Saturday, January 08, 2011

Could modern Spiritualism be the death of Religion?

On December 29th, 2010, Sam Harris was interviewed on ABC’s Nightline, which aired a pretty fair segment on Sam, and gave an outline of his book The Moral Landscape. The interview was, as main stream media usually treats leading atheist authors and speakers, actually interesting, and didn’t seem to include much of the tongue in cheek skepticism usually displayed. It outlined the premise of his book accurately, and again, didn’t seem to try to denigrate it with the faint praise usually reserved for content reporters feel is - distasteful - but can’t directly accuse if of being on air.

All well and good, but what caught me immediately was the comment they made at the end of the interview in a single almost throwaway line, noting that Sam has a new book in the works on the subject of spiritualism - but with a twist. That twist is the suggestion that spiritualism can be practiced and studied without religious mumbo jumbo. I believe the words they used were similar to the phrase “mythology of religion”.

Remarkable! Both the use of “mythology” and “religion” in the same sentence, and the serious idea that one can actually practice something usually associated with religion, but ignoring the myths.

Wikipedia defines spiritualism as a religion, monotheistic, believing in spirit communication and an anthropomorphic deity, but not a biblical one. This seems a bit different from how I have heard Sam speak of it in the past.

In an essay entitled, “Selfless Consciousness without Faith” back in 2007, Sam said:

There is no question that people have “spiritual” experiences (I use words like “spiritual” and “mystical” in scare quotes, because they come to us trailing a long tail of metaphysical debris). Every culture has produced people who have gone off into caves for months or years and discovered that certain deliberate uses of attention—introspection, meditation, prayer—can radically transform a person’s moment to moment perception of the world. I believe contemplative efforts of this sort have a lot to tell us about the nature of the mind.


That essay is a very good preview of how Sam thought about this subject three years ago. I recommend reading it in its entirety, as it undoubtedly outlines his thinking as he prepares to begin his next book.

It also provides a look at what could be the future of American religious life.

Lies, damn lies, and polls

For going on 60 years now, the Gallup organization has polled Americans, reporting pretty consistently that about 85 - 86 % of Americans are Christian through self-identification. Some others have reported in the last ten years that number may have dropped by as much as 10 - 11 % to around 75%. ("American Religious Identification Survey," by The Graduate Center of the City University of New York, at: )

But there have been various studies that suggest otherwise, that those numbers may have been inflated by a combination of polling techniques, skewed interpretations and the tendency of Americans to actually lie to pollsters. These studies, outlined on a web site called Religious Tolerance (, clearly show that the inflation could be as much as 100%, or literally twice the actual figures. Some polls have been taken that counted church attendance through actual physical counting of members present on a series of Sunday services, and showed that actual attendance was only about half of the numbers reported in public opinion surveys: 20% vs. 40% for Protestants, and 28% vs. 50% for Roman Catholics.

Others have suggested that the numbers of actual attending Christians are decreasing by as much as 2% per year in percentage of population. Combined by recent polls suggesting that atheists/agnostics in this country may be self-identifying in numbers approaching 15% of the population, it is becoming obvious that the actual numbers of practicing Christians is much lower than traditionally touted by religious leaders.

Other recent polls have suggested that the numbers of people that are “unaffiliated” comes pretty close to filling out that 86% figure. That designation includes not only unaffiliated christians, but people that are, in essence, deists, naturalists or - spiritualists. People that claim to believe in some kind of higher power, but shun religious organizations and decline to characterize their “gods” as anything approaching a biblical stereotype. Apparently, those numbers appear to be on the increase, along with non-theists.

The problem with non-theism

One of the reasons that the secular community has been so drastically under-represented politically is, in part, due to the above polls hyped consistently by the mainstream media over the last 60 years, leading our politicians to pander exclusively to those religious groups thus shown to be in the “majority”.

Of course, since non-theists tend to have only one belief in common - a lack of belief in a biblical god - it has been difficult to get these disparate folks to band together politically. There just isn’t enough they’ve got in common to get them to stay in one room long enough to agree on the size and shape of the table - much less any common ground!

Combine this lack with the very common criticism of atheism/agnosticism by theists that we have no moral compass or teaching, and what sane American would even think of having anything in common with us, much less agreeing to become part of the group?

Thus, an expansion of the numbers of the secularists is, at least publicly, problematic. One can claim that due to traditional hostility of Christians towards atheists/agnostics there is a larger secular community than is known or admitted to, but until those in the closet begin to make their presence known, that is only so much speculation.

So, what do we do about it? What is missing in the secular community that the religious have that fulfills the social needs of those that remain in that community, but in reality, don’t believe?

Is it only community?

The obvious answer is - a community that meets regularly and has a set of beliefs in common, providing support for families and individuals alike in times of need and crisis.

The secular “community” is missing, in most places, the meetings, which mean a lack of a support system, at the very least. Since, as mentioned above, there is only a lack of belief in religion in common, most people assume there is a lack of common belief and morality as well. This seems to be a reasonable position, since secularists often span the political spectrum, as well as the cultural one as well.

What can the secular community do? How do we become a larger community that can displace the religious organizations that loom so large on the American political scene?

I think that Sam Harris is onto something. Many Americans now claim to be more spiritual and less religious in the traditional sense. Less of a belief in traditional theism and more thinking that people have a spiritual side that is somehow lacking in modern technological life.

But Americans are also very committed to what is a decidedly materialistic way of life. Consumerism is rampant. Credit cards enable many to live beyond their means, driven by advertising that entices them to want, and buy, more and more material goods.

This sets up many for a serious case of cognitive dissonance, unable to reconcile the materialism with the religious teachings that they were raised with.


I cannot claim to have a single, unifying idea that combines all of this in some simple, sound-bite-easy new theology or philosophy. Perhaps somebody will do that, maybe Sam can.

But I suggest that his idea of a simple spiritualism that needs no religion can bring large numbers of people, both in the secular community and the unaffiliated community, together with a common goal of taking the disparate ideals of the American culture and making some sense of how it can all work together. Obviously, people from other cultures bring their own ideas, which will inevitably be brought into the mix somewhere.

People naturally gather together into groups, and people like to associate with others of similar thinking. All it takes is some spark, some idea coalescing into the public mind, percolating to the top like a good expresso.

The future of American religious life may not be secular in a strict sense of atheism or agnosticism, although I believe that it will contain a much more numerous such community than it seems to today.

What I think it won’t have is a strong Christian community.

Sam, bring on your book! We need more grist for our mills of discussion!


Gary Berg-Cross said...

I guess that I prefer a different concept to spiritualism, since the idea of a spirit is too non-material. I understand that the origin of this involved the idea of the breath of life and when our breath is lost we die. We now understand life in more sophisiticated ways and shouldn't be encumbered with an old theory enshrined in language.
While I don't have an alternative term I think some ideas on this are found in the Spiritual Humantis Manifesto -

I think that what some people are reaching for is some combination of the wonderment and oceanic feels we have in some situations combined with ethical ideas for normal situations.

Don Wharton said...

@Gary, I have never been fond of terms such as "spiritual" or "spiritualism." These are typically markers for sloppy thinking. However, Sam Harris has made a dramatic move with his Moral Landscape book. He has significantly dented the prevailing notion that science cannot speak about moral values. I have been making a similar argument for years. If Harris can provide a hard science perspective in an area that has been profoundly sloppy in the past, he will have achieved something important. We will see.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Calling the effort something like Humanistic morals would make me feel better.

Don Wharton said...

Sam Harris's last book was on morals. Spritualism refers to states of mind having extraordinary positive subjective experiences, states such as a feeling of unity with the cosmos or all of humanity.

rwahrens said...

Don, I think Harris' new book may be interesting. It is unlikely break new ground like his last one did, but who knows? It will at least be worth a read.

Oldfart said...

One thing that will speed the growth of secularism and non-Christian spirituality is the existence of groups of people who offer like-minded companionship. Many people, even today, are fearful of admitting their non-Christianity. Forums like these let these people know that they are not alone.

Don Wharton said...

Yes, that is exactly what we want to do, build a sense of community where the secular perspective is comfortable and natural. The ambient religiosity of our society is built on assumptions which are plain nuts. The nuttiness is not even visible if we do not share a perspective that includes a critical analysis that nuttiness.

Gary Berg-Cross said...

Of possible interest to some wanting more of a community you might look at what Christian J Brooks did in started the discussion "The Chicago Freethought Center Project" in the group ORIGINS: UNIVERSE, LIFE, HUMANKIND, AND DARWIN on Atheist Nexus

His message is below
I am the founder of the Chicago Atheists & Agnostics Facebook fan page.
When we started the Chicago Atheists & Agnostics fan page earlier this year, we knew this was only going to be the first of many stepping stones. Our eventual goal was to build a brick-and-mortar foundation in Chicago for the thousands of freethinking individuals in the greater Chicagoland area. We're now ready to take that next step. Among the things we'd like to offer: ~ a place to meet, engage, socialize, and debate, ~ a support network for out-of-the-closet atheists and those who are still struggling to find their way through the mire of religion~ a resource for all the small local atheist and agnostic groups out there to reach out and promote their activities~ youth groups free of dogma~ weekly seminars and discussions~ a hub of secular education and information (books, DVDs, magazines, podcasts, websites, etc.)~ localized, organized charitable giving without the backdrop of religious proselytizingBlair Scott, of the American Atheists, spoke to us recently about the desperate need for organization within the freethinking community: to take the fellowship of the churches, synagogues, temples and mosques and translate it to a secular setting. If freethinkers are to have any voice in America, in politics, in the media, in our own communities, we need to stand together. It does not mean that we need to agree on everything; certainly the spectrum of ideas and opinions in the atheist community are wide. But we can all agree on one thing: there are no gods or, at the very most, the evidence for said gods is sorely lacking. This should not be what we focus on but it should be what allows us to come together.A freethought center in Chicago would pave the way for other centers in other cities. It would also pave the way towards a larger acceptance of secular citizens. We have no delusions that the Windy City or the world at large will ever shed religion all together, but we can certainly make it known that, to other freethinkers, they're not alone and, to the rest of the world, that we're not the evil, shadowy hell-bound creatures that some make us out to believe.So what can you do? What would we like you to do? We simply would like to hear from you and if you can offer your support (morally and/or financially), that's icing on the cake. If you have an opinion (and we know you do), we want to know it.We're considering holding an informal meeting sometime early in the New Year and we would love for you all to come. Where and when is right now up for debate, what we're really interested in is how much interest we can muster. We can't do this alone nor would we want to do it alone. We need all the able-minded freethinkers we can find.So, we're reaching out to you. If you're interested, please email us at Tell us about yourself, what skills you might bring to the table and when you'd be available to join us.Happy Holidays, Christian J Brooks Chicago Atheists & Agnostics

To view this discussion, go to:

Gary Berg-Cross said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ralph Dumain said...

The non-Christian, non-Jewish, non-Muslim spiritual route was taken in the '60s & '70s and was a force in popular culture, but what happened? People forget what ground has been lost while they purport to do something new. This historical amnesia is pervasive. As for fellowship, I don't want have anything to do with atheist right-wing libertarians under any circumstances. I don't belong in the same club with the likes of Penn Jillette. Atheism is a slim basis for an identity. While "humanism" sounds prettier, I wonder what "humanists" really stand for.

Gary Berg-Cross said...


All good points (as usual).

" People forget what ground has been lost while they purport to do something new."

I would just add that people forget or don't know about some of the ground built earlier for secular humanists like John Dewey.

"As for fellowship, I don't want have anything to do with atheist right-wing libertarians under any circumstances. I don't belong in the same club with the likes of Penn Jillette. "

This does make the point that there we need a richer identidy than non-theism as a basis for an community.
Since you wonder out loud what "humanists/humanism" really stand for perhaps someone (you?) might post some ideas about that.

Don Wharton said...

The American Humanist Association has polled their members and found that 90% of humanist widely agree on many points, such as equal rights for gays. In my experience those that organize as "atheists" are very similar to humanists in practice in our region. However, the nuances of that and the obvious divergence between AHA and American Atheists does suggest that it is significantly complex.