mind though. That is your limited definition of New Age. Having come of age, during the early New Age movement, I remember when Yoga and TM, and all sorts of Eastern mystical practices and meditation were seen as cutting edge. There was great resistance to these by many in the Church, just as there is with these purported healing modalities you list. At the same time there were those who professed Christianity while at the same time lauding the benefits of TM, Yoga and various forms of Eastern Mysticism.

    Today these are pretty much accepted everywhere and if someone raises questions about Yoga, or acupuncture or meditation, they are seen as backward or naive. And all of the time the mantra is, “It works for me.” I believe there is great spiritual danger in these practices and much more caution and concern should be raised about all of them. I believe they can be, and are, a gateway for the enemy of our souls to gain a foothold in our lives. Your analogy to 1 Corinthians is on target. We need to exercise great caution in this area. 

    It doesn't take long to see in scripture that what separates Christian faith from other religions is a God who answers prayer. And this is a God who is above all other gods. This is a god who is holy and is often described as a jealous God, even to having the name Jealous (Ex 34)! As we look all over for answers, help, healing, do we really look to God for his guidance and even health/healing? As a reaction to our obsession with science and rationalism we embrace the New Age movement in its obvious and subtle forms. How seriously do we call out to our Holy Jealous God who loves us with an everlasting love? Hiebert's, “The Flaw of the Excluded Middle”, pp 407-414 of Perspectives on the World Christian Movement" is a worthwhile read.

  •  fiddlexela's picture
    Posted: Tue, 03/19/2019 11:26 am

    Thank you for an interesting and thoughtful article. I'd disagree, however, with lumping all Eastern healing practices into the same "New Age" category. There is a wide gulf between acupuncture and modalities that put the natural world to work, and spirit world contacting. As my Christ following ND/MD likes to say, a loving God wouldn't have waited until the 20th century to give us the means to be physically healed. It's entirely plausible that Adam and Eve left the Garden with deep knowledge about plant based healing, and other means the Lord gave our bodies to heal (acupressure related techniques), that remained in some Eastern cultures, though it became lost in the Western world along the way.  While it can be disconcerting to us Americans that we can't *yet* explain it scientifically, our lack of understanding doesn't render these techniques "magical" or even dangerous, as long as we remember and acknowledge that our gracious God created them. They go far beyond placebo effect, offering healing even in skeptics like me, and small children who have no idea what is going on. ( My son was healed, completely healed, of life threatening food allergies at the age of 3--I didn't believe in acupuncture, and he had no clue what we were he's a healthy 15 year old that can eat whatever he wants, and he is following hard after the Lord who lead us to his healing. Thank you Jesus!)

  •  Xion's picture
    Posted: Fri, 03/22/2019 01:42 am

    The words Abara Cadabra are Aramaic meaning "I create as I speak".  It comes from the first chapter of Genesis where God created (barah) as (ca) he spoke (davrah).  Magic is pretending to have divine power.  It is a counterfeit that inspires religious awe.  Counterfeit Christianitity will feel right at home with this New Age nonsense, which feels spiritual but denies the power thereof.  (2 Tim 3:5)

  • SamIamHis
    Posted: Mon, 03/25/2019 09:27 pm

    Having come out of the hippie era where I was influenced by and practiced many new age arts, I am not confused on where I need to draw lines.  My own experiences which took me to dark spiritual places, along with what I have learned in the 40 years since, have given me a sense of caution that gudes me through the maze of alternatives available today.  

    I have many friends, Christian and otherwise, who are involved in new age practices from yoga to oils and many things between.  When they offer alternative medicinal advice or products that have a spiritual origin in conflict with my faith in Christ, I listen and decline respectfully.  If I am unfamiliar with what is being touted, I will admit that and my need to research the claim or modality before I would consider it.  I do the research fully, not accepting annecdotal evidence but seeking serious trials and data that is backed up with unbiased evidence and has more than one resource producing that evidence. 

    Many Christians are blindly following methods of relaxation and healing without knowing the origins of the practice they are following.  Often they are including forms of worship (does bowing and repeating Namaste ring a bell?) as part of that practice without even knowing what spirits they are worshipping. 

    Along with the excellent book mentioned above, I would recommend The Biblical Guide to Alternative Medicine by Dr. Neil T. Anderson and Dr. Michael Jacobson.  It reviews many forms of alternative medicine through a 5 point grid: History, Faith, Wholistic, Science and Spiritual Discernment.  It is fairly objective in that it doesn't discredit all alternatives or fail to put allopathy through the same grid and does give a factual history of what is now known as western medicine.  It should be noted that both books were copyrighted in the early 2000's and there are more new age and alternative practices that have come to light since that time, though perhaps not new, but newly labeled.  Same story, different disguise. The grid system described in the Anderson - Jacobson book can be applied if you are inclined to study what is offered.  If people were perishing for lack  of knowledge in the Old Testament days, we are not above the same mandate.  Be sure you know what it is you are engaging if you venture into alternatives.


  • Streetwise
    Posted: Wed, 03/27/2019 11:50 am

    As an evangelical and part of the 33% that believes in psychics, it's shocking to me to know that 67% of evangelicals do not. Paul warns us "against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms". Psychics are very real and the occult is nothing to be trivialized or dabbled with.