Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy (Paperback) David Webster, Zero Books, 2012.
There is nothing in this work that should be seen as representing a challenge to the personal integrity of those who have a professed affinity for ideas commonly labelled as New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/Mind, Body and Spirit (MBS) thinking, and who choose to live their lives in ways that align with them; it is, nevertheless, a trenchant critique of these ideas, and their political and social implications when adopted as social practice, written from an atheistic existentialist perspective.
Any summary of New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS thinking will not do complete justice to it; no summary of anything ever does. In its essentials, though, one is likely to find what Nevil Drury, in his book “The New Age: Searching for the Spiritual Self”, describes as follows: “drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics…(it is) a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas.” Thus it offers an approach for exploring and adopting spiritual beliefs that appeals to some people because of its inclusive, pluralistic, non-dogmatic, and ‘non-religious’ characteristics, and engenders disdain from others for appearing to be a spiritual ‘catch all’ that lacks philosophical and theological coherence.
Webster’s critique of these ideas and their application is multifaceted, but the following are the three main concerns he identifies as central to his polemic: ” the impact of spirituality” (as defined by the New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS movement) “on critical intellectual thinking, on our sense of the social and political, and the impact on the human potential for happiness and fulfilment.” Essentially, Webster considers these ideas to be superficial, fostering in their advocates ” a rejection of the mass of detail in the world and a re-evaluation of material, worldly concerns as somehow squalid, shallow and beneath the spiritual aspirant.” This, according to Webster, marginalises the realm of the political in human endeavour, as a means of bringing about social advancement by way of collective political engagement, with party politics seen as passé, and, by contrast, solipsistic self-regard as de rigueur.
An example of the superficiality of these ideas as they relate to critical thinking, argues Webster, is in their advocates’ readiness to uncritically embrace postmodernism’s “suspicion of grand-narrative-derived accounts of objectivity and truth.” This has, he contends, “bled into popular culture as the idea that truth is relative” and a notion that “truth is not only multiple, but, vitally, that all attempts to offer an account of truth are of equal value-and that it is elitist to rule out any means for asserting `truths’.” It is clear that Webster sees this tendency as regrettable, stating: “By accepting multiple, simultaneously valid truths we abandon the actual meaning of the word `true’. More importantly, we abandon the struggle to find truth amidst a welter of claims” and later by asserting that “I want to be clear here: contemporary spirituality, with its approach to multiple truths, encourages lazy thinking that has a disregard for truth.” Intriguingly, however, Webster does not make any reference to a key atheistic ‘existentialist’ writer who considered otherwise. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose questioning of the objectivity of truth was central to his outlook as evidenced, for example, by his essay, “On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense” where he defines truth as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms” was undoubtedly a precursor to postmodernist, relativist thinking. I therefore suggest that atheistic existentialism, underpinned as it is by a subjectivist ontology (and thus antithetical to a positivist one), is far more in tune with postmodernist, relativist thinking on truth, than Webster, in his criticism of postmodernism from a self-professed atheistic existentialist perspective, might have us believe.
Webster’s alternative to New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS thinking is straight out of the works of Albert Camus. He accurately sums up Camus’ thinking as follows: Camus “sees the realisation of this world as a challenge. I see it as a choice as he does-between suicide and a remade sense of self where we choose to face up to the reality of nihilism-and work at living well anyway. Isn’t this what Camus has Sisyphus do?” Like Camus, Webster attributes human motivation for belief in anything spiritual as “an attempt to obscure from view that which lies directly ahead of us: our own death…It is the claim that we have an (eternal) spirit, which will survive the death of the body (and brain) and live on in a non-material realm.” And whilst it is probable that for some people the fear of death may well be a motivational factor accounting for their faith held beliefs in a spiritual realm, one wonders how universally applicable Webster considers this statement to be as an explanation of all faith held beliefs in a spiritual realm. Within liberal Christianity, to take just one example, there are thinkers such as Marcus Borg, a Lutheran, who, in his book “The Heart of Christianity”, defines Christian life as “a life of relationship and transformation. Being a Christian is about not meeting the requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present.” Borg does not rule out the possibility of there being an afterlife, and believes in a God he describes as immanent and transcendent, but his Christian perspective does not presuppose one. Belief in an afterlife as a way of mitigating a fear of death is not, therefore, the motivational underpinning of his Christian faith, nor that of countless other liberal Christians.
Webster seeks to offer a post-spiritual response to the existential realities of life as he sees them, but without making any serious attempt to engage with theology, on either an historical or philosophical level. He anticipates this line of criticism, stating: “Some may accuse me, in either parts or all of this book, of a Straw Man/Aunt Sally claiming that I set up only the most crude stereotype of spirituality to make it all the easier to knock down. The reader will have to judge…” Indeed.
(Joe is a member of CRC, a doctoral student in theology at the University of Manchester and a Roman Catholic).