Fear and Loathing in New Religious Movements

I find it useful to think with Hunter S. Thompson about a few things, especially fear, loathing, and drugs. This seems instructive for thinking about the status of psychedelics in New Religious Movements (NRMs). I’m interested in thinking about different kinds of fear and loathing that are experienced by practitioners of New Religious Movements who use psychedelic drugs, including an analysis of the psychedelic spirituality implicit in Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1972), a cult classic among psychedelic enthusiasts. Like drugs, feelings of fear and loathing can have beneficial or harmful effects depending on the context. The systemic suppression of psychedelics perpetuates harmful cycles of fear and loathing, but in contexts of religious experiences, psychedelics can facilitate inspiring and integrative engagements with fear and loathing. Continue reading

How Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish, Unhappy

“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.” (1)

I just finished reading David Webster’s short and fun book Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy (Zero Books, 2012).  I was happy to read a book that offers a critical analysis of contemporary spirituality, both because I teach theology and religious studies and because I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which contains a vast array of flavors of “spirituality.”

Before reading the book, I read an interview with Webster about the project.  The interview makes some interesting points, including Webster giving Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a response to the question of what book he wishes he’d written.  Along those lines, I would say that Webster’s critique of spirituality is good, but it’s not quite as critical as Hunter S. Thompson’s, nor is it as hospitable and affirmative.  In any case, Webster’s overall thesis seems correct: contemporary spirituality is indeed making us stupid, selfish, and unhappy. 

Webster is careful to say that he is talking about contemporary spirituality in general.  He acknowledges that some people use the word “spiritual” or “spirituality” in constructive, life-enhancing ways (e.g., Pierre Hadot, for whom “spiritual exercises” are part of philosophy as a way of life).  Aside from such rare instances of spirituality, contemporary spirituality does make us stupid, selfish, and unhappy. 

There is a cafeteria/buffet style of pluralism and syncretism that allows spiritual people to pick and choose what they want and don’t want from each tradition (even picking things that aren’t compatible).  This apparent inclusivity and openness harbors some serious anti-intellectualism.  Debates between competing truth claims?  Those are only for religious people (dogmatists, fanatics) or for materialists (spiritually immature reductionists).  Truly spiritual people transcend debates by participating in the perennial truth of mystic unity. 

In short, spirituality is “faith-lite” (17).  Whereas religion (or Kierkegaard’s “leap of faith”) makes heavy demands on practitioners to adjust their thinking, feeling, and acting to fit with what’s been revealed according to the tradition, spirituality doesn’t make such demands, and it thereby makes us stupid or at least intellectually lazy.  It also makes us selfish. 

Institutions (religious and secular) are forces of community building and organizing.  Spirituality is about a personalized inner journey to the true nature of the self.  That privileging of interiority makes spiritual people less engaged in social and political activities.  “Spirituality cedes the world to the worldly” (7).  

Ironically, while critiquing consumerist materialism, the only kind of community that spirituality engenders is consumerist community, where members are all buying the same kind of magazines and meditation retreat packages, patronizing similar therapists and life-coaches.  Spirituality sells happiness, but that happiness is not authentic.  Webster follows the existentialist approach to happiness, for which happiness can only be attained by resolutely facing one’s own finitude and mortality.  Spirituality doesn’t face the fear and loathing of existence, the abyss.  Instead, it covers over the abyss with easy answers about an immortal soul or about happiness coming from within.  When happiness comes from within, you don’t have to worry about the countless others outside of your spiritual bubble who are far from happy.  Thus privatized, happiness becomes the name for a rather unjust and miserable way to live.

Webster’s diagnosis of contemporary spirituality is great, and I appreciate his appeal to existentialism.  I also appreciate that he teaches religion and seems to have an extensive knowledge of South Asian religions.  However, there are a few big problems with his analysis.  First, his existentialism sounds too humanistic (too Sartrean, not enough Kierkegaard or Heidegger).  Although he attempts to distance his position from humanism in the concluding two paragraphs of the book (too little, too late!), he only distances himself from the British Humanist Associations version of humanism, and even then it’s a very small distance.  Webster seems to think that, if we want/need rituals, “then we are as capable of inventing them without spirituality and religion as we have been when we invented them as part of religious traditions” (75).  Who is this rather capable “we”?  It is a bunch of humans, as if the plants, animals, seasons, songs, and dances involved in rituals are so involved solely  because of human inventiveness, and not because of any other-than-human power (which doesn’t have to be God or Being, but could also be the agency of plants and animals).       

Along with Webster’s humanism, his atheism is also a problem.  Let me put it another way: he gives no account of the ontological weight of angels, spirits, and God.  Maybe angels and deities don’t exist, but how do they have the impacts and effects they do?  Belief is one thing, but what about self-declared “spiritual” people who are actually having visions and encounters with these things?  Are we just going to chalk it up to hallucination?  Imagination?  If so, what is the ontological significance of a hallucination or of image?  Even if they’re hallucinations, they’re still powerful, and not something to be dismissed as if they’re merely a facade for anti-intellectualism or death-denial.  On this point, I think a better critique of spirituality is given in that book that Webster would have liked to write, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  Hunter S. Thompson critiques theism, Satanism, and hippy spirituality while still honoring the reality (or hyperreality) of hallucinations, images, and even God.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable and thought-provoking book.  It’s short, accessible, and clever.  I’ll probably use it for teaching my course on society and religion.

Too Much: Excess

I’m very sympathetic to the critique of consumerism and market fundamentalism given by Clive Hamilton and Richard Deniss in their 2005 book Affluenza: When Too Much is Never Enough.  However, their critique throws the exorbitantly excessive baby out with the consumerist bathwater.  They’re upset about how much people desire more and more and much too much.  Environmentalists and critics of capitalism often emphasize much needed limits and regulations without paying enough attention to the need for multiple forms of transgression, expansion, extravagance. 

An ethicopolitical response to contemporary ecological and economic challenges must engage the astonishing complexity of limits, whereby limits are constitutively entangled with their transgression.  Abundance abounds, scarcity overflows.    

From Bataille’s perspective […] there is always too much rather than too little, given the existence of ecological (“natural”) and social (“cultural”) limits.  The “end” of humankind, its ultimate goal, is thus the destruction of this surplus. […] Bataille emphasizes the maintenance of limits and survival as mere preconditions for engaging in the glorious destruction of excess.  The meaning of the limit and its affirmation is inseparable from the senselessness of its transgression in expenditure (la dépense).
—Allan Stoekl, Bataille’s Peak: Energy, Religion, and Postsustainability [University of Minnesota Press, 2007), p. 45]

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough. […] Exuberance is Beauty. […] Enough! or Too much.
—William Blake

You took too much.  You’re about to explode.  Jesus, look at your face! […] The first rush is the worst.  Just ride the bastard out.
—Dr. Gonzo

Too much is never enough.
—MTV (one of many slogans)

Fear and Loathing in the Desert of the Real

Psychedelic drugs have been a widespread part of popular culture since the middle of the twentieth century, influencing artists, musicians, celebrities, environmentalists, surfers, ravers, scholars, etc.  It is fairly well-documented that psychedelics have shaped the development of various spiritualities, including nature spiritualities oriented toward experimentation with intense, boundary-dissolving, sensory experiences, wherein the self and the natural world converge, such that nature is felt to be a source of belonging as well as a strange and uncanny other.  Deep ecology would be a case in point, as would the aquatic nature spirituality of surfers. 

A particularly unique example of psychedelic nature spirituality is implicit in the 1998 film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, based on the novel of the same name by the “gonzo” journalist and pop culture icon Hunter S. Thompson.  Fear and Loathing portrays a wild and drug-fueled trip in which a fictionalized Thompson (played by Johnny Depp) goes to Las Vegas with his legally dubious lawyer (played by Benicio Del Torro) to find and cover the story of “the American dream.”  Nearly all of the dialogue in the film is taken directly from the book, making a close reading of the book a helpful tool in analyzing the film. 

What I’m interested in doing is looking closely at the film to consider two things: 1) How  does the film affirm psychedelic experiences of the sacred (wholly other) power of natural phenomena (e.g., bats, reptiles, plants, water, the desert, as well as varieties of genders, classes, and races of humans)? 2) How does the film criticize various spiritualities, including Christian, New Age, Satanic, and even psychedelic. 

My initial thought it that the film affirms the experimental and experiential wildness of psychedelic nature spirituality while also harboring a critique of its tendencies toward utopianism, idealism, and anti-modernism.  Through that affirmation and critique, the film promotes a more realist sense of psychedelic nature spirituality.  Accordingly, the film celebrates Las Vegas in all of its deserted reality, that is, the groundless artificiality and errant depravity that characterizes the hyperreality of Baudrillard’s “desert of the real.”  This resonates with Mark C. Taylor’s realized eschatology, in which the hyperreal desert of Las Vegas is the site of the realization of the Kingdom of God on Earth. 

The deserted realism of Fear and Loathing makes it unique among psychedelic nature spiritualities, and, perhaps paradoxically, it also makes it the most viable for becoming integrated into contemporary society.  I don’t romanticize Thompson or his drugs, guns, or suicide.  What makes him relevant is not his authenticity or originality or his subversion of the system.  He is so relevant precisely because his passion for the real is thoroughly ungrounded and ethically questionable, abyssal and abysmal, deserted like the realized Kingdom in which we all participate.