Secular Spirituality – What it is. Why we need it. How to proceed.



Harald Walach, 2017

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Spirituality is the taboo topic of science. Science, in conjunction with political and secular enlightenment movements, was one of the major drivers of modern enlightenment, secularization and progress. Science has itself become a powerful meta-narrative. And part of this meta-narrative is a materialist view of the world. In such a model consciousness can only be secondary to material events in the brain. Yet, spiritual experiences are, as data show, quite common. Because the enlightenment movement was so successful, it has done away with all that is considered unnecessary baggage, including spirituality. Therefore, a new discourse needs to start that addresses this problem. This can only be done via the notion of experience. Spiritual experiences are experiences of a reality that is experienced to be beyond the ego and its immediate needs. They are the basis of religion that later starts out to interpret and ritualize these experiences. In them human consciousness seems to have direct access to the structure of reality as such. It is interesting to see that the scientific process has a similar mode of operation: it needs a deep, often creative insight into the structure behind data in order to create a theory. This process is called abduction and is, phenomenologically speaking, very similar to a spiritual experience or insight. Thus, spirituality and science might have more in common than one would think at first glance. This would entail that we need to develop a methodology of inner experience if we want to take spirituality scientifically seriously.


Introduction: spirituality is the (scientific) taboo of our time


‘Expertus infallibiliter novit’ – ‘He who has had an experience has infallible knowledge’ John Duns Scotus (Scotus 1969; orig. 1891) In Librum Primum Sententiarum, Distinctio Tertia, Quaestio IV, 9:176)


In this paper I will propose and defend the thesis that spirituality is, scientifically speaking, the taboo of our time. In my view, a lot depends on whether we succeed, as a scientific community and as an enlightened culture, to integrate discourse, scholarship and public communication about spirituality into the framework of the scientific discourse. I will present a rough diagnosis, and I wish to point us along a possible way. A more elab-orate version of my argument is available (Walach 2015).


A modern taboo and how it works


When Sigmund Freud published his seminal work on the interpretation of dreams in 1900 nothing happened at first. The worst possible outcome for any writer happened to him: he was being ignored (Mertens 2004). This might have had to do with his publishing previously, together with Breuer, the idea that so-called hysteric patients were suffering from traumata, mostly of a sexual nature, from incest and sexual abuse, and that these traumata can be revealed during hypnosis (Breuer and Freud 1909). The fact that sexuality should play any role whatsoever was an outrageous thought at the time. The idea of unconscious motives had been already made acceptable by romantic philosophy, literature and art, from Schelling to Carus (Whyte 1978). But that unconscious sexual motives are at the bottom of clinical symptoms, of artistic achievements, of striving for excellence, of religion and culture, this was a preposterous claim. Initially it was ignored. Later it was heavily fought. Nowadays, everyone knows it and does not understand why there was a fuss when the idea was first mentioned. It followed the ‘three stages of truths’ that are frequently credited to Schopenhauer.1 Freud touched on the taboo of sexuality in modern societies, not only by mentioning it, but by claiming that it was a powerful motive in everybody’s lives and strivings, adding a further narcissistic humiliation to mankind. After mankind had been dethroned from being at the centre of the cosmos by Galilei, from crown of the creation to just another ape by Darwin, mankind had to face the potential fact that all those heroic motives and deeds might be just reflections of this base need of procreation and lust (Ellenberger 1970).


Why was sexuality a taboo at the time? Freud’s theory had to work against a largely unconscious cultural consensus about the power of human capabilities and the primacy of the conscious mind. Collingwood (1998, orig. 1940) had coined the term ‘absolute presuppositions’ for such a set of beliefs that are culturally mediated, largely unconscious and form something like a collective axiomatic system within science and culture. Kuhn (1962) later used this thought and called such sets of presuppositions a ‘paradigm’. In that sense, Freud had to work against the absolute presuppositions, or the paradigm, of human conscious and heroic motives. The taboo was about even conceiving of something like unconscious motives, let alone base ones that are associated with mere animal lust. The taboo worked by ignoring first the ideas, second the man who held them, and third the movement that discussed and disseminated them. Freud was never formally made a chair, although his credentials were certainly sufficient. The psychoanalytic movement was banned from universities for a long time, and can hardly be found in any psychology department at universities around the world even today.


Spirituality: the next taboo


My claim is that, similar to sexuality’s status as a generic taboo topic, we have today a comparable situation. The topic is spirituality, and it is under a taboo like sexuality at the beginning of the 20th century. The difference is: The taboo is largely relevant only for those working within academia and science, and not for the population at large. But a taboo it nevertheless is. I would like to substantiate this claim phenomenologically, factually, and historically.




Phenomenologically speaking, spirituality is a taboo topic within the intellectual academic discourse of Western societies. Anyone leafing through modern magazines or newspapers will find a lot about the latest breakthrough in astronomy, medicine, or psychology. But hardly ever does one see an article about important spiritual insights of scientists or intellectuals. The archetypical intellectuals of today are agnostic and, if they are not, keep their mouths shut because topics around spirituality do not befit intellectual discourse. Religion and spirituality are private. While it is perfectly alright to come out as homosexual or bisexual or asexual, or as being sexually undefined, and discuss all these matters, even in university meetings, it would seem utterly indecent to discuss matters of religious beliefs or spiritual experiences within formal academic meetings or as topics of scientific research, except in a descriptive and reductive way, or within specialized groups that form intellectual ecospheres of their own. While I agree that there should be privacy around some topics, it is nevertheless interesting to see that in today’s voyeuristic culture nearly all private topics can be discussed openly and publicly, but spirituality is not one of them.




Factually, I would like to present some pertinent data and a vignette: We have conducted a representative survey of some 890 German psychotherapists (Hofmann and Walach 2011). We asked them about their attitudes towards spirituality and religiosity. In addition, we asked them about their spiritual experiences. Interestingly, only about a third call themselves atheistic or agnostic (15%) or are undecided (17%). The rest say they are spiritual (36%), or religious (21%), or spiritual and religious (2%). We asked the psychotherapists: ‘Have you had an own spiritual or religious experience?’ A third said ‘never’ (35%), the rest confirmed that they have had such an experience at least once or twice (26%) or more often (37%). In other words: the ‘normal’ thing, if we use the word normal meaning ‘true for the majority’, is to have experienced at least once something that we call a religious or spiritual experience. This tallies with UK data where half of the respondents claimed to have had a strong spiritual experience at least once in their lives (King et al. 2006). So why is this ‘normality’ not reflected in any sense in academic teaching, research and postgraduate practical training? The very same psychotherapists complained in our survey that this topic is not covered in continuing education credit courses, or in postgraduate clinical training, let alone in university training.


The following vignette might serve as a further illustration of my case: I was recently called to mediate a case where a German psychotherapist has received an official rejection letter for his postgraduate training for psychotherapists by the psychotherapy board on the grounds that ‘spirituality as a component of psychotherapy training’ was unscientific and could not be aligned with good professional conduct.


This is, I would claim, how taboos work: They operate on the basis of accepting, without further discourse or reflection, absolute presuppositions according to which certain topics or procedures, in this case spiritual techniques in psychotherapy, are ‘unscientific’. Now, such a stance clearly must have a reason. What does the usage of the term ‘unscientific’ imply and presuppose? A few strokes of historical awareness might help. However, space dictates that I must be very brief and simplistic here.




The history of science is a history of enlightening humans and freeing them from the immediate grips of Nature. And to some extent we have been very successful. We do not fear the wrath of gods. Hunger has been eliminated at least in most Western societies. We need not die of cold or starvation any longer. We have done away with a lot of overly-silly rules of morality. In short, science, understood as the joint and collective effort of humanity to make sense of the world and prevent errors, has helped enormously with enlightening us and making political and philosophical enlightenment movements generically and culturally successful. If, in the West today, we live within enlightened and liberal societies it is largely due to the joint efforts of science and the humanities in explaining the world and of political activities putting knowledge into working practice.


Thus, in shorthand notation, we can say that science – and I take this term here to include the humanities – is a driver for and a guarantor of enlightenment and liberation (Walach and Reich 2005). A large part of this has to do with simply understanding how the natural, social and psychological world functions.


After the heliocentric model had been adapted – the trial of Galilei was exactly 400 years ago, having happened in 1616 – the competency of the church in all matters of natural philosophy was badly damaged. After the Newtonian synthesis in the late 18th century, roughly 150 years after Galilei, a God was only necessary in a deistic fashion as the first mover or maker of the grand clockwork of the universe, which henceforth would run without any divine interference (Sheldrake 2013). After the advent of modern theories of evolution and physics it has become conceivable that the ancient notion of a creator might be simply a myth that is not needed in any scientifically specific sense (Dawkins 2006).


So the result of the scientific process of discovery and self-evolution of the human collective mind is an abandonment of religious narratives in the traditional sense. This domain is completely occupied by science and its meta-narratives of evolutionary theory and standard theory of particle physics that explains matter.


As a result of this process of enlightenment and explanation of the natural world by the sciences, religion has become a nuisance, or superfluous at best. And with it its experiential core, spirituality, seems like a leftover from an epoch long past.


Spirituality and religion


My assumption is that spirituality is at the core of each and every religion. By spirituality I mean ‘implicit or explicit relatedness towards a reality beyond the needs of the individual ego, in cognition, emotion, motivation and action’. I take spirituality to be nourished by experiences of such relatedness towards a reality transcending the needs of the individual ego. Such experiences lie at the core of the religious sentiment. They are primary, and religions develop out of such experiences, through complex processes of communication, ritualizing narratives of experiences and hence re-enacting them, and moral codices that develop out of it (Derrida 2005; Fontana 2003; Scarborough 2000).

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