Afternoon Inquisition

AI: Spiritualism

My friend Warren Bonett is compiling a book about Atheism in Australia. He’s the owner of Embiggen Books, a really cool art gallery and bookshop specializing in science and skepticism.

Warren is on the frontlines of skepticism because his bookstore is located in Noosaville, on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland. This is a hotspot of new age spiritualism.

I’m contributing a chapter to his book, about spiritualism, and I’m amused and horrified at the gamut of these beliefs and practices. In researching my essay I’ve overdosed on nuttery: the cherry picking of religion and philosophy, colonic irrigation, purgation, silence retreats (clothing optional), fruitarianism, Noni juice and “Quantum” everything…

What is spiritualism to you?

What do you think are some of the weirder elements of spiritualism?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear daily at 3pm ET.

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  1. I thought spiritualism was that 1920’s fad where a medium would pretend to talk to the dead and ectoplasam and automatic writing. That kind of thing. All the stuff that Harry Houdini was always fighting agains.

  2. There is a spiritual book store near where I live. It sells pure essential oils under names like “faith” and “hope”. They smell good, but they don’t generally do anything*.

    I think of spiritualistic practices as similar to those oils. They are pleasant for the believer, but otherwise without purpose.

    *Okay, the eucalyptus does clear the sinuses.

  3. What is Spiritualism to me? i’ll start with the generally reliable Skeptics Dictionary entry for Spiritualism (spiritism) at

    Personally i think that Spiritualism, like all supernatural woo and most other woo, arises from people’s fear of death. Failure to face death is failure to fully face reality — from which anything becomes believable if it averts unnerving thoughts of death.

    There may be other sources of spiritualism, but i think that death-aversion is the biggest one.

  4. I wrote this some time ago and it neatly answers question 1 for me:

    I think those that call themselves deeply spiritual are generally smart enough to know that the more mains dogmas can be damaging, but somehow think that there own brand of woo is at least harmless and makes them feel better. It’s also possibly more about ingratiating themselves to others.

    They fancy themselves as open minded lovers of peace and people, and probably view skeptics as cynical. I don’t think it’s weird as much as it is willful ignorance for the sake of “inner peace”.

    I generally don’t have a problem with people who call themselves spiritual but also try not to put any definitions on what that means. It is difficult though to explain to them that once you leave science behind you no longer possess the tools necessary to distinguish truth from fantasy. It’s a concept that believers just generally do not get.

  5. “Spiritualism” is the annoying assumption smack in the middle of the Canadian Model of Occupation’s other assumptions – leading to many misinterpretations of meaning and needlessly lengthy discussions among my former classmates. The current excuse for its inclusion is that it means “joie de vivre” or the essence of being alive – a statement so meaningless as to be completely useless to the model.

    Oh yeah, of my profession I am proud. (Well usually it’s fine, but this is one of those pet peeves.)

  6. Spiritualism for me is pretty anything that deals with elements that are invisible, undetectable and unmeasureable.

    One of the strangest things I’ve come across personally was from my old flatmate – she worked for a *really* alternative physical therapy clinic, and claimed that when you take one of their massages, you can actually feel them pulling strands of bad energy out of your body. She was a grandmother, so being a well brought-up lad, I would sit and listen respectfully when she spoke about it, but we’d always end up at a stalemate with debates because she never felt it necessary to provide evidence, since she claimed that science was still catching up to what they were doing and the ‘old school of thought’ didnt apply to it

  7. The National Health Service here uses it to mean anything that improves the quality of life – including sport. I guess that’s a spiritual activity for some.

  8. @Tessa K: Yeah they SAY that, but you should have seen the response when I asked for £100k to spend on Hookers and Pontoon in Vegas.

    And that really would have improved my quality of life no end.

    @Gabrielbrawley: It was massive because of the mass truama of millions of mothers losing sons in the Great War. The con-men saw an “in” and went for it. It was HUGE in the UK until the 1950’s when generation of soliders parent’s died out.

  9. If only Silent nudity had been acceptable in the Chaplin era. People walking around naked in inforced silence seems like the perfect recipie for comedy to me

  10. @russellsugden: I prefer loud nudity.

    The spiritual people I interact with like to cherry pick quantum physics for weird ideas that make magic plausible. Unfortunately, one of these people is a physics prof at the local college.

  11. For me, spiritualism is a profound feeling for something that makes people just feel better overall. That something may be true or not, doesn’t matter. But overall, I think it stems from people wanting to just forget how much the world sucks.

  12. Spiritualism, to me, is what they do at Lily Dale ( (Supposedly) communing with spirits.

    Being spiritual, to me, is different. It is feeling a connection to nature or to something greater than oneself without being overtly or specifically religious.
    I think some people classify themselves as “spiritual” because they’re not ready to give up all the trappings of faith, but still feel that there are things not yet explained.

  13. The frightfully self absorbed are typically not well served by organized religion unless they are in leadership. Spiritualism provides every opportunity to be self absorbed on your own terms. So what is spiritualism IMHO? MMmm, mmmm, hocus pocus, you hug me, I hug me, smelly stuff, crystal with a mystery, Yanni aaaaaaaahhh. Isn’t it cool and fun to be godish!!

  14. I get spiritual experiences every single time I look in my telescope, or take a nature walk near a waterfall or something. Sadly, ‘spiritual’ is one of those words that has been mostly co-opted to mean ‘hallowed’, ‘holy’ and ‘divine’.

    I’ve had Jehovah’s Witnesses hear me describe my love of astronomy and absolute awe at the night sky, and they said “Ah! So you haven’t lost your spirituality!”. I replied, “Well, no. Of course not”, and from then on, they tried to use that as their wedge-in-the-door to get me to read the Watchtower or come to one of their meetings, or to admit that science is just another religion.


  15. Your mind is like a new house. Aside from the fixtures and fittings, it is mostly empty space. As you acquire facts & develop beliefs, you are gradually furnishing that house.

    Spiritualism to me is all that stuff that ends up in the spare room – the exercise machine you bought and never use, your philosophy textbooks from college, that broken picture frame you can totally fix someday, toys from when you were 5 – which takes up space and does not do anything useful, but whose clearing up would take too much effort and stir up too many emotions.

    Skeptics regularly spring-clean, and tend to buy very nice appliances.

  16. As I understand, Karen asks for what we consider Spiritualism to be, not what, of the things we do, matches best the most common definition (or that of our afternoon encounters, for that matter).

    For me, spiritualism is the practice of feeling things that seem to be non-tangible and out of this material world BUT believing that that other side of existence and the “ordinary” world can somehow interact through special actions. This way, you can have the “passive spiritualists” that just feel some places or behaviors are special but won’t actively engage with them (they don’t care/know) and the more “active” spiritualists that definitely pursue that unique interaction.

    “What do you think are some of the weirder elements of spiritualism?”
    I don’t know if you’re trying to get the most weird sort of spiritualism google can list or the most weird inherent aspect of spiritualism as a whole. I think you might go for the second option and so, I don’t think there is something so weird it cannot be explained by science. I mean, I would say:

    – Weird thing #1: spiritual people gathering tend to mutually accept and agree that they’re experience the same spiritual manifestations. I understand this is explainable through a bit of psychology (R. Wiseman, for instance).

    – Weird thing #2: spiritual people believe in the spiritual world but won’t commit suicide to be granted access (sure, death is no the end to these people). Again, self-preservation and a dose of doubt might prevent this from happening?

    – Weird thing #3: they can understand that science is behind the cell phone, the car, the Internet and the vaccines (oh wait!) but when science says they are having small and subtle hallucinations and that their brains are particularly fond of releasing endorphines & co to alter their perception of reality (as experiments have shown) they conveniently dismiss it because it is REAL and you can’t understand it… blah blah.

    I’ll pick #3 as my official answer because the self-deceive part here is way too much for me :-)

  17. @Skepotter: “That argument is full of holes.” *Rimshot!*

    I suggested a sieve because I like the idea of sifting thru a lot of useless information, which slips thru, to find the nuggets of useful information, which remain.
    Although a “Bread Board of Rational Justice” could be a nice piece of equipment to have, as well.

  18. Fun with metaphors, my favourite hobby…

    Embiggen Books? :-) I’m sure he has quite the cromulent collection there…

    (What James Fox said.) Easy, and usually colourful and/or dramatic, vague sense of meaning added to one’s life without the nasty hierarchies and rules of organized religion.

    I sometimes wonder if “spiritual” can be rehabilitated in the sense that Carl Sagan tried to promote – a sense of connection to the universe (“billion year old carbon” as Joni sang), awe at the majesty of existence, fascination with the intricacies of science. The trouble is that its root word, spirit, like “soul”, is so suspect, so void of connection to reality. There is no ghost in the machine that survives death or can exist independently, there’s only the activity of a body, a brain. I tend to think the words “spirit” and “soul” should be consigned to the same oblivion as “phlogistons” and “the four humours”.

  19. I don’t usually hear the word spiritualism anymore except in the context of a religion. I always thought of it as a brand of theism without a deity. I haven’t been able to tell the difference between spiritualism and the belief in a god except the actual belief in a god. All the other things: the idea of a soul, that there force or power that connects people (or at least certain people), etc.. is all there. There are different spiritual beliefs just as there are different religions, but they don’t seem to be more skeptical than their deity-worshipping cousins.

    The most common way I hear it used is by people who want you to know that they have something LIKE a religion… but they don’t really know what to call it. They believe something is going on that science can’t explain, but worshiping a god (or at least anything that is commonly called a god) seems rather silly.

  20. At this point, with what we know about quantum physics, is it fair to say that any medical treatment with the word “quantum” in it is a scam?

    My sister in law has a serious medical condition, and she falls for all kinds of pseudo-scientific quackery like this! She recently went for some quantum energy detection procedure, which is supposed to find the root cause to her condition… It’s quite disturbing, actually.

  21. I would say the wierdest thing for me is that they are so convinced that they’re totally different from all those other religious people. The way they think anything they say has deeper meaning if someone can follow it by saying “Whoa”. Also, the obssession with regular crystaline structures and ferromagnetism, while completely lacking in information about either.

  22. @neverclear5

    It’s as if being really vague about ‘higher powers’ and everything being connected was better than having a specific belief. Or maybe it’s just because spirituality comes with better accessories.

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