Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – X

5 Elemental Challenges — Earth (part 1)

With the incredible growth of SBNR, we would expect problems to become more obvious. This doesn’t mean the problems are new — they may be age-old. A kind ’Box reader pointed out a Kundalini guru grandiosely instructing female disciples to worship him sexually, seemingly true and a fine if small-scale example of an abuse that has gone on for centuries.

But a connecting link amongst newer destructive cults is their being held in a simplistic belief portraying some monomythical manifest destiny, whose top-down administration becomes an orthodoxy, an ideocracy, and finally a psychosis. This is the irruption of social patterns from religion into SBNR where they do not necessarily belong, and the combination of them with ego. The worst cases yet are probably Jonestown, Heaven’s Gate and Aum Shinrikyo. There is certainly something quite modern about these; they are trying to take SBNR social forms but can’t manage it and regress dramatically and destructively.

What we in the West call Religion can tell big stories. It can say “we are all [x]”, “god is [x]”, “the universe is [x]”, reducing the world to simplified summary without fear of essential contradiction. Cheerleading a storyline that has to pass through a narrow bottleneck of easy crowd relatability can’t really work for SBNR, which has to be complex and democratic. Insisting upon those storylines can backfire dramatically.

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14 responses to “Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – X

  • mirjhar

    Abusive patriarchal structures, such as cults and (cough) organised religions (/cough), result from a confusion of a human construction of reality with reality itself. Hence (or at least this seems to me to be a reasonable inference) the best protection against such abuse is a robust background intuition of a kind of immanent realism (to coin an admittedly somewhat unpleasant phrase). Hence, postmodernism, in particular, is at best of little help, and at worst it is an enormous hindrance (draining the intellectual energy of some good minds), and it tends to provoke a backlash, in the form of some new, less disciplined, and even more abusive patriarchal version of “reality”.

    But no-one ever agrees with me; I’m terribly ignorant of the “reality” I’m burbling about; I may well be making some silly mistake, such as attempting to impose yet another fixed ideology on what cannot be fixed (as you suggest); and I’m sorry that at the moment I seem to be the only one commenting on this interesting blog!

    • Jason Wingate

      I wouldn’t say I “disagreed” exactly — in fact you may not realise how much we do agree! You also may not quite have allowed everything I’m saying to soak in yet…

      I’m terribly ignorant of the “reality” I’m burbling about; I may well be making some silly mistake, such as attempting to impose yet another fixed ideology on what cannot be fixed (as you suggest)

      Well…

      See, I’m looking at the historical and societal position of SBNR, not its philosophical or psychological grounding. That might cause confusion. (It’s not possible to extrapolate from philosophy/psychology to culture in a straight line.)

      Eg., the “abusive patriarchal structures” you mention are social structures. Groups of people with histories and cultural ecologies. Looked at in that light, simply having a mystical understanding of reality “as a group” (which would mean what? — complex!) doesn’t protect against authoritarian abuses. Catholic contemplation systems certainly had what you call a “robust background intuition of a kind of immanent realism” but Catholicism was and is abusive, ideocratic and monomythic.

      That’s why I’d say that on the cultural level the keys are different. I’ve suggested a little of that already — to do with the free sharing of information and a different kind of social association, one which has been far rarer in the past but of which modern SBNR clearly consists. If you hang in there for future posts this ought to get a lot clearer when I talk about it specifically. :)

      For more on orthodoxy and its bastard, ideocracy, you might want to click those links in the post. They go to book reviews on the subject, that approach it from the cultural-historical angle again, rather than the philosophical-psychological one. The formations of those social structures and the reasons why they take this or that form are a little more complex than you’re making out in my opinion.

      I’m sorry that at the moment I seem to be the only one commenting on this interesting blog!

      Oh don’t worry about that. :) I can see I’m getting a lot of hits for this series which justifies the new format. Many may just be hanging back to see what I’ll say next…

  • mirjhar

    I take your point (including the point that I haven’t yet paused enough to allow the point to sink in, I haven’t yet followed up your references, and you haven’t finished making your point yet!); but I’ll persist with my argument, just a little further.

    Science, as well as being a philosophical construct and a state of mind, is already a social institution which embodies a conception of reality,

    This evident fact already establishes, at an abstract or general level, that a conception of reality can be concretely embodied in society.

    However, science’s conception of reality is non-immanent, external, and largely mechanical (although quantum mechanics poses an unavoidable internal challenge to this generalisation, and already gives scientists, however hard-headed, much pause for thought).

    Catholicism, as you say, also embodies a conception of reality, which is also at least potentially an immanent one; and of course Islam and other major religions have their mystical sides, which also must in some way be concretely embodied in society. However, none of these socially embodied conceptions of reality embraces the scientific conception, even when they do not actively oppose it.

    So it might be interesting to examine the concrete social practices which embody each of these differing conceptions of reality, and ask what other concrete social practices or rituals might embody some other conception of reality, more in harmony with SBNR. However, I haven’t thought much about this, and I don’t know who else has thought about it.

    • Jason Wingate

      Science is not one single social institution! It “embodies” not one but many interlocking and sometimes conflicting perceptions of reality — plenty of which (see Whitehead or Einstein, before you ever get to Bohr or Bohm) are or can be non-material or friendly to same. Science doesn’t have to be mechanical either — see Feyerabend, James Lovelock, Gregory Bateson… oh loads of ’em. :) Jung considered himself a scientist. WIlliam James. Plenty of others.

      People are selling a mechanical science now, and some of ’em always were, but that is precisely the kind of monomythicising that cuts away the complexity of reality. One thing that never gets discussed is the kind of atheist scientist who has no problem interfacing with SBNR. Perfectly common.

      Simplistic stories are used to make orthodoxies. Some “mechanicalists” in science indeed are trying to make those very orthodoxies and ideocracies within science, narrowing them over time in a play for certain kinds of power. But the interaction between those guys and other scientists who profoundly disagree is all part of “science”, which is not some univocal heavenly choir! And this is all part of a mythicising game that has been going on a long while. More on this as we go.

      (BTW there are plenty of overlaps between science and religion! Look at Mendel. Where did he come from?)

      As to your final question, I’ve thought about that a good deal. Those kinds of social practices are all around us, and are how SBNR is “being done”, has always been done… I mentioned a few of the social groupings like those of Mesmer, Swedenborg, Theosophy, yoga, LSD culture, qigong and so forth. I shall point up more. They have arisen spontaneously out of the historical ground with their multiple orientations. Some have worked better, some less well over time. Comparing the more successful ones with the cults in this post I think is instructive on that question of monomyths.

      We’ll see how all these groupings fare into the future. There are very serious challenges ahead. Their conceptions of reality are one thing, their social survival quite another. They don’t all do the same thing and thus won’t all share the same fate.

      At the end of this series I’ll link to a few people who’ve studied the social culture of SBNR from various angles in academia if you are interested. Some are SBNR themselves, some are not… some are profound, some are not! :) I’ll also give more info on much of what you’re pointing up as I go — as you’ve noticed, these posts are short. In a couple of posts’ time, see whether more of what you’re talking about hasn’t been covered… :)

  • mirjhar

    But in order to understand science as a totality (you may already object that it is not a totality!), just as with an organised religion, you have to consider not only its highest (most rational, lucid, nuanced, flexible, creative, imaginative, open-ended, …) aspects, but also its lowest.

    Maslow wrote a book (I haven’t read it) called The Psychology of Science; there is at least one book (I also haven’t read it!) called The Psychoanalysis of Science; and of course, there is plenty of feminist and New Age criticism of science (as a whole) as being, in some subtle way, still overly masculine in its orientation – no matter that increasingly many successful scientists are female, just as increasingly many successful people in all walks of life are female, amidst what I take to be a still overwhelmingly masculine society.

    Are you perhaps idealising science as it is, confusing it with science as it might be?

    But I don’t want to go into the whole Popper-Kuhn thing again here! And I’m going on a bit too long again – sorry.

    • Jason Wingate

      Nah, you really have to slow down and read what I’m saying mirjhar.

      I didn’t say that science “is” these more flexible and imaginative elements I mentioned, nor did I say those were its “highest elements”. I specifically said science has many elements in it, some of which are antithetical to these. Therefore no one oversimplifed characterisation of science is equivalent to “what science is”.

      Nothing I said was incompatible with the idea that all those elements can be critiqued from various angles.

      Are you perhaps idealising science as it is, confusing it with science as it might be?

      But the above picture is far from idealised. And I gave names from “science as it is” — Whitehead, Einstein, Bohr, Bohm, Jung, Lovelock, Bateson, Feyerabend, James. There are plenty more. If you know those people you know what I mean… Some of them have indeed critiqued science as well. So what? There is a large conversation going on, always has been.

      There are elements since the fifties that have dominated techno-science financially and are more interested in control on the social level. But that’s not “science”, however much it might want to be. If you are in the mood for a longer exposition, this might give you something to get your teeth into. See if the next posts here don’t start to clear things also.

  • martingifford

    I haven’t been reading this blog, but regular short posts attracted my attention, and they are good posts, so here are some comments on the SBNR series:

    CULTISHNESS: I think there are three useful categories of persons:

    1. Independent (rare),

    2. Leader (moderately common),

    3. Follower (the vast majority).

    Independent people are willing to risk their whole belief system and they liberate themselves from illusion if they stick with it and have the talent. Leaders and followers, on the other hand, hold onto their belief systems (derived from society’s overarching paradigms) and are trapped in a low level of almost animalistic functioning. My interest is to see if leaders and followers can become independent people.

    SBNR GROWTH: I think the main reason for SBNR growth is that modernity has given so much variety that people can pick a version of spirituality that suits their illusions and desires, and they can mix and match ingredients to make their own. It’s like a bridge between society and reality, but it is neither. (Note that religion is on the society side – not on the bridge or in reality.) We are moving from being created by religions (as you mention) to creating our own spirituality, and to finally relinquishing all that and abiding as naked reality in naked reality.

    FREE SOCIETY: It is true that SBNR needs a free society. However, society isn’t that free. There is an overarching belief in society that happiness is in the future and that it is gained from externals or from internals. Until that overarching paradigm is questioned, progress will be severely limited.

    POSTMODERNISM: Generally, I believe that words only refer to other words and they are ultimately labels for limited physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual experience. Therefore, they are not true. Truth or reality is flowing and unbounded, so it is beyond our limited capacities to verbalise. Nevertheless, thoughts are useful for creating positive experience and avoiding excessively negative experience.

    BIG STORIES: I believe there are useful big stories, but we have to go to the end of logic to find them. Taking your lead in this post, I would say:

    – We are all unfolding mysteries.

    – God is either a false concept (if nothing like God exists) or a mystery (if she exists).

    – The universe is an unfolding mystery.

    Notice that these aren’t very useful for controlling people, but they are useful for liberating people.

    • Jason Wingate

      @Martin I’m glad you’re enjoying the series. :)

      My interest is to see if leaders and followers can become independent people.

      Oh they can, if you like such categorisations. But you’ll have to wait for my next series for my thoughts on that. This one isn’t about psychology. :) Next one will be.

      On the “free society” thing, I wasn’t talking about any mythical “totally free society” somewhere up in the future! — just about the ordinary free societies we have at the moment, with some degree of free press, democracy, freedom of association and so on.

      As for your last statements, they don’t look like “big stories” to me, although I suppose they might be big statements. You’re right that they’re not useful for controlling people — if you insist everything is ultimately mysterious, you can hardly be “reducing the world to simplified summary”! — but if you find them useful for liberating people, have at it.

      However when you say:

      We are moving from being created by religions (as you mention) to creating our own spirituality, and to finally relinquishing all that and abiding as naked reality in naked reality”

      … you’re giving a pretty good example of a monomythical manifest destiny story, and one that turns out to be great for controlling people too.

  • martingifford

    ” you’re giving a pretty good example of a monomythical manifest destiny story, and one that turns out to be great for controlling people too.”

    How so? If reality is naked, what can I say it demands from you? If you are naked reality, then how can I address you so as to control you? I can only control you if I can get a handle on you. If reality has no labels and you have no labels, then there is no handle.

    • Jason Wingate

      How so?

      Well because you’ve said that this nakedness you describe is something towards which “we are moving”, all of us. So we all have to be prepared for this future of yours with no labels for reality… to me the situation is a little more complex than that as human culture doesn’t work that way in reality. As a real prediction of what will occur on the ground it’s far too simple.

      As a myth it’s fine. In a sense that myth — and by “myth” you know I don’t mean “fiction” — is in a direct line of descent from Christian mass-redemption myths, of course with differences. I would never try to stop you living in it, but of course you have to realise that not everyone who would identify as SBNR is living the same myth! (For instance, I’m not.)

      Naturally it would take a bit more work for you to control people with it — you’d have to turn it into an orthodoxy and an ideocracy. Then you could start saying that those who didn’t try to actualise this myth on your terms “aren’t really spiritual” — for example, these people “aren’t naked enough yet”. So you can label them. I’m not saying you’re doing that! But definitely your erstwhile “pal” Andrew Cohen is using similar kinds of myth to control people, for example, following that exact route.

      That’s one reason to be cautious, but my point here is sociologicalin actual practice there has never been “one single SBNR myth”. There have always been many intertwining myths and no particular “destination for everybody”. This fact is there in black and white in the historical annals of SBNR.

  • martingifford

    Jason,

    I wasn’t outlining my whole philosophy, so my expression wasn’t perfect. I don’t think everyone is moving towards naked reality any time soon. But seekers are moving in that direction. And it’s more like a returning home than moving forward. Like in the prodigal son story, we explore illusions until we exhaust our interest in them, and then we return home. It’s like the Wizard of Oz too. I know society isn’t built for naked reality. It is built for pursuing illusions.

    You wrote: “you could start saying that those who didn’t try to actualise this myth on your terms “aren’t really spiritual” — for example, these people “aren’t naked enough yet””

    LOL! Well, my fuller explanation (I’m finishing a book in a few months) will make that impossible. Nevertheless, I know Adi Da criticised seeking and narcissism, yet he and his followers are the biggest seekers and narcissists ever! So, responses can be surprising. But he also wove a ridiculous web of illusion about how he is the greatest ever and God.

    Maybe better than “naked reality” is the idea of liberation from illusion. I think everyone can get there if we create a wiser world.

  • Jason Wingate

    Plenty of people of would see things in a similar way to you Martin (the physical world as an illusion from which we must mature is a fairly standard trope in Platonism, Hinduism, Buddhism and other ways that have filtered into SBNR after all), but plenty of other people wouldn’t. My own personal view of the universe is the result of experimental mysticism and some influences quite removed from yours, so it doesn’t look particularly like yours in lots of ways. That’s what one would expect, and it really isn’t a problem. People don’t have to read from the same hymn sheet.

    SBNR has multiple ways in it, and no single myth (or philosophy) could ever unite all of it. It is inherently constituted of those multiple ways, as a glance at its history shows.

    A great potted history of SBNR, BTW, and one that makes that pretty clear I’d say, is this Nevill Drury lecture. Covers Swedenborg, Mesmer, Theosophy, William James, the psychoanalysts including Jung, Maslow and Perls, psychedelia including Watts and Leary, Grof, acupuncture and other alternative medicine, Krishnamurti, Vedanta, Joseph Campbell, Castaneda and neoshamanism, quantum mysticism and many other basic SBNR constituents. Makes a good basic illustration of the multistranded nature of the phenomenon.

    If you look over the list of names in my post of today I think you see that multimything writ pretty large! This is a natural result of the experimental approach that is often taken in SBNR; I think it’s ecosystem-like nature is a strength.

  • martingifford

    I didn’t say the physical world is an illusion.

    The illusion is the idea that happiness is in external objects or internal states. In reality, happiness is our very nature when free of excessive disturbance and excessive restriction.

    I’ll check out that lecture.

    • Jason Wingate

      The illusion is the idea that happiness is in external objects or internal states. In reality, happiness is our very nature when free of excessive disturbance and excessive restriction.

      I’d be much happier with that form of words! And that is certainly a strong SBNR theme.

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