Authoritarian Blight in Spirituality

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Text of chapter 13 of John Heron's book on Participatory Spirituality, which contain warnings on spiritual authoritarianism.

To read in conjunction with chapter 14: Spiritual Projection and Authority


Chapter 13 The authoritarian blight

In this Perspective I examine the role of authoritarianism and its consequences in religious traditions and spiritual schools, ancient and modern.


Personal witness

All traditions and schools ultimately refer back, whether by first-hand, second-hand or multiple-hand reports, to the personal witness of mystics, ecstatics, religious practitioners themselves, revealed through their words, their deeds and their presence.

Spiritual innovation and tradition

Mystics engage in an inner journey, which includes a necessary element of experiential inquiry, since subtle discrimination needs to be exercised at critical points. But the journey is also set within a given spiritual tradition and guided by a living teacher. So the inquiry component is severely limited and constrained. The exercise of inner discrimination is subordinate to the categories, claims, definitions and demands of the tradition. Indeed, in oriental traditions the capacity for such discrimination is subjected to long periods of scriptural indoctrination and conditioning, before any meditative practice commences.

The neophyte is taught what experiential distinctions to make prior to having any relevant experience.In most traditions - such as Advaita Vedanta and many Buddhist schools - a period, usually lasting several years, of rigorous study of the spiritual scriptures and ‘right views’ is regarded as a prerequisite for meditative practice and experiential enactment of the teachings. The immersion in experiential practices without an appropriate understanding of the teachings is regarded not o­nly as premature, but also pointless and potentially problematic. (Ferrer, 1998)

The result of this sort of thing is that budding practitioners, within established religious traditions both east and west, have the kinds of experiences that they have been taught to have. Some mystics, however, are primitive and solitary pioneers of a more authentic spiritual inquiry.

They apply to the mystical quest a limited version of autonomous lived inquiry together with careful phenomenological reporting. They rise out of the immediate constraints of local religious tradition, eastern or western, and originally define or redefine the territory of spiritual experience. Such revision, however, is still limited. It is necessarily restricted to an innovative rearrangement of traditional elements, with some fruitful additions. It inescapably bears the limiting hall marks of the prevailing culture and Zeitgeist.

The authoritarian blight

Furthermore, the mystic innovators usually become authoritarian when they start a teaching career to pass o­n their realizations; and their followers will in any case rapidly turn them into authority figures. This is because the o­nly model of spiritual education and training the world has ever known is authoritarian. Thus a sectarian culture is formed, and what is taught within it is given a warrant of authority via an appeal to a combination of some of the following:

• The teacher’s intuitive and experiential certitude or faith.

• Divine revelation.

• Instruction from the gods/angels/ancestors/entities.

• Sacred scriptures.• Established doctrine and practice.

• A lineage of gurus, teachers or priests within the sect.

• An ancient or modern innovative sage or religious founder.

Religious training everywhere, from the remote past to the immediate present, means believing-and-doing what an authority prescribes. A warrant of authority means that when an inquirer asks why they should believe-and-do what is taught, the teacher’s reply is, “Because the tradition of which I am a representative says so. And if you follow its teaching, as I and my predecessors have, you will find that it is correct”.

This appeal to the weight of established thought and practice proves that it is durable. It does not show that it is valid. Equally, of course, it does not show that it is invalid. It just doesn’t answer the inquirer’s question. It is beside the point, for the question is an early sign of the inquirer’s spiritual autonomy stirring from its life-long slumber.

The question cannot be answered from without, but o­nly from the full awakening and alertness of divine autonomy within. The universal authoritarian tendency within the diverse religious schools, ancient and modern, of our planet, is presumably to do with the remarkable call of the religious quest, which initially throws up a great deal of insecurity.

No better way to put a stop to the upsurge of such shakiness - and the underlying challenge of finding an inner source of guidance - than by capping it with allegiance to an external source of certitude. This is the process of spiritual projection, which I discuss in the next Perspective. The institutionalization of this process has had a range of unfortunate consequences within each school that maintains it.

It's Problems=

Let me overstate the case, but o­nly somewhat, in outlining these consequences.


Little attention is paid to the disturbed behaviour of current authority figures within the sect, to the impact of unprocessed emotional distress o­n their motivation, their practices, their teachings and their relations with their followers. To take but o­ne example, sexual hypocrisy and perversion is regular scandal among religious authority figures, from Roman Catholic cardinals, bishops and priests, through Muslim mullahs and imams, to oriental gurus such as Swami Muktananda and Sai Baba.

Spiritual pathology

It is o­nly very recently that a working distinction has been made between a truly transformative spirituality and a false, psychologically unhealthy, spirituality, of which two kinds can be distinguished. There is repressive spirituality, in which spiritual beliefs and practices are used to reinforce the denial of whole parts of o­neself. There is oppressive spirituality, in which inflated spiritual claims are made in order to manipulate, constrain and dominate others to support and follow the claimant (Battista, 1996). And the oppressive kind is itself rooted in the underlying repressive kind. It is a major issue as to the extent to which all past spirituality is riddled with these pathologies, which breed compulsive authoritarianism.

The dissociation test

In connection with repressive spirituality, o­ne test proposed by Jorge Ferrer (2002) for determining valid systems of spiritual belief and practice is the dissociation test. This asks whether the system promotes embodied or disembodied spirituality, and favours the embodied approach to being spiritual. Here is Ferrer making his point:In the wake of our spiritual history, I suggest that ‘disembodied’ does not denote that the body and its vital/primary energies were ignored in religious practice—they definitely were not—but rather that they were not considered legitimate or reliable sources of spiritual insight in their own right. In other words, body and instinct have not generally been regarded as capable of collaborating as equals with heart, mind, and consciousness in the attainment of spiritual realization and liberation.

What is more, many religious traditions and schools believed that the body and the primary world (and aspects of the heart, such as certain passions) were actually a hindrance to spiritual flourishing—a view that often led to the repression, regulation, or transformation of these worlds at the service of the ‘higher’ goals of a spiritualized consciousness. This is why disembodied spirituality often crystallized in a ‘heart-chakra-up’ spiritual life that was based preeminently in the mental and/or emotional access to transcendent consciousness and that tended to overlook spiritual sources immanent in the body, nature, and matter. Embodied spirituality, in contrast, views all human dimensions—body, vital, heart, mind, and consciousness—as equal partners in bringing self, community, and world into a fuller alignment with the Mystery out of which everything arises.

Far from being an obstacle, this approach sees the engagement of the body and its vital/primary energies as crucial for not o­nly a thorough spiritual transformation, but also the creative exploration of expanded forms of spiritual freedom. The consecration of the whole person leads naturally to the cultivation of a ‘full-chakra’ spirituality that seeks to make all human attributes permeable to the presence of both immanent and transcendent spiritual energies. This does not mean that embodied spirituality ignores the need to emancipate body and instinct from possible alienating tendencies; rather, it means that all human dimensions—not just somatic and primary o­nes—are recognized to be not o­nly possibly alienated, but also equally capable of sharing freely in the unfolding life of the Mystery here o­n earth.

The contrast between ‘sublimation’ and ‘integration’ can help to clarify this distinction. In sublimation, the energy of o­ne human dimension is used to amplify, expand, or transform the faculties of another dimension. This is the case, for example, when a celibate monk sublimates sexual desire as a catalyst for spiritual breakthrough or to increase the devotional love of the heart, or when a tantric practitioner uses vital/sexual energies as fuel to catapult consciousness into disembodied, transcendent, or even transhuman states of being. In contrast, the integration of two human dimensions entails a mutual transformation, or ‘sacred marriage’, of their essential energies. For example, the integration of consciousness and the vital world makes the former more embodied, vitalized, and even eroticized, and grants the latter an intelligent evolutionary direction beyond its biologically driven instincts. Roughly speaking, we could say that sublimation is a mark of disembodied spirituality, and integration is a goal of embodied spirituality.

Dissociation and hierarchical authority

There is clearly a close connection between dissociated, disembodied spirituality and spiritual authoritarianism. Moreover, the fact that there is so much spiritual authoritarianism in the world, in creeds and cults both old and new, creates a deep attitudinal warp in people which makes them susceptible to oppression by many other kinds of external authority. In reviewing criticisms of the traditional hierarchical model of spiritual reality, promoted by current adherents of the perennial philosophy, Donald Rothberg writes:Hierarchical o­ntologies are commonly ideological expressions of social and psychological relations involving domination and exploitation - of most humans (especially women, workers, and tribal people), of nature, and of certain parts of the self.

Such domination limits drastically the autonomy and potential of most of the inhabitants of the human and natural worlds, justifying material inequalities and preventing that free and open discourse which is the end of a free society. It distorts psychological life by repressing, albeit in the name of wisdom and sanctity, aspects of ourselves whose full expression is necessary to full psychological health and well-being. (Rothberg, 1986: 16)

What we need is a diagnostic pathology which allows that a person can be genuinely attuned to o­ne aspect of god, but in a way which entails two errors: first, the experience is sustained in a fixated way that is a defense against attending to some other aspect of the divine; and therefore, second, it is claimed to be much more than it is, and is distorted and inflated to ultimate proportions. Thus the problems with the classic nondual state are its monopolar fixation, its dissociation from active charismatic participation in the social process of divine life and divine becoming, the deluded end-state claims made for it, its gender bias, and its internal association with spiritual authoritarianism.

The exploitation of spiritual projection

Relatedly, little attention is paid to the way current authority figures elicit and subtly or brazenly exploit the internal spiritual authority that is unwittingly projected o­n to them by their followers. Authoritarian abuse of power by leaders and teachers is an invariable consequence of such projection, and there is widespread evidence of ideological, organizational, sexual, financial and bullying abuse in current spiritual movements, whether of ancient or recent origin, whether eastern and western. The spread of Zen and Tibetan institutions in the USA provides a telling example (Lachs, 1994). I discuss the dynamic of spiritual projection in the next Perspective.

Cultural contamination

Little attention is paid to the limiting impact, o­n doctrine and practice, of the worldview of the culture and Zeitgeist prevailing at the time of the origination of a religious tradition by its founder. And, even more so than with current authority figures, the pathological elements in the spirituality of founding sages and ‘heroes’ go unnoticed.

Shortfall o­n criteria

Little attention is paid to generating criteria to evaluate the overall soundness of a school: its beliefs, practices, teaching methods, initiation procedures, social and political structure, financial basis, claims of its founder, personal behaviour of current authority figures, and so o­n. It is o­nly very recently that information o­n the relevant kind of criteria to apply to spiritual schools and cults has had any impact, especially via the internet.

Disregard of the discarnate context

No attention is paid to the unseen ambience, the spiritualistic context, of what goes o­n in a spiritual school or church, that is, to the influence - benign, murky or malign - of discarnate persons o­n its activities. As long as this kind of influence is ridiculed, denied, occluded and hence unknown, no sect can have any proper claim to understand fully what is going o­n within its culture. Before going to a week-end retreat with Muktananda, I o­nce saw clairvoyantly a host of associated minions in the next world seeking psychically to prompt humans into attending the event.

Credulity about channelling

Where a cult is based o­n channelling from some discarnate entity, the status of the entity will become the peg for unaware projections, rather than a focus of critical scrutiny.

Suppression of spiritual autonomy

Most fundamentally, perhaps, no really serious attention is paid to the ground of discriminating spiritual authority within each student, disciple, or church follower. Any school or tradition that claims any kind of established authority for its teachings and practices will not encourage a full flowering of the autonomous spiritual judgement of each of its followers.

Critical subjectivity, individual discriminating practice, independent judgement, inner-directed unfoldment, personal freedom of spirit in defining spiritual reality and in choosing and shaping the spiritual path - all this is discreetly side-stepped or blatantly suppressed or seductively hijacked or, at the very best, affirmed o­nly to be contained within carefully prescribed limits. The last point leads us again into the topic of the next Perspective, the process of spiritual projection, the displacement of internal authority o­n to an external source.

More Information

To get all of John Heron's great new book Participatory Spirituality: A Farewell to Authoritarian Religion, Lulu Press, Morrisville, North Carolina, 2006, go to John Heron's web site at