I’m about halfway through, and really enjoying, Robert Price’s new book, Top Secret: The Truth Behind Today’s Pop Mysticisms.
Bob Price has an interesting background: he started out as a roaring Pentacostal Minister, gradually grew into a high-end Christian theologian, and eventually evolved to his present form as secular humanist. He’s currently teaching classes in comparative religion — and also happens to be an expert on HP Lovecraft and science fiction. I think this wide-ranging perspective gives him a particular advantage when dealing with religious topics. He’s been into almost everything, and can compare, contrast, and understand different mindsets with apparent ease. His analogies are often original, and spot on.
Even atheists are still influenced by the religious beliefs they once held. I was raised “freethinker.” Nobody at school knew what that meant, and I had a hard time explaining it, since I wasn’t sure what the alternative was. I wasn’t taught any particular religion, but it seemed to be a cultural prerequisite for having a “meaning,” so I would pick up bits and strands of things that seemed interesting to me, and try them on. I remember deciding in 5th grade to worship the Greek gods, since they would clearly be available, and very grateful for the attention. It seemed odd that they had so few current fans. But, by the time I was a teenager, I became enamored of the “psychic sciences,” and got into New Age.
Having since gotten myself OUT of New Age, I am particularly interested in books and articles that address and critique these self-proclaimed more enlightened, sophisticated, “holistic” forms of spirituality. My interest is not merely personal: such views are still held by many intelligent, well-educated, liberal-thinking people – and many of them take it all very seriously, and yield the power to have it taken seriously in secular arenas. These are not really marginal beliefs. As Price writes:
“Chopra and his fellow travelers are doing nothing essentially different from the tactics of Scientific Creationists and Intelligent Design advocates who seek to translate religious dogma derived from scripture into cosmetic, seemingly “scientific” terms so as to smuggle dogma into science classes, or at least to win for it the prestige of science.” (pg. 51)
Witness the success of So-Called Alternative Medicine, which justifies itself through pseudoscience, and rests on magic and mysticism. Creationists can only drool over how well it’s been doing in mainsteam academic circles – what’s been recently termed “quackademic medicine.”
There are a lot of popular new forms of spirituality out there, and Price tries to hit them all. He thoroughly fisks that reincarnation of New Thought “we create our reality” nonsense, The Secret; deals satisfactorily with A Course in Miracles and The Celestine Prophecy; and takes on other new versions of old ideas, from neo-Buddhism to neo-gnosticism, giving them due credit for valuable insights and useful techniques, and excoriating them for narcisstic excesses and simplistic panaceas when called for.
“Every religion diagnoses a problem, to which it then prescribes a single solution. One often feels the problem has been derived from the solution so as to provide a felt need for it, in the manner of Madison Avenue.”
Go, Bob. I think he has a gift for phrasing difficult concepts in ways that make sense – in case, like me, you think it may be important to know the difference between nondualism (Only God exists), pantheism (All is God), and panentheism (All is IN God), and you have a bit of trouble keeping them straight.
He’s also funny – though it’s hard to beat some of the stuff he cites:
“(Rhonda) Byrne recalls in The Secret: ‘I never studied science or physics at school, and yet when I read complex books on quantum physics I understood them perfectly because I wanted to understand them.” (p. 156) This is why we don’t let students grade their own papers.”
Well, I give Price a very good grade. My cosmic life energy is probably vibrating on a very low and materialistic level in the hierarchy of spiritual development, but I don’t care.