By Colin Blakely
Can science help us in our spiritual disciplines? Rupert Sheldrake certainly believes so, and in his new book he draws together years of research as a biologist to examine the science behind the spiritual reality.
The London-based author studied natural sciences at Cambridge University, where he was a Scholar of Clare College. He then studied philosophy and history of science at Harvard University, where he was a Frank Knox Fellow (1963-64), before returning to Cambridge, where he took a Ph.D. in biochemistry (1967).
He was a Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge (1967-73), where he was Director of Studies in biochemistry and cell biology. As the Rosenheim Research Fellow of the Royal Society (1970-73), he carried out research on the development of plants and the ageing of cells in the Department of Biochemistry at Cambridge University.
While at Cambridge, together with Philip Rubery, he discovered the mechanism of polar auxin transport, the process by which the plant hormone auxin is carried from the shoots towards the roots.
His latest work (he is the author of more than 85 scientific papers and eight books, and the co-author of six books) is a sequel to Science and Spiritual Practices and in it he looks at seven ‘spiritual’ practices, ranging from fasting to prayer and holy festivals. However, he also includes chapters on sport and even ‘Cannabis, psychedelics and spiritual openings’.
He explained his thinking: “All spiritual practices are in a sense ways to ‘go beyond’our normal mundane existence to a sense of connection with something greater than ourselves.
“I wanted to look at such different things as prayer and fasting and sports and learning from animals and observing the Sabbath: what could they possibly have in common?”
In modern society more people are ready to admit that they are spiritual, but perhaps not religious. So are churches the obvious venue for those wanting to develop their spirituality?
“I think churches are the best places for integrating these spiritual experiences, but they’re not necessarily the best places to go for them, depending on what kind of experience it is.
“I mean if it’s an experience of ritual yes, singing and chanting, yes or collective prayer yes. But if it’s connecting with nature, which for many people is an important spiritual experience, that’s obviously best done outdoors.”
Sheldrake, who lost his ‘atheist faith’in his teens before becoming a Christian, believes that the church should regain its spiritual reputation.
“I’m pro-organised religion and I think it’s better to have a framework – it helps to integrate them.”
He admits that the sort of spiritual experiences he writes about are not necessarily what people experience in a Sunday morning service, but they are at the heart of the Christian message.
“St Paul clearly had an out-of-the-body experience when he actually says‘whether in the body or out of the body’. He even describes an ecstatic experience, and it is clear that these kinds of experiences existed.
“If you look back in the Old Testament there is the story of Elijah ascending to heaven. That is a pretty weird experience — it’s not happening to the average churchgoer on a Sunday morning,”but he believes we should all be open to such spiritual experiences.
Sheldrake, who was listed among the top 100 Global Thought Leaders for 2013, has made no secret of the reality of his faith. He famously engaged with another well-known biologist, Richard Dawkins, when he wrote his book The Science Delusion. But in this book, he goes further and not only defends the reality of spirituality but explains the science behind it and draws out lessons from his research that can help everyone make more of their spiritual experiences.
His own experience was pivotal. “I was being educated as a scientist and atheism was more or less part of the package deal that was presented to me. I accepted it but I began to question it first because I thought that the mechanistic approach to science is too limited. Treating nature as a machine just didn’t make sense.”
He studied biology ‘because I liked animals and plants and felt a link with them’but the seeds of doubt in atheism had been planted. “The idea that it is all just inanimate unconscious mechanisms seemed to me increasingly implausible so I thought there was something wrong with science.”
He observes: “Spiritual experiences come in so many different forms, which is what I try to show in my book.”He observes that ‘not all these experiences happen within organized religion,’but he wants the general public to re-establish the link between spirituality and the church.
“It seems to me that spiritual experiences are the foundation of all religion and Jesus’s spiritual experience at the moment of his baptism was not just something merely symbolic based on scriptural texts: it was an enormously transformative experience.”
And he believes that this should be more widely shared. Prayer is an important point. He points out that among non-Christians more people meditate than pray.
“I think that the difference is that you can meditate if you’re an atheist or a materialist: that it’s all happening inside your brain, but you can’t really pray thinking it’s all just happening inside your brain because prayer depends on a belief in the spiritual being to whom you’re praying, whether you’re praying to God the Father, God the Son, or God the Holy Spirit.”
Citing other research, he adds: “People who pray themselves are generally speaking happier and healthier and live longer than those who don’t so I would say that means it’s actually working whether that you actually get the things you pray for or not.
“Studies have shown that people who have been prayed for get better at a higher rate than those who aren’t, but the problem is that not all these studies give the same results.
I would like to see people who come from Christian backgrounds, which is most people in England, return or reconnect with the Christian faith
“The reason they didn’t give the same results is because it is very hard to get a non-prayed-for group because in these experiments the scientists get a group of people who’ve never met the person being prayed for.”
While it was straightforward to ask people to pray for the subjects, even if it was anonymised, there was no way to know whether none of the subjects was the focus of prayer.
“It was a randomised trial, so some people in the study are not prayed for by these groups of strangers but the assumption behind these studies was very naïve: since these studies were carried out in America where more people pray than in Britain they would almost certainly have been prayed for by family and friends and prayed for themselves as well.
“So what the study was doing was comparing a bit of extra prayer from strangers who knew nothing about the people with a background of probably quite a high level of prayer in both the control and the test groups, so it’s not a very good study in my view.”
He maintains that ‘prayer works’. “In some sense we could say that it doesn’t work, in the sense that we hear week after week prayers for world peace and yet in Syria\Palestine the conflict goes on. You could say that’s a failure of prayer, or you could say that things would be much worse if it wasn’t for these prayers.”
And he believes that the church should take prayer more seriously.
He recalls: “When I was in Cambridge I was a Don in college and there was a centre in the town where they invited people to learn Transcendental Meditation. If there had been a church offering lessons in prayer that would have been popular too. But nobody was teaching courses on how to pray.”
But while there are difficulties in examining the science of prayer, it is possible to analyse the effects of these practices.
“That’s exactly what I am writing about and in my previous book Science and spiritual practices, for example, I looked at meditation. There have been many studies on the effects of meditation: it lowers heartbeat and blood pressure. People who do it sleep better and they are less prone to depression, which is why you can now get a prescription for meditation on the NHS.”
But he adds a rider: “You can measure the effects scientifically of these practices and you can also measure the effects they have on people’s well-being, but how you interpret them depends on your belief system.
“I think that deep within everyone there’s a need to go beyond themselves to connect with something greater than themselves. And I think in a secular world where most people have no religious practice — and recent surveys show that the majority of the British population, 51 per cent, said they had no religion — the need for a sense of connection is there. People strive for it in a context other than religion and I think sport is one of the main ones.”
He tells me of a successful business person he interviewed in America. Over-worked and stressed, he couldn’t sleep or ‘turn off’from the demands of business.
He had tried meditation, but that didn’t work either because his mind was so active.
“But he said he’s a rock climber and by the time he is 50 feet up a rock face he was completely in the present — all the worries had gone.”
If that sounds like mindfulness, Sheldrake is sympathetic. “Studies of brain activity showed that in mindfulness meditation the chattering part of the brain, what’s called the default mode Network, reduces its activity in meditation but does it when you’re engaged in some physical activity which you need like sport.
“So it is similar to mindfulness in shutting down the chattering part of the brain.”
However, his work is not just about mindfulness, but also about holiness, and a chapter of his book is devoted to this.
“I think the experience of a place being holy is different because it’s not coming from another person, or at least not directly. It’s coming through being in that place itself.”
If places can open up people to spirituality, he also explores another, more controversial, subject: the use of psychedelics.
“I call that chapter ‘Cannabis, psychedelics and spiritual openings’because for some people they can open them to a connection with the spiritual. Now this isn’t just a theory: there are lots of people who say this is what’s happened to them.
“Critics of this may say well it’s not really God that they’re contacting, perhaps it is some demon or some illusion. But God can work in all sorts of ways. In Psalm 139 we read that ‘if you go down to hell I am there, if I will fly to the highest heaven I am there,’God is everywhere and in all experience potentially.
“I don’t think all spiritual experiences are in the brain. I think the brain is a kind of mediator of experience rather than the sole source of it.
“I know that some people are tremendously opposed to the use of any drugs and I think for some people that’s the right policy but I’m trying to deal with the fact that there’s millions of people — especially young people — who do take these drugs and who think that they’re having spiritual openings through them.
“One can take seriously their experiences and see how that can really lead to a spiritual enhancement of their lives or one can take the view it’s wrong, it’s illegal, it’s invalid and these experiences are of no value.
“But I think that kind of approach devalues other people’s spiritual experiences. I think what they’re doing is actually alienating people from religion: what they’re saying is that spiritual experiences have no part in my religion and so then people say they don’t want any part in your religion either.
“I’m more interested in spiritual experiences than in dogma, and that’s all too common in the modern world.”
The Hampstead-based scientist, who has two grown-up sons, one of whom has followed him into the world of science, wants the church to listen to the spiritual experiences of those outside the church doors.
“If we want a religion based on the example of Jesus, which I do want, then it’s I think a model of inclusiveness and reaching out to people where they are, rather than just preaching to the choir.
“If the church could show how they could link these spiritual experiences to the Christian tradition it would help to connect things.
“The Christian tradition is full of mystics, saints and Hermits. These experiences are not alien to the Christian tradition: they are part of it.”
And that is the reason he has written this latest book: “I would like to see people who come from Christian backgrounds, which is most people in England, return or reconnect with the Christian faith.”And he wants the churches to be the first port of call when people want to explore their spirituality.
Ways to go beyond by Rupert Sheldrake is published by Coronet