Catching Up – Templeton and Positive Psychology

Having mentioned Templeton, the mutual fund manager turned patron of the spiritual arts, in passing in my entry Ruse on Evolution, and Seligman’s Positive Psychology movement in my entry Psychology in Recovery and Be Happy, I was interested in “John Templeton’s Universe” in the The Nation. Barbara Ehrenreich looks at the weirdness that happens when inspiration, large sums of money, corporate values, positive thinking, psychology and spirituality intersect.
Unfortunately, it appears that Seligman, who had said some interesting things in his books on positive psychology, has become another corporate inspirational performer, hyping his own line of coaching and positive thinking “products”.

Religious Shopping Tour

British writer Roland Howard went on a tour to meet people demonstrating the variety of religious experience in Britain at the end of the 20th century. Shopping for God, A Sceptics Search for Value in the Spiritual Marketplace is a travel narrative – he went, he saw, he listened, he wrote. In the telling of the story, he provides background, he discusses a few questions, he suggests he had an interesting inner monologue running during the journey. I haven’t found much information about him on the Web, but Amazon lists a couple of other books about religion.

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Bliss Chronicles

The cover art on Don Lattin’s Following our Bliss is a Volkwagen Bus painted in the psychedelic style associated with the hippie movement, which goes with the subtitle “How the Spiritual Ideas of the Sixties Shape our Lives Today”. Lattin has been writing about religion or spirituality for the San Francisco Chronicle and an assortment of electronic media for a couple of decades, which gives him a wealth of material.

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Alien Abduction

Beam Me Up Godly Being, by Karen Olsson, in Slate, covers or reviews a book by psychologist Susan Clancy, Abducted: How People Come To Believe They Were Kidnapped By Aliens. The article contains this passage:

In a chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience called “The Reality of the Unseen,” William James attested to the existence of a “sense of reality” distinct from the other senses, in which “the person affected will feel a ‘presence’ in the room, definitely localized, facing in one particular way, real in the most emphatic sense of the word, often coming suddenly, and as suddenly gone; and yet neither seen, heard, touched, nor cognized in any of the usual ‘sensible’ ways.” As evidence, James produces several firsthand accounts from people who were visited by “presences” late at night. These have a familiar ring: They sound just like stories from alien abductees, minus the aliens. Objects of belief, James says, may be “quasi-sensible realities directly apprehended.”
… When it comes to the ambitious project of explaining the why and wherefore of “weird beliefs,” Clancy’s book doesn’t tell us too much more than James did: People believe in this stuff because it seems real to them, more real than any reasoning about sleep paralysis or the unreliability of memories produced during hypnosis.
… People’s imagined contacts with aliens, she speculates, arise from “ordinary emotional needs and desires. … We want to believe there’s something bigger and better than us out there. And we want to believe that whatever it is cares about us, or at least is paying attention to us. … Being abducted by aliens is a culturally shaped manifestation of a universal human need.”

Olssen disagrees with Clancy’s ideas about religious impulses. She prefers to think that people who believe they have been abducted by aliens are influenced by pop culture acting on their subconscious minds. That of course raises its own question – is there a subconscious mind, or is the subconscious an arbitary label for flawed perceptions and memories and an excuse for impulsive behaviour?
I think Clancy may be right. Stories of alien abduction are one of the modern variants of stories of miraculous, magical and mystical experiences. People experience something – it may be a random neurochemical event in their brain. They interpret it in a narrative way within the limits of their language and belief systems. They stick to their story in the face of doubts and scepticism. They find, eventually, someone who supports and believes them and shares their experience. They feel special. The event takes on its own meaning. And it becomes a miracle, a vision, a channelled message, an alien abduction.
The references to William James are interesting. He is one of the founders of modern psychology and a reasonably rigorous scientist, but he was always very tolerant of spiritualism – perhaps because he could never directly challenge his father who was a prominent proponent. His early version of philosophical pragmatism and his philosophy of religion seem to have been set up to cut spiritualists some slack.
Another way of looking at it is that James was inclined to speculative thought – but people didn’t like to argue with such a well connected and presentable member of New England Society.

Pet Peeve

From Spiked, a book review Self Help: More than just a Sham, reviewing SHAM: How the gurus of the self-help movement make us helpless, by Nicholas Brealey. One of my pet peeves. The reviewer r mentions several fakirs including “Dr.” John Gray, who wrote Men are from Mars – a charlatan right down to his phony doctorate. Like Chopra, Gray is a graduate of the Maharishi’s scamming system. The Skeptic’s Dictionary has a longer entry on Chopra.

New Age Link

Wikipedia has an entry on New Age, and uses “New Age” as a category container for related entries.
Wikipedia entries evolve. The main entry seems to have started in December 2001. The current version deals with the New Age, both as a social event and as a set of ideas, in an accurate and descriptive way, catching the main social, economic, ideological and psychological features of the New Age event. Some of the Wikipedia entries within the New Age category are fragmentary, and some of them tend to promote particular New Age systems. The entry on neuro-linguistic programming as presently written, tends to promote a movement that has much in common with Scientology. The entries miss a lot, which is natural. The New Age is an amorphous, fluid movement. Some of the omissions are large. The book stores and Web pages presently are pushing a lot of words about about Energy and Intention. Wikipedia presently only has a stub entry on Spiritual Energy. It has a good page on Intentionality as a branch of the philosophy of mind, but only a stub page on New Age guru of the Power of Intentions, Wayne Dyer.
The Wikipedia steps gently around issues of character and temperament. New Agers try to project an air of detachment, but they protect themselves and the sense of satisfaction they get from their beliefs, practics and associations by avoiding scrutiny and debate, and by promoting beliefs that blame and criticize their critics. The New Age has a smorgasboard (or should I say a dim sum menu) of beliefs and values to insulate New Age believers from conflicting beliefs and values. I noticed an entry on Energy Vampires. I also noticed an entry on Personal Reality – the perfect marriage of New Age beliefs with one stream of postmodern theory.

Novel Perspectives???

Yesterday, I posted a link to The Onion’s satire about fictionology. today, a perfect example of an intelligent person who chooses a value system that lets her choose fiction over fact because it helps her to feels better about herself. Check out this essay by Martha Montello, Novel Perspectives on Bioethics at the Chronicles of Higher Education. She argues that we ought to be learning our ethics from fiction, and base our moral decisions on fairy tales and science fiction.

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