Sunday, July 8, 2012

Is Spiritualism a Religion?

The nameplate above for this site contains the well-known statement –  “The religion, philosophy and science of spiritualism.” Few of us would argue about the presence of philosophy in the spiritualist movement nor would we quibble about the fact that for 160 years spiritualist phenomena has inspired a lot of scientific research. But when it comes to calling spiritualism a religion we have to acknowledge that among spiritualists there those who are comfortable with that and many who are not. At the outset I’m certain my contribution to the topic will not calm the waters but I’m determined nevertheless to do my share of stirring.

The always quotable J. Arthur Findlay wrote that religion is associated in our minds with “saviours, creeds, ceremonials, rituals, churches, mosques, temples, priests and sacred books….  Without knowledge of the truth [people] rely for their salvation on forms and ceremonies, on the repetition of formulae and creeds, on acts of worship, on baptism, eucharists, the last rites and such like, until their church or temple becomes a sacred shrine, and the purveyors of the dogmas and doctrines are considered holy men set apart by God from the rest of mankind.” (The Way of Life, p. 207-8)

Some spiritualists have their church buildings but I doubt there are many who consider it a “sacred shrine” as Findlay states it. Findlay’s creeds, rituals, sacred books, saviors and such, however, are rejected by most all spiritualists outright. So that makes spiritualism a non-religion? Let’s not be too hasty in coming to a conclusion!

Dr. Charles T. Tart’s recently-published book The End of Materialism: How Evidence of the Paranormal is Bringing Science and Spirit Together is an amazing read and it will no doubt spark some future blogs on this site. But for now let me quote (page 315) Tart’s observation about organized religions – “Religions start from the way of experience: a founder has profound spiritual or psychic experiences, or both. While there are small numbers of people in all religious traditions who try to work from this basis, by themselves having and expanding the basic kinds of experiences that started it all, their efforts are swamped by the theoreticians, the people who make some kind of intellectual and emotional ‘sense’ of the experiences. These people too often have had no direct experiences themselves, but they’re smart people, capable organizers, creative theorizers.”

Findlay, our foremost spiritualist scholar and historian, agrees 100% with Tart’s analysis as far as it goes. In fact, Findlay wrote a complete book of nearly 1,200 pages providing historical detail amplifying Tart’s first sentence above (The Psychic Stream first published in 1939). “Religion is based on the interaction between the two worlds [the material world that we are aware of now and the world of spirit or etheric world], which is appreciated by those sensitive people called mediums,” Findlay wrote in The Psychic Stream, page 27. “Because of them man has become aware that surrounding him is another order of life, and another order of beings. In his ignorance he believed that these beings were the cause of all the phenomena of nature, and that on their whims and caprices his welfare on earth, and his destiny hereafter, depended. Because he failed to appreciate his true relationship towards them he produced those beliefs which make up the various world religions. From what was true and real, he erected a mass of speculation which in many cases has hidden the truth from view.”

In a nutshell, then, here is the origin of organized religions and the superstitions surrounding them according to spiritualist thinking. Such a view can be verified by scholarship as Findlay so ably proves in his books.

“…[S]uperstition and religion are often mixed up and confused,” Findlay points out in Rock of Truth (page 160-161) "People think, for instance, that they are religious if they go to church; if they attend Holy Communion; if they cease from doing certain things on holy days; if they read the Bible; if they repeat prayers, and if they believe certain words and certain documents to be inspired by God. Less civilized people believe in offering up sacrifices, or beating tom-toms, or worshipping images. Those outward forms and ceremonies have, however, nothing whatever to do with real religion. They are the draperies, the superstition which surrounds it. Real religion does not consist in believing that God, the maker of this immense universe, which no human mind is capable of fathoming, came down to earth and lived for two years wandering about Palestine. Neither is it religion to consider a certain book is holy and inspired by God. It is not religion to repeat certain words either by yourself or after a parson, or to partake of Holy Communion, whether you consider that what you eat and drink is part of God, or the service is only one of remembrance. These things are only the clothes that have been put on to religion; religion is the something underneath the outward drapery.”

Furthermore, Findlay goes on to say that “Superstition is that which has accumulated around religion. Religion is a central truth in man’s life, which has always been and always will be. One might say that superstitions come and go but religion goes on for ever.”

Victor Zammit on his fabulous after-life site (link at the left) recently made the same point as Findlay. “BEING 'RELIGIOUS' IS NOT BEING SPIRITUAL. There are those who believe that being 'religious' is the same as being 'spiritual'. NO, they are NOT the same thing,” he wrote. “Being 'SPIRITUAL' has absolutely nothing to do with being religious or anything to do with any Church or Temple or Mosque or organized religious activities. It has nothing to do with being atheist or agnostic or whether one is a medium or psychic. Being spiritual is all about expanding your consciousness and unselfishly helping others.” This is a point made over and over again by teaching guides such as Silver Birch.

Now, from the above it seems apparent that it may prove difficult to classify spiritualism. But let’s move on a bit further before we try. In rejecting the cardinal tenets of Christianity and going so far as to label them as “superstitions,” spiritualism has distanced itself from the chief religion of the Western world. “Spiritualism and Christianity have no connection whatever,” Findlay wrote in The Torch of Knowledge (page 15). “They are as far apart as the poles. Spiritualism is a philosophy of life and claims that life after death has been proved, that those who die live on in a world much the same as this, with the same characteristics as they had on earth, and that given suitable conditions they can communicate with us on earth. Christianity on the other hand, is a sacrificial religion and the Christian Church is an organisation, to keep alive a belief in a sacrifice for sins, and for the performance of the rites and ceremonials connected with this belief. For this reason Spiritualism and Christianity will never join, and no Spiritualist who thinks deeply desires such a fusion.”

I must interject here, though, that there are some congregations of spiritualists that classify themselves as so-called “Christian spiritualists.” I understand that they do accept certain aspects of organized Christianity in addition to their traditional spiritualist teaching. Also, Spiritists whose churches are most numerous in Brazil seem to be more closely aligned with Christianity than are most spiritualists. Obviously, Findlay would have none of that!

So, where does all this lead us as we attempt to answer the question, “Is Spiritualism a Religion?” Organized spiritualism does maintain many of the outward trappings of the Christian church (being much more Protestant in organization and practice, borrowing little if anything from liturgical churches such as the Roman Catholic). But its teachings are definitely not Christian nor are they borrowed from any other organized religion. In my view, spiritualist churches are more like educational institutions than “houses of worship.” There the findings of spirit communication are discussed and parishioners are encouraged to deepen their spiritual life.

At the core of genuine spiritualist activity is the quest for knowledge and a deeper understanding about who we are and the nature of our ultimate destiny. Coupled with that should be the response of each seeker to go into the world and do good (i.e., service to others). According to Findlay, this would constitute a legitimate religious quest. Seen this way, does that make spiritualism a “religion” without superstition? Yes, I believe it does. And if spiritualism is, indeed, a religion, then it is the only one that has any empirical evidence that what it says is true.


  1. Dave,

    An interesting post with much food for thought. I think, however, that Spiritualism needs to be better defined. One can be a "spiritualist" (with a small "s") without being a "Spiritualist" (capital "S.") In its broadest sense, a spiritualist is anyone who is not a materialist. To put it another way, one does not have to be a card-carrying Spiritualist in order to be a spiritualist. I consider myself a spiritualist, but I am not sure I would call myself a Spiritualist, since I do not belong to any Spiritualist organization (We don't have any here in Hawaii.) Many of the early researchers, such as Sir Oliver Lodge, were asked if they were spiritualists and they didn't know how to answer because they did believe in a spirit world but belonged to no Spiritualist group or church.


    Michael Tymn

  2. My first effort as an author was titled "Metaphysics, a plain English Discussion of New Age Concepts. With "new age" in the title, you can see where my head was at the time. The book is virtually all about survival of personality and the greater reality, but I did not think in terms of isms and especially not of spiritualism (small "s"). I consider myself a "technical metaphysician," which means that I study such concepts as mediumship and the relationship between physical body and etheric personality from the perspective of a cosmology and what is now a survival hypothesis based on understanding brought by transcommunication, psi studies and energy healing research. Today, I refer to that study as "etheric studies."

    The handbook was published in 1994. Since then, my wife Lisa and I have discovered the NSAC and Spiritualism. The community of like-minded people was just right for us, and we are now ordained, NST, Commissioned Healers and Certified Mediums with the NSAC. Yet, we do not think of ourselves as religious people. The New Age culture has a primarily human potential view of these phenomena while Spiritualism (capital "S") is more of a holistic view in which human potential is developed as something that is focused, not just on abilities and understanding that people can have today, but also on how their understanding today will influence the rest of their existence beyond this lifetime.

    The motto of the association Lisa and I lead is "Objective Evidence of Survival." That point of view leads us to carefully examine what is actually objective and not true as popular wisdom. In fact, "proof" older then ten or twenty years must be suspect because of our society's improving understanding of how people experience the unknown. Almost every Media Watch Lisa prepares for the NSAC Summit magazine has one or two items about research showing how we fool ourselves--very convincingly fool ourselves. The science of Spiritualism is well founded in modern research and can often be easily verified through persona experience. There is little need for historical "proofs" except to remember out roots.

    You said, "In my view, spiritualist churches are more like educational institutions than “houses of worship." I have to agree. In a very real sense, it is as if the objective of NSAC Spiritualist churches is to have the entire congregation so knowledgeable and functional in the phenomena of spiritualism that they could hold all of the NSAC certifications--everyone in the congregation ordained, mediums, healers and teachers. The question is what to teach, which is a question I know the NSAC is trying to address.

    It is a practical thing for spiritualism to be a religion because, without religious freedom protections, our demonstrations proving survival could too easily be forbidden as affronts to the dominant religions. Our claim of science is seen as pseudoscience by the science apologists of the world, and there is clearly a campaign underway to establish pseudosciences as a danger to society. However, the most important service Spiritualist churches provide, other than education, is providing a community of like-minded people. Most churches tend to be small, which helps the sense of community.

    Religion is not a very good business model but it is a recognizable place for a grieving person to find a friend. Other than as a practical matter of protection under the law, our congregations would probably do better as societies of like-minded people seeking to understand their relationship with the greater reality. I see nothing in the NSAC bylaws that prevents us from having both the congregation and the society; however, without people with the gumption to make that happen, we will certainly remain a religion as it fades to obscurity.

    Tom Butler

  3. Thank you Tom and David for your long and for me educational postings.

    I guess I come originally from a materialists' perspective who has been persuaded otherwise by meditative experience, study of NDE / OBEs, and extensive reading of channeled information. For me the word spiritual points toward the felt personal experience, the word religion toward the social group. With the weakening of religions and the strengthening of workshop-based spiritual education and healing, a question arises. After the healing has occurred and introductory information learned, where is, what can become, the on-going social group of like minded people?