Marmite Thinkers and Spiritual Rejections

As previous posts attest, I am an atheist. One who also rejects Spirituality. However, in some of my talks I have received flak for seeming to defend organised religion (while attacking disorganised religions). I am not sure I do so that much – but I do feel that some of the more positive fallouts of organised religion are absent in the new-age and mind-body-spirit worlds. That is true. I think I may have found someone who almost agrees with me..

By this – I don’t mean Alain de Botton. I am resisting saying anything on the blog about Alain de Botton and his Religion for Atheists.. Partly because I was always taught “If you’ve got nothing nice to say, don’t say anything.” So I won’t. For now.

WSlavoj Žižekhat I want to look at is someone who seems to divide opinion even more starkly than de Botton: Slavoj Žižek. There seems to be a backlash against Žižek at the moment. One writer seems to even call him Buddhaphobic. Perhaps I’ll return to that in another post. Either way he seems to be a love or hate thinker. Personally I’m in the former camp. I can forgive him the endless self-plagiarism (whole chunks from previous books appear in other ones), the digressions, manic presentation style, the sweat and the lapses in Lacanian jargon. Why? Because he is so often very persuasive – and entertaining – and has things to say which actually seem important.

In an interview for Believer magazine he is asked an interesting question:

BLVR: Your book The Puppet and the Dwarf deals with St. Paul. In fact, it celebrates St. Paul’s Christianity in contrast to other forms of spirituality, i.e. gnosticism, new-age spiritualities, etc. So why would an
atheist defend Christianity?

His answer is fascinating…

SŽ: Today, spirituality is fashionable. Either some pagan spirituality of tolerance, feminine principle, holistic approach against phallocentric Western imperialist logic or, within the Western tradition, we have a certain kind of rehabilitation of Judaism, respect for otherness, and so on. Or you are allowed to do Christianity, but you must do a couple of things which are permitted. One is to be for these repressed traditions, the early Gnostic gospels or some mystical sects where a different nonhegemonic/patriarchal line was discernible. Or you return to the original Christ, which is against St. Paul. The idea is that St. Paul was really bad, he changed Christianity into this patriarchal state, but Jesus, himself, was something different.

What I like is to see the emancipatory potential in institutionalized Christianity. Of course, I don’t mean state religion, but I mean the moment of St. Paul. I find a couple of things in it. The idea of the Gospel, or good news, was a totally different logic of emancipation, of justice, of freedom. For example, within a pagan attitude, injustice means a disturbance of the natural order. In ancient Hinduism, or even with Plato, justice was defined in what today we would call almost fascistic terms, each in his or her place in a just order. Man is the benevolent father of the family, women do their job taking care of the family, worker does his work and so on. Each at his post; then injustice means this hubris when one of the elements wants to be born, i.e. instead of in a paternal way, taking care of his population, the king just thinks about his power and how to exploit it. And then in a violent way, balance should be reestablished, or to put it in more abstract cosmological terms, you have cosmic principles like yin and yang. Again, it is the imbalance that needs to establish organic unities. Connected with this is the idea of justice as paying the price as the preexisting established order is balanced.

But the message that the Gospel sends is precisely the radical abandonment of this idea of some kind of natural balance; the idea of Gospels and the part of sins is that freedom is zero. We begin from the zero point, which is at least originally the point of radical equality. Look at what St. Paul is writing and the metaphors he used. It is messianic, the end of time, differences are suspended. It’s a totally different world whose formal structure is that of radical revolution.

What I noted here in the first section was his suspicion of these alternative spiritualities. He seems to see in them a certain self-serving, trendy smugness. And for those in the Christian tradition, it is only fashionable of you find an oppressed discourse of gnostic/mystical rebelliion which grants you some type of victim status. This seems to accord with the way I claim mysticism is deployed by many in the New-age and Gnostic movements. What he does see as worth saving in the Christian tradition is not nice buildings, or moving songs (sorry, couldn’t resist the de Botton dig) – but some thing much more important. That is, Paul as the source for thinking about what radical equality might actually mean: an upsetting of natural orders, of hierarchies, and not of a futile gesture in the face of a society you ultimately capitulate to (as we might characterise the ‘alternative-ness’ of most alternative spirituality) – but of revolution.

This doesn’t make me want to be a Christian, but it makes me think that we (atheists) might have something to learn about just how socio-politically radical a set of ideas can be found in much religious thinking: and how we might yet need some of them in the face of the inclusivist, neo-liberal, post-ideological world-views that new-age spirituality seems to represent.

Soul Loss?

I know, I know – I was going to look at Julian Baggini’s 12 Rules for Heathens – and I will keep that promise. But: I didn’t know then about Soul Loss.

‘What is Soul Loss?’ I hear you ask. What indeed. It is ‘one of the main reasons people get ill, from a shamanic point of view‘. After telling me that shamanism dates back 40,000 years (I am not even going to begin with that claim) the article ends its first page with the helpful: Physically, the symptoms of soul loss can be pretty much anything.

So how do I know if I’ve lost mine? A shaman will help. The main cause is trauma in the past.

Now – were this all a set of metaphors for psychological distress and its impact – that might actually work perfectly well. We may have problems linked to our past, and we can use a range of images to explore and picture them and this may well help. But what struck me here was the literalism:

In a soul retrieval the skilled shamanic practitioner leaves their own body and enters into shamanic reality. This is usually (but not always) done to the accompaniment of a shamanic drum or rattle. Working with the help of their power animal(s) and other guides, the practitioner finds the soul part of the person they are journeying for and attempts to persuade it to return. If it agrees to return, the part is then gathered up, brought back to this reality and then literally blown back into the person’s body. []

I really am not sure what this might mean… So I looked at other Soul Retrieval providers – such as where (after the 40,000 years claim is repeated) there is some very similar material. It seems that the key text here is the 1991 work by Sandra Ingerman called Soul Retrieval:  Mending the Fragmented Self. I have ordered a copy – and will report back.

In the meantime I note that offer soul retrieval by telephone (I wonder if it is available by text?), and that at the same site there is the claim:

So, how does soul loss manifest itself? How does someone know that they are affected by soul loss? In my experience, clients tend to make statements such as, “I don’t feel all here” “I feel lost” “I feel part of me is missing” “ A part of me died when she died” “I feel like I am constantly searching for something, but I don’t know what it is”– all these statements are indications of soul loss.

I would, from my perspective, probably rather suggest that these are indication of grief, lonliness, or existential angst at the absurdity of life. They do however also have the effect of making people feel vulnerable and at risk of exploitation by those peddling ‘answers’ which claim so much. In reality, these troubles often cannot be fixed, and certainly not easily and with ‘spirit work’, surely when people read (same site):

Everyone suffers soul loss at some point, either in the current life or former lifetimes, yet this can be swiftly rectified. It is a real blessing to do this work, the results can be miraculous!

They can begin to sense why the Mind-Body-Spirit world makes me so angry and upset?


This morning, I was (and I knew it was probably unwise..) at and was reading away – largely interested in how the word ‘enlightenment’ is used in Mind, Body & Spirit (MBS) contexts. This interest derives from my work on Buddhism, and my concern that MBS materials often seem to imply that their usage is equivalent to what Buddhists mean by enlightenment or ‘awakening’. But, as is so often the case online, I was distracted. I was distracted by the line below – the first line at the website (which is largely an advert for a MBS fair/event):

There is a definite change in direction and in the flow of energy around the universe at this time.

This led to two initial thoughts: what do they mean by ‘energy’, and how can they be sure (of this change)? Looking at the organisers, I realise that their use of the term may be linked to their being Reiki ‘healers’. The foundational belief for Reiki is that there is a universal life energy, which is all around us – but actually Reiki has very little to say about what this energy is, and what its characteristics are, and how it can be accounted for, perceived and demonstrated. In looking at the nearest Reiki centre to me at I noticed this phrase:

There is no belief system attached to Reiki so anyone can receive or learn to give a Reiki treatment, the only prerequisite is the desire to be healed.

Now this is interesting! This seems to very much chime with my claims in the book that there is a disavowal of belief in the MBS milieu. If you assert nothing, it would seem that you can side-step the burden of proving anything, and be free to claim anything. Further to this, is there not a fundamental conflict between the belief in the Reiki energy force and the absence of beliefs? While I have written (with Dr Paul Fuller) on the issue of ‘beliefs vs no-beliefs’ in a Buddhist context – at least the Buddhist account seeks to engage with this tension. In MBS it seems a way of evaporating tensions.

If we have no beliefs, it might seem that we inhabit a post-conflict setting of holistic consensus. However, such a setting seems at odds with the substantial implied truth claims of the MBS world – that there is a life energy, that we survive death as spirit, that there are angels, and the like. If we disavow belief – how can we disentangle these claims?

What you will notice at a MBS fair is that there is no attempt to do so – and the (seemingly contradictory) claims of all these practitioners, with all their varied accounts of reality (with differing implied metaphysical models, beings, accounts of personhood, etc.) all sit happily side-by-side – as though all can be true at once.  They cannot. This is part of what truth means – and this is part of my argument (in the first chapter of Dispirited) that the MBS movement presents a threat to our understanding of what truth is – and disengages its audience from the use of intellectual rigour and caution.