Book news

In exciting news – copies of Dispirited arrived from the publishers this morning. Amazon and other booksellers should be getting copies very soon. In fact Amazon US is showing the book as in stock…

Nothing more to add – was just excited to get my hands on a physical copy!

[Update: the book is now available and shipping from US, UK and Canadian Amazon websites…]

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.

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.

Heathen atheists? Part 1…

As promised, I wanted to make some comments about Julian Baggini‘s article in the Guardian, his Heathen Manifesto.

As I said in a previous post, I share much of his view that atheism is too often seen as arrogant, shouty and aggressive. That doesn’t mean that this is true of all, or even that many, atheists, but the discussion of Theism and Atheism in the public realm is often futile, combative and just plain annoying. So I was heartened by his statement of intent:

Julian BagginiThis manifesto is an attempt to point towards the next phase of atheism’s involvement in public discourse. It is not a list of doctrines that people are asked to sign up to but a set of suggestions to provide a focus for debate and discussion. Nor is it an attempt to accurately describe what all atheists have in common. Rather it is an attempt to prescribe what the best form of atheism should be like.

This seems intriguing, at least. And off he goes with 12 principles. I will not be delving into all of them in detail, in this post. Just the first one. But I shall (be warned) return to some in the future…

He starts with what atheists call themselves. There has been much discussion around this. Some feel ‘atheist’ is too negative – too much “not-one-of-those”. So perhaps ‘humanist’.

I don’t much like this term, which I discuss the term in Dispirited, where I state that:

Humanism often has noble intentions, but regularly appears as a parody of religious groups.

I go on to say more – but the term seems rather aged and locked into a liberal, institutional political setting in our culture that means it only appeals to some atheists, and really repels others. That won’t do then. We have ‘brights’ for atheists.

Calling those who reject the supernatural and the theistic ‘brights’ is fairly new, but already seems in decline. Despite Daniel Dennett’s claim that ‘bright’ doesn’t imply that the religious person is ‘dim’ – most seem to read it that way, and I would be surprised to see the term last another decade in common use. So – Baggini is right in that stage may be set for a new term.

So he opens the manifesto with: 1. Why We are Heathens.

I have seen a lot of criticism of this term. I don’t much like it myself, and don’t expect it to catch on. Lots of critics have complained that heathen actually has two main flaws:

  1. Heathen historically has referred to believers. Whether it be historical pagans of various sorts, or some damn variety of neo-pagan reconstructionists, they have been believers. Often in many Gods, or Godessess, or in some kind of nature-focused monistic pantheism. But they clearly where/are not unbelievers.
  2. The other objection is that term is often used in a derogatory manner, as a (not very strong) insult against the ungodly. It certainly has a pejorative tone.

Those making objection 1 have a point, but it is not that fatal. Words change their meaning over time – and I am sure Baggini knows the problem, but thinks the benefits derived, and common usage as time goes on, will deal with its legacy-meanings.

Objection no.2 is clearly only put forward by those who have not fully read, or taken on board, what Baggini has to say about the term. Indeed, they seem to miss his key point in favour of the term by doing so. He knows that it is a pejorative term. That is his point, to a large degree. He says so:

If we want an alternative, we should look to other groups who have reclaimed mocking nicknames, such as gays, Methodists and Quakers. We need a name that shows that we do not think too highly of ourselves. This is no trivial point: atheism faces the human condition with honesty, and that requires acknowledging our absurdity, weakness and stupidity, not just our capacity for creativity, intelligence, love and compassion. “Heathen” fulfils this ambition

While I am still unconvinced by the actual term – the first point here is telling. Atheists are often portrayed (and I don’t intend, here, to get into the details of whether there is any basis for that portrayal) as over-earnest, smug, humourless and arrogant. This term demonstrates humour, and humility. Two substantial virtues. I was rather surprised that so many rushed to point out that the term was offensive and abusive -when that was actually (at least in large part) the actual point of selecting it.

So I will not be using the term, I dislike the register and also think it sounds way too close to all those mind/body/spirit things that I’d like to disassociate from atheism. However, I think he is well justified in looking for a better term here. Just for the record, I like his principles 3, 5 (a bit), 7, and 10 (only a little, but yes).

So for now – what will I call myself? Maybe I’ll have to stick with miserable, atheistic, existentialist nihilist git for a while longer yet…

Mystic Narrative…

In Dispirited one of the claims that I make is regarding the way mysticism is presented. I will get to what I write in the book shortly – but wanted to note that in the talks on the book I have been giving, I have been asked is there is evidence for my assertions re this presentation of mysticism. I thought it was obvious – and part of our common cultural currency, so didn’t feel too worried…

The view I am talking about is the narrative that claims that all faiths are drawing on the same (or variations of the same) Noumenous experience (though they don’t always use Otto’s term), which has been distorted by the institutionalisation of formal religion. But some have always seen through this, to the common experiential core that they believe underpins all faith. These few have known a dangerous truth – which threatens political strucutres and might unite allf aiths  – and so mystics have long been persecuted.

Familiar? [I hope so…  The book contains a longer version, of course]

I did however ensure my view that this is widespread was accurate. It is. for example talks of

The Hidden History of Mysticism runs like a thread through all religions but belongs
to none of them
It is finding a spiritual basis for human unity beyond ‘partisan’ religious divisions
To build bridges to a common understanding of a common human spirituality is the way

This is only one example, of course, but seems to perfectly capture that narrative I was trying to describe. One of the themes in Dispirited is that the ‘partisan’ divisions are exactly what matters: this is how we inch towards actual truth (as opposed to ‘universal’?) – though arguing and  really disagreeing, not disavowing disagreement in the name of some hidden, ineffable, asserted underlying commonality..

What is Dispirited about?

The back-cover blurb from the book should give an idea:

When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual”, I want to punch them in the face. Hard…

Dispirited argues that contemporary accounts of spirituality are a dead end for human potential, a threat to intellectual rigour, and opposed to social and political engagement. Rather than accept the “Spiritual, But Not Religious” response as the only alternative to either formal religion or egotistical, shallow consumerism, Dispirited argues for a post-spiritual response to the existential realities of life.

Refusing all inwardness and consolation, David Webster faces down spirituality’s guile in favour of a bleak atheism’s hints of a worthwhile life. Bracing, timely stuff! Peter Manley Scott, University of Manchester

This is as close to a “must read” as it gets, for the religious as well as the spiritual reader, as well as for atheists. Dr. Mikael Askander, Lund University, Sweden

Dr David Webster is Principal Lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. His main work is in Buddhist thought, and its relationship to Western Philosophy.