Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Dispirited - How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy by David Webster

Sorting out what is and isn't true, and what can and can't be, dependent on what we do and don't accept is vital - and it is hard. I want to be clear here: contemporary spirituality, with its approach to multiple truths, encourages lazy thinking that has a disregard for truth.

Throughout this book author David Webster makes disparaging remarks to the current interest in Mind, Body, Spirit with the acronym MBS. It is the last two letters that are probably the most significant. This book is nothing less than an attack on the confusion of pseudo-science and the arrogance of faith-based certainties. In this regard Webster thankfully joins the likes of Francis Wheen and Ben Goldacre, rather than the more aggressive Sam Harris

Because Dispirited is as much about the foolishness in taking sides in arguments about belief that merely create more unthinking, tribal divisions, as it is a critique of the inauthentic claims of post-modern spiritualism.

It is this thread of Webster's argument that I find most fascinating, that the breaking down of religious barriers through the increase in cross-denominational or mixed bag spirituality has actually led to more ignorance. Instead of a free exchange of ideas, the exercise of thought has become absurd. If everything is true, then nothing is meaningful. Webster's introduction of Kierkegaard into this discussion is a welcome one, his notion of a 'Knight of the Faith' is often contrasted with Nietzsche's Ubermensch. A compelling case is made for the intellectual rigor of religious philosophy, as well as its trickle-down legacy to modern existentialism. Heidegger began as a theologian after all and his being-towards-death underlines the core of the philosophical project, which as Webster points out was an aspect of the Socratic definition of what a philosopher is - a man able to face the thought of death. 

New Age spiritualism and cod-philosophy that is in fact disguised navel-gazing, is denounced in Dispirited as a evasion of any true investigation of life/death, therefore as far away from philosophy or science as it is possible to be. Webster's argumentation is passionate - which excuses the odd typo in my edition, I imagine his finger-tips compelled by an emotive moment of inspiration pounding away at the keys - and learned, drawing on a number of sourced material to back up his claims. In effect what he is describing is consumer faith, superficial and unchallenging - one size fits all. There is also an incisive analysis of the notion of online 'community', versus the destabilizing reality of lived in neighborhoods and towns, now full of strangers insulated from one another courtesy of their internet connections. 

This is a knowledgeable, balanced and intelligent work, a sincere engagement with contemporary debate that too often descends into a shouting match.


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