Tag Archives: Spiritual But Not Religious

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XXII

Academics — Do they mean us??

This is just an afterword to the series now.

In researching I perceived a before-and-after effect when I’d grasped some of the history of SBNR. It’s a damn interesting history, especially if you have a good teller. Nevill Drury is great, an SBNR himself, with many books to his name on subjects like shamanism and sound healing. Also an MA in anthropology who has written good history books on the New Age, which is close enough to be very useful. Here’s a very watchable video of his lecture outlining the basics of his history:

The New Age Movement – Swedenborg Centre, Sydney

… and illustrating that all-important many-stranded nature of SBNR. If you want more I do recommend his book:

The New Age

… which you can get for a penny now as you can see. Drury 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, Joseph Campbell, Castaneda and neoshamanism, quantum mysticism and many other things we need to know, from a very readable popular standpoint, quite reliable and with good illos. Knowing this gets you into play on the multi-levelled, multimythic nature of SBNR.

In researching this series partly I thought my duty should be to read some academic sociologists. If you want to do the same, note that anyone can peruse The Journal of Alternative Spiritualities and New Age Studies (JASANAS), a project of the Open University which has put its 5 issues up online for free consultation. That’s a genuinely impressive academic publication with a lot of useful facts and some interesting theories if you want them. Academicese is often in full effect.

Of the in-print professors, if you must, the one who to my mind is most in tune with aspects of SBNR thought is Christopher Partridge:

The Re-Enchantment of the West: Volume 1: Understanding Popular Occulture
The Re-Enchantment of the West, Vol II: Alternative Spiritualities, Sacralization, Popular Culture and Occulture

This is a guy who takes SBNR seriously as thought as well as culture. He knows about pop-cultural aspects too.

Paul Heelas is the other known UK academic defender of SBNR:

The Spiritual Revolution: Why Religion Is Giving Way to Spirituality Heelas and Woodhead
Spiritualities of Life: New Age Romanticism and Consumptive Capitalism

The first volume, co-written with Linda Woodhead, is a good research effort on SBNR in the UK. The second answers the occasional need for a “defence of SBNR” against Christopher Lasch or similar tomfoolery — Partridge and this volume of Heelas together will certainly do the job. Heelas mentions Durkheim a lot, which is apparently what some folks want, and I think most readers will find his arguments cogent. But he doesn’t cover the thinking of SBNRs themselves very well — they are mostly assumed to be quite mute creatures.

This book tackles the US:

Spiritual, but not Religious: Understanding Unchurched America

… well if a little briefly. Again, good basic historical perspective.

On the other hand I’d also recommend something with a truly SBNR perspective and some real imagination. William Irwin Thompson’s five-line dismissal of Lasch in:

Reimagination of the World: Critique of the New Age, Science and Popular Culture, Spangler and Thompson

… is probably sufficient in itself unto that task.:) This is a real book by real thinking SBNRs (Thompson’s a professor too don’t forget, and his friend David Spangler is no slouch either) about SBNR, science, all sorts of things — including critiques. I probably disagree with half of it, but these are the kinds of thoughts I wish more SBNRs were able to have. Shows how you can be historically imaginative rather than defaulting to commonplaces. The book is transcripts of spontaneous talks and conversations which gives it a naturalness I find useful.

After writing this series I discovered a four-part Thompson online series on the same subject called “THINKING OTHERWISE – From Religion to Post-Religious Spirituality”, but you’ll have to google it as the site seems down right this sec.

Finally, also from the SBNR camp itself I should mention Robert Forman’s Grassroots Spirituality:

Grassroots Spirituality: What it is, Why it is Here, Where it is Going

… which was a wider concept and an attempt at “gathering the tribes” for democratic purposes. I’m not sure how well he pulled it off — he wanted to do it by harmonising belief systems into more singular linguistic statements, eeeeesh — and he casts the net a little wide for my liking.

But he’s pushing ahead with it as you see from his “Forge Institute”



That’s the end of this series — hope it was interesting, and thanks for reading!

If anyone has any questions jogged by it, don’t hesitate to comment.

This series hasn’t included anything “inner”. We’ll now be moving on from exoteric history and the next series of this kind will be completely different and much deeper, to get to the juicy stuff — what SBNR is really about, believes, and so on. Looking at the history really helped me understand all that, but next we’ll need to combine it with other stuff such as the nature of spiritual progress and “enlightenment” etc. That stuff will probably be much more sustainedly intense than anything I’ve yet posted on the ‘Box.

The next series will be about Carl Rogers and psychology, which will also set up themes for what follows.


Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XXI

Odds and Ends

We truly are talking about a worldwide phenomenon here. Transcendental Meditation was brought to South Korea by American soldiers stationed there — it joined the already extant local qigongs. Academics have suggested that Israeli New Age practices are sufficiently local to merit the term “Jew Age”. The former President of the Republic of Slovenia, Dr Janez Drnovšek, became a well-known SBNR author.

Knowing this, it’s interesting to consider these two anecdotes from a doyen of religious studies:

A few years ago I was having breakfast in a hotel in Austin, Texas. At the next table sat two middle-aged men in business suits, both reading newspapers. One looked up and said: “The situation is really heating up in the Middle East.” He paused, then continued: “Just as the Bible said it would.” The other man said: “Hmm” and went on reading his newspaper. The statement about the Middle East was delivered in the same matter-of-fact tone that someone in, say, Boston might say: “Just as Thomas Friedman predicted.”

Not long after this I was in a London hotel on a Sunday morning. I thought that it would be nice to attend an Anglican matins service. I went to the concierge, a young man whose name tag said “Warren” and who spoke with an unmistakable English working-class accent — clearly not an intern from Pakistan.

I asked him where the nearest Anglican Church was, and for some reason added “Church of England parish.” He looked at me with a blank look, then said: “Is this, sort of, like Catholic?” I said: “Well, not quite”. He said that he did not know, but would look it up. The information that he subsequently gave me turned out to be wrong.

What impressed me, while he was rummaging in his computer, was not that this young Englishman evidently did not go to church. That is now commonplace in English society. What was more impressive was that he genuinely did not know what the Church of England was.

— Peter Berger in Religious America, Secular Europe? (2008)

It’s a great vision of the divergence of the two continents… but it implies this very false simplicity: secular or religious. The fact that both the continents in question are seeing a roughly equal increase in SBNR ought to register but doesn’t. Obviously that’s the nature of a book with such a title, but I can tell you that Peter Berger, whilst he totally understands modern societies are inherently pluralist, thinks that SBNR is just a fairly fluffy and insignificant bricolage of inner children seeking a toy harmony with the cosmos. Yes, even though SBNR is in fact the natural spiritual expression of that democratic pluralism, as we’ve seen. That seems confounding to you and I but it’s quite normal in some areas of academia. (But not all!)

The latest UK census data arrived whilst I wrote this series, and 14.1 million people (around 23%) chose to state they had no religion. The number of atheists, at a minuscule 29,267, is far, far less than 0.01% even of this number. Academics like Heelas and Woodhead (1994) have been saying for years that the slack of religionlessness has not been taken up by atheism and they are definitely right. The number of pagans is barely double the atheist figure (56,620), a very tiny presence, itself easily outnumbered by adherents of Jediism in fact (176,632), whose force is however fading now. (Will Disney revive it?)

Heelas/Woodhead estimated the number of people regularly (weekly) attending SBNR classes, healings, workshops etc. at 900,000. My bet is, this figure has increased to hit the 1.5 million mark by now at the very least. But it doesn’t include people like me, who only attend such things occasionally, mostly meditating alone or in private groups. It might not even be counting the same people each week. The actual numbers are probably far higher.

SBNR is real, and it’s here. But as I mentioned before, it remains invisible to many academics, because of their prior engagement with worldviews that cannot acknowledge its existence.

Familiar? :)

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XX

The link between mass-movement mysticism and social freedom is currently being confirmed in an interesting new way.

After the so-called “Arab Spring”, nascent Egyptian democracy is foundering on cue. The recent elections sometimes look like being the country’s last for another few decades as the Muslim Brotherhood (funded by my country in earlier times, BTW) reveals ideocratic tendencies. Extremists are already talking about knocking down Egyptian monuments as the Taliban knocked down Afghan ones — yes, that would include the sphinx and pyramids. Down the straight track of knives we roll once again.

Step forward the Sufis. In challenging the Muslim Brotherhood, they are politically mobilising in a way they never have before. They are probably the biggest denomination of Abrahamism to have a strong interest in the mystical. Most SBNRs who hear Pir Zia Inayat Khan recognise a brother.

The future of SBNR may bear some similarity to this pattern. SBNR has never gathered democratically and was always too rhizomatic to count itself as a “movement” at all, but it may yet prove to be a bulwark against some sort of viciousness. After all, it cannot survive without the civil liberty that birthed it. Especially if it can get rid of its reliance on mini-monomyths, it’s a potential defender of that liberty against macro ones.

In this next age, Abrahamic extremism of two different types will probably cast a considerable shadow over America and Europe, trying to fulfil its ideocratic destiny. It won’t be the only contender for the title of official freedom-limiter. It was always envisioned — by me and by William Irwin Thompson, anyhow! — that the lifeboats carrying the precious cargo of real human endeavour and thought across that heaving main would be SBNR lifeboats, some of them at least.

We shall see, but it still looks that way to me.


I’ll have to take a little break right now, wishing everyone else a nice time with their particular brand of break. Enjoy the moment of Nothing Happening later today as well. :)

Two posts left in this series for mopping up — next post will be on the 26th.

The technology of our industrial civilization has reached a peak in putting a man on the moon, but, as the ancients knew, the peak is also the moment of descent.

— William Irwin Thompson, At the Edge of History (1971)

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XIX

5 Elemental Challenges — Void

Once, distinguished SBNRs like W.B. Yeats learned Hermetics with the Golden Dawn.

Now, in Greece, “Golden Dawn” refers to the neo-Nazi thugs who recently terrorised an immigrant theatre group in an action some have termed an “early Greek Kristallnacht”.

Their leader, shouting “Wrap it up you Albanian faggots” at the besieged staff inside the theatre, whom he threatened to post home to their mothers dismembered in boxes, was an elected fascist member of the Greek parliament. Real fascist — not George Bush. The police looked on idly.

That could well be in the future of much of the West, in various guises, not all of them such literal retreadings of the Panzer by any means. Anyone still living in the era of comfortable $1,795 6-day workshops should be thinking carefully.

It’s unfortunate that the “Golden Dawn” name is far from coincidental. The Nazis themselves had their roots in SBNR, and represent a rather grander version of the same kind of monomythic regression we see in the guru-narcissists. The Nazi salute may itself be a copy of a gesture (scroll up a bit in that link) originally learned by Yeats and others in the Hermetic tradition for good SBNR reasons.

SBNR is perhaps specially placed to watch that particular situation. As our lifeblood is pluralism, democracy and free speech, we ought to be motivated too. There is a chance of doing more than watching, too… more in the next post.

Meanwhile I sense that we still await the shape of the Western SBNR of the future. It won’t look like the present. More than one researcher is saying that in the current period the unserious is being winnowed out, and it looks that way to me as well.

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XVIII

5 Elemental Challenges — Air

Neither scholars nor detractors of SBNR have been slow in pointing out that it has relied on free market principles. Sometimes it can reek of affluence. What happens when the affluence goes away — which it is currently doing in many places?

The madness of the oil age has crested and is sinking into the madness of the post-oil age. This is the greater danger for which SBNR should be watching, but isn’t.

SBNR is everywhere, but there is a strong possibility of a big overlap between those who think prosperity will mount ever upwards, and those who charge $1,795 for a six-day workshop. I wish the latter were all fakers. I got the figure from the Monroe Institute.

Already the numbers who can afford that kind of thing are dropping. That way does not now represent a secure future for SBNR here in the West. There are plenty of SBNRs who already have good ideas here, but plenty more who are trying to ignore the need for sustainability amidst financial contraction.

All really durable spiritual ways know, not only how to persevere through lean times, but to be the way of so persevering, at best leading through example. Times of trial are tests of creativity. SBNR will have quite a few tests in the years ahead. Can it stick to what matters when some of its security blankets catch fire?

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XVII

5 Elemental Challenges — Fire

SBNRs need to be careful what they “believe”, if they are going to write on factual levels, or indeed visionary levels. For a start they must learn, urgently in some cases, not to mistake the latter for the former. The discipline of being cautious when claiming physical truth ought to be ingrained after the 20th century!

Empirically we know Edgar Cayce was mostly wrong on specific predicted world events. Some people still bandy his name about as if he were infallible. He was good at specific personal and medical readings but he wasn’t infallible by a long shot.

This is yet another way to “just believe”, and sometimes justifies very simplistic emotional attachment — not to Cayce, but to whatever he is taken to represent. Sincere investigation of what is really there — personally, artistically, scientifically, culturally, and transpersonally — is plenty amazing enough without plumping for more kitsch. Believe me. :)

It’s most troubling when it happens to those who should know better. Claude Swanson, for all the exaltedness of his Princeton Ph.D. in physics, believes at least one obvious, provable marketing hoax in his Life Force: The Scientific Basis (2009). I haven’t seen anyone else spot it, but the science wing of SBNR has to do better than that! This is very close to scientific kitsch. Vigilance, for goodness’ sake. I had supposed some fairly big names were involved in peer-reviewing that book.

Speaking carefully and responsibly about truth is the only alternative to forfeiting credibility, never mind integrity. I for one am doing this so I don’t get fooled again.

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XVI

The irrelevance of much criticism of SBNR can be gauged by looking at the many psychologies of the 20th century — those of Jung, Maslow, Rogers, Erickson, Assagioli, Grof and so forth — which are relevant to it. They operated as reconciliations of left and right brain in an instinctive truthfulness that embodies both. They focused on lifting patients out of their bizarrely neurotic social environments, making space in people for themselves, sometimes then transforming the environments too.

They continue to be of huge importance to wide swathes of the public even as they are usually accorded very little status in the teaching of psychology itself, which is currently showing signs of an ideocracy greater even than the one it promulgated in the mid-20th century.

Carl Jung is both “passé” and also probably more popular than ever, with new neurological rigour on his side. Milton Erickson conferences attract thousands of practitioners and his methods have cured hundreds of thousands — yet his name appears in no mainstream psychology text’s index, to my knowledge.

Information becomes available. There appears to be no stopping the wave(s). It’s quite clear that with some of the above names — Carl Rogers for instance — no transpersonal reason exists to bar them from the academy, whereas every evidential reason exists to admit them. They are barred because what they say “should not be said”. But this bar somehow doesn’t really hold them.

There has rarely been truly strong “official” support for SBNR but nothing has stopped its growth.


Addendum — Quiz Answer!

Full marks to mirjhar! And anyone else who guessed the speaker was indeed Richard Dawkins. I deployed that quote simply to show that the man is thinking mythically; as Clare said, “emphasising the majesty” of what he was saying. Mythic thinking and imaging concerns the big questions and stories that touch meaningful places within us. In this case, as so often, Dawkins’ point of view is very close to the Christian one (he’s not far off Ecclesiastes, “a time to be born and a time to die” etc.) Not all scientists are so unaware of their mythicising — Einstein springs to mind — but whether they are aware or not, they all do it. Human beings must.

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XV

SBNR’s very effectiveness, and the loyalty shown it, has made it some enemies. The new-atheist arguments about SBNR being pseudoscientific, incoherent and “just plain wrong”, are probably best known at the moment. (Although one should not overlook the religious and academic arguments about lazy, anti-community narcissism either. ^_^)

Some of this is incitement to discrimination, and should be opposed — but the arguments themselves usually implode if prodded. They often lack a proper understanding of myth. Usually they are talking to their own constituencies and rarely if ever address the great SBNR writings or achievements, preferring to beat up on the less educated, an unedifying spectacle.

Accusations of “pseudoscience”, for example, against pop SBNRS who talk of “humanity evolving to a new species” or a “new quantum spiritual reality”, are really silly when used to dismiss SBNR altogether — scientific terms are simply being used mythically, something scientists themselves frequently do. Since scientists publicise their visions for the non-scientific to live by, they should not be surprised when their mythic terms are turned to new uses. That’s what humans do with the stories they tell. That’s life in this species.

Of course, it would be nice if all those pop SBNRs could themselves learn to tell mythic from literal uses of terms! :) And I’ll continue to argue for exactly that over the weeks ahead by showing how sensitivity to language can improve SBNR. But the solution to oversimplification is not some other oversimplification. Myth exists and certain scientific words have become mythic words.

Adherents of orthodox scientism have to pretend myth doesn’t exist, another unedifying spectacle. Although this can never be admitted, scientistic anti-SBNR is itself based squarely on myth — the myth of the world becoming free of both religion and spirituality (see part II of this series). These prophecies imagined a world with no imagination, and told a myth about a world with no more myth. Without understanding it, they thus were keeping myth and imagination alive.


Addendum to this post: quiz!

Who said this:

It’s so beautiful — it’s such a magnificent thing to live in the universe and to understand the universe in which you live, to be a part of life and to understand the life of which you are a part, to understand why you were born before you have to die… And it’s so sad that people go to their grave without understanding why they were born in the first place.

Answer next post!

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XIV

William Irwin Thompson could have been an Andrew Cohen or a Ken Wilber, but like Glenn Morris, chose to dedicate himself to a scientific and artistic view of SBNR, and to eschew guruhood and religion in favour of co-operative collegiality, the pure SBNR “fellower not follower” spirituality.

It’s not that SBNR doesn’t produce charisma, of a different kind to that of religion, but still charisma:

… after a few lectures, something peculiar happened. I began to feel a different presence inside myself; actually, I began to feel a whole new sense of self. A larger kind of mind took over the field of my consciousness, and I would begin to say things I didn’t know, or didn’t realize I knew. I can remember the first time it happened, when I said to myself as I was lecturing, “Oh, that’s interesting. I didn’t know that.”

Along with the shift in my sense of self, came a shift in the general feeling-tone of the audience. Restless students became listeners … Undoubtedly, the kriya yoga I was doing for three and a half hours each day aided this process of ego/Daimon restructuring…

MEMOIR – The Founding of the Lindisfarne Association in New York, 1971-73 – Part 2: A Community in Fishcove, Long Island

That is the power of a preacher. But Thompson wanted to synergise with people, not fascinate them. He didn’t go on Dick Cavett and become a celebrity when his book hit big in the NY Times. The big vistas he limned in print (and vistas don’t come much bigger) were the visions of a Europhile poet-prophet-historian who paints the world around the reader, illuminating its patterns rather than laying down a concrete highway through it. The kind of visions that leave it up to the reader what to do and who to be, in other words.

The story he ended up telling, couched in terms of systems theory conversations in the collegial atmosphere of Lindisfarne, describes much of the situation we are actually living in now (although few realise it.) This kind of thing, breaking through to a truth that makes sense of the world, is more powerful than big promises and destinies that never actually come off — and certainly much more powerful than the piddling little promises of The Secret, so soon broken. “Your own villa in the Seychelles, by the powerful methods of the Buddha!”

Spiritual But Not Religious in 2012 – XIII

5 Elemental Challenges — Water

The stability of post-counterculture pop SBNR is threatening to become a definite complacency as cultural fragmentation proceeds.

One marker is the end of Mishlove’s Thinking Allowed on PBS in America. The show had interviewed major SBNR thinkers like Terence McKenna, Colin Wilson, Michael Murphy, Stanislav Grof or John Lilly, dozens of them, at a depth that interviews themselves have mostly now lost. Those guys did not look out of place alongside an Albert Ellis, an Oliver Sacks or a Stephen Pinker. There were backward references to the rest of Western SBNR culture thrown in too.

“Thinking Allowed” is the opposite of ideocracy. The show presented an almost unlimited variety in one single format on a trusted TV source that has now given itself over far more to scientism. A decade after the show ended it seems almost impossible to imagine anything similar happening again. With the net it should be easy in principle, yet I haven’t found anything of this scope and gentility. Most net coverage of SBNR is far too specialised to want to look over the whole in this truly creative and exploratory way. (Meanwhile BBC news recently included an apology from Peter André for his early work! ^_^)

Shallow commercial agendas also prevent thought. I’ve mentioned names like Marsilio Ficino, Johann von Goethe, William Blake, Rudolf Steiner, William James, Jean Gebser, Carl Jung, Aldous Huxley, Stanislav Grof, Lawrence LeShan, Robert Monroe, William Irwin Thompson, and Glenn Morris.

But I find that such names are quite rarely mentioned in the general SBNR discourse, though I could add a hundred more. James Redfield, Eckhart Tolle, Paulo Coelho, Neale Donald Walsch, Oprah Winfrey, and Rhonda Byrne are by no means adequate substitutes.