I went into Waterstones at the weekend, hoping to see both Dave Webster’s new book Dispirited and my own Philosopher’s Beach Book on the shelves. Sadly, neither were there waiting for the good reading folk of Chelmsford to buy. However, a glance around the non-fiction part of the shop rather confirmed the threat highlighted in Dave Webster’s book…
One small section of shelving was labeled ‘Religions’ and it had a small selection of introductory titles, a modest selection of Bibles and prayer books, and displayed on the top, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists. So far so predictable. But next to those shelves was a huge block, three times as wide, devoted to the assorted nonsense called ‘Mind, Body, Spirit’ – the ever-expanding MBS of publisher/bookshop-speak. But where was the Philosophy section? Tucked in the corner was a category called ‘Smart Thinking’, which did (thankfully, if I’m to supplement my modest pension) have a copy of my Understand Philosophy, along with some of the usual popular philosophy suspects, along with advice of perking up your capacity to think.
Philosophy seemed to have morphed into another aspect of MBS – when you’ve tried all the other spiritual therapies, how about perking up your mental abilities too! All part of the spiritual supermarket; pick and mix and don’t think about any of it for too long!
Which brings me to the book by Dave Webster that really should have been on the shelves somewhere (along with my own!), namely Dispirited. It is a readable and devastating critique of MBS. He argues that it makes us stupid, selfish and unhappy. Stupid, because it offers a range of often incompatible theories but no serious intellectual challenge; selfish, because its focus on the inner life detracts from engagement with the ethical and political sphere; unhappy, because it fails (among other things) to take into account the reality of death, without which we cannot get a realistic view of our life and the positive things it offers.
After reading it, I felt quite depressed – not because of the book itself, which is an important contribution to any assessment of the state of 21st century ‘spirituality’, but because of… the state of 21st century ‘spirituality’.
I had assumed that many people who turn away from conventional religion, as I have done, are forced to do so in order to retain their integrity when confronted there by unbelievable supernaturalism. But if the popularity of MBS is anything to go by, the quest for intellectual integrity is low of the list of priorities for a huge number of people.