Dumpster/Fire: Traces of Burning Man

With guiding principles like self-reliance and self-expression, and a focus on an inclusive community of free exchange (decommodified gift economy), the event and culture of Burning Man is a great example of the phenomenon referred to as “contemporary spirituality.” Much of my research is concerned with relationships between religious communities/traditions and the ecological systems with which they interact. Insofar as it involves a massive amount of people (upwards of 80,000) converging on a desert ecosystem (Nevada’s Black Rock Desert) and turning it into a city oriented around the values of contemporary spirituality, the Burning Man event is a good example of the kind of phenomena I study. Basically, I want to understand the environmental ethics of contemporary spirituality, and Burning Man seems like a good case to study.

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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.