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The New Science of Natural Spirituality

Lisa Miller, professor at Columbia University, is a leading researcher into the new scientific field of “natural spirituality”, which she describes in her 2015 book, The Spiritual Child. There are now separate neurophysiological metrics for the human relationship with the transcendent, a realm that until recently was folded into psychology and sociology. Miller has popularized awareness of spirituality as a distinct developmental process, to be taken as seriously by parents and scientists as physical and psychological growth.

Miller calls for parents, regardless of their religious or non-religious orientations, to nurture actively the natural spiritual inclinations of their children. The awe and wonder of children deserve the awe and wonder of adults. An observant Jew, she is very “religion-friendly”, but she assumes that the non-religious can be just as helpful in their kids’ spiritual growth as those who follow formal faiths.

This new science opens the prospect that public education may someday include active nurture of students’ spirituality, but in a pedagogical form that makes no mention of traditional religions. The new field of developmental natural spirituality may result in a secular replacement for the functions of religion. My boss and I started a big program called Mindful.USC. The classes we offer have no religious content. But mindfulness is certainly the content of a lot of religion. So here we are, the Office of Religious Life, replacing religion with a secular substitute! A kind of Stevia for the soul? And yet I find that our program has inspired many students to take greater interest in the contemplative traditions of Christianity. Mindfulness is now liberated from religion. But it also has the potential to liberate religion from the confines of dogma.

Meanwhile, other research is revealing the neural pathways and brain processes of healing. Research demonstrates that the “placebo effect” works even when the subjects of the research are told that the medication they are taking is indeed a placebo. Believing that the pill is real medicine, even when it is not, is not required. It appears that the “active ingredient” of the placebo effect is going to the doctor, getting attentive care, getting a prescription, and taking the pill. “This is the specific effect of the ritual of medicine,” says a researcher, Ted Kaptchuk, at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Harvard Medical School in Boston. It is fair to extrapolate from his findings that there can be a similar positive effect from the rituals of religion.

Further research is beginning to reveal the chains of neurochemical events in the brain associated with the positive placebo response. It is deeply ironic that this might lead to the development of drugs that could mimic the effect of placebos! Apparently, people differ in their positive responses to the rituals of medicine. This suggests that certain genotypes might derive more or less benefit from the gestures of caring offered by doctors and nurses. This finding could lead to the tailoring of medical caring rituals to the genomes of particular patients.

“Entheogens” are chemicals that reveal God. Important research was done on the benefits of hallucinogens in the 50’s and 60’s. Then came the Electric Koolaid Acid Test and the images of young people turned into zombies by drugs in the late 60’s. The reputation of these drugs was badly damaged. But now there is a resurgence of interest in them. New research is underway into their potential for treating addictions and depression. And there is a resurgence of excitement in the mysticism-inducing effects of these drugs.

Imagine that you come to church for the first time, and when you get in the door you are given a quick prick on your finger for a blood test. Depending on your genotype as revealed in the test, you’ll be sent to a specific part of the church, where a worship service will be conducted in a manner most beneficial for you. When you take communion in that worship service, the bread comes in a cellophane wrapper and the wine comes in a little zip-top container. These have been dosed with neurotransmitter drugs specifically designed for your genetic makeup. While the choir sings music most appropriate for your spiritual genotype, you eat the wafer and drink the shot of wine, and in a few minutes you have entered the sublime realm of the divine.

This scenario was the substance of a story I wrote about 35 years ago:“The First Theochemical Church”. The protagonist was a woman declared a heretic because she refused to take communion laced with designer entheogenetic drugs. She was shunned for trying to experience God directly without the intervention of pharmacology.

Which is what we’ve been doing all along! Science is just now confirming what we’ve always known: our religion, when practiced wisely and deeply, is good for us. At least some of our spiritual practices actually, objectively benefit our natural spirituality as well as enhance our mental and physical health.

We progressive Christians are humble about our version of the faith. (Which is why so few people know that we exist!) We don’t think our way is the only way, nor even that our way is better than all other ways. But it might be time to re-think our humility. In our progressive congregations, the communion ritual of stepping forward to dip a piece of bread into a cup of wine, and then eating it, may be health-inducing. We don’t think of the bread and wine as the active ingredients: we don’t take “transubstantiation” literally. But the neural pathways activated by the ritual of communion with bread and wine may well make a palpable difference in enhancing our natural spirituality and mental and physical well-being.

Brain science is beginning to explain or at least describe and confirm our spiritual experiences. We’re at a point where we can isolate the neural pathways that correspond with mystical religious awakenings. Atheists may conclude that this is proof of that God is nothing more than a human construct built around our genetic propensity to create meaning out of our experiences. The discovery of a discrete developmental process of the unfolding of universal natural spirituality might suggest that religion is optional, unnecessary, and perhaps even a hindrance to this process. We may be able, finally, to explain religion away as a product of our innate spirituality. But why do we have this propensity? Who or what etched it into the very structure of our brains? If we’re hard-wired for transcendence, doesn’t that suggest that the experience of union with Ultimate Reality is hard-wired into the cosmos? Holy awe appears to be a feature of our human nature. So what does that say about the nature of Nature as a whole? Through us and other sentient beings within it, is Nature in awe of itself?

Progressive Christians are perfectly positioned to embrace and employ these new scientific findings. We made peace with science long ago. The more we learn from the new science of natural spirituality, the better we’ll be able to refine our spiritual tradition so it can be more effective in serving souls.

Rev. Jim Burklo, Associate Dean of Religious Life, USC
Website: MINDFULCHRISTIANITY.ORG Weblog: MUSINGS Follow me on twitter: @jtburklo
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Associate Dean of Religious Life, University of Southern California

(I updated my RESISTANCE BIBLE STUDY with materials created by Good Shepherd UCC, in Sahuarita, AZ. Start a study in your community now!)

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