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on 14 June 2012
Webster's book starts out slightly facetious, which I know has turned some readers off, but it manages very quickly to demonstrate the necessity for an intervention into the world of Mind-Body-Spirit writing. The spirituality movement is often considered harmless if kind of kooky. Webster is fair, I think, in separating out the merely vapid from the intellectually dishonest and dangerous.

Some of spiritualism's claims are easy to dismiss (correctly, I find) as trivial. Webster prefers to focus on the problems that come with being totally inclusive, even at the cost of serious philosophical/ethical contradictions. He attacks the idea of a "feminine essence" which pleases so many alternative healers and gurus, and exposes it for the regressive cliche that it is. Treading slightly more familiar territory but from a philosophical (not scientific) perspective, Webster shows how incredibly tenuous and meaningless the link really is between the scientific method (and literature) and the spiritualism movement. There are also considerations of what, exactly, "spirit" even means. Is it just a metaphor, or do fans of New Age have a particular meaning in mind?

In what I am certain will be one of the book's most misunderstood and misinterpreted passages, Webster writes of the challenge of dealing with the contradictions in a "conventional" religion like Christianity:

"In conventional religion, once you accept its fundamental tenets, you are challenged in two primary ways. Firstly, there may be beliefs, or doctrinal notions, that you find hard to believe. You cannot abandon them though, and have to enter into a reflective, thoughtful, possibly hermeneutic process to try and make sense of them. This is intellectually and personally demanding. It challenges you to take propositional statements, doctrinal beliefs, as serious and worthy of engaging with, no matter how painful and challenging that engagement becomes. Secondly, mainstream religion tells you what to do. This can be seen as negative, and certainly fits with widespread views of religion as a means of social control. But another perspective, not denying the potential for such a usage, is that religion demands that we resist, or at least seek to resist, our most selfish desires. If we follow a religious faith, with sincerity, we are challenged to do some very difficult ethical work: to put others first; to love enemies; to forgive those who do wrong; to cultivate humility."

This is not, strictly speaking, a defense of religion. Nevertheless, it does touch on something that is problematic within spiritualism in general: there is no "grappling with" anything. All ideas are welcome. You don't have to deal with contradictions. You don't even have to make much sense in conversation with someone who claims to hold the same principles as you do. In other words, there is something totally resistant to logic, reason or even common sense at the heart of the spiritualist vision which is bound to lead to intellectual laziness, selfishness and, indeed, stupidity.


Phil Jourdan,
author of Praise of Motherhood
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on 6 January 2013
There is nothing in this work that should be seen as representing a challenge to the personal integrity of those who have a professed affinity for ideas commonly labelled as New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/Mind, Body and Spirit (MBS) thinking, and who choose to live their lives in ways that align with them; it is, nevertheless, a trenchant critique of these ideas, and their political and social implications when adopted as social practice, written from an atheistic existentialist perspective.

Any summary of New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS thinking will not do complete justice to it; no summary of anything ever does. In its essentials, though, one is likely to find what Nevil Drury, in his book "The New Age: Searching for the Spiritual Self", describes as follows: "drawing on both Eastern and Western spiritual and metaphysical traditions and infusing them with influences from self-help and motivational psychology, holistic health, parapsychology, consciousness research and quantum physics...[it is] a spirituality without borders or confining dogmas." Thus it offers an approach for exploring and adopting spiritual beliefs that appeals to some people because of its inclusive, pluralistic, non-dogmatic, and `non-religious' characteristics, and engenders disdain from others for appearing to be a spiritual `catch all' that lacks philosophical and theological coherence.

Webster's critique of these ideas and their application is multifaceted, but the following are the three main concerns he identifies as central to his polemic: " the impact of spirituality" (as defined by the New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS movement) "on critical intellectual thinking, on our sense of the social and political, and the impact on the human potential for happiness and fulfilment." Essentially, Webster considers these ideas to be superficial, fostering in their advocates: " a rejection of the mass of detail in the world and a re-evaluation of material, worldly concerns as somehow squalid, shallow and beneath the spiritual aspirant." This, according to Webster, marginalises the realm of the political in human endeavour, as a means of bringing about social advancement by way of collective political engagement, with party politics seen as passe, and, by contrast, solipsistic self-regard as de rigueur.

An example of the superficiality of these ideas as they relate to critical thinking, argues Webster, is in their advocates' readiness to uncritically embrace post-modernism's "suspicion of grand-narrative-derived accounts of objectivity and truth." This has, he contends, "bled into popular culture as the idea that truth is relative" and a notion that "truth is not only multiple, but, vitally, that all attempts to offer an account of truth are of equal value-and that it is elitist to rule out any means for asserting `truths'." It is clear that Webster sees this tendency as regrettable, stating: "By accepting multiple, simultaneously valid truths we abandon the actual meaning of the word `true'. More importantly, we abandon the struggle to find truth amidst a welter of claims" and later by asserting that: "I want to be clear here: contemporary spirituality, with its approach to multiple truths, encourages lazy thinking that has a disregard for truth." Intriguingly, however, Webster does not make any reference to a key atheistic `existentialist' writer who considered otherwise. Friedrich Nietzsche, whose questioning of the objectivity of truth was central to his outlook as evidenced, for example, by his essay, "On Truth and Lies in a Non-moral Sense" where he defines truth as "a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms, and anthropomorphisms" was undoubtedly a precursor to post-modernist, relativist thinking. I therefore suggest that atheistic existentialism, underpinned as it is by a subjectivist ontology (and thus antithetical to a positivist one), is far more in tune with post-modernist, relativist thinking on truth, than Webster, in his criticism of post-modernism from a self-professed atheistic existentialist perspective, might have us believe.

Webster's alternative to New Age/Contemporary Spirituality/MBS thinking is straight out of the works of Albert Camus. He accurately sums up Camus' thinking as follows: Camus, "sees the realisation of this world as a challenge. I see it as a choice as he does-between suicide and a remade sense of self where we choose to face up to the reality of nihilism-and work at living well anyway. Isn't this what Camus has Sisyphus do?" Like Camus, Webster attributes human motivation for belief in anything spiritual as: "an attempt to obscure from view that which lies directly ahead of us: our own death...It is the claim that we have an (eternal) spirit, which will survive the death of the body (and brain) and live on in a non material realm." And whilst it is probable that for some people the fear of death may well be a motivational factor accounting for their faith held beliefs in a spiritual realm, one wonders how universally applicable Webster considers this statement to be as an explanation of all faith held beliefs in a spiritual realm. Within liberal Christianity, to take just one example, there are thinkers such as Marcus Borg, a Lutheran, who, in his book "The Heart of Christianity", defines Christian life as " a life of relationship and transformation. Being a Christian is about not meeting the requirements for a future reward in an afterlife, and not very much about believing. Rather, the Christian life is about a relationship with God that transforms life in the present." Borg does not rule out the possibility of there being an afterlife, and believes in a God that he describes as immanent and transcendent, but his Christian perspective does not presuppose one. Belief in an afterlife as a way of mitigating a fear of death is not, therefore, the motivational underpinning of his Christian faith, nor that of countless other liberal Christians.

Webster seeks to offer a post-spiritual response to the existential realities of life as he sees them, but without making any serious attempt to engage with theology, on either an historical or philosophical level. He anticipates this line of criticism, stating: "Some may accuse me, in either parts or all of this book, of a Straw Man/Aunt Sally claiming that I set up only the most crude stereotype of spirituality to make it all the easier to knock down. The reader will have to judge...". Indeed.

Joe Forde
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on 29 March 2016
Happily, I bought this for less than the £10 the publishers charge at full price. I do know that Zero books operate on a shoestring, and generally I am a great fan. This one is a disgrace to the publishing industry. There are typographical errors all over the place - sometimes four on one page. The writing 'style' is erratic and often obtuse. Consider this from page 35: 'But while loving the planet is a central neo-Pagan theme - but does it contain any moral content? That is, is all is the manifestation of the Goddess and her fecundity, what are we called to do?' I cannot believe that the book had an editor, nor that the author was interested in correcting proofs.

This is a very short book which makes the glaring errors even worse. It is disjointed and seems to have been thrown together over a drink (or two). Was it really necessary in an essay of 76 pages to devote one of them to an extract from Ecclesiastes? Having none of the structures of theology, the essay does not provide the orientation necessary to the subject. It does raise some of the main areas that need discussing, but I found no cohesion and nothing original. It may serve well as a handout to students on introductory courses to something or other.
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on 16 June 2012
If contemporary spirituality is something you have not given much thought - this is the perfect starting place.

Webster's accessible and witty style will draw you in from start to finish, and leave you wanting more! Although not explicitly referred to, perhaps the main statement to take away for the opposite camp is this - "Keep an open mind - but not so open that your brain falls out."

In chapter four (my favourite) he deals with the inevitable death we all must face. Drawing from wide a range of sources from Socrates to The Seventh Seal, Webster invokes a simple, yet powerful, message to his readers - the meaning of our lives will not be found "...in the realm of the spirit, not in the heavens, or post death worlds, but here and now - with other people..."

While Dispirited is not without its controversies, I do, nevertheless, appreciate the concerns Webster raises in the book as they are ones I share i.e. spiritual solipsism, little buddha statues on mantelpieces, lack of socio-political engagement and so forth.

I think anyone who reads Dispirited (even the "Spiritual, but not Religious" person) will take something away from it. For this reason alone, this book deserves to be widely read!
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on 29 December 2013
I loved every second of this read, it expressed my own views in an articulate and logical way, and is a much needed critique of the modern ideology of "spiritual". Bravo.
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on 24 February 2014
I ordered this because I know the author. It is heavy going but if you persist it is intriguing .
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on 12 July 2012
This is a contentious and timely work. Contentious because it does not hold back from challenging those who are so ready to declare their spirituality without considering what they mean themselves by it, and timely because you only need to go into a bookstore to see how books on spirituality are sprouting out all over the place, yet there is little around that questions what spirituality actually means. As a philosophy lecturer myself I sympathise with Dr Webster's assertion that philosophy seems well able to address the concerns of meaning and value without the need for the addition of spirituality and, indeed, that spirituality can seem a somewhat vacuous concept at best and a harmful one at worse. Dr Webster argues for its harmfulness from what seems a largely Nietzschean perspective that an immersion in contemporary spirituality is a form of life-denying and, therefore, psychologically damaging. The author is careful to stress that he is concerned with spirituality as it is popularly expressed, although critics have often seemed to miss this important point and have argued for more subtle understandings of spirituality but, as I say, they seem to miss the point of this thesis by doing so and would do well to read this book carefully.The God of Philosophy Second Edition
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on 24 April 2014
There are times when this book makes a lot of sense, despite being largely a litany of moans. New Age versions of "spirituality" do indeed have great potential to blend seamlessly with either narcissism, consumerism or both to construct a sort of moral cocoon. The "as science is now realising..." crowd well deserve a good verbal drubbing. I agree with the author that any spiritual practice that does not include facing up to the reality of death is unlikely to be satisfactory. And I like his criticism of New Atheism that you can't necessarily get everywhere by rational argument - sometimes you have to try things to find out what they do. And yet...

For a lecturer in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics, Webster seems to forget very easily that these problems beset many mainstream religions in great, if not equal measure. CS Lewis was complaining about Christians who avoid engaging with their faith by incessantly shopping around for the perfect church back in "The Screwtape Letters", for example. Doctrines of an afterlife or reincarnation can easily be abused to sidestep the inevitability of death, and Chogyam Trungpa's "Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism" shows how our narcissistic tendencies can adroitly turn any worthwhile activity or thought to their own ends (and in any religion, not just Buddhism). Unfortunately, the author appears not to have read it, which seems extraordinary given his interest in the relationship between Buddhist thought and Western psychology.

Ken Wilber is another author whose insights would have much improved the analysis (A Brief History of Everything would be a good place to start). What Wilber calls the "pre/trans fallacy" is strewn throughout the text, particularly with regard to how to address the lack of absolute truths without descending into the morass of all statements being of equal worth and value.

The arguments are sometimes very sloppy. A whole section attacks the mystical strands of various religions and the "perennial philosophy" on the grounds of being intellectually convenient and easily hijacked by narcissism and consumerism (very true) but fails to engage with the central question of whether there may be an underlying truth nonetheless, ironic considering this is the sort of evasion he so roundly criticises in New Age thinking. There are dubious arguments ("If we see all life as sacred, surely no life is?") (no, I don't think that works as an argument) and obviously one-sided ones (he points out the potential problems with "we can't fix the world, we can only fix ourselves", but fails to note that the corollary is often even less satisfactory, leading to projection, hypocrisy and/or burnout).

Another problem is the failure to consider to what extent all this muddled thinking causes the problems described, or is symptomatic of them. The two are not mutually exclusive, but it's a reasonable question and goes largely unanswered. After all, we don't throw out quantum mechanics just because some people abuse it to endorse magical thinking. Ironically, just as he is complaining about how all this New Age thinking is depoliticising, page 54 mixes up Tony Blair and David Cameron. Perhaps understandable, but rather illuminating, to my mind. If even this critic of New Age woolliness can't keep the two straight, perhaps the problem lies elsewhere...?

The Conclusion is understandably a bit weak (it's a huge topic to try to round off) but would be greatly strengthened by a consideration of what ritual really is, and why it matters. Big subject, but I don't see how it can be avoided. Some consideration of the sorts of existential arguments constructed by people such as Eric Maisel might also be helpful (pursuing meaning rather than happiness).

As others have noted, the editing is atrocious, with many run-on sentences and missing words, and the typography is also poor (among many widows and orphans, p34 begins with a single word on a line by itself). But I could live with all of that, and the rather verbose academic style, if the content was worthwhile. It is, but only just.
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VINE VOICEon 20 September 2012
I borrowed my husband's copy of this book and although I wasn't sure what to expect, I found it very interesting, with the ideas clearly, if forcefully at times, expressed and convincing arguments set out all through.
The author's is sincere, logical, honest and very persuasive, challenging lazy thinking and encouraging the examination of our own beliefs. Not always a comfortable read, but a timely and worthwhile one. Highly recommended.
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