Article in The New Encyclopedia of Unbelief, Edited by Tom Flynn, Foreword by Richard Dawkins, Publisher Paul Kurtz. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2007, pp. 74-76. Reproduced by permission.
ANTHROPOSOPHY. An international religious sect following the teachings of Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925). Also called Spiritual Science. Activities include Waldorf Education, Anthroposophical medicine, pharmaceuticals, Camphill communities for the developmentally disabled, biodynamic agriculture, Eurythmy (a spiritual dance), art schools, psychotherapy, elder care, the Christian Community (a formal church), financial institutions, publishing, and politics (Steiner’s “Threefold Social Order”). The world headquarters of the Anthroposophical Society is the Goetheanum in Dornach, Switzerland.
History. Steiner followed the technical education track in his native Austria, and supported himself by private tutoring and lecturing at a workers’ institute. He was engaged to edit Goethe’s scientific works for a new edition. In recognition of this work Steiner was given a doctorate, conferred in a special dispensation by a university professor.
In 1894 Steiner published his chef d’oevre in philosophy, The Philosophy of Freedom (also translated as The Philosophy of Spiritual Activity). It failed to establish Steiner in the academic world.
Steiner was appointed head of the German section of Theosophy by Annie Besant in 1902 after his lectures made a strong impression at a Theosophical congress. He had found his life’s work. He was a charismatic leader, and the sect thrived. Around 1912 Charles Leadbeater, at Theosophy’s center in India, convinced other Theosophical leaders that a boy he admired, Krishnamurti, was a reincarnation of Christ. Steiner had already integrated Christ into his cosmological system, and Krishnamurti had no place in it.
Steiner split with THEOSOPHY (knowledge of God) to form his own group, which he called Anthroposophy (knowledge of man). Most of the German section defected with him, forming an instant cult. Later he claimed to have been teaching Anthroposophy all along, and Anthroposophical presses sometimes change "Theosophy" to "Anthroposophy" in editions of his earlier books. He taught a self-hypnotic meditation technique that engenders feelings of wisdom and superiority.
World-View. Anthroposophy synthesizes a wide range of spiritual traditions, claiming to reveal comprehensive truths that are only present in fragments in other religions. At its foundation are the concepts of REINCARNATION, karma, and polytheism, which derive from Buddhism and Hinduism. Steiner was something of a fundamentalist Platonist, holding that the real world was all illusion, and objects but reflections of eternal essences in the spiritual world. He also espoused Plato's political philosophy and may well have imagined himself as a philosopher-king. He took the dual gods of light and dark from the ancient Persian religion Zoroastrianism, identifying the light god as Lucifer, and created his own trinity of Lucifer, Ahriman (the dark god), and a Gnostic and Manichean conception of Christ, usually referred to as “The Christ Spirit.” Steiner, who claimed to be able to see the past and future written in the “akashic record,” wrote The Fifth Gospel to explain what really happened in the life of Christ.
To this rich mix Steiner added European occult traditions: Cabbalism, numerology, white magic, alchemy, Rosicrucianism and Masonry, and spiced it with vegetarianism, astrology, herbalism, and homeopathy. Steiner claimed to make "exact scientific observations" in the spiritual world, so it is impossible to question the veracity of his authoritative pronouncements without questioning the foundations of Anthroposophy.
Racism. Rudolf Steiner lectured extensively on evolution, a popular topic at the beginning of the 20th century, but his theory was explicitly opposed to Charles DARWIN’s. He taught that humans have always been present, and that the non-human animals evolved out of humanity, separating out over-specialized qualities (the eagle’s vision, the gazelle’s speed) so that humanity could be perfectly balanced.
Evolution in Anthroposophy also involves personal development as souls reincarnate in successively higher races. Anthroposophy follows the Theosophical system, derived in turn from Hinduism, of cycles within cycles. Steiner taught that mankind should have advanced together from race to race, but the “adversary” gods Lucifer and Ahriman interfered so races that should have died out are still hanging around. Steiner changed the Theosophical terminology from “root races” to “cultural epochs,” but made it clear that skin color was a definitive indicator of spiritual potential. Black skin belongs to survivors of the Lemurian root-race, and yellow skin from Atlanteans who failed to progress. Native Americans are a remnant destined for extinction, and the survival of the Jews is “a mistake of history.” The present time period belongs, unsurprisingly, to the white “Aryans.” Anthroposophists find these doctrines embarrassing, but they construct elaborate evasions and denials rather than simply repudiating Steiner’s words.
Anthroposophy and the Nazis. During and after World War I, Steiner was active politically. He proposed his “threefold social order” to the leaders of Europe, but could not find a receptive audience. He sent agents to influence the election in Upper Silesia, and at one point had a weekly newspaper in Stuttgart. The growing Nazi movement regarded Anthroposophy as a rival for the hearts and minds of the German people.
Steiner died in 1925, eight years before Hitler came to power. During the Nazi period, Anthroposophy and its works were controversial in the Nazi party. There was a clear majority against the Anthroposophical Society itself, since it was a political rival, and it was banned in 1935. Other Anthroposophical activities like biodynamic agriculture and the Waldorf schools collaborated, and were protected by supporters in the party. Jewish teachers left or were dismissed from Waldorf schools, and a German Waldorf school association was formed that claimed the schools were teaching National Socialist ideals. Waldorf schools were harassed by local officials, but many survived until Rudolf Hess, a strong supporter of Anthroposophy, flew to Scotland. After that it was open season on occultists and the last schools were closed. Biodynamic agriculture remained a successful collaboration.
Anthroposophy Today. Working in the world doesn’t secularize Anthroposophy; rather Anthroposophy attempts to spiritualize the world. These worldly activities are usually referred to in Anthroposophical jargon as “initiatives,” based on Steiner’s “impulses.” They are claimed as Anthroposophical activities when it is desired to glorify Anthroposophy, but denied and called independent free associations when scandals arise or outsiders question their connection to problematic Anthroposophical doctrines. Each activity will, of course, have its own local non-profit corporation, but they are all carried out under Anthroposophical direction, ultimately taking guidance from departments in the Dornach headquarters (near Basel, Switzerland).
Waldorf Education. Waldorf schools, also called Steiner Schools and Free Schools, are named after the original school that Steiner founded in Stuttgart, Germany. The school was for the children of the workers at the Waldorf-Astoria cigarette factory, thus the name. The movement calls itself the largest nonsectarian school system in the world, but pervasive Anthroposophical doctrine vitiates the claim of being nonsectarian. Waldorf education is guided by Steiner’s theory of child development, based on reincarnation. In this scheme, the physical body is born at birth, the “etheric body” at age seven, the “astral body” at age fourteen, and the “I,” the immortal member, at age twenty-one. Teachers classify students according to the ancient “four temperaments.” Teachers are trained in a two- or three-year Anthroposophical seminary program in which the first year, called the “foundation year,” consists entirely of the study of Anthroposophy.
Anthroposophical pseudoscience is easy to find in Waldorf schools. “Goethean science” is supposed to be based only on observation, without “dogmatic” theory. Because observations make no sense without a relationship to some hypothesis, students are subtly nudged in the direction of Steiner’s explanations of the world. Typical departures from accepted science include the claim that Goethe refuted Newton’s theory of color, Steiner’s unique “threefold” systems in physiology, and the oft-repeated doctrine that “the heart is not a pump” (blood is said to move itself).
Anthroposophical Medicine. Medicine is one of the more visible activities of Anthroposophy in Europe. Physicians are required to have medical degrees before training in Anthroposophical medicine, but that training denies and contradicts evidence-based medicine. Steiner’s medicine uses homeopathic remedies, but abjures the homeopathic method of testing a proposed therapeutic substance by observing the effects of the undiluted substance on a volunteer. This was too scientific for Steiner, who preferred to rely on the traditional herbalistic method of recognizing the application of a remedy from its appearance. For example, his remedy for cancer is mistletoe, because mistletoe grows radially rather than toward the sun as other plants do, and cancer grows radially. The Anthroposophical cancer remedy Iscador, prepared in a magical process from mistletoe, is in common use in Europe despite a lack of sufficient evidence for efficacy.
Camphill. Camphill communities are Anthroposophically-inspired residential programs for developmentally-disabled children and adults. Completely contained enclaves, they are worthy of study as models of life in an Anthroposophical world. Since only cooperative inmates are retained, the atmosphere is artificially idyllic, and an ostensible “village” structure conceals strict authoritarianism.