‘Spirituality’: A word that makes my hackles rise
SPIRITUALITY: It’s a word that’s come flapping at me from all directions in the last month or so, most recently at a somewhat bizarre funeral in Spain of a close acquaintance, a delightful character called Surj. In his early 40s, Surj was from a Sikh background but, being a non-believer, put a great deal of distance between himself and any form of organised religion.
Surj was one of the most flamboyant of Benidorm’s gay characters. At the time of his sudden death from a massive stroke, he and his partner Steve were running a popular bar called “Spirit”. This fact was seized upon by the fella who conducted the funeral. He said the name of the bar was wholly appropriate, given Surj’s “deep spirituality”.
I winced. It was my second wince of the day. The first was when I caught sight of Surj’s remains lying in an open coffin at the crematorium – wearing a turban!
Now, while Surj was given to donning some pretty outlandish headgear, and looked particularly exotic whenever he appeared in drag, I imagine he would rather die – sorry! – than be seen in a turban … unless a sizeable chunk of campery was involved.
The service was a teeny bit Christian, faintly humanistic and a lot Sikh. Surj’s magnificently bearded dad first addressed the mourners in English, then did a lot of chanting and intoning in what I think was Punjabi, but it could have been Urdu or Hindi.
At any rate, the message that came though loud and clear was that Surj, despite his rejection of faith, was “spiritual”. Sure, Surj would sometimes suggest to me that there was “something bigger than ourselves” in the universe. He’d usually do so with his signature can of Strongbow in one hand, and a cheeky grin on his face. I could never be sure whether it was Surj or the cider that was doing the talking, but whatever woo he professed was never so hardcore as to raise my hackles.
Richard Waterborn, on the other hand, makes me want to throw knives at my radio. He has a slot on Talk Radio Europe called Open Hearts and Minds.
This is what I said in an email to Dr David Webster, who teaches Religion, Philosophy & Ethics at the University of Gloucestershire:
Leaving aside the mindless shite that he and his guests gush, Waterborn probably has one of the most drearily irritating voices on the planet, and all I want to open when his away-with-the-fairies voice comes on air is an artery. His choice of music alone makes me want to leave my 31st floor apartment via the balcony.
I contacted Webster after learning that he has just written a book called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. (Zero Books, paperback £9.99, 978-1-84694-702-5. [buy from Amazon])
Pleased to learn that there was at least one other person on the planet who finds the whole spirituality thing profoundly annoying, I told him how delighted I was that someone had tackled this issue, and told him that TRE had become:
A conduit for all manner of spiritual, New Age programmes, which drives me absolutely loopy.
I feel your pain! It was such feelings/experiences that led me to writing the book.
Dispirited gets off to a no-nonsense start. Webster’s opening line is:
When someone tells me that they are ‘Not religious, but very spiritual’, I want to punch them in the face .. hard!
In an interview published in the online Religious Despatches magazine, Webster adds:
Of course, I go on to note that I resist such temptations – for reasons of ethics and cowardice. However, this annoyance was something I wanted to investigate. Why did it wind me up so much?
He said that:
Thinking about my aggressive grumpiness led me to read lots of New-Age and mind-body-spirit catalogues. This didn’t help. In many ways I became more and more annoyed by some of the materials and adverts that I encountered … if you literally believed the metaphysical and empirical claims they made and implied, they were more often than not logically incompatible … No claim, no matter how preposterous or unfeasible, seemed to be unacceptable – and to question the claims was seen as either spiritually naïve or as being locked into some kind of pro-conflict, old-religion mindset of harsh exclusivism.
For me, when looking at particular New-Age material this ‘everyone is right, all paths are valid’ approach was not only untenable and intellectually insulting, it all too often edged into smugness.
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 cause 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’.
A couple of days later, I discovered that another academic, Daniel Midgley who works at the University of Western Australia, published The Case against the Word ‘Spirituality on his Good Reason blog.
He pointed out that he has had lots of talks with people about “spirituality”, “and the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s important to figure out what they mean by that.
If by ‘spirituality’, they mean ‘a feeling of wonder and awe at the universe’, or ‘a sense of being interconnected with all things’, or even ‘a focus on worthwhile but non-material things, like relationships’ then they’ll get very little argument with me, because I like those things too.
If, however, by ‘spirituality’, they mean ‘a belief that our material reality is overlaid with an invisible realm of spirits and incorporeal beings’, then that’s just crap. Nobody has any evidence for that.
Midgely then directed readers to an item on Sam Harris’s blog, in which the atheist writer reveals that, in his next book:
I will have to confront the animosity that many people feel for the term ‘spiritual’. Whenever I use the word – as in referring to meditation as a ‘spiritual practice’ – I inevitably hear from fellow skeptics and atheists who think that I have committed a grievous error.
Harris considered words other than spiritual, but concluded that:
There seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness – through meditation, psychedelics, or other means of inducing non-ordinary states of consciousness. And I find neologisms pretentious and annoying. Hence, I appear to have no choice: ‘Spiritual’ it is.
Midgely is unconvinced:
I just don’t think ‘spirituality’ is a good choice to refer to the transcendent and ineffable. It’s so fuzzy and imprecise – it could mean anything. And that means that when you use it, you’re leaving yourself open to misinterpretation. Why use a word that you have to explain every time you use it?
Not only that, it’s going to be very difficult to uncouple the word from a set of associations people have about it; memories of being in a church, an implication that religion is positive. These are implications I don’t intend and don’t want to reinforce.
And of course, the link between the word ‘spirituality’ and supernaturalism is well-nigh insurmountable. It has ‘spirit’ at its root. How is someone not supposed to think of spirits whenever you use it?
Instead of trying to redeem the word ‘spiritual’ out of the muck of supernaturalism and religious tradition, why not use another word: transcendent. Or transcendence, if you need a noun to replace ‘spirituality’. These convey the transportive sense of wonder and awe most adequately.
In a lengthy analysis of Webster’s book, Robert McLuhan, a journalist and author based in London, wrote on his Paranormalia blog:
Webster doesn’t provide much detail to back up his assertion that spirituality makes people ‘stupid, selfish and unhappy’. But I agree that embarking on a spiritual journey can have profoundly negative consequences, making a person complacent, dogmatic or just plain silly. I’ve seen it often enough. A little mystical knowledge, poorly understood, is worse than none at all. In extreme cases, it makes people easy fodder for cult leaders and charlatans, leading to the breakup of families, bankruptcy and premature death.
But then a movement that encompasses yoga, meditation and strict Buddhist practice alongside crystals, Tarot, channelling and aromatherapy, not to speak of Scientology and other cults – all under the New Age umbrella – isn’t something one can easily generalise about.
Webster’s target is too big and too vague. It’s like attacking France. Some Brits consider that France exists merely for them to mock (as some French think of Britain), and while that’s good for a laugh, others will be more discriminating about what they dislike (eg Parisian hauteur) and what they admire (fine wine, countryside, etc). If a critique is to stand, one has to fully know the object of one’s scorn. But I get little impression that Webster has really engaged with it, or knows it from the inside.
I enjoyed Webster’s book. It’s sometimes good to get an outsider’s perspective. I don’t think it’s a fair or accurate overview of spirituality, but it’s a pretty good representation of how it is viewed by a certain type of atheist, one who understands the importance of ideas in determining how life should be lived.
I think it’s useful, too, to see the spirituality movement in the broader social context – not just as a community of like-minded individuals, but as one of the dominant ideologies of our time. In theory it should have political heft. Most of the noise is being generated by religious fundamentalists and atheists, but there could come a time when spirituality starts to make its presence felt in the same way, helping to shape society through direct political action, as well as through the acts of spiritually-oriented individuals. Its potential in that regard could be better understood.
By the way, McLuhan is the author of Randi’s Prize, which:
Argues the case for the existence of genuine psychic phenomena.
• This article first appeared the the August, 2012, edition of the Freethinker