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‘American gurus and their reasoned flights beyond reason’

Dave Vliegenthart awarded PhD in contemporary anti-intellectualism in America
27 February 2017

Franklin Jones, John C. Lilly, Ken Wilber, Andrew Cohen, Eckhart Tolle, Deepak Chopra, Byron Katie are all examples of modern Western ‘spiritual teachers’ or even ‘gurus’ who have, paradoxically, spread their anti-intellectual messages more and more through intellectual texts and talks. PhD candidate Dave Vliegenthart examined why the anti-intellectual truth claims of modern Western gurus in North-America have become increasingly intellectualized. He will defend his thesis on 9 March in the Academy Building of the University of Groningen.

Dave Vliegenthart
Dave Vliegenthart


‘The context of my research is the widespread idea that anti-intellectualism took off in America during the 19th and 20th centuries, in particular within religious discourse,’ says Dave Vliegenthart. ‘Whereas intellectualism represents an almost religious dedication to a reflective life that centres on thought, anti-intellectualism refers to suspicion or even resentment of a reflective life and everything and everyone that it represents. Many academic and public intellectuals have spoken of, and still speak of, a general anti-intellectual ‘flight from reason’ in contemporary American culture,’ the PhD candidate explains. In light of this, he finds it remarkable that many founders of new religious movements developed their supposedly anti-intellectual experiences, into highly intellectual ideologies. Simply put, they claimed an experience that goes beyond reason, but increasingly used reason to build a highly rationalized system around it. This also applies to Franklin Merrell-Wolff (1887-1985).

Guru Franklin Merrell-Wolff

Vliegenthart uses micro-historical fragments from the life and teachings of this modern American guru and his religious movement ‘The Assembly of Man’ as a basis for gaining a better understanding of macro-historical developments. Why has Dave chosen to focus on Merrell-Wolff? ‘Just like other American gurus, who stir methods and theories from a variety of Eastern and Western religious and secular traditions into an eclectic cocktail, he also had an anti-intellectual message This revolved around an ‘immediate experience’ of reality that supposedly went beyond reason. However, he, too, increasingly intellectualized this truth claim. And just like the founders of many other ‘secular-religious’ ideologies, he also clearly focused on the intellectual elite and the higher-educated middle class. Using the micro-history of Merrell-Wolff’s life and teaching, I want to understand, nuance and correct the wider social-historical context of the supposedly widespread “anti-intellectualism” within American society.’

Intellectualized anti-intellectualism

Vliegenthart concludes the following from his research: ‘Due, in part, to the globalization and democratization of quests for meaning after periods of social crisis, quests which often took place outside the frameworks of conventional Western culture, more and more similar gurus with similar religious movements appeared. This resulted in an increasing awareness of the importance of creating and sustaining a ‘unique’ identity. This stimulated both the leaders and followers of these movements to increasingly intellectualize their anti-intellectual experiences in order to distinguish themselves. In doing so, they have used the intellect as an instrument to point to an immediate knowledge that supposedly transcends the intellect. This means we are not actually dealing with anti-intellectualism but, paradoxical though it may sound, with an intellectualized anti-intellectualism. In other words, the secular-religious discourse of modern Western gurus and their new religious movements in contemporary American society is characterized not so much by a flight from reason, but rather a reasoned flight beyond reason.’

PhD ceremony

Dave will defend his PhD thesis on 9 March, in the presence of his supervisors Prof. Kocku von Stuckrad, professor of Religious Studies at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies of the University of Groningen, and Prof. Ann Taves, professor of Religious Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

  • When:           Thursday 9 March 2017
  • Start:             2.30 p.m.
  • Where:           Academy Building
Last modified:12 June 2023 8.19 p.m.
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