Tarot cards, aura-cleansing, little green men: it's not only the easily duped and poorly educated who believe in things wild and wacky.
GOD is dead. Or is she? While church attendance is steadily declining and the number of confessed heathens steadily increasing, we're not quite ready to give up the ghost. Instead, for every person abandoning Mass, it seems two more are having their horoscope cast, their aura cleansed or their past lives aligned.
In Australia, the ranks of the non-religious have doubled in the past 25 years, while in the US a recent Gallup Poll found more people than ever believe in ghosts, witches, communicating with the dead, psychic or spiritual healing, and clairvoyance. We may no longer be believers, but boy do we want to believe.
"I think holding a belief can be a state of tension," says Melbourne-based healer Tania Goldsmith. "It does create separation within the mind and within the community - you know, my religion's better than yours, my god's the only god - and that may be one reason why formal religion has less application."
But Goldsmith believes our spiritual needs are greater than ever. "In this culture, we often don't have a connection with the soul and the body and the feelings. So some of that dimension is lost and we suffer in that."
Certainly, while we may have ditched the dogma, the big questions that religion has traditionally answered - Who am I? Why am I here? What does it all mean? - continue to trouble us. And plenty of people these days embark on a sort of spirituality smorgasbord: trying everything, pushing some things to the side of the plate, sometimes going back for seconds, until they find what nourishes them.
Goldsmith's own journey has included a degree in the philosophy of religion, a period of Jungian analysis, training in reiki and five years in the Byron Bay hinterland, where the itinerant population brought her into contact with a range of teachers and gurus. Her practice includes a variety of disciplines but she is reluctant to put a firm label on her current belief system.
"My passion is to be able to hold a space of loving presence for people, for my clients, so they can meet that place within themselves and be free within themselves. It can sound really esoteric or hippie to say it's just love and its presence, but the actual realisation of that is the most profound gift of my life."
Goldsmith is convinced our interest in the spiritual is so strong precisely because the world around us is increasingly rational and material.
"That soul essence part of people is integral. It's always reborn with us," she says. "When someone has any sort of life crisis, that becomes incredibly apparent. We can cover it up with our programming, and with material things, but we are paying a price for that in terms of our health and wellbeing."
It is fair to say not many of us feel comfortable talking about our soul essence or putting our faith in mystical healing. But few of us are entirely material and rational. And most of us feel there is something more to us than flesh, bone and organised electrical activity. Professor John Bigelow of Monash University's philosophy department thinks that's only human.
"No one has found a way of explaining the scientific story in a way that taps into our emotions," he says. "It has an intellectual thrill, but it doesn't hit you in the heart or the gut. Science is silent on moral and emotional issues. Whereas the religious and spiritual stories have an emotional truth to them."
And as religion proper falls from grace, we naturally seek out something to replace it. "There was some need being filled by religion, and something has to fill the vacuum," Bigelow says. "Eddie McGuire said something on this - that now people aren't going to church, football has filled the gap. That's why footballers have to be role models."
If instead of asking, "What would Jesus do?" we started asking ourselves, "What would Fev do?" we might find ourselves deep in the seventh circle. But there's no doubt people are looking for guidance, often in some pretty peculiar places.
At one extreme is a book such as The Secret, which declares we can control absolutely everything using only the power of our minds.
Other quasi-mystical disciplines can be more benign. "There are lots of nice people, intelligent people, who believe in astrology, for instance," Bigelow says. "And one of the things I think astrology, tarot readings and so on provide is a network of symbols that have deep associations in the mind. They're something to think with. If someone does a tarot reading, you end up having a conversation you would never have had if you were having a conversation about science."
Even the great philosopher of science Karl Popper believed that in order to have hypotheses to test, you have to generate conjecture from the imagination. "The ideas don't have to be rational, as long as you're rational in the way you test them," Bigelow says.
Then there are the practices that oblige us to believe in something preposterous, whether that's the Rosicrucians (alchemy, clairvoyance) or the Scientologists (aliens). But even there, powerful sociological and anthropological forces are at play.
"Historically, tribes scarify their members so they can't leave and join another group," Bigelow says. "One thing cults and religions can do is provide rituals that mark you out as a member of one group, and excluded from another group. If those rituals consisted solely of rational conclusions drawn from the evidence available, where's the exclusivity in that? Then all the religions would be the same.
"The whole point is to pick some irrational idea. At random. And declare: 'We are the people who believe this!' The irrationality of it is functionally important. The whole point is to make it hard to believe."
We all want to be special and part of something and god knows there are plenty of opportunities for people to put their faith in the ludicrous, whether that's Holocaust deniers, UFOlogists, or past-lifers. Nor is believing in the unbelievable just something indulged by horoscope-addicted teenage girls. Attend any event by psychics such as John Edward and you'll see a hall full of women. But ask about UFOs, or Big Foot, or historical revisionism, or conspiracy theories, and men are much more likely to believe.
And while we may like to smugly hold to the notion that only the ill-educated and gullible fall for magic and hocus-pocus, there's much evidence that the reverse is true. No one could accuse the followers of Scientology of being deficient in IQ, for instance, whatever else you might think of their beliefs. US studies show that New Age concepts, especially, are dearly held by those with higher intelligence, higher socioeconomic status and higher educational levels; while psychologist David Wulff found that certain high-achieving personality types are more inclined to believe in mystical experiences (typically those who score high on personality variables such as complexity, openness to new experience, breadth of interests, innovation, tolerance of ambiguity, and creativity).
US science historian and professional sceptic Michael Shermer is particularly interested in why smart people believe the unbelievable (he has written a book on the subject, Why People Believe Weird Things). In a comprehensive review of the literature, he collated a fascinating precis of the psychology of belief, and came to one basic conclusion: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons. Where evidence is lacking, the mind fills in the gaps, and smart minds are better at gap-filling."
But perhaps the most interesting - and pertinent - study Shermer quotes is by anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. Studying island tribes off the coast of New Guinea, Malinowski discovered that the further out to sea they went to fish, the more they developed superstitious rituals. The safer their environment, the less they relied on magic. The more dangerous, chaotic and unpredictable the environment, the more the tribesmen invoked complicated rituals to keep bad luck at bay.
In short: "We find magic where the element of danger is conspicuous."
And that, as much as anything, explains why so many otherwise intelligent, rational people choose to get their horoscopes cast, or consult regularly with their clairvoyants. In a chaotic world, we feel we need all the help we can get.
But the other intriguing trend, especially among the educated middle class, is the tendency to put our faith in things we don't actually believe in. We have our lucky footy scarves and pre-match rituals, even though we know, rationally, it has absolutely no impact on the outcome of the game. We compulsively read our horoscopes in cheap magazines and then describe ourselves accordingly ("I'm a typical Sag"), while simultaneously accepting that the relation of the planets to the sun on the day we were born can have no actual bearing on our personality. And we assess potential new homes or design our renovations around feng shui principles we not only don't believe in, we don't really understand - much to the ire of the people whose business it is to actually design houses and renovations.
"If you actually believe in feng shui, then by all means go to a feng shui master and have your house designed that way," says architect Polly Bastow. "But personally I think you're better off trusting a strong sense of design and years of experience to give you a great house that responds to your brief, rather than some vague concepts that may or may not have relevance. If a client wants feng shui feedback, they've come to the wrong person."
Maddeningly, that's precisely what they regularly come to Bastow for anyway. And clients' feng shui concerns invariably focus on just the one thing: that your front door shouldn't face your back door. "It gets a little bit more abstract when they talk about the money running out the door. When it comes to renovations, the money is always going to run out the door. But if you keep the feng shui out of it, it's going to leave you with some wonderful pieces of design."
When she's taking it personally, Bastow sees the feng shui fixation as evidence of a lack of faith in her skills and expertise. The cynical part of her sees it as a fad clients like to trot out at dinner parties. More generously, she understands undertaking a major building project is daunting, and people are looking for all the reassurance they can get. "It's just an easy thing to say, an easy concept to understand," she says. "When a project seems too big, too hard to comprehend, it's one of those things they can grasp."
Terry Kelly, president of the Victorian Skeptics Association, says "it seems to be part of the human condition that if it suits us to believe something that doesn't make sense, we will".
Kelly stresses that the association is not anti-religion (indeed, several of its members are religious, including an Anglican minister). But various members have given a lot of thought to why so many people believe so much that is either patently nonsensical or impossible to prove.
"Astrology's the classic example of what we think is nonsense. But a lot of really intelligent people I know believe it," Kelly says. "That's partly because it's often portrayed in a really generalist way, so it can mean all kinds of things. People put their own meaning on to it. And I think this is also part of the human condition. We are pattern-makers. We try and establish generalised rules and patterns from observable evidence to help us make sense of the world, but we also tend to make patterns even when they're not there."
Kelly also thinks sometimes the smartest people are the most gullible, because they figure if they can't understand something rationally, then it must be magic. "You get this cognitive dissonance, where people can be rational in one sense, and irrational in another," he says.
People like Vasilyki Eliades, perhaps, who for 22 years worked as a corporate lawyer while maintaining a not-so-secret double life as a serial attendee of what she calls "woo-woo workshops".
"And for most of my life I've been worried that my friends, who are mostly professional, rational people, would think I was a flake. Until one of them said to me, 'You know what, Vas? Everyone knows. We all know you're a complete flake.' That was such a bloody relief."
Eventually, Eliades ended up doing tarot readings for her managing director and other senior executives. Then a redundancy gave her the chance to pursue the woo-woo full time.
For the past two years she has combined pro bono and voluntary work with a fully fledged spiritual journey, something she regards with a combination of self-deprecation and seriousness.
"Let's see. I've done dream groups. My hairy women's workshops. Yoga and meditation, which are pretty much standard now days. All sorts of primal therapy. Gestalt. Endless psychologists. Counsellors - they're part of my pit stop. You get a wax, you go to your counsellor, you get your eyebrows done.
"I've done therapy with drawing and crayons. Voice dialogue. Have you done voice dialogue? Marvellous. Totally kooky. But marvellous. I studied reiki and became a reiki master. Which was a much prouder moment than becoming a lawyer. Crystals. Past life integration. Entity clearings. You name it. And my own jury is still out on some of that stuff. But all of these things always only ever lead to greater self-awareness. To my mind, that is the spiritual Holy Grail."
The other important thing Eliades' woo-woo workshops grant her is a sense of belonging. "Organised religions are based on separateness. And a lot of these newer things are inclusive. Which gives me a spiritual home, I guess, a feeling like I'm not alone on the planet.
"It also gives me a place, particularly the women's workshops that I've done, to just sit with women and really feel connected to the feminine, which in a corporate environment you rarely do."
But it's not just about bonding with the girls. Eliades really does believe in some kind of spiritual dimension. "My belief in an Other doesn't guarantee me any kind of redemption," she stresses. "And I do believe this life is all there is. And the way one evolves in this space is what one takes with one - energetically - when one goes. But I do believe the essence of people remains."
So we do have souls? "Oh yes. We each have an essence that is our greater connectedness."
In that, Eliades is typical of many 21st-century "believers", combining an unshakeable belief in something more than this mortal coil with what she describes as "a very healthy inner cynic".
"In the moment, while I am in it, I feel quite connected to whatever's transpiring." Afterwards, she's not always so sure. "A lot of it doesn't fit comfortably into my belief system," she says. "But I also think this planet and this universe are way weirder than any of us are actually willing to admit."