Quote Bait: Twenty thoughts on spirituality

January 5, 2015 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Spiritualise: Revitalising spirituality to address 21st century challenges deals with a weighty subject and the overall process of producing the report involved about 300 people over two years, so it’s not surprising the final report is relatively long – about 40,000 words over 92 pages; it’s half a book really. (Now there’s a thought…)

You can of course skim and dip, but if you want the full picture and the whole thing seems daunting, there is a 4000 word summary in the form of speech transcript here, and the video recording of the actual speech is here (4.30-23.20).

If even that is too much, I wrote a 1000 word summary here.

And if that’s still asking too much, I can only really offer bait in the hope of luring you in. So here are some of my favourite quotations from the report. I’ve given the page numbers so you can pursue them in context:

On page five:

1. “We all see our lives, and/or the space wherein we live our lives, as having a certain moral/spiritual shape. Somewhere, in some activity, or condition, lies a fullness, a richness; that is, in that place (activity or condition), life is fuller, richer, deeper, more worthwhile, more admirable, more what it should be. This is perhaps a place of power: we often experience this as deeply moving or inspiring.”

- Taylor, C. (2007) A Secular Age, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press p.5.

On page eight:

2. “I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do…I miss civilisation, and I want it back.”

- Marilynne Robinson (Quoted in London Review of Books, 23 October 2014 p20) See: www.lrb.co.uk/v36/n20/

On page nine:

3. “I don’t believe in God, but I miss him.”

- Barnes, J. (2008) Nothing To Be Frightened Of. London: Jonathan Cape.

On page fifteen:

4. “Many atheists now consider ‘spiritual’ thoroughly poisoned by its association with medieval superstition (but) we must reclaim good words and put them to good use – and this is what I intend to do with ‘spiritual.’…There seems to be no other term (apart from the even more problematic ‘mystical’ or the more restrictive ‘contemplative’) with which to discuss the deliberate efforts some people make to overcome their feeling of separateness.”

Harris, S (2012) In Defence of ‘Spiritual’. Online: http://www.samharris.org/blog/item/a-plea-for-spirituality

On page thirty:

5. “I’m not only agnostic about the answer, I’m agnostic about the question.”

Jonathan Safran Foer responding to: ‘Do you believe in God?’, Radio4, Online: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01cjm4c

On page thirty-nine:

6. “The human mind is a story processor, not a logic processor.”

- Haidt, J. (2012) The Righteous Mind. London: Penguin Books. p.281.

On page forty-five:

7. “I don’t think any one of us can begin to discover again what religion might mean unless we are prepared to expose ourselves to new ways of being in our bodies.”

- Williams, R. (2014) The Physicality of Prayer. New Statesman, 8 July, [Online] Available at: www.newstatesman.com/culture/2014/07/after-god-how-fill-faith-shaped-holemodern-life

On page sixty eight:

8. “Why are you unhappy? Because 99.9 percent of everything you think, and of everything you do, is for yourself – and there isn’t one.”

- Wei Wu Wei. (1963) Ask The Awakened. Routledge-Kegan Paul Ltd.

On page eighty-nine:

9. “In theory, freedom may be held in high regard; in practice it is experienced as a dizzying loss of meaning and direction.”

Batchelor, S. (1997) Buddhism without Beliefs. Riverhead Books. p110.

On page ninety-two:

10. ‘We do not think ourselves into new ways of living, we live ourselves into new ways of thinking’.

Rohr, R. (1999). Everything belongs. Crossroad Publishing Company.

On page sixteen:

11. (Religion should not be seen as inherently divisive, but could also be seen and experienced as) “a secure base from which to explore, not a fence beyond which lies infidels.” – Elizabeth Oldfield (at first RSA workshop)

On page fourteen:

12. “The word spiritual has a history, and that history has a politics.”

- Matthew Engelke at first workshop.

On page fifty-one:

13. “In truth, the crossing from nature to culture and vice versa has always stood wide open. It leads across an easily accessible bridge: the practising life.”

-Sloterdijk, P. (2013) You Must Change your Life. Cambridge: Polity Press. P.11

On page fifty-six:

14. “‘God is Love’ became ‘love is God’.”
- May, S. (2011) Love: A History. London: Yale University Press.

On page fifty-nine:

15. “Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anaemic…It is precisely this collision of immoral power with powerless morality which constitutes the major crisis of our time.”

- Martin Luther King, Sourced from Kahane, A. (2010). Power and love: A theory and practice of social
change. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

On page sixty-five:

16.  “…There’s no cheating death here; the meditator learns to stare down the vertiginous fact of her own mortality, unflinchingly and intentionally. And it’s in so doing that religious principles move from propositional beliefs into experiential reality…” – Joanna Cook (speaking at the RSA)

On page sixty-one:

17. “I face up to death but then I flip back into denial. Surely that’s what it’s like? I lie in bed in the small hours of the morning, absolutely terrified by the apprehension of my own dissolution…And then I go to sleep and wake up in the morning and make toast.”
- Will Self (speaking at the RSA)

On page sixty-eight:

18.“We are all engaged in a futile struggle to maintain ourselves in our own image.”

- Epstein, M. (2004) Thoughts without a thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist perspective. Basic Books. p.44.

On page seventy-five:

19. “We can say that there is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of its inherent possibilities”.

- Rogers, C. (1995). A way of being. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

On Page ninety one

20. “We have had two centuries of a civilisation of unparalleled material progress, abundance and development based on extrinsic values (self-interest, materialism, economic growth, keeping up, social mobility); intrinsic ‘beyond-self’ and religious values have periodically been reasserted but they have lost their institutional hold and centrality to the stories that make sense of our lives. The extrinsic values celebrated by industrial society are now under real pressure in the West as scarcities begin to return and confidence in the future wanes, for good reasons of ecological disruption, social fragmentation and economic dysfunction and inequality.”

-Ian Christie (email communication)


Lies, damned lies, statistics and… quotations

August 24, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

“It’s a hard thing to describe… It’s just this sense that you got something to say.”

These are not my words. Nor are they those of Bob Dylan. Rather, they are fabricated words strung together by Jonah Lehrer in his new book, Imagine.

This is the story of how Jonah Lehrer, pop psychology guru and author of three bestselling books, came to make up and fiddle Bob Dylan quotes in order to bring to life the creative processes described in his new book. Unfortunately for Lehrer, he was eventually found out by a Bob Dylan expert called Michael C. Moynihan, who, upon recognising something untoward, chased said author until he finally caved in and owned up to the accusations aimed at him.

Although Lehrer had already been castigated by some for regurgitating his work in different articles, on this occasion it was the final straw for many who were working with him. His book was withdrawn by the publishers, he walked away from his column in The New Yorker, and his reputation as the rising star of popular neuroscience and the bright new face on the lecture circuit was abruptly tarnished.

To Lehrer’s credit, he apologised unreservedly for his mistakes and wasn’t shy about using the term ‘lie’ to describe his actions. This is more than can be said for others in similar positions. As Nick Cohen intimated recently in the Observer, Lehrer seems very tame in relation to other authors who frequently plagiarise and respond with not a small amount of venom against those who throw accusations against them.

Indeed, it is important to bear in mind that Lehrer is far from alone in misusing quotes. Not long ago, it was found that Johan Hari, a rising star in the Independent, was doing pretty much the same thing. And only very recently a biography of Ryzard Kapuscinski, the world renowned travel writer, indicated that he may have been frequently playing hard and loose with the truth in his famed accounts of daily life and political intrigue in Africa and elsewhere.

Yet this phenomenon doesn’t stop at high-profile authors and journalists. Quotes seem to be routinely misused in everyday pieces of writing, from newspaper articles to, dare I say it, think-tank publications. It is not that quotes are fully fabricated – this rarely happens. Rather it is that they are often lazily misinterpreted (see Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” for a classic example) or tell us nothing of value (I’m no doubt guilty of this myself). Moreover, sometimes it is as though anyone could have come up with the written musing, so it’s a wonder why we choose to cite the famous person.

That the problem of misquoting goes beyond a handful of opportunistic journalists and writers leads me to believe that the cause of the issue lies as much in demand as it does in supply. In short, part of the reason why so many badly used quotes exist is because the authors of blogs, articles and books struggle to satisfy the large appetite from readers for soundbites of wisdom. We yearn to hear of quotes, just as we hanker after easily digestible facts. Forget trying to get a handle on the complexity of an issue; just tell us something said by a higher guru or familiar face and we’ll believe it.

This gets us into a deeper issue about the dangers of looking up to the likes of politicians and famous people for guidance in our lives, many of whom do not even want to be held in that lofty position. What is ironic about Lehrer’s misquoting of Bob Dylan is that he is somebody who is misinterpreted constantly by those who want him to be something he is not. Witness how people reacted angrily when this supposedly once active political campaigner agreed to play in China amidst the furore over Ai Weiwei’s treatment. Yet as Charles Shaar Murray and others routinely point out, Bob Dylan was never the revolutionary idol people wanted him to be.

So to return to Lehrer and all the others who have been highly resourceful with their use of quotes, as much as we might want to scold them for taking us all for a ride, it is often we who are the back seat passengers asking them to give it more gas. This doesn’t make blatant fabrication excusable, but it does make it somewhat understandable.

Protecting Science from Scientism

January 31, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Some extracts I have recently enjoyed, about protecting science from scientism:


“That is the problem about turning secular materialist atheism into a political ideology, as Richard Dawkins and others have done. When you turn Skepticism into a political mass movement, the dogma is what gives the movement its coherence, like a marching band keeping soldiers in step. God forbid anyone who walks out of line. But is that how science has ever progressed? By an orderly march of believers? Isn’t it precisely the mavericks, those out of step with the dominant beat, who reveal new worlds to us?” -Jules Evans


“We can’t approach important mind-body topics such as consciousness or the origins of life while we still treat matter in 17th-century style as if it were dead, inert stuff, incapable of producing life. And we certainly can’t go on pretending to believe that our own experience – the source of all our thought – is just an illusion, which it would have to be if that dead, alien stuff were indeed the only reality.”

-Mary Midgley


“Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than minority of them – never become conscious of them all. How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?” - C.S Lewis.


Perhaps it is not fair to ask more of science.  To borrow the words of Merleau-Ponty, the strength of science may lie precisely in the act that it gives up living among things, preferring to manipulate them instead- Francisco Varela


” (Subjectivity) is the ancient haunt of piety and reverence and long, long thoughts. And the literatures that would dispel such things refuse to acknowledge subjectivity, perhaps because inability has evolved into principle and method.” Marilyn Osborne


“There’s a certain kind of scepticism that can’t bear uncertainty.” - Rupert Sheldrake


The Hope of Vaclav Havel, 1936-2011

December 19, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Obituary writers must be busy at the moment. I wanted to speak for the man in the middle of a recent obituary ‘sandwich’, caught between atheist icon and global intellectual Christopher Hitchens and North Korea’s great leader, Kim Jong-Il who was immortalised by his puppet caricature in Team America.

The former Czech President and playright Vaclav Havel died at the age of 75. He was President of Czechoslavakia from 1989-1992, and remained as President of the Czech Republic after the sweetly named velvet revolution for another ten years.

I didn’t know his life well, but he always felt like some sort of hero to me, somebody I wanted to know better. I became particularly intrigued by him after reading the following quotation:

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.”

You have to have lived a bit to be able to say something like that and sound like you mean it.

More generally, it would be lovely, in principle at least, to have a political leader with a deep sensitivity to the existential and narrative currents of human lives and who spoke about them regularly, eloquently and passionately. It certainly beats talking about interest rates and austerity.

It would be lovely to have a political leader with a deep sensitivity to the existential and narrative currents of human lives and who spoke about them regularly, eloquently and passionately. It certainly beats talking about interest rates and austerity.

Personally I would struggle not to vote for somebody who shared thoughts like the following:

“I really do inhabit a system in which words are capable of shaking the entire structure of government, where words can prove mightier than ten military divisions.”

“Isn’t it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties? Perhaps hopelessness is the very soil that nourishes human hope; perhaps one could never find sense in life without first experiencing its absurdity.”

“Modern man must descend the spiral of his own absurdity to the lowest point; only then can he look beyond it. It is obviously impossible to get around it, jump over it, or simply avoid it.”

“Sometimes I wonder if suicides aren’t in fact sad guardians of the meaning of life.”

“The exercise of power is determined by thousands of interactions between the world of the powerful and that of the powerless, all the more so because these worlds are never divided by a sharp line: everyone has a small part of himself in both.”

“There’s always something suspect about an intellectual on the winning side.”

“When a truth is not given complete freedom, freedom is not complete.”

“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

Vaclav Havel RIP.