Do you consider yourself “spiritual but not religious?” Well in that case David Webster has a message for you, written on the knuckles of his fist. “When someone tells me that they are ‘Not religious, but very spiritual,’” he writes, “I want to punch them in the face.” Of course he admits that he never acts on this urge, but why does he have it in the first place? Because, “Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy,” or so he argues in a new book. I have to admit that I haven’t read the book, and that I do not intend to either. Why? Because his summary of the project in Religion Dispatches is quite enough:
What’s the most important take-home message for readers?
That the idea of being “spiritual, but not religious” is, at the very least, problematic. As I suggest in the book, mind-body-spirit spirituality is in danger of making us stupid, selfish and unhappy.
Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.
Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realises that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.
Finally, I argue that the dissembling regarding death in most contemporary spirituality—the refusal to face it as the total absolute annihilation of the person and all about them—leaves it ill-equipped to help us truly engage with the existential reality of our own mortality and finitude. In much contemporary spirituality there is an insistence of survival (and a matching vagueness about its form) whenever death is discussed. I argue that any denial of death (and I look at the longevity movements briefly too) is an obstacle to a full, rich life, with emotional integrity. Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live. Spirituality seems to me to be a consolation that refuses this challenge, rather seeking to hide in the only-half-believed reassurances of ‘spirit’, ‘energy’, previous lives and ‘soul’.
Lest you think he’s just musing, there is a real and present danger in modern spirituality according to Webster who wants us to shed the “misconception that astrology, reiki, crystal-healing, cosmic ordering, and the like are just a harmless bit of fun.” He argues that “they have a substantial potential for negative consequences.” While he doesn’t want to be pigeonholed as an apologist for “conventional [whatever that means] organized, religion” he wants us to understand that said forms of religion diverge from “spirituality” by being rooted “in social justice, equality and material needs.” Spirituality, of course, is rooted in selfishness, interiority and personal gain, and Webster no doubt shows this by analyzing the contents of a vast library of new age books.
Now at this point you must have detected that I’m critical of what I read (in Religion Dispatches), but I want to be clear that I’m not critical of Webster’s content analysis. I have no doubt that the cultural artifacts he has cataloged do indeed contain the themes he is outlining. Let’s accept then that these themes factor prominently in the spiritual rhetoric of Western modernity. Fair enough. But based on what evidence does he conclude that the spiritual rhetoric of modernity actually leads to specific social and psychological outcomes? After all, what is so compelling about the argument is the claim that “contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy” (emphasis mine). But does it really make us so? Are the spiritual but not religious more selfish than the plain old religious? Are they dumber? Are they less happy?
I’m not spiritual myself, in fact I wonder sometimes if there are any spiritual bones hiding in my entire body. Yet one doesn’t have to be spiritual oneself to know those who consider themselves to be. In my research, for instance, I have encountered several such individuals. None of them seemed particularity selfish to me. In fact many would be better described as leaning towards selfless rather than selfish, and often as a result of engaging in very well worn traditions of social justice–traditions that do not require membership in any “religion” clubs mind you. What about dumb and unhappy? Nope can’t say those fit the bill either.
Since I did not set out to systematically test Webster’s hypothesis my field experiences are merely anecdotal, but at least they are that. At least they empirically attest to psychological and social outcomes, however unsystematically they do so. And this brings me to my gripe with Webster’s project, and any others that try to extrapolate real human consequences from mere rhetoric. If we want to understand how modern Westerners are reacting to the stuff that culture feeds them we need to go about observing those reactions. This is particularly the case with stuff like “contemporary spirituality,” which seems to have such a negative effect on its critics that they all too often start interrogating it by begging the question.