I have given a number of talks on the topics discussed here- and been asked a lot of questions. This page will contain my responses to some of the most common…

  • What is the central thesis of Dispirited?
  • Don’t you rather pick on easy targets? / It is a Straw Man argument, isn’t it?
  • Spirituality doesn’t have to mean a belief in a ‘Spirit’ – an essence: don’t you realise that?
  • Where is your empirical data?
  • I thought the the New Age movement was very big on environmental political action – doesn’t this contradict your second point about the ‘inward turn’?

What is the central thesis of Dispirited?

My main claim is the non-religious spirituality has three main negative features (religious spirituality sometimes shares them, but far from always).

These are:

  1. The inclusivist, pluralist approach to truth widely taken in mysticism, and new-age thought, curtails thought. It is a full stop to thinking as it proposes that seemingly conflicting truths can ‘all be true’, or that truth is wholly subjective in a lazy, rather down-at-heel postmodernist manner. It seems to imply that the empirical truth of the asserted spiritual views is somehow a tawdry matter, or that being concerned with such matters as apparent conflict between truths is to be deficient is ‘wisdom’.
  2. Mind, Body & Spirit thought, Mysticism and much else under the banner of Contemporary Spirituality represents an ill-considered ‘inward turn’ that drives us away from concerns such as social justice, politics and practical ethics. To view ‘worldly’ matters as below ones concern, or to believe that one has transcended mere material concerns represents a flight from responsibility and leaves the world in the hands of the capitalist materialist. One can reject religion, and consumerist capitalism, and still not need to rush away from the world on an inner quest..
  3. The claims of Contemporary Spirituality ring hollow with respect to human fulfillment: in that they all too often either deny or somehow seek to dilute the one central issue that humans must address and find a reckoning with in order for a contented, or happy(ish) life to be possible: Mortality. To cling to the belief in an ongoing spirit which survives death is the final form of inauthenticity, and stands directly between us and the chance of really engaging with the grim existential realities of life.

Don’t you rather pick on easy targets? / It is a Straw Man argument, isn’t it?

This is a serious point. I have heard it numerous times. I am of the view that I pick on the widespread target. There are (see the question below) more complex and subtle accounts of ‘Spirituality’, but the sort I mean is the type which consciously exempts itself from the umbrella of being ‘religious’, and moves on from there. It is popular, populist and needs engaging with.

Spirituality doesn’t have to mean a belief in a ‘Spirit’ – an essence: don’t you realise that?

The short excerpt from the book (below) is a beginning of my answer. My views is that we should, for a range of reasons, avoid the term ‘spirituality’ if we just mean ‘a sense of something connecting us all’ – because that is an awareness of causality and requires no ‘spirit. Likewise, the idea of ‘spiritual’ meaning ‘the best of human thought and intent, our more concerned and noble aspects’ seems a misapplication of the term: it is in danger of becoming conflated with the deployment that implies the existence of a ‘spirit’ – of an non-physical, metaphysical entity or essence. If we can manage without the belief in a ‘spirit’, then I think we should be able to develop our vocabulary to reflect that. This is, however, a topic explored in (a little) more detail in the book.

‘Spirit’ is in widespread use as a metaphor for the more ineffable, subtle, and sometimes motivational aspects of the mind-body nexus – in its linguistic deployment as ‘the human spirit’ – or other metaphoric uses such as ‘spirit of the age’, ‘team spirit’, and many more. I, of course, have little problem with this, being concerned only when the notion of spirit becomes concretised as some form of metaphysical reality as an essence, or object. Some might argue that the term ‘spirituality’ is equally capable of metaphoric deployment, but I remain sceptical regarding this claim in terms of its actual use. Particularly given the rise of its use in Mind, Body and Spirit contexts and within more longstanding religious traditions, the use of the term ‘spirituality’ such that the existence of a spiritual entity is not either presumed or implied is very much the exception, rather than the norm.

Where is your empirical data?

I have none. That is not what this book is. It is an attempt to think through the consequences of a set of ideas, not present data regarding the empirical level of adherents to any said view. I do draw on decades of experience, but this I fear that there is no appendix of pie charts or pivot tables.

I thought the the New Age movement was very big on environmental political action – doesn’t this contradict your second point about the ‘inward turn’?

Again – this is a strong objection. I will shortly put a longer answer here when time allows – but a quick reply: It is notable that such an objection is so obvious. It is obvious because it represents such an exception. Also, it is worth noting that inner-concerns, and then a connection with nature that is fairly standard in pantheistic monism, seems to leave concerns such as class, material injustice, and practical politics untouched. In addition, there is much made of the role women play in contemporary spirituality- being primary consumers in many of the markets, and practitioners. I would not take this as indicating that these movements are intrinsically feminist, and the book looks at this. It is probably so big a question as to need its own Q in these FAQs though…

9 thoughts on “FAQs

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  3. I have another question which might be an FAQ. As an academic commentator on religion and spirituality, you seem to have crossed over from commentary into intervention in the milieu that you are observing.

    Personally, as a practitioner of two religions with an MA in Contemporary Religions and Spiritualities, I have no problem with intervention to encourage practitioners to think more deeply about what they are doing – but I wondered how you viewed this, as you are also a practitioner (adherent?) of Buddhism. Some people with a foot in both camps have commented on the discomfort involved, so I would be interested in your take on this.

    1. Thanks for the question.

      I am not sure ‘commentator’ quite fits in regard to the academic study of religions- as it is never a value-free engagement. Nonetheless, you are right to note that the Dispirited book does mark a departure from usual academic approaches.

      I thought it was time to be open and declare where I stood in relation to my studies, and to advance an account reflecting the nature and basis of the value judgements I’ve been led to.

      [The potential discomfort you note is perhaps less of an issue for me, as I am not a practitioner or adherent of any religion. I have an affinity with much that Theravada Buddhism says, but
      am not a member of follower of it..]

  4. Christine Thompson

    Mr Webster:

    I felt a need to say these words to you, after having read of your sceptical words in your book “Dispirited”, re. spiritual matters….
    I came across reference to your book on the website of Mr Robert McLuhan (the author of the excellent book “Randi’s Prize”); he, unlike you, DOES know what he is talking about.
    I am a very highly-intelligent, knowledgeable, qualified, scholarly, erudite learned woman of 53 years, and became spiritually-enlightened as of 1994 (my extensive research is still ongoing). Before I say a few more words on that, I need to say this: I am so astounded that you can be someone who lectures in orthodox religion (I am most certainly NOT religious, but I am most definitely spiritually-enlightened; so, perhaps those words “make you want to thump me”??, according to your words in your book), but who thinks (not KNOWS, merely THINKS) that we do not survive the (very illusory) event that is termed “death”.
    I have read the words you wrote in a reply to one of the FAQ’s on this website of yours: your reply included the following:
    “to cling to the belief in an ongoing spirit which survives death is the final form of inauthenticity, and stands directly between us and the chance of really engaging with the grim existential realities of life”.

    Mr Webster, you are going to get ONE HELL OF A HUGE SHOCK, on the day you do what is so wrongly termed to “die”; for, no matter WHAT you merely THINK to the contrary, there truly IS the most absolute proof that we ARE all eternal souls, who DO survive the death of our “mere” physical body “coat”.
    The fact that you “think” otherwise IS ABSOLUTE PROOF that you have NOT “done your homework” on this; for there is a wealth of multi-faceted data which DOES absolutely PROVE that we DO survive (in sub-atomic energy form) the very illusory event that is so wrongly termed “death”.
    Many, many INFORMED scientists, scholars, nurses, doctors – INCLUDING MANY INFORMED PSYCHIATRISTS, worldwide – and many more millions of informed people worldwide are in possession of the data which PROVES we DO survive the event termed “death”.
    Your words are absolute proof that you have not studied the absolute wealth of very high-quality data: your words prove you have not studied the available data ONE IOTA. That is the mistake ALL sceptics of survival of “death” make.
    IGNORANCE of the VERY high-quality data.
    Are you not aware of all the INFORMED psychiatrists, worldwide, who ARE informed on this most vital of issues??
    Psychiatrists such as Dr Peter Fenwick – he is the Director of the UK’s main psychiatric institution, the Maudsley Hospital, in London. He has written books on the truth of everyone’s survival (in sub-atomic energy form) of the event termed “death”; he also lectures on it, and speaks on radio about it. He is a member of the Scientific and Medical Network: an organisation for scientists, medical personnel, scholars, etc, who are INFORMED on the biggest issues in life, including the FACT of everyone’s survival of “death”.
    And Dr Jim B Tucker: he is a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia,USA. He has written an excellent book about survival, and about the fact that reincarnation is a fact for everyone, too…. he carrying on the work of the “late” Professor Ian Stevenson, who wrote many very scholarly, academic books on this most vital of subjects.
    And Dr Brian Weiss; he is a psychiatrist, Director of the School of Psychiatry, in Miami, Florida, USA.
    He used to be a sceptic of all things spiritual, UNTIL HE BECAME INFORMED on the data which PROVES we DO all survive (I repeat, in sub-atomic energy form) the event wrongly termed “death”. He has written a number of high-quality books on this most vital subject; and he is a highly-respected world authority on the FACT of reincarnation being true.

    DO THE RESEARCH, Mr Webster, before you spout such INCORRECT words as you have done, on the nature of the very illusory event termed “death”; you wrote the words you did through IGNORANCE of the actual truth.

    Christine Thompson

  5. Dave M

    Dear Miss Thompson

    Please accept my apologies if any of what I am about to right comes across abrasively, it is not my intention, however I do have some issues with your comment that I should like to raise.

    You first appear to question Doctor Webster’s ability to do his job;

    “Before I say a few more words on that, I need to say this: I am so astounded that you can be someone who lectures in orthodox religion (I am most certainly NOT religious, but I am most definitely spiritually-enlightened; so, perhaps those words “make you want to thump me”??, according to your words in your book), but who thinks (not KNOWS, merely THINKS) that we do not survive the (very illusory) event that is termed “death”.”

    This undermining of Doctor Webster’s credibility as an academic writer is a pretty aggressive way to begin your debate, and I’m afraid I fail to see it’s relevance. You accuse him of being unable to lecture on the subject of “orthodox religion” ( I suspect you mean mainstream rather than orthodox), either way this is inaccurate, as you can see http://www.glos.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/rpe/Pages/entry2013.aspxthe course that Doctor Webster teaches includes modules that approach religious beliefs that are outside of the mainstream/orthodoxy.

    I also fail to see the how his not having a belief in a post-mortem existence in any way affects the way he lectures, in fact I would argue that it gives a more objective platform to argue from?

    You than proceed to tell us all about the work of Dr Fenwick, a well admired psychiatrist who has dome work on near-death experience’s (not, I hasten to remind you, post-death experiences). Dr Fenwick is well known for believing in the continuation of self post-mortem however he himself admits to having no evidence and that what he suggests is unprovable (http://www.independent.ie/unsorted/features/life-goes-on-but-even-after-death-72090.html) in light of this I think we can right his thoughts off as fanciful at best. (additionally he is largely disagreed with amongst his peers)

    We then move on to Doctor Tucker who I’m afraid I have all the same issues with. Yes, broadly speaking he is another well-known and admired psychiatrist, and once again his ideas on re-incarnation are mostly ignored by his peers due to lack of any real evidence. (http://www.metro.co.uk/home/10745-have-we-met-before) provides just one example of physicists disagreeing with his thoughts on a fundamental level, and this is just one of a bunch of examples I came across almost immediately.

    Ditto for Doctors Stevenson and Weiss.

    Lastly the idea that consciousness and memory can survive the body as some kind of “sub-atomic energy” is I’m afraid, patently ridiculous. It betrays an ignorance in your “very highly-intelligent, knowledgeable, qualified, scholarly, erudite learned” self. ( incidentally it’s either very intelligent or highly intelligent, you can’t be “very highly”) of the subject you are talking about.

    First off “sub-atomic energy” is pretty wishy washy I’m afraid… Given that at this scale matter and energy are interchangeable thanks to wave/particle duality, what are we talking about? Alpha Particles? Beta maybe? Quarks, gluons, muons? But wait, you just said sub-atomic maybe you mean the big stuff protons, neutrons and electrons? And how is this information stored as energy, it would have to be encrypted as some sort of binary code I guess, where the peaks and troughs of the particle/wave equated to 1 and 0? But wait isn’t the universe awash with this stuff? they’re waves remember, aren’t we going to get all kinds of interference patterns mucking up our nicely preserved selves?

    Yours Sincerely
    Dave M

  6. Charlie Barton

    I was going to leave a longer comment, but Dave M has more or less said what I was going to say. I don’t see how Christine Thompson can seriously attack David Webster’s intelligence simply because he does not share your point of view on this topic. If someone were dismissing the intelligence of a ‘young earth creationist’ they didn’t know, I could kind of understand it, given that young earth creationism is almost wholly ridiculous. But David Webster’s position is entirely respectable.

    The only thing I would want to add in response to Miss Thompson’s comment, is that Stevenson was well aware that the evidence he collected was really quite minimal considering the number of years he was collating it. Furthermore, it is not conclusive evidence. The word ‘suggestive’ in his major work is notable. The same pretty much applies for all the ‘parapsychological’ work I have studied: Peter Fenwick, Sam Parnia, Ray Moody, Ken Ring, Jim Tucker, etc. At best, it amounts to a weak inductive argument, but the evidence is far too subjective and too sparse to be convincing unless you are already convinced or are keen to be convinced for some reason. Aside from amateur speculation based on our lack of understanding of quantum mechanics leaving a ‘gap’ for belief, the only academic work I have read that attempts to make a serious link between the idea of an afterlife and reality on a subatomic scale is that of Stuart Hameroff and Roger Penrose. Hameroff didn’t convince me in the video clips I have watched, but I would admit to being rather confused by Penrose’s rather complex and unusual approach to applied mathematics. If you want to explain exactly why you think their argument is effective, I would be interested to know why.

    Charlie B

  7. I just discovered your website and work and find it wonderful, though I have a lots of points of disagreement.

    I would suggest that religions always have two aspects: an external, literal, “exoteric”, side, and an internal, symbolic, “esoteric” side. Taken externally, all religions are very different — different cast of characters, different claims about historical events and miraculous interventions by a God who’s always on ‘our’ side, different lessons on morality and ethics and behavior-acceptable-to-the-particular-God -as-explained in this or that religion. This aspect of religion can do some good things for a people who adhere to it – it brings a sense of belonging, a sense of specialness, it brings hope, and it certainly teaches some good advice on staying out of moral trouble – but all these good things fall to pieces as soon as one group bumps into another, and the arguing starts, and eventually everyone starts beating each other over the head “in the name of (their) God”.

    The “inner” side of religions, however – and I think you misunderstand this point – are precisely the same. They all illuminate the path the human soul must take to return to communion with God (‘Enlightenment’ some might say). All the great stories of Myth and Scripture, taken in their inner symbolic meaning, are stories of this great ‘Quest’. It can be called ‘The Return to the Promised Land’, ‘Persephone’s Return to Olympus’, ‘The Quest for the Holy Grail’, ‘Muhammad’s Journey to the Seven Heavens” whatever you call it (and there are lots more names), we are all children of the same God, on the same path, to the same ‘home’.

    Your objection seems to be (and, I must admit, having discovered your website less than an hour ago I haven’t yet read your book – I will), that to say that ‘all religions are the same’ takes us down the slippery slope of relativism, where we have no real convictions because we believe anything. This is certainly a serious concern. But I think it only applies to the Outer, Literal side of religions — it’s a terrible danger to believe that anything anybody says, no matter how sublime or ridiculous, is just as valid as anything else: but this does not mean that in their ‘inner essence’ the great teachings of the world can’t be teaching the same ultimate, esoteric message. The different ways the stories are told attests to the marvelous range of the human imagination (and we really ought to be appreciating all this magnificent diversity), but the common meaning an purpose that ‘underlies’ the stories i that unites them (and us!) – is even more striking.

    In the end, I agree – for different reasons perhaps – with your conclusion that the statement ‘I’m spiritual but not religious – is hollow, or at least unnecessary. Spirituality is the very essence of religion. I also agree with your comments that the new agey self-absorption model of not caring about the world is a big mistake. But one rather-new-age personality has actually come up with one of my favorite quotes; “I don’t feel there is any spiritual or metaphysical justification for turning our backs on human suffering.” – Marianne Williamson. I use this on my blog and it’s in my recent book.

  8. This is my humble opinion. No big words, no big names, just experiential knowledge in my short journey of spirituality or however you want to call it. Words are too limiting to bother debating about that.

    What I have noticed from your posts and the comments is that many people argue that there is not enough proof or empirical data to support spirituality. My only comment is in regard to the greatness of human mind. Is perfectly fine to believe what is is all there is, but that is a very conformist and limiting mindset. At the same time, it’s a beautiful very spiritual point of view of only living on the now, so, paradoxically you are very in tune with your spiritual self.

    We need to push our boundaries and question everything in order to discover more wonderful things. Being such a strong atheist is like being an skeptic from centuries ago arguing to the wanderers that sailing into the ocean is silly and that they will only fall from earth.

    Religion is quite nasty but spirituality is quite more useful. Looking into one self is not about selfishness. Looking for enlightenment means being the best you can be and this doesn’t lead to ignoring the world we live in. Change comes from the individuals, not the bodies that manipulate masses and use this planet. I actually believe people that don’t believe in life after death are the ones creating all the mayhem we live in. Why? Because they want everything, and they want it now, no matter who they go over, because they have a limited life span.

    Fun blog, love debate and growth.

    Cheers brother!

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