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Review of Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination (2008)

Edward Tabash


 Review: Anthony Campbell. 2008. Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination. New York: Lulu. 200 pp.

In Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, Anthony Campbell describes a spiritual journey culminating in nonbelief that is somewhat similar to the "New Age" and meditative spiritual quest that ultimately led to my own atheism, which I recount in "Confessions of a Former Mystic." Campbell is a medical doctor in England who began his religious life as a devout Roman Catholic, initially persuaded that his religion had a monopoly on truth. As a young adult, however, he became wrapped up in rational challenges to the claims of Catholicism and lost his boyhood faith. He writes: "Catholic doctrine is like knitwear: if you unpick one piece of it, the whole thing starts to unravel" (p. 26). I can relate to this loss of conventional faith as a first stage in the process of seeking direct transcendental experience through Eastern meditative disciplines, though I was never as devout in my Judaism as Campbell was in his Catholicism. Very early on (at the age of 13) I realized that attempting to proceed toward the divine (if it existed) by way of conventional religion was like trying to go to the Moon in a toy rocket ship. In my early teens my mother's description of her experiences in Auschwitz raised major roadblocks to my ability to truly believe in a biblical God. My doubts were compounded when my father, an ordained orthodox rabbi, could not produce any satisfactory proofs of God's existence, despite my asking him to do so.

For those of us who abandoned conventional religion as a method of achieving spiritual enlightenment or salvation in favor of meditative disciplines, Campbell evokes a familiar theme: that of the hopeful seeker who views Eastern paths, in contrast to conventional religion, as holding out the promise of genuine transcendental experience (p. 32). As I would "guru hop" in the 1970s and 1980s, attempting to expand my collection of Eastern meditation teachers, I would admonish the gurus and their helpers that I didn't come to them for blind faith dogma, but wanted real experiences of something extraordinary. I was personally drawn to the supposed "zappers," those alleged "realized beings" who were said to be able to trigger a seeker's internal energy by direct touch. So I can readily understand Campbell's initial excitement at the prospect of encountering a direct spiritual experience.

While I had a variety of teachers, for quite a while Campbell was exclusively involved with the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement founded by the famous Indian teacher Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (MMY), who was best known at the time as The Beatles' guru of choice. In a totally natural universe with no gods and no supernatural elements, meditation can be a pleasant and even rewarding experience. However, as Campbell and I independently found out, the teachers of meditation will often proclaim unrealistic benefits for it. One example is how a number of those involved in TM noticed that meditation was not much help if a student already suffered depression (p. 48).

Many who have studied with Eastern gurus have discovered that their wisdom does not always live up to their press releases. Campbell describes his dismay at hearing MMY attribute even earthquakes to people's stress level (p. 55). He also began to see that MMY didn't respect the scientific method (p. 58). Whether one puts full stock in the guru's pronouncements or was always somewhat skeptical (as I was), a day of reckoning frequently seems to arise when the guru's claim of constant inner equanimity is contradicted by an all-too-human display of temper. For Campbell this moment arrived when MMY was talking about destroying a marble fireplace in a hotel that he had acquired in order to turn it into a headquarters. When one of his disciples responded "Oh, Maharishi, you can't do that," MMY became furious and said, "Don't tell me what I can or can't do. I can do whatever I like. If I want to tear down the whole building, I will!" (pp. 75-76). So much for being in an imperturbable state of bliss.

Another parallel between my own "New Age" seeking days and Campbell's experience was the gurus' repeated assertions of the independence of consciousness from the brain. Even as a seeker, I always seriously doubted how there could be any meaningful life after death, given that consciousness is so obviously dependent upon the brain. Apparently this reality check also bothered Campbell, as he had grave doubts about MMY's pronouncement that, once attained, cosmic consciousness could never be lost. How could this be, Campbell wondered, when a mere change in blood chemistry or a brain injury could alter or even eliminate consciousness? (p. 60). Later, in his chapter on the soul (Chapter 10), Campbell correctly, in my view, identifies the dependence of consciousness upon the brain as the primary obstacle to being able to accept the notion of life after death (p. 141, 145).

Unlike Campbell, I was never a full-fledged, no-questions-asked believer in the doctrines of any of my meditation teachers, but my experiences in leaving a teacher or in losing trust in the efficacy of the teachings were often similar to Campbell's experiences when his doubts about TM began to trouble him. Ultimately those doubts culminated in Campbell's abandonment of the TM organization and his search for spiritual enlightenment elsewhere. The Advaita Vedanta philosophy, to which MMY adhered, postulates an ultimate unity of all things and is a "totality belief system" purporting to provide an explanation for literally everything (p. 68). Campbell was no longer so confident about its truth. He became very uncomfortable with the introduction of supposed levitation instruction into the TM curriculum and, as a medical doctor, with the addition of Ayurvedic medicine into the TM framework (p. 70). As he began to think beyond TM and more about mysticism in general, he started to realize that no paranormal knowledge or wisdom is brought back by those who claim to have acquired special insights during a supposed excursion through altered states (pp. 92-93).

Campbell conceives of religion as more of a function of imagination than of belief, and thinks that many religious people would have difficulty expressing exactly what it is that they believe (pp. 94-95). My experiences have led me to a different conclusion. I have found, not only in formal debates on the existence of God, but also in general discussions and arguments with people of faith, that believers are usually very clear about what they believe. Campbell is undoubtedly right that humans are storytelling animals and that narrative is at the heart of religion (p. 97), but this does not diminish the fact that many or even most religious people know exactly what it is they believe.

With respect to religious rituals, Campbell notes that one does not have to believe in the literal truth of the story underlying the ritual in order to find it meaningful (p. 102). This is certainly more true of the nonfundamentalist religions than of the more orthodox variety. In my own experience growing up, I found that orthodox rabbis and other orthodox Jews--who conducted the Passover Seder--were very hung up on affirming the literal historicity of the Exodus from Egypt. However, particularly reformed and reconstructionist rabbis, and other such Jews conducting the same ritual, were far more concerned with putting over an antislavery message, generic to all humanity, regardless of whether the Exodus was historical fact or fiction.

Another aspect of Campbell's odyssey from conventional religionist to meditator to nonbeliever, paralleling my own journey, is his exploration of Buddhism. Most of us who have delved into Eastern spirituality on the way to atheism have looked closely at Buddhism. Its disbelief in--or rather, indifference toward--a unified single supreme being makes it an attractive way station along the journey from believer to nonbeliever. Campbell asserts that Buddhism is much farther along than Christianity in accepting the scientific method. He makes this point when he quotes the Dalai Lama's statement that if science conclusively demonstrated that certain Buddhist claims were false, then with respect to those claims science should prevail (p. 117).

Another discovery that Campbell made on his journey from spirituality to nonbelief was the failure of any prayer study to demonstrate any miraculous curing of diseases. Here his training as a medical doctor trumped his spiritual search, as he could find no evidence that any supernatural intervention ever brought about a cure for an injury or illness. He most cogently remarks that what is needed to even begin to provide evidence of a miraculous healing is the recovery from an affliction for which a spontaneous cure has never been known to occur (p. 134).

Campbell describes his journey from "religion to irreligion" as a process of letting go (p. 147). Despite his own experience, he believes that religious belief is so intertwined with emotion that it is generally impervious to argument (p. 156). Earlier he had mused that it might be simultaneously true that society must outgrow religion and that society might not be able to survive without religious beliefs (p. 110). I would say that only one is true: religion can be outgrown, and belief in the supernatural is not so integral to the human psyche that we would never be able to overcome it. With enough time and a sufficiently pervasive rationalist educational outreach encouraging people to ground their beliefs in rational thought, science, philosophy, and the empirical method, the general public--or at least very large numbers of people--could be moved to question and doubt all religious dogma. It may take a hundred years or more, but it is possible to wean masses of humanity away from the need to believe in a supreme paranormal overseer. The length of time necessary to sew seeds of doubt about the existence of the supernatural most likely depends upon how extensive and well funded the effort will be.

Next Campbell says that he finds inadequate the atheistic contention that the most meaning we can expect is that which other humans or communities give to our individual lives, and that this is as close as we can come to a world soul (p. 159). But his own nonbelief, as he describes it, points directly to this very contention that he is now reluctant to embrace. A godless universe leaves us with no choice but to seek meaning from the experiences derived from human life. Moreover, it is indeed our interactions with other people and with communities of people that form the foundation of whatever meaning we ascribe to our individual lives. I see no reason for Campbell to resist accepting this as a basic foundation of the worldview he now espouses.

Campbell concludes by writing that as long as "we have been fully human," we have believed in an unseen world of spirits. Consequently, he is uncertain about whether we can live without such beliefs, even if they are illusory, and writes that he has no idea what can be done about this situation (p. 163). Well, I have an idea. We need to engage in conversations with as many people as we can reach. We need to publish and distribute our arguments against the existence of any gods as widely as we can. We need to have frequent formal debates on the existence of God on university campuses, and before as many general public audiences as possible. We need to raise and spend billions of dollars, over the balance of this century, in the cause of publicly disseminating the atheistic, naturalistic message.

For those of us who have traveled the path from spiritual seeker to nonbeliever, there can be a wistful nostalgia for the more naïve moments of our past, when we were brimming with the hope of enlightenment and the discovery of our own immortality. There is certainly nothing wrong with the now scientifically minded atheist occasionally shedding a tear for the lost days of spiritual innocence, when each new meditation technique was enthusiastically embraced with the eager anticipation that this new approach might just happen to be the door-opener one has always been seeking. (For me, the hope of eventually attaining unfaltering bliss was always a motivation for diving further into my practices.) But I cannot stress enough that nostalgia for an earlier period of spiritual seeking can coexist with a completely atheistic worldview. In Totality Beliefs and the Religious Imagination, Campbell very capably conveys what it was like to be an eager seeker filled with the hope of attaining spiritual heights, only to be increasingly disappointed with one's guru and the guru's message, ultimately realizing that all supernatural claims are false and that death is indeed the permanent end of the existence of each of us.

Overall, Campbell's ambivalence, even pessimism, about the prospects for a thorough acceptance of a naturalistic worldview by large segments of society, does not in any way diminish the excellent roadmap his book provides for those interested in the journey from conventional religion through Eastern-style meditation and mysticism, finally culminating in nonbelief.

Copyright ©2008 Edward Tabash. The electronic version is copyright ©2008 by Internet Infidels, Inc. with the written permission of Edward Tabash. All rights reserved.