Dr. Hugh Urban brings scholarly rigor to the study of Scientology and Osho, but what about consciousness?
photo by: Skeptiko
I have an interview coming up in a minute with the very excellent Dr Hugh Urban, Professor of Comparative Religions at Ohio State University and a guy nice enough to put up with my shenanigans. Here are some of the clips.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:00:13] The part that concerns me is we have reason to believe that MKULTRA / Men Who Stare At Goats stuff was going on. So I’m just not sure that we can bracket that back into, “Oh, you know, those Scientologists, they were kind of playing off of the cold war jitters that people have.”
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:00:36] But I guess I would say that, I can’t know, as a historian of religion, whether there’s a reality to what they’re talking about, but I can say that they certainly believed there was and took it very seriously.
Dr. Hugh Urban: You can also point to examples within Christianity where the leadership was incredibly corrupted. I mean, the Middle Ages are filled with bad popes, right? Bad popes and bad cardinals. That doesn’t mean that the entire Catholic Church from top to bottom is a corrupt organization.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:01:08] Wait, hold on, full stop. We don’t know that. I mean, that’s, I guess, the part that I want to say we’re not doing our job if we don’t ask that question.
Alex Tsakiris: Beyond the Eckhart [Tolle] / Oprah Winfrey / new age thing that most people get, what he’s saying about the science of consciousness, is much, much closer to what leading researchers are saying. So I guess returning to kind of this earlier point, if you can’t get consciousness right, if you’re playing “consciousnesses and illusion” as your atheist colleague no doubt believes, you’re not even in the game.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:01:51] Yeah, that’s an interesting point. And I guess I would say that, well, there’s a couple of answers to that question. There is a movement in religious studies and other fields that is extremely interested in consciousness from different perspectives. But in my own work, I mean, I’m a historian, and so I look at what people do and the texts they leave behind and what we can sort of see.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:02:16] Welcome to Skeptiko where we explore controversial science and spirituality with leading researchers, thinkers and their critics. I’m your host Alex Tsakiris and today we’re joined by Dr Hugh Urban from the Ohio State University.
I’m going to have to ask Hugh why so many people from Ohio State insist that you say The Ohio State, but I guess we’ll get to that maybe in a minute.
Anyways, he is a top-notch scholar in religious studies. He’s written some terrific books, including a couple we’re going to talk about today, one on Scientology, one on Osho, and maybe even talk a little bit about his work in tantra. He has developed quite a reputation within his field. The net net is we have a really smart guy with us today.
Dr Urban, thanks for joining me on Skeptiko.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:03:10] Thank you so much for having me, it’s my pleasure.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:03:13] Well as I was saying in singing your praises, I think you’ve done some great work, and I’m surprised that there isn’t more out there on what you do, but we’re going to fix that a little bit, right now.
You’re, as I said, a professor of religious studies, and you have some really pretty cool interest areas that I want to highlight for people. So you are interested in secrecy, religion and a lot of these questions that kind of are Skeptiko related, secrecy, what some people would call conspiracies, but also you’re about the relationship between religion and culture and power and stuff like that. But at the same time, you’re scratching around in this spiritual big picture, who are we, why are we here?
Maybe you want to fine tune that a little bit and tell us who you really are there at Ohio State University.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:04:12] Well, you’re assuming I know who I really am, but yeah, as you said, I’m a professor of religious studies at Ohio State. I got my PhD from the University of Chicago and I teach in the areas of South Asian religions and also new religious movements in the United States.
So sort of the big, large question I’m interested in is secrecy and religion. That is the question of why some groups choose to keep aspects of their beliefs and practices closed to outsiders and then what are the larger social, political, historical implications of that secrecy.
And then within that sort of large question area, I’m interested in religions of India, that’s one area I work on, particularly Hinduism in Northeast India, and then new religions in the United States, which is what led me to Scientology.
And then the Osho book you mentioned, sort of bridges those two areas by looking at a new movement that begins in India and then come to the United States in the 1980s and then spreads globally from there.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:05:10] So there’s a lot really to deconstruct here and we’re going to try and do our best because when people jump into, I think people, normal people jump into religious studies, a lot of times it winds up sounding a lot different than what they expected. We’ve had a Jeff Kripal on the show a couple times, a great guy.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:05:35] A good friend of mine.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:05:35] Diana Walsh Pasulka, not really in your field, but a number of folks, and I always feel like there’s a certain tension, in terms of where you go in comparative studies at a university level and this kind of deeper spiritual understanding or attempt at a spiritual understanding, even when you were quipping about, you know, it presupposes that you know who you are, which is really kind of a very deep spiritual question.
What about those two worlds? What else can you tell us about who you are, beyond the professor thing and maybe getting at this spiritual stuff? Because you’re obviously interested in some of that. You’re interested in religion, but you’re also interested in the questions that religion proposes to answer.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:06:25] Yeah, I hope you have some time because that’s a long set of questions, but, I’ve always been interested in religion and spirituality. I grew up in a pretty religious Episcopalian family. My grandfather and uncle and great-grandfather were all priests in an Episcopal Church, and my own father was a pretty religious guy, and I was an acolyte and did all that stuff growing up.
And then when I was in college, I started taking courses on world religions and I got really interested in India and in Hinduism and Buddhism. So I did a semester in Bodh Gaya, which is where the Buddha became enlightened, when I was a college student, and that sort of got me hooked on Eastern religions, although I’ve always maintained an interest in Christianity as well.
So, I kind of, in my own life and thinking, sort of separate the personal from the academic to a certain degree, because I think in the academic study of religion we’re looking at the role of religion in history and in society and in culture and in things we can see and measure and texts that we can read. Whereas, at least personally, I think I try to keep my own spiritual beliefs out of the academic work that I do. Although there are other people, such as Jeff Kripal, who integrate those two more than I would. Jeff’s a good friend of mine and we disagree on a lot of things, but I think there are different ways you can navigate between your own beliefs and the academic work that you do.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:07:53] But you did, even there, kind of talk about the integration problem, right? I love that you kind of spell it out, that Jeff is kind of out there and you’re kind of more holding back to the academic line.
What is about that tension, if you will, within religious studies?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:08:15] Well, you’re 100% right. That’s the central tension at the heart of the field of religious studies from the very beginning, because religious studies in many ways grows out of theology programs. Prior to the 1960s you didn’t really have religious studies or world religions programs. You had theology programs and then you had religions studied in sociology or anthropology or psychology, and it’s really in the 1960s that the field of religious studies in the United States begins to develop. They now have departments of religions that teach world religions in a non-denominational, non-theological way.
But many people come to the field of religious studies because they are wrestling with religious questions of their own, and that’s how I came to it. For example, I was coming from a Christian background, but I was very interested in Eastern religions and I was trying to figure all of that out.
So everyone who comes to the field has to kind of work through those questions in some way, and sort of figure out how they navigate the academic and historical study and whatever spiritual questions of their own they may be wrestling with.
So, in the field of religious studies you see some, like Jeff, who are much more upfront about his beliefs, and then you have others, like one of my professors, Bruce Lincoln, who is clearly an atheist and a Marxist and really wants to critically interrogate religious claims. So there’s a whole spectrum and everyone has to sort of figure out where they fit on that spectrum.
At least in my case, it’s the question I have continued to think about, and my own position or shifted over the years quite a bit.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:09:52] Awesome, I think that’s a great lead into the books that we’re going to talk about today. Let’s start with the Scientology book. It’s been out for a few years now, but it’s certainly an important book in the field. It was published in 2013, the title is, The Church of Scientology: A History of a New Religion, and our friend Jeff has written a very outstanding blurb, so I’ll go ahead and read that.
“Until now, there was no extensive scholarship on Scientology. With Urban’s powerful and provocative new book we are without question on radically new historical and theoretical ground. This is a major achievement.”
How nice and how true. A lot of people say the same thing. So maybe, everybody knows or thinks they know, until they read your book, the story of Scientology, but maybe you can start with just the kind of basics; who, what, where, when? Why is a long one, so we won’t get into that, but the basics of the book and Scientology.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:11:03] Okay. So the book actually grew out of my own teaching here at Ohio State because I teach a regular course on world religions, and I like to start out the course with the question of what is religion and what isn’t religion and how that question gets answered and what’s at stake in calling something a religion or a business or a cult? So I start out with a controversial test case and then get the students to debate it.
I had been using Scientology as my controversial test case because it’s a brilliant example for that question because it fought a 25-year war with the IRS over its tax-exempt status as a religious and charitable organization. It’s now recognized in the U S but it’s not recognized in other countries such as France. It’s widely attacked as a cult in the media. So it’s a really good test case for thinking about that question. So that sort of led me to developing that whole set of issues into the book.
What I tried to do is just trace the history of Scientology and really interrogate the question of how it developed, what its relation to surrounding American society from the 50s to the present has been, and then this larger question of how it became recognized as a religion in the US, and what’s sort of at stake in calling something a religion rather than something else?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:12:17] So there’s a lot of history there that you do a great job of just digging in, and again, that’s why people are kind of praising the scholarship, you’re not just shooting from the hip here. I can’t imagine how many thousands of pages you read to put this together. But the story you’re telling at the end of the day, does kind of challenge us with some of the ideas that we think we know about Scientology that you’ve just alluded to.
So most people dismiss Scientology as a cult, a profit-oriented cult, and I’m not sure that that isn’t my position. That is my position, let me go one step further. But what is important that you need to add to that conversation? Why is it important to, as you say, kind of test the boundaries of what this movement means, in terms of our understanding of religion? Why is that important?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:13:17] Well, a number of things. One is it raises central and profound questions of religious freedom that have been with us from the very beginning. And you can think of any number of other examples of controversial movements that were at one time considered weird or dangerous cults and are now recognized as quite mainstream. The most obvious example is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or the Mormons when they appear on the scene in America in the mid-19th century. They were also seen as weird and dangerous and a cult, they were chased halfway across the country, but now they’re one of the largest denominations in the world. Maybe some people still consider them a weird cult, but for the most part they’re recognized as quite mainstream.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:14:00] Let’s dive into that for a minute. I have a lot of thoughts on that, but I don’t want to kind of cloud that right now.
That movement, that’s what you’re really exploring on a couple of levels. That movement from fringy cultish, ignore those weirdos, to mainstream run for president of the United States, as a cultural phenomenon, as a cultural movement is interesting, but does that really get to the other part, the other tension point that we were talking about, in terms of the religious/spiritual part? I mean, fake is still fake.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:14:40] Right. That’s a legitimate question. But the United States from the very beginning has made freedom of expression one of its founding principles and the courts historically, have tended to have a very hands-off attitude about religious beliefs.
So, for example, in the case of Mormonism, the courts basically said, you know, you can believe whatever you want because we have freedom of religious expression, you just can’t do whatever you want. So in the case of polygamy in Mormonism they aid, basically, believe whatever you want, that’s fine, but you can’t do things that are against existing laws.
So I think respect for freedom of religious expression is so deeply ingrained into the fabric of US history and law and interpretations of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, that it comes up again and again and again when you have these fringe groups that sort of push the boundaries and test the limits of what we mean by freedom of religious expression. That’s why I find groups like Scientology so interesting for thinking about that.
So, what does religious freedom mean? How far can we push it? Because there are some cases where actually courts have said, “No, you can’t push it that far,” and Scientology is really right on the edge of that debate.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:15:58] Yeah, but it’s really right on the edge of that debate because it’s pushing not just the courts and the legal system, it’s pushing our buttons. It’s pushing all our sensibilities about what we think is right, what we think is wrong, on a kind of moral level. And then when we see these groups carrying on in a way that we judge as amoral, along with not being religious as we’ve come to understand it, that’s where the friction is. And I love that you can step back and analyze that and I think that brings a lot to the table. That’s what the scholarship is really about and is fantastic.
But at the same time, I mean, let’s get down to it, where most people sit and most people live. Here’s an example from the book, you know, cite the money angle and L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of this religious movement, which when he founded it, it wasn’t even a religious movement, but, “It’s about the money man,” and he says over and over, “Get the money, it’s about the money. If you forget it’s about the money, refer to rule 1, it’s about the money.”
So here’s how Dr Hugh Urban spins that and I think it’s really important the way you did it. You say, “Okay, yeah, that looks like a cult to a lot of us, because that’s what we’re conditioned to think. That’s the sure sign of a cult, they’re just out for money.” He says, “But this is really consistent with this guy’s theology throughout, so can we really separate the two?”
So if I’m getting that right, maybe you get where I’m going and maybe you want to expound on where this tension…
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:17:37] No, you’re right, and that’s one of the main reasons that there’s been so much criticism of Scientology and one of the main reasons it’s been called a cult of greed as Time Magazine put it. That making money is explicitly stated by L. Ron Hubbard as one of the goals, and the auditing becomes quite expensive, especially when you get into the upper, more esoteric levels. So that’s definitely there.
But I would say a couple things. There’s nowhere, as far as I know, in the Constitution or any US law that says religions can’t also bring in a lot of revenue. I mean, look at any televangelists, look at Joel Osteen or Pat Robertson. They actually make Scientology look like chicken feed by comparison.
So you can think of lots of examples of prominent religious figures who also bring in a tremendous amount of revenue. There’s a guy here in Columbus, Rod Parsley, World Harvest Church, also brings in tons of money every Sunday.
So I think we assume that religions can’t make money but there’s no actual reason that’s necessarily with case. To be tax exempt, they have to be not for profit but that doesn’t mean they can’t ask for donations or bring in revenue in all sorts of other ways.
So it may be distasteful to most of us, including myself, but I’m not sure that inherently disqualifies something from being called a religion. Does that make sense?
Alex Tsakiris: [00:18:59] Oh, it totally makes sense. And again, it squares up the problem that you’re kind of bringing into focus. And I don’t want to make it sound like you’re an apologist for Scientology because you’re clearly not, and you try and present a very balanced picture. You have in there the account of Gerald Armstrong, which maybe you want to talk about, as somebody who can speak to the criminality of… Go ahead.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:19:26] That’s an important point that we should probably highlight, is that my whole approach in that book and everything I’ve written is to try to maintain a balance between an attitude of respect and an attitude of critical interrogation. So by respect, I mean that we should try to understand these movements as well as we can, try to understand why anyone would want to become a Scientologist in the first place, try to understand the belief system and the practices in as a sympathetic way as possible. But at the same time, we should also be ready to ask really serious critical questions like, where does this money go, for example? Is it really a nonprofit organization or does it begin to look more like a for-profits business?
So, yeah, you’re 100% right. I’m not an apologist, but I’m also not a Scientology basher either. I want to strike a balance that allows us to understand the movement and its history and its belief system and practices, but also look hard at it’s very problematic history too.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:20:28] Okay. Then let’s talk about the other book I wanted to highlight in this interview, and it’s the book on OSHA Great stuff. Another really interesting book. It’s a couple of years old at this point, written in 2015 the title is Zorba, the Buddha, which is going to be an interesting title right there to talk about, and the subtitle is, sex, spirituality, and capitalism in the global Osho movement.
I’m not going to read Jeff’s excellent blurb, but trust me, this is another book that was extremely well received. You’re good at this stuff, aren’t you? You’re quite the writer.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:21:07] Well, I’ve got Jeff Capel as my number one fan
Alex Tsakiris: [00:21:10] here. Yeah, I did pull, I did to Paul two blurbs. There’s a lot of other really good blurs in this book, but maybe again, just okay, quick.
Sketch of what this book is about.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:21:24] So really the book traces, uh, the development of one movement that centers around the controversial Indian guru who is known in his youth as Bhagwan sriracha Naish and his later years as, Oh, show. He starts out in India, gathers a following in the 1960s and seventies, becomes really popular among Western young people in the sixties and seventies in India.
And then come to the United States in the 1980s and establishes a large and briefly, very successful utopian commune in central Oregon, which quickly also went off the rails and ended in,
The worst bioterror attack on us soil and led to many people being arrested and the guru of being deported.
This was the focus of the Netflix series, wild, wild country. If people have seen that,
Alex Tsakiris: [00:22:13] what did you add? Did you think of that? Of that dock? How? How accurate? Any major. Bones to pick with those folks.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:22:20] Uh, I thought
in many ways it was really well done. They had excellent vintage footage. A lot of stuff I hadn’t seen before.
So just in terms of like an archival document, it was really valuable to have all that stuff. And they had good interviews with people who were there. My criticism is really that it didn’t do a very good job of explaining the pre-history of the movement before it came to Oregon, and then it also didn’t really do a very good job of explaining the belief system behind it.
It wasn’t clear. I think why anyone would have joined this group, and it seems like it’s just this odd ball thing that popped up in the middle of Oregon in the Reagan era without explaining the philosophy behind it that led so many people to be attracted to this guy.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:23:01] Great points. So touch on that for a minute.
From the beginning, from your book. I’m pulling this stuff radical iconoclast. Dangerous. Yeah. And eclectic. Very eclectic, which is something that is a true innovation in his little religion, cult, whatever you want to call it, a to speak to that cause.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:23:22] So, so, Oh, show, I’ll call him Osho.
Rajneesh because he’s known by both names. Oh, show in Rajneesh. So he was an explicitly iconic, classic sort of guru, unlike really any other guru that had come along before him. He loved to attack and make fun of, uh, iconic figures. So he, uh, made fun of Mahatma Gandhi and Mother Teresa, and was really.
Kitchen, what he called the religion list, religion that would do away with all the dogma and institutional trappings of mainstream religions and really, um, via spirituality. That was all about liberating the divinity of each individual. So from Raj nation’s perspective, we’re all inherently already Buddhas.
We’re already enlightened, but we’re covered over by so many layers of socialization from schools and politics and those institutions that we don’t. Realize our true divinity. We’re sort of like fleet blockers. And so his techniques were often deliberately radical kind of shock techniques. He is very active and dynamic forms of meditation that we can talk about that were really intended to sort of jolt us into awakening or sort of sudden realization of our own.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:24:37] And at some point he’s a court incorporating in some very Western kind of kind of gestalt dish and post psychoanalytic, uh, kind of, I mean, so he’s, again, he’s eclectic. Where is that coming from and is it just to further, I don’t know, how do you, how do you sort that out? Is it to further develop people or to further.
No control them or,
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:25:01] well, I mean, well, he was trained in philosophy, so he was already widely read in Western philosophy and he knew the works are Freud and post Freud, and it’s like Wilhelm Reich really well. And then in the sixties and seventies as he’s starting to attract more and more Westerners, he starts bringing in people who had been trained in places like the Escalade Institute in California.
And so they start bringing in. Um, like encounter groups and AZ and Reichian therapy. And so he begins really this very original blend of more traditional Indian style techniques drawn from Buddhism into ism. It also draws on, uh, Taoism in Chinese traditions, but then he blends these with, um, post Freudian psychoanalysis.
With a lot of the new age ideas that we’re spreading in California in the sixties and seventies and he begins to forge it and explicitly kind of global spirituality that would transcend the limits of traditional Eastern or Western practices. And I think this was one of the reasons the movement took off so well, is because it came along at just the right time and place when you had all these young people flocking to India, you know, in the wake of the Beatles going to India 1960s.
And, um, more and more stuff coming from India to the U S so it was just the cusp of a lot of this global circulation between India in the U S and he tapped right into that in a, in a very original way.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:32] And, uh, whew. Where are you going? Explain to people the Zorba the Buddha,
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:26:38] Oh, sure.
Zorba the Buddha was his phrase, and it refers to the enlightened individual that perfect fully realized human being who had combined the spirituality of the Buddha. With the materialism and sensuality of his orbit, the Greek. And so his
Alex Tsakiris: [00:26:52] whole explain for people who don’t remember Zorba the Greek.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:26:56] So it’s a novel that was then made into a film and Zorba sort of embodiments, the individual who is full of the lust for life and enjoys the pleasures of this world. Right? And so that’s the Rajneesh as ideal as a spiritually realized person, isn’t just, you know. A skinny Holy man meditating up in the mountains, but rather someone who combined spirituality with a full embrace of life in all its pleasures.
So dancing is a big part of their practice. Um, sexuality, the big part of their practice. So you don’t need to deny the body and the senses in order to have a spiritual life. In fact, the true realized person would, would combine that materialism of the Zorba with the spirituality of the
Alex Tsakiris: [00:27:41] And what do you think about that? You’re kind of interested in the tantra and the Neo tantra stuff, which is kind of a fascinating thing we could get into because you’re really suggesting and you have some, I am, from what I understand, some ethnographic work going on to kind of tease out how we understand tantra to be basically what OSHA was talking about, but maybe the roots don’t go back there or, but again, I don’t want to bear with the first question.
What do you think about his spin on that?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:28:12] That’s really good questions. Um, let’s see. I, I have two answers to that one, sort of in a historical sense. I think it was brilliant in so far as it came along at just the right time and place again in the wake of the sexual revolution and the counterculture, and it.
Uh, catered brilliantly to a generation of young people who wanted to pursue liberated ideas of sexuality, or it also wanted a spiritual life in this, this movement was perfect for that. So historically, um, I think it worked really well with that kind of moment in time. Um, yeah. From a scholarly perspective, what he did was also quite a change in our understanding of tantra because historically Contra does use the body and it does use the senses in spiritual practice, and in some cases there are sexual practices too, although they’re much more limited than.
What we, what we see on the shelves of like Barnes and noble and like the complete idiot’s guide to contract sex. And, and Rajneesh was really the key figure and redefining Contra to be mostly about sex, right? So previously sex was a limited small part of contract practice, but from the 60s onward, it’s mostly redefined.
Entirely in terms of sex. I thought that cosmopolitan did a, uh, an issue on tantra, and they called it nookie Nirvana. Right. So the, um, and I think Osho Rajneesh is probably the most important figure in that transformation.
Yeah. But, but also, aren’t they? They’re kind of completely spinning it.
I mean, isn’t the original. Core understanding of tantra is a means to transcend your barriers. So if that’s your barrier is this attachment to these material things, including your sexuality, then let’s find a way to transcend that. And that seems out the door here. That’s like a, not really a anything to worry about the transcendence.
Let’s get it off, you know?
Yeah. I mean, I don’t want to. Caricature. Rajneesh is understanding of tantra, but I do think he really shifted the emphasis from what was originally a fairly esoteric path aimed at. Awakening and harnessing the divine energy that flows through the cosmos and the body is kind of how I would define tantra.
um, understanding tantra largely in terms of sex and also largely in terms of sexuality, understood through the lens of post Freudian therapists like Wilhelm Reich in particular of whom he was a great
Alex Tsakiris: [00:30:51] So you do an awesome job in this book again of trying to sort this stuff out and people will come to appreciate that when they read the book.
But maybe you want to just, because I think this is kind of an interesting point. You know how you dealt with. Followers versus X followers. The stories and accounts. Yeah. It is interesting because again, from the way this stuff sits in our culture and doesn’t sit well as a scholar, how do you, how do you deal with some of that stuff?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:31:23] Yeah, that’s a good question. That’s a question I wrestled with in both the Scientology book and this one. How do you balance accounts between current members of a movement versus ex members and for a long time, people who worked on new religions. Didn’t want to listen to the accounts of X members.
Um, because they were seen to be too biased and had too much of an agenda or ax to grind to be credible. informants
Alex Tsakiris: [00:31:48] know that they’re going to be, that’s going to be really surprising to people, again, because when people come into the religious studies, they kind of, I don’t know, they think a whole bunch of things that turn out not to be true, but that right there is, it’s kind of startling because from a.
Kind of public media standpoint, it’s almost reversed, right? Right. We want to hear about are the people who feel that their most damaged in injured by these Colts and bring them forward, let them have their time. And you’re saying that it’s almost the reverse.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:32:16] Yeah. And the reason, or one reason for that is many scholars for a long time, and I’d say up until the Nineties maybe.
We’re really working very hard to undo the media media stereotypes of groups like Scientology, right? So the media stereotype is that these are brainwashing dangerous Colts, and, um, and therefore we want to listen to all the ex-members who are bashing them. And scholars kind of went the other direction by saying, no, no, no, you need to take them seriously as religious movements, and therefore we should.
I pay most attention to. What, what spokespersons, who are existing members of the church say, and my perspective is we really need to gather as much information as possible. And so you need to listen to everybody in order to get a full picture of any group. So, so I, in both books, I talked to current members and I talked to X members and I try to balance both perspectives as well as possible.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:33:10] You do an awesome job of that. And, uh, the books are highly recommended by everyone who’s read them and they’re on these bestseller lists inside of Amazon, and they really need to check them out.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:33:23] one extra point on that is that it also means that you piss off people on both sides.
So in both cases, I mean,
both books have
largely been well received, but in both cases, I’ve also then criticized by some for being too nice. To Scientology and the ocean prevent, and I’ve been criticized by others for being too critical. Yeah. If you try to strike a balance, you can’t win is kind of what I’m saying.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:33:46] You can’t win any way and you can’t win on Skeptiko either. Right. Cause I’m going to pull you into some other, uh, questions because you are at this kind of friction point, this junction point, and you’re kind of pushing some. Oh, some buttons as term in terms of how these religions slash cults interface with culture, interface with spirituality, interface with religion.
So this is the kind of stuff I’m really interested in, and I’ve interviewed so many people, Oh, about these. issues, including people in academia who do anthropology work and para anthropology, work with, you know, shamanic people. And how does that fit in? But here’s the, here, let me start with this, and this will be kind of fun.
Take you outside of your comfort zone in terms of stuff that you’ve probably talked about before in these books. But let me talk about, uh, this excellent clip that I got from. An interview you did with a, you haven’t done a lot of of podcasts interviews. There need to be more of them out there, but this is from an interview you did a few years back on a show called the edge This is just fascinating stuff.
Let me play this for people. And then we’ll talk about it. This is from, this is about your book, the church of Scientology, and about L Ron Hubbard and Jack Parsons and Aleister Crowley. I think a lot of people know this history, but not as well as you do.
Because there’s no doubt really that Hubbard was involved in some kind of occult practices in the late 1940s the church of Scientology even admits that.
Then after world war two, after he gets out of the Navy, he goes to Pasadena, California, and encounters an individual named John Whiteside or Jack Parsons. Parsons was a rocket scientist, quite a prominent one who is also extremely involved in magic and a cultism and was part of a group called the ordo template.
Orientees, who most famous member was Allister Crowley, who is probably the most important, a cultist of the 20th century Hubbard and Parsons. Became friends and began to engage in a series of rituals. The most important was called the Babylon working, which was a right based on Crowley’s work that was intended to help identify a female partner who would serve as the whore of Babylon, and then through a series of sex, magical operations, they would conceive a being who would become effectively the antichrist.
They would then control that being and unleash tremendous power.
Even the first thing that strikes me is you’re pretty damn column about all that. Most people wouldn’t be , shocked, and then they’d immediately want to jump to the, well, is this true kind of standpoint? And you know, how did you, how do you kind of process
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:36:39] that. Oh, well, you know, I’ve been teaching for 20 years and researching for longer than that, and I’ve seen a lot of weird stuff and so very little phases me at this point.
And so, and, and my attitude in all the work I do is, um, uh, kind of what I call a radical agnosticism. So I try to just be as open minded about anything that I look at and try to understand it without. Immediately passing judgment on it, no matter how bizarre it might seem at first glance.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:37:11] the part that concerns me is we have reason to believe that this stuff really did happen.
And like the Jack Parsons and Aleister Crowley thing has direct connections to the MK-Ultra program in the 50s right. It has direct connections to the secrets buying program that now there’s tens of thousands of documents released and there’s this guy have up on the screen, Sydney Gottlieb, who a lot of people refer to as the U S is.
Alright, Joseph Mengele. So it’s, it’s not so much that I would judge these practices, but I would want to drive a stake in the ground and say, okay, the best we can know there is a reality to this extended consciousness realm that they’re trying to get to. And the reason I say there’s a reality to it, because it looks like our government was trying to do the same thing.
You know, MK, often men, deer at goats. I mean all this stuff is going on. So I’m just not sure that we can bracket that back into Oh, you know, those Scientologists they were kind of playing off of the cold war jitters that people have. I mean, there seems to be a reality to
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:38:26] this. Um, yeah, I’m definitely not saying that.
Uh, it’s merely an odd byproduct of, you know. Odd stuff that was happening and during the cold war. Um, and the only reason that movements like these gain any traction is because people do take them very seriously and do believe there’s a there there, right. Um, and the, but I guess I would say that, I can’t know.
As a historian of religion, whether there’s a reality with what they’re talking about, but I can say that they certainly believed there was and took it very seriously. And so that alone, I think is worthy of study. Whether whether the psychic research they were doing was real or not, I can’t say, but I can’t say that they certainly took it very seriously.
And you’re 100% right. The U S government did too, in the. Chapter on the cold war and the Scientology book. I talk about the research that was going on, but the Stanford research Institute and the right, early 1970s, uh, there were at least three Scientologists who were involved in that. They were doing this remote viewing research for the, trying to spy on Russia remotely.
Um, so, and I’ve interviewed several of those folks and they, they genuinely believed that they were. Doing remote viewing and that this was a real thing. Whether it was real, I don’t
Alex Tsakiris: [00:39:43] know, but I mean, that I guess is the point. First off, you’re, you’re right. Pet prices are Scientologists, uh, Russel tarp or helped put off one, or both of them are intelligent.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:39:54] Harold put off and Ingo Swan that were the three, and then Targ was not, but, uh. Okay. Close with them.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:40:01] And then they, they, they say they left the, the religion, but just fine. I mean, we can’t, you know, you’re not guilty cause you go to a couple of meetings or you read a couple of books or interest that you’re not kind of scarred for life.
But I, I do want to challenge that idea of, well we can’t know that. I mean, I guess that’s. That’s kind of one of my problems with the religious studies kind of angle. It’s like, well, we can know this over here. We can understand how it impacts culture and how we live, but we can’t know this.
Well. We can come a lot closer to knowing it. I, like I say, they’ve released tens of thousands of pages of documents. We have proof. You know, Jessica goes and does statistical, the Jimmy Carter announces that remote viewing works and that they found a plane that way. So did we really keep it.
Then. Come back and say, wait a minute. We’re not really sure we know if any of that’s true. It just sounds like the same old, you know, biological robot, meaningless universe. We’re not sure that consciousnesses is real, or maybe it’s just an illusion kind of thing. I think that’s so limiting. I don’t think we can really get To the heart of any of this stuff from that standpoint.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:41:12] No, I’m not saying that. It goes back to the distinction I made earlier when you asked me about my, my background and my beliefs for and, and how that relates to my scholarship. So I think as a, an individual, you might believe that or know that when that’s fine, but in terms of what I would write about in an academic book, I’m going to, I think, bracket that belief and talk about what can be.
Kind of verified and empirically. Right. And so
Alex Tsakiris: [00:41:41] then that’s my, let me just say,
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:41:44] that’s my view. And if you ask Jeff cripple, he would give you a different answer. Right.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:41:49] I don’t think so. Cause I’ve asked them a couple of times and he basically gives the same answer. And my pushback on that is, but, but wait, we’re both playing.
What if we both agree to play by the same rules? So science, you know, let’s just agree to play by the science rules. And we look at scientific studies, peer reviewed scientific studies on remote viewing and establishes that. It’s true, right? You look at the physics behind it and the quantum physics behind it, that suggests that.
It’s at least a possibility. And then we’d look at when they do controlled experiments with remote viewing and labs, and again, blinded and controlled and stuff like that. So it’s a reality. So then why, why do we have to kind of treat it as a, you know, well, it’s outside of kind of the standard dogma of the social sciences college at Ohio state.
So it’s not really, you know what I’m saying?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:42:39] Well, there’s a couple of answers to that. One is that. Maybe remote viewing is real. I’ve never experienced it myself, so I don’t have firsthand knowledge of that second year point about scientific studies. I mean, you could also say a lot of literature that would debunk it as pseudoscience.
Right? Um, and then third
Alex Tsakiris: [00:42:58] thing, everything is like that, right? I mean, everything we have to sort out all that stuff. I mean, you didn’t, you haven’t had direct experience with OCIOs meditation techniques and you’re, you’re writing on them and you’re talking to folks. I mean, it’s not all about direct experience, right?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:43:13] Well, actually I have,
I do have direct experience of, is it meditation techniques? They really tiring, by the way. Um, but then the third point I was going to can maybe the most practical one is that. And the system of academic publishing, which has governed by peer review and kind of academic consensus.
If you wrote. Something that’s stated, you 100% believed in remote viewing, you would most likely not be published by an academic press. You can be published by, um, other kinds of presses, but it’s, you know, it’s just the way the rules of academia work. Um, some people push up against that a little bit, but for the most part, you would probably be dismissed, I think in academic publishing circles though, not other circles.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:44:01] Oh, I totally get that. But then that’s a religious issue, isn’t it? Really? I mean, that that just becomes a certain dogma, you know, that that has to be followed. And I get that over and over again. Talk to many. Scholars, you know, no matter how they do it, cross could just talk to a brilliant guy, did cross cultural analysis of near death experience, but still, you know, you talk to him and he has to talk this double talk like, well, I can’t really say one way or another, all my data points in one direction, but I don’t know that I can really come to any conclusion.
And I think for a lot of us sitting on the outside, we just lose trust. Academia in general and in the scholarship in general. So it’s teasing out, you know, what we want to keep and what we want to leave out. But if I have a feeling that you’re having to operate with one arm tied behind your back, I mean that really does slant, how I kind of view this stuff.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:44:55] I don’t, I don’t see it as operating with one hand tied behind my neck. I just think that there are different, there are different spheres of discourse in which the rules, like the rules of the language are different. And so. There are many publishing venues where writing openly about your belief in remote viewing would be fine.
And there are others where it would meet with a lot of intense skepticism. And so. You just have to learn how to speak the language of a particular sphere of discourse is all
Alex Tsakiris: [00:45:26] I’m saying. I got to push that. Just the time a get further, because I deal with this stuff all the time, but to me it’d be like saying, well, you know, flat earth so.
There was a certain group of people that believe in flat earth, and we cannot offend those people, so we have to be spherically neutral, you know? Or if the Ohio state university department of arts and sciences decided that flat earth was the prevailing. Kind of wisdom of the day, then everyone would have to conform to that.
No, I mean, I think the way it’s supposed to work is we’re supposed to lean on science and the larger body of knowledge to define what reality is and then move our set of beliefs. To that. So when we don’t see that movement and when we see ourselves stuck in kind of this dogma that doesn’t allow us to kind of fully understand, I mean these people are talking about summoning, uh, creating a, a spirit in summiting that spirit and marshaling it to do their work.
The antichrist. And then we have the United States government who is doing the exact same thing. And we understand why they’re doing it too. Cause they’re saying, Hey, if that can be done. And we’re in, we’re in charge of defending you, and we’d better do it first, believe it or do it before those Russians do it.
That’s the rationale and that’s the path we’re going down. Don’t we have to kind of get a little bit more inside the game there and at least try and understand what the implications are if there is a reality to that extended consciousness room. Sure.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:46:58] But, um, an academic text might not be the best place to do that.
And so you can, you can do both at the same time. You can pursue your own interests and beliefs on one hand and play the academic game on the other. You know, you don’t have to do one or the other.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:47:16] Fair enough. And you know, you’re, I’m just playing around here. There’s a lot, there’s a lot of great stuff in what you’ve done in the scholarship is important folks. Cause who else is doing this. The way that Dr Urban and his colleagues are doing it. At least they’re raising these issues up in a way that we can kind of take a step back from the usual knee jerk reaction and look at those.
But I am going to persist with my poking next, I guess would be looking at. Religious studies from a religious context. You know, I just had the opportunity to interview this guy, uh, really an impressive guy to me. All right? His name is Kevin ANet, and talk about someone who’s lived. The reality of the sometimes sorted relationship between church and state and really cults in places that we don’t normally associate with being cultish.
So Kevin’s history just really quickly is former minister in the church in Canada who became a whistle blower after he revealed. These really horrific crimes against children carried out by the state and really by the church in kind of conspiratorial relationship with the state. And let me just interject.
This stuff is proven now. This is admitted by Canada. They’ve apologized. They’ve released documents. It’s true. It’s. Yeah. Proven, but that is kind of the beginning of Kevin’s work. He’s since doing that in almost 20 years ago. He’s continued to look at kind of the nefarious activities inside what we would call old religions.
But I think if we’re going to look at new religions, we have to look at old religions too. He actually went to Brussels and he. Organize the international common law court of justice, which some people don’t think much of, but they did get a ruling against pro, uh, against Pope Francis found him guilty of rape, torture, murder.
This was widely reported in the media. what eye witnesses forward, who not only talked about their personal experience with that, which again, is all over the news. That’s not like super controversial now because so many of the People at the highest level, even right below the Pope. But all the way around the world are in jail for these same kind of crimes.
But in this hearing, you know, they had 48 eyewitness accounts of it activities, including satanic ritual abuse. So my question for you though, is not whether Kevin and net. Is telling the truth or whether any of this stuff is true cause we can’t possibly expect you to sort through that.
The question really is, is that even something that needs to be considered. I consider religious studies. I mean, this is a free, menial organization organization. Do we need to have that square on the table?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:50:27] Yeah. In fact, I argue that point in the Scientology book and also the Osho book.
Um, there are cases where new religious movements and mainstream religious movements do horrible things. Um, covering up. sex abuse, or in the case of Scientology breaking into IRS offices and stealing documents, or they’re a rehabilitation project force program, which has been accused of human rights violations.
So the, and I think there’s a lot of evidence in the case of Scientology that that’s. Stuff has happened and probably continues to happen. So, um, the, the attitude of respect that I was talking about doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also look really critically at the really problematic things that religious groups often do as well.
So I think it can be. Generally respectful of the movement then, but then also look very carefully at things that they’ve done that might be unethical or illegal, I don’t think, which are exclusive.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:51:29] Well, I think maybe they are. I mean, at some point the respect thing has to fall away. And I think this is where most people sit.
They say, wait, at some point, we’re talking about an organization whose primary function is criminality. And I guess my question and concern is, can we get there from here in terms of answering that question, because if that’s the case, we do have a different situation. I like how at the beginning you said, Hey, well we have a tradition in the constitution and we have a legal kind of thing, but most people are kind of, that’s part of their reality, but the reality where they sit is to say.
Jesus get these guys, throw them in jail way, the key, and we need to look at changing the laws, not, you know, don’t recite to me the, the, the code and the law and all that stuff. Something is fundamentally messed up here and we need to fix it. How do you respond to that?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:52:33] I would say if you have a priest who’s molesting children, put them in jail and throw away the key as far as I’m concerned.
If it has
Alex Tsakiris: [00:52:39] what you have to play. I’m talking about the, what if the whole thing is basically a premium organization?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:52:46] Well, that’s a different question and that’s where Scientology is a complicated case because the case in Scientology, for example, the operation snow white that was launched to infiltrate the IRS offices, it does seem that that came from the top, right.
It seems that that was instigated by Mary Sue Hubbard, Hubbard’s wife, and he was probably directly involved and a bunch of top-level Scientologists in jail. Um, but. But does that mean that Scientology from top to bottom is a criminal organization? I think that’s where it becomes more complicated because you still have many, many run of the mill Scientologists who had nothing to do with criminal activities and still take it very seriously.
So there, I mean, that’s a hard question. Do you have to, um, throw the whole movement out. If leadership is involved in criminal activities, or can you still say, well, it’s still meaningful to the majority of people involved, despite the fact that those at the top are engaged in really problematic activities.
And so I, I kind of leave that up to the reader to make up their own minds on that. Um, I have my views, but
Alex Tsakiris: [00:53:54] in my book,
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:53:56] my views, um, it’s a hard question, but I tend to value freedom of religious expression and the first amendment and all of that. So I think on the whole, it’s probably better to err on the side of giving movements, the benefit of the doubt, even if that means that sometimes we let slip through some really problematic groups.
Um. And, and you know, there, there are a lot of people who have argued that what Scientology needs is some kind of reformation, right? Um, that, that there’s enough there that is valuable that you could salvage that. Well, acknowledging that Hubbard and others didn’t really problematic things. So there, there actually is a wing that wants to reform Scientology.
Well, still at salvaging the valuable parts of it
Alex Tsakiris: [00:54:45] Okay, well let’s probe that with one kind of final point.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:54:51] Can I just make one other quick point. Absolutely.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:54:54] You could also point to examples within Christianity where the leadership was incredibly corrupted. I mean, the Middle Ages are filled with bad popes, right? Bad popes and bad cardinals. That doesn’t mean that the entire Catholic Church from top to bottom is a corrupt organization.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:55:14] Wait, hold on, full stop. We don’t know that. I mean, that’s, I guess, the part that I want to say we’re not doing our job if we don’t ask that question, because that would be one very straightforward read of this situation.
You know, I always point to, when I first got out of college, I went to work for a consulting firm, a big CPA firm, and the largest at that time was a company called Arthur Andersen. That company doesn’t exist anymore. It was the largest accounting firm in the world. Enron, I’m older, so I remember, but when Enron collapsed, they went to the people who were auditing Enron, which was Arthur Andersen, and they said, “You know what, you have so violated your fiduciary responsibility to the public. You don’t need to exist anymore.”
Now, I know for a fact there are a lot of really good people working at Arthur Andersen, honest people, hardworking people, people who’ve worked their whole life and saved in their 401k and built a career. Gone, out on the streets. That’s the way we’re supposed to function. Why do we have this kind of craziness about religion, where we can’t say, “Hey, maybe it really is a criminally corrupt organization.” Maybe it’s always been about control more than it’s been about their spirituality, however we understand that spirituality. And what would seem to be from your work in the larger body of work in religious studies, is that spiritual impulse seems to be able to sprout anywhere, it doesn’t need one particular form or another. Why not question that?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:57:05] No, that’s a legitimate question and it’s something that I do deal with it in the Scientology book, is that I think, particularly in the United States, the designation religion tends to give groups a special kind of protection and immunity. I think that’s one reason that Scientology has not been investigated more critically by law enforcement, is because of its religious status. I think there’s been more of a hands-off sort of approach with them and other religious groups because of the long history of protections for religious groups and, you know, the State Department issues an annual report on religious freedom and defends groups like Scientology and the way they are being treated in other countries like Germany.
So I think, because of the history of religion and the First Amendment in the US, we have tended to give religious groups a special protection, and I think you could argue that that is problematic.
You had more to your question that I am forgetting now.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:58:07] No, you’re generous to answer all of these kind of oddball questions and I appreciate you allowing…
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:58:14] That last question is an essential one, thinking about not just Scientology but the whole history of religion in the US.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:58:23] Great. I’m glad you feel that way because I feel like this is even more of a central question.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:58:30] I know what I was going to say next, and one might well conclude, as you’re suggesting that a group like the Catholic Church is corrupt from top to bottom, and that might be the conclusion that you reach. But I don’t see the Catholic Church or Scientology for that matter, going away anytime soon. So therefore, they’re still in need of study and scholarship and analysis.
Alex Tsakiris: [00:58:55] Totally agree. No, and that’s why I think that no matter how one feels about the kind of academic approach, which is this kind of tension that we talked about from the very beginning. There’s value there and there’s value in the scholarship that you bring, and that’s why folks within this community are praising this work and saying, “Hey, here’s a guy who’s…” as you alluded to, a lot of people aren’t going to like you. It’s like the old pioneer story. You know, the pioneer is the guy who gets arrows in the front and the back.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [00:59:27] Yeah. It does aggravate people sometimes because they want the scholar to take a stand and say, “No, Scientology is bad. Scientology is a dangerous cult,” and I resist that sort of judgment. This came up actually, I was giving a talk at Princeton on Osho, and there was a pro-Osho guy who had flown all the way from California to come and see the talk, despite the fact it was only a 40-minute little presentation. And then there was an Osho hater who had been raped by an Osho member in Hawaii and thought Osho was condoning rape.
So it led to a lively discussion, shall we say, and they were both kind of unhappy that I was being either too critical or too generous. And I was explaining that the whole point is to try to be balanced and to get a full picture of the movement that would acknowledge problematic aspects, but also try to understand why anyone would find this persuasive or valuable in the first place.
So again, you’re going to piss off someone on either side, but I think it allows you to get a fuller picture of the movement.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:00:36] Fair enough. I’ll tell you on the final point that I would draw out, in terms of this contextualizing religious studies, you know, the different contexts that we kind of put it in. I’m still scratching at this thing that I talked about from the beginning Hugh, and that is the spiritual part of it. I have just a little quick quote from Eckhart Tolle and he says, “And when I say normal, I mean insane.” The larger quote is, he’s talking about, from an Eastern perspective you totally understand where he’s coming from, in terms of a nondual, in terms of the mind, the voice inside our head that we all recognize as our consciousness. And then when he really breaks that down he says, “But of course, it’s rather insane to believe that that really is who we are.”
So, let me play this clip and then let’s talk about maybe what my understanding of what spiritually is and why I’m kind of upset here that I don’t see religious studies really trying to get to the meat of the issue. Let me play Eckhart for you.
Eckart Tolle: [01:01:54] So you give up all knowing, the accumulated knowledge and mind made self that consists of accumulated thought forms. So as we sit here we are dying a little death and realize that nothing real actually died, only the illusion of a false self. What remains is consciousness, the very bare fact that you are. So in this moment is the opportunity of sensing something much more fundamental than the history of who you think you are, in the mind.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:02:43] Let me just say that beyond the Eckhart Tolle, Oprah Winfrey kind of new age thing that most people get, what he’s saying about science, the science of consciousness is much, much closer to what leading researchers are saying.
I just had an interview with Dr Don Hoffman who is really one of the top physicists in the world, and he will tell you that every experiment we do on quantum mechanics and on the quantum field, brings us to the conclusion that consciousness is fundamental. Which is the same thing that physicists were saying a hundred years ago and even Einstein says, at the end of his life, after battling it for so long.
So I guess returning to this earlier point, if you can’t get consciousness right, if you’re playing with the consciousness is an illusion, we’re biological robots in a meaningless universe as your atheist friend there, colleague no doubt believes, you’re not even in the game. You’re not in the game science wise, I mean, you’re flat earthing it. So Eckhart Tolle isn’t just saying Oprah Winfrey new age stuff, he’s talking about cutting edge science.
So that’s my pitch. What say you?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:04:09] Yeah, that’s an interesting point. And I guess I would say that, well, there’s a couple of answers to that question. There is a movement in religious studies and other fields that is extremely interested in consciousness from different perspectives. One, there’s a lot of work being done in neuroscience and cognitive science, looking at, for example, what happens during meditation or prayer. So that’s a whole emerging field and then there’s also a whole body of scholarship on understandings of consciousness.
For example, when I was in grad school I did a lot of work on Yogachara Buddhism, which is all about mind and consciousness and understanding reality itself as a product of mind. So there’s work being done from a neurological perspective, there’s philosophical research on consciousness. So it’s not as though people in those studies aren’t interested in the question of consciousness.
But in my own work, I mean, I’m a historian, and so I look at what people do and the texts they leave behind and what we can sort of see. So I’m not uninterested in questions of consciousness, but that’s not really what I write about in my academic work, even though I recognize its importance for the people that I’m writing about.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:05:25] Fair enough, and I’ve already bashed the ivory tower, stove-piping academia thing, so I won’t push that any further, but I will maybe end with the question that I kind of begin with. So how does all that sit though, with your personal spirituality, whatever that is, whether it’s more of an atheistic, a materialistic worldview, or whether it’s kind of more of an expansive? I know you’ve done a lot of work on the East and you just said a lot of meditation work. How do you square, beyond your role as an academic who has to kind of publish, where do you sit with some of that?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:06:07] Yeah. Well, we don’t have that much time, so I’ll give you the short answer. First, to go back to the point I made earlier about being kind of a radical agnostic. So I haven’t seen God myself and so I assume that if there is something beyond this life, I’ll find that out when I die. But in my own, sort of personal life, nature mystic. The most profound experiences I’ve had have been in the out of doors. I’m an amateur mycologist, I’m really fascinated by the interconnections between, for example, the world of fungi and the world of plants and trees.
And so that’s where I find the most meaningful kinds of spiritual experiences and the greatest sense of something beyond my ego or the most profound experience of a sort of loss of ego in the natural environment. So that’s kind of my personal spirituality, I guess you could say.
Philosophically, the worldview that makes most sense to me is Buddhism and Buddhist ideas such as emptiness and no self. That sort of makes the most sense to me when I look at the world around me and it fits with the way I understand nature too.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:07:22] Okay. I love that. Although, you know, I’ve done a bunch of interviews on Buddhism. It’s another interesting phenomenon, that kind of American atheistic Buddhism, which is really kind of a roll-your-own. I mean, there’s really no traditional understanding of that and Buddhism is enmeshed in a culture that completely believes in the survival of consciousness after death, completely believes in reincarnation, completely believes in the extended consciousness realm that we’re talking about with , uh, Aleister Crowley and all of that stuff.
So, where are you with that stuff, in terms of your Buddhist, kind of leanings?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:08:06] Yeah. I don’t consider myself a practicing Buddhist. I simply meant that, particularly strands of Buddhist philosophy make sense to me, in terms of how I look at the world and they sort of fit with the world that I see around me. And Buddhism is a vast complicated set of traditions and the one that makes most sense to me is sort of early Indian Buddhism that developed the first few hundred years after the death of the Buddha. So what we would now call That’s a big Buddha. So what we would now call Theravada Buddhism. I think what you’re describing, at least what you’re alluding to, I think, fits more with later
I think it’s more with later Mahayana and Badryana forms of Buddhism, which are interesting too, but I have more affinity with earlier Buddhism, I guess.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:08:46] Okay, so you’re a mystic. I get it. You just want to kind of keep it under your hat, that’s cool.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:08:53] Oh I’m a mystic, but I certainly don’t rule out spiritual experiences.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:09:02] So our guest again has been Dr Hugh Urban. We’ve talked about a couple of books on this show that you’re going to want to check out, The Church of Scientology and Zorba the Buddha. You’re working, I know on a bunch of other interesting stuff. You are such a great and accomplished writer. Tell folks more about what’s coming up and in general, how they can follow your work.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:09:26] Well, I just finished a book that has been accepted by the University of Chicago Press called Secrecy. That’s the main title. We haven’t settled on a subtitle. It will be something like Silence, Power and Religion or something like that, and it’s a look at six different forms of religious secrecy that developed from the mid-19th century to the present. So I have a chapter on Scientology, a chapter on Freemasonry. I have a chapter on Theosophy. I have a chapter on the Five Percenters, which are an offshoot of the Nation of Islam. I have a chapter on sex magic. So that’s been a lot of fun to work on. So it looks at sort of six different modalities of religious secrecy that range from sort of social resistance and protection of religious groups and I look at terrorism too. So that’s one project.
And then the other is an ethnographic project on tantra in Northeast India. We looked at living forms of tantra as it’s practiced on the ground today in Northeast India.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:10:26] You know, I’m really interested in that. Can you kind of offer up any little tidbits on what you’ve understood are maybe some of the misunderstandings we have or anything about tantra as it’s really practiced?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:10:41] Yeah. So, tantra in the American popular imagination, as we’ve talked about, is usually identified with sex or nookie nirvana, and in Indian popular imagination today, tantra, as you see like in Bollywood film, is almost always all about black magic. Not so much about sex, but about sorcery and corpses and stuff like that.
But there is still a living tradition of tantric practice in the region of Assam, which is Northeast India. It’s a little bit of India that sticks up on the other side from Bangladesh in the Northeast. There’s still a very old and living tradition of tantric practice that is as authentic as you can get these days. So I’m looking at that.
There are elements of sexuality and there are elements of black magic, but there’s lots of other stuff going on there too, it’s really fascinating. So there’s spirit possession, for example, that’s one aspect of it, but there are also tantric rituals that are rooted in really, really old traditions. So I’ve been working on that off and on since about 2000. I hope to finally finish the project on that.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:11:52] So you’re right in the soup man, and I’m pushing you on all of this stuff, but you’re right in the soup, you’re right in the middle of it. So how do you, I guess as a final question, because I’m curious, how do you approach that without jumping all the way in? Because one of the guys I really enjoyed on this show was an anthropologist, he has a journal called the Paranthropology Journal, he was Dr Jack Connor, I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, he’s in the UK. But his kind of thing is like, “Hey, from an anthropological standpoint, at some point you can’t be totally outside of this thing because of all of the things, by observing it we’re affecting it anyway. Maybe we need to understand more deeply and accept their reality of this extended consciousness realm, even though it doesn’t fit within, kind of these narrow confines that we have. I guess you’re bumping up against that in your own way, what do you think?
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:12:53] I’ve wrestled with that question for a long time, really, since I was a graduate student. My first book, which was my dissertation, was really grappling with the question of how you study an esoteric tradition like tantra. Do you become an initiate? Do you remain kind of a distant outsider?
And what I’ve sort of come to over the years is that it’s always much messier than just insider versus outsider and that the deeper you go, the more you become. The term I would use is entangled with it, because you make friends, they have you over to their house for dinner, you get to know their children, more and more. Even if you’re not a full initiate, you become enmeshed and entangled with the tradition in complicated ways, and that means becoming a participant in ritual practices.
So then it becomes a question of how far you feel comfortable going or how far you can go because you’re still culturally an outsider and that’s where every researcher has to navigate where they fit in that sort of relationship. So I’m still working through that myself now.
Alex Tsakiris: [01:13:56] Awesome, man. I love how you keep a very cold demeanor about all of that stuff, but I think there’s a depth there that is really going to fascinate a lot of people.
Again, it’s been absolutely fantastic having you on the show. Thanks for allowing me to kind of pull you into some other areas and it’s great. I hope people really check out your work. We need more of your stuff.
Dr. Hugh Urban: [01:14:16] Okay. Thank you. It was a fun conversation.
Thanks again to Dr Hugh Urban for joining me today in Skeptiko. The one question I’d guess I tee up, can religious studies remain agnostic about consciousness? Oh, I went on and on about this, so I won’t add anything more, but I’ll be very interested to see what you think, hear what you have to say.
Of course, the easiest place to do that is to reach me through the Skeptiko Forum. You can connect with other people who enjoy the show, kick around some ideas to all of that good stuff. You could also jump over to the Skeptiko website, skeptiko.com. You’ll find all of the shows there, many, many, over 400 of them available for free download MP3, no firewall, no ads, no anything.
And while you’re there and while you’re thinking about this, think about if there’s anyone who you think needs to hear this particular show. Share it with them and tell me why you’re sharing it with them and who you think needs to hear this stuff. I would love to hear more from you.
I have plenty of more stuff coming up down the pike. Stay with me for all of that. Until next time, take care and bye for now.
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