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Beware of false prophets

Why are we so drawn to gurus?

Artillery Row

There have always been gurus, of a kind: mystics, sages and sophists. They were the first philosophers and founded the world’s great religions. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, they became more abundant than ever, well-suited to an age of religious scepticism, whose original Greek meaning meant not only “to doubt” but “to inquire”.

Steve Jobs became the model for a new kind of guru

In Edwardian England, inquiring minds seeking alternatives to Christianity were enraptured by the magician Aleister Crowley and Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky. In the 1950s, American bohemians (forerunners to the hippies) absorbed Eastern spirituality from Zen Master D.T. Suzuki and the yogi Paramahansa Yogananda.

In finding their guru, these individuals were rewarded with a personal programme for spiritual progression. Until the rise of the internet, it was a quest for the privileged few with time enough to pursue it. Technology accelerated a process that began in the 15th century with the invention of the printing press. Before it, knowledge was considered sacred, tended by a priestly class. Afterwards, information became available to anyone with a distinguished enough education.

Steve Jobs was among the first to recognise the democratising power of the internet. It is here that Atlantic journalist Helen Lewis’s entertaining new BBC Sounds podcast on the rise of the new “New Guru” begins. A student hippie who experimented with fruitarianism and primal scream therapy, in the 1970s he trekked to India in search of his own spiritual teacher. Spurned, he returned to America and founded the tech company Apple, blending Western consumerism with Eastern spirituality.

Jobs became the model for a new kind of guru. Dressed in a monkish black turtleneck, his speeches to Apple conferences had the air of religious revival sermons. His purpose, he said, was to bring power to the people by putting a personal computer in their homes and in their pockets, a vision he pursued with the ruthlessness of a latter-day Luther. From then on, everyone could access vast swathes of information on every subject. The internet guru — through podcasts and YouTube videos — began to channel it.

Atheists make up 8 per cent of the UK population, roughly the same as Catholics

Lewis’s podcast is an illuminating tour through this world. The manipulative Tom Torero goes from taking holy orders in the Greek Orthodox Church to becoming a priest of pick-up artistry; the Jungian psychologist Jordan Peterson’s reincarnation into a loudmouth shock-jock dispirits one of his earliest disciples; the diversity instructor Regina Jackson offers white women the chance to confess their trespasses. We meet gurus for every aspect of life: work, relationships, health. They offer solace by making predictions about the future, rules for life, and a path towards purpose and meaning.

In this sense, they fill a void once occupied by organised religions. This is the view of Tara Isabella Burton, a guest on the podcast, whose book Strange Rites chronicles changing religious practices in America. Whilst a quarter of American adults say they have no religion, only 7 per cent identify as atheist or agnostic. Rather than identify with a particular faith, millions, Burton argues, are drawing on a trove of philosophical, aesthetic and spiritual traditions to create personal systems of belief.

The same is also true in Britain, one of the most secular countries in the world. Whilst more than half of people identify as “non-religious”, a recent report by the Theos think tank found that only half of this group say they do not believe in God, whilst a fifth definitely or probably believe in life after death, and 17 per cent believe in the power of prayer. Atheists, meanwhile, make up 8 per cent of the population, roughly the same as Catholics. 

It was the growing numbers of religiously disaffiliated for whom, in the early 2000s, New Atheism aspired to speak. The likes of writers Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris dreamed of a world in which the march of liberal, secular values — a “new enlightenment” — would rid the world of atavistic religious superstition. Amassing millions of YouTube followers, they were among the first internet gurus. Today, however, New Atheism speaks for only a fragment of the population.

They represent even fewer beyond the secular west, where organised religion remains in rude health. The Pew Centre for Research estimates that by 2050, the religiously unaffiliated will make up a smaller per centage of the world’s population than they do today, whilst believers in organised faith will increase in absolute terms. Even within the west, where organised religion is predicted to decline further, the questions religions have traditionally sought to answer will not go away. As long as they remain, individuals will search for the truth, and charismatic gurus will seek to provide it.

Therein lies a danger. For all their faults, organised religions offer their followers ways to live buttressed by historical traditions. The wisdom of today’s gurus, by contrast, often rests on shakier foundations. Whilst once gurus had to be sought out, today they reside in what Tara Isabella Burton calls a “spiritual marketplace” in which they vie like goods on supermarket shelves for our attention. They do not shape us, but rather are shaped by our desires and prejudices, with often disastrous results. The examples of “new gurus” Helen Lewis provides serve as such a warning: those who walk the path of truth should be wary they are not led astray by so many false prophets.

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