Podcasts and Reviews..

A bit quiet over the summer, but a recent podcast I did with Stephen Schettini (AKA The Naked Monk) has come out. We talk about the book, and various things. One of the most interesting is the idea of what would have happened to the traditional forms of religion in Western  Europe and the US if Buddhism hadn’t had such a draw on many dissatisfied but enthusiastic people over the last 4 decades or so: You can hear the podcast at http://www.thenakedmonk.com/2013/07/26/2-david-webster/.

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On the same day, a review of Dispirited came out on the  LSE Books website. The review is HERE. Although the reviewer doesn’t agree with everything, she offers a really engaged and critical review that I thought was rather good. She has me pegged as a neo-Kantian, which I am not totally happy about (though arch Buddhist-Kantian Justin Whitaker will be pleased). However, she can only have got that impression from the book – so it’s probably my fault.

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Furthermore, the reviewer is correct to point out that it’s an unfinished account: the neither-religious-nor-spiritual response is still in need

of better, more philosophically developed, versions which I only hint at in the book…

Squeezing into Uncomfortable Spaces: Scholarly Objectivity and Strong Opinions.

Below is a version of the paper I gave at CESNUR13. Clearly I will have said more in person: digressed, embellished and clarified, no doubt. But though it may be of some interest…

Isn’t the University emblematic of free speech? It is where we say what can’t be uttered in commercial contexts, or in faith contexts where certain claims are sacrosanct. Shouldn’t the University be where we blaspheme?

For this paper, you’ll have to forgive me the self-indulgence of speaking about my experience and myself. It’s a subjective-experience-based paper, and that seems to require a faintly autobiographical introduction. I outlined the paper to colleague who said: “So it’s all about you then? Why don’t you go and do some proper scholarly work instead?” Charming. But actually I want to begin with some

Where was I? Speaking at CESNUR13
Where was I? Speaking at CESNUR13

personal accounts that I think lead to general considerations that impact on the way religions are studied, evaluated and discussed in scholarly contexts. We’ll see…

Back in September 2010, back when we were all young and fabulous, I found myself in Turin, at something called ‘CESNUR’. Given that my research interests are mostly to do with the philosophical implications of ideas in early Pali Buddhist texts, a number of people (sometimes including myself) wondered what I was doing there. Some of them asked me.

In response I tried to vocalise an interest I had in New-Age / Mind-Body-Spirit thought, and why I had such strong opinions about it. As often happens, being forced to talk about this helped me crystallise my thoughts, and in conversation I began to formulate the reasons that underpinned my response.

I went home, got busy, and slowly let the ideas simmer. Then I sent off a proposal and in Summer 2011 sat in cafés in Cheltenham and wrote a short manuscript. The resulting book: Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish & Unhappy was published in June 2012.

This was a personal statement of (dis)belief that also engaged with, and represented, my experience as a student of religious traditions, particularly new-age ones. It was provocative and personal, but I felt it also made a set of (mostly) reasonable arguments. What I had, from some quarters, was an extreme reaction. I University lecturers asked questions in raised voices, others tut-ed non-stop as I gave papers on the book, some wrote to me insisting that I should not be allowed near young minds. I felt myself pushed into an uncomfortable academic space that this paper explores.

So what was it that was so annoying to people? Well, the book isn’t descriptive. I don’t quantify, offer data, or draw summaries based on qualitative surveys. My evaluation isn’t limited to what I think best sums up the practices or beliefs or certain groups. I go a stage beyond this and offer an explicit ethical evaluation. I argue that certain ways of holding ‘spiritual’ beliefs is a bad thing. That there are a particular class of attitudes and stances, most commonly those associated with the slogan ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR) that are toxic and dangerous. You can perhaps begin to se why some didn’t like it. I didn’t expect those it criticised to much like it – I expecting the kicking I got on SBNR blogs, and was happy to shrug it off. However, a lot of academics seemed uncomfortable with the book. While talking about problems with the SBNR, I also develop a strand of outspoken atheism in the book, where I commend the abandonment of all spiritual and religious belief in favour of a reckoning with an apparently bleak nihilism. The reception I received (not entirely positive) from Religious Studies circles led me to ponder the mechanics of claims about appropriate speech in these settings.

Scholars of religious traditions are expected, on one hand, to maintain a stately indifference to the object of study. To describe, note, remark and critically assess: an engaged and engaging task, but one where they leave their own personal commitments at the door. Most of the papers we’ve been hearing here have been evaluative, critical and reflective -rather than merely descriptive- but the critique is mostly of the methods applied, and whether they indicate x or y, and how we might read and make sense of data gathered. We, as a group of scholars (is there a collective noun for RS scholars? We certainly talk of a confusion of philosophers, and I’ve heard reference to a malice of historians.. anyway..) are reluctant to offer certain kinds of judgement- at least in part. I’ll return to this with reference to the area of Theology shortly.

On the other hand, scholars of religion are eminently qualified to say what they assess to be helpful or harmful in varied traditions – to speak from a standpoint of both knowledge and from deep personal commitment to a position. Theologians have, indeed, often done so. One might go further and argue that the critical evaluation that makes the study of religion more than just a mere process of cataloguing and describing requires some form of judgment as to the social, political and ethical impacts of those phenomena studied. Achieving this, while not falling prey to accusations of being partial, an advocate instead of a scholar, can push one into a challenging space. One might even argue that either one is an advocate OR a scholar. That one cannot be both seems to help us perpetuate some pseudo-science myth of actual objectivity. But we are not scientists. Some may be so more than other, but many of us are philosophers, and interested in ethics. This is not a study of an entirely objective nature. But it does not mean well-informed judgements are not possible: we really are all both – I have views, judgements, these come from the academic and the personal – but to say the former is objective and the latter subjective is rather naive.

Let me put this another way – do we find scholars in our area advocating belief or disbelief in specific traditions, or at least offering up their benefits or disbenefits? This depends on the context of course. In my classroom, I mostly resist inflicting my take on my students: although where there are positive aspects, especially where they might have missed them, I may mention them. They may have a variety of negative misconceptions about the impact of various faiths, often derived from the media, that need addressing. I may talk about social justice movements in South American Christianity, or Islam’s intellectual and scientific influence via Cordoba, or Buddhist fundamentalists – correctives to populist simplifications. But clearly I won’t have classes on “why Religion X is wrong” for example – although in a controversial area like Cults & Sects, I wouldn’t be surprised to see some focus on claims of mis-deeds – but NRM studies is probably (due to initial claims of NRM harm / brainwashing) more mature than many areas at handling this: is this true?

But outside the classroom? Let’s look at this – my colleagues in Theology write books which take the ultimately benign nature of a Theistic God’s plan for us as a given. They stand (some of them) in pulpits, write devotional articles and write books defending belief (The Twilight of Atheism, one of the most scrappy pieces of apologetics ever written, for example). Apologetics seems almost an acceptable academic undertaking. Yet it is primarily a form of value-derived, conclusion-led, biased, partial and partisan activities one can engage in. It often has fixed conclusions which are not up for debate- only for defence. Either apologetics is, without question, not scholarship of any shade whatsoever, or we need to admit that one can construct arguments where the advantages and disadvantages of the impacts of positions is open to question. Compared to apologetics, this seems a very moderate undertaking indeed.

I think part of the suspicion I encountered was related to a general, I think, curiosity. Why would someone with not only no religious commitment but an active hostility to non-religious spirituality (actually it was incredulity, not hostility, but let’s not quibble) work in religious studies? Well, I often wonder the same thing. But: I know why: because I’m interested in how we, as a species, have sought to come to terms with various existential realities. Religion is, amongst other things, in large part, that story.

Another aspect that I merely suspect, is that what is more acceptable for books by RS scholars are either that they are descriptive (often critical descriptive, I’m not disrespecting them), or they are positive. About what religion (in general or a specific tradition) can offer people, what problems it can solve, how it can contribute to social or cultural life, rather than claiming explicitly negative outcomes.

Back in the classroom.

Of course, the approach to the teaching and engaging with the study of religion sometime known as ‘phenomenological’ (a term I’d avoid myself, reserving it for its much more useful deployment within philosophy), encourages us to leave value-judgements aside and park our commitments. There are two, related, reasons why I think this is objectionable nonsense.

1: Our commitments in respect of faith are related to our study. That I could disentangle what I believe from examining what I do and don’t believe, seems perverse. Features of traditions incline towards or away from them and towards them. I learn more of these when I study. Sure, I observe critical accountability when I teach (nice phrase, I stole it from a Biblical scholar) – but I would be less of a teacher if I didn’t engage with the traditions as I find them.

<e.g. In my class – I may say ‘I am troubled by the tendency of this tradition to xx, do you think I’m being fair to it?’,or ‘isn’t this theory of social justice compelling and preferable to theory z? Or maybe not- tell me why I’m wrong’. Clearly there are issues of authority and expertise.. I’d do this less early in the degree, when they still have some respect for me and less subject- knowledge, confidence, etc, and more as they become more autonomous and opinionated.. >

2: It’s impossible and dishonest to pretend this phenomenological approach is possible (and see reason 1- it’s not even desirable anyway). We do have opinions here, let’s not pretend we don’t. We can tell students that we won’t yet be revealing them – but to style ourselves as scholar-robots is to forget the lesson Nietzsche teaches in Beyond Good and Evil’s opening chapter:

What makes one regard philosophers half mistrustfully and half mockingly is not that one again and again detects how innocent they are – how often and how easily they fall into error and go astray, in short their childishness and child likeness – but that they display altogether insufficient honesty, while making a mighty and virtuous noise as soon as the problem of truthfulness is even remotely touched on. They pose as having discovered and attained their real opinions through the self evolution of a cold, pure, divinely unperturbed dialectic… while what happens at bottom is that a prejudice, a notion, an ‘inspiration’, generally a desire of the heart sifted and made abstract, is defended by them with reasons sought after the event – they are one and all advocates who do not want to be regarded as such, and for the most part no better than cunning pleaders for their prejudices, which they baptise ‘truths’

We need to actually be more phenomenological in the philosophical sense, not the Religious Studies sense: we encounter religions as actual beings, with a temporal trajectory towards the grave, with a place on it, with commitments and beliefs. Yes, let’s be fair, allow for learning and for a multiplicity of voices, but let’s not treat readers of our work like babies, and pretend that one of the voices in this multitude of things said is not our own.

Dispirited interview with Tricycle Magazine

tricDispirited interview with Tricycle Magazine

I know I am overdue to post about the SBNR issues with studies and mental health – and that’ll appear..

But till then – here’s an interview (entitled ‘The Dangers of Spirituality”) that I did with the Buddhist magazine Tricycle’s website:


Spiritual But Not Religious (again)

Ok – I have said things on this topic again – but perhaps I might be clearer. I haven’t object to the term “Spiritual But Not Religious’ out of pique, or disrespect: but because I am not sure it makes sense..

Of course, we can (as I say in the book) see it as a form of social positioning (“I’m not like these mad religious people who are fundamentalists, but yet I’m deep”) – but as Oneness_Logonotion in itself? Part of the reason for this seems historical: To say one is Spiritual But Not Religious seems a radical narrowing of what ‘religious’ means that gives scant attention to the actual reality of the history of religious traditions.

If being ‘religious’ meant only being a member of a mainstream tradition, largely accepting that tradition, accepting Orthodoxy regarding textual interpretation and living according to that tradition’s socio-moral norms – then being Spiritual But Not Religious would perhaps make some sense. But this doesn’t seem to match what has happened.

The heterodox, the outsider seer, the radical reformer, the Protestant, the bhakti poet, the neo-Pagan celebrant, all these seem occupied with fundamentally what religion is about. They are about an outworking of the consequences of what they believe to be encounters with a Divinity / Spiritual Reality.  They also seem Spiritual But Not Religious when it’s now used.

Surely Religion has been about humans respond (and organise themselves) in response to claims about the Spiritual. If you are spiritual, it means you are religious. You may not be religious in certain ways, and not be comfortable with certain morals, social forms, and politico-cultural associations that many forms of religion represent. But you are religious. Now, it may be that in the future being ‘religious’ comes to mean only a narrow aspect of what we have thus far used the term to denote – but that day has not yet come..



American Buddhist Perspective – Review


Just a quick post to note the book review at the American Buddhist Perspective blog:

Webster teaches Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics not far from me and as a fellow traveler on the road of Buddhist studies (Webster’s fist book is on Buddhism and Desire) and philosophy, I have been looking forward to reading this book for some time. At just over 70 pages, it’s written as a pamphlet almost, perhaps a manifesto: light on footnotes, jargon, and the kind of verbiage that can turn a lot of people off from intelligent writing. I highly recommend it.

That said, it may come as no surprise that the book seems to have been misunderstood by some readers. Perhaps this is due to its polemical opening words:

When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.

Not exactly the best way to make friends. But Webster does explain. The problem is confusion: his own. Religion for him is deeply spiritual, and spirituality is inseparable from religion.

Thus the book reads less like an attack on ‘spiritual’ life (which Webster notes is multifaceted and not always pernicious – e.g. in Pierre Hadot’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life“) and more as an exploration of and ultimately an attack on a very pernicious marketplace of spirituality in the contemporary world. The problematic notion of spirituality is narrowed, in developing detail, to the kind of superficial, non-committed, materialistic nonsense which so often surrounds people proffering the above violent-desire-producing phrase.

In fact, despite his committed atheism, Webster praises.. CONTINUE READING

The full review is at :  http://www.patheos.com/blogs/americanbuddhist/2012/08/a-careful-walk-through-the-spirituality-minefield.html

Rabbi Jason Rosenberg from Tampa reviews Dispirited..

At http://cbatampa.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/but-not-religious.html, Rabbi Jason Rosenberg from Tampa reviews Dispirited.

Below is a flavour of the piece…

There’s always a lot of talk about the idea of being “spiritual but not religious.” It certainly is a fairly common refrain, and it’s no surprise that proponents (and leaders) of organized religion are often against it. I’ll admit to having pretty mixed feelings on the matter*. On the one hand, I’m really not all that eager to attack people who are, more or less, minding their own business. It’s one of the ways in which religious people like myself often allow themselves to engage in mean-spirited pettiness. Not very religious, or spiritual, frankly.

* If you read this blog at all regularly, this should come as no shock to you!

And, maybe more significantly, it’s often not fair. At the very least, it’s using the same broad brush that many of us religious types hate being used on us. I mean, when someone says, “religion is all superstitious nonsense,” I usually protest about the word “all.” It’s manifestly true that some religion is superstitious nonsense. Maybe much of it.  READ THE FULL REVIEW…

Another interesting review – it doesn’t wholly agree, but engages with what seem serious questions..


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…

Death, Unicorns and Haters..

A number of possible blog topics seem to be possible today. I could talk about the recent Religion Dispatches interview – and all the negative comments, there and elsewhere, in response (more positive was this one). I won’t – some commenters make useful points, but many seem to have only read the first line or two.  I think it best to edge away from responding to every comment made – and re-engage with ones that seem actually interesting in a few months, as dust settles. [Though it may be worth quoting the opening of the book – as people seem to think I am actually threatening violence: When… …I want to punch their face. Hard. But I don’t; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain.  There is no threat here people!]

The other topic, as those who follow me on twitter will know, is an obsession (though I am now recovering a little) with Unicorn Healing – and claims such as this one:

 Unicorns have agreed for the first time to join with a human healer in helping us remove negative energy from our earth.

But I’ll leave that alone too. What I did want to look at was death. A number of those who do (or will, I anticipate, knowing some of the destinations of review copies) object to the book have done so on the grounds that either (a) I can’t be sure that we don’t survive death or (b) we do survive death. As those who’ve read the book will know – I am fairly emphatic:

The end is what death is. It is its fullness of meaning. Its end-ness is what inhabits the concept most fully. To repeat the mantra of non-end-ness to death is to stand with eyes closed, fists clenched and to scream against a hurricane. The new age approach is to dwell beneath a duvet of (self)deception and hope that the dawn’s fresh light will chase away the demons. The demon of death is not scared of daylight though, and walks proud through our circles of protection; lord of nature, rather than repelled by it.

I stand by this. To accept any other view is to allow for a life where death takes on a different value: and therefore one where life does also. Even if we allow an epistemological wobble here – and demand that I concede that life-beyond-death may be possible, I am not sure this matters. Even though the burden of proof ought to be elsewhere, we might concede the possibility. But does it matter if we do so? I would argue that it does not. In the absence of evidence (and if NDEs are the best we have, that is looking fairly flimsy) that is clear – perhaps a better way to put my view here, is that we should live as if death is absolute and total annihilation of all we are and ever could be.

We can still concede it as possible that it could be otherwise – but knowing nothing of it, that mere possibility, with so little to seem to commend it, seems to do nothing to alter the existential realities we know that we do face.