A Careful Walk through the Spirituality Minefield

DispiritedOr, a review of David Webster’s “Dispirited: How contemporary spirituality makes us stupid, selfish, and unhappy.”

Webster teaches Religion, Philosophy, and Ethics not far from me and as a fellow traveler on the road of Buddhist studies (Webster’s fist book is on Buddhism and Desire) and philosophy, I have been looking forward to reading this book for some time. At just over 70 pages, it’s written as a pamphlet almost, perhaps a manifesto: light on footnotes, jargon, and the kind of verbiage that can turn a lot of people off from intelligent writing. I highly recommend it.

That said, it may come as no surprise that the book seems to have been misunderstood by some readers. Perhaps this is due to its polemical opening words:

When someone tells me that they are not really religious, but that they are a very spiritual person, I want to punch their face. Hard.

Not exactly the best way to make friends. But Webster does explain. The problem is confusion: his own. Religion for him is deeply spiritual, and spirituality is inseparable from religion.

Thus the book reads less like an attack on ‘spiritual’ life (which Webster notes is multifaceted and not always pernicious – e.g. in Pierre Hadot’s “Philosophy as a Way of Life“) and more as an exploration of and ultimately an attack on a very pernicious marketplace of spirituality in the contemporary world. The problematic notion of spirituality is narrowed, in developing detail, to the kind of superficial, non-committed, materialistic nonsense which so often surrounds people proffering the above violent-desire-producing phrase.

In fact, despite his committed atheism, Webster praises traditional religions for fostering the kind of commitment and consistent challenge to be better people that is all too lacking in the flakier regions of contemporary spirituality. As part of this, Webster advocates ‘following a faith which makes you uncomfortable – and which is hard to believe, challenges your desires and goals for your life and asks more of you that you ask of it’ (p.3). Alongside our faith (or lack thereof), Webster describes the need for ‘the active promotion of philosophy, of genuine, judgmental, critical faculties which allow people to discriminate with regard to truth claims’ (p.74).

This is the heart of the book, and a damned good heart it is. The spirituality he derides is closely tied to a communal, social, and political laziness rampant in modern society. Spirituality – divorced from its institutional context in this way – can become a pernicious preoccupation, leading us away from the engagement with the world that engenders meaning and purpose in our lives. In fact, Webster suggests that certain discourses of spirituality today ‘are a form of poison that taints not only critical and social realms, but also does violence to our potential to be authentic, happy(ish) and fulfilled human beings’ (p.6).

In the end, Webster hopes to spur spiritual seekers and the other walking-dead out of the foo-foo isle of the bookstore and into some sort of real engagement with the world around them. In a long, but too-good-not-to-share quote, Webster sums up the situation today:

I was listening to the song (by Finnish Black Metal band ‘Impaled Nazarene’) We’re Satan’s Generation, in which they style themselves as ‘not giving a fuck’, and thinking that actually, despite the band’s insistence, they are nowhere near as malign as a shopping centre full of consumers. These consumers, buying sweatshop produced goods, driving four wheel drive SUVs, picking a little Buddha statue maybe, apolitical and not committed to anything at all – they truly ‘don’t give a fuck’: Satan wearing chinos and a casual jacket, his arms heavy with goods, his conscience cleared by a post-ideological levity of thought, supplemented by feel-good spirituality. Of course, below the chinos, the aftershave and the tasteful display is anxiety: a sore that no new-age balm can really salve – for it is the total, nihilistic meaningless of their life. (p.73)

Here we may say that Webster is losing sight of his origional target of spiritual foofoos as he veers toward English wealthy-ish (chino-clad) youth – but he may simply be drawing them in as a case of the same type of aimless wandering and useless airiness associated with the ‘spiritual but not religious’ crowd.

In the end, as I call to mind many of my friends who are either anxious and chino-clad or ‘spiritual but not religious’, I agree with Webster’s chief worry about the sense of aimlessness and lack of committment so prevalent in today’s society. Spirituality, so often vaguely conveyed, is the heart of that worry in the book. This book should come as a clarion call to all young people to think deeply about their lives and whether or not their beliefs involve commitment and service to society, or whether they simply recycle self-serving platitudes.

In the end, Dispirited (.uk and see also dispirited.org) may be a tough pill to swallow, or it may be an uplifting manifesto for the 21st century. In either case, it’s a must read.

UPDATE: Listen to a sermon from an Australian Baptist church which draws from this book.

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  • http://racheldardenbennettwonders.com Rachel Darden Bennett

    So much juicy stuff here. I will certainly read “Dispirited” after reading your post. Yhea, it’s all a bit whacked. But, here is something. When I read something, anytime, anywhere and it tugs and tears a part of my heart reading, I know I have to listen to that. The most. For me it was part of Webster’s quote: “Of course, below the chinos, the aftershave and the tasteful display is anxiety: a sore that no new-age balm can really salve – for it is the total, nihilistic meaningless of their life.” This is it. The thing is, we as people have become utterly disconnected due to the insane, overpowering and ominous Need To Consume. We’ve lost our way and Jesus, if there’s anything that will help us find our way, it’s compassion. For the kids in the chinos and for ourselves. How could we not be anxious? We live in a world bathed and swaddled by insanity. The only way I find the truth of who I am (whatever that means, but I think it means the place from which I am spacious and act from courage not fear) is when I meditate. We’re all shades of each other. Best not to judge. Best to notice and know there are always reasons for everything. Thus, interconnection. Thus Karms. I wrote a post where I realized this on a NYC subway: http://racheldardenbennettwonders.com/2012/07/19/22/ Thanks for your blog. I’ll keep reading! Rachel

    • Justin Whitaker

      Hi Rachel – I liked your blog post. It is amazing how numbed people can become. Some people use ‘spirituality’ to feed that numbness, others use consumerism. The most frustraiting, for some of us, is when spirituality becomes its own consumer industry… Enjoy the read and keep up your great writing.

  • http://sacramentohomeless.blogspot.com Tom Armstrong

    I’m not sure how the book isn’t a bundle of self-serving platitudes warning against self-serving platitudes.

    One’s life becomes meaningful how? doing what? by becoming as cloying as Hello Kitty?

    “Spirituality” means what, exactly, in the context of the book?

    I mean you pretty much have to start with a young Woody Allen in Annie Hall telling his doctor he won’t be going back to school (or, eat his vegetables or whatever) because the universe is expanding and eventually we’ll all be dead. “So what’s the point?”

    A guy I know at the mission was a devout Christian. He said he conversed with Jesus. I asked what Jesus’s voice sounded like. In all apparent seriousness, he insisted the voice was like that of Errol Flynn’s [ http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi4107273241/ ] Other people see connections everywhere and their interpretations of these marvels seem always to be self-serving in one way or the other.

    But even if we dismiss all the one-offs, that sound delusional, and those whose ego is still at the helm of their life, I’m unclear on how being Johnny B. Good makes one’s life meaningful. If you are purposeful to be branded “Good” by acting good, then you’ve undermined your project by HAVING a project in the first place. And if you adamantly don’t have a project [how very Buddhisty!] then you havent taken up the cane of spirituality in the first place.

    Religions are, generally, a jungle — a mess. And you are necessarily left with the choice of either joining the Mickey Mouse Club and being a noble, regular, indistinguishable-from-the-rest Mouseketeer, or you take up as your project being better than all those flatbushes — being the one non-hypocritical not-two-faced soul in the din. And if your aim becomes one of “being better” then — aha! — there’s your fart-smelling ego, again.

    • Justin Whitaker

      Tom – You can read an intro at Amazon. Figuring out just what ‘spirituality’ means is the first part of the book. In some cases the term is fine, in others it just suggests the user’s vacuity. I’m sure you read about the recent Tony Robbins burnt-feet folks, and don’t forget the poor people in the giant sweat lodge a while back. These aren’t just one-offs, but a sizable portion of society (these are just ones rich enough to get close to the charlitans, countless others buy book after book). Religions are gnerally fine for Webster, even if a mess. Or you can go it alone – or join an atheist group :) – but just make sure your feeding something good in society…

  • http://bunnystuff.wordpress.com/ Jaimie

    Interesting post. I notice this kind of empty spirituality on my fb wall. Certain people post platitude after platitude, some of them Christian and some not. All are intended for personal validation. God loves me, I’m ok, I’m a survivor. None are offensive, I guess, but it makes me wonder why these people need self-affirmation ALL THE TIME. Not that I am judging them, it just seems a little odd. And sad.

    • Justin Whitaker


      Exactly. There’s nothing wrong with a little affirmation now and then, especially when we’re feeling ‘knocked off our horse,’ as we all do sometimes. But it does get a bit worriesome when some people just become a constant stream of affirmation, and no action.

  • drmabus

    5000 whining atheists vs the Great Prophet


  • http://loveofallwisdom.com Amod Lele

    The book sounds intriguing. I note you say that Webster, despite “committed atheism”, “advocates” ‘following a faith which makes you uncomfortable – and which is hard to believe, challenges your desires and goals for your life and asks more of you that you ask of it.’ (Single quotes from him, double from you.) Does he claim to follow what he “advocates” in any respect himself? If not, why not?

    (I don’t say this as an attempt to shut up his line of inquiry. Rather, I suspect I’m in something of a similar place to him right now, but I see some potentially serious problems with it.)

    • Justin Whitaker

      Amod –

      I take it you’re asking if he challenges his own desires and goals in pursuit of living a better life. I would say yes; as much as I know him I would say he pushes himself quite hard, physically and as a scholar. But I suppose it’s a bit of a personal question, isn’t it? Perhaps his ‘faith’ is in the value of a philosophical life. I know he’s a vegetarian, which for most of us is a challenge, and a book like this – drawing him out of the ivory tower before the criticism of the masses – probably also constituted at least some amount of challenge.

      There was one other quote that I thought about putting in the post, but didn’t. He tells us that when we let go of our non-commited spiritual seeking, we in fact open up space for living much better, happier life:

      “If we take what I have said here seriously, then the burden of
      living a life without notions of spirituality is not to be seen as a
      mere meaningless drudge through a pointless world. I would go
      as far as to say that a Nietzschean task of true joy awaits us
      beyond the heavy velvet curtain of the spirit. This is a task for
      what I would call ‘creative loss’, whereby the withdrawal of the
      spiritual leaves an absence for us to fill ourselves with a world of
      value and meaning of our choosing. This is a time for true –
      thinking – flow, for dusting ourselves down after our rejection of
      spirituality and deciding what actually matters, and disputing it
      amongst us without the danger of spiritual or religious trump
      cards being played. If Camus can imagine Sisyphus happy, we
      too can turn our shoulders to the boulder and get stuck into
      living.” (p.71)