Skip to content


Beware toxic fatalism, in its atheist and theist forms

This week I met a charming young man who had recently dropped out of university. He was writing an undergraduate dissertation on free will, read Sam Harris’ book on the subject, and came to the conclusion that free will does not exist, therefore there was no point finishing his dissertation. So his university gave him a ‘pass’ and he’s now wondering what to do next (not that he has any choice in the matter).

Talking to him, I was struck, paradoxically, by the power of ideas and beliefs to alter people’s lives, and to harm them. This smart young chap – call him Eric – happened to go to university now, in the high point of Scientistic Materialism, which meant he happened to have read Sam Harris, and to accept the hardcore materialist line that free will is an illusion. He accepted that idea, absorbed it into his organism, and it led to real-world consequences for him – he now can’t do an MA in anthropology, as he planned, and is stuck in something of an existential crisis.

Eric might say to me that what his situation really proves is that he had no choice. As I’ve just said, he happened to be at university during the high-point of Scientistic Materialism, he happened to be exposed to Sam Harris, and hence this situation. Yet I – like the good Stoic I am – would say that he did have a choice, whether to accept the hardcore materialist theory or not. He swallowed it, then he chose to act on it. And here’s where he ended up.

Nonetheless, his story does illustrate the power of culture – by which I mean the amniotic fluid of ideas that we find ourselves absorbing and feeding off. We may have some choice what we believe, but our range of choice is limited by the ideas we find in our culture at any one moment. And that is what worries me about the popularity of hardcore materialism in our culture – I think the theory that we have no free will is a toxic idea, which has serious real world implications for those unfortunate enough to swallow it, because it attacks and dissolves their sense of meaning, purpose and autonomy.

I don’t think the main battle line in our culture is between theists and atheists. The main dividing line, for me, is between those who believe in free will, and those who don’t. It’s between those who think we can use our conscious reason – however weak it is – to choose new beliefs and new directions in our life; and those who think we are entirely automatic machines, without the capacity to choose.

Hardcore materialists insist we don’t have free will, we don’t have the capacity to choose a path in life, because free will seems too ‘spooky’ and doesn’t fit with their strict material determinism. Where I see a universe brimming with consciousness, they see just a mass of matter, like a vast rubbish dump, a tiny portion of which suffers from the delusion of choice.

I think this is bad science, ignoring our everyday experience of being conscious and making choices. It’s bad psychology, ignoring humans’ capacity to change themselves and get out of even chronic problems like alcoholism or depression (without medication…not that there’s anything wrong with medication). And it’s bad ethics, because it empties our lives of meaning and autonomy, and leads to people like Eric wondering what’s the point of doing anything.

The hardcore materialist position also leads to the rise and rise of pharmaceutical solutions to life’s problems – people think their emotions have no meaning or connection to their own beliefs and choices, they are simply malfunctioning machines, so the only solution is to put chemicals into the machine (despite the fact that 90% or so of the effect of anti-depressants is placebo, ie it comes from our own beliefs and expectations).

This is not strictly an argument against atheism, only one variant of it. It’s also an argument against a particular variant of religion. There are religious believers who seem to have little or no belief in free will or our power to make conscious, reasonable choices in our life. We are entirely at the mercy of God’s will, and our only option is to beg God to intervene in our lives.

In Christianity, for example, there is a strong tradition going back through Calvinism and Augustine all the way to St Paul, which suggests humans have no real choice or control over whether they are ‘saved’ or not. It’s all down to God’s choice, and that choice was made before we were born.

This is why ecstatic experiences for, say, Methodists were quite so ecstatic – they felt the Holy Spirit and thought I’m saved! God had chosen me! I’m not going to Hell for eternity! Thank fuck for that!  It’s like suddenly winning the lottery for eternity. As for the other 90% of humanity who aren’t chosen by God, well, sucks to be you, we’re off to Vegas, I mean, heaven!

The hardcore Calvinist belief in predestination isn’t that ubiquitous anymore, thankfully, but I still meet a lot of charismatic Christians who seem to think God has complete control over their life and they should surrender their own reason and choices entirely to God and wait for His directions. God will reveal what to do. God will show the way. God? Hello? God?!?

This also seems to me a bit of a recipe for feeling helpless and morose. The Stoic in me feels like saying, look mate, God has given you reason, and the capacity to choose your own path in life. Stop waiting for the Divine Hand to pick you out of the gutter and instead try to change those parts of your self and your life that you can (while also praying to God for help in that process).

That might sound a bit DIY – the self-help myth of the self-made man, pulling themselves up by their bootstraps. I recognize the limits of that myth. I recognize that most of my decisions are automatic, unconscious, and determined by the past and the culture I happen to be floating in, and it’s the same for others too. We don’t choose to be destructive bastards, it just sort of happens. More positively, I also recognize that there are moments of grace, moments where something beyond our rational consciousness picks us up and carries us. I am fascinated by such moments, and have been hugely helped by them in my own life.

But we can’t rely entirely on such rare moments of grace to guide us every day of our life. At least, I don’t think you can (maybe that makes me a bad Christian or a Pelagian heretic). I think part of the meaning and value of our lives comes from using our God-given free will and discernment to try and make wise decisions and to try to come closer to the reality of God. Of course, we can sometimes choose to surrender, just as the Stoics choose to surrender their external lives to the Logos. Such surrender is still, paradoxically, a choice.

You may not believe in God or the immortality of the soul. You may not believe our free will is God-given or that the proper end of it is to return to God. Still, if you believe in trying to liberate beings from suffering, and you believe we can use our reason and free will in the effort to do that, then I am on broadly on the same side as you (although of course we have some big differences). If, on the other hand, you think we have no free will and no choice, if you either think we’re entirely automatic machines or are completely at the mercy of God’s will, then to me those are two sides of the same toxic fatalism.


In other news:

The Harvard philosopher Roberto Unger is in London. I’ve only recently (as in…this morning) read some of his ideas. Interesting stuff – reminds me of continental philosophy like Heidegger or Badiou but the mysticism is not too pretentious and is democratic as opposed to Maoist. Read this lecture, the inspiration for his upcoming book ‘The Religion of the Future’.

Leading neuroscientist Christoph Koch explains why he believes in panpsychism – which for him means the theory that consciousness is the product of highly integrated systems, and therefore the potential for consciousness is in all matter (so the internet could become conscious, for example).

My friends at Aeon have launched Aeon Films, showcasing short, beautiful films like this one about the last days of Philip Gould, which rather undid me.

Also from Aeon, cognitive scientist of religion Jesse Bering discusses the $5 million ‘Immortality Project‘, which tries to find empirical evidence both for immortality, and our belief in immortality.

This week I spoke at a well-being at work conference to lots of Human Resources people. Weird! But interesting too – with talks from Paul Farmer of MIND about overcoming the stigma of mental illness at work; a presentation from an online CBT company called Big White Wall,and an inspiring talk by the Free Help Guy, who for six months decided to offer free anonymous help for whatever people suggested, via GumTree. This week, another anonymous person gave him £100,000 to carry on his work!

Here’s a TEDX talk I did! If you’ve seen me talk about Philosophy for Life, you’ll have heard it before. Would be great if people shared, retweeted etc.

Philosophy for Life needs all the help it can get in the US, where the publishers are struggling to get any publicity for it. Even a review on would help, if you feel like it.

The Nation lays into a swathe of new happiness books, declaring them ‘neoliberal’, and suggesting we should really find happiness via Keynesian economics. Which to me is another form of toxic fatalism – the only solution to our emotional problems is collectivist economics. Keynesian institutional reforms might be some of the answer but it’s not all of it – we can also take care of our own souls (and help others learn how to do that).

Finally, this week’s Start the Week had Sir John Tavener, Jeanette Winterson, and the head of All Souls College discussing prayer, faith and culture in a post-religious age. I felt like Andrew Marr was seeking to explore how his stroke had changed him and made him more interested in the life of the spirit…but there was a nervousness about doing that on primetime BBC. Interesting though, and poignant, as Tavener died the following day.

That’s all. Next week I’m in Durham doing various talks, including one on ecstatic experiences at the Centre for the Medical Humanities on Wednesday the 20th. I’m also doing a talk at St Cuths on the 19th, at 4pm.

Oh, and thanks to the platinum members who contributed to the blog! Your names will echo for eternity! If you want to donate £10 or more for your annual enjoyment of the blog (it costs $30 a month to run the newsletter, not including my own time, so it’s very much a loss-making venture!), click on the link below.


When going to a New Age orgy, be careful who you take home

Last weekend I had a glimpse of the future. I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland, a country where just 39% of people belong to a religion. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey released this week, that’s where we’re heading too. Thirty years ago, 68% of Brits said they belonged to a religion. Now it’s just 52%, of which less than half are Anglican. We are about to become a post-religious society. So what does that look like?

Well, a post-religious society is not the same as a secular materialist society. The festival I went to was run by Happinez magazine, which caters to the ‘spiritual but not religious / wellness / Mind Body Spirit’ market. That demographic is apparently booming in Holland – Happinez magazine is doing very well, and the festival attracted thousands.

It was held in a disused armoury in the fields outside of Utrecht. You crossed a bridge, passed the barbed wire and cannons, and suddenly you’re in a New Age Disneyland. Initially, the festival seems very Buddhist – you walk through a tunnel lined with Buddha statues, and there’s a Buddha on every stage behind me when I speak. Yet I don’t think many people there would call themselves Buddhist (only 1% of the Dutch population does).

Instead, alongside the forest of Buddhas, you can find many different spiritual philosophies- there is a yoga stage above a lake, there are talks on guardian angels, there is crystal healing, Reiki, astrology, NLP, vegetarianism, aura photography, gong healing. The thinking here is not ‘either / or’ but ‘both / and’. Everything is thrown in together.

It’s easy to criticize the New Age from a Christian perspective, and many Christians do. It’s just a spiritual pick n’ mix buffet, some might say. Maybe so. But if there is a free market in spirituality, that, surely, is a consequence of the Protestant Reformation. It was Luther who challenged the central authority of the Church and turned instead to his own inner conscience. Luther invented the New Age, and no sooner had he done so than a bewildering forest of different churches sprouted (there are now 30,000 Christian denominations).

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s selfish. It’s obsessed with wellness, happiness, personal flourishing. It ends up in one long pampering session, with scented candles and healing oils. A far cry from St Simeon the Stylite and the other ascetics of Christianity, who understood that this life is a vale of tears and happiness is only possible in the after-life.

And yet…modern Christianity is not so far from the New Age in its focus on health and wellness. Today the fastest-growing denomination in global Christianity is Pentecostalism and neo-Pentecostalism, which arose in the early 20th century in the US, out of a culture that was generally obsessed with wellness and the healing power of the mind. This obsession led to late-19th-century Christian healing movements like Christian Science and the Seventh-Day Adventists (including John Harvey Kellogg, wonderfully depicted in The Road to Wellville), and also to more New Age movements like Mind Cure and New Thought. Pentecostalism, with its belief in hands-on healing, arose around the same time as a similar wellness movement, and has a similarly positive attitude to the body. For all these movements, closeness to God is expected to lead to success, happiness and wellness here on Earth, as well as in the afterlife.

Another Christian criticism of the New Age is that it’s self-absorbed. It’s an expression of Romantic individualism, which began as the philosophy of a few Bohemian intellectuals in the 19th and early 20th centuries before becoming the ruling philosophy of an entire generation in the 1960s. According to this philosophy, life is a search for the ‘real me’, for personal authenticity and creativity, which comes before anything else – family, community, tradition, God.

Yet, again, modern Christianity is not so separate from this wider culture of expressive individualism. It’s also often a search for self-acceptance (through the acceptance of God), an attempt to free oneself from the baggage of the past, to free your creative spirit. Notice to what extent young Christians are into the ‘authentic folk’ of bands like Mumford & Sons, or the Lumineers. It’s a sort of hipster Christianity, all about finding the real, true, creative, fulfilled you. There’s a similar sense that personal experience always trumps rules and written authorities. It’s all about what ‘resonates’.

But there are obvious differences between Christianity and the New Age too. The New Age is much more Romantic about sex, much less uptight about sexual experimentation, sex before marriage, same-sex relationships. It’s also more Romantic about drugs, more hip to the idea that some drugs can induce spiritual or at least creative experiences. It’s more Romantic in its veneration for nature, for environmental justice, for the welfare of other animals. There’s not much concern for animal welfare in the Bible. And it’s more Romantic – more Rousseau-esque – in its rejection of western traditions and veneration of developing-world cultures, whether that be Native American chiefs or Amazonian shamans.

A shamanic workshop run by Moonfeather:

Perhaps the defining characteristic of the New Age is its hatred of authority. This may be a product of the Reformation, but the New Age has taken it to an extreme. Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials is a perfect expression of the New Age spirit – the central Authority of the church is evil, and is opposed by a loose alliance of witches and shamans. Shamanism is particularly popular with New Agers, because it has no organization, no hierarchy, no authorities or even scriptures, nothing to which you must submit your will.

Yet sometimes the naive rejection of western power structures (ie churches) can lead to people becoming even more subjected under new religious movements. Nothing a white European male tells you could possibly be true, yet somehow, if an Indian guru like Osho tells you not to think but to obey his commands unquestioningly, that’s perfectly acceptable.

And the flipside of this Baby-Boomer horror of authority, this refusal to submit your will to any power structures, is loneliness. You are out there on your own, trying to figure everything out for yourself, with no comrades committed to the same path to encourage you on. And this lack of organizational structure perhaps explains the New Age movement’s lack of philanthropy and charitable activity. Any philanthropic activity – like opposing slavery, for example – takes organization. But organization means power structures, and power structures are corrupt.

Perhaps the old Christian criticism that the New Age is a spiritual marketplace is not so far from the truth. The most striking thing about the Happinez festival is the sea of stands selling endless trinkets, candles, crystals, water-purifiers, icons, statues, birth-charts, yoga mats, prayer-beads, weekend retreats. And what are the ‘heroes’ of the New Age – Deepak Chopra, Eckhart Tolle, Anthony Robbins, Rhonda Byrne – if not multi-million-dollar corporations? You can hear the cash-tills ring with each new spiritual insight. The 11 truths of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-ching! The 12th insight of the Celestine Prophecy. Ka-Ching again! Conversations with God. Ka-ching! Further Conversations with God. Ka-ching again! Keep talking, God, this is a profitable conversation.

One of the many stands selling trinkets at the Happinez festival

One big thing, perhaps, the New Age got right. And that is the sense that there is beauty and wisdom in other spiritual traditions, Christianity does not have a monopoly on God and (shock horror) not all non-Christians are necessarily going to Hell. I know that saying this means I’m not a proper Christian, and yet I find hope in the words of Pope Francis, in his letter to atheists published this week, where he says ‘each of us finds the truth and expresses it from our own history and culture , from the situation in which we live…The truth being ultimately one with love, it requires humility and openness to be sought, welcomed and expressed’. I believe Christ embodied that love, and to follow Christ is to try to love God and one another. That, to me, means some Muslims, Jews, Hindus and atheists might be better followers of Christ than a particularly fulminating Christian.

Nonetheless, the risk of seeing the wisdom in every spiritual tradition is that you end up committing to none of them. The New Age can become like a swingers’ orgy, where you have a fling with everyone but never commit to anyone. As a result, you never reach the intimacy and love that comes from long-term commitment.

And, like at any orgy, you need to be careful who you go home with. The Christian warning against spiritual experimentation and dabbling in the occult might seem particularly paranoid and primitive to us. What’s a bit of Ouija between friends! You only had to look at the assorted peddlers of the occult to realise they were not in possession of great demonic power. Yet let us speculate, for a moment, that we’re not alone in the multiverses, that there are many other beings out there, not all of which necessarily wish us well. If that’s the case, there’s something to be said for being a little careful about who we go home with at the orgy.