When Someone Tells Me That They Are ‘Not Religious, But Very Spiritual,’ I Want to Punch Them in the Face
David Webster begins with a bold provocation in Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy.
June 3, 2012 - 12:00 pm
What inspired you to write Dispirited?
The opening line of the book has raised some eyebrows, and some friends felt it ought to go, but it really seemed to capture the emotional motivation for this project:
When someone tells me that they are “Not religious, but very spiritual,” I want to punch them in the face.
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?
As someone who used to say things like that not long ago, there are days today I wish someone had punched me in the face and woken me up sooner.
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 realizes 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’.
Key sentence: “Death is the thing to be faced if we are to really live.” Hence the concluding song from one of my favorite films, Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain, the similarly titled ”Death is the Road to Awe”:
Only through grappling with death, evil, suffering, and all the other realities of human nature can we live: “While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.”
Looks like I should put Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy on my reading list…