People coming out of religion often reject spirituality entirely in order to heal from religious trauma. Yet rejection of spirituality may be a result and continuation of religious trauma. Spirituality is a well-evidenced, vital component of human flourishing fundamental to human nature. Vast schools of psychologists and intellectuals agree that rejecting it can lead to emotional pain, disconnection from yourself and reality, and societal trauma.1 Yet many who deconvert from religious fundamentalism convert to a version of atheism that is essentially religious fundamentalism without a deity, powering the trauma cycle it is a reaction against. Many who seek healing from religion plunge straight into atheistic materialist fundamentalism because they find support from communities who champion physicalism as the True Nature of Reality, a new kind of god principle. These professionals teach with absolute faith that all spiritual experiences are not actually spiritual; they are merely psychological or purely the result of brain chemistry. They preach a gospel salvation message of science and reason, which is seen as the only safe and reliable means of knowing and preventing further religious delusion.
Physicalism (materialism, Scientism) is assumed to be the only valid belief system. In fact, it is presented as if it is not a belief system at all, but pure reason. No critical thinking about materialism’s historical foundations and philosophical assumptions is encouraged (I suspect many of these professionals have never bothered to deconstruct their worldview). Atheism is championed disingenuously by its adherents as if it is merely no belief in god, when in actuality they believe in a full-scale materialist worldview closely resembling a religion. It has many unquestioned dogmatic beliefs, such as the universe is more machine-like than living, there is no inherent meaning, consciousness is a mere epiphenomenon of matter, not a distinct aspect, the material dimension is all that exists, and the only valid form of evidence is that which can be perceived by the physical senses (empirical philosophy of science) or intellect. Although there are well-developed methodologies for confirming insights and developing paradigms out of other ways of knowing besides sensory measurement and logical reasoning, all other forms of knowing are ruled out.
While I respect the healing work of those who help people with religious trauma and believe in materialism, I take issue with their approach to this conversation and lack of critical examination. It’s fine to have materialist beliefs, but it’s a problem to not be able accurately to represent the positions of those you disagree with, or feeling qualified to pass judgment on opposing points of view without understanding them. Often, these professionals have little to no deep study or practice with entire schools of contemplative spirituality, philosophy (especially non-Western), psychology, and science. They lump all spiritual experience and study into the category of the kind of fallacious religion they experienced and dismiss it all as delusional. They assume that spirituality and religion are essentially the same. They make uninformed “scientific” judgments about thousands of years of careful observation of consciousness and mystical experiences by non-Western peoples and call it all primitive nonsense, though they have never bothered to study their writings, dared to make the experiential experiment, or considered the Eurocentrism lurking beneath their so-called scientific neutrality. This is an assumption of expertise where there is only ignorance, based on a false equivocation. It is the result of fundamentalist psychological splitting.
The Psychology, History, and Limiting Beliefs of Atheistic Fundamentalism
Not all forms of atheism are fundamentalist and having strong beliefs about your worldview and those of other people does not make you a fundamentalist. A certain kind of rigidity, oversimplification, unwillingness to consider outside evidence, and dehumanizing of others characterizes fundamentalists. Fundamentalism can be defined as a rigid and inflexible mentality that there is one set of teachings that clearly contains the truth about humanity and deity, viewing other perspectives as threatening and evil (Altemeyer & Hunsberger, 1992, pp. 113-33). It is based on the psychological defense mechanism known as splitting. When we cannot tolerate the anxiety of ambiguity or complex mixtures of good and bad feelings, we protect ourselves by splitting off people and ideas into all-bad or all-good categories. It is easy to see how this can result from religious trauma. If I experience harm from my religion’s practice of spirituality, I might protect myself from future harm by viewing all spirituality as evil or dangerous. But this is reactionary, not rational. Just because I have had experiences of spirituality that confused me, or I bought into false interpretations of reality because of my experiences, does not mean that spirituality does not exist, or that spirituality is too dangerous to be trusted.
Historically, atheistic materialism developed in during the 18th century Enlightenment period as a reaction to the abuses of religions which made claims about reality based on divine revelation. These religions often suffered from their own version of splitting, viewing the material world as tainted, untrustworthy, and inferior to spirituality. This resulted in the promotion of anti-scientific, harmful ideas that led to mass violence and delusion. As a countermeasure, atheistic materialism split in the other direction, viewing spiritual reality as hallucination at best and dangerous psychosis at worst, and the material world as the only reality.
Materialist atheists conceal their quasi-religious beliefs from themselves and others under the guise of scientific objectivity. They are usually not aware that they have a belief system (like religious people) that is based on unquestioned assumptions and psychological preferences. When these assumptions are brought up for discussion, materialists are usually unwilling to study them, or only superficially in order to disprove them. This is a feature of fundamentalism, which keeps its adherents in the religious system by discouraging outside evidence and questioning or dismissing outside evidence through ready-made responses (apologetics) and derogatory labels (pseudoscience, woo-woo).
The assumption of universality, “I don’t have a worldview, I just believe in universal science” is denial by invisibility. It’s the belief, “My truth is the Truth.” This worldview of Scientism is undergirded by the same kind of mentality (universalism) that supports racism and other imperialistic ideologies of oppression. Believers in Scientism assume, for instance, the colonial position that the Western worldview is rational, and non-Western positions are the irrational superstitions of “primitive peoples.” White supremacy, a different universalizing philosophy of oppression, assumes that economic status is all about personal willpower, ignoring the anxiety that acknowledging the privileges of whiteness might evoke by keeping whiteness invisible and out of conscious awareness. Materialism and other universalisms are based on the outdated philosophy of modernism, which believed that the researcher could find a position of neutrality and discover universal, objective truth. Modernism has been roundly discredited by postmodernism’s critique that subjectivity always plays a role, metaphysical presuppositions are inevitable, and claims to absolute certainty usually conceal unconscious power dynamics.
Materialism is also based on the outdated science of the Classical Newtonian Model. Materialism was birthed during a time when the philosophy of modernism and the classical model of physics were combined into a new secular paradigm (religion?) which was seen as definitive. Even as the philosophical foundations of this institutional dogma were eroded by postmodern and anti-colonial critiques, new discoveries in science demonstrated the prevailing science to be insufficient. Quantum physics was the death knell to prevailing views of materialism. In the very least, quantum physics opened up space for the role of consciousness and subjectivity to be seriously considered as more fundamental than was previously thought, and possibly even more fundamental than matter. It also demonstrated clearly that non-material, nonlocal dimensions of forms exist in the realm of possibility, outside of spacetime (See footnote for an extended discussion.)2 And it gave more credibility to the possibility that the observations of mystical traditions might be rooted in objective reality, not mere speculation or subjective personal psychological experience.
The new science and philosophy resulted in traditional views of materialism being redefined to the point of no longer being materialism, though still existing today under that name. The number of scientists who reject traditional materialism continues to increase. Yet many atheistic materialists continue to claim their science is the only science, and all who hold different worldviews are not real scientists. They frequently band together under an identity flag of rational intellect, and excommunicate or shame dissenters with splitting-based, demonizing labels like Woo-Woo or Quantum Mystic. Yet is materialism also a kind of pseudoscience, an unexamined ideological overcompensation, and psychological reaction against religious superstition with elements of faith mixed with science?
Evidence for Spirituality and Spiritual Ways of Knowing
Materialists claim to be open to evidence. And there is a universe of evidence that spirituality is real. Millions of pages, millennia of data and study, and the testimony of your next-door neighbor is enough evidence to lend credibility to the assertion that spirituality exists as a dimension of human experience, and that there are many experiences the average materialist refuses to approach with genuine scientific curiosity. Is this rationality or fear of change? What does the scientific curiosity of the materialist fly out the window when it comes to spiritualities and other worldviews? Why not become like an anthropologist and explore, study, meet people and genuinely listen, and participate in their spiritual practices in order to make an informed (not reactionary) judgment? In order to have an opinion that can be taken seriously in any discipline (like spirituality), one must first enter the conversation by studying and experiencing. If one chooses to speak with authority but refuses to engage, their opinions are just unscientific speculation.
Isn’t it interesting that in a recent survey of thousands of people by John Hopkins University (2019), researchers found over two-thirds of self-identified atheists shed that label having a mystical encounter, regardless of whether it was spontaneous or while taking a psychedelic? Why is that people start making cosmological claims as a result of mystical experiences, and why are these experiences reproducible? Why do they start believing in oneness, connecting more with nature, seeing inherent meaning and purpose, experiencing healing from mental illness and addiction, and becoming more loving and open? Why is it that in all the communities I know of of people who regularly and deeply practice spiritual methods of connecting with this other aspect of reality, there are very few professing materialists? But spirituality will always be irrational and unscientific to people who religiously resist evidence and distance themselves from experience through the psychological defense of intellectualization.
Materialists often claim that no statements about reality can be made through mystical observation. They cite the common misconception that spiritual traditions differ too vastly in their worldviews for this to be possible. However, “all major perennial [contemplative traditions] agree” have a relative consensus about a general hierarchy of major dimensions to reality, “and most of them agree right down to the details” (Wilber, 114-115). These dimensions are (as a simplification): physical (nonliving matter/energy), biological (living, sentient matter/energy), mental (psychological, mind), subtle (archetypal, transindividual, intuitive), causal (formless radiance, perfect transcendence), and ultimate (consciousness as such or “spirit,” the source and nature of all other levels). According to these traditions, there are different ways of studying and gathering empirical data about these realms in a logical, falsifiable manner (Wilber, 2001, pp. 112-115). These traditions have charted vast terrain and carefully articulated the interaction between mind, psychological imagination, and objective spiritual reality, as well as distinctions.
The mistake of both religions and Western Scientism is not making claims about reality, but making categorical errors. For instance, Scientism uses science to make claims about the ultimate realm, which is nondual and therefore requires nondual observation via consciousness because it is beyond the duality of biological sensory empirical measurements and cannot be fully comprehended by them. As an analogy, you cannot fully describe a three-dimensional reality in two-dimensional terms without getting into error. And religion has tended to make spiritual claims about empirical, material matters.
The Consequences of Rejecting Spirituality
There are moral and existential consequences for jettisoning spirituality. The historically recent pendulum swing from spirituality to atheistic materialism has cured many religious ails but also resulted in a spiritual neurosis that weakens both the individual and collective humanity. Materialism tends in the direction of a less enlivened way of being that often results in existential despair, loss of meaning, disconnection from emotions and intuition, and psychic repression that results in harmful unconscious acting out (Jung, 1970, p. 550). This is ultimately a mass repression of consciousness. Because materialism denies the validity of unconscious, spiritual experience, it blocks the process of individuation, which centers around bringing unconscious contents increasingly to conscious awareness (Jung, 1970, p. 496). Because people have lessened access their unconscious shadow side, they tend to project it onto other people, causing increased isolation and hostility in a secular materialist world (Jung, 1970, p. 544).
Materialism has paved the way for material exploitation of other humans and nature for the sake of personal gain. A random, meaningless, mechanistic universe based solely on survival of the fittest makes selfishness more sensible. A one-sided horizontal emphasis on the material world and its values (success, acquisition of resources) with no vertical connection to our spiritual being has led to the reckless, exploitative, colonial, and self-destructive activity of the Western “Aryan bird of prey” (Jung, 1970, p. 544; 1976, p. 476). It is reasonable to ask, would the endless consumption and greed that fuels Climate Change be taking place if more of humanity connected with nature through mystical experiences of nonduality, total love, and profound healing of unconscious traumas?
A wealth of evidence demonstrates that spirituality has an essential role in full self-actualization, healing, and flourishing (“enlightenment”). In atheistic society, materialists have attempted to fill the moral void left in the wake of spirituality with humanist ideals like “material security, general welfare, and humanitarianism” (Jung, 1970, p. 465). This humanism does not account for the psychological, instinctual, and archetypal realities of the psyche or humanity collectively on more than a surface level (Jung, 1970, p. 549). In fact, it tends to suppress the unconscious psyche and individual apprehension of the collective by denying it exists or reducing it to a byproduct of brain chemistry not to be taken seriously.
Atheistic Humanist “spirituality” without spiritual experiences is half-baked. I do believe it is reasonable to maintain a posture of uncertainty and openness about spiritual theories and claims about ultimate reality, holding any such beliefs lightly because of vast unknowns. However, there is a remarkable amount of evidence that spiritual realms of the human being and the universe do exist, materialism restricts its definition of spirituality to experience without these realms. Now, there is no consensus on a precise definition of spirituality. Part of the definitional challenge is that “spirit” pervades everything, any experience can be used as a gateway to experiencing it, and it is ultimately not separate from dimensions we experience as separate (the rational mind, body, emotions, etc.). Many define spirituality as “experience of the sacred.” Then what does sacred mean? When used to speak of spiritual matters, all words inevitably fall short because they grasp at realities behind and beyond symbolic-linguistic description.
Spirituality (the sacred) in my understanding includes an aware presence, transpersonal spiritual experiences of dimensions of awareness not as readily accessible to normal consciousness, and the understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe that results. The presence aspect is a dimension of reality referred to by many as the non-egoic observer that is aware of the thoughts and emotions (in other words, spirit.) Part of spirituality is cultivating awareness of this abiding presence behind and in all things, now-based “embodiment.” Another is zooming out past normal perception by having transpersonal experiences not normally available in every day waking consciousness. These types of experiences tend to break people out of strict materialism because they open up vast new ways of being human and experiencing reality. It becomes increasingly challenging to accept them as mere hallucinations after making them a regular practice. Perhaps the real hallucination is staying bogged down in defensive theoretical imaginative conclusions instead of having experiences. Satisfaction with speculative intellectual description is like eating the menu at a five-star restaurant instead of the food.
Materialist philosophy and science, an Enlightenment era paradigm, led to healing from some religious trauma but also resulted in a spiritual trauma that may threaten the survival of the planet. According to this old paradigm:
The material world lacks subjectivity and established the idea of a separate, spiritless self. Only humans are real, conscious subjects; the material and animal worlds function like a lifeless machine, devoid of subjectivity (“spirit”), driven by instinct. By means of the de-subjectivization of non-human and non-biological life, the ecology of the universe could be manipulated to suit humanity’s goals without moral consequence. But science demonstrates that our subjectivity originated in the singularity, the stars, the minerals and gasses that evolved into plants, animals, and human consciousness. Life is a fragile, living and breathing system of interdependence, and destruction of the part is violence to the whole and all its parts. We have built mechanistic societies and dreams of what success means around the false prophesy that salvation lies in material objects and ideas devoid of subjectivity; the spiritual breath of morality, life itself.
By integrating spirituality with science, Western society may heal its destructive materialistic tendencies and regain, “that stability which human existence acquires when the claims of the spirit become as imperative as the necessities of social life” (Jung, 1976). For those who are curious about the claims of millions of non-religious scholars and spiritual practitioners about the transformative power of spirituality, let it be known that there are vast guilds of helping professionals healing religious trauma who identify as spiritual. Atheistic materialism is not the only option. It is certainly not a neutral option, and it is not necessarily a safe transitional space from which to explore after leaving a religion. It is a wholesale belief system that has real-life impacts, like any other belief system. One should examine and question it before committing to it, as with anything else. And to those professionals who treat religious trauma, I urge you to study that which you specialize in treating: spirituality and religion. To those who say spirituality isn’t for me, I suggest, living without spirituality is like having a sense of sight but never opening your eyes because of fear of the unknown. Spirituality is an entire dimension of human experiencing that opens up vast possibilities. While some may choose to disconnect with spirituality for a time in order to heal, this is not a necessary step; it may even bring harm. It is my hope that people will no longer try to heal from religious trauma by rejecting spirituality. Perhaps healing from religious trauma (and life beyond trauma) can be found most powerfully through spirituality.
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1. See, for example, The APA Psychology of Religion Division, Transpersonal Psychology, Non-Western philosophies, Yogic, Buddhist, and indigenous psychologies, Abraham Maslow, Carl Jung, Ken Wilber.
2. Ponte and Schäfer (2013) outline a case for the existence of a non-material realm worth noting. Elementary things (ETs) like electrons, atoms, and molecules are the basic units of existence They can alternate between wave form (belonging to an immaterial realm) and particle form (belonging to the material world). In wave form, ETs have no definite position in spacetime. They are characterized by potentially, with the possibility of transitioning into material form as a particle with a specific location in space and time (Ponte and Schäfer, p. 604-605). Ponte and Schäfer summarize their case for the existence of an immaterial realm:
Since material particles, whenever we see one, always appear with a specific mass at a specific point in space, we must conclude that ETs in a state of potentiality aren’t a part of the empirical world. By making a transition into a wave state, an ET leaves the empirical world… There is a realm of the universe that we can’t see. It is a background of nonmaterial things, not things. The forms are real, even though they are invisible, because they have the potential to appear in the empirical world and act in it. In fact, we must now think that the entire invisible world is an emanation out of a non-empirical cosmic background, which is the primary reality, while the emanated world is secondary. (p. 605)
Not only is there an immaterial realm, but also, it might be characterized by consciousness. This is more speculative but worth considering. Ponte and Schäfer state, “The ETs in the realm of potentiality are more thoughtlike than thinglike” (p. 605). ETs exist in “virtual states” as non-material mathematical forms, patterns of information (p. 609). The thoughtlike nature of the pre-material quantum realm may suggest that consciousness, which forms thoughts, is a cosmic property that precedes and leads to matter. Ponte and Schäfer’s science lays a framework for the possibility of a cosmic psychological realm of consciousness that underlies the material world.
Altemeyer, B., and B. Hunsberger (1992). “Authoritarianism, Religious Fundamentalism, Quest, and Prejudice.” International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 2: 113-33.
Jasko, Andrew (2019, April 9). “The Biblical Apocalypse of Climate Change Denial: Part 1 Noah’s Ark.” Retrieved July 19, 2019 from https://lifeafterdogma.org/2019/04/09/noahs-ark/
Johns Hopkins Medicine. (2019, April 23). Experiences of ‘ultimate reality’ or ‘God’ confer lasting benefits to mental health: The encounter experiences, whether spontaneous or originated by a psychedelic, resulted in similar positive impact. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 19, 2019 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190423145511.htm
Jung, C. (1970). Civilization in Transition. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. (1976). The Relations Between the Ego and The Unconscious. In J. Campbell (Ed.) The Portable Jung (pp. 70-138). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jung, C. (1976). The Spiritual Problem of Modern Man. In J. Campbell (Ed.) The Portable Jung (pp. 456-479). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Ponte, D. V., & Schäfer, L. (2013). Carl Gustav Jung, Quantum Physics the Spiritual Mind: A Mystical Vision of the Twenty-Frist Century. Behavioral Sciences, 3, 601-618. DOI: 10.3390/bs304601
Wilber, Ken (2001). Eye to Eye: The Quest for the New Paradigm. pp. 112-115. Boston: Shambala.