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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

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August 5, 2012 - 10:40 am

The 2010 documentary Waiting for “Superman” accomplished a rare feat for a film on a topic as politically charged as America’s failing public education system: it earned enthusiastic praise from both conservatives and progressives. Meredith Turney at Townhall explained why:

It’s hard to know what to expect when an avowed liberal takes on the controversial issue of school choice. Director Davis Guggenheim is the director behind “An Inconvenient Truth,” the global warming film that lionized Al Gore. Guggenheim also directed the Barack Obama biographical film played at the 2008 Democratic National Convention and the Obama infomercial that aired on television during the 2008 presidential campaign. His liberal bona fides are stellar. So it’s only natural to anticipate a school choice documentary that defends the status quo and toes the party line blaming lack of funding for the woeful state of America’s government education system.

Prepare to be surprised.

In the opening moments of the film, Guggenheim freely admits that he betrays his liberal beliefs every day when he drives past three public schools on his way to drop off his children at their private school. His children’s education is so important, he’s unwilling to risk their future success on the abysmal education record of government schools. It’s a refreshingly honest admission and the rest of the film follows suit.

Over the course of the film, Guggenheim explores in depth why today America spends more on education than ever before, only to earn weaker results than past decades. It’s an engaging, thoughtful documentary made by a man with the courage to confront one of his party’s strongest financial backers, the teachers’ unions.

In the end I left the film more disappointed than most. Yes, Guggenheim articulated many aspects of the issue but he chickened out when it came time to offer solutions. The film ends leaving one thinking that in spite of the film’s careful dissection of the problems, education remains a mysterious, ever-present big problem with many potential paths forward.

“But wait a second,” I thought as the credits rolled. “This isn’t complicated. The film showed that teacher union contracts make it next-to-impossible to remove bad teachers.” Recall the famous “dance of the lemons” sequence showing how rather than fight through the bureaucracies to fire a weak tenured teacher, administrators just pass around their failures, condemning students to waste a whole year of their life with an instructor who can’t perform:

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If principals could just fire the bottom 10% of teachers then the problem would be solved and fewer kids would be stuck years behind because they had the bad luck of receiving a burned-out teacher who won’t do their job. Simple.

Guggenheim may have managed to find the problem, but solving it requires a much deeper confrontation than he’s willing to do yet. Because to really recognize this as the core of the issue means that a) most of the blame falls on the political party he made a career supporting with propaganda, and b) it affirms the unpopular, politically incorrect, conventional wisdom that free-market principles work better than government bureaucracies to raise the quality of life of impoverished minority children. But Guggenheim cannot yet look at himself and how his own views contribute to the problem he’s critiquing.

University of Gloucestershire Religion Professor David Webster’s delightful polemic Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, and Unhappy does the same thing on the subject of the irreligious life. Like Guggenheim’s documentary Webster can slice and dice the problem. He skillfully dissects the intellectual and ethical problems of ala carte spirituality and a sizable sector of the New Age movement in both the United States and his home in the United Kingdom. But when it comes time to take the medicine to cure what ails us, he flinches, unwilling to go where his own words should lead him.

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.

Webster’s answers to the problems of “I’m spiritual but not religious” are existentialism, atheism, and political engagement.

For more than a decade that was my choice, too. It didn’t work out well. So for the last year I’ve gone back to belief in God and traditional religious values. But I arrived back home through through an unusual route: the same mystical, mind-body-spirit world that Webster attacks.

During my college years in embracing progressive, Nation-Michael Moore politics I sought to also further reject America’s Judeo-Christian tradition through exploring occultism and “alternative” spirituality. I dabbled in a variety of practices for years but — because of the “spiritual but not religious” dogma — never had a real foundation on which I could build any coherent system of beliefs or make any real spiritual progress. (So at heart I was really more a practitioner of a secular religion of political activism.)

Now when I say “spiritual progress” what do I mean? Webster probably doesn’t know. As he admits on pages 1 and 2:

Trying to thrash out a definition of what “spiritual” might mean turns out to be a thankless and largely fruitless undertaking. Jeremy Carrette and Richard King note: ‘There are perhaps few words in the modern English language was vague and woolly as the nation of “spirituality.”

To figure out what “spiritual” means we need a definition of “Spirit.” Here’s one worth remembering in this context, courtesy of Vodkapundit yesterday:

Why are alcoholic beverages called “spirits”? Because when you drink them strange “spirits” rise within your mind and body. That’s all that “spirits” are: intangible feelings we don’t fully understand and the emotional experiences that go along with them. Understood in this way, “spirituality” is just another way of saying “emotionality” — or learning to understand and interact with one’s strong emotions.

Thus, the danger of “spiritual but not religious” is that a practitioner engages with spirits (strong emotions and religious rituals) without having any guidance for how to interpret them.

Someone who is “spiritual but not religious” doesn’t know if the spirit they’re invoking is an “angel” (symbol of God, our higher nature) or a “demon” (symbol of death, our animal nature) because they don’t have a religious foundation to guide them upward. They’ve ignored the collective wisdom of humanity and decided to just set their own course. They’ve made themselves their own god. And they reap the consequences: unhappiness.

A sad spirit came over me as I finished Webster’s book and looked at the last paragraph:

What we need in being atheists today is to see it as freedom not only from God, but from the meaningless plurality of new-age inclusivity. The battle with institutional religion has become so bloody, confused and frankly pointless, that it has obscured a more immediate threat and opportunity in Western cultures. I have here outlined the threats from generic ‘spirituality’ to our thinking, our politics, and ethics, and to our fulfillment as human beings. However, freedom from Spirituality liberates us in that we escape from being the Zombie-like living-dead of Nietzsche’s Last men; we realise we can respond to the world other than merely with an ironic, world-weary shrug. We are not beyond the ability to actually commit and act if we hold firm to the idea that truth actually matters, is exclusive, and that other people are equally as important as me. This may not bring us the immediate or obvious happiness measurable by ‘national well-being’ statisticians, but via an existential engagement with life we can at least edge towards knowing what a worthwhile life might look like.

I’ve seen what a worthwhile life might look like: the majority of the people I most admire — who are kindest, smartest, most successful —  are deeply religious. The value and Truth in religion isn’t found in the weeds of which theology is right but in the fruit of the life lived in sincere devotion to God.

Look beyond anecdotes and the empirical data tell the story: the religious live happier, more fulfilled, more generous, more prosperous lives than the secular.

When I came to accept that — that if I was to become a better person more like those I admired that I needed a belief in God — then all of a sudden the word “Faith” came to take on a new meaning.

What will I have “faith” in? Am I taking a blind leap of “faith” that some deity up in the sky exists? That a variety of supernatural events actually happened in ancient times? No, I’m having “faith” that if I practice a religious tradition then it will save me from emptiness, unhappiness, and character flaws.

This is something we can test with science and the experimental method. In fact, as I returned seeking a religion this past year and dusted off my old occult book that’s what I discovered. “Our method is science, our aim is religion” was one of Aleister Crowley’s aphorisms. If I pray to a specific version of God four times a day to express my gratitude then what will happen to me and my life? If I start going to church services or a synagogue each week then will my life be better than if I sleep in instead? And what if I cracked open the Bible and started trying to understand how this ancient wisdom could apply to my life today?

Those looking for a “worthwhile life” don’t need to “edge towards” finding it. There’s no need to wait for a Superman to show up with the answer to some fake problem that has been twisted around by postmodernist academics into something much more complicated than it needs to be. Plenty of time-tested religious and spiritual paths exist. But we only start walking down them when we realize that religion isn’t about blind faith that God exists, but the practical faith of following the steps to bring God into existence in our own lives.

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More on Religion and Spirituality at PJ Lifestyle:

David P. Goldman: Why You Won’t Find the Meaning of Life

Myra Adams: The Shroud of Turin: The Mystery that Science and Technology Will Someday Solve

Dave Swindle: When Someone Tells Me That They Are ‘Not Religious, But Very Spiritual,’ I Want to Punch Them in the Face

Pastor Paul Cooper: Getting Rid of the ‘Get Rid of Gays’ Pastor

Dave Swindle: 7 Reasons Why The Right Should Not Seek to Convert The Left

David Swindle is the associate editor of PJ Media. He writes and edits articles and blog posts on politics, news, culture, religion, and entertainment. He edits the PJ Lifestyle section and the PJ columnists. Contact him at DaveSwindlePJM @ Gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @DaveSwindle. He has worked full-time as a writer, editor, blogger, and New Media troublemaker since 2009, at PJ Media since 2011. He graduated with a degree in English (creative writing emphasis) and political science from Ball State University in 2006. Previously he's also worked as a freelance writer for The Indianapolis Star and the film critic for WTHR.com. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their Siberian Husky puppy Maura.
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