The rise and fall of “big-name spirituality” and its substitutes

The era of big-name spiritual leaders who packed stadiums in North American cities—figures like the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Rhonda Byrne, and Desmond Tutu—is fast fading, writes Douglas Todd in the Vancouver Sun (March 31). “There is not nearly as much mass-culture focus on trend-setting spiritual figures as there was in the past,” the veteran religion journalist writes, “a decline confirmed by, among others things, Google analytics, which measures how often celebrities’ names are searched online.” Todd adds that this trend is not just because some of these admired figures, like Hanh and Tutu, have recently died and others, such as the Dalai Lama, are slowing down their travelling. He notes that only a decade ago Hanh, Tutu, Chopra and Tolle were regularly drawing thousands when they spoke in North American cities. Now Tolle draws only an eighth of the Google searches he registered in 2008, and similar declines in online interest have “befallen Indian-American mystic Chopra and Byrne, author of the phenomenon The Secret. There are no new spiritual stars taking their place. Even the name of Pope Francis, who hovers above in a different fame category than almost everyone except the global leader of Tibetan Buddhism, is not being searched nearly as often as it was from 2013 to 2016.”

Todd recently led a discussion on these topics at a salon organized by author Victor Chan, who had brought the Dalai Lama, Tutu, Tolle, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Buddhist Matthieu Ricard, author Karen Armstrong and many other spiritual figures to Vancouver more than a decade ago. The participants offered their own takes on the phenomenon. While acknowledging secularization, one young participant observed that Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter have been filled these days with people sharing “quotables” from such figures as the Dalai Lama, Hanh, Byrne, Tolle and others. “Their online presence,” she added, “is huge.” Another discussant cited the emergence of secular spirituality, in the form of mindfulness meditation and yoga, which has become common in North American society. Another explained the fall of big-name spirituality as due to the general move away from “mass culture,” a time when a single band or performer could captivate everyone’s attention. “Popular spirituality, in other words, might be fragmenting, like so much of Western society,” Todd writes. “Maybe that helps explain why figures in popular spirituality are no longer ascendant at a mass scale, but how non-household-name guides like Pema Chodron, Richard Rohr, Jack Kornfield and others still hold significant appeal for many.”

Given the changing scene, the salon group entertained the possibility that spirituality and religion were being replaced for some by identity politics and what many call (sometimes derogatorily) being “woke,” or more deeply sensitive to injustice in terms of race and gender. This trend has been noted by disparate observers and critics—from traditional believers to atheists. Last fall Archbishop José H. Gomez, president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, criticized such “new social justice movements” as “pseudo-religions” that end up functioning as “dangerous substitutes for true religion.” Critics note that advocates for racial equality often solemnly “take the knee.” One salon member approvingly described how her fellow Royal Bank of Canada staff were being asked to take part in emotion-charged workshops on Indigenous suffering and reconciliation. Black linguist and atheist John McWhorter’s best-selling book, Woke Racism, describes wokeness as a well-meaning but fervently illiberal religion that includes the original sin of “white privilege” and the weaponization of cancel culture to ban “heretics.”

Source: International Campaign for Tibet.