Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN: Reflections on Ken Wilber's “The Religion of Tomorrow”
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An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
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Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.
Frank Visser, CLIMBING THE STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Reflections on Ken Wilber's The Religion of Tomorrow (2017)
Part I: The Involution/Evolution Cosmology | Part II: From Atom to Atman | Part III: A More Adequate Spectrum of Colors? | Part IV: What Is It Like to Be a Super-Nova? | Part V: Rational Reasons to Believe in Spirit? | Part VI: Is Darwin Really 'On Our Side'? | Part VII: Climbing the Stairway to Heaven
THE WHOLE SERIES: FREE DOWNLOAD AS PDF
Reflections on "The Religion of Tomorrow", Part VII
"THIRD TIER" OR
|GREEN: Pluralistic||"FIRST TIER"|
Briefly, First Tier colors represent the warring cultural sections in contemporary society: premodern-religious (Crimson to Red), modern-secular (Orange) to postmodern-pluralistic (Green). Second Tier colors represent the imminent Holistic/Integral culture that allows each of the First Tier cultures its rightful place, because it understands their partial truths, but puts them in perspective. Third Tier colors are only relevant at the moment individually, or in small subcultures, because they refer to meditative stages and states of development. That explains the current interest of the integral community in "Teal organizations", and spiritual traditions. Ascending this Stairway to Heaven, our circle of concern widens. Premodern stages limit themselves to their own religious groups. The step from Second Tier (Earth) to the Third Tier (Heaven) of mystical spirituality is paramount for Wilber, and analyzing the missteps that can happen in this area is where he excels.
In the snappy jargon of Integral Theory, these four dimensions of spirituality stand out:
- Waking Up - relates to states of consciousness, meditation, spirituality
- Growing Up - relates to stages of development, personal growth and maturity
- Cleaning Up - relates to shadow work, curing misdirected development
- Showing Up - relates to our social responsibility, being in the world
Perhaps one important item has been forgottenand I am only half-joking ;-)
- Shutting Up - don't makes claims that fall outside of your particular expertise
Most of The Religion of Tomorrow deals with Waking Up and Growing Up, and their complex interactions. A separate section is devoted to Cleaning Up or shadow work. Unfortunately, very little can be found on Showing Up. Is that perhaps symbolic for the heavy emphasis on personal growth in Integral Theory, even if this is done in a multi-dimensional approach of states and stages? We won't go into the further details of state-development, and Wilber's particular Vedanta-Vajrayana model of consciousness. Those interested in these subjects will find a lot in this book. As nobody else, Wilber is able to seduce you into experiencing wider states of consciousness, in his role as spiritual guide and mystic. I want to address some concerns that, so to speak, cast a shadow over this voluminous book.
TURNING TO THE WORLD OF TODAY
When we look at the world of today, and not of tomorrow, religion is a hot topic and especially in its more extreme versions. We see both fundamentalists and atheists pitted grimly polarized against eachother, the one defending the one true religion, the other rejecting everything spiritual. A developmental model can do much in softening these tensions. That Wilber hasn't dealt with these current tensions in society, especially related to terrorismis a missed opportunity, and this is not the first time. A decade ago a promising announcement was made on Wilber's own website of a trilogy-in-progress called The Many Faces of Terrorism (which for unexplained reasons never got published), which would once and for all clarify this phenomenon that has grabbed us by the throat since 9/11. But in The Religion of Tomorrow Wilber devotes literally one single sentence to an explanation for terrorism, in the context of a paragraph on arrested development, especially of the mythic-religious variety:
This is a highly questionable and irresponsible statement. A quick search for "religious terrorism" on Wikipedia leads us to the following information:
Religious terrorism is terrorism carried out based on motivations and goals that have a predominantly religious character or influence.
In the modern age, after the decline of ideas such as the divine right of kings and with the rise of nationalism, terrorism has more often been based on anarchism, and revolutionary politics. Since 1980, however, there has been an increase in terrorist activity motivated by religion.
Former United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher has said that terrorist acts in the name of religion and ethnic identity have become "one of the most important security challenges we face in the wake of the Cold War." However, the political scientists Robert Pape and Terry Nardin, the social psychologists M. Brooke Rogers and colleagues, and the sociologist and religious studies scholar Mark Juergensmeyer have all argued that religion should be considered only one incidental factor and that such terrorism is primarily geopolitical. (emphasis added)
Now consider this: after having written a Many Faces of Terrorism-trilogy, supposedly of well over 1.000 pages, which never have seen the light of day, is this what Ken Wilber comes up with, contradicting the first Wikipedia page on the subject of religious terrorism? It is a very un-integral analysis at that, for it would require at least a look at the other quadrants, especially the collective ones of geopolitics, culture and society, to complete the picture. Here again, one feels Wilber is overplaying his hand.
He does offer a valuable theoretical tool to make sense of the deadlock between fundamentalists and atheistsit was already introduced in Integral Spirituality (2006): the level/line fallacy. Wilber has become famous for that other fallacy, the pre/trans fallacy, but this one deserves closer attention. When religion is limited to one stage only (so a whole ladder of spirituality is reduced to only one step on that ladder), those who are on the mythic-literal step (amber) see their fundamentalist brand of religion as the only true one, to be defended against all unbelievers in a Holy War. In turn, those who have moved on to the next step on the ladder, the rational-secular step (orange), will fight against this type of religion and see it as the greatest danger in contemporary society. This fallacy is mentioned a couple of times.
But it gets worse. When characterizing the basic amber-mythic level of development, Wilber makes some disturbing commentsand this is not just a slip of the pen:
But blue/amber (mythic-membership) order is marked by ethnocentric, extremely absolutistic, very conformist, very rigid thinking (such as found in groups like the Nazis or in fundamentalist religions)exactly what these organizations and individuals do NOT need. It's like saying, "What we need here are more Nazis! (p. 704-5)
There is blue order, for sure, but there is also orange order, green order, teal order, and so on, and the organization or person who needs more order needs more of some of those higher levels of order, not primitive, lower, blue/amber order (Nazis!). (p. 705)
Blatantly ignoring Godwin's Law, one really wonders what rhetorical effect Wilber is aiming at with these distasteful accusations. It is not only tactless, but it is also simply not true. Wilber could have benefited from DiPerna's distinction between "moderate" and "extremist" versions of any stage, including the mythic-literal one. Just as terrorists can be seen as mythic-literal extremists, some of the more belligerent atheists can be seen as extremist rationalists. But it definitely doesn't help when a basic stage in the integral developmental model is compared to one of the worst atrocities in modern history. Somewhere else Wilber says this about religious fundamentalism, as to impress us with the dangerous nature of the mythic-literal stage of development:
For Heaven's sake, what on Earth is going on here with "the world's foremost integral thinker"? Is this seriously Ken Wilber's attempt to "Show Up" in our world, that cries out for reasonable explanations and solid research instead of cheap stereotypes and grandiose and unfounded claims to expertise? Integral studies should strive to de-escalate, instead of heating things up like this!
Ironically, when discussing the New Atheists, Wilber is critical of this same stereotyped approach to mythic-literal, fundamentalist spirituality:
But given the prevalence of the mythic-religious mindset, all over the world, it is almost a moral duty to present systematic arguments against it, as Richard Dawkins has done for example in his best-seller The God Delusion (2006). If the goal is to bring a large majority of the world's inhabitants up to the level of rationality (let's forget about climbing spiritual ladders for the moment), these atheists serve a strategic and necessary function in the wider view of things, and deserve every support. As long as it is impossible for atheist to run for office, especially in the United States, but in most European countries as well, we are nowhere near the religion of tomorrow (Donald Trump might be the exception that proves the rule).
Wilber, however, is already ahead of the pack, and devotes the bulk of The Religion of Tomorrow to extremely subtle mystical phenomena. That's where he excels, and it is a joy to read about this, but one should not forget that outside of that domain, Wilber's expertise peters out very quickly. How valid (or sane?) is Wilber's definition that "the ultimate purpose of spirituality and spiritual practice is to discover one's fundamental Supreme Identity with Spirit, with the Ground of all Being, with the ultimate Reality of the Kosmos itself"? (p. 531) Can we have some critical perspective here? It's great that Wilber values shadow work within the context of personal growth, but Jungwho invented the shadow conceptis strangely absent from these pages. He is only mentioned in the context of archetypes (which according to Wilber Jung misunderstood). A strange and telling omission indeed.
When it turns out that the biggest allergy of Second Tier is an allergy to Green ("A very common pathology at 2nd tierperhaps even the most commonis a green allergy", p. 332), does that explain perhaps Wilber's unwillingness to engage criticism as posted on Integral World for over twenty years? Of course, when "debate is endless" and "we have truth on our side", who needs critics? But if you want to build a strong theoretical model, you can't do without challenges from all possible corners.
Integral fact-checkers wanted
With all of Wilber's extolling of mystical spirituality, where does he deal with the many controversial gurus he has supported and promoted in the past decades who have fallen from graceAndrew Cohen being the most prominent example? Cohen's glossy magazine What is Enlightenment? served as sole printed medium to distribute Wilber's integral philosophy, until it went bankrupt. Between 2002 and 2009, this magazine featured a series of dialogues between Cohen and Wilbercalled "The Guru and the Pandit"in which the new "evolutionary spirituality" was spelled out and promoted in great detail. Wilber enthusiastically endorsed Cohen as a modern-day spiritual teacher, casting him as a "Rude Boy", who could mercilessly shake you from your spiritual slumber:
In 2013, this same Andrew Cohen stepped down as teacherno, was asked to step down by his senior disciplesbecause of his dysfunctional behavior. Cohen issued a public "Apology", disappeared from the spiritual scene but re-emerged in 2016 with a new website and has started teaching again in 2017. With all his sophistication, Wilber has turned out to be quite naive when it comes to selecting spiritual teachers. Is this wat "the religion of tomorrow" will look like? If that's the case, the whole topic of the dangers and pitfalls of this spiritual adventure would have deserved a full chapter in the book. Warning signals have been given on Integral World on Cohen as early as 2009, with updates in 2015, 2016 and 2017 by David Lane and many other authors.
The one-sidedness of Wilber's integral approach with respect to science (in practice, that is, perhaps not in theory), is most glaring where he dismisses or belittles science in favor of speculative New Age theories:
Has science been "so very bad at explaining the form, pattern, or structure of manifest things", or has Wilber completely missed the evo-devo revolution in biology? And does it make even a minimum of sense to suggest that all proteins in the cosmos are governed by mysterious forces coming from some cosmic "storehouse consciousness", as Wilber reads in the Lankavatara Sutra? Wilber gets completely derailed when he introduces this "storehouse consciousness" of Buddhism as "explanation" for everything from how proteins should structurally fold to how integral students' integral thoughts might impact the world process in the not too far future. Where is all that stored? "No idea, but clearly somewhere"!
Examples of Wilber's loose grip on science can be multiplied with ease. Has Harvard brain surgeon dr. Eben Alexander, author of the controversial bestseller Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, who is mentioned several times uncritically in The Religion of Tomorrow, really been experiencing "the causal/formless/luminous" (p. 633) during a severe coma, or is a more mundane explanation possible? Neuroscientist and meditating atheist Sam Harris, for one, doesn't agree:
I found Alexander's account... alarmingly unscientific... Alexander's account is so badhis reasoning so lazy and tendentiousthat it would be beneath notice if not for the fact that it currently disgraces the cover of a major newsmagazine. Alexander is also releasing a book at the end of the month, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, which seems destined to become an instant bestseller. As much as I would like to simply ignore the unfolding travesty, it would be derelict of me to do so.
Nor did the late neurologist Oliver Sacks:
To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific -- it is antiscientific.
As soon as a transcendental or idealistic explanation is available, Wilber seems to prefer that without further examination.
And, to conclude this rather unsorted list of concerns, does it really not matter, as Wilber writes, if the United States "could completely cut its carbon emissions and that wouldn't affect global warming in any significant fashion at all" (p. 622)? Wilber has gone on record as questioning the global warming theory, preferring the late novelist and "friend" Michael Crichton and his climate-novel State of Fear to the majority of climate scientists ("If you look at all the data, global warming isn't occurring..."). Al Gore said on March 21, 2007, before a U.S. House committee: "The planet has a fever. If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor […] if your doctor tells you you need to intervene here, you don't say 'Well, I read a science fiction novel that tells me it's not a problem'." Incidentally, if Al Gore brought "an inconvenient truth" to our attention, the opposite standpoint"it is not so bad as it looks, we will find something in the future to solve it"is a very convenient one. Since when is Integral Theory no longer using the orienting generalizations of science? This, in a worldwide emergency situation, where our efforts to mitigate the effects of global warming might already come too late. Whence this lukewarm attitude of Wilber towards one of the most pressing problems of our times?
Australian philosopher Clive Hamilton, author of Requiem for a Species: Why we resist the truth about climate change (2010), commenting on Integral World on Wilber's reluctance to accept the data of climate science, gives an interesting explanation:
Yet I think there is something deeper going on with Wilber's embrace of climate science denial. His entire body of theory, everything he has ever written or said, is built on one essential premise: the cosmos displays an inexorable process of evolution, from simple matter through lower to higher forms of life and through lower to higher forms of consciousness until it reaches an ultimate state comprised of highly enlightened beings living in unity with each other and in harmony with the Earth.
The problem is that the world's climate scientists are saying things that directly contradict this utopian vision of spiritual progress. They tell us that life in a hot world will not be one of blissful universal love and higher stages of consciousness but of struggle, conflict and mass death. It will be hard enough to maintain the mundane utopian promise of material progress through economic growth. The warnings are legion; here is one of the latest.
What would it take for Ken Wilber to embrace the science? It would mean the collapse of his life's work. It would mean his most profound insights into the human condition and the nature of the cosmos don't amount to a hill of beans. Ken Wilber would no longer be Ken Wilber.
EPILOGUE TO THIS REVIEW SERIES
The Religion of Tomorrow is a highly technical and sophisticated book. It could have benefited greatly from more real life examples of religious forms of expression, taken from the great religions, both in their healthy and unhealthy expressions, past and present. Instead, the valuable message gets lost in endless abstractions and repetitionsthe full paraphernalia of integral theory: stages, states, levels, lines, quadrants, etc. is repeated over and over again. This is a real shame, for the core integral message about mind and culture, and its implication for religion and spirituality, is worth spreading to a larger audience. But next time, please without esoteric claims about involution and chakras, without over-generalizing summaries about the evolution of life and the genesis of matter, and without dubious proofs for the presence of Spirit in both nature and culture. These questionable topics sidetrack from the essential integral message.
Is Wilber's "shadow taller than his soul", as Led Zeppelin sang in Stairway to Heaven, in terms of all the things he neglects to include in his integral model? With all of his magnificent flights to Heaven, does Wilber really embrace the Earth? With his scant attention to neurological science, neo-darwinian theory and the broader sciences of life and cosmology, and his overemphasis on the interior processes of consciousness, I can't help suspecting that he has become the victim of an "earth allergy". Ken Wilber has never, in the past four decades, spent time on really understanding the material worldof chance, necessity, entropy, contingency and catastropeother then being content to allocate it to his Right-Hand quadrants (as if that "covers" it). But I am sure he will find a cure for this pervasive onesidedness in the pages of his own The Religion of Tomorrow. What has been said of Steve Jobs' talent to set up a "reality distortion field" might very well be true for Ken Wilber as well: he, too, has the "ability to convince himself and others to believe almost anything with a mix of charm, charisma, bravado, hyperbole, marketing, appeasement and persistence." Does Integral Theory perhaps need a Reformation? Consider this 7-part series of reviews of The Religion of Tomorrow then as the equivalent of Martin Luther's revolt against the Church.
Is Wilber's system logically consistent? Does his stage model really require to misrepresent neo-Darwinism, or to denigrate the mythic stage as Nazi? Or is this Wilber's particular pathology? Does it require an application to the domains, not only of mind and spirit, but also of life and matter, or is this an unwarranted overreaching of a psycho-cultural model? Does it, indeed, require a notion of "Eros in the Kosmos" , to explain in one broad stroke the manifold complexities of nature and their genesis in the universe, or is this Wilber's personal pet theory? Can Integral Theory be reformulated as an integrative framework that pays much, much closer attention to the efforts of empirical science? Indeed, a deeper engagement with the relative truths of the world would make Integral Theory a stronger force for good.
To tell you a final secret, I am actually sure that this book was written somewhere in the far future. When Wilber states, on the very last page...:
... on my count the number of inhabitants currently living on Earth is not even close to that figure (for it is 7.5 billionand counting). Doing a quick calculation, and given a conservative population growth of 35 million per year, Wilber must be coming from the year 2059! Thank God the world is still there by that time...
 Frank Visser, Reflections on "The Religion of Tomorrow", www.integralworld.net
- Part I: The involution/evolution cosmology, Ken Wilber holds on to an outdated scheme of existence, May 2017
- Part II: From Atom to Atman, Ken Wilber's Religious View of Evolution, May 2017
- Part III: A more adequate spectrum of colors?, A Comparison of color terminology in chakra-psychology, Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics, May 2017
- Part IV: What's It Like to Be a Super-Nova?, Ken Wilber's Cosmic Approach to the Mind-Body Problem, May 2017
- Part V: Rational Reasons to Believe in Spirit?, Evaluating Ken Wilber's Case for a Spiritual Worldview, June 2017
- Part VI: Is Darwin Really 'On Our Side'?, Ken Wilber's Misreading of Neo-Darwinism, June 2017
 Since then Dustin DiPerna has published The Coming Waves (2014), Streams of Wisdom (2014), Evolution's Ally (2015) and Earth is Eden (2015), all published by Integral Publishing House, in which he has expanded his ideas on integral religious studies.
 See for example: Dustin DiPerna, Bridging the Chasm: Sam Harris, Ben Affleck, and a Needed Dose of Integral Theory, www.integralworld.net, October 2014
 "The Many Faces of Terrorism is actually a trilogy of books, as indicated, with each book, to be published separately, being around 450 pages long. Book I is the introductory material. Book II lays out a theory of Integral Politics. Book III is an extensive discussion of the role of religion in the modern and postmodern world, with an emphasis on the conveyor belt. More importantly, none of these are merely theoretical; they contain extensive discussions of real-world politics and events, at home and abroad (including terrorism--its nature, cause, and "cure"; presidential politics; the key to a second-tier political campaign strategy; the role of a future World Federation, etc.). This is the first in-depth discussion and commentary on the world by the world's foremost integral thinker." www.kenwilber.com, November 29, 2006
 Dustin DiPerna, "The Muslim Ladder", www.integralworld.net, May 2007
 But see for an early critique: Herbert van Erkelens, "A Jungian Response to Wilber", www.integralworld.net, November 1999
 See: Frank Visser, "Rupert Sheldrake and the Evo-Devo Revolution", and Rupert Sheldrake, "Morphogenetic Fields: A Reply to Frank Visser", www.integralworld.net, December 2013. On the protein-folding problem, see also: Andy Smith, "Resonating Out of Phase: Wilber, Sheldrake and Evolution", www.integralworld.net, December, 2013.
 "The U.S. Is the Biggest Carbon Polluter in History. It Just Walked Away From the Paris Climate Deal", June 1, 2017, www.nytimes.com. See also: Clive Hamilton, "Ken Wilber A Climate Denier? Say It Ain't So", www.integralworld.net, August 2015 and Clive Hamilton & Tim Kasser, "Psychological Adaptation to the Threats and Stresses of a Four Degree World", www.integralworld.net, August 2015. For an alarmist view see: Lawrence Wollersheim, "How Did We Waste 30 Years of Warnings About Escalating Global Warming? Part 1, Chapter 7", www.integralworld.net, April 2017.