Atheists and Neuroscience
Moving the Goal Post: A Parable of Psi, by Robert Perry

Bad Spirituality

I was interested by this interview with philosophy teacher David Webster about the contemporary spirituality movement. He's hacked off with it, and has written a polemic called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. Strong stuff. I got the general drift, but was curious to see the arguments in detail, and Webster kindly sent me a pdf copy.

Webster objects to people who say they are spiritual but not religious (it makes him want to punch them). They don't want to be labelled as 'fundamentalist crazies', but as having depth and sensitivity. In fact they are shallow, he thinks, trying to blend traditions to suit lifestyle aspirations rather than following a faith which 'challenges you and ... asks more of you that you ask of it.'

Atheists should value freedom not only from God, but from the meaningless plurality of new-age inclusivity, he thinks. The new perspectives, techniques and jargon offered by spirituality merely obscure rather than enlighten, he argues. In fact its discourses are 'intellectually and culturally harmful', a poison that 'taints not only critical and social realms, but also does violence to our potential to be authentic, happyish and fulfilled human beings'.

As for its core belief in a non-material realm, he doubts that anyone can really take this seriously.

Do people really believe that they will survive their own death? It may be a psychological failing on my part - but I find it almost impossible not to believe that such beliefs are not filled with dread and doubt. Confidence in post-mortem existence is deeply troubling, and I suspect it may not, except in perhaps a few deeply-conditioned religious practitioners, even exist.

Given this, he thinks that what people actually do when they immerse themselves in the 'spiritual milieu' is try to distract themselves from their reality of their impending death. In this sense, spiritual activity fulfils the same existential function as train spotting or competing in athletics events.

Webster is also scathing about the refusal, as he sees it, of the spirituality movement to engage with rival truth claims.

Spirituality is an account of a non-material component of the Universe, which is so ineffable as to be inexpressible, in such a way that debate, imposition, argument and disagreement become meaningless and fruitless. This strikes me not as a reasonable level of tolerance, or open-mindedness, but rather as a wilful flight from sense and reason into an intellectual space where believing you are correct, and others are wrong is somehow seen as a badge of spiritual immaturity.

The claim of spirituality proponents that the mainstream religions have suppressed mystical traditions, he thinks borders on conspiracy theory. His context could be relevant here. He's based at the University of Gloucester in the southwest of England, which has one of largest concentrations of New Age followers in the country. They're the kind of folk who doubtless stir the contempt of the theologians he rubs shoulders with in his department.

There is a network across religions who know the truth of mystical oneness, but on all sides they are assailed by the forces of exclusivist, patriarchal, anti-mystic forces. It is a compelling and intoxicating narrative - it explains religious diversity and conflict, while retaining room for a world-transcending belief structure. It also pulls in the temptations of much conspiracy theory - the idea that the real history of things is a story lurking beneath the apparent version, which all others - more or less - accept. But you know better - you are not taken in - you stand at the current vanguard of a long line of people who 'thought different' and saw what lay beneath - the truth that would obliterate conflict and unite us all - if only 'they' would let it.

In many ways the polemic is less an atheistic denunciation of supernatural belief than the objections of the theist or existentialist to mysticism. It frustrates him, because there seems to be nothing to argue with, no way of engaging in fruitful debate.

The mystic represents a threat to the actual achievement of religious traditions. To the atheist, the pantheistic mystical monism of the Spirit - maintains much of what is negative in religion, while jettisoning much of value - like concerns for truth, social justice and engaged living. The mystic represents a threat to the actual achievements of religious traditions which is far more dangerous than any atheist - threatening to rot it from the inside, leaving a hollow shell of ineffable nothing.

There's more, but this is enough to be going on with. It's natural that atheists should be antagonistic to the whole spirituality thing, doubly so if, like Webster, they have an interest in traditional religion, which also has serious issues with it. Even people like me who subscribe to its core beliefs find aspects of it questionable: the commerciality, the gullibility and charlatanism, the egotistical 'gurus'. A certain superficiality hangs about it in some respects and I can agree that some people treat it more like a hobby than a serious effort at self-transformation.

Webster doesn't provide much detail to back up his assertion that spirituality makes people 'stupid, selfish and unhappy'. But I agree that embarking on a spiritual journey can have profoundly negative consequences, making a person complacent, dogmatic or just plain silly. I've seen it often enough. A little mystical knowledge, poorly understood, is worse than none at all. In extreme cases, it makes people easy fodder for cult leaders and charlatans, leading to the breakup of families, bankruptcy and premature death.

But then a movement that encompasses yoga, meditation and strict Buddhist practice alongside crystals, Tarot, channelling and aromatherapy, not to speak of Scientology and other cults - all under the New Age umbrella - isn't something one can easily generalise about. Webster's target is too big and too vague. It's like attacking France. Some Brits consider that France exists merely for them to mock (as some French think of Britain), and while that's good for a laugh, others will be more discriminating about what they dislike (eg Parisian hauteur) and what they admire (fine wine, countryside, etc). If a critique is to stand, one has to fully know the object of one's scorn. But I get little impression that Webster has really engaged with it, or knows it from the inside. The propositions of the spiritual worldview are defensible in scientific terms. If you know where to look, and the kind of authors to read, there's plenty to get to grips with.

That applies particularly to core issues, such as the irreducible nature of consciousness and the plausibility, in empirical terms, of the survival of consciousness and personality after death. It's quite wrong to suppose this is literally unimaginable. One could have quite rational reasons for believing it, from personal experiences or from reading the parapsychological literature. And this belief does matter, especially when it comes with the recognition that spiritual growth in this world has meaningful consequences for the next. Properly understood it provides a goal and purpose and meaning that secular rivals - scepticism, humanism, existentialism - cannot hope seriously to rival, despite the protestations of their advocates.

Does spirituality compare so badly with other philosophical movements? Secular humanists can insist they don't need religion to be moral, which is true enough. But humanism can't begin to rival spirituality as a path of personal transformation.

And what about existentialism, which he values as a more 'honest' response to life? I may be voicing my own prejudice here, but I've never been clear about how one translates the call to authentic living into actual practice. The thought of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre et al is often dense and obscure, and needs textual explaining - exactly the kind of activity that will appeal to the rationalist intellectual, who can busy himself with debating its meanings. But isn't that itself a form of evasion, of the kind Webster critiques? In any case, the number of people who have derived any useful moral direction from Being and Time, or even tried to read it, must be vanishingly small.

As for religion, I'm not clear why Webster would consider followers of spirituality, as a group, any less concerned with truth, social justice and engaged living than doctrinal Christians, Jews and Muslims - even if the extent to which individuals do so doubtless varies across the board.

All this said, I enjoyed Webster's book. It's sometimes good to get an outsider's perspective. I don't think it's a fair or accurate overview of spirituality, but it's a pretty good representation of how it is viewed by a certain type of atheist, one who understands the importance of ideas in determining how life should be lived.

I think it's useful, too, to see the spirituality movement in the broader social context - not just as a community of like-minded individuals, but as one of the dominant ideologies of our time. In theory it should have political heft. Most of the noise is being generated by religious fundamentalists and atheists, but there could come a time when spirituality starts to make its presence felt in the same way, helping to shape society through direct political action, as well as through the acts of spiritually-oriented individuals. Its potential in that regard could be better understood.


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Does Private Eye still have the 'Great Bores of Our Time' column? If so, I think you might just have found an ideal candidate, our Robert. ;)

You know, I think I agree with him a bit more than you. It's true that he goes way overboard, and it's true, like you say, that he doesn't seem all that knowledgeable (equating mysticism with pantheism and monism shows his lack of knowledge). But, as someone who has had his career in the spiritual realm for 25 years now, I feel that he definitely has hit upon some authentic problems.

First, there tends to be a very strong prohibition against being concerned about objective truth and therefore against distinguishing between competing truth claims. A friend of mine, Phil Brisk (who wrote a guest post for you), coined the phrase "anti-disagreeablism," to capture the sentiment that it's never OK to disagree with anyone, unless that person believes in the value of disagreement, in which case we should totally excoriate him.

So that, in my experience, is a major value in today's spirituality.

Another point I think we have to give him is the "selfish" part. I have become fond of describing spirituality as "narcissistic." The whole idea is that I am trying to get in touch with an inner, spiritual peace. Unless this impulse is balanced out, it naturally becomes rather narcissistic.

Integral philosopher Ken Wilber has coined the very helpful term "boomeritis" to make similar points. Boomeritis is a cultural disease of the baby boomer generation. It is characterized by extreme pluralism and its core slogan is "nobody tells me what to do!" It sees no authority higher than itself.

So Webster ends up sounding like my crankier thoughts on my worse days. I think there is much that is very good about spirituality, probably more than I personally see, just because I am such a discontented citizen of that country. So I welcome the critique, but the best critiques understand the positive contributions of something and don't just caricature its shortcomings.

This is basically the same sort of attack on Gnosticism that has been occurring for a thousand years. (The exception being that they're not killing us anymore.)

At the heart of the New Age Movement is the idea that we can experience spirituality directly, without the intervention of intermediaries.

As would be expected, organized religion finds this threatening because it undermines their authority and people like Webster find it threatening because it undermines their beliefs.

In particular I'm sure he finds it irksome that others can experience something that he cannot. So he attacks and dismisses it as irrelevant nonsense rather than confront the vacuum in his own spiritual abilities.

There is no reason to take him seriously.

"There is no reason to take him seriously."

Quite. At heart, the man is just another fundamentalist, and life is simply too short. Just another brick in the wall of repressive orthodox academia. Between that and the church . . . .

To pick up on Robert Perry's metaphor, I guess I too would describe myself as resident in the land of spirituality. I'm not completely comfy with all my neighbours though - some of them do seem very flaky and rather self-indulgent (mind you, I guess some of them probably say the same about me). But some of my neighbours are great. By which I mean, they seem to see spirituality as a route to genuine transformation, rather than mere consolation. And by transformation, I mean the kind of transformation that comes from people being and acting in the world in a way that is loving, kind and compassionate. In a way that teaches ideas and values based, you could say, on the Golden Rule, rather than on a fearful, grasping, "dog-eat-dog" type of thinking.

These great neighbours don't just sit on a meditation stool in order to feel deeply at peace with themselves as they follow their own unique, not-in-any-way-to-be-challenged-or-questioned path to their highly personal God. Actually, they probably do spend a decent amount of time in meditation. And, I believe, they do feel a deep peace within themselves. But that's not the whole story. What makes these people great, for me, is the fact that they're not wholly inner-referenced. Instead, they see the wider world they are part of and get out into it and offer - to borrow a marvellous phrase I heard from a wonderful American lady, Amy Speach - "helping hands in the marketplace."

Of course, a lot of that could be said about many non-spiritual folk as well. And that supports a key point of Robert (McLuhan this time, not Perry) in his original posting. It's plain daft to generalise - to stick crude labels on people. Because then we only see the label - not reality. Sounds like that's what David Webster has done. He's focused in on a few examples of spiritual people then generalised from those examples and made a big, clumsy, rather unintelligent label.

Do you think he's a friend and follower of Richard Dawkins? I suspect he probably is.

I disagree very strongly with Webster and am writing a fairly extensive takedown of his book. A recent post on my blog gives the setup.

Robert, I am standing in awe of your temperate and fair-minded critique of the Webster Dispirited. When Religious Dispatches first published his comments in a review, his attitude caused me to burst into a rant—almost meeting his standard of “aggressive grumpiness”--but it was more at his sweeping superficiality and lack of thoughtful rigor than his complaints about SBNR rhetoric and practice.

I share enough of Webster’s views about those weaknesses that I was really hoping for something interesting and informative with his inquiry. Unfortunately, although he identifies the common SBNR sentimentality and anti-intellectualism (too often downright irrationality), inattention to compassion and social justice, and flat-out ignorance of religion (masked most often as outrage or contempt), his claims are as extreme, anti-rational, and intellectually thin as those he rails against.

And then—oh, please!--

“The dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality—the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them—leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude.”

As you know, I’m an agnostic on life after death, so I have no horse in that race. Still, for an academic not to recognize that last quote as a statement of belief rather than demonstrated fact is shocking, except that it so mirrors most materialistic knee jerks. One wonders whatever happened to so completely throttle his imagination and sense of perspective.

I’m genuinely impressed that you read the entire book. Webster has ensured that I won’t read it by engaging in a diatribe rather than an informed discussion. He has told me nothing more than that the people he is lambasting don’t agree with his worldview, and I find his attitudes and neo-atheistic fundamentalisms…well, dispiriting.

Webster's diatribe has nicely made the rounds of our online community, if I may call it that. I think your post here is really great, Robert.

I am happy to call myself a New Ager, as the label fits me pretty well, and a label can make for a convenient short cut. I'd like to make a few points about "us," if I may.

Re the charge of "anti-disagreeablism," I think there is some truth to this. I have termed it in my own head, "You believe my BS, I'll believe yours." Yet I think we can look at it on a deeper level and gain some insight.

I think where New Ager's tread lightly when it comes to disagreement is people's individual mythologies. If someone says, for example that they're working on healing an illness with a mix of Ayurveda and Reiki, I think few New Agers are going to say, "Hey, those two things don't go together!"

OTOH, if one New Ager said to another, "I've determined that there is no Afterlife," then I think the other would disagree, as a belief in the Afterlife is a core part of the belief system. The person may respond in a very polite manner or may even say nothing--but I think very few would endorse it.

Further, New Agers are quite intolerant, on the whole, of intolerance: sexism, racism, homophobia, that kind of thing.

All that said, we certainly have disagreements and debates.

As to the charge of New Agers being inward-turning and narcissistic, I think that, paradoxically, this comes from a virtue of the group, to wit, that we actually take our beliefs seriously. I grew up Catholic, and my impression was and remains that very few Catholics act on their beliefs in any substantial way. Sure, there is a small percentage of people that say the Rosary and give their time to charity, and so on, but most Catholics are hardly "transformed" by their faith.

It's partly a matter of selection bias, since New Ager who doesn't practice his/her beliefs would probably not bother to self-label thus, but a core part of the belief system is that you can transform yourself spiritually, or at least participate in the transformation, and that's what New Agers do. Well, anytime you focus on yourself in such a way, it can seem narcissistic or it can actually be narcissistic. I've known New Agers like that. But it is only because a large number of people are engaging in self-transformation (a good thing) that a subset can seem or be narcissistic (a bad thing). It is like saying that people who are healthy eating are nutjobs who will buy any snakeoil supplement. It is only virtue of caring that makes possible caring in the wrong way.

Finally, the New Agers I hang with seem concerned about service to others and being "lightworkers." I think this concept is growing in importance in the movement and is a positive trend.

@Nancy glad you picked out the death thing but there's more to say on that -- so much more!

I'm reading his pamphlet multiple times.

Not only is he wrong about everything he says, he's provably wrong, seriously strongly wrong -- wrong in a way that most skeptics wouldn't even have the equipment to understand. As an academic philosopher he is going to be terribly, terribly embarassed by what I write as an SBNR. Philosophy is like chess, and he has just made one blunder after another, principally I think because his proposed audience of atheists will never pause to check him.

I can't say more now without giving away what I'm going to write, and I can't do that because walls don't need ears when they have the internet, and I'm sure you all know what I mean.

What I will say is that everyone on this thread is absolutely right in their defences (I particularly agree with Craig Weiler on the Gnostic discrimination thing) but that one can go further -- way further. What Matt says right above me again is quite true but not nearly strong enough for my liking!

I'm having fun writing what is turning out to be, not just a rebuttal, but a paean of praise to SBNR.


Can't wait for your book!



Nor I yours sir. When is the happy day? :)

I have not yet read the book "Dispirited" but I do read David Webster's blog. I thought it was more than just the usual critique of pick'n'mix spirituality not engaging with the more difficult bits of religion.

I would definitely say that mysticism (which tends to occur within a single religious tradition) was different from SBNR, and that SBNR is different from pick'n'mix, and from people who practice two religions at the same time (as fully as possible) in a variety of forms of syncretism. I also don't think that SBNR is synonymous with New Age. These distinctions may be slight, and there may be overlaps, and they may all share some key ideas, but they are distinct groups.

And I must confess that I really don't know what the argument is all about??

I suspect that many people, like me, simply don't resonate with orthodox religions and choose instead to follow their own intuitive path. I'm not a 'New Ager' - in fact I'm not happy attaching *any* label to myself. Why do people so like to put others in pigeon holes?

Like the existentialists, I believe that the only meaning life has is that which we find for ourselves. And like the religious, I believe that there are (and always have been) spiritually advanced individuals here on earth. And like the Mystics, I suspect we are only ever conscious of a very small part of our total awareness.

I could go on, but I'm somewhat lazy when it comes to explaining the blindingly obvious (well, blindingly obvious to me at least). 8/

Rant mode: Off. 8)

Rant mode: On (again):

And while I respect science (indeed, I was trained in the scientific method mself) I have absolutely no time whatsoever for dogmatism/fundamentalism of any persuasion.

We are all, each of us, individuals experiencing consciousness - collective or otherwise. I see no reason why we shouldn't do that in our own individual ways and on our very own terms. 8)

Rant mode: Off (for now).

Ditto Julie,

I have not read Webster's work. I cannot comment deeply on something that I haven't read yet. I do wonder what definition is used for umbrella terms such as "New Age" and "soul". Does he have anything to say about Consciousness that is currently debated and studied in Academic Philosophy, Neurological Research in a number of settings, and the work of young interdisciplinary scientists such as Bernardo Katsrup. Does he conflate "soul" with subjective awareness that is non-local to the brain, altered states studies in which there is evidence of a dampening of neuronal-electical brain activities. This lowerering of neuronal activity is counterintuitive to the subjects reporting experiencing altered states, some of which feel 'more real than this waking reality'.

If the electrical firings and patterns of synaptic activity are argued to be correlative proof but not causative proof for how how Mind and Subjectivity are most likely an Emergent Property of Complex Systems of Interacting Matter than those who maintain a materialist viewpointmust counter the evidence gathered not only from subjective stories of OOB and NDE but also the findings of Rick Strassman MD at The University of New Mexico Medical School and his study on the effects of DMT (a natural substance found in the pituitary gland in human and in some quantitiy in all flora and fauna on earth)and the measuring of brain activity actually decreasing when subjects were dosed with DMT and experienced a Hyper Reality while under the experience of DMT. The lack of brain activity favors the "brain as a filter model" and evidence for the brain as a receiver that filters out the information a human, plant or animal does not find useful for survival and "allows the sensori-neural system to select information leading to it's survival" while taking in, unconsciously we process vast amounts of outward and inner information that we may never realize in our reality tunnel of selective subjective awareness.

I quote Kastrup on the Mind-Body Problem.
Personally, I think all states of consciousness are irreducible, existing in and by themselves as ontological primitives. As such, the brain never creates any state of consciousness, negative or positive, but its mechanisms and physiology just select some, and keep out most. Once the brain is out, like at death, then the question becomes whether there are other non-physical selection mechanisms beyond the brain itself, as in a hierarchy of filtering mechanisms. If there is at least another mechanism that is non-physical, one could still talk of personality and specific (selective) states of mind. If there isn't, then unconstrained, oceanic consciousness should be the implication."

Rick Stuart

I did not include personal experience within my own life that is a direct encounter with the issue of Consciousness is primary. I always state to my Patients (I am a psychologist)that I share The Mytery of Being with each patient (pilgrim) that I encounter but encourage them NOT to take my word for it.

One must be open to experience and participate with the Active Imagination and increaed trust that will unfold into our Individual Journey, as a part of the Universal Human Story which is still unfolding. Our singular participation may be a mystery of Higher Meanings that are unfathomable to our space-time dimension sense of self but one CAN Experience the Mystery Directly, without conceptual knowing, and the playground of Eros that drives the ever moving Becoming can be surfed with alternating glee and horror if one is fearless and glides with The One Divine Imagination (Wm Blake's term)through Love and Life, experiencing The One and The Many that Remains One.

My OOB's, Lucid Dreams, Altered States Experiences, have created a very real sense of the Vastness, Connection, Meaning and Mystery that many debunkers, materialists, those invested in their academic careers in physicalism,simply do not encounter or want to investigate the phenomenologic experience for themselves.

They seem much too busy being "parents telling their silly hippie adolescents" to grow up and face the fact that they are meaningless accidents who have neither purpose nor impact of any lasting value, as the sun slowly burns away into 'white dwarf" status and Mother Earth sheds her blue-green garment, that once was ovewrflowing with sentient, self aware,statistical accidents. No more cartoons children! Brush Your teeth and struggle through the competitive economies of an ultimately meaningless existence! Wow...what brave sage advise these grownups seem to possess. They do so "for our own good" and with the sigh and upturned eyebrow of "Do I have to tell you this again? There is Nothing other than Cold Random Forces in this Universe. This is accompanied by a sigh, a tinge of tired-eyed ennui', and a 'be brave fellow prisoner' turning of the cheek as they go back to the ant hill counting beans and waving haphazardly to their admiring Grownup Fanclub.

Good luck with your new book Robert. These tired old truth tellers can be energized like a pack of jackels if someone presents a good alterative to their existential despair narrarative..

Some nice points there, Richard!

Just a quiet lurker here, but I wanted to share that I thoroughly enjoy reading the great thoughts on this page, especially what Richard just posted. I totally agree with his perceptions, esp. the part that mentions '"parents telling their silly hippie adolescents" to grow up'. Concise and hilarious.
I too have had very many LD's, OBE's etc and it's true that the debunkers probably just don't want to explore the nature of the 'hyper-reality' which is available to all of us, with an open and inquiring mind. Lazy, 'armchair Scientists' is how I view them. They just don't have the b*lls. Excuse my directness. :)

Just as religious folks can get self-righteous and closed minded in their zeal, so can the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd. I occasionally detect a certain sanctimonious elitism in New Age 'enlightenment'.

Sure, we all have to have our myths that keep us sane, providing comforting answers to age-old problems, like why bad things happen to innocent people and what happens (if anything) after we die. Whether it's a Bible story, gangsta rap, Vedic text, testimony of a near-death experiencer, insight from a deceased relative, or the latest Richard Dawkins screed, most of us need answers to protect our psychological fortresses while we're busy searching for the truth.

But I can see areas where many people would see shallowness in a lot of New Age doctrines, some of which, I personally subscribe to.
For instance, this insistence that God is love, and everybody goes straight to Heaven. We only judge ourselves in the afterlife, feel bad about the bad things we did, then move on. No biggie - whatever it takes to minimize, explain away or deny responsibility. This position is usually held by folks who have not experienced horrific injustice in their lives.

How about the hoary teaching that suffering is temporary - or better yet - an illusion? Sure, I believe the Buddhist's have it right in a lot of respects. Life is suffering for most of the world, and it has been throughout history. Just do a little historic research and look at the news. I understand where this idea is coming from, but it doesn't have any application to the average Western person. The next time I get sick, I doubt I will find spiritual comfort in telling myself that what I am going through is an illusion.

Then there's a popular book in NDE circles titled "Nothing Better than Death".
Horse squeeze.
I know the focus is on the afterlife, but there's a tendency to ignore the nowlife. For all the wistful, spiritual easing that life after death pontifications gives me, I know that for most folks the act of dying is miserable at best, and the repercussions of a persons death can be traumatic to their loved ones.

Yes, there's a lot of joy and beauty in the world, and in the end I believe that God is love and it all works out, but there is a lot of very real suffering that gets glossed over in the process.
One of my favorite platitudes is "I screamed at God for the starving child - but then I saw the starving child was God screaming at me". The fact is, children starve all over the world. People and other animals suffer. Some people have very realer-than-real, terrifying near death experiences, but are afraid to talk about them, even within the near-death support community, because the bulk of the community just ignores them.

No one wants to dwell on the negative, but after a hard day of chatting with the dearly departed, and working on our Law of Attraction skills at the hot yoga class, let's not forget to remote view a homeless person in need of our material help.

@RabbitDawg this is what worries me about the SBNR crowd sometimes.

It's why I'm writing the big rebuttal of Webster just as much for SBNRs like me as for atheists like him (althoug he is *not* a standard Dawkinsite by the way. The book is not about science. It's about philosophy and culture.)

Aren't you aware of things like Andrew Harvey's Institute for Sacred Activism?

Or what my friend John Records is doing in partnership with IONS -- check out vid:

"At Home Within", a big program for developing spirituality in homeless adults.

What you are talking about is already known. People are doing things. Whatever modality you're talking about people are already using it every day to help homeless people!

Stuff like this is going on all the time. It seems to me that most SBNRs are simply unaware of it and so when Webster shows up with his accusations they just shrug!

"Law of Attraction at the hot [?] yoga class" is not SBNR. SBNR has a massive cultural and intellectual heritage. I mean that -- massive, and it's things that people are just forgetting because commercialism is confusing them. It's confusing Webster too. People forget what they really have here. Webster turns up talking about a kind of intellectual bankruptcy -- don't mistake, that is what's he talking about -- and it seems like no SBNR who's reading him can talk about the fact that SBNR has far greater philosophical strength than what Webster is into.

And I think that's because even SBNRs themselves are not educating themselves. Sorry, but that's what I think.

That's partly why I'm writing my rebuttal. So people can start to remember! I often leave forums feeling alienated by how cut off people's perspective is on this.

What I write is going to be so damn emphatic (and good) I almost don't want to give away any more of it right now. But I will just post this tiny snippet, a quote. The speaker is a man called William Irwin Thompson, and any SBNR who doesn't know who William Irwin Thompson is should be ashamed. Sorry, but they should, especially with anti-SBNR creeps like Webster walking around.

Here he is, speaking in 1988:

Christopher Lasch, in his article on the New Age in Omni magazine, presents the New Age as a kind of mindless fad of people caught up in purple crystal dowsing and investment channeling [sound familiar?], but if you take a more historical look at the tradition of the New Age and consider the work of Aldous Huxley, W.B. Yeats, Rudolf Steiner, Blake, Goethe, and Ficino, you realize that you cannot throw these people out without pulling apart the architecture of Western civilization.

See that's what I'm talking about right there. And that's nothing. There is so much more to get at here. I'm going to get it all if I can. Including all the sociological research Webster covered up and evaded, all the heritage that is behind what I do every day. I want to wake people up out of this stupour where they start not even recognising what they're part of because of the constant barrage of bs.

This stuff is serious!

Jason, I look forward to your rebuttal.

I would also like to see more 'sacred activism' come to Tennessee? In my immediate vicinity, as far as I can tell, this is pretty much it:

@RabbitDawg well I don't exactly where you might be... there has to be more than that around in Nashville say. :)

I tell you what, if you are serious about the activism side I believe you can get a small group together for yourself and register it with the sacred activism people specifically, or there's all sorts of other ways. It doesn't have to be formal... it just depends on how many people you have who can do stuff on a voluntary basis.

The point I was making was, if you did do that, you might be the first in your area, but far from the first in your nation. Just spend a while looking online...

Jason, of course it all comes down to the individual, and yes, there are tons of folks doing a lot good things in Nashville.
On May 1st through 2nd, 2010, Tennessee had a flood. Over 19 inches (480 mm) of rain in two days, with the Army Corp of Engineers releasing four-to-five feet of water into Nashville from a dam - all at once - to prevent the dam from being breached. There were tens of thousands of destroyed homes, with twenty-one dead (ten of them in Nashville).

But there was no public wailing or gnashing of teeth. The community banded together and had everything more or less back to normal within six months. There were no successful cases of vandalism, although ten people were arrested trying.
Here's a link to a video that still brings tears to my eyes (and I almost never cry), probably because I was there:

This took the work of a lot of people. The Spiritual But Not religious, the Religious But Not Spiritual, the Religious and Spiritual, and the Not Religious and Not Spiritual.
My gripe is more oriented to the New Age crowd, rather than the wide-ranging category of "Spiritual But Not Religious". But hey, I'm sure that even a lot of the New Ager's helped out during the flood. :)

Oh, and if you check out the video, leave the sound on. The juxtaposition of the music and images beautifully captures the spirit.

@RabbitDawg, wow, that is serious stuff. My congratulations on being in a community that handled it this way! It's inspiring, and I believe tests of this kind will come to many communities in the days ahead.

As far as the "New Age" thing is concerned though... well, wait for my rebuttal I guess. :)

Speaking of Andrew Harvey: In 1992, here in the UK, I saw a TV documentary about him and his relationship with the avatar Mother Meera. I was quite fascinated by Andrew's life and account of his mystical awakening.

In the summer of that same year, my husband and I made a trip to California. During that visit we spent a few days in the delightful old historic town of Mendocino. During our stay we visited a book store to find some maps of the territory and I took the opportunity to look for a copy of Andrew Harvey's book, 'Hidden Journey; a spiritual awakening', which he dedicated to Mother Meera and which I'd been intending to get hold of ever since the TV documentary.

Despite there being a large section on 'Mind, Body & Spirit' (well, it was California) there was no sign of Andrew's book. Disappointed, I rejoined my husband in the geography section. Glancing idly along the shelves I noticed a small gap between two large atlases. Out of curiosity I put my fingers between the gap and guess what I pulled out? A copy of 'Hidden Journey'.

The synchronicity was so astonishing that I remember the incident as if it happened only yesterday.

Cool how even the title of the book expressed the situation -- the book went on a hidden journey -- to geography. :)

*Exactly* Jason!

There have been so very many synchronicities in my life, yet there appears to be no where to go with them - if you get my drift. It often feels as if I'm being nudged into some kind of awareness but that I'm simply too stupid to follow the signs. Such is life, I suppose. 8/

Ps. Perhaps the humour of the experience is enough? 8)

Several clarifications on "charges" regarding New Agers.

1. Narcissism cuts across Belief Systems and I'm sure that New Agers , Religionists, Philosophical Agnostics and Materialists all have there own fair share of pathological narcissism. There is also healthy narcissism i.e. believing that one can accomplish a difficult task, realist and positive self esteem. Narcissism must not be conflated with selfishness or lack of interest in the suffering of others. Unhealthy Narcissism is an Axis II Personality Disorder on the DSM IV-R Multiaxial diagnostic manual of mental disorders. In pathological form it is found in CEO's, Academia, and across all occupational and Belief Systems. It implies solipsistic thinkiong, grandiosity, inability to engage in 2 or more person relationships due to monadic way of viewing self and "world out there", lack of real empathy and self centered manipulation of other persons who to the pathologic narcissist are 1 dimensional cardboard cuttouts that are impediments to their successes and viewed as the cause of the narcissist's failures.

As a psychologist, when I have even mildly pointed out to a pathologic narcissist that there "may be another point of view" than their own on a given subject or event, I am often met with negative responses ranging from disdain, devaluation to 'narcissistic rage" because in pointing something out that lies beyond their own self-serving view I have "failed and abandoned " them by showing or representing my individual separateness from them and their own inability to "fuse me" into their monadic, grandiose, 'perfect' self. The rage can be extrordinarily over the top given the nature or mild way that I point out a difference and the rage can be infantile or in the case of the verbally gifted a vitriolic dismantling verbal attack.

From what I gather there is quite a lot of this ad homminum style in the "I'm so bored with the "straw man" definition of New Age that I must write about for the sake of Rationalism" in Webster's book.

I don't disagree with the "selfish, irrational, anti-enlightenment nature" of some New Age folk, whatever that umbrella term means, but for goodness sake read Frederick Myers, William James, contemporary scientists and philosophers Alan Wallace and Bernardo Katstupand review the "radical empiricism" inherent in subjective phenomenology of "master meditators" and others and try Mind Altering substances under proper state and setting circumstances. Taste the pudding and come back with something worth writing about.


"Taste the pudding and come back with something worth writing about."

What a FANTASTIC turn of phrase. May I "borrow" it? :-)

Also, wonderful to have your professional thoughts on what it means to be a narcissist and why narcissism doesn't have to be unhealthy. Thanks!

@Richard Stuart, refreshing to find someone using the word "narcissistic" who actually knows what it means. :)

You don't take a fundamentally different line from the one I'm taking, although my "please read" list is a little longer than yours -- but then so is the whole thing, I'll be lucky to come in under 50,000 words.

And my research has borne some unusual fruit too -- a new solecism I call the Websterwoopsie (TM)!

The official definition:

Given a topic [X] upon which many SBNR writers have contributed useful thought, one commits a Websterwoopsie if one's discourse on [X]:

1. Accuses SBNRs of knowing nothing about [X]; but
2. Does not mention the SBNR material on [X]; and
3. Makes misleading or incorrect statements that would have been corrected by reading SBNR material on [X].

There are so many Websterwoopsies in this pamphlet, I had to buy a scooper. :)

I fail to see the usefulness or accuracy in abstracting together into a single concept the idea 'SBNR' as Webster clearly felt compelled to do, and also as many commenters here have acquiesced to.

Webster's motives are obvious in that he wants something well-defined to be able to attack and make generalizations about. But this does not make the object of his attacks real. My own opinion is that the root of what is bothering Webster (and 99.5% of all athiests I've ever spoken with as well) is that he sees in such 'SBNR' people a threat to materialism -- a prejudice he is unwilling to critically examine much less give up. In fact, he paraphrases at one point that 'anti-materialists' bother him.

It is absolutely true that one can find many rudderless, unserious, and flighty types among the ranks of what detractors like to disparagingly label 'new-agers'. But this is not a particularly piercing insight. Among the ranks of conventionally religious people and even fundamentalists one will find a similar spectrum of thoughtfulness and depth and the lack of it if one simply looks. Also, something not often admitted without bitter argumentation, one sees the same thing among the ranks of the 'skeptics' and self-styled 'free-thinkers'. Certainly Webster has noticed this among Theravadists as well.

How carefully, meticulously, and without prejudice someone forages into the thought structures of their chosen 'belief system' has nothing to do with what that chosen system is. To think otherwise is delusional and delays true scrutiny and discourse.

For all systems, you do well to look at the philosophical roots as well as the psychological context about why it appeals to people if you want to really understand it's place in the wider social phenomena. All the while, you must keep in mind that the definition is shifting because the people who harbor the various beliefs have varying degrees of commitment to things like searching for the truth and just as importantly: self-examination.

With this in mind, I can say that in my experience, the philosophical roots of atheism is materialism and reductionism. The psychological roots of it have more to do with being uncomfortable about the idea of living too long with open questions, the emotional preference for having a 'system' that one is aligned to, a defensible worldview.

For religionists, you cannot so easily answer this same question, as there is more variation, and sometimes motives come from moral sources which are deeply personal. Also, there is the comfort of a pronounced system that is at least to some degree pre-articulated. SO again, people who like to not have important open questions can be at home here. Webster speaks out of Buddhism, and just as elsewhere, there are many degrees of depth to the theology explored and expounded upon, as in all religions now operating. He speaks of the Faith component of the religion and it's merits. But all of this is mediated by past authoritative thinkers, just as with science.

When someone operating within science wants to probe an authoritative tenet he is not intuitively comfy about, he can use the scientific method and devise and perform a series of investigations and experiments. (Assuming he has the wherewithall or his departmental sanction for the work.) A natural conservatism operates, along with human vices and egos, to apply limits as to how easily an off-message scientific proposal can be looked into.

The same thing applies to religion. The method for independently investigating a sacrosanct tenet which one has an intuitive discomfort with is called 'mysticism', sometimes disparagingly and sometimes not.

It is wrong for Webster to suggest that it is obvious that the motivations for such off-message inner questioning is automatically due to selfishness or lack of discipline. In the same way it would be wrong in the scientific context. He needs to be more broad-minded and see that there is a rampant social phenomenon occurring in the past 50 years or so which is driving more and more thoughtful 'religious' people into off-message questioning. Some are 'SBNRs'.

Notice that the operating element here is intuition. Just like during the writing of the U.S. Constitution one felt naturally emboldened to proclaim: "these truths we hold self-evident", intuition shines like a half-moral half-cognitive organ of smell for what is true within us. We'd do well to cultivate it and not disparage it. Rather, be honest enough to do sufficient introspection to see that it is this ingredient which really drives us towards our chosen positions and belief structures. To be sure it is an imperfect faculty, but one which can be schooled.

'SNBRs' tend to philosophical come from the place of anti-materialism. They look at reductionist science and intuit: something is missing with this picture, something vital is systemically excluded from consideration. On the psychological side of things, they look at religion and see that it is mostly received wisdom and largely corrupted by the powerful authoritative opinions of the moment. So they again intuit: something is wrong with this picture. I reserve the right to make deeper inquiries on my own and I reject the authority which I see as morally out-of-touch.

I don't like to be in the position of defending new-age or SNBR, but at the root of it I see these two insistences upon keeping questions open and not subject to dogma. The first is materialism and the second is religious authoritarian orthodoxy.

One last point I'd make is as follows. People willy-nilly launch arguments and attacks by focusing on the low-hanging fruit and the obvious foolishness within a domain. I would suggest considering the best that something has to offer when evaluating, not the worst. Human egos will make mistakes and be subject to weaknesses -- what matters is the general tenor of a new direction, what is really driving it, and where the leading thinkers within it will propel it over the course of a century.

If you know something, you no longer need to either believe in it or disbelieve it. You simply know, it is part of your experience. But you work against the possibility of knowing when you prematurely adopt a position of either belief or disbelief. Adopting a position closes off true investigation -- at this point one merely looks for crumbs to buttress arguments. This is the great ideal behind science: investigate without prejudice. But as I said, people are human, and the ideal is still far from widely practiced even within the scientific community. Don't even get me started concerning the 'skeptics'.

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