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Gay Pride shows how Christian our culture still is

It was when I took the escalator in Tottenham Court Road station that I realized quite how much Gay Pride has been embraced as a national festival. The entire tube station was festooned in rainbow colours, like a SuperMarioKart racetrack. Outside, a huge sign read Love is Love.

Can you imagine a tube station blaring out any other social or ethical message to the same extent? Equal pay for women? Care for the environment? Love of God? I realized that Gay Pride / LGBTQ rights has gone in 50 years from being a very marginal and unpopular issue, to being a foundational dogma of our secular, liberal society.

It’s no longer one view among many views which a reasonable person might hold (like being a carnivore or supporting prison reform). It has been taken out of the forum of debate, and become part of the main code of our culture, un-editable.

50 years ago, a handful of brave politicians stuck their neck out to campaign for the de-criminalization of homosexuality, and did so only by insisting sick deviants deserved pity rather than prison.

Today, Gay Pride has official government support – a friend from Number 10 told me the prime minister must make a supportive speech on Pride, as she must on Eid, Easter, Diwali and Chanukah. If an MP or councillor suggests homosexuality is not natural or acceptable then, like Tim Farron, they’re unlikely to be in frontline politics for long.

Other pillars of the establishment hoist the rainbow flag: the foreign office, the police force, the fire service, the army, the NHS, the British Museum, the National Trust. The BBC commissioned a series of programmes, Gay Britannia. I’m surprised we don’t drop rainbow bombs on ISIS.

If you’re one of the 12-25% of the population who still believe homosexuality should not be accepted, or who disapprove of gay marriage, you may be miffed. You may think the secular, liberal state isn’t really neutral, that your opinion has been declared invalid and illegal.

Well…that’s the way it goes. This issue has been taken up by our society as a way we define ourselves, it’s become part of the story we tell ourselves about who we are. Myth-making is a strange, non-rational process, and for this round you’re on the wrong side of it.

Why have LGBTQ right become such a foundational myth for our society, when LGBTQ people are only 10% of our society? Why are transgender rights given so much airtime when transgender people constitute roughly 0.1% of the population?

Perhaps it’s because championing LGBTQ rights is a way for post-religious societies to reassure themselves they’re still morally good, even though they’re post-religious. We can congratulate ourselves that we’re better than old, homophobic, Christian Europe or nasty, Islamic fundamentalist cultures – we let love rule! We voted a drag queen the winner of Eurovision! Fuck you, traditional religious societies: we’re secular Europe and we’re fabulous. Seen this way, Gay Pride is a way for secularists to celebrate Europe coming out of the closet of Christianity.

It’s true that Christianity has attacked homosexuality for millennia, and that societies become more accepting of homosexuality as they become less Christian (see the Pew Research chart below). And I also believe (as you probably do too) that LGBTQ liberation is something to celebrate – it’s a moral achievement, part of humans’ millennia-long expansion of love and respect, a step forward that happened despite the church, not because of it.

 

Seen another way, however, the festival of Gay Pride shows that post-religious societies are not post-sacred. Gay pride is a sacred festival – a celebration of love, pride and dignity as sacred values (complete with anthems, costumes, bunting and unicorns). Pride also shows that post-Christian societies are still very Christian in their ideals and emotional narratives. Yes, Gay Pride is a very Christian festival. It shows that secular liberal culture is still improvising its sacred rituals out of the Christian fancy-dress box.

Why Gay Pride is such a Christian festival

The message of Pride – social liberation from fear and oppression – is an improvisation of the old standard from Exodus. One day my people will be free. It’s a riff from an earlier improvisation by the civil rights movement of the 1960s. When you listen to gay house music of the late 1980s, made at the height of the AIDS epidemic, it sounds like Martin Luther King with an 808 beat. So many of the early gay house anthems are soaring gospel epics, singing of The Promised Land, praying for Freedom, longing for Some Day when Your Love will lift us up and we will Finally be Free.

The message of Pride is also one of personal liberation – the individual’s journey through alienation and oppression until they find the True Me. We in post-60s liberal society love that story and tell it over and over.

It’s originally a Christian story. Jesus finds himself and becomes Christ. Saul becomes Paul. Augustine finally gets together with God. How early Christians must have shocked their parents and scandalized their society. ‘Mum, Dad, I’ve got something to tell you. I’m a Christian.’ You’re a what?? Are you sure it’s not just a phase?

The drama of the Christian personal revelation – the first love, the inner wrestling, being born-again, then coming out despite the risk – is something new in antiquity. It’s not Greek or Roman at all. Compare Augustine’s Confessions to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

Marcus is not really interested in himself as an individual. He’s a collection of beliefs illuminated by reason. He uses his journal to analyze his beliefs and habits, and bring them into accord with the cosmic rationality of the Logos. Not much drama there. Augustine’s Confessions, by contrast, is an intensely emotional journey of transformation in which Augustine encounters a loving God, resists Him, surrenders to Him, becomes a new person, and then comes out of the closet as a Christian in the Roman empire. It is a highly dramatic, highly emotional story of personal liberation. Very Gay Pride.

It’s customary today for Christians to condemn the individualism of secular liberal society, but as Larry Siedentrop and others point out, Christianity invented the individual and bequeathed us secular individualism. In Christianity, the individual person is a unique soul, loved and desired by a personal God, and they remain a person even in the afterlife. The individual soul and its personal choices are more sacred than the social order. This shocking idea is implicit in Greek philosophy but only really developed in Christianity. Any person is sacred? Even a woman? Even a slave? Even a black man? Even a homosexual? Yes, all are sacred, unique, fabulous, loved by God.

This idea immediately creates a tension between the individual and the community. Jesus tells his mother, I know you not. He abandons his family, abandons carpentry, he and his disciples drop out of society and hit the road to find the Real Me, the Kingdom of Heaven within. Christian pastors condemned baby-boomers’ restless search for personal authenticity, but if you want to find the roots of Easy Rider, look in the Gospels.

Of course, early Christianity was both radically individualist (my personal journey to God is more important than the social order) and radically communitarian. The born-again Christian is welcomed into the new family of the loving Christ, they celebrate in the love-feast, there’s lots of hugs, tears, kissing and so on. They stand in front of the community and tell their testimony. I was lost but now I’m found. I’m coming out. Cue wild applause. Very Gay Pride.

Secular liberalism, and particularly the expressive individualism of the last few decades, did not abandon this Christian narrative of personal liberation, it just secularized it.

Our favourite trope, repeated in endless movies, is the awkward outsider who eventually learns to love themselves, and then, in the climax of the movie, they reveal their new, authentic, fabulous self to the public, through a speech, a song, a dance or something. At first the public isn’t sure how to react, but then they react with wild applause. The new authentic identity of the hero is publicly affirmed. The ugly duckling is confirmed as a swan.

I’ve found the Real Me and it’s fabulous. Now love me

This trope is repeated, with variations, in films including Napoleon Dynamite, Dirty Dancing, Little Miss Sunshine, Mean Girls, About a Boy, Wedding Crashers, Jerry McGuire, Billy Elliott, Silver Linings, The Full Monty. It’s also endlessly repeated in reality TV talent shows like Britain’s Got Talent: Susan Boyle waddles on stage and then reveals herself as a nightingale.

I think that’s something of the ethos of Gay Pride. I used to be bullied at school but now here I am, I’m out and fabulous! It’s post-Christian – but the part of Loving God is now played by the Public.

Perhaps there is a tension in that recasting. God loves us no matter how rubbish we are (so Jesus says anyway). But the Public? They love us if we’re entertaining and personable. And if we’re not? Will they tire of us if our performance drags, if our make-up runs, if our jokes fall flat, if the lines start to show on our face?

Can the public’s love pick us up when we are broken? We hope so. That’s why we pour our hearts out on social media – I have depression, I have bulimia, I self-harm. This is the real, inner me, now love me. Is internet love reliable? Not entirely.

Love is Love…But as Haddaway asked, what is love? Is it something we can give ourselves? Yes, but sometimes we can’t. Is it something we get from our parents? Ideally, but not always. Is it something the public can give us? Yes, but sometimes they don’t. Is it something that genuinely transcends the social order and the fickleness of public opinion, something that transcends how well we perform, how well we strut our stuff on the catwalk of life?

I hope so. I still think there is something in you and me that is more than me and you – a spark of the infinite loving I AM which some call God – and it is this spark which makes us all both worthy of love and capable of giving love. It is the sparkling glitter of consciousness. which exists in men, women, children, slaves, Jews, Gentiles, atheists, homosexuals, and other animals.

So, Christians, if the Gay Liberation movement annoys you, blame St Augustine. Blame Jesus. Or, alternatively, celebrate Pride as the latest riff in a long history of Christian and post-Christian improvisation. I wonder in what unimaginable manger the Holy Spirit will turn up next?

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The ethical and the numinous in psychedelic culture

I’ve spent the last two days at Breaking Convention, a conference on psychedelics at the University of Greenwich organized by some brave academics. It’s my favourite academic conference, by a long stretch.

Academic conferences are typically uptight, dull, low-energy events, driven largely by ambition, fear, awkwardness and resentment. Breaking Convention isn’t like that at all, it’s a warm, friendly, freaky place, that brings together chemists, neuroscientists, therapists, artists, historians, philosophers, shaman, witches, performance artists, and a lot of DIY psychonauts. There’s some great critical research there, but it’s also totally fine to discuss your own weird experiences – they’re also valid data. And there’s a healthy pluralism of philosophical viewpoints, from naturalist to animist. That’s totally different from the exclusive naturalism of most academic conferences.

When I attended the previous Breaking Convention in 2015, psychedelics looked on the verge of going primetime. We heard reports from scientists at institutions like NYU, Imperial College and Johns Hopkins of the remarkable therapeutic benefits of psychedelics: just one or two doses of psilocybin (the drug in magic mushrooms) helped 60% of participants in a small trial to overcome chronic depression; as well as 80% of participants in another trial to give up smoking. Psychedelics also significantly lowered death-anxiety in people with serious cancer, apparently by triggering a ‘mystical experience’.

In the two years since then, I’ve been struck by how positive media coverage is of psychedelic therapy, even in the right-wing media. There have been enthusiastic articles in the Daily Mail, the Express, the Telegraph, and even a segment on micro-dosing on BBC daytime TV show, Victoria. If psychedelics really do help people overcome depression, anxiety, addiction and the fear of death (and they do), then it seems only a matter of time before they’re legal, and available as a therapeutic treatment through the NHS.

I remember Rick Doblin, head of the psychedelic research organisation MAPS, saying in 2015 that psychedelics needed to stop being a transgressive counterculture and go mainstream. Less hippy freaks, more soccer moms. Well, microdosing for emotional healing is likely to be the way that happens. With careful microdosing, your reality is barely altered, you don’t even get any visuals, but the psychedelics apparently still have an emotional or neuro-chemical effect at the subliminal level. Look at the citizen science movement in the US to legalize microdosing for cluster headaches – they don’t want a revolution, they just want to stop having awful headaches (preferably paid for by medical insurance). 

Keeping it weird

Yet what struck me most, during this Breaking Convention, was an anxiety about what might be lost if / when psychedelics are legalized and go mainstream. While there were sessions on new therapeutic trials of psychedelics, the main emphasis seemed to be on ‘keeping it weird’ – to quote the title of one session. I mean, look at the conference poster – this is not a movement rushing into the mainstream.

At one presentation, religious studies scholar Erik Davis said he wanted to resist the instrumentalization and medicalization of psychedelics. He liked the psychedelic counterculture – its weirdness, its trashiness, its transgressiveness. The audience – a motley crew of thai-dye freaks and feathered urban shaman – cheered their support. They’re a guerrilla movement not ready to come out of the jungle.

Next to him, Dennis McKenna – ethnobotanist and brother of famous psychedelic guru Terence McKenna – told the story of a legendary psychedelic trip his brother and he undertook in their 20s, when they munched a huge amount of magic mushrooms in Colombia. Dennis disappeared for 14 days, ‘dislocated in the space-time continuum’, while his brother witnessed a giant UFO landing and spent the next decades of his life trying to construct a magic box which neither he nor anyone else fully understood. The psychedelic counter-culture loves this sort of weird tale, which eludes easy classification.

Psychedelic studies at the moment remind me of 17th-century natural philosophy, with its love of ‘strange facts’. As historians Lorraine Dalston and Katherine Park explored in Wonders and the Order of Nature, there was a moment in the 17th century, when natural philosophers circulated accounts of anomalous events – weird animals, odd astronomical events, freaky experiments with electricity – partly as a means of chipping away at the hegemony of the Aristotelian worldview, and partly just for fun. But then, in the 18th century, these anomalous incidents become subsumed into the new consensus of materialism. Wonder and a yearning for the freaky came to be seen as vulgar.

Likewise, many psychedelic explorers are fascinated by the weird and marvellous. But eventually, either psychedelics will become absorbed into the existing secular materialist medical paradigm or – more likely – a new paradigm will emerge, a new consensus on reality, with its own rules and enforcers. What could that new paradigm be? What theology or ethics could emerge from the psychedelic renaissance?

The most obvious way psychedelic therapy is likely to change our worldview is by changing our idea of the self. You can either dismiss all psychedelic visions as meaningless, or you can interpret them as messages from some sort of Jungian or Jamesian subconscious. As Jung said, the subconscious seems to communicate to us through symbolic imagery. Trips are often healing – some intelligence in the subconscious wants to guide us to wholeness. The mainstreaming of psychedelics is also likely to underline the interconnectedness between the mind and the body, particularly the subconscious mind and the autonomic nervous system.

But what about the interconnectedness of our mind with others’ minds, with the natural world, with the cosmos? What about people’s encounters with spirit-beings? 

As Tamara Freimoser and Elena Fountoglou have found, around 50% of people who take ayahuasca report ‘encounters with supra-human spiritual entities’, as well as 36% of people on DMT, 12% on psilocybin, 17% on LSD. Often, these encounters are healing – psychedelic trips seem to lower death-anxiety in patients with cancer because they report an encounter with some sort of ‘higher power’ which makes them believe materialism isn’t the whole story and death isn’t necessarily the end. The animist aspects of psychedelics are sometimes fundamental to the healing experience (though not always).

But not all encounters with spirit-beings are pleasant. According to the ‘global ayahuasca project’, which has interviewed around 1600 people who’ve taken ayahuasca, around 20% report the feeling of being under spiritual attack. In Rick Strassman’s famous DMT experiment, participants reported encounters with weird alien creatures who probed, devoured and even raped them.

Are these experiences projections from the individual subconscious, or encounters with something real and transpersonal – a collective unconscious, the spirits of nature, ancestor-spirits, cosmic consciousness, aliens, Whatever? Who the hell knows. Strassman himself has now returned to Judaism and insists we need to learn the discernment of spirits to protect ourselves against malevolent spirit entities.

This is the trickiest issue for psychedelics as they go mainstream. On the one hand, psychedelics are very healing, and who’s not up for healing?  On the other hand, they sometimes involve spirit-encounters, and spirits are just…well…verboten in the existing secular materialist paradigm of medicine.

I would suggest that we, as a culture, don’t get too hung up on the freaky. Weird things happen on trips, as they do on meditation retreats, pilgrimages, near-death experiences, and in ordinary life. You may encounter spirit-beings and not be entirely sure if they’re projections or independent entities. You can get lost down that rabbit hole. The main thing is to try and become a wiser and more loving being. That’s harder, and superficially less interesting, but more meaningful and valuable in the long-run. Maybe a personal encounter with Jesus Christ has hugely helped you to become a wiser and more loving person – that’s awesome. But I don’t think it’s essential. 

As the religious scholar Rudolph Otto said, every religion needs to find a balance between the numinous (ie religious or mystical experiences) and the ethical. You shouldn’t exclude the numinous, but neither should you obsess over it and forget the ethical. The great theologian Huston Smith, who took psychedelics with Timothy Leary and was sympathetic to psychedelics, nonetheless warned:

A religion made up solely of heightened religious experiences would not be a religion at all…. The major religious traditions address the mysteries (with or without entheogens), but they have other business to do: widen understanding, give meaning, provide solace, promote loving-kindness, and connect human being to human being. This is my litmus test for any mental experience however induced: does it enhance your whole life, and then do you in turn enhance the lives of others?

Psychedelic culture needs to find a balance between numinous experiences like the McKennas’ UFO encounters, and more basic ethical tasks – how to help people, how to make them more open, loving and wise. ‘Traits, not states’, insisted Huston Smith. Don’t get hung up on seeking altered states for their own sake. Seek altered traits – are you becoming a kinder and wiser person? Psychedelics can help with that (there’s some evidence they help make people more open and more reverential to nature, for example), but so can many other less dramatic spiritual practices like meditation, prayer, volunteering.

On the way to Breaking Convention, I listened to this great interview by Russell Brand with Sharon Salzberg, a leading Western practitioner of loving-kindness meditation (you can download it on iTunes here). I love Salzberg’s pragmatic worldview – she doesn’t exclude the supernatural, but she doesn’t obsess over it. Brand constantly tests the limits of her worldview – does she believe in reincarnation? Yes. Does she believe in God?  She notes how the Buddha remained silent on this question, suggesting that – whether there is a God / higher power or not, the human task remains the same of developing our consciousness and trying to become wiser and kinder beings, rather than getting stuck in disputes about whose God is better.

What about weird ‘siddhis’ or powers like telepathy or bilocation, which some holy people supposedly develop. Does she have any weird powers? No. Has she met holy people who do? Yes, but so what. ‘If you really want to, you can learn to read minds, but it’s not a path of wisdom, it’s a path of power. I had a woman teacher, my most important teacher. She came to practice after losing her husband and two children. The doctor said to her you’ll die of a broken heart unless you learn to meditate. So she went to the temple to learn to meditate. When she emerged, she was so compassionate and loving. She was radiant. They say she had powers. They say she could bake a potato in her hands. But so what? When I think of her I don’t think of that. I don’t care. She’s the person who was loving to everyone.’

I think there probably are spirit-beings ‘out there’, but I don’t think we should obsess over them. And attempts to describe God / the higher power are just attempts, we shouldn’t get hung up on our imperfect verbal definitions, much less attack others for their different definitions. The main task facing homo sapiens is to become wiser and more loving beings. That’s the North Star we need to stay focused on. The weird is fun but it’s not the main event.