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…

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“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.

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.