The New Science and the New Religions
Excerpted from The Transmission of Doubt
(The Dawn Horse Press, 1984), pp. 39-47
There is extensive agreement that Man stands today at the crossroads – a historical moment that is possibly more decisive than any other. The potential for unprecedented destruction and the genocide of our race is delicately balanced against the possibility of global cooperation and a great cultural renaissance. Many people look to science to provide a benign resolution to the present crisis, while others see the mushrooming new therapies as signs of the dawning of a New Age. Yet clearly, both science and the new therapies are egoic endeavors, and as such they are liable to reinforce our personal and culture wide dissociative tendencies.
In the following piece Georg Feuerstein takes a careful look at the possible pitfalls that lie on the paths of scientific or therapeutic salvation.
The problems that mankind faces are very real and serious. However, contrary to Oswald Spengler, who boldly prophesied the decline of our Occidental civilization, the outcome of the present global crisis is not predictable. The button that would release a thick swarm of lethal missiles to crisscross the continents could well be pushed accidentally or by an undiagnosed military psychopath. But it need not. Good sense and vigilance might prevail. The nations of the world may even learn to cooperate in time to avoid the specter of economic disaster.
Not all who speak up about the world crisis are prophets of doom. There are many, such as Jean Gebser, Aurobindo Ghose, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who see new wine manifesting in old bottles. A long list of scholars and writers in the field of the humanities could be added. Among the better-known personalities that would have to be mentioned are Marshall McLuhan, Lewis Mumford, Pitirim A. Sorokin, Buckminster Fuller, Harold Schilling, Charles A. Reich, Abraham Maslow, Carl Rogers, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Theodore Roszak, and Marilyn Ferguson each approaching this issue from his or her own unique perspective.
Marilyn Ferguson has made the latest attempt not so much to create a new overarching model for the emergent conditions as to describe what she once called “The Movement That Has No Name.” Although in her widely acclaimed book The Aquarian Conspiracy she confines herself to charting the “leaderless but powerful network” of reform-minded professionals in different disciplines in the United States, the implications of her findings go clearly beyond the national boundaries of North America. The “Aquarian conspirators” are located in many other countries as well, including some that lie behind the invisible Iron Curtain.
The demolition of the medieval, Christian world-view by the Renaissance sciences left generations of people benumbed, in doubt, or anxiously clinging to demonstrably irrational beliefs. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the intelligentsia-no longer at ease with Christian dogmatism found its haven in science, which was promptly converted into the pseudo-religion of scientism to meet the meager emotional expectations of the left-brained individual. The population at large, however, continued to profess the Christian faith while at the same time, particularly in the illiterate strata of society, deriving a great deal of practical meaning from astrology, magical healing, divination, and witchcraft – an almost schizoid split that is characteristic even of a large section of our contemporary society. (Significantly, there are about ten thousand “professional” astrologers in the U.S.A. as against some two thousand astronomers!)
The extreme rationalism of scientism, not surprisingly, is an unattractive diet to those who look for deeper meanings but for whom the religious establishment is remiss in supplying a wholly convincing way of life. Many do not have the independence of mind to openly confess their apostasy and so continue to pay lip service to their inherited religion. Still, over the last couple of decades church membership, never mind active participation, has dwindled significantly in nearly all industrialized countries of the Western hemisphere. The ecumenical spirit, which the anxious clergy hoped would be a timely panacea for their institutional problems, proved rather ineffective. While the great denominations are facing the increasing exodus of their flock, sectarian groups, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Pentecostal churches, are steadily recruiting members from among those who dread a fluid, open world and who need the apparent security of the tight, provincial framework of fundamentalist religion: Here seeking is ended before it has begun. Hence, transcendence becomes an impossibility.
If Christianity offered no solace, if the “revivalist” sects of Christianity and the “neo-orthodoxy” of Judaism proved too claustrophobic, if scientism did not satisfy the craving for existential meaning, and if the age-old superstitions and folk mythology were no more than poor substitutes taken with a pinch of salt or in desperation and anguish, then obviously a new answer had to be found. “Nature abhors a vacuum” – at least human nature. At first it was hoped that the new discipline of psychology, chiefly in the form of psychoanalysis, could fill the gap left by the rapid decline of civic religion. That decline had of course been precipitated by psychology itself, which in a way led the criticism of religion by the natural sciences to its (bitter) end. However, psychoanalysis was not constituted of the same stuff that religions are made of and was even less equipped to counter existential anxiety and spiritual alienation. The principal reason for this failure was presumably the scientistic slant of psychoanalysis, with its positivistic model and behavioristic program for individual readjustment. Another important reason is, I think, the fact that despite its scientific pretensions, psychoanalysis has not freed itself from the weight of the peculiarly Hebrew and Christian preoccupation with the morbid side of our psychic life and the seemingly all pervasive sense of guilt. Is it: not the psychoanalyst’s sacred obligation to exorcise the demons of warped guilt, twisted Oedipal desires, other oppressive secrets, and a felt sense of unworthiness from the dark niches of the neurotic’s unconscious?
Nevertheless, psychoanalysis gave birth to a whole range of new therapies that, today, compete with each other to remedy the psychopathology of our ailing civilization. They are, or propose to be, the secular man’s answer to his spiritual emptiness. Their emphasis is on “personal growth,” “self-actualization,” “consciousness expansion,” “aliveness,” and “psychic health.” Dwelling as they do on the positive (if not hedonistic) side of human nature-on Man’s “potential,” his creative capacity, and his ability to live a “happy” life-these therapies understandably enjoy considerable popularity, augmented by the fact that many also surround themselves with a messianic aura. They tend to congeal into quasi cults, with a charismatic, authoritarian leader in the center, whose patients actively live out the neurotic fantasy of “being as little children.” Even where such overt cultism does not occur, these therapies often indirectly encourage faddism and a mentality of dependence, which defeat their very raison d’etre.2
Their attraction lies to a large extent in the fact that they take the individual and his problems seriously, giving him an opportunity to tackle his difficulties and to explore himself on his own terms, without having to submit-so the ideology goes-to any external authority. In other words, the narcissistic person is met on his own ground as a consumer of therapeutic experiences. What could be a potentially rewarding approach to self transcendence generally winds up being a kind of experiential merry-go-round that consoles and gratifies rather than helps to transcend the ego. Where these popular therapies break out of this fun-and-games milieu, they assume a distinctly religious complexion, the inspiration for which comes, as a rule, from one or the other authentic religious tradition of the East Buddhism, Zen, Taoism, Hinduism, Tantrism, Yoga, Sufism.
In fact, one of the most significant metamorphoses today is the Orientalization of the West. This is an immediate consequence of the expansion of Western economic and political interest into the East. Widespread disenchantment with Christianity, the first Eastern cult to take root in the Occident, and the growing unease about scientific materialism has once again opened up the gates to the wisdom of the East. The ground for this cultural osmosis was prepared by the German romantic philosophers (Fichte, Schelling, etc.) and the American transcendentalists (Emerson, Thoreau, etc.) who influenced the English “metaphysical poets” (foremost Blake, Carlyle, and Coleridge). The activities of the Theosophical Society (founded in 1875), the dawn of Buddhist studies in Europe, and somewhat later the encyclopedic work of C. G. Jung proved singularly potent catalysts in this great process.
However, the influx of Oriental ideas and values gathered critical momentum with the blossoming of the so-called “youth counter-culture” of the late sixties and early seventies, which superseded the rootless beatnik generation. Psychedelic experimentation, first vociferously advocated by Aldous Huxley, dealt the death blow to the conventional, if reactionary, attitudes of the youth culture of the fifties. And it called into question the materialistic establishment itself. Yet, the hippies and “flower children” grew into adults, many of whom became solid, law abiding citizens after all. Still, the drug culture of that period, fired by the rebellious minds of Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, and Allen Ginsberg, has left indelible marks on American and European society and culture. These marks are partly wounds, partly auspicious signs.
In his book The Awareness Trap, Edwin Schur has drawn our attention to the dangers inherent in the contemporary movement toward what he calls “selfabsorption “- the erroneous ideology of awareness as a panacea for all personal and social ills.3 While Schur’s appraisal of the social value of individual growth is exaggeratedly pessimistic, he rightly pointed out that most of these much propagandized awareness techniques and programs are a mere travesty, and they all lack the spiritual soundness of the great religious and mystical traditions. Thus, they cannot be expected to heal the Western psyche from its civilizational malaise of “boredom, doubt, and discomfort” (Da Free John).
However, all this seeking over the past two decades has been positive inasmuch as it has greatly promoted the cause of the Eastern liberation teachings within our Western culture, thereby sensitizing us to a hitherto neglected dimension of human capability. Most significantly, typically Oriental ideas have even penetrated the stronghold of our materialistic civilization-the scientific establishment. The “New Science,” like the new religions and quasi-religions, is remarkably Orientalized. What is more, both the New Science and the new religions share another feature: they have strong liabilities.
Whereas the new therapies with their pseudo-religious pretensions are pointedly person-centered, the New Science continues the centuries-long fascination with the universe at large. Thus, they perpetuate, each in its own fashion, the artificial value-laden disjunction between individual and world, inner and outer universe. If the new therapies glorify experience and therefore irrationalism, the New Science, although it debunks the simplistic rationalism of the Newtonian paradigm that it endeavors to replace, still holds up the left-brained approach to reality. As always, therefore, scientists are exposing themselves to the anachronistic fallacy of mistaking the facsimile reality conjured up by thought for the Real Thing. Even though quantum physics is mirroring to them an inexhaustibly complex and ultimately inconceivable universe, they are quite undaunted by this. Indeed, their intellects are excited by the prospect of a never-ending voyage of enquiry, just as the experience-hungry therapists and their clientele are encouraged in their inward odyssey by the fact that the human personality is a vastly intricate, multidimensional system. The joy is in traveling not in arriving, they say. But is it?
Self-exploration and the investigation of the world are basic forms of seeking. And seeking is, as Gautama the Buddha preached and as the modern Adept Da Free John reaffirms, a disease of the ego by which it struggles to block out the knowledge of its own mortality and suffering. But seeking itself is suffering, because it is an indirect affirmation of the fallacious sense of egoic separateness. This becomes clear when the search at last winds down. Before this is possible, however, Man must have come to at least a minimal understanding of the mechanism of individuation through which he singles himself out from the total ecology of existence.
Yet, the new therapies are unlikely to arrive at this point of recognition unless they desist from equating experienced reality with Reality. Likewise, the New Science must come to the understanding that a conceived or thought reality is not identical with Reality. This is an obvious point but one that does not appear to be heeded much. Consequently, there is the very real danger that, in their exuberance over knowledge and experience, the new therapies and the New Science might blindly fall in love with each other and authenticate each other’s aspirations as alternative religions for the modern age. The guruism of the new therapies is all too apparent, and who would wager that the New Science does not carry the virus of pseudo-religious hubris from which scientism is suffering so mightily?
To be sure, the avant-garde researchers of the New Physics are eagerly turning to Eastern mysticism, delighting in the esoteric confirmations for the paradoxes of quantum phenomena. Gary Zukav writes:
“The development of physics in the twentieth century already has transformed the consciousness of those involved with it. The study of complementarily, the uncertainty principle, quantum field theory, and the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics produces insights into the nature of reality very similar to those produced by the study of eastern philosophy. The profound physicists of this century increasingly have become aware that they are confronting the ineffable. “4
But, as befits scientists of good standing, these physicists are confronting the Ineffable with the intellect, and therefore the changes in consciousness mentioned by Zukav are only skin-deep. They do not signal the kind of fundamental transformation of the whole being that results from a direct confrontation with the great Mystery, not merely by the mind and its homely icons, but by everything that Man represents, through immediate Realization of the Real. Master Da Free John offers this penetrating analysis of the cerebral approach:
“Thinking about Reality is not the way to be in touch with It. Thinking is something you do by standing back: You contract, you turn away, you turn inside or become involved in the programmed mechanisms of the verbal mind, hoping to discover something that will give you some excuse, some reason for returning to Reality openly, for feeling good about it. You are trying to find some reason why you should surrender, why you should let go, why you should let yourself be vulnerable in the midst of this mortal circumstance. “5
The Eastern mystics to whom modern physicists turn did not arrive at their ontologies by mere abstraction. Their philosophical ideas grew on the soil of mystical experience and were nourished, in at least some instances, by the ambrosia of ultimate Realization or perfect Enlightenment, which transcends all experiencing. Hence also their metaphysical structures, though apparently paralleling those of contemporary quantum physics, are firmly tied into Man’s moral life: They serve as maps of spiritual growth, if predominantly through mystical introversion.
While the interpretation of reality proposed by the New Science is to be welcomed, it is still limited and certainly provisional. Therefore, it would be premature to draw far-reaching conclusions purely on the basis of the current research and speculations. And yet, the knowledge of the New Science contains important cues for a healthy departure from the rationalist-mechanistic interpretation of Nature that continues to dominate much of contemporary thought and life. Nevertheless, the lack of a truly comprehensive understanding-informed not by opinion, belief, or wishful thinking but by Transcendental Realization-in the new therapies or religions and in the New Science greatly hampers their free development and ultimate usefulness for Man. Without the kind of radical orientation found in the Teaching of the Adept Da Free John, the new therapies are likely to fall victim to the “heresy” of religious provincialism, whereas the New Science is prone to succumb to the equally obnoxious error of scientism (perhaps not of the materialist brand, but with the same totalitarian pretensions).
1. Marilyn Ferguson, The Aquarian Conspiracy (Los Angeles: J. P. Tarcher, 1980).
2. See M. K. Temerlin and J. W. Temerlin, “Psychotherapy Cults: An latrogenic Perversion,” Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, and Practice, vol. 19, no. 2 (Summer 1982), pp.131-41. Remarkably, these quasi-religious therapies attract even the cleric. Ralph Wendell Burhoe observes: “Traditional religious and theological doctrines of the soul and its salvation are seldom heard, unless outspoken fundamentalists happen to be around. The older religiously related tradition is increasingly forgotten, and the new secular psychotherapies are openly advocated by churchmen.” R. W. Burhoe, “Some Prophecies of Twenty-first-Century Technology and Religion,” in Science and Human Values in the 21st Century, ed. R. W. Burhoe (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1971), p. 41. See also R. W. Burhoe, “Bridging the Gap between Psychology and Theology,” Journal of Religion and Health, vol. 7, no. 3 (July 1968), pp. 215-26.
3. See E. Schur, The Awareness Trap: Self-Absorption instead of Social Change (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1977).
4. G. Zukav, The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (New York: William Morrow, 1979), p. 330.
5. From an unpublished talk given by Da Free John on August 13, 1983