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The Waiting for ‘Superman’ of the New Atheists

David Webster's delightful polemic against "spiritual but not religious" hits the mark but doesn't go far enough with its own politically incorrect realizations.

by
Dave Swindle

Bio

August 5, 2012 - 10:40 am

I first highlighted Webster in a blog post here at PJ Lifestyle back in June and emphasized this quote from an interview where he summarized his book’s arguments:

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’.

And here’s an excerpt from page 18 that I appreciated:

Like Guggenheim stumbling upon the inconvenient truth that union contracts keep bad teachers poisoning kids’ minds, here Webster realizes how traditional religious values make people better:

The ethical challenge of faith demands that we strive to a model of character that does not let us off the hook when it matters. Whatever we think of this, and there are times that, despite my atheism, I find the challenge of religious ethics exceptionally moving and inspirational, it is clear that a ‘spiritual but not religious’ life makes no such demand. In being adaptable, customisable and flexible we can choose to let ourselves off the hook if we find the ethical demands too much.

Without a God demanding ethical behavior, we are without an authority to explain why murder is wrong. (Related: See my review of Dennis Prager’s most recent book here and his classic article laying out the argument here.)

In my life I’ve known both secular and religious people — and been hurt by both. The difference is that when the religious fail it’s usually through ignoring their values. But the secularists act wholly in accordance with their beliefs. If death is the absolute end, if both our achievements and crimes will some day be forgotten, if we’re all at a material level no more valuable than star dust, then why not kill whoever inconveniences our plans?

Why did ethical monotheism have to be invented? Because without it there is no authoritative reason why human sacrifices to Moloch, or temple prostitution for Ishtar, or their modern manifestations of “after-birth abortions” and child sex trafficking are wrong. They’re just somebody else’s relative opinion of what’s right and wrong.

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