By Heather Gridley FAPS, Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences and Psychology, Victoria University


Our scientific culture educates us to focus on the physical and material world in front of us. This method... has achieved great results. One of its consequences, however, is that we have, as it were, edited out the sense of the ‘spiritual' or the ‘holy' which pervades the lives of people in more traditional societies at every level and which was once an essential component of our human experience of the world.
Armstrong, 1999 (p.10)

This observation has particular salience for the science of psychology that has at its core the task of understanding the human experience, but it also raises some challenging questions. If psychology is an evidence-based science, how can and does it take account of the world views, cultural frameworks and spiritual practices of the full range of populations it purports to study and serve? To what extent can psychology hope to address the existential concerns of human experience, given the more narrow notions of its scientific base. And where might we still ‘draw the line' on what does constitute empirical evidence - evidence based on systematic observation or documented experience, rather than ‘blind' faith?

This article takes a brief but critical journey through psychology's past to examine where notions of spirituality might or might not fit in, and to consider how a more holistic psychology might enable us to fulfil our ethical mandates as psychologists of respect, justice and competence in the context of spiritual, religious and cultural diversity. Spirituality is defined here as the human quest for meaning, purpose and transcendence, with religion delineating the convictions, traditions and shared practices of a specific faith community. The concepts are related but by no means synonymous.

The search for spirituality in psychology’s history

Histories of psychology traditionally link the discipline's scientific credentials to its Greco-Roman, Judaeo-Christian, western secular rationalist heritages, tracing its roots back to the ancient Greek philosophers, physicians and mathematicians - some with a list of names in an unbroken line, like the papal succession. Others focus on the world view that the relatively young discipline of psychology shares with these ‘ancients'. But they mostly do so uncritically, taking the legacy as a gift, and failing to consider what was left out of the package in the development of these accounts - for example, indigenous, esoteric/eastern and Islamic traditions. When Hothersall (2004) writes in his history of psychology, "The importance of having scientific theories at all - so as to be able to predict and control events in our world - was first recognized by the ancients" (p.16), he is still making several crucial but questionable assumptions about the goals of science and the boundaries of the ancient world.

The zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, is shaped by our history and culture that determine what is considered worthy of study, by our philosophical traditions (epistemologies) that delineate what is accepted as ‘truth', and by our methodologies that establish criteria for how we know - the rules of the game. We might well ask what was the nineteenth century zeitgeist that meant white settlers and psychology's founding fathers in Australia preferred to gather and measure Aboriginal skulls (Turtle & Orr, 1989), rather than asking, "How have you survived in this harsh terrain and climate for so long? Can you give us any clues about how to live in harmony with the land and with yourselves?"

Many of psychology's key questions, research methods and theoretical approaches can be traced back to the work of the ancient Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), mathematicians (such as Pythagoras) and physicians (such as Hippocrates and Galen). The discipline we have inherited addresses many of the questions that were first considered by philosophers in ancient Greece and Rome, and has adopted many of the methods of science that developed within the Judaeo-Christian and Islamic worlds. The patriarchal Greco-Roman world largely assumed the Aristotelian ‘ladder of creation' with ‘man' conveniently having dominion (and a mandate for empire and conquest) over fauna, flora and the rest of the earth's resources. The ensuing research questions of interest centred on the imperative to ‘predict and control' the natural world. The monotheistic religious traditions placed God at the very top of the hierarchy, which particularly suited various emperors and other autocratic rulers claiming a ‘divine right' of empire. The knowledge systems and cosmologies of conquered peoples were dismissed as ‘barbarian' (‘of the bearded ones', by the clean-shaven Romans!) or pagan (by Christians, even as they overlaid seasonal rituals with their own birth and death-rebirth narratives of Christmas and Easter).

Faith and reason - beacons of wisdom through the Dark Ages

Throughout what was known in Europe as the Dark Ages, the twin traditions of monasticism and scholasticism kept the cultural legacies of the Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Roman worlds alive, mainly by careful transcription of ancient manuscripts, with not much evidence of innovation - the message was that faith (in holy writ) plus reason (in the Greek philosophical tradition) provided all that was needed to reach truth. The real developments in science, medicine, literature and engineering were taking place elsewhere, in the Islamic world of Al-Farabi and Avicenna (Ibn Sina), and farther afield in places like China, India and South America - but what do we know of those? In a speech at Oxford in 1993, Prince Charles lamented Western ignorance of Islam as "part of our past and present, in all fields of human endeavour". As he went on to plead for an end to hostility between the West and Islam, his words picked up the theme of domination underpinning accepted definitions of science:

A comprehensive philosophy of nature is no longer part of our everyday beliefs. I cannot help feeling that, if we could now only rediscover that earlier, all-embracing approach to the world around us, to see and understand its deeper meaning, we could begin to get away from the increasing tendency in the West to live on the surface of our surroundings, where we study our world in order to manipulate and dominate it, turning harmony and beauty into disequilibrium and chaos.

Psychology's largely unquestioned assumption that the only ‘ancients' that should be counted among its ancestors could be found in European cultural history also meant that Eastern esoteric traditions were largely ignored, at least until the recent focus on mindfulness deriving from Buddhism. Mathieson (2001) presented findings from an investigation of similarities and differences between Zen concepts as applied to the traditional Japanese martial arts and the concepts of sport psychology as applied to Western sport. He cited a comparison often drawn between two poems about flowers, one by Tennyson and the other by 17th Century Japanese haiku master Basho. Tennyson's urge is to impose his will on the flower, plucking and dissecting it in order to understand its mysteries; Basho is content to observe and celebrate the flower in situ.

When I look carefully
I see the nazuna blooming
By the hedge!
(Basho, 1644-1694)

Flower in the crannied wall,
I pluck you out of the crannies;
Hold you here, root and all, in my hand,
Little flower - but if I could understand
What you are, root and all, and all in all,
I should know what God and man is.
(Alfred Lord Tennyson, 1809-1892)

The Renaissance and the birth of modern science

Still taking its cue from the Greeks' emphasis on order, measurement and control, the 17th Century Western scientific revolution emphasised a methodology of quantification, prediction and verification to uncover truth - to torture the secrets out of nature should she prove resistant, as Francis Bacon so delicately put it (Eisenberg, 1992). Nature was of course assumed to be feminine and passive, awaiting the gaze and penetration of the male scientist-adventurer. Europe's first universities were now well established, but the Malleus Maleficarum (hammer of the witches), the manual of the Inquisition in the Middle Ages, had ensured that women took no part in the cultural and scientific Renaissance, except as its artists' models - any woman who dared to ‘cure' without having studied (from which they were banned) was to be declared a witch, and so the healing knowledges of midwives and others fell outside ‘the academy' of the emerging male medical profession.

Despite being rendered motherless, when modern Western psychology was ‘born' in Wundt's Leipzig laboratory in 1879, it claimed two ‘parent' disciplines: philosophy, based on logic and reason as opposed to ‘blind faith' or superstition, and science.

With the new sciences of biology, physics and medicine kicking so many goals, it paid to line up in science's corner: Copernicus and Galileo 2, Church Fathers 0. Science as defined by 17th Century positivists like Descartes and Comte decreed truth to be that which could not be doubted, or knowledge that was certain, and the early empiricists advocated experimental, observational methods based on the systematic collection of evidence. But the early psychologists soon found that the mind was a difficult object to study, because its workings could not be readily observed. This led to a rejection of the mind in favour of observable behaviour as the proper subject matter for psychology, and even a widespread change of name from psychology to ‘behavioural science'. Someone was heard to lament "modern science has lost its soul, and now psychology is losing its mind!"

20th Century developments

Despite Freud's own anti-religious stance, the prominence of the psychoanalytic approach in the early 20th Century ensured a degree of exposure for Eastern spirituality. Zen Buddhism in particular attracted the interest of well-known psychoanalysts such as Fromm and Horney (Van Dusen, 1958), not to mention William James (1911/1924), himself an advocate of Buddhist mind training, who noted "compared to what we ought to be we are only half awake" (p. 237). But by and large, spirituality and religion were considered generally incompatible with science, and more specifically with psychology in its quest for scientific respectability, except as objects of scientific scrutiny (Jones, 1994). The rationalist empiricist roots of Western psychology influenced the attitude of many psychologists towards anything perceived as religious or quasi-religious. Many Western psychologists and psychiatrists considered that religious and spiritual beliefs indicated personal shortcomings and over-reliance upon external support, and similarly wary attitudes are not uncommon today.

The grand narrative of the psychology discipline's celebrated late nineteenth century infancy was interwoven with the triumphal march of industrialisation and colonisation. Psychology in Australia continues to be characterised by such discourses - it is difficult to identify a distinctive Australian psychology that reflects either the multicultural nature of post World War 2 Australian society or the ancient and living culture of its Indigenous people. Of course, colonial, ethnocentric and sexist legacies can be equally put forward as reasons not to embrace, or at least to critique the role of, religious traditions in psychology.

In the past decade however, a number of Interest Groups have emerged within the Australian Psychological Society that implicitly or explicitly invite us to reflect on the diversity of our profession and the communities we serve, and on our responsibilities towards those communities. Spirituality and religion refuse to go away, perhaps because, like psychoanalysis, they offer to tackle the big questions (what's it all about, Alfie?) and to help us find meaning and value in life in ways that reductionist approaches can rarely manage (Hornstein, 1992).

Embracing cultural diversity and spiritual dimensions in psychology

Psychology's strong identification with the dominant Western culture and modernity is both a strength and a weakness. Psychological expertise is well accepted and its authority protected by firm processes of verification, accreditation and licensing/registration. But the world is changing rapidly, and in times of global crisis and uncertainty, the human yearning for meaning beyond the mundane intensifies and demands recognition of multiple world views and systems of knowledge. Cultural traditions such as Buddhism and Islam are becoming better known and accepted in the Western world, while Indigenous peoples demand respect for their own systems of knowledge, usually incorporating spiritual beliefs and established healing practices. An increasing number of therapists and researchers are integrating Western and Eastern psychological systems into new models of service and understanding. Techniques and concepts that were once generally considered alternative to Western notions of mental health care (e.g., meditation) are increasingly viewed as complementary.

So does embracing cultural diversity and spirituality mean uncritical acceptance of multiple realities and truth claims? And if not, do the same tests of evidence apply equally to all systems of meaning and their accompanying practices? There is not the space here for a comprehensive review of the literature on the therapeutic and health benefits of faith/spiritual practices. There is a burgeoning literature on the subject that tends to support the protective influence of religious behaviours and beliefs in moderating the impact of adverse life events and promoting health and wellbeing (Bhui, King, Dein & O'Connor, 2008), but much of this literature is based in North America, and rarely acknowledges, beyond a passing ‘side-effect' reference, the ‘dark side' of religion and the ways that many religions marginalise some groups at great cost to their health. Christian churches have been at the forefront of opposition to gay and lesbian movements, women's reproductive rights, and harm minimisation approaches to HIV-AIDs efforts in poor countries - not to mention all the wars throughout history that have claimed ‘God on my side'!

Often, stories and cultural representations of what is deemed spiritual are controlled by privileged groups, excluding or violating those with less social power (Rappaport, 1995), as has been the case of women in the Catholic church and most organised religions (Mulvey, Gridley & Gawith, 2001). Much the same can be said for what gets counted as ‘scientific' within psychology. Perhaps the problem is really fundamentalism itself, and any unquestioning adherence to whatever truths we build our lives around. Spirituality and science might not be so far apart after all. According to the Christian gospel, the apostle Thomas refused to believe reports that the recently crucified Jesus had risen from the dead and had appeared to some of his followers. Thomas insisted that ‘seeing is believing' - he would not be convinced until he saw Jesus for himself, and could touch his wounds. Although he might not have passed the test of faith, ‘Doubting Thomas' could be said to be the patron saint of empiricists!

Psychological practice enriched by an understanding of spirituality

Regardless of our personal beliefs and justifiable mistrust of fundamentalisms of any kind, spirituality and religion are aspects of culture that cannot be excised from a contextualised consideration of human experience and behaviour. Taking account of the philosophical and faith traditions that shape and give meaning to the lived experience of clients and communities serves to strengthen and broaden the cultural base for psychological practice. Psychological practice that can incorporate creativity, rituals, music, ceremonies and rites of passage will be much richer than a one-dimensional reliance on cognitive processes as instruments of healing and change.

In seeking to embrace a spiritual dimension within psychological practice, however, several caveats emerge from the literature and research that should be considered. These concern the dominance of Judaeo-Christian exoteric religious traditions and Greco-Roman philosophical canons in Western psychological science, the implicit and explicit values of the psychologist/practitioner, and the need to recognise the embeddedness of spirituality within cultural contexts (Islam in Indonesia looks very different from Islam in Sudan). Psychologists will need to keep reviewing their understandings of what does - or does not - belong under the umbrella of psychological science, and stay on guard against fundamentalism of any kind. An ongoing commitment to critical, reflective practice, a healthy degree of professional and paradigmatic humility, and continually contextualising and grounding one's theoretical and spiritual frameworks in people's lived experiences can only serve to strengthen the credibility of psychology's evidence base.

Indeed our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have yet to see if it will work.
Armstrong, 1999 (p.4)


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Bhui, H., King, M., Dein, S., & O'Connor, W. (2008). Ethnicity and religious coping with mental distress. Journal of Mental Health, 17(2), 141-151.

Charles, Prince of Wales (1993). Islam and the West. Speech presented on 27th October, 1993. Accessed 7th July 2009 from

Eisenberg, A. (1992). Women and the discourse of science. Scientific American, 122, 267.

Hornstein, G. (1992). The return of the repressed: Psychology's problematic relations with psychoanalysis. American Psychologist, 47, 254-263.

Hothersall, D. (2004). History of psychology. New York: Random House.

James, W. (1924). Memories and studies. New York: Longmans and Green (Original work published 1911).

Jones, S. L. (1994). A constructive relationship for religion with the science and profession of psychology. American Psychologist, 49, 184-199.

Mathieson, M, (2001). The path and the goal: a comparative study of Zen concepts in Japanese martial arts and the tenets of Western sport psychology. Paper presentation in symposium - Transcendent practice: integrating spirituality in counselling, sport and community psychology, 36th APS Annual Conference, Adelaide.

Mulvey, A., Gridley, H., & Gawith, L., (2001). Convent girls, feminism and community psychology. Journal of Community Psychology, 29, 563-584.

Rappaport, J. (1995). Empowerment meets narrative: Listening to stories and creating settings. American Journal of Community Psychology, 23, 795-807.

Turtle, A., & Orr, M. (1989). The psyching of Oz. Melbourne: Australian Psychological Society Ltd.

Van Dusen, W. (1958). Zen and Western psychotherapy. Psychologia, 1, 229-230.

InPsych August 2009