The psychology of the occult

© 2005 Paul Cooijmans

Broad definition of the term "occult"

"Occult", in this article, refers to a number of schools of thought and forms of practice, healing and education that have existed in Europe and the Western world at large during the past three millennia. Common to these is their rejection by current beta science and the hidden, secret or supernatural nature of their topics.

Key words to further clarify this are gnosticism, mysticism, hermetism, alchemy, esoterism, magic, astrology, numerology, other forms of divination, spiritism, the paranormal, psychic powers, parapsychology, forms of psychotherapy, forms of personality testing, pseudo-science, homeopathy, other forms of alternative healing and so on.

The attraction of the occult

Occultism, often dormant, has had a number of revivals over the centuries, the latest being the present New Age wave. Even though hard science rejects most of it, and skeptics reject virtually all of it, people remain attracted. This suggests it satisfies certain human needs that are not met in mainstream society and religion. The following core ideas, here in general terms, appear to be responsible for this attraction:

  1. The world as we know it is bad and unreal; hidden behind it is a good and real world, that we may get to know after we die, or by doing certain exercises and studies, and that contains knowledge of all there is, was and will be;
  2. Individual growth is possible through a succession of grades, in areas unknown in regular society, and this is one's true task or goal in life;
  3. The individual must be seen as a whole and not reduced to its material parts.

Most forms of the occult have elaborated on at least one of these ideas. A closer look at each follows.

The world is bad

The vital question is: Why and how did people get this idea?

Occult theory tends to be generated by a class of individuals who could be characterized as: Thinkers, philosophers, theoretical scientists, mystics, hermits. In other words, highly intelligent, introverted, not at ease in the regular social world (extraverted occultists exist too but are more inclined toward the practical side, like ritual magic; they design the rituals rather than thinking up the theory).

Such people - the occult theorists thus characterized - share the experience that almost all others are less intelligent, sincere, conscientious and moral than they are. Therefore, they indeed live in a bad world by their own standards. They have good reason to hope and wish a better world is possible. This is the origin of the central idea of the occult: The world we live in is bad, and a good and real one is hidden somewhere.

The precise contents of most occult theory is incorrect and not relevant here. The general method for generating and spreading occult theory is as follows:

You make up something that is inconsistent with the known laws of nature. You know it is not true because you are the one who made it up. You know that if you tell it to others and mention you made it up they too will know it is not true. So you give it credibility by claiming it was passed on to you by a higher authority, like God, the Devil, angels, the White Masters, the astral light, the spirit of a deceased whose dead is surrounded by mystery, et cetera. Perhaps at some point you start believing it yourself; perhaps you were even hallucinating to begin with and have believed it from the start on. In no case is it true. But if you play your cards right, your followers will keep believing it for centuries.

So, while the original idea is attractive, the usual occult elaborations do not satisfy those of us who think clearly and rationally because we see they are made up, not real, false. They only work for the suggestible and uncritical. It is tempting to think of a new interpretation that would satisfy those who demand truth and realness instead of mere "feelgood" stuff, but that lies outside the scope of this article.

Individual growth

The type of person described above - the occult theorist - will often find that regular society does not offer appropriate ways to develop his talents and satisfy his need for growth and insight, and note that others of lesser ability receive more recognition than they deserve. This frustration is the origin of the systems for individual growth offered by occult organizations. If desire for growth is not met in mainstream society, it will find other ways, just like the water of a blocked river will seek an alternative path to the sea.

These systems generally aim to bring the student closer to the hidden real world, and reward advancement by awarding grades in a succession of levels, whereby the highest grades are, of course, only attained and held by those who do not reside in the world known to us any more. The contents of such systems can broadly be divided like this:

Again, the actual contents will disappoint the rational skeptical thinker nowadays, and only make the suggestible and uncritical feel good. Still the attraction remains, and actually increases in our days as science is more and more discovering that important human faculties have a biological basis and are largely fixed throughout adult life. This shutting off of ever more areas of potential self-improvement - intelligence, personality... it is dawning to ever more people we can't change those in ourselves, except for the worse - promotes the search for ways of individual growth that are possible and real.

The individual must be seen as a whole

This is the most recent of the occult ideas, because it is, as it were, the shadow cast by modern medical science. Originally there was no distinction between scientific and alternative medicine, as medicine on the whole was primitive. After micro-organisms were discovered as a cause of illness, the pharmaceutical industry and scientific medicine developed, dividing the world of healing into scientific and alternative branches.

The scientific branch is reductionist, rational and materialistic, analyzing the patient into its chemical, physical, observable, measurable parts. It focuses on the parts that are relevant with regard to the illness, and does not waste time by looking at the rest of the patient. From the occult viewpoint, these material parts belong to the unreal bad world and are therefore irrelevant. Alternative healing avoids scientific reductionism and calls itself "wholistic" in contrast.

The line between scientific and alternative healing is still being drawn as we speak. Much of the earlier twentieth century psychology and psychiatry bordered on the occult, and is now being pushed into the realm of the alternative by hard-line skeptics (for instance, the psycho-analytical schools). This unmasking of parts of the "soft" sciences as pseudo-science will likely go on over the next decades.

Still, people keep going to alternative healers because the wholistic approach makes them feel better, even knowing their methods are less effective than the scientific ones. The wholistic approach is attractive even in the absence of measurable effect on illness. Clearly, many go to a doctor, alternative or not, out of a need for attention rather than being physically ill. The unlucky ones who do have a serious illness and only go alternative end up dying unpleasantly. So in a sense alternative medicine does work; it is a fatal cure for stupidity!


The occult derives its attraction from a few central ideas that remain relevant to the present day and will likely gain power as science advances. The elaborations on these ideas proposed over the centuries are unsatisfactory as they are fictitious, not true, lacking critical inquiry. An interpretation that is real, correct, in accordance with the laws of nature and thus truly satisfying the corresponding human needs, is still due.