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Anglo-American Spiritualism
The Paradisical Spiritualist After-Life
Blavatsky's critique of Spiritualism
French Spiritism
The influence of Spiritualism
Spiritism - Feedback

The philosophy known as Spiritualism is based on the simplistic premise that man is a dual being; consisting of a physical and spiritual component.  The physical element (the body) disintegrates at death, but the spiritual (the "soul", "spirit", personality, consciousness, etc) continues exactly as it was, only in another form of existence: the "Spirit-world" or heaven.

The Spiritualists further claim that communication between the disincarnate and the living is possible through a human "medium" or "clairvoyant".  Usually there is also a practical emphasis on healing.  All Spiritualists are vaguely Christian in that they consider Jesus as some sort of great teacher or divine being, but none are dogmatically or fundamentalistically so.

At least as far as metaphysics and cosmology goes, Spiritualism is divided into two main streams, the Anglo-American and the French.

Anglo-American Spiritualism

Anglo-American Spiritualism derives in large measure from the writings of Andrew Jackson Davis and Stainton Moses in the last century, and J. Arthur Findlay in this one.  In its outlines it can be traced back to at least to the great Swedish scientist, psychic, and visionary Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688-1772), who claimed to be able to perceive and communicate with "angels" (disincarnate souls) in "heaven" and "hell".  His voluminous writings became the basis for a new Christian sect; the Church of New Jerusalem or Swedenborgian Church, which gives an esoteric rather than exoteric interpretation to the Bible.

In early and mid twentieth century Anglo-American Spiritualism, and especially the influential writings of J.  Arthur Findlay, ideas taken from popular Darwinism (quite different from Darwin's actual discoveries) exerted a strong influence.  In order to show what is meant here, a slight excursus is necessary.

What Darwin himself said was simply that many more individuals are born than can survive, so only those who are best adapted will succeed.  This is "natural selection"; selection through the blind hand of nature.

But within a very few years, Darwin's discovery was totally distorted by the Victorian colonialist "myth of progress": the idea that things are getting better and better.  So the idea developed that worms evolved into a "higher" form of life, fish, which became a still higher form, reptiles, which in turn evolved into mammals, who were "higher" again.  Mammals (apes) gave rise to "savage" man, who developed to the level of "heathen", who in turn finally became the civilised and technological Christian European, who, as the highest specie of humanity, is at the summit of creation, and therefore has the responsibility to guide and teach those colonial peoples less developed than himself (the so-called "white man's burden").

This, in any case, was what "evolution" meant and, apart from the rejection of colonial chauvinism, still means to the mass of educated humanity today.  But all this has nothing to do with what Darwin said.  For Darwin, and his genuine successors (such as the contemporary evolutionist and popular science writer Stephen Jay Gould), no form of life is higher than any other.  The only value factor is a living being's degree of adaptation to its environment.  So, as Gould puts it, "the "degeneracy" of a parasite is as perfect as the gait of a gazelle" [Stephen Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin - Reflections in Natural History, p.13 (Penguin Books, 1977)].

Now, what does all this have to do with Spiritualism, you may ask.  Well, many Spiritualist writers and mediumistic communications are in agreement that after death, the soul ascends through progressively higher stages, culminating in the return to the Godhead.  Thus there is no such thing as reincarnation.  Nothing unusual there; this in fact is a hypothesis held by many spiritual and religious teachings.

But what is dubious is the Spiritualist justification for the rejection of reincarnation.  Reincarnation, says the Spiritualist, cannot be true because existence is a constant evolutionary process.  Thus consciousness evolves physically through the stages from amoeba to worm to fish, etc, and so on to man.  When man dies, his/her soul evolves through the higher spheres to the Ultimate, God.  Reincranation would mean the return of the soul to a "less evolved" state, i.e.  physical incarnation.

Now, it is easy to see the fallacy of this argument.  For it assumes that physical evolution - Darwinism, or natural selection, which we have seen has nothing to do with metaphysical ascent - is seen as being the same as individual spiritual evolution (or metaphysical ascent).  So Spiritualism is based not on spiritual or esoteric knowledge, but simply on bad science (or pseudo-science).

Another problem with Anglo-American Spiritualism is its constant down-grading of the body and physical existence.  Physical existence is seen to be the most inferior state, and existence in the spirit world far superior.  This in fact is no different to the world-denying and life-denying attitudes and philosophies of ascetics and mystics both Eastern and Western.  Consider for example the popular (as opposed to the philosophical technical) Hindu concept of Maya: this world is nothing but an "illusion".

The Paradisical Spiritualist After-Life

The basic Spiritualist eschatology could be summed up as follows:

 "The soul is a duplicate of the body...(and) the lodging house of the spirit, or animating intelligent principle...Upon passing over, you find yourself still possessed of a substantial body....amid scenery similar to, though generally more beautiful than, that which you knew on Earth....There are...a number of (after-life) worlds...and the keynote of the teaching is that one progresses from the lower to the higher "spheres" as one advances in knowledge and moral qualities....The occupants of the spirit spheres are generally pictured as engaged in worthy tasks - study, discussion, assisting the newly arrived "dead", guiding people still on earth - or in tranquil but enjoyable recreations.  There is no "judgment of the dead', but persons who have led evil lives will find themselves drawn into squalid and degrading regions where others like them dwell and from which they need to be rescued by "higher spirits" dedicated to missionary work."
[Richard Cavendish, Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, p.234 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1974)]

Clearly, this pleasant spirit-world is a reaction against the straightjacket heaven and barbaric hell of the fundamentalist Christian preachers of the time.  Hence its great appeal to anyone with any sensitivity.

This does not mean that there is no validity or truth in these spiritualist ideas, that they are nothing but a reaction against a bigoted Church.  Although such factors doubtless come into things, one must always be wary of falling into the reductionist trap of explaining everything solely according to sociological or psychological factors.  For that is an error every bit as great as the naive acceptance of a religious or spiritualist doctrine as absolute truth.

Blavatsky's critique of Spiritualism

French Spiritism

French Spiritualism, or "Spiritism", derives largely from the writings of Allan Kardec - the pseudonym of Hippolyte Leon Denizard Rivail (1804- 64) - who wrote several books, most important being "The Book of Mediums" and "The Book of Spirits".

Although basically espousing the same cosmology as the Anglo-American Spiritualists, Kardec differs in his assertion of the existence of reincarnation.  Now, we have seen that Anglo-American Spiritualists use pseudo-Darwinism to reject reincarnation.  It is interesting to observe that for a long time in France the English Darwin's teachings were rejected in favour of those of his French predecessor - national pride comes in here - Jean-Baptiste Pierre Antoine de Monet Lamarck (1744- 1829), who spoke of "the inheritance of acquired characteristics" (e.g.  short-necked giraffes who stretched their necks to reach the tops of trees will have longer-necked offspring).  Larmarckism, although very popular for some time, has now been totally rejected by the scientific community.  It still continues in a psychological form however in Carl Jung's extremely influential idea of an inherited "Collective Unconscious".

So, if a Darwinian milieu would lead to a rejection of reincarnation, perhaps a Lamarckian one would favour its acceptance?

In any case, Kardec's teachings have been largely disregarded in Europe, but have been extremely influential in Brazil, which is reputed to have a higher proportion of Spiritualists per head of population than any other country.  There

 "numerous Kardec spirit temples communicate with the spirits and attempt to help souls which are confused after death...They also practise healing, the healers...moving their hands close to the body."
[Richard Cavendish, Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, p.130 (Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1974)]

There is even a native Brazilian religion, Umbanda or Macumba, which combines Afro-Christian Candomble (in which the gods of the imported Negro slaves were identified with the saints and divine beings of their Catholic Christian masters) with Kardec Spiritism [Ibid, p,263].

The influence of Spiritualism

Despite, or perhaps because of, its shortcomings and simplistic assumptions, Spiritualist ideas have had a tremendous influence on the general subconscious preconceptions of the average Westerner.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and a keen exponent of Spiritualism, puts it this way:

 "The spirit (after death) is not a glorified angel or a goblin damned, but it is simply the person himself, containing all his strengths and weaknesses..."

(This is a rather simplistic way of looking at things, but it is easy to see its appeal to the thoughtful person disillusioned by hell and damnation Christian fundamentalism.).  While the English physicist and enthusiast of psychic research Sir Oliver Lodge argues that:

 "To suppose that the short period of earth-life is sufficient to save or damn a soul for all eternity and that...death has power to convert an ordinary man into either angel or demon...- all this was so repugnant to common-sense that as a matter of fact it was not believed."

[Both quotations from J. Godfrey Raupert, The New Black Magic, pp.22-3, (Devin-Adair Company, New York, 1919)]

The emphasis on intellectual and spiritual tolerance, and a spiritual paradise for all, means that Spiritualism fills a very real need in the spiritually and metaphysically impoverished West, a need denied by dogmatic Christian religion, with its pronouncements of eternal damnation for unbelievers and heaven for the faithful in which everyone wears a white robe and sits around on a cloud praising a dictatorial God.


Feedback by Renato Norbert

Please do not take me for criticizing you for the sheer intention of holding my point, but, as a Brazilian Spiritist, I would like to share some thoughts with you, in the hope that you may want to study Spiritism and know what it really deals about.

1st. I can say nothing about Anglo-American Spiritualism, but, as far as Spiritism is concerned we do not believe that the Personality and the Ego survive the death of the body. Neither Kardec nor any other French or Brazilian writer of the Spiritist doctrine never said that. Much on the contrary, if we chose to use similar terms, I could say that we believe the Individuality and the Over Self as being those that survive the death of the body, which dies with the Personality and the Ego that depend on it.

2nd.: Saying "That is all that Spiritualism is; the belief, or reassurance, that the personality and ego continues after the death of the body pretty much exactly as it was while still in the body" is a quite huge over-simplification of a serious doctrine, don't you think?

3rd. Mme. Blavatsky's criticism on Spiritualism - strangely shared by some very respectable writers - seem to me somewhat childish. It is hard for me to admit such a position from a so wise and knowledgeable woman. "Lower personality remnants" do not have wisdom, they can not even talk rubbish. It is as much as saying that someone could republish a book from its ashes. And real masterpieces of wisdom have been written by spirits through mediums like Chico Xavier and Divaldo Franco! Some concepts that Science is just beginning to discover and prove have been transmitted by the spirit André Luiz more than fifty years ago. It is far too obvious that the prophets and saints of all traditions never talked to God "in person" but to high level spirits. In the Christian tradition, who were the angels that appeared and talked to them?

4th. On the other hand, the assumption that only superior spirits are capable of being "channeled" by a medium seems equally childish. It is obvious that little interest would have the press in books said to having been written by wicked spirits through "innocent" channels. The editors and the channels would certainly be the ones to be prosecuted whenever any harm would be done as a consequence of reading any such books. That does not mean, however, that low level spirits can not communicate. All the history of exorcisms in all traditions strongly testify that low order spirits not only can talk to incarnate beings but also talk through them and even conduct their behavior. If we consider that discarnate beings exist, why would only the high level ones communicate with incarnate beings? It doesn't make any sense.


email Renato Norbert

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