People coming out of religion often reject spirituality entirely in order to heal from religious trauma. Yet the rejection of spirituality may be a continuation of religious trauma. Spirituality is a well-evidenced, vital component of human flourishing fundamental to nature. Vast schools of psychologists and intellectuals agree that rejecting it can lead to emotional pain, disconnection from self and others, and societal trauma.1 Yet many who deconvert from religious fundamentalism convert to a version of atheism that is essentially fundamentalism without a deity. Many who seek healing from religion plunge straight into materialism because they find support from communities who champion this worldview as pure science and reason. These professionals teach with absolute certainty that spiritual experiences are merely psychological or purely the result of brain chemistry. This philosophical stance is seen as the only safe and reliable framework of interpretation and of preventing further religious delusion.
Physicalism (materialism, scientism) is presented as if it is not a belief system. Typically, materialists do not bother to apply critical thinking to materialism’s historical foundations and philosophical assumptions. Atheism is championed disingenuously by its adherents as if it is merely no belief in God, when in actuality it conceals a full-scale materialist worldview that closely resembles a religion in many respects. Materialism has many unquestioned dogmas, 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, duality is fundamental and nonduality is merely a hallucination, and the only valid form of evidence is that which can be perceived by the physical senses (empiricism) or intellect (rationality). 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 who suffer from religious trauma, I take issue with their approach to this conversation and lack of critical examination. It’s fine to have materialist beliefs, but it’s problematic to pass judgment on opposing points of view without understanding them. Often, these professionals have little to no exposure to contemplative spirituality, non-Western and non-materialist philosophies, transperson and integral psychology, and a great deal of 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, assuming that spirituality and religion are essentially the same. They roundly dismiss 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 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 fundamentalism. Fundamentalism can be defined as a rigid and inflexible mentality that there is one set of teachings that clearly contains the truth, characterizing 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 notions 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 bought into inaccurate interpretations of reality because of my experiences, does not mean that spirituality does not exist or is too dangerous to be practiced.
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 appeals to 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 realm as the only dimension of 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, except perhaps superficially in order to disprove them. This is also 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 like pseudoscience and woo-woo.
Materialism and other universalisms are based on the outdated philosophy of modernism, which is based on the view that the researcher can 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. The assumption of universality unconsciously espoused by scientism, “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 is undergirded by the same kind of mentality (universalism) that supports other imperialistic ideologies of oppression like racism and colonialism. Believers in scientism often 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. This belief enables white supremacists to ignore the anxiety that acknowledging the privileges of whiteness might evoke by keeping whiteness invisible and out of conscious awareness. While materialism must not be confused or correlated with white supremacism, it is undergirded by the same type of modernist universalizing assumptions which lend themselves to oppression.
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 secular institutional dogma were eroded by postmodern and anti-colonial critiques, new discoveries in science demonstrated the prevailing scientific paradigm to be inadequate for explaining new scientific discoveries. Quantum physics was the death knell to 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 so-called 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 as materialism naively presupposes.
The new science and philosophy resulted in traditional views of materialism being redefined in at the present time 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 atheistic materialists continue to claim their understanding of science is all that there is, and those who interpret reality differently are not real scientists. They frequently band together under an identity flag of rational intellect and excommunicate or shame dissenters with splitting-based, dehumanizing labels like woo-woo or quantum mysticism. Yet materialism itself represents a kind of pseudoscience, unexamined ideological overcompensation, and psychological reaction against religious superstition with elements of faith mixed in with faulty science.
Evidence for Spirituality and Spiritual Ways of Knowing
Materialists claim openness to evidence. But 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 represent enough evidence to lend credibility to the assertion that spirituality exists as a dimension of human experience and reality, 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 informed (not reactionary) judgments? 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 merely unscientific speculation.
As exposure increases, more people continue to leave a materialist worldview behind. 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 after having a mystical encounter, regardless of whether it was spontaneous or while taking a psychedelic. Why is that people make cosmological claims about their mystical experiences, and why are these experiences reproducible? Why do they tend to believe in oneness, connect more with nature, see inherent meaning and purpose, experience healing from mental illness and addiction, and become more loving and open? Why is it that in communities of people who regularly and deeply practice spiritual methods of connecting, 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.
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]” have a relative consensus about a general hierarchy of major dimensions to reality, “and most of them agree right down to the details” (Wilber, 2001, pp. 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 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 between them.
The mistake of both religions and Western scientism is not in the making of claims about reality but in 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. Likewise, religion has tended to make spiritual claims about empirical, material matters, in addition to using the term spirituality when it actually just means dogmatic claims that have no basis in spiritual inquiry or experience.
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 has also resulted in a spiritual neurosis that weakens both the individual and the collective. 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 leads to 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 human development, which centers around bringing unconscious contents increasingly to conscious awareness (Jung, 1970, p. 496). Because people have decreased access their unconscious shadow side as a result of a materialist perspective, 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 the 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). One wonders whether would the endless consumption and greed that fuels global crises like Climate Change be taking place if more of humanity connected with nature through mystical experiences of nonduality, total love, and deep healing of unconscious traumas?
A wealth of evidence demonstrates that spirituality has an essential role in 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 often claims to have its own version of “spirituality,” which basically means a generic sense of meaning and purpose without spiritual or mystical experiences. Any spirituality that denies the reality and necessity of spiritual experiencing is half-baked. To be fair, 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.). Thus, many use experiential and symbolic terminology to define spirituality; for instance, “experience of the sacred.” All words inevitably fall short of fully describing spiritual realities because they grasp at meaning behind and beyond symbolic-linguistic description.
Spirituality (the sacred) in my understanding includes an aware presence, transpersonal spiritual experiences of dimensions of awareness not typically accessible to normal waking consciousness, and an understanding of ourselves and our place in the universe that results from engaging these dimensions. 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.) One way of cultivating spiritual awareness of this abiding presence behind and in all things through present moment-focused embodiment. Another is zooming out past normal perception by having transpersonal experiences that can expand our access to other dimensions of human perception. These types of experiences tend to break people out of strict materialism because they open up vast new realms. It becomes increasingly challenging to accept them as mere hallucinations with continued exposure. Perhaps the true hallucination is the insistence that the intellect and bodily senses are the only reliable source of knowledge. Satisfaction with intellectual description apart from experience 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 on 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 experience life after leaving religion. It is a wholesale belief system that has real-life impacts, like any belief system. One should critically examine and deconstruct it before committing to it wholesale, as with anything else.
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 for healing and living a more satisfying life. 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 additional 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.