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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.