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.
Lattin defines the 60’s as the period proclaimed by the idealism of JFK’s inaugural address, and ended by the collapse of the dream of the countercultural life in at Jonestown. He takes his title from an exchange during Bill Moyer’s dialogue with Joseph Campbell in the PBS documentary of Campbell’s work, The Power of Myth.
His subjects include the Esalen Institute, liberation theology Catholics like Philip Berrigan, New Age Christian miracle seekers, American Buddhists, the abused children of the American Hare Krishnas, the rise and fall of Rajneeshpuram, the Burning Man festival, the Children of God, Richard Alpert aka Ram Dass, Pentecostals, the Moonies, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, Ramtha, Wayne Dyer, the Farm, and the New Age movement.
He has a short, focussed piece on the adoption of rock music by the Pentecostal and fundamentalist churches – he thinks that Christian Rock has contributed heavily to the popularity of these churches. See online: Rock (Music) of Ages, Worshipers at San Jose Pentecostal Church Pray to a Beat, and Boomers abandoning Mainline Churches.
Lattin devotes special attention to the children of the spiritual seekers. Some were physically and sexually abused, or suffered at the hands of zoned-out parents. Many remember that their parents’ choice of voluntary poverty left them feeling poor and alienated in a consumerist society, instead of special. Many feel a sense of disconnection from their parents or a sort of resentment that their parents were too absorbed in their beliefs, practices and projects to be involved with their children.
Much of the material first appeared in stories written for the San Francisco Chronicle. His stories about the Children of God is based on an article in February 2001. His stories about the children of the cults and alternative communities were first published as Children of a Lesser God. He wrote about Wayne Dyer, whose lectures have become a staple for PBS pledge breaks, in New Age Hucksterism on Small Screen.
His story about Elizabeth Clare Prophet segues into a story about how Prophet had plundered Theosophy and the I Am movement run by Guy Ballard for her ideas. The New Age seems to reinvent itself each generation by plagiarizing the nonsense of the last. There is a neat legal point in that story. The US Government indicted Ballard for mail fraud, but lost the case on appeal in Circuit Court and in the Supreme Court in 1944. (By 1949 L. Ron Hubbard had invented Dianetics, and by 1953 he turned it into Scientology, as good sf fans know).
Most of the stories are about the Boomers and their efforts to express themselves or justify their sexuality and politics in spiritual terms. He has grouped some stories on the themes of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. He suggests that most religious movements have accommodated to the social values of the 60’s, in spite of conservative prelates and preachers. Sexuality cannot be confined to this one chapter. He looks at sexuality-spirituality program called the Women’s Temple in the chapter that does the Burning Man. He mentioned the program in a story in the Chronicle Archive fyi. Promiscuity and fertility run through the book. The alumni of the Farm report that their effort at a communal living failed when the nuclear family reasserted itself – people still paired up and lived as couples in spite of all teaching and ritual.
Mainly, whether this was his goal or not, he proves that people take their attitudes about all of the above from their peers and their culture, and will reshape religion to accommodate their tastes. He argues, at the end of the book that there is a 60’s spirituality which can be identified as liberating, experiential, anti-authoritarian, eclectic, unifying and therapeutic – in short, in tune with the values of the generation.
He is hard on the New Age prophets of the divine self who market spirituality as a product for the feelings. His chapter on “New Age Prophets and Profiteers” is based on one his best stories, Cruising the The Spiritual Marketplace. His discomfort with the expensive goods and service on sale at New Age conferences and shows came into sharp focus when he learned that many of the people who work these shows have marketing strategy based on a 1997 report from American Demographics magazine entitled “The Emerging Culture.” It identifies the key market for New Age product as cultural creatives, who make up 24 percent of the U.S. adult population, as compared to 29 percent traditionalists and 47 percent modernists and says:
Cultural creatives are the prototypical consumers of the experience industry, which sell intense, enlightening, enlivening experiences, rather than things … Creatives buy psychotherapy, weekend workshops, spiritual gatherings and personal growth experiences in all forms.
The term “cultural creatives” flatters the demographic. It’s not about creativity – its about snobbery. New Ager marketing strokes the need to be seen as tasteful or socially superior. Another demographic study describes the consumers of these experience as the “worried well”. Lattin observes that the most successful New Age spiritual guides move back and forth between spiritual values, self-esteem therapy, self-improvement programs, corporate salesmanship, and positive thinking programs. New Age spirituality, in this context, is another system or program for the self-obsessed to improve their self-esteem, and New Age spiritual leaders are imaginative, but predatory, communicators and salesmen.
Lattin is soft on the believers. He assumes or accepts that there is a basic human need for emotional expression expressed as religion or spirituality, and American culture tends to favour intense self-expression. He also sympathizes with the idea of finding a way of living that does not revolve on the consumption of goods, services and experiences. I think the great journalists and writers like Bierce, Mencken and Twain might not have been that nice to the gullible and the self-satisfied, although Twain wrote: “When we remember we are all mad, the mysteries disappear and life stands explained.”