I was honoured to be featured by the fantastic Gloucester-based artist Russell Haines in his current Faith exhibition at Gloucester Cathedral. He had decided early in the project that an atheist voice/faith was going to be part of the mosaic of ideas and beliefs that his project explores.
The project attracted some controversy, after part of the opening involved a Muslim call to prayer (in a side area, that is not considered part of the Cathedral Sacred worship area), with most outraged commentators ignoring the fact that there was also an atheist Pagan blessing as well (and a Christian one). The Dean of Cathedral made a statement. I have nothing to add, and don’t think the objections deserve any further amplification here.
What I will say is that although I am usually a bit sceptical of some inter-faith activities, as “why can’t we all just be nice to each other” events of little impact, others seem very urgent serious and important. This falls into the latter category. The project also involved debates in a variety of locations, an invite to participants (which I was happy to accept) for an Iftar (إفطار) meal, with discussions, from the local Muslim community. The University of Gloucestershire had staff and students involved (not just me and my good friend the Pagan tattooed librarian David Thompson) making films that formed part of exhibition. It was not a cosy echo chamber, but an attempt by a sceptical artist to work out just what lies under people’s stated beliefs, behaviours and successes and failures at getting along. Is it a success on these artistic terms? I’m too biassed to answer: go find out for yourself.
This talk is a cry for help. It may inadvertently be one in the conventional sense, but what I intend to mean (more of that later) is that I’m struggling. Struggling to make sense of something; struggling to respond rationally rather with rage; so seeing as I seem have a room full scholars at my mercy – don’t be shy about seeing if there are useful theoretical perspectives I’ve neglected, or examples to add..
Wisdom quotes online? I intend to offer a summary of what is out there: a description of the phenomena. This will lead to some analysis of these emergent semi-religious phenomena, including a rebuke to those that would over-easily mock or dismiss. While the conclusion will inevitably feature kitten-memes, the paper will also seek to note the importance for observers of the neo-spiritual of these mass-involvement, often quasi-poetic, artefacts; alongside this will be a consideration of how the forms of social media contribute to the sculpting of the content of ‘wisdom memes’.
what am I on about here then? A square picture, Instagram style filters maybe, a sunset, or pastel purple, maybe a strong topless man holding a fragile kitten – and an affirmation: a statement. This statement may display any of a number of features:
Attribution / Appeal to authority – who is most popular? Buddha obviously. (I can’t believe it’s not Buddha) – but also Einstein, and then various branded spiritual outlets.. Oh and D**pak Ch*pra…
Appreciation / gratitude theme
Avoidance of negativity / people / self-worth
Spiritual = good (sometimes with religion = bad)
Our perception of what counts as wisdom seems deeply culturally bound. We may scoff at the seemingly trite, childish and simplistic sentiments we encounter in some context; but were we to repackage those same sentiments in ways we culturally affiliate with ‘wisdom’, our reader-reception may construct our response as altered. A haiku is profound; a pastel-backgrounded wisdom–saying on Facebook is banal. But it is sometimes a narrower line than we might like to admit between the two.
Let’s look at some..
Aphorisms, haiku, mantras – traditional religion has made use of the concise. Poetry gets us to the heart of things, to the things inexpressible by the rational deployment of everyday language, and even the tortuously specialised nomenclature of disciplines like philosophy and psychology. Are we in danger of ignoring something akin to folk wisdom, driven by the same snobbishness that drives us to condemn selfie sticks as a narcissi harbinger of the eschaton.
Lol-cats re-write the Bible in the lolcat Bible translation project – but amongst the lols are moments of oddly affecting rendering – as if through repetition they suddenly capture something rather profound. I will use an Old Testament book to illustrate an oscillation between gleeful stupidity and glittering insight.
But let’s not get carried away here. The assertions of these neo-aphorisms lack the elegance and sharpness of poetry, of the mind-bending koan. The examples of Chopra et al demonstrate a surfeit of undeniable banality- something whose sharing that actually might be argued to suck wisdom out of the world. Whose unthinking sharing makes the world a more stupid place.
Maybe I can convince you of this by trying to sketch out how we can carve a typology around this? To make sense of how I’ll do so, I don’t think we can appeal to essential features, to grammatical tests, to shades of purple. I thought of this way of trying to make sense of incisive, diamond-cutting insight versus a black-hole of e’er spreading banality when preparing some teaching on Stanley Fish’s essay There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech and it’s a Good Thing too. I won’t rehearse the entire argument, but just the bit I want to steal from. He argues that virtually no, really, despite what to profess, really favours total free speech/expression. We would all restrict some expression, if only by age limit, context or more. So, the war between those who argue for the permissibility of some form of expression against those who restrict it is often ill-framed if we consider it in terms of free-speech. It is a rhetorical tool, but a dishonest or misconceived one. Better to get to the real issues. Is there a reason not to allow the expression? He isn’t greatly interested in blasphemy as such, but the issue of harm. Of outcomes. What does the expression do to the world? I won’t follow his argument further (since I appear to be in a fast-shrinking majority of those who agree with him on Western identity politics). But let’s be having that idea.
Fish is an advocate of reader-reception notions in literary critical theory, so it shouldn’t surprise us. How does the reader respond? I’m not so (he probably isn’t anymore) as gung-ho as ’80s literary theory on how readers are sole meaning makers, but let’s see what we can take from it. Look at the various items here. Do they:
Befuddle and perplex?
Simplify / bifurcate?
Change how you act?
Make you feel better?
Make you feel faintly worse/guilty?
Mock others harshly?
Engage in self-ridicule, puncturing our pomposity and socio-economic myopia?
One might be tempted to argue that at the heart of this typological concern is not a complex matrix of factors, but a prime concern relating to the onward spurring of thought. Haiku, koans, and aphorisms (perhaps mantras have a divergent ritualised intent, which we can perhaps talk about), in their own ways, generate a contemplative response.
In many ways, though, in contrast with the way ‘contemplative’ is often used colloquially, these forms are not about leaving us mulling over comforting reflections. They seek to discomfort us. The Stoic aphorisms seek to puncture our myopic, wilful self-forgetting of mortality. The koan strives to smash our consciousness sideways, knocking it from rational ruts into territory it never even knew could exist. Nietzsche tells us we are idiots, who believe rubbish. [this whole section reminds me of the difference between gentler relaxation techniques and meditation- and all those students surprised that the latter is so touch, and often unpleasant].
That typology and what initially derive from it is, here, only worked out in rough, as a sketch from far above a territory; my goal (with a co-author) will be to drag myself towards the horrors of empirical investigation and test this out. To do some more systematic collation of the key ‘spiritual wisdom’ sites, and push some typologies and analysis as them – and, as it were, see what sticks.
But.. The sharing. We might want to classify pithy ‘alleged-wisdom-sayings’ by the type of “semi-existential dread blended with reader-response theory” approach that I’ve just set out, but that leaves something out. These items are made for this aspect of social media, which is sharing. We like it if people share our content~> though often we aren’t the original generators of it. Sharing is like someone saying “you are so cool/right, I want to show others this!” People get very annoyed if the joke they’ve shared on Twitter is re-posted with no reference to them – even though they did’t originate it. Sharing etiquette aside, before we get dragged into a dark internet alley, let’s return to the sharing of wisdom sharing.
What I am convinced of is that, and this is not a huge insight, but is something easy to spot in others and easy to be blind to our own practice of, is that what I share in my (for example) Facebook feed, is a sociological signalling. Of course it is. That’s its point. “Look at me and how bloody wise I am”.
We can share material we believe is interesting, provocative, and valuable – but the posts I began with here are none of these things. If I catch you sharing them, I’ll do that most sneaky, slow-burn and cowardly of things. I’ll unfriend you.
This is a piece I wrote for the Holdbreaker Climbing blog. The original is on their blog, but they seem to have had some technical issues recently, so am mirroring it here…
Middle-age, it seems, is full of surprises. Of twists and turns that befuddle attempts at prediction and sense-making. These thoughts run though my head as I fiddle with my harness at the base of the ‘Excalibur’ climbing tower in Groningen, Holland. I glance at my companions. My climbing partner, D, is, carefully, checking the 80-metre rope we have borrowed from the friendly, laid-back staff. He’s not looking very laid-back though. My teenage son has his harness on, in seconds, and is taking in his surroundings seemingly unaffected by the rising ‘why did we agree to this madness’ sensation that I am failing to ignore. Further away, a non-climbing friend readies a camera and offers vaguely encouraging gestures.
The journey to this tower began years before. In my 30s, my path seemed marked out. Work. Marriage. Two young kids. Pretty amazing. Happy. I hadn’t exercised since my teenage pushbike was stolen in the 1980s. Good living was incrementally swelling my bulk, but I barely noticed. Until I did. A predictable late 30s male turn of events – albeit somewhat startling to me. Whether it was merely shock at failed-to-avoid-mirror reflections, or an existential foreshadowing of mortality, I started my mid-life crisis slightly ahead of schedule, and traded the pleasures of sloth, booze, cake and cigarettes with the pleasures of exercise-generated endorphins, and even more cake. I even ran (if that’s the right word) a marathon in the year I turned 40. Fairly predictable in terms of demographics and mass behaviour, but, as I say, exceptionally startling to me. It was a change of direction, but one where I felt I could accurately envisage the road ahead. As usual, I was wrong.
By now, I can detect a slight quiver in my hands. The route we have chosen up the 37m tower is the easiest grade they have, and we are on the nicely reclining side. The climb is fairly small in terms of what people achieve in everyday, multi-pitch excursions in the hills. Nonetheless, the starkness of the contrast between the flatness around Groningen, the flatness we saw as the train from Amsterdam sped us here last night, and the looming tower, is remarkable. Having checked my harness seventeen times, I concentrate on tying on to the rope, and affecting a chirpy nonchalance. I decide I need to think some better thoughts. People have sponsored us – so bottling out is not an option. It is an organised climbing centre. With opening hours and a café. With cake. As I ask D to check my knot, and as I check his belaying arrangements, I can feel a settling. Not an absence of fear, but a more balanced form of it; balanced by faith in our training, and in the modesty of our ambitions here today.
When you are new to parenting, it all seems about the next day, the next decent night’s sleep, the plans for the coming weekend’s farm park trip. You know you’re in for supermarket tantrums, drinking overpriced, repulsive tea at soft-play centres, making packed lunches for school, having odd patches (either sick or yoghurt, who knows?) on your smartest clothes, and never not being slightly tired. With two kids, this part of life seemed to go on and on. Not in a bad way. Far from it. But nonetheless, the rounds of city-farms, children’s menus with broken colouring-in pencils, booster seats and school-gate small talk was firmly established as the new normal. Then it isn’t the case. In line with my tendency to have no clue what is about to happen in life, children start to get older and you start to find unexpected (if like, me you weren’t thinking ahead) fragments of free time. As this began to emerge in my own experience, it was paralleled by other unforeseen occurrences.
Like millions of idiot parents before me, I had imagined that my children would engage in the hobbies or interests that I had, or tried to cultivate in them. I learnt a lesson there. Both my daughter, and then her younger brother, J, seemed oddly obstinate about choosing their own path in life. For my son, this meant a total disinterest in competitive sports (and competition generally), and a rejection of my youth time preoccupation – cycling. Like solidly anxious parents, we cast about for something non-video-game based that he might actually enjoy like, the fight between biking vs running failed for a long time. Then we found climbing. Our local climbing wall has an atmosphere most climbers will recognise: jokey, but (other than a few topless supermen) non-competitive, and hugely supportive. The kids’ club had an ethos that seemed to suit his character. He was soon going twice a week, and I was drinking a lot of tea in their café. Given my mid-life adoption of endorphin-based recreation, it was only matter of time before I had taken their introductory course, and was scraping up F6a routes, staring at comparative harness reviews in magazines, and taking tentative steps towards sport climbing outdoors.
My harness is on properly. My knot is safe. Cameras are pointed at me. Time to stop thinking and start doing. The first clip is near to the ground, and I can clip the rope into it while barely stepping off the lovely, safe, woodchip-covered ground. The familiar action of pushing the rope into a karabiner steadies me further, as I grin and reach. The first few moves are easy. Actually, all the moves are easy. It is an easy route from a technical stance. No problems. This lasts about three further moves. Then I begin to notice what should have been obvious from the ground. The friendly line of red holds, so many that it is almost embarrassing when I look back at the photos, is actually quite near the left-hand edge of the tower. When you look left, you see air, and your stomach does some kind of flip thing. So, I think, don’t look left. Don’t. Look. Left. Looking mostly to my left, I decide momentum is the key here. Clip, breathe, move, look left, panic a bit, charge like a crazy person to next clip and pull the slack up. Repeat. The climb has a section in the centre where the tower sort of leans back (when climbed from this friendly side). This seems easy. It is all going fine. I’ll be at the top before you can say “middle-aged man in moderately impressive, but ultimately pointless, achievement”. But the flatter section, of course, then kicks up for the final third. The looking left is really getting on my nerves now, as I feel my back move to an undeniably vertical alignment. The notion that I won’t actually finish the climb, the one I have been harassing colleagues to sponsor me for, that everyone is aware of via endless social media, hasn’t occurred to me till this point. Time to stop thinking again, and breathe.
If previous changes in my life’s direction had felt like changing tracks on a train journey, life a set of points taking me to a slightly unforeseen destination, through similar, but largely predictable terrain, what happened to me in later June 2012 felt like a derailment. One evening I was bouldering outdoors with my friend. By the next, I was in the Stroke ward of my local hospital. I had experienced a stroke on waking, and lost control of the right side of my body. That evening, I couldn’t walk, my arm refused to obey my brain, and my speech was slurred. I won’t drag it out, but I was lucky. I began to hobble by the next day, pacing the ward corridor, generally getting in the way, and over the following months my control over my arm and leg improved. My speech went from what one friend called a ‘two-cocktail slur’ to a slight impediment only a few now notice. In the September I had a heart procedure to reduce the risk of further strokes. I had rehab. Lots of rehab. The NHS gave me occupational therapy, speech therapy and physiotherapy. I moved pegs in little boards (badly), I balanced on Swiss balls, and I stood on one leg a lot. I read tongue twisters from cards.
In between rehab, I looked at the internet. A lot. I don’t remember which online rabbit hole I’d fallen down, but I found myself looking something like ‘ten buildings you won’t believe are real’, or some such click-bait title, and there it was. A curving tower, a short-hop to Holland away, that seemed both doable (familiar fake climbing holds, quickdraws all in place, a café and nearby city), but also dramatic and something I would need to train for. So, after my September operation, I was allowed to resume exercise in early 2013. I still had symptoms, and my right hand is still pretty unreliable when carrying a full mug of tea, but repetition seemed to be what the rehab therapists recommended. Bouldering helped a lot. I would stand two big holds, and just see how many holds I could use. I fell off a lot, but to be honest, I fell off a lot before my stroke too. I talked to my climbing partner D, who I’d climbed with since that first ‘intro’ course. He was up for it, as was my now-teenage son. So we decided to raise money for the Rehab centre that I’d been so helped by. The rest is what you’d expect. An online sponsorship service, Facebook posts, plane tickets, emails to the climbing centre in Holland (http://www.bjoeks.nl/), trying to do more and more routes at the local wall, trying to lose some of the cake-weight I’d gained while not exercising. In a flash, it was October 2013, and we found ourselves at the base of the Excalibur tower, digesting a hotel breakfast, and hiding nerves under excessive photography and feigned ease.
A few more breaths and only a handful of minutes after clipping into that first quickdraw, I am clipping into the descending point at the top of the climb. I had planned to hoik myself up onto the top of the tower (apparently they will let you bivvy on top for the night if you ask), and take a good look round. That is not going to happen. I fumble my old, not-a-disaster-if-destroyed digital camera from my harness and manage to fake-smile for a selfie; though looking at the picture now – I’m fooling no one. I am flooded with adrenaline, even though I am safe. Harness, rope, bomb-proof industrially-tested anchors; safer than crossing the road. But the adrenaline is something else. It’s the whole business. In my mind, in my intentions, this climb is a full-stop to the episode of ill-health in my life. But we are not safe. By the time I had my stroke, I lived a ridiculously healthy life. Running, cycling and a healthy diet (cake excepted) – but it still happened. I lowered down and belayed (with great care, my wife having made very clear threats about what might happen if I allowed my son to be hurt) J and D, while they fled up and down the tower with (what seemed from the outside) ease and rapidity.
The climb was memorable because it was a trip, a spectacle, a dramatic event, but I was wrong to think of it as a something I could use to close off, to bracket out, the fear and loss of control that my illness had brought me. As we sat on trains and planes back to the UK, and the adrenaline faded, I was struck that safety is only ever relative. The unpredictability of life is neither intrinsically good nor bad, but the inevitability of change, of the mutability of what we take as stable is something we’d be wise to acknowledge, before it leaves us dizzy with vertigo, while stood on solid ground. I’ve heard it said that old age is no place for wimps, but it seems middle-age can also be pretty hazardous terrain.
I really am not sure what is wrong with me.. I resolved to not give any more talks
until the manuscript of The Circle of Stupid was completed. It isn’t (quite). And here I am – posting information about three upcoming talks I’m doing – on the 9th October in Swindon, the 26th of October here in Cheltenham and Friday 20th November in London.
For the October 268h event – see the University publicity, or click HERE:
Dr David Webster will be presenting a public lecture with a Hallowe’en theme at the University of Gloucestershire on October 28. The free event at The Park campus is the latest in the University’s annual Public Lecture Series.
The Hallowe’en Lecture: Re-enchanting culture in a cynical world: Pagans, Satanists, Atheists, Fictional Religions and more, will explore issues from the secular adoption of Hallowe’en to emerging spiritual trends around the world.
Dr Webster said: “The lecture will consider whether these emerging trends can be seen as the means by which our cynical, suspicious and complex culture expresses its need for life to be something more than a drab series of repeated commercial transactions, culminating in pre-paid funeral plans.”
The event starts with registration and refreshments from 5pm. The lecture is from 6pm until 7pm. Please visit http://bit.ly/1Kx7y4f to book a place.
Then I’ll be spending the evening of November 20th at King’s College, London – with their Buddhism Research seminar series – on this topic:
Buddhism, Existentialism and The Blues: a meditation on the place of suffering in the intellectual imagination.
Buddhist thought is often characterised as excessively gloomy, spending its energy investigating the nature of dukkha, and the myriad ways in which both we and the universe we inhabit are flawed, imperfect and liable to get tangled in conditional processes with less than blissful outcomes. Existentialist thought sees our impending death rush at us, through its haze of wine and Gauloises, with a terrible and absurd haste. The blues drags the wretched human condition over three to five minutes, from how I woke up this morning, to my beloved’s departure on the midnight train. This talk will seek to interweave these narratives such that we might find a common thread within them, and stumble along it towards something akin to the hope of human happiness and contentment.
I’m currently working on a new book. Hopefully out later this year, The Circle of Stupid will be an attempt to place the discussion of ethics beyond the awfulness of the current ‘God Debate’.
In the first sections, I argue that the entire atheists vs Theists ‘debate’ is both ill-conceived and entirely futile. The positions taken, arguments deployed, and claims of victory seem to amount to so little, and to effect such little change both in the world and people within it. From the painfully unsubtle atheist mockery of ‘sky fairies’ on Social Media, to ill-conceived and poorly executed (if rapturously received) books of Christian apologetics on “why atheist X is wrong”, I want us to think seriously about setting the entire genre aside. I want us to consider what might actually matter – which is surely not about who gets to be most smug, but may be about how we treat each other, other animals, and the planet. In short, let’s leave our comfortable self-righteousness and think about more important matters.
I hope the second half of the book will move on to show that what really matters is not winning debates, but thinking hard about ethics. In doing so, I suggest that while religious traditions are rich sources of ethical narrative and reflection, the idea of a metaphysical back-stop to ethics, deriving from the existence of a divine being, makes no sense at all. Furthermore, if ethics are going to be of any use to us in the secular, multi-cultural world, then they’ll need to be founded on something beyond un-shared metaphysical assertions.
That is, even though I will be heavily critiquing the new-atheist position, I will ultimately claim that ethics can only exist as a non-religious, non-spiritual undertaking.
When the manuscript goes off to the publishers, I’ll try and put some more thoughts on here – and see whether I’ve entirely abandoned my position, and changed my mind on everything I’ve said here. Which is quite likely…
To refute this obfuscation of the words “atheism” and “spirituality” is scholar of religion David Webster in his book, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy. Webster argues that “spirituality” is a superficial and meaningless concept that modern society has adapted as a response to institutionalised religion, reflective of our current anti-religious sentiment in the western world. Webster claims that this all-too-broad and new-age concept is actually toxic, and no better or worse than fundamentalist religion.
It may amuse some to see my recent profile in a local magazine, more normally reserved for expensive property ads and equine news: click to see Cotswold_Lifeprofile..
On another note – I’ve agreed to write a book which follows up some of the themes, and style, of Dispirited, but also looks to a focus on the Atheism/Theism debate, and the place of ethics… More details soon…