Recently I came across an interesting interview with David Webster, a philosophy professor and author of a new book called Dispirited. The excerpts that caught my attention are here; the full interview is here.
Webster says he begins his book (which I haven't read) with the following declaration:
When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual,” I want to punch them in the face.
Now, I don't know about you, but when I read a statement like that, it makes me think that the author may be in need of a dose of spirituality himself.
Of course it's hyperbole, and as the opening sentence of a book it succeeds in capturing the reader's attention, which is what opening sentences are supposed to do. Still, it is a tad off-putting, especially coming from a college professor whose field of expertise is Religion, Philosophy and Ethics.
But what's got Webster so riled up about spirituality, anyway? The answer is found in his book's not-very-subtle subtitle, How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy.
In the interview, Webster elaborates:
Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.
To some extent I agree with this. It's my basic complaint about New Agery. There is too much blanket acceptance of untested (often untestable) claims. However, it's not true of all spiritual traditions or approaches. It is more common in what might be called "vulgar spirituality," or Oprah-style feel-good spiritual pablum.
And even in its most popularized form, this approach to life does offer some benefits. For one thing, it makes many people happier than they might otherwise be -- not an insignificant matter. For another, it may put people in touch, at least glancingly, with higher spiritual truths that have sustained human beings for thousands of years. Admittedy, these truths are presented in an adulterated and dumbed-down version; still, that's better than nothing. Isn't it?
Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realizes that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.
Possibly true. New Agery does seem to appeal to people's narcissism, and to encourage it. On the other hand, sometimes immersion in spiritual teachings and experiences can make one a better person. For instance, reading a lot about the life review in near-death experiences can make one acutely aware of how one treats others, and can make compassion and helpfulness seem more important than competitiveness and self-seeking. Kenneth Ring devoted a whole book to this idea, pointing out that even people who've never had an NDE often show spiritual progress after reading or hearing about other people's experiences.
I also think it's hard to argue that hardcore materialists are necessarily better, more caring people than those who are spiritually inclined, even if their brand of spirituality is of the "vulgar" variety. There is an awful lot of angry invective and personal score-settling on the part of the more vocal atheists and skeptics. P.Z. Myers and Penn Jillette are two obvious cases in point. Even skeptic Ray Hyman is on record as saying, "As a whole, parapsychologists are nice, honest people, while the critics are cynical, nasty people."
So I have mixed feelings about the author's first two points. But it's with his third point that he really loses me.
Finally, I argue that 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. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives, and ‘soul’.
Although I agree that longevity movements are problematic, overall I find a raft of difficulties with this analysis.
First, Webster is apparently unaware that there is, in fact, a considerable body of empirical evidence pointing to postmortem survival. Those who maintain this belief are not necessarily "dissembling" or refusing to face facts, as he assumes. In many cases they have been persuaded by reading about, or directly experiencing, phenomena that do not readily lend themselves to any other explanation. One might even argue that the materialists' unwillingness to properly address this mass of evidence is indicative of their refusal to face facts.
Second, having lived as both an atheist with no belief in an afterlife, and as a theist with a pretty strong belief in an afterlife (though not an absolute certainty), I can't agree that the former approach represents healthy, vital living, while the latter entails a cramped, bloodless existence. I felt considerably less grounded, less alive, and more pessimistic, unhappy, and simply empty in my atheistic days than I do now. Many other people report the same thing. Again, look at NDErs -- typically, they find themselves living life more joyfully and with more zest and courage than they did before their experience. And this change of attitude is not simply a result of surviving a close call with death. According to their own accounts, it is their personal conviction of life after death (derived from the NDE) that gave their lives a new direction and purpose. Indeed, when you contrast the energy of NDErs and other spiritually inclined types with the exhausted ennui of stridently secular cultures, it seems that spirituality has a definite edge.
But don't tell David Webster. By way of demonstrating his commitment to "a full, rich life, with emotional integrity," he just might punch you in the face.