SBNR….

The objections there have been, in places I have seen and some others that I suspect exist, to Dispirited, seem to partly have coalesced around my concerns over the term Spiritual But Not Religious (SBNR).

Another is my seemingly conflation of SBNR and ‘new age’ practices/beliefs. This is simpler to address. There are parts of the new age movement that see themselves as part of religious traditions, and identify as religious. Those that don’t (and this is a non-trivial portion of the new-age) seem to, by default or explicitly, fall within the SBNR category: it is a form of spirituality that asserts a non-religious affiliation

Which brings me back to the original point. I suggest in Dispirited that being spiritual is a religious undertaking. It is part of what being religious actually means. Of course there are other aspects, such as the formal, social and institutional aspects of religion: but at the heart of what religion is, what makes it a religion, rather than a belief system of another type, is the belief in a world which lies beyond the apparent material. If you assert a belief in the spirits of the dead, or angels (or, yes, even unicorns as spirit beings), or heavenly realms: I would consider these as religious claims. Of course they may also be empirical claims, but religion has always made empirical, historical and other claims. To only consider as ‘religious’ the institutionalised aspects which you happen to dislike, or have concerns about, is to ignore the actual nature of religious traditions and their history…

“A Dispirited visit to Waterstones”

Over on his The ‘God Blog’, Mel Thompson considers Dispirited in the light of a visit to Waterstones.

You can read the full piece over on his blog, but I was taken by his experience of looking for the Philosophy section of the bookshop:

One small section of shelving was labeled ‘Religions’ and it had a small selection of introductory titles, a modest selection of Bibles and prayer books, and displayed on the top, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. So far so predictable.  But next to those shelves was a huge block, three times as wide, devoted to the assorted nonsense called ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ – the ever-expanding MBS of publisher/bookshop-speak. But where was the Philosophy section?  Tucked in the corner was a category called ‘Smart Thinking’, which did (thankfully, if I’m to supplement my modest pension) have a copy of my Understand Philosophy, along with some of the usual popular philosophy suspects, along with advice of perking up your capacity to think.

Philosophy seemed to have morphed into another aspect of MBS – when you’ve tried all the other spiritual therapies, how about perking up your mental abilities too!  All part of the spiritual supermarket; pick and mix and don’t think about any of it for too long!
This seems to match my experience, and I wonder if others have encountered the same…

All Paths are Valid?

I was reading about The School of the Living Light, which “focuses on spiritual development, meditation, channelling and healing courses.” I shouldn’t, I know. But I was. It contains much of the usual blend of reiki, channelling, healing and ‘ascension’.  But what I also noted was this text:

There are many paths to spiritual growth and transformation, all of them valid, we are simply offering one way, it may be your way.

This seems to directly reflect a theme I explore in Dispirited. The claim that of the many paths: “all of them are valid”.  I am always nonplussed by this. Does that mean that all Spiritual paths are effective? That none don’t work? Is valid here a synonym for ‘true’? Or for ‘efficacious’? This is how I address this in the book:

Across the spectrum of contemporary spirituality, the question of: “yes, but who is right? Which account of reality has more explanatory and predictive power than others?” is set aside, often in the name of inclusivity or liberal openness. But inclusivity of belief is not belief at all, but a posture of un-truth, of not knowing even what truth is. The seemingly benign world of spiritual syncretism, particularly in the new-age movement, is a blend of arrogance and nervousness. Arrogance regarding somehow have transcended the need for demonstrating the full basis and rationale for beliefs, and nervousness about actually being called upon to do so, especially when having invoked half-understood concepts imported from science or philosophy.

I am still fairly confident that this isn’t too harsh. Reading the page at http://schoolofthelivinglight.co.uk/classes-workshops/what-is-the-light-body/ there is this section:

wakening your light body creates a level of harmony, aligning your physical, emotional, and mental energy bodies so that your spiritual shimmer is activated. In a series of three workshops you will work with the seven centres that affect them. (These are not chakras).

If the seven centres that impact your ‘bodies’ are not your chakras – do you still have chakras? Do they conflict? Do we have both? Which is true – this or a chakra-based account? They are invoked at http://schoolofthelivinglight.co.uk/downloads/chakra-meditations/ so it seems we have both.

My aura is starting to feel a little overcrowded…

Žižek and the challenge for 21st Century Atheism

Turns out May (on this blog at least) is Žižek month…

That man again...

I was reading an article (Slavoj Žižek, “The Fear of Four Words: A Modest Plea for the Hegelian Reading of Christianity,” in The Monstrosity of Christ: Paradox or Dialectic, ed. Creston Davis (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009) 27-28) where Žižek seems to touch on another of the concerns here. In a previous post I looked at the universalist discourses of mysticism – and the book expands on the problems they, rather surreptitiously, bring with them. Žižek notes a feature of this – the insistence of new-age thought on separating spirituality from religion, and the claim that all spiritual paths share in the same, transcendent, ineffable experience. As he notes below – this is often now presented as the core of religion: and everything else becomes seen as contingent, second-order and therefore negotiable and less urgent. I see this as persuausive and troubling. Troubling because various aspects of religion now fall away: ethics, concerns with social justice, poverty, communal values: all these are now not the heart of religion: but follow later, and in ways open to negotiation and ongoing revision.

 However, when today’s New Age ideologists insist on the distinction between religion and spirituality (the perceive themselves as spiritual, not part of any organizationed religion), they (often no so) silently impose a “pure” procedure of Zen-like spiritual meditation as the “whiteness” of religion. The idea is that all religions presuppose, rely on, exploit, manipulate, etc., the same core of mystical experience, and that it is only “pure” forms of meditation like Zen Buddhism that exemplify this core directly, bypassing institutional and dogmatic mediations. Spiritual meditation, in its abstraction from institutionalized religion, appears today as the zero-level undistorted core of religion: the complex institutional and dogmatic edifice which sustains every particular religion is dismissed as a contingent secondary coating of this core. The reason for this shift of accent from religious institution to the intimacy of spiritual experience is that such a meditation is the ideological form that best fits today’s global capitalism.

To place the pure meditation as the heart of religion is to absolutely comply with Žižek’s final claim here. Such a ‘spirituality’ is not a challenge to capitalism, it is not even an institution that could match or threaten it. It is (as he also says of Western Buddhism elsewhere, such as in On Belief) an ideological supplement to capitalism. It is a balm that lets us continue to tolerate a world of injustice, poverty and inequality – by removing ourselves to an ‘inner self’, and by se-substantialising the world through mystical versions of notions of Māya, and the world as less-real than it seems.

So while we reject religion, we must note that when we do so, we need to pay attention not to finding something to replace its function as metaphysical account of reality, but to how structures to support social equity, fairer distribution of resources and personal and group ethics can be established. This, rather than endless futile bickering about ‘proofs’ for God’s existence with Theists, seems like a proper challenge for the atheists of the 21st Century.

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. [http://www.therapeutic-shamanism.co.uk/soul%20retreival.html]

I really am not sure what this might mean… So I looked at other Soul Retrieval providers – such as http://www.devimangohealing.com/whatissoulretrieval.htm 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 http://www.liberate-online.co.uk/Soul-Retrieval.aspx 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?

Energy?

This morning, I was (and I knew it was probably unwise..) at http://dawnofenlightenment.co.uk/ 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 http://reikimassage.wordpress.com/what-is-reiki/ 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.

Reflections post-NTU..

I have been doing talks about the Dispirited book recently – in places as diverse as Swindon, Oxford, Lund (in Sweden), Cheltenham & yesterday at Nottingham Trent University...

These have all been very interesting, and some of the questions that have been raised are addressed on the FAQ page. However, last night I thought that one particular question really was on to something – which I think is interesting. This is the distinction between the producers  and the consumers of (particularly new-age/Mind-Body-Spirit) spiritual materials/events/workshops. While I would maintain that the consequences (of spirituality) that I propose in the book are applicable to both these groups, it may well be the case that they are applicable in different ways, or to differing extents.

I am hoping to reflect somewhat more on this – and may add to this post, as I think there is probably more to be said..