Eastern spirituality in the West-secularizing or globalizing?

How much of Eastern spirituality and practice in the West is really dressed up secular therapy and consumerism? In his new book, Secular Beats Spiritual: The Westernization of the Easternization of the West (Oxford University Press, $32.50), sociologist Steve Bruce casts doubt on the notion that the “turn to the East” represents anything like a spiritual revolution that is replacing traditional religion. The subtitle refers to Colin Campbell’s 2007 book, The Easternization of the West, which argued that Western culture was undergoing a transformation to Eastern spiritual values. Bruce, a longtime defender of the secularization thesis, looks at many of the influences Campbell sees as Eastern spiritual themes and stirrings and dismisses them as largely secular or at most “quasi-spiritual.” Bruce takes the reader on a colorful tour of New Age and Eastern spiritual gatherings and groups, especially in the UK, making the book more ethnographic than his other works. He looks at such New Age communities as Findhorn and Glastonbury and finds small if devoted followings (mainly of older people), a tolerance for diversity and absence of a set of unifying beliefs, syncretism, and a therapeutic mindset (discovering one’s true self). In subsequent chapters on yoga, neo-Hinduism (such as Hare Krishna), and Buddhism, Bruce finds a similar pattern: the groups and ideas that thrive in mainstream society (such as human potential concepts and physical and emotional well-being) are the most distant from traditional religious expressions and practices. This is especially the case with the practice of “mindfulness,” as this insight form of Buddhist meditation has evolved into a stress on calmness, increasingly leaving behind any religious trappings.

Not unexpectedly, Bruce finds that his theory of secularization is confirmed by what he sees as the secular drift of these groups. In the final chapters, he returns to his usual number crunching, acknowledging the difficulty of counting the loosely affiliated and individualistic Eastern seekers. From surveys, subscription lists and other studies, he estimates New Age adherents as ranging between seven and one percent of the UK population, mainly middle-class, middle-age and elderly and not likely to reproduce their numbers. “Put very simply, ‘alternative spirituality,’ as it is sometimes called, is not an alternative to religious indifference. It is an alternative to conventional religion [since so many of such seekers had religious upbringings] and, as the proportion of people with any childhood religious socialization declines, so too does the pool from which spirituality recruits,” he argues. Campbell’s book was not so much about the growth of New Age and Eastern religious groups, but rather the diffusion of Eastern spiritual influence in Western culture. Bruce, who sees the same secularizing currents in the UK as soon to arrive in the U.S., denies that Eastern spirituality, given its individualism, has had much public influence. He concludes that the “Western appropriation of Eastern religious themes has been accompanied by a considerable reshaping of those themes. What we have actually seen is the Westernization of the Easternization of the West.”

Most of the contributors to the new anthology Eastspirit (Brill, $146) would agree with Bruce that Eastern spirituality changes, sometimes drastically, in the transition from Asian societies to the West. But they would also argue that these changes are not always in the secular direction—and that sometimes they boomerang back and influence Eastern religion and societies. Editors Jørn Borup and Marianne Qvortrup Fibiger write that the interaction and circulation of religions between Asian and Western societies is complex, with “spirituality” often being added to the mix only after Eastern religions have gone west, as is the case with meditation and Zen. Several contributors look at the way Eastern traditions have been spiritualized in the West and then exported back to Asia, as with Deepak Chopra becoming a well-known guru in India and qigong returning to China in its new “spiritual form, not least through Hong Kong and mainland China’s film industry.” Whether or not they will have many takers among the growing non-affiliated (or “none”) population in the West, it is also true that second-generation members of ethnic groups adopt more spiritualized versions of their native traditions. In her chapter on the transnational worship of the Indian guru known as “Hugging Amma” among diaspora Hindus in Mauritius and spiritual seekers in Denmark, Fibiger finds that these worshippers are more religiously conservative than their counterparts in India as they search for authenticity.