January 23, 2013

The Dangers of Spirituality

An interview with David Webster

In recent decades, the decline of religious belief and affiliation in the West has been accompanied by a steady increase of interest in “spirituality” and the deployment of the term. The word has come a long way from its Christian roots to encompass alternative and mystic traditions from a number of religious traditions, and, more recently, to denote a kind of lifestyle most often characterized as “spiritual, but not religious.” As the authors of Selling Spirituality, Jeremy Carrette and Richard King observe, “There are perhaps few words in the modern English language as vague and wooly as the notion of ‘spirituality.’”

This past week Tricycle caught up with scholar David Webster over email to discuss his recent foray into contemporary trends in spirituality, Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. Webster holds a Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies and currently teaches religion, philosophy, and ethics at the University of Gloucestershire. In the book, Webster critiques what he views as the dominant—and pernicious—trends in contemporary spirituality that collude with a culture of consumption to bypass the most valuable challenges of religious practice.

—Alex Caring-Lobel


What is the principal danger of following a self-made spiritual path as opposed to a specific faith (or number of faiths)? When we put together a set of concerns from a buffet of beliefs, building our own spiritual platters, one of dangers is that we drop, or fail to select, those elements that challenge us. Most notably, we can choose to not select those elements that fail to fit our preexistent ethical outlook.

A religious tradition may contain elements that we are really drawn to, that speak to our experience very profoundly, but it will also have aspects that we find really difficult. These aspects have, nonetheless, remained part of the tradition for a reason. Maybe those reasons are outdated, or political, but it might be the case that they exist because prior practitioners have ultimately come to believe that they offer vital challenges, ethical or otherwise. Either way, even if we come to reject certain aspects—and this is how faith traditions change—we have to take all aspects seriously and engage with them.

What distinguishes the contemporary spirituality you critique from the study and even adherence to a faith without affiliating with it? The Western reluctance to describe oneself as a “member” of an Eastern religious tradition is in itself interesting. Following my experience of mixing with Westerners sympathetic to Buddhism over the last two and half decades, I would say that many resist describing themselves as Buddhists for complex reasons. These seem to include concerns about racism, cultural sensitivity, anxiety about what a “Buddhist” is/does, fear of appearing prone to following fads, associations (often muddle-headed but pervasive) between Buddhism and counter-cultural trends in the West, and a sense that what people want from Buddhism is very much not the “religious” cultural and ritualistic aspects of it. Of course, we can see this in that common maxim in popular books, essays, and websites: “Buddhism isn’t a religion, it’s a…”

The strain of spirituality I criticize in the book can apply to those who adhere to a faith without affiliation, but I’m more focused on those who conflate traditions. The book explains the dangers of spirituality, but doesn’t totally rule out that one might find in Buddhism things that are valuable, profound, true, and transformative without becoming a Buddhist. I would say that I have encountered all these things, but we need to be wary—they might lead us into a pit of self-regarding solipsism or be used as a well of detail that obscures fundamental existential truths. I actually think Buddhism is rather good at encouraging us to face the latter, but in drawing out aspects, there seems a real need for caution and a rigorous honesty with oneself.

You conceive of contemporary spirituality as entailing a willful prejudice against critical thought. We see this in Buddhist circles sometimes as well. How did discursive reasoning come to be scorned in the spirituality movement? I think there are two drivers for this. The first is a mystic, monist, obsessively inclusivist approach to truth which regards all paths as equally valid and all religious or spiritual outpourings as an expression of the same unsayable hidden one-ness.

Second, some meditative traditions are prone to privilege experiential, inner “no-thought” events over “mere reason.” We might note how reason is treated in the Pali texts, and we could speculate at length about how the inclusion of logic as one of the rejected reasons to accept a teaching in the Kālāma Sutta is interpreted by many Buddhists. [Conversely, logic is often omitted in misquotes and mistranslations of the sutta that are tailored to appeal to rational thought.]

Buddhism offers space for a really interesting conversation about how reason and experience interact. Nonetheless, there is a danger that dethroning reason, moving it aside from the unquestioned privilege it enjoys in Plato and since, can lead to one discarding it altogether. This is both dangerous and at odds with much that has taken place within the history of Buddhist thought.

How might we appeal to universal commonalities that transcend specific religions without falling into the traps of spirituality that you just mentioned? Through reason and experience. Rejecting the claim that all aspects of religions are compatible, that all their truth-claims are ultimately true or the same doesn’t mean that they don’t concur in some respects. One might argue that there is an element within most, maybe all, religious traditions that is an attempt to deal with a certain existential unpleasantness about human life.

We appear to be mortal and to live in a world where the guilty go unpunished and the virtuous unrewarded. The world is ethically indifferent to us, and we are drawn in different directions by aspects of our own character. In articulating this, many traditions might share fundamental insights and enumerate useful ways that people have dealt with existing in such a place. This doesn’t mean that these traditions agree about what causes us to be in such a world, whether we are really in such a world, whether a higher reality sits behind it, or what we might do to alleviate or mitigate our plight. These vitally important aspects are not commonalities, and we need to assess them each against a blend of our reason and experience to adjudge which are true and which are false.

What kind of thought or engagement do you see as the antidote to the perils of the contemporary spiritualist mindset? If the world is illusory, or just an endless churning pit of temporary suffering, perhaps we cannot find true happiness “out there,” but might be better off withdrawing from the world, to like-minded people or deep within via introspection and meditation. The Buddhist milieu in the West has seen both this and corrective tendencies over the last four decades. It’s a tension I’m sure Tricycle readers are familiar with. How do we ensure that self-examination, honesty, and introspection lead us toward compassion, connectivity, and action?

A commitment—even if it’s confused and unsure—to the idea of truth seems important. Philosophical truth: about the exclusivity of truth-claims; political truth: that we mean only as we mean for others and are ethically compelled to act for a more just world; and existential truth: where we can only begin a path toward fulfillment through an acceptance of our finitude.


Share with a Friend

Email to a Friend

Already a member? Log in to share this content.

You must be a Tricycle Community member to use this feature.

1. Join as a Basic Member

Signing up to Tricycle newsletters will enroll you as a free Tricycle Basic Member.You can opt out of our emails at any time from your account screen.

2. Enter Your Message Details

Enter multiple email addresses on separate lines or separate them with commas.
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
kinesthetictiger's picture

As I have begun to study Buddhism, I am constantly comparing what I learn to the ideas taught to me in a Christian upbringing. Certain passages of scripture that I didn't even know I retained will pop up in my mind as I learn a principle in Buddhism.

Suddenly it's as if the light bulb turns on, and I think: "that's what that meant, It is so clear now".

Not always though. There are clear concepts that do not mesh. Even though they may be challenging, it is motivation to look deeper into both (sometimes entirely different faiths) in order to better understand.

Omar Von Gimbel
The Kinesthetic Tiger

Dominic Gomez's picture

One major difference is a supernatural god above and beyond present reality. Buddhism respects deities but does not rely on them.

celticpassage's picture

I think this is a bit of a misconception about the Christian God. The Christian God is both beyond reality and immanent with reality. That is, God IS mundane everyday reality and yet beyond reality. This is of course stated in conventional categories such as 'reality' and 'beyond reality'. God of course cannot be categorized or limited. God is reality, beyond reality, both, and neither.

Dominic Gomez's picture

The concept of the Christian God echoes the Buddhist Law. The Law is immanent with reality and is itself reality. Rather than something beyond reality, the Law is the core of reality, i.e. its true nature. In this respect Buddhism is more akin to the reasoning of science than to the spirituality of monotheism.

jayarava's picture

Yes, but Buddhism relies on other supernatural entities or processes such as karma. Lots of Buddhists also believe in Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as living, supernatural, presences. So it's swings and roundabouts.

KayeWrite's picture

I appreciate the reminder that reason and logic should not be abandoned for spirituality, and the reminder that some practitioners pick and choose beliefs and practices that are least challenging to our weaknesses. Still, these are pitfalls in the complex condition of being human. Mr. Webster is admonishing us to forgo reason, however, to embrace practices based on the Faith in teachers. Both reason and other forms of knowledge should be our guides. We must practice to develop our capabilities in both. And we must be responsible. We must not abandon our responsibility to evolve through authenticity of thought and feeling by deferring blindly to bygone generations, though we rightfully honor them and from whom we learn much. It is in our hands to progress, not to rest on the shoulders of so-called giants. If you see the Buddha on the path, kill him.

Sarah11.11's picture

Thank you for the article, it speaks to me because I am without question a buffet-spiritualist. Reason and experience have taught me that there are elements of truth (as I define it) in many old and new traditions. I also feel that refraining from labeling myself as a Buddhist or Atheist helps me truly understand friends of different faiths, to bring down walls between myself and self-proclaimed anti-spiritualists, and to assess my life from different perspectives. I enjoy escaping the tangled net that is clinging to specific conceptualizations of subjective spiritual experience, and expressing my own sense of truth through any mode that agrees with my current state of understanding, which I believe is natural. In my mind the danger arises when people abandon the compass within them simply to remain loyal to a religion, for fear of trusting their own hearts.

Alex Caring-Lobel's picture

It might be worth mentioning that David is a self-described atheist.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In that respect he is quite the Buddhist!

celticpassage's picture

This is also the cry of every tradition that want's to keep it's membership numbers up...that you can't pick and choose. I think that the current trend to non-affiliated spirituality is the best thing that's happened to religion in the west. It's also nice to see people keeping what they like about spirituality and ignoring the parts they don't like. After all, one doesn't need to like every aspect of Harry Potter to really appreciate and enjoy it.

greenlama's picture

A tradition that wants to keep its numbers of up would be more likely, not less, to tolerate a buffet approach to its practices.

However, religious practice is not a work of fiction and nor is it to be experienced as such, i.e. as potentially though-provoking entertainment that exists outside of us. The choice is not between passively accepting everything your teacher or priest tells you and willy-nilly picking what you like. However, uncritically praising the phenomenon of "people keeping what they like about spirituality and ignoring the parts they don't like" presumes that people can judge that which they need and which they don't within any tradition. Yet, the things that drive us to seek greater truths and meaning begins with recognizing that we don't know what we need.

Enjoyed Mr. Webster's interview and the conversation it has started. Thank you.

celticpassage's picture

I disagree. A tradition cannot espouse a buffet approach, otherwise it wouldn't be a tradition.

If a person doesn't know what they need, then I assume they are a juvenile. I'm assuming that I'm speaking about adults.

Whether religion is a fantasyland not, is of course open for debate.
Whether it is or not doesn't mean it can't be used by an individual as such with absolutely no spiritual consequences. There are no dangers in spirituality. That's just a shared fantasy generally used by materially unsuccesful people in order to feel that they are important.

Religion is a useful fantasy if you are one of the ones making your living from it, just as Harry Potter is for Rowling.

roadrunner's picture

Remember that being virtuous only demonizes others. There is no inherent value in virtuous only in truth. I find it troubling to see some communities who are so isolated and disengaged even within a residential sangha. It seems so easy to go over an edge into ones practice elevating oneself through ones 'successes' in their practice and in their mind putting others down. If I engage I will have to let go of some of my practice; my evolved state. Forget it. I see it all the time. It is a trick of the narcissistic mind; covert yet so obvious.

And thus how can we be introspective all the while staying engaged? Stay awake; hold up the lamp on an all the time basis.

It is the only way.

Dominic Gomez's picture

In 1277 Nichiren Daishonin wrote that "Buddhism is reason", reiterating non-dualism as taught in the Lotus Sutra. As well, the middle way is a teaching that offers a common sense approach to life.

celticpassage's picture

"Buddhism is reason"
So is western philosophy, education, mathematics, science, etc., except more so.
The "middle way" is also taught by western religions.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Such is the universality of Buddhism, Celticpassage.

celticpassage's picture

No no no no. You can't equate rationality with Buddhism.
Rationality is divorceable from all tradition, perhaps especially from all religions.

Rationality is universal; Buddhism is not.

Dominic Gomez's picture

One of the most common misconceptions regarding Buddhism is that it is divorced from reality.

celticpassage's picture

It's pointless to say that Buddhism IS reason, that was Nicheren trying to make a point. Reason does not equal Buddhism does not equal reason.

Reason can be properly used with any self-consistent set of operations on a symbol set. The symbol set, of course, need have nothing to do with 'reality' or with Buddhism.

How divorced from 'reality' Buddhism is, is open for debate; It's not a misconception.

Dominic Gomez's picture

As you are free to opine, Celticpassage. I am not an unreasonable man. ;-)

littlestbird's picture

this is great, I feel the movement towards 'spirituality' in the west could use a little constructive criticism. thank you.