A Science of Spirituality for the 21st Century


How do new developments in the human sciences support the injunctions of ancient spiritual traditions? Why might spiritual practices be valuable in the public realm? How do individuals and societies suffer when they lose touch with the depth of human experience?

A new report from the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufacturers and Commerce (RSA) in London tackles these questions and more. “Spiritualize: revitalizing spirituality to address 21st century challenges” gathers together the research of an extensive two-year project, “Spirituality, Tools of the Mind, and the Social Brain,” funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation. Jonathan Rowson, the director of the Social Brain Centre at the RSA, consulted with over 300 individuals, including sociologists and psychologists, theologians and philosophers, activists and leaders. The report contributes to what Sir John Templeton called an “experimental theology,” the scientific exploration of spiritual subjects that might lead to “tremendous advances in human understanding and development.”

The backbone of the work focused on six areas of recent development in neural and cognitive sciences that resonate with spiritual wisdom and practice. These advances support the idea that the spiritual is fundamental to human experience and flourishing, and not niche or outdated as can be assumed.

The first area questions the notion that being religious is primarily about assenting to propositional beliefs, such as belief in God. Such an idea rests on the assumption that human beings are predominantly rational individuals, and ignores that we are profoundly social in nature too. Neural sciences now support this view. As neuroscientist John Cacioppo explains, “The human brain has evolved to promote social and cultural capacities and processes that extend far beyond a solitary brain.” Beliefs are, therefore, the product of social situations—personal, cultural, and institutional.

The second development concerns the sacred, which should be viewed as “a fundamental part of how humans make meaning and form.” Gordon Lynch, a sociologist of religion, explains that the sacred is “an inherent structure of morally boundaried societies.” Since all societies need moral boundaries, they will also always perpetuate convictions that make an absolute demand on members of those societies, such as the protection of children. The sacred is intimately related to the sense that morality is real, not arbitrary—again, as spiritual traditions maintain.

Third, we often work on “automatic,” a useful way of operating in many instances, such as driving a car. However, when we want to see the world in new ways—perhaps in response to one of the great spiritual concerns to “know yourself”—we need to “wake up” to the habitual reactions that constrain and limit our perception. The report explores how the practices of many spiritual trainings aimed at this making ourselves present to what is happening find support in contemporary cognitive and neural research.

The fourth area explores our embodiment. Current research is greatly extending the involvement of the body in thought, perception, and wellbeing. The report makes the link to the spiritual by noting that all experience comes through the body. Hence, “spiritual inquiry [often] begins with the simple reconnection of body and mind.” To put it another way, the body is central to the direct experience of reality sought in spiritual practice, as well as the benefits that follow.

The rediscovery in recent years of the ways in which the two hemispheres of the brain perceive the world differently encompasses the fifth area. It’s a complicated area of research and debate, which Rowson summarizes: “A proper understanding of the relationship between the right and left hemispheres of the brain draws attention to often competing forms of perception and cognition, and makes the challenge of achieving ‘balance’ and perspective in life more palpable.” This relates to spiritual perception because that requires a deep appreciation of the implicit and imaginative, which tends to be discounted in an unbalanced world that overvalues the purely explicit and empirical.

Finally, changing understandings of the brain lie at the heart of the sixth area, namely that of neural plasticity, or the idea that the brain changes itself. This now mainstream observation supports the longstanding emphasis in spiritual traditions on the importance of practice. A culture of practice, therefore, lies at the heart of any program of spiritual transformation, as is shown particularly in relation to cultivating such human virtues as gratitude and empathy, humility, and compassion.

“Spiritualize: revitalizing spirituality to address 21st century challenges” applies these scientific discoveries to four key aspects of human existence: love, death, self, and soul. “The report recommends that we all rediscover and develop mature forms of spirituality, grounded both in what we can never really know about our place in the universe, and what we can know and experience about ourselves,” Rowson explains. It also contains summaries of the various public events, seminars, and workshops that comprised the project, of which many are available for viewing online, including Rowson’s own summary of this rich work.