Tag Archives: William Irwin Thompson

Greer’s “Progress Religion”

FURTHER EDIT: I somehow find this a little funny, but Greer’s post today is mostly addressed to the comments of doubters, and several remarks are directed toward ideas I put forward, one very specifically to me:

One interesting wrinkle on this last point comes from a commenter who insists, quoting a scholar of religious studies from India, that the concept “religion” is purely a modern Western notion and can’t be used outside that context.

… which forces me to set the record straight even though I wanted to move on!

The guy I quoted, Balagangadhara, whom I wrote a little about here, of course does not say that at all; I probably didn’t get across his thesis very well. Balagangadhara thinks Western Abrahamic religion is in a fundamentally different category from other sorts of religion, as I said, because of its strongly ideocratic and orthodoxy-creating character, which separates it even from other types of orthodoxy in several respects — so much so that calling them something other than religion might be more accurate in his opinion. What Greer says today:

The phenomena assigned to the category “religion” in English still exist in those languages and cultures—you’ll find, for example, that good clear translations of words such as “deity,” “worship,” “temple,” “prayer,” “offering,” “scripture,” and the like can be found in a great many languages that have no word for “religion” as such.

… doesn’t invalidate Balangangadhara in the least, because his point is that so many pre-reformation travellers (whom he quotes in detail) took careful note of all those foreign elements of “deity”, “worship” and so forth, but still said the cultures “did not have religion” — not that they didn’t have “our” religion, not that they had “false” religion, but that they had no religion. That is, they didn’t believe the morphology was universal. This is what makes Balagangadhara’s point so much more interesting than a mere quibble about available vocabularies, a point I made last week… but if interested to see where Balagangadhara takes that evidence just check out his actual book. It is very interesting stuff — is “scripture” the same idea the world over? is all religion creedal? etc. — but I wasn’t planning to talk a lot more about it!

I also wasn’t intending to derail Greer’s, well, “progress” — I genuinely thought he might be interested in some of those ideas! They don’t invalidate what he’s saying, they just nuance it differently — basically the post-Abrahamic nature of Greer’s “progress religion” sets it off against other forms of religion as fundamentally different, and that would include his own Druidry as far as I can see. Yes I did and do foresee problems with the series, based not uncomedically on a morphological approach vis-a-vis previous Greer series, but I’m not going to endlessly blather about them either, at least until everything upcoming is done. So as far as I personally am concerned this current post of his wasn’t necessary.

Goethe’s morphology, like several other things Greer mentioned and will mention, plays a role in my series too, albeit the two series have rather different approaches, which means they may clash or dovetail. But neither of those eventualities would be such a frightful thing, would it? :)

Oh — and as I said, I’m not going to spend any more time on this. Positively, this is my last word on it. Comments here are closed.

EDIT: It looks like no-one else is really bothered about this. :) Some people are happy to just go along with Greer, others have already given up on the whole “progress religion” thing as a straw man… but the idea between those two positions, of doing a lot more discussion of the points below, doesn’t seem to have any traction by contrast with my usual posts. So I will let it lie.

In fairness to Greer, he has said I’ve misunderstood him. In fairness to me — he hasn’t said how, and I quoted him verbatim at least on some things.

But anyway, we’ll move swiftly on…


So before I go any further, a little situation has been building that I want to explore. John Michael Greer (one of the two excellent writers who unequivocally showed me the necessity of a historical approach to SBNR, William Irwin Thompson being the other), has just begun his own biiiiiig series on religion and peak oil. The latest post is a fair sample if you haven’t been following so far.

Like some other readers I’m having a little trouble with this series, and wondered if anyone else would like to discuss it. I will post to Greer’s comments page — link here as soon as it’s been put up — but there isn’t room there for everything I want to say.

The basic idea of the series is that everyone who has made any use of the “progress” concept since the Enlightenment can be seen as part of a “religion of progress”, which is “the most widely accepted civil religion of the modern industrial world”, and turns out to be intolerantly post-Abrahamic. Its major belief, Greer says, is that “humanity is moving inevitably onward and upward toward some glorious destiny”. To him this religion encompasses for instance “researchers who have risked their lives, and not infrequently lost them, to further the progress of science and technology” and “moral crusaders who have done the same thing in the name of political or economic progress”, amongst a big crop of other examples.

I don’t — yet — really see the application of this analogy. I’d love a bit more discussion and demonstration about its huge mass of grey areas, but Greer himself seems disinclined. (The shrift given in his comments page to those who question the idea’s explanatory power is short to say the least.) I don’t think progress really “is a religion”, of course, but more importantly I will take a lot of convincing that it can usefully be seen as one — nor do I think it’s necessarily the only or best hinge idea to pick, in persuading people to prepare for difficulties ahead.

But a lot of my problem at the moment is that Greer, who so often inveighs against dualistic, black-white thinking, seems to be indulging in it liberally himself. I wondered if anyone else had found this. He is scripting the content, not just the style or direction of people’s beliefs — and, not for the first time in his blog’s life I think, over-simplifying too liberally.

I’m actually thinking about the little Carl Sagan quote that was posted in his comments this week as an example, of all things — not because I care much for Carl Sagan, but because I don’t, and am pretty neutral. The quote, about awe before the universe, was smeared instantly by Greer as a disingenuous attempt to manipulate Sagan’s readers into the evils of scientism, pretending to reverence its author didn’t feel. The idea that it could have had any sincerity (however mistaken) didn’t seem to cross his mind at all. Sagan was Pope of progressism, which apparently condemns him to hypocrisy.

My problem is that Greer is laying out his theses mostly in order to help people transition away from any addiction to hampering progress myths, in the difficult upcoming age. Thus he’s claiming to pinpoint what is motivating them — and yet, as accurate as Greer is on fact and historical position, I’ve often felt him to be wrong about psychology, even though he puts forward his ideas in the same tone as facts about peak oil! The Sagan thing is just a miniature example of this.

In last week’s comments, Greer promulgated some ideas about scientism as a whole, which explain his evaluation of Sagan: “Nature is what science is supposed to conquer; nature is the Devil of scientism, the old enemy who will eventually be bound in chains and made to drag the glorious chariot of humanity wherever ‘we’ (however defined) want it to go.” Of course, since this has been declared the case, the scientistic Sagan’s awe before nature must be “appeal to a mass market” and nothing more. Sagan’s psychology has to conform to Greer’s categories. Does it?

In my reply to Greer’s comment last week I put forward some remarks of William Irwin Thompson’s which illustrate that scientism as a whole is just not that simple, because there is more than one type of human personality and culture present in it, and showed there are two sides to the story. Greer ignored this. I should mention that Thompson is expecting a dark age every bit as much as Greer is, and has also guffawed a great deal about what he sees as the “ideology of progress that places our industrial culture at the pinnacle of human civilization”, quite rightly so (although even there — notice that isn’t quite Greer’s definition of “progress”). But he seems to tolerate psychological ambiguity better than Greer does. And that may be very, very important when we are claiming to be able to help people change their minds for the better.

Sagan was a true believer in the techno-progress he promulgated, but his sense of wonder at Nature, from what little I know, seems perfectly genuine too. Contradictory? From Greer’s angle it seems so — but humans are. Certainly other people whom Sagan saw (or used) as “prophets” of scientism may well have been in awe of Nature itself, as the Thompson quote makes clear. I found on another site today a reply to Greer which showed a different side to Sagan, but Greer’s response on his own page was to see it as a defence of “Saint Carl” — implying anyone who wants to rebalance distortion about Sagan must be idolising Sagan! That’s what I mean by not being able to tolerate ambiguity. It’s very, very us-them.

Sagan’s ignorant campaign against mysticism and spirituality is hardly likely to endear him to me! He comes off like a purblind fool in my eyes, on that subject, when I chance to stumble across him. But the picture of scientism as “nothing but” this (anti-Druidry!) caricature is in fact precisely the kind of ideological rolling-over that Sagan himself, that scientism itself, resorts to in its worse pseudoskeptical moments — Druidry “nothing but” insane old-fashioned nonsense, etc.. We’ve all seen enough of that (“cold pricklies”). And it is precisely the kind of thing we need to avoid in getting people out of their fixed ideas about the future, in my opinion. (Which leads me to wonder whether Greer hasn’t perhaps been contemplating the enemy too long and begun to imitate it, another process he’s warned others about!)

I admit, another reason I have a problem with all this is my recent research for the series I talked about last post, which revealed in the previous three hundred years an incredibly multiform resource to draw on spiritually for the next three hundred. I began research primed by my interest in Greer’s writing to notice progress ideology wherever I found it, knowing it would need careful questioning in light of the reality ahead. But things weren’t quite that simple when I actually looked in detail. Perhaps this was because I was researching spiritual people — but then, Greer avoids discussion of spirituality on his blog.

“Progress” sometimes was very important to the people I researched, and I made a point of featuring it — I’ll start out my series with a guy who was one of the most progressy of all. But to examine his ideas, and many others, I had to look in practical detail at particular subtleties of thought about the future. When I did that, a single overall ideology of progress was not present. Yes, I’ve seen a couple of people who are close to caricature “progress religionists” in spiritual form (hello, Ken Wilber!), but they are definitely a minority.

Deciding that “progress” is the problem, above all other problems, is perhaps a natural piece of rhetoric for someone with Greer’s inherent conservative slant, but it is a concept he has barely defined, and certainly he hasn’t given anyone’s definition apart from his own (except maybe he’ll give Nietzsche’s!) How do we know it holds with the kind of breadth he’s claiming? Is he possibly thinking the problem into a box which it doesn’t altogether fit? At the moment I think he might be. Above all, I think the post-Abrahamic period has been characterised by enormous multiplicity and ambiguity, and deciding what to take forward that best prepares us is a process requires careful understanding of multiplicity, at least as much or more than simplifying into a single intolerant “religion”.

Any thoughts?

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 – 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 – VII

The major contributors to SBNR are very numerous. No-one has yet identified them all. Summarising their contribution would be practically impossible.

And there is no definite “product” of their endeavours, no nice Nicene “result”. One could spend days trying to give the gist of Gebser, Yogananda, Jung, or Huxley. Their modern heirs Stanislav Grof, Lawrence LeShan, William Irwin Thompson, or Glenn Morris would require just as long.

Anyone can wander the SBNR canon and pull out a personal conversation, a particular mind. With no official version, no orthodoxy. With no orthodoxy, no borders. SBNR is what you make it, not what it makes you.

Still, SBNR is no longer as directly indebted to Romanticism. It is leaner, and it has learned the difference between posturing and effectiveness. It has passed through existential crises and been tempered by them. What we have now is a settled growth of many intertwining plants — and a definite opportunity.