The late 16th and early 17th century was a dangerous time to be a free thinker, or a scientist. One man who paid the price of questioning his culture’s metaphysical paradigm was the Italian Giordano Bruno. Bruno was a true renaissance man, an intellectual giant who was equally philosopher, poet, mathematician and cosmologist. He accepted Copernicus’ theory that the sun was the centre of the Solar System, held a panpsychist view that all nature was alive with spirit, and also believed in reincarnation. As far the church leaders were concerned, he contravened many of their core principles, and so undermined their authority. In 1593, he was tried for heresy, charged with denying several core Catholic doctrines, and burned at the stake in 1600.
Galileo was another Italian free thinker who suffered at the hands of the church. Galileo’s astronomical investigations convinced him that the Earth was not the center of the universe, and that our planet revolved around the sun. However, the Catholic Church saw ‘heliocentrism’ as heretical, and as a result, Galileo spent the latter part of his life under house arrest, and his books were banned.
In my view, the reason why the church authorities were so hostile towards scientists and free thinkers was because they knew - if only unconsciously - that their metaphysical paradigm was under serious threat. Their brutal punishments were an attempt to hold back cultural change, like a corrupt leader who embarks on a murderous rampage as his grip on power is fading. But they were fighting a futile battle, of course. The shift was underway, and it was inevitable that their simplistic, biblical-based worldview would be superseded.
And I believe there are parallels with our present cultural situation.
I would like to put forward an argument that at the moment a cultural shift is occurring, and the metaphysical paradigm of materialism is fading away. I also want to emphasise how important it is - for the future of our own species and for our planet as a whole - that this shift comes to full fruition, and that the materialist paradigm is transcended by a spiritual worldview.
Just like the church in the 17th century, materialism is under threat. Its tenets and assumptions are no longer viable, and a new paradigm is emerging to replace it. And materialism is responding aggressively to this challenge, as the church did. There are three main ways in which metaphysical paradigms react to existential threats: by becoming more rigidly dogmatic, by punishing heretics, and by ignoring (or explaining away or suppressing) unwelcome evidence. This is still the way that fundamentalist religions maintain themselves in the midst of twenty first century secular culture. \
Fundamentalist Christian and Muslims - or any religious sect or cult, for that matter - have extremely rigid and specific beliefs and tenets which every adherent has to wholly accept. They inculcate fear by ostracising and punishing anyone who strays from these beliefs, and they attempt to restrict the availability of any evidence that contravenes the beliefs.
Unfortunately, some adherents to the belief system of materialism respond in a similar way to challenges to their worldview. Free thinkers who question any of the tenets of materialism are accused of being pseudo-scientific. Particularly if they accept the existence of psi phenomena and even investigate them, they may find it difficult to get funding for research, to publish their work in journals or present it at conferences, or to get an academic post at a university. They may be ridiculed, have their Internet pages doctored, and have their videos taken down from the Internet (as happened to Rupert Sheldrake in 2013, when his TED talk was deleted at the behest of prominent American skeptics.)
It’s important to remember that there are powerful psychological factors at play here. Some materialists may not even realize that they are behaving in an irrational and prejudiced way. Their behavior is rooted in a powerful psychological need for certainty and control. As a belief system, materialism provides a coherent explanatory framework that makes sense of life. It seems to offer convincing answers to many of the ‘big questions’ of human life, and so gives us a sense of orientation and certainty that alleviates doubt and confusion.
Feeling that we understand how the world works gives us a sense of authority. Rather than feeling subordinate to the mysterious and chaotic forces of nature, we feel that we overstand the world, in a position of power. To admit that there are phenomena which we can’t fully understand or explain, and that the world is stranger than we can conceive, weakens our power and control. (This is one reason why many people have been reluctant to accept the implications of quantum physics: because it reveals the world to be a much more mysterious and complex place than we could ever imagine, and so threatens are sense of control and power. We can’t overstand a world which we don’t understand.)
The above applies to all belief systems, but in the case of materialism, this feeling of control is enhanced by an attitude of dominance towards the rest of the natural world. Since we experience ourselves as separate from nature, and since we experience nature as fundamentally inanimate and mechanistic, we subconsciously feel entitled to dominate and exploit it.
All of this means that, once a person feels that their belief system is under threat, they usually react with great hostility. To accept that the principles of your worldview are false - and that you have much less power and control over the world than you thought - is a dangerous step into the unknown.
This is the situation that materialism finds itself in now. It is being undermined, and in the process of being superseded. And its adherents are reacting exactly as both history and psychology would predict.
At the same time as materialism is failing, post-materialist perspectives are beginning to flourish. (This is another reason why materialists feel threatened, and are becoming more dogmatic.) Of course, these two developments aren’t unconnected - the failure of materialism has made alternative perspectives seem more valid and encouraged theorists to adopt them. For example, the failure to explain consciousness in neurological terms has led to a renewed interest in panpsychism and idealism, both of which suggest that consciousness is a fundamental quality of the universe.
In a similar way, there appears to be a growing consensus that the materialist approach to physical and mental health - that treats the body as a machine and sees mental disorders as neurological problems that can be fixed through drugs - is seriously flawed. Increasing numbers of medical practitioners are moving towards more holistic approaches, with a greater awareness of the importance environmental and psychological factors, and of how the mind can influence the health of the body. In particular, there is a growing awareness of the lack of efficacy of psychotropic drugs such as anti-depressants, and a movement towards more holistic therapies such as cognitive-behavioural therapy, mindfulness and ecotherapy.
And in a more general sense, the increasing popularity of spiritual practices and paths suggests a cultural movement towards post-materialism. Spiritual development begins with a sense that there is ‘more to life’ than the materialist worldview tells us, with an intuition that we - and all living beings - are more than simply biological machines whose consciousness is a kind of hallucination, and that natural phenomena are more than simply objects which we share the world with. Spirituality is an attempt to break the cultural trance of materialism, and to transcend the limited, delusory vision that it is associated with.
The materialist worldview is bleak and barren; it tells us that life is fundamentally purposeless and meaningless, that we’re just here for a few decades and it doesn’t really matter what we do. It’s no wonder that so many people respond to this by just trying to have as much of a ‘good time’ as they can, to take all they can get from the world without worrying about the consequences, or else by diverting themselves with distractions like television or numbing themselves with alcohol and other drugs.
It seems inevitable that people should try to take refuge from the bleakness of the materialism by living materialistically, treating themselves to as much fun and as many consumer products as they can afford, and trying to build up their wealth and status and power.
However, the spiritual worldview tell us that the universe is not a bleak vacuum. It tell us that the nature of the universe is bliss. This is because the fundamental nature of consciousness itself is bliss. We have seen evidence for this many times - in near-death experiences and high intensity awakening experiences, for instance, when individual consciousness becomes more intense and subtle, seeming to merge powerfully with universal consciousness, and there is a profound sense of peace and euphoria.
This bliss is inside us too, since we are individual expressions of consciousness. As countless spiritual teachers have told us, there is no need to search for happiness outside us - in material goods or pleasures and power - because happiness is our true nature.
The spiritual worldview also tells us that human nature is not essentially malevolent, but benign. Selfishness and cruelty are not natural, they are aberrational. They only occur when we lose our sense of connection; when our fundamental oneness is obscured by an aberrational sense of ego-separateness. In essence, we exist in cooperation rather than competition, and are altruistic rather than selfish. In essence we are one. We are, literally, each other.
And finally, the spiritual worldview tells us that our lives are meaningful and purposeful. The purpose of our lives is the same of evolution itself - to deepen our sense of connection to others through empathy and altruism, to uncover as much of our innate potential as we can, and to expand and intensity our awareness. The purpose of our lives us, you might say, self-evolution.
At the present time, the issue of self-evolution is highly significant. It is imperative that we undergo as much self-evolution as possible - not simply for our own sakes, but for the sake of the whole human race.
Since the metaphysical paradigm of materialism has had - and continues to have - so many disastrous effects, it is essential for our culture as a whole to adopt a post-materialist spiritual worldview as soon as possible. Ultimately - as many Native American leaders pointed out to the
Europeans who came to ransack their continent - materialism leads to environmental destruction. As an approach to life, it is hopelessly out of harmony with nature. It encourages the reckless plundering of the earth’s resources, the hopeless ceaseless search for satisfaction through consumer goods and hedonistic adventures, and even the exploitation and oppression of other human beings. As such, materialism is unsustainable. Unless it is superseded, it is likely that we will experience a catastrophic cultural breakdown, and major ecological devastation - potentially even the extinction of our species.
Moving beyond materialism means daring to question the received wisdom of our culture and examining the assumptions we have absorbed from it. It means being brave enough to risk ridicule and ostracism from fundamentalists who are fighting a futile battle to maintain an outmoded worldview. But perhaps more than anything else, moving beyond materialism means experiencing the world differently.
At the most fundamental level, materialism stems from our perception of the world. It stems from the perception of the world as an inanimate place, and of natural phenomena as inert objects. It stems from our experience of ourselves as entities who live inside our own mental space in separation from the world and other human beings and living beings.
If we are to transcend materialism, it is therefore essential that we transcend this mode of perception. Moving beyond materialism means becoming able to perceive the vividness and sacredness of the world around us. It means transcending our sense of separateness so that we can experience our connectedness with nature and other living beings.
Spiritual practices and paths can help us by expanding our awareness, and so increasing our potential knowledge of the world. But they can actually provide us with an even bigger benefit, by helping us to transcend the limited awareness which gives rise to the materialist worldview. This is the primary purpose of spiritual practices and paths: to ‘undo’ the psychological structures that create our automatic vision of the world and our sense of separation.
Spirituality wakes us up, opens us up to the aliveness and sacredness and nature, and reconnects us to the world. When we experience the world in this way, we truly move beyond materialism.
This is the most important issue of our time. We don’t need to explore the outer world in any more detail; we need to turn inside and explore our own being. New technologies to further manipulate the world aren’t so important now; it’s more urgent for us to make use of ‘spiritual technologies’ to help us to expand our awareness, and attain a new vision of the world.
Since every human being is interconnected, the more we evolve as individuals, the more we will help our whole species to evolve. As we individually transcend the ‘sleep’ vision that has given rise to materialism, we will be helping our whole species to do the same. And eventually, this limited vision will fade away, like a mirage, and we will collectively remember who we really are, and where we really are. We will no longer perceive ourselves as soulless biological machines, but as radiant and purposeful manifestations of spirit. We will no longer perceive the world as a soulless physical machine, but as a radiant and meaningful manifestation of spirit. We will sense our oneness with the world, and treat it with the care and respect it deserves.
In addition to explaining the world, spirituality may actually help to save it.
©2018 by Steve Taylor. All Rights Reserved.
Published by Watkins, an imprint of Watkins Media Limited.
Spiritual Science: Why Science Needs Spirituality to Make Sense of the World
by Steve Taylor
Spiritual Science offers a new vision of the world that is compatible with both modern science and ancient spiritual teachings. It provides a more accurate and holistic account of reality than conventional science or religion, integrating a wide range of phenomena that are excluded from both. After showing how the materialist worldview demeans the world and human life, Spiritual Science offers a brighter alternative – a vision of the world as sacred and interconnected, and of human life as meaningful and purposeful.
Steve Taylor is a senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Beckett University, and the author of several best-selling books on psychology and spirituality. His books include Waking From Sleep, The Fall, Out of the Darkness, Back to Sanity, and his latest book The Leap (published by Eckhart Tolle). His books have been published in 19 languages, while his articles and essays have been published in over 40 academic journals, magazines and newspapers. Visit his website at stevenmtaylor.com/