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Spiritualism & Psychic Research

Spiritual England thanks the author of this page - Roger Straughan. Roger’s career has been spent teaching in schools, colleges and universities, culminating in his holding the post of Reader in Education at the University of Reading, UK.

Psychical questions have also been a life-long interest, and he is an active member of a number of societies and organisations concerned with psychical and spiritual matters. He has spoken at major conferences and has published journal articles and reviews on these subjects, and also on Conan Doyle. His latest book, A Study in Survival: Conan Doyle Solves the Final Problem (O Books, 2009) presents an original form of evidence for life after death. For further details, email him at roger41berks@waitrose.com

What is Spiritualism?

The origins of modern spiritualism are usually traced back to events in Hydesville, New York State, in 1848, when two young sisters, Margaret and Kate Fox, appeared to be in contact with an independent intelligence which communicated with them by means of rapping noises, claiming to be a pedlar who had been murdered in the cellar of their house. Huge controversy continued to surround this episode, which nevertheless marked the beginning of a rapid spread and development of spiritualism.

Spiritualism is not easy to define and is probably best described as a movement rather than a religion. It is impossible to generalise about spiritualism, as if it were a single coherent movement or church, because there has been and still is a bewildering array of different groups and organisations, which call themselves spiritualist. These can vary and disagree enormously, particularly in their religious affiliations or lack of them. Some spiritualist organisations are specifically Christian, while others are humanistic and aggressively non-Christian. Controversy over whether spiritualism should see itself as Christian or not goes back a very long way.

Many spiritualist churches hold to 7 basic principles, which were derived not from any religious scriptures but from an early medium, Emma Hardinge Britten. These are:

  1. The Fatherhood of God
  2. The Brotherhood of Man
  3. The Communion of Saints and Ministry of Angels
  4. Human survival of physical death
  5. Personal responsibility
  6. Compensation or retribution for good or evil deeds
  7. Eternal progress open to every soul.

What all spiritualist organisations have in common is a belief that the spirits of the dead can hold communication with the living, through mediums and in other ways, and that after death we continue to live an individual, progressive, spiritual life in the hereafter.

So whether or not spiritualism should be counted as a religion, it is certainly concerned with questions about the essential nature of human beings and of spirit, our spiritual progress and ultimate destiny and how the conduct of our lives here can supposedly affect our future experiences after death. Some have argued that spiritualism is very much a part of accepted Christian tradition, claiming that the earliest Gospel records are full of psychical and spiritualistic goings-on, which reflect the original essential nature of early Christianity. Less controversially, spiritualism can be seen as compatible with most if not all religions. Believing that we survive death and can communicate with those who have died does not in itself constitute a religion, but can be an element in all kinds of belief systems and ideas about God. Where spiritualism does come closer to being a religion is when it claims that spiritual wisdom can be revealed and transmitted by guides and higher spirits. But that part of spiritualism does not have the same sort of backing of factual evidence that the more down-to-earth communications from friends and relatives can have, and it is that kind of evidence for the survival of personality that many have found highly convincing.

Spiritualism has had many famous supporters and converts, the best-known being Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who campaigned tirelessly to spread the message that we survive physical death. His History of Spiritualism (Psychic Press, 1926, and still in print) is a detailed and sympathetic account of the movement’s development.

What is Psychic research?

Psychic research refers to attempts to investigate apparently paranormal phenomena – which raises the further question: what are paranormal phenomena? These have been defined as experiences suggesting ‘an interaction, information transfer or communication between a being and the environment or another being that cannot yet be explained by normal means.’ The crucial words here are ‘yet’ and ‘normal.’ What could not be explained by existing knowledge 500 years ago (and so would have then qualified as ‘paranormal’) may today have come within the compass of scientific understanding and so now count as ‘normal.’ Does this mean that one day nothing will be considered ‘paranormal’?

Serious scientific study of paranormal phenomena began in the latter part of the 19th century, with the British Society for Psychical Research leading the way, founded by a group of distinguished scientists, psychologists and philosophers in 1882, and still going strong today. Half of its Presidents over this period have been university professors of science or philosophy. The range of phenomena investigated has been very wide, and includes (but is by no means limited to) hauntings and apparitions, extrasensory perception, premonitions, mental and physical mediumship, psychokinesis (the movement of objects by non-physical means), out-of–the-body experiences and near-death experiences, reincarnation and survival of physical death. Each of these areas has by now built up a huge amount of data and literature, much of it unknown by the general public, who tend to assume that psychical research is the preserve of cranks.

The scientific study of the paranormal can also be labelled ‘parapsychology’, and parapsychologists can now be found in a number of university psychology departments, doing controlled experimental research work – though it is debatable whether possible explanations of paranormal events will all have a psychological basis. Many believe that quantum physics may also have a role to play. Far more scientists, however, are antagonistic to the whole idea of the paranormal and display varying degrees of scepticism and dogmatic rejection, often to the point of refusing even to look at the vast body of evidence now available.