Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Secular Apocalypse: What It Destroys, and What It Creates

I've been meaning to write about the effects of secularism on religions of all kinds, including the non-dual traditions within Hinduism and Buddhism. A good place to start is this recent debate between famed consciousness-capitalist Deepak Chopra and Dr. Aseem Shukla, co-founder of The Hindu American Foundation - and by good I mean there are so many bad ideas running amok between the two of them that each makes unintentional points in the other's favor.

Aseem begins the debate with an attack on the western appropriation of the Hindu Yoga traditions, often without attribution, or much respect for the real purposes and fullness of that tradition, but with a canny eye on the profits to be made from exploiting Yoga's glamour and personal transformation potential. He points out that Chopra is himself one of the primary exploiters of Hinduism, mining its ideas and traditions for marketable sales pitches and methods aimed at the western consumer mentality, rather than fostering any sincere interest in liberation from illusion and ego. All quite true, of course, and Chopra makes a mess of his own efforts to defend himself, not least by making the idiotic claim that Yoga is not actually a form of Hinduism, but that it preceded Hinduism, and that in any case, it actually comes straight out of consciousness itself, and thus can't be limited by any historical tradition.

All in all, I'd say that Chopra loses the exchange badly, but that doesn't matter, because he and others like him are winning the war.  Aseem can argue all he likes that Hinduism is not being treated respectfully by its western usurpers, he can't stop them from continuing to take from it what they like, and leave behind what they don't.

This isn't just a cultural problem between east and west, it's the entire problem with secular modernism itself. It is a force that destroys traditional religion virtually everywhere it goes, just as it has already done so to traditional Christianity within its original cultural borders. And it is doing the same to the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, not just in the west, but also in the east, and in India itself, where the growing numbers of secular, western modernists have been undermining traditional Hindu values and culture for almost two centuries.

To get at the heart of this problem, it's worth examining a claim made by a commentator in the discussion that follows the debate:
the Europeans were just as squabbling a bunch as the fiefdoms in India and elsewhere. They were lucky to have harnessed science a bit before others. When they came to India, the royal blaggards of India were eager to fall over each other to curry favor with Europeans to crush their neighboring fiefdoms.

Other commentators also point out that Indians are not at all lacking in scientific ability or intelligence, and in fact even originated many great scientific and mathematical discoveries that the west later exploited (most notably the number "0", without which mathematics could never have advanced beyond its most rudimentary levels. Likewise, even our Arabic number system originated among Hindus in India, and only came to the west through Arabic channels).

I single out this seemingly innocuous set of arguments not because they are false (they are undoubtedly quite true), but because they miss the point. Westerners did not develop science and technology because they were simply lucky, nor because they were inherently smarter than Indians (or any other people around the world), nor did they do so because the dominant western religion of Christianity was inherently superior to Hinduism or other religions. They were able to develop modern science because they had allowed for, and then developed, a secular sub-tradition within their own religious culture, giving it autonomy over many of the mundane aspects of nature.

This can't be emphasized enough. Brad Warner recently made a similar point in praise of dualism in a post on Dualism: Don’t Knock It So Fast! It Saved Our Civilization! from his blog, Hardcore Zen. Brad quotes astronaut Edgar Mitchell making this point:
“Four hundred years ago. the philosopher Rene Descartes came to the conclusion that physicality and spirituality, or mind and body belonged to different realms of reality that didn’t interact. Now, that served the purpose to get the Inquisition off the backs of the intellectuals so they could disagree on material things with the church without the fear of being burned at the stake. So that ended that, but it did cause, for four hundred years, science to consider consciousness and mind a subject for philosophy and religion and not a subject for science.”

This is an important point Mitchell makes (and that Warner runs with in some good directions, pointing out that Descartes' dualism can reap great benefits by being tolerant of many different approaches). Yet limiting this notion to Descartes' ideas and influence also misses the much larger point, that it wasn't just outright hostility and intolerance that prevented the development of science in religious cultures around the world, it was that the dominant intellectual viewpoint simply could not allow non-religious views any respect, much less autonomy. And without that autonomy, they simply could not develop anything beyond practical technologies developed through old-fashioned methods, rather than systematic sciences derived from higher intellectual reasoning.

These dualistic ideas about religion and nature had their origins in the philosophical approach of the ancient Greeks, who began the first experimental gestures towards a secular, non-religious, natural form of scientific investigation. The Greeks, however, quickly became entrapped in the glue of philosophical idealism and its obsession with transcendent Platonic ideals rather than direct observation of the natural world. Aristotle did observe the natural world superficially, but he derived his knowledge about the world's natural processes from deductive reasoning, rather than experiment, which led him to many erroneous conclusions, such as that the sun revolved around the earth, or that frogs spontaneously came to life from mud.

It was not until the Renaissance that empiricism began to take hold in intellectual life with any serious force. The great Renaissance artists and thinkers carved out a space within the culture of Christianity for a naturalist approach to many forms of knowledge, including not just mechanical technology or artistic creation, but the ordinary processes of bodily life itself. Leonardo and Michelangelo did not paint ideal men and women from their own imaginations, they observed the realities of both mathematical perspective and human anatomy, performing the first autopsies to get the interior musculature and structure of the human body right. Leonardo was not merely an artist, he was one of the first scientists, an engineer who designed and built great and even terrible devices to be used by his patrons in warfare.

All of this prepared the way for the scientific revolution, by creating a small but important secular carve-out within the Christian tradition, patronized by some of the wealthiest men in Christian society, that did not at first see itself as being in any way opposed to religious orthodoxy, but merely the servant of it in exploring the glory of God's creation. The ability to treat many serious questions of the day through secular approaches was a huge development for the time, and it encountered both great resistance, and also great support, mostly because of the practical advances secular science and technology was able to provide.

An example of what the secularists were up to is demonstrated by a popular story, perhaps apocryphal, about a furious debate that arose in 16th century Europe. One even, several theologians began to discuss the question of how many teeth a horse had. Each of them brought up a number of scriptural references to horses, and others looked to ancient Greek philosophical approaches. The issue was not settled in one evening, however, and each of the learned participants retired to their libraries and monasteries to do further research. They met once again to go over their results, which were again inconclusive. Other theologians and scholars were consulted, and soon the question was raging throughout a large area, as more and more ideas and approaches were brought to bear on the question. Soon the most learned men of the region were consumed by this debate, arguing well into the night about what was the correct way to resolve the questions it raised, travelling far and wide to larger and larger assemblies, all without any final resolution.

At one of these gatherings, a young monk not well versed in the traditional approaches broached what most considered a crazy idea. He said, "Why don't we go outside, examine a horse's teeth, and count them." A stunned silence ensued, followed shortly thereafter by laughter. The young monk's superior apologized to the assembly for the ludicrous idea, and asked them to forgive him his naivete and lack of learning. The debate dragged on for weeks, and ended without any final resolution, with no horses; mouths being examined in the proceedings.

The story, whether true or not, illustrates an attitude common not just to Christian theologians, but to most religious cultures. The idea that intellectual knowledge should be based on a strictly naturalistic, empirical investigation of the world, premised on actually looking into a horses' mouth in order to count its teeth, is almost unique to the modern west. Not that other cultures hadn't developed their own technologies, often superior to those in the west, or that ordinary villagers hadn't lived with practical knowledge of animals and plants for thousands of years.

But science is more than just practical knowledge, it's a whole new way of using the intellect. Most of religion does not employ a scientific approach to its truths, regardless of the religion, even those that value empirical knowledge. Some religions might claim to have created a "science of spirituality", including many traditions of Yoga, but on closer examination they have not actually done so. Like their predecessors, they generally see even spiritual truths according to the traditions in which they have been raised, and interpret their experiential mysticism through the lens of those traditions, as a means of affirming their presumptions rather than challenging them.

Even more importantly, these traditions often see religious, spiritual, and worldly truths as inseparable realms, not separate domains with different rules governing each. and they value that cohesive viewpoint above any sort of discriminating rationalism. Not that they do not employ rationalism, or even discrimination, but primarily as a way of affirming the unity in all things. This has many great advantages, but often overlooked are its many disadvantages, which Hinduism's early, catastrophic encounters with the west highlighted.

One must remember that the word "science", like "discrimination", comes from a root word meaning "to separate". When a religion such as Hinduism, based in the philosophical approach of Yoga, which literally means "union", encounters a dualistic philosophical approach based on notions of separation, it tends to reject them out of hand, based on what to them seem like sound philosophical principles, without realizing the practical and material value that might confer upon a culture.

The non-dual dharmic religions, especially, tend to see all of life as an inseparable unity, and while that may have led them to profound realizations about the nature of the absolute, that is also why they never developed a genuinely secular tradition, or anything resembling modern science. So it is no accident that the west developed science long before Hinduism did, and why dharmic cultures have only begun to embrace the secular, scientific approach when directly confronted and conquered by the overwhelming cultural impositions of western colonialism and its material success.

Even post-colonial India and most of Asia has jumped on the secular materialist and scientific bandwagon, largely because political, economic, and military forces have left them no choice. Few people want to sit around navel-gazing at the ashram when there is money to be made and power to be wielded through secular means. So the traditional religious approach is not only undermined in the west, it is also undermined in the east by the very power brokers who once subsidized and supported it. And while India has experienced a resurgence of fundamentalist Hinduism in recent decades, as with fundamentalist Christians in the west (and fundamentalist Muslims as well), this is not a sign of their strength, but of how swiftly those traditions are falling apart.

What Aseem does not seem to grasp is that the secularization, pop-cultural appropriation, and capitalistic exploitation of eastern religious culture is not merely some sort of unfortunate aberration to be called out and shamed, it is the very modus operandi of modern secular culture itself. It is what the west is, what it does, what it cannot help being, because of its own ontological view of reality. And behind all the superficiality of the enterprise lies an unstoppable force: what I like to call "personal empiricism".

The strength of western secularism lies in the power of science to both explain and exploit the material world we live in, but the expression of this power at the level of the human person cannot be reduced to scientific methods, knowledge, or expertise. Most people simply have no qualifications, or interest, in living their lives by strict scientific methods - not even scientists themselves. Instead, this world view manifests itself as the unshakable belief that our direct personal experience is inviolate and true, and that nothing outside of our personal experience can trump this. The secular creed says that, regardless of what anyone else might think or say or believe, no matter what traditional authorities might claim, the final arbiter of truth is our own experience and intuition. Even the findings of science itself must agree with our own personal sense of things, or that too will be rejected as ivory tower irrelevancies.

It's a hard creed to counter. It has many powerful precedents in history, starting with Socrates in the west and Buddha in the east. Undoubtedly the strongest expression of this outlook comes from Buddha himself, when he famously said:
“Now, Kalamas, don’t go by reports, by legends, by traditions, by scripture, by logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views, by probability, or by the thought, ‘This contemplative is our teacher.’ When you know for yourselves that, ‘These qualities are skillful; these qualities are blameless; these qualities are praised by the wise; these qualities, when adopted & carried out, lead to welfare & to happiness’ — then you should enter & remain in them.”
However much this approach may have been praised by a few rare souls in the past, it has seldom actually been practiced within those traditions. Not until the modern day, have people actually begun to think like this as a commonplace affair. Buddhism itself became a carefully guarded tradition built on reports, legends, scriptures, logical conjecture, inference, analogies, the presumed authority of contemplative teachers, and traditional ritual and custom. Hinduism has always been rooted in the authority of all these as well, as have most religious traditions and cultures. It is only the modern west that has tried to embrace this kind of approach with any enthusiasm, and yet not necessarily with much intelligence or discrimination either.

What makes the modern west so powerful is precisely the dualistic separation it has created between the religious and spiritual outlook, and the naturalistic,/secular views of human life and consciousness. Descartes' dualism made it possible to professionalize these approaches, leading to the division of intellectual wisdom into two separate fields: theology, and natural science. Theology was governed by Divine laws given by God and discernible through Divine inspiration by those whose lives were closest to God's ideal, and natural science was governed by mathematical laws, also given by God, but discernible through observation and analysis of nature herself (and most often through mathematical methodology).

The power that science has unleashed is itself a kind of Yoga. If one examines the methodology of yogic practice for the purpose of gaining siddhis, or supernatural powers, it commonly includes a kind of ascetic discipline of exclusion, in which the yogi concentrates his attention, and disciplines his own bodily energies and life to exclude much of ordinary experience. The yogi may stand on one leg for many years, meditate in terrible conditions of heat or cold, concentrate himself in absorptive contemplation of a particular sound or mantra or visualization. After much tapas, the yogi emerges from his years of arduous practice with supernatural powers that only other yogis can understand.

I'd suggest that the discipline of science uses precisely these kinds of methods to produce its own powerful siddhis. It engages in a deep and philosophical exclusion of many aspects of life and consciousness through its dualistic methods, and after much intensive contemplative observation of the forces of nature, it emerges with its own great and most impressive powers over the natural world. It does not call this magic, or attribute its powers to any Divine source, but that is perhaps the very exclusion that gives it its siddhis. And the successful demonstration of those powers over nature has won most of the world over to its own religious viewpoint, even if it is largely an areligious one.

What then of modern westerners who became involved in the pursuit of esoteric knowledge and understanding through spiritual means, whether derived from eastern or western sources? Many become Buddhists of one kind or another, or follow Hindu teachings brought to the west by easterners. It's hard to fault westerners for taking up these eastern paths, since in most cases they were brought to the west by easterners themselves, who took it upon themselves to proselytize the dharma on western soil.

The earliest Hindu of note to come to the west to preach Vedanta was Swami Vivekananda, who is considered a national hero of India, and not an exploitive debaser of the Hindu tradition. He is considered a great exponent of Hindu esotericism, and a great practitioner to boot, who revitalized and reformed Hinduism into a form that could compete with the modern west. At the same time, he introduced many western ideas into both Hinduism, and into Indian nationalism, that helped lead India to its independence from western colonialism. And yet, while not himself being a secularist, he was particularly enamoured with western science and scholarship, and tried to popularize these in India itself. In the process, he laid the foundation for secularism in India, something that had never had much of a place within its traditions. And that has led to the weakening of the traditional systems, including the caste system, the cultural baggage of the past, and even the mystical traditions he had tried to promote.

Further erosion of these traditions in India were brought about by the great sage Ramana Maharshi, who did not even consider himself a Hindu, but a free person, atiashrama, meaning "outside the structure of Hindu society". His sudden realization at the age of sixteen was not brought about by any study or practice of Hindu mysticism, not was it informed by study of its principle until many years later. He did not even know what to call it, but found after being instructed by those knowledgeable of the ancient traditions of India, that it agreed with the principles of Advaita Vedanta, or vedic non-dualism. However, he did not consider himself to be a part of that tradition, and instead taught an extremely personal and direct form of mystical practice, called self-enquiry, that did not rely on scriptures, tradition, or the authority of a Guru, even himself.

Ramana Maharshi's influence spread far and wide by the later years of his life. He came to teach many westerners, and felt no obligation to expect them to become Hindus or to adopt Hindu philosophy, culture, or lifestyle. In fact, he explicitly made it clear that not only were such expectations not required, they were largely to be avoided. He saw westerners as being able to practice on their own, within their own culture, in spite of its modern secular spirit.

After his death, Ramana's influence only increased, both in India and the west. In fact, his teachings led to a resurgence of interest in Advaita Vedanta within India, to the point that the approach that he and others like him, such as Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, emphasized has become by far the most popular approach within India itself. Traditional Advaita still exists within the maths and the many official venues of Hinduism, but these new approaches have come to dominate the modern conversation about non-dualism within India. And in the west, Advaitic teachings that have little grounding in the traditional approach have likewise become quite popular, as the success of figures like Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Byron Katie, and many others attests to.

What most of these figures demonstrate is the rising popularity of secular approaches to the mystical teachings of both east and west. Certainly, many of these figures will acknowledge the wisdom of their sources in the Hindu or Buddhist traditions, but they will invariably suggest that those same teachings need to be translated into modern secular language and concepts, and communicated without any kind of traditional authority or cultural custom, to be accessible in the west. This is also true of many western Buddhists, quite a few of whom see no reason to accept traditional Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation or supernatural realms and powers, but focus instead on only those aspects of Buddhism which can be translated into secular and scientific views.

Instead, mysticism is often stripped down to what is thought to be its existential essentials. This includes making meditation, yogic practice, and the use of rituals, mantras, and even prayers into secular, even scientifically validated exercises in "consciousness exploration", which as Chopra himself claims, is the true source of all yogic practice in the first place. In the process, the secular mystic feels completely free to adopt whatever seems to work for them and is therefore proven to themselves at least to be valid, and to reject or simply ignore what does not seem to work for them, and which thus lacks personal validity, even if it might work for someone else.

The secular approach is both highly practical and flexibly tolerant, in that it doesn't need to declare what hasn't been found to work for any one individual to be invalid for all. Nor does it need to exalt what works for any particular individual as the one and only truth. It allows for everyone's personal reality to reign supreme within their own personal sphere, and at the same time, to have no power outside of that sphere apart from the seductions of subtle persuasion by idiosyncratic communication and charisma.

This is why the modern, secular spiritual teacher tries so hard to look happy and ecstatic, to have impressive photographs of themselves made available showing them in poses of personal delight and happiness. They are advertising their own personal success at the mystical enterprise, like any other commercial, self-made entrepreneur, and staking out their territory through charismatic displays of personal authority. Even if their authority only extends to their own personal domain, their appeal depends on others who wish to achieve a similar degree of personal autonomy for themselves, and who believe that they can get it from those who already seem to have developed and demonstrated it themselves. This is the principle of the infomercial, of religion made into a series of sales pitches that appeals to each individual's personal tastes and needs.

This of course plays into the other primary aspect of modern secular culture, which is it's belief in consumerism, which when extended to the spiritual domain, assumes that spiritual autonomy comes from the things we consume, the books we read, the teachers we spend time with, the products we buy, the lifestyle choices we make, the foods we eat, and so on. If we consume the right set of these things, the positive, life-giving products, we will achieve spiritual freedom, and if we consume the wrong things, the deadening and life-negative products, we will lose our spirituality, and fall out of grace.

Given the egotism at the root of so much of modern secularism, what hope does it really have of developing a genuinely transcendental perspective capable of deconstructing its own cultural presumptions, as must be the case if anything resembling enlightenment is to make itself known through such a culture? Is secularism simply a destructive, exploitive force when it comes to spirituality, wearing it down as it does most everything else, breaking it into its constituent pieces and parts, and auctioning them off to gain the most value, like a hostile takeover of some staid, traditional business model?

Given that the Yoga business in the west now amounts to some $6 billion per year of sales, I think the market has already spoken. Whatever combination of ancient yogic practices, secular self-help proselytizing,  and modern consumer social marketing, proves most profitable will carry the day. The same has been, and will be true, for every other religious and spiritual tradition, regardless of how esteemed it has been in its day. Modern secularism, to the degree that it even cares about such things, will simply take what appeals to the personal empiricism of the religious consumer, and let the rest die of neglect. Traditional religions that resist the compartmentalization methods of the cafeteria model will likely fade away into irrelevance apart from a loyal few.

We have seen the evidence of this in the recent controversial over same-sex marriage and gay rights. As small a part of the Christian tradition as its teachings on same-sex relations have been, the steadfast refusal of most traditional Christian churches to bend on this issue has been costing them dearly. The charge for gay rights has been led primarily by secularists, for whom the traditional views on homosexual relations means very little in the face of their own personal, empirical experience of gay people, who seem no different than anyone else as far as they can see. This erodes religious faith in the traditional model, which relies on an unseen faith in the sinfulness of gay relationships, and polling has revealed that a significant number of people have left or are losing faith in Christianity due to this issue alone.

That is a triumph for the secular viewpoint, and a sign of the apocalypse for traditional religion. Not because gays themselves are bringing on some sort of apocalyptic retribution upon humanity, but because it is simply one more example of the seemingly unstoppable force of secularism, expressing itself through the lens of the individual's own experiential sensibility, eroding away the long-standing shiboleths of tradition. Europeans have already relegated most of Christianity's holiest places to quaint tourist destinations, with as much relevance to the modern individual as Greek and Roman ruins. Faith in Christianity hovers at the 5-10% level, which makes it about as important as some minor political fringe party trying to win a few seats in parliament.

In the US, things are a bit better in the polling, but the numbers are also falling fast, and among the young, the situation is increasingly dire, not only because of a loss of faith, but a loss of interest in the underlying truth claims of these religions. Most American Christians hardly even know what their religion believes, and when they find out, they tend to be shocked by its archaism.

I think it is fair to expect this process of "creative destruction" to continue well into the future. The question it raises, of course, is what is it that is being created in the process? What kind of religion and spirituality will secularism create, to replace what it has destroyed? And will that be determined largely by the marketplace and its forces, or by something else? And how does the whole matter of enlightenment figure into this? Is there a place for enlightenment within the secular world that is rapidly coming about? Or will secularism fail due to its own internal inconsistencies, paving the way for something else entirely to make its appearance.

I think I will have to leave those questions hanging for the moment. Or maybe for several centuries. I can only say that these are the sorts of questions I want to keep exploring on this blog in the future, to whatever degree that I can. We live in interesting times.


  1. "They are advertising their own personal success at the mystical enterprise, like any other commercial, self-made entrepreneur, and staking out their territory through charismatic displays of personal authority"
    Spot on...so well written!

  2. As far as I'm concerned Chopra might as well be a banker, he's got the same mind set!

  3. I think that what makes scientific materialism relatively powerful is that it embodies a learning orientation to what our senses disclose and ignores what we can't measure.

    The act of ignoring of what we can't measure is based on maps of reality which are constructed, rather than being directly part of our experience. In my view such maps should be subject to the same learning orientation as other aspects of our experience, given that our way of unpacking our experiences are an important part of our relationship with that experience.

    Without developing this capability we remain subject to the controlling influence of the maps we use. And given that the materially focused maps we use cannot answer questions of value, for example, there are some big risks in just taking such maps as givens.

    But the option to apply a learning orientation to our own maps of reality seems to be entirely optional and not well promoted. I guess its because the map makers prefer to focus on the value of their maps rather than the fun they had making them ;-).

  4. This is a very helpful addition to literature on what eventually became problematic for students hit by the 2nd wave of teachers coming through during the late 1960s.The amount of "self-convincing" that had to take place in order to begin to venture past the most introductory levels, even after being gobsmacked by "lights and experiences" was pretty strong and sitting in opposition to what we had, as Westerners, come to accept as "real". It's interesting to watch what is happening now as it all is fed into the maw of consumerism.

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  6. Broken Yogi: How do I find your new book? Is it out yet?


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