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America and the Religion of No Religion

by Jeffrey J. Kripal, PhD

  • Reviewed by Marilyn Schlitz, PhD on Dec. 1, 2007

    We live at a complex and challenging time in American history. On the one hand, we can chart the amazing successes of the materialist paradigm: We have cloned a sheep named Dolly, invented a computerized chess champion named Deep Blue, and built an orbiting space station that attests to the power of Newtonian physics. At the same time, some sociologists have identified a new cultural form: the postmaterialist society. What characterizes membership in this society is a yearning for meaning, purpose, and a renewed sense of the sacred in all of life as a response to growing disillusionment with organized religion and modern culture.

    In his new book, Jeffrey Kripal speaks to the roots of these impulses and their possibilities. Chairman of the Department of Religious Studies at Rice University, this scholar makes a compelling case that this emerging new movement of meaning can find many of its initial threads in the programs of the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, beginning in the 1950s.

    Drawing on six years of research, Kripal emphasizes the groundbreaking role Esalen has played as a site for religious and therapeutic experimentation in twentieth-century America—a catalyst for the birth of a “religion of no religion”—and a meeting ground for East and West. Cast in a completely American light, the learning center has been committed to a metaphysic that calls for integral transformation and the celebration of human potential.

    With perceptive detail and the skills of an able raconteur, Kripal shares lively descriptions of many of the spiritual teachers, encounter group leaders, authors, musicians, and scholars who have passed through this laboratory for human transformation above the majestic shoreline of the Pacific Ocean. From Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Joseph Campbell, Stan Grof, and Richard Feinman to Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, and George Harrison, Esalen has attracted a rich and remarkable mix of visionary and creative people.

    Kripal also chronicles Esalen's engagement with the broader world. He reviews the significance of the institute’s Soviet Exchange Program, which, during the height of the Cold War, facilitated relationship-building between scientists from both sides who were interested in human potential and psychic phenomena. He considers the role this program had on the fall of the Iron Curtain. He then brings the story to the present, describing recent invitational conferences that have explored relations with China and developed deep dialogue with Arab colleagues in the Middle East. Clearly, there is still a need for Esalen in our postmaterialist world.

    Kripal argues that Esalen is an experiment that is uniquely rooted in the American political separation of church and state. As this comparative religion scholar writes: “It is this ‘mighty great wall’ that in turn nurtures the human potential through an ever greater freedom for religion but also, simultaneously and paradoxically, from religion, particularly when the latter grows intolerant, bigoted, and exclusive. The result is, if you will, a kind of mystical space that is at once profoundly secular and deeply spiritual (but not religious, as the saying goes).”

    He sees in Esalen a kind of spiritual space where almost any religious form can flourish, but none are allowed to “capture the flag,” in the words of cofounder Michael Murphy. Speaking to the IONS staff in May 2007, Kripal described Esalen’s spiritual orthodoxy as “a pantheistic worldview which opens up hundreds of possibilities for images of divinity.”

    At a time when we find the impact of the materialist paradigm impacting our lives on an unprecedented scale, and as our search for meaning and purpose intensifies, I for one am grateful for Esalen. As a locus of personal growth with a call to the greater good, it’s still a breath of fresh air in troubling times. And I am especially grateful for Kripal’s brilliant analysis of Esalen’s place in American history . . . its past, its present, and its future.

    Review published in Shift magazine

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