As previous posts about The New Metaphysicals have illustrated, Courtney Bender’s spiritual but not religious subjects pose a number of definitional problems for theories of secularization. On one hand, her interlocutors describe spiritual experiences in languages that we tend to call religious, even while the new metaphysicals might resist the label (although some do use the word religion). Thus, Cambridge spiritual seekers might demonstrate the persistence of religious belief. On the other hand, their disinclination to recognize legitimate religious institutions or identify themselves as members of binding moral communities might demonstrate trends that confirm theories of secularization. While Bender stresses that spiritual experiences are produced and interpreted within social and cultural networks, these networks do not seem to wield the institutional or social authority that would debunk a Durkheimian assessment that her book is evidence of American religious privatization.
In response to the question of whether these spiritual practices constitute evidence for or against secularization, Bender deftly reframes the issue around how the production of spirituality “unsettles the logics of institutional differentiation that continue to lie at the heart of our theories of secularization.” Rather than restrict her focus to religion, she studies how spirituality is produced across institutions. As part of this project, Bender points to the historical and social contingency of what we classify as religious: “But studying spirituality seriously does raise questions about how social scientific practice distinguishes religion from other kinds of actions and organizations, and how such distinctions have mattered not only to sociological analysis but, more broadly, to scholarly and lay evaluations of what the religious is, and how various forms of religious activity mobilize or should mobilize action in the world.”
This is an important point, but it also means that we need to take seriously the insistence of many of Bender’s subjects that they are not religious. That is, to explore her claim that “the binaries of religious and secular institutional differentiation are inadequate to our analysis of religious life in America,” we have to explain why it is that many spiritual practitioners are invested in some binary that distinguishes between religion and nonreligion. One might object, of course, that nonreligious here does not equal secular. But what is the secular exactly, apart from the historically and socially contingent institutional space that is not religious? To put it another way, if we are making empirical sociological distinctions between matters spiritual and temporal, then the practices of spiritual seekers clearly unsettle binaries between religious and secular. However, if we are following Talal Asad’s invitation to take secularity to be a normative discursive and legal project that classifies and produces various social phenomena in terms of categories of religious and secular, it is less clear how unsettled this binary really is. As long as claiming not to be religious has discursive resonance, this binary impacts how institutional authority is legitimated and distributed in American society.
To be clear, I think there is analytic value in analyzing new metaphysicals in terms of a challenge to sociological definitions of religion. In claiming not to be religious, some spiritual seekers recognize that their commitment to spirituality occupies a space that many other Americans identify as religion. This seems to indicate that new metaphysicals feel that it is intellectually dishonest and spiritually inauthentic to subscribe to organizationally sanctioned credos or ritual practices. But to follow Bender’s suggestion that we look at how spirituality is produced across institutions, what would happen if, instead of calling this religion, we listened to the insistence of many of her subjects that they are actually practicing science? To this end, I would like to revisit some of the perceptive observations by Michael Saler and Andrew Perrin about the new metaphysicals’ scientific claims. While Saler and Perrin made distinct points, they both wondered why pseudoscience continued to have such a strong hold on the imaginations of people who invested so much in scientific legitimacy. In his post, Saler expressed his desire to resurrect binaries between “new metaphysicals’ concept of science, and its institutionalized practice around the globe—the version of science that is arguably at the core of Western modernity.” While I agree that the institutionalized practice of science is a core feature of Western modernity, I would like to consider whether Bender’s subjects might actually have a great deal invested in a religion and science binary. Without defending the rigor of the new metaphysicals’ scientific claims, I think it would be productive to assess instead how it would affect the book’s institutional analysis if the subtitle were “Spirituality and the American Scientific Imagination.” I am not trying to argue that this is really science and not really religion; my purpose is to consider what is at stake in the claim to be scientific and not religious.
One way of addressing this problem of classification is to open up the binary between religious and scientific to consider the larger process of institutional differentiation between religion, science, economy, and the state. This does not just line up secular politics, economy, and science on one side and religion on the other (although sometimes it does). In significant ways, these spheres of human activity are differentiated from each other. For example, something called “the economy” becomes its own distinct sphere of social life that should function autonomously from politics or religion. On this point, I would echo Pamela Klassen’s objection to Saler’s objection to Bender’s comparison of conceptual forces like “the economy” with “astral energy.” While I hope that social scientists think self-reflexively and contingently about economics, it is important to consider the discursive work that defines the economy as an aggregate measure of quantifiable activity while defining, say, sympathy for the material well-being of others as a distinct matter of moral or religious concern. And while there are real economic processes at work that allow us to say that the economy grew by 2.4 percent, that number often functions with the mystical potency of a chakra in the way it affects human attitudes, decisions, and behaviors.
The global scientific community also shores up its own sources of institutional authority by protecting it from religious, economic, or political encroachments. One of the many strong features of Bender’s book is how she captures the ambivalence that many of her subjects have toward this established scientific authority. Far more than churches, the institutional rivals in this story are the American Medical Association, National Science Foundation, peer-reviewed scientific journals, or any number of departments at MIT and Harvard. But in keeping with this ambivalence, spiritual seekers mixed their frustration about the condescension of conventional scientists with their proud recitation of scientific degrees and anecdotes about the inclusion of alternative healing classes in medical school curricula. Perrin speculates that this desire for scientific legitimacy might have something to do with the setting of Bender’s book: “In the heady environs of Cambridge, this probably played a dual role: at once claiming legitimacy among intellectual neighbors and distinguishing themselves from more traditionally ‘religious’ people whose spirituality is, by implication, incompatible with the scientific ethos.”
This is a persuasive point in that Bender’s subjects seem to grant greater legitimacy to science than to religion, but we also need to consider that they insist that their insights are superior to those of the mainstream scientific community. According to Bender’s interlocutors, conventional science is undermined by a myopia that proscribes observations about the spiritual energies that pervade nature. As she describes: “The energetic body, or astral body (or subtle body), is ‘energetic,’ and as my respondents told me frequently, is a scientific reality, subject to the laws and rules of energy (as well as some esoteric rules not yet proven by science) just as they understand the physical body to be always the same, subject to the same rules, proceeding with the same functions and capacities.” Spiritual scientists describe energies and processes that are not supernatural in the sense of miraculous interventions by a power who defies the laws or patterns of nature. Rather, they insist that their spiritual experiences tap into energies that inhere in the order of things and are empirically testable, repeatable, and even falsifiable. To this end, spiritual experiences function something like experiments meant to produce data that can be used to identify and measure patterns of spiritual energy. In a chapter entitled “Tuning the Body,” Doug describes his astral body’s ability to hear music during an out-of-body experience: “I could actually hear the music change. It felt like, I could hear it 20 feet in front of me and then at some point it was on my side, and then at some point it was behind me…. If I was perfectly stationary and I was hearing from my physical ears, the sound, the music would have stayed the same. My radio wasn’t moving. So what that means is that I was moving. And that I was actually hearing that music from my spirit body and not my physical body.” While this spiritual hearing might seem to challenge empirical observation, Doug sees the evidence gained from his spirit body, not as contradictory, but as supplemental to what he learns from his physical body. Instead of pointing to an astral body outside the purview of scientific verification, Bender’s subjects assert “that ‘scientists’ have indeed ‘recognized’ the body’s electromagnetism, and pointed furthermore to a variety of technologies that they understood to provide evidence of the astral body.” Any science that does not recognize this evidence is insufficiently empirical in that it fails to incorporate the full range of human perception and sensibility.
I am not saying that the manifestation of divine power that defies the laws of nature is an essential feature of religion, but I am saying that some people might think it is and want to assure themselves and others that what they are experiencing is not religious in this sense. Thus, I think it is an open question whether at least some of the spiritual seekers in Bender’s book are working within a secular binary in which they want to align their experiences and insights with scientific proof rather than religious faith. In other words, they seek to appropriate science’s institutional mojo by arguing that they understand science better than scientists.
To speculate on what this might mean for an American scientific imagination, it is possible to read the new metaphysicians as advocates for a privatization of science, in which people cite something like an empirical conscience that is competent to judge claims about the spiritual/natural order of things. Thus, no one should be in the position of judging someone else’s empirical experiences and observations. Scientific organizations that do this through their processes of peer review seem elitist, undemocratic, intolerant, and un-American. Investigating this kind of scientific imagination might help to shed light on why a supermajority of Americans find it reasonable for intelligent design to be taught alongside evolution in biology classes. Of course, intelligent designers and the new metaphysicals have very different motivations and ideas about religious authority, but there might be some similarity in the discursive logic that defends the right of every person to evaluate scientific data and arguments for him or herself. I’m only speculating about this, and one reservation I have in using the term privatization is that it implies a process in which authority was once stable but is now eroding. And as Catherine Albanese has exhaustively demonstrated, such alternative sciences have been a persistent presence on the American landscape.
If it seems odd to consider private intuitions and spiritual evidence as an institutional challenge to the scientific community, it would seem no less odd to the adherents of many of the things that we call religions for the claims of one’s personal conscience to trump the views of learned experts or traditional sources of authority. This is because sociologists accept that there is a distinction between true and false science in a way that does not exist for true and false religion. What this reflects is an institutional arrangement in which you can believe whatever crazy stuff you want as long as you call it religion. But many of the spiritual but not religious seem unwilling to accept this.