Alan Watts was a religious everyman, the sort of religious person who is both bizarre and contemptible. No one likes a religious everyman, except other everymen. No true Christian feels any affinity for a man who takes a pinch of Christian theology and mixes it with a pinch of Buddhism and a punch of Hinduism. For their part, Buddhists and Hindus tend to be rather down on the freelance blending of their cherished traditions too.
Although ordained as an Anglican priest in 1945, Alan Watts was never a Christian in any meaningful confessional sense. His first love was always Buddhism and Eastern religion. After five years in the priesthood, an extramarital affair drove him to leave it. He became a wandering star among the firmament shared by 50’s, 60’s and 70’s new age spiritualists, effortlessly spewing forth the buzzwords of the day: “cosmic”, “mystic”, “nature”, “meaning”, “identity”, “psychotherapy” and so on.
Blending various religions together according to his own tastes, Watts created a philosophy that is humdrum and shopworn to anyone familiar with the contemporary New Age movement. There is nothing novel in Watts’ outlook. Nothing distinctive. It is only style that marks him out as different, not substance.
His was a philosophy that celebrated hedonism – good food, alcohol, parties, and sex – and like every other New Age teacher on the block, he taught people to believe that everything that seems real is not real. We are so deceived about the true essence of things, he reasoned, that we need to be shown the reality of our nature.
Watts’ taught that every person “is god” yet was secretly pretending not to be. But if we simply opened our eyes we would see how powerful and grand we all really are. Indeed, the entire universe is compressed into our tiny beings. Thus, life, he claimed, is the discovery of the “true self”. The “true self”, naturally, is always glorious, magnanimous, and free, and never wretched, evil, or in bondage to sin.
Looking inward to oneself in the effort to find a divine essence is a trait of all New Age thinking. It produces, in turn, prideful arrogance and a worldview that is unhinged from the requirement to be based on any objective deposit of reality. Listening to Watts gives one the distinct impression of standing next to quicksand and watching a man paddle across it on a log, making things up as he goes along.
For one after the other – now here! now there! – Watts makes bold assertions about life upon the basis of no authority other than himself. Then, to justify these, he selects convenient examples from nature, or daily life, or something he claimed to have seen. This constitutes the “evidence” for his views, but it is really such a flimsy, folksy approach, and so nakedly intellectually dishonest that only a person already halfway up New Age creek would find it at all compelling. Deeper scrutiny reveals that the foundation for his claims rests entirely on Watt’s own subjective, ever-moving opinion.
New Age teachers were buried by the hecatomb when the hippie movement ran out of steam and the young radicals started to settle into the conventional lives they had professed to despise. Alan Watts, too, would have disappeared into the fog of time like the overwhelming majority of his fellow gurus, except for three things.
Firstly, he was much given to having his monologues recorded, which had the attendant effect of prolonging his notoriety. Secondly, Watts was a skillful speaker; something that most people would be forced to acknowledge even if the actual content of his speeches were utter nonsense. And thirdly, Watts never missed the opportunity to tell people that they were amazingly powerful and could shape their realities to their will. The only reason they had failed to do so, he said, was because they had not realised that they were god after all. Start telling people that they are god with the power of the universe within them, and what do you know? They like it.
If only starving refugees and the victims of war could have experienced Alan Watts to breezing into the nearest town to let them know that they were actually god and had created their own realities, I’m sure they would feel as enlightened and liberated as Watts did, living out his final years on a serene houseboat and in a semi-intentional commune on Druid Heights. (The fatal flaw of the New Age religions is their incapacity to cope with the problem of evil. Theodicy is not merely the Achilles’ Heel of the New Age, but the inferno that consumes it and renders it mere ashes.)
Despite Watts lecturing to others about the secret of life, his own was astonishingly sordid. Three marriages, one ending through an extramarital affair, and another because after having started a family with one woman, he met another. Toward the end of his life, his friends worried about his excessive drinking. It seems probable that he became an alcoholic – or something dangerously close to it. And alcoholism does not exactly sell the idea of a glorious, successful, radiant, god-shaping-self, type life. Well might we say, “Physician, heal thyself“.
The following clip shows Alan Watts at his finest, mixing logical categories and getting stuck on words, projecting his own subjective experiences out to humanity in general and turning them into law, and drawing from this or that anecdote as if it somehow makes the case for the otherwise incoherent nonsense being spouted.
It is difficult to rebut, not because there is so much robust and logical substance, but because there is scarcely any substance at all. Skip to 4:08 to see a classic example.