Authentic Spirituality – Empirical Sophistication – The Sociology of Religion

As noted in the book Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Authentic Spirituality, there are seven pillars upon which an authentic spirituality must be based. At this point in our discussion we have covered six of the seven pillars of authentic spirituality. The final pillar of authentic spirituality that I wish to discuss is empirical verifiability. This pillar is the simple requirement that authentic spiritualities be scientifically verifiable. That is, there must be evidence available that proves there is more to the spirituality than just snake oil and empty words. What the evidence is and how you go about finding it are epistemological and methodological questions that need to addressed, but the first step is to accept the notion that authentic spiritualities can be put to the scientific test.

We have already seen a part of this requirement of empirical verifiability in our earlier consideration of outcome measures and, in particular, in the requirement that authentic spiritualities be fruitful and grounded, so stating this pillar here might seem a bit redundant, and in a way, it is. There is a key difference between fruitful and empirically verifiable, however. The difference is in the emphasis and scope of the pillar. When we say spiritualities should be fruitful, we place emphasis on their personal impact. Authentic spiritualities are fruitful when they make a difference to you, when they make you happy, or lead you toward greater health. By contrast, when we say spiritualities are empirically verifiable, we widen the scope and expand the emphasis. In the case of empirical verifiability, it is not sufficient for a spirituality to please you in an anecdotal fashion, it must also have a more generalized impact on others who practice. Similarly, when we focus on empirical verifiability, it is not enough that you are convinced, others (and in particular scientists) must be comfortable with the evidence as well.

To some reading this, the requirement that authentic spiritualities be empirically verifiable may seem like anathema. There is a general assumption that religion and spirituality stand outside of, and opposed to, the epistemological structures and ontological requirements of science. This assumption is erroneous, and some scholars have indeed approached spirituality, religion, and spiritual experience from an empirical perspective. For example, Abraham Maslow found empirical evidence for spiritual phenomenon, so it is certainly possible to put spirituality to the test. Therefore, authentic spiritualities should embrace the goal of empirical verification whole heartedly, at all levels, including the individual, social, political, and even physical levels of reality.

If you do accept the notion that it is possible to turn science toward religion/spirituality, then the question becomes, how do you start? The best approach would be to have some sort of theory about spirituality. Theories are essential to science. Theories tell us what to look for and how to look for it. Take the atomic theory of matter for example. These days, we all know that the physical world is made of tiny little building blocks (atoms) that make up the structures of the entire physical universe; but for a long time the notion that the physical universe was made of atoms was just a theory. Theory only became fact when technology developed sufficiently to allow us to directly observe the atomic structure of the universe. Long before atoms became “real” to science, the theory of atoms was important. It was important because it focused attention, gave scientists something to look for, and told them, in a general way, how to look for it. The atomic theory of matter kept scientists from stabbing about too blindly in the dark. It is the same with spirituality. If we are going to proceed with a scientific understanding of religion, then we are going to need a theory to start with. Having such a theory would guide inquiry, give us things to think about, point us in right direction, and keep us from stabbing about too blindly in the dark.

I suppose the question at this point becomes, is it hard to come up with a theory of religion and spirituality? Some may feel so, but I would say no. In fact, after over a decade of mystical exploration, I think I have a solid theory. Unfortunately, given the nature of this book as a primer of authentic spirituality aimed at a general audience, it is not appropriate to go into the theory here. Also unfortunately, at the time of this writing, I have no monograph I can point you to for a definitive overview of my thinking and I’m not sure there will ever be one. This is because I am putting most of the effort here into the SpiritWiki. The SpiritWiki is a hypertext repository of theoretical spirituality. It contains canonical definitions for all Lightning Path concepts, as well as theoretical statements on the psychology and sociology of authentic spirituality. At the time of this writing (2015), the SpiritWiki is still in heavy development. Concepts are in flux and work to improve grammar, spelling, and the specification of concepts is ongoing. If you want a comprehensive overview of Lightning Path theory, visit

Epistemological Sophistication

As noted in the book Rocket Scientists’ Guide to Authentic Spirituality, there are seven pillars upon which an authentic spirituality must be based. The seventh pillar of authentic spirituality is about empirical evidence. To be as clear as possible, authentic spiritualities must be empirically verifiable. I have to say though that when it comes to investigating religion and spirituality, how you approach the acquisition of empirical evidence is important. The problem is, when it comes to spirituality and religion, you are not looking at atoms, material tolerances, chemical reactions, and other simple aspects of the physical universe that can be easily observed or tightly controlled in a laboratory environment; instead, we are looking at highly complex human, social, political, and economic phenomenon with a core non-material component. Obviously, we are not going to be able to approach this with the same methodological and epistemological simplicity that we might approach a beaker of chlorine or a block of hydrocarbons. Humans are complex and the spirituality that grounds them is even more complex. The simplistic standards and methods of the so-called “hard/dry”[1] sciences are not adequate here. For complex human phenomenon, for phenomenon rooted in Consciousness, we must approach the task of empirical verification with a certain degree of epistemological sophistication.

Of course, the question for most readers at this point will be, what is epistemological sophistication. Well, epistemology is just a fancy word pointing to the requirements of evidence. Epistemological discussions are discussions about what counts as evidence. These discussions are important. If you have never taken a methods course in university, you might have the impression that “evidence” is a simple thing, but it is not. Scholars do not always agree about what counts as evidence. Some might argue that only “hard”, easily to observe facts like height, weight, MRI scans, the number of cancer cells, etc. can count as evidence. Others take a more complex and sophisticated approach, including things like surveys, observations of social behaviors, and so on, as evidence. As you can see, what counts as “evidence” is arguable.

So, what counts as evidence of authentic spirituality? Without getting into too much detail here, let me just say that when it comes to assessing spiritual pathways and their efficacy you will definitely need to be open to more complex, less ridged, more sophisticated approaches to evidence. If you don’t remain open and sophisticated, there is a good chance you’ll miss evidence, over simplify the phenomenon, or even distort and twist what it is you are observing. An example may suffice. When I was a younger man, I used to smoke quite heavily. The smoking was affecting my health and I tried to quit multiple times without much success. I was only successful when I attempted acupuncture. It took only two acupuncture treatments for me to quit and I have never picked up a cigarette since. What was most interesting about the treatments for me however was not their impact on my addiction, but the evidence they provided for the reality of chakras. Prior to these treatments, I had known about the theory of bodily chakras, but I didn’t really believe in their existence. Chakras seem like quaint ideas from another realm and time, but that changed after the first treatment. The doctor, as part of her treatment strategy, put a pin in my stomach in the exact location where the solar chakra is said to be located. The insertion of the pin immediately set off waves of emanating energy in my body. I experienced the waves of energy as positive feelings of wellbeing and power. I lay on the bed smiling for a good twenty minutes while the pin stimulated the chakra. That is evidence!

I have to say, my initial experience with addictions acupuncture provided a powerful, confirmatory experience, and while I did not jump up from the bed and run around yelling, “I believe, I believe”, the experience did get me thinking about chakras and energy centers in the body. Indeed for me, and perhaps for scientists with a sophisticated approach to evidence, the feelings and energy rushes would be powerful confirmation that something was going on. By contrast, somebody approaching this experience from an epistemologically simple perspective may discount the experience as subjective, unmeasurable, self-delusional, placebo. That would be quite unfair and unfortunate, since the experience was real and the evidence quite convincing. Powerful subjective feelings coupled with a literal cure to my addiction present a strong case. Taken alone, this case may not provide the same generalization as a simple and controlled approach might, but when you couple it with ten thousand years of Chinese tradition, collections of case study data, the direct observation of people involved, and subjective reports, the phenomenon presents as at least worthy of additional consideration.

A more sophisticated approach need not accept outright the evidence provided by anecdote, tradition, and case study. A sophisticated approach may still ask critical questions about bias and placebo and it may still work to develop controlled methodological approaches. That said, a sophisticated epistemological approach will be more open to the possibilities suggested by the experience, more likely to look for additional confirmatory evidence, and more likely to pay attention. As for myself, I did not become a believer immediately, but I did start to think, read, research, and experiment. I did not become convinced until a few years later when a lowly acupuncturist cured my alopecia where three or four Western doctors had completely failed. Cured addiction, cured autoimmune disease, and my own experiments eventually convinced me that there was much more going on beneath the surface than met the proverbial eye. To make a long story short, I eventually accumulated enough evidence to convince myself that chakras did indeed exist. The rest is, as they say, history.

The point of all this is simply this. Keep an open mind and take a sophisticated approach to evidence. I am not the first one to say this, but the realities that we are dealing with here are subtle, complex, and sometimes difficult to discern, at least at the outset. Evidence piles up over time and it becomes increasingly difficult to discount things like chakras, consciousness, and mystical visions, but at the start, it is very easy to dismiss, especially if your approach to evidence is too simple. Your best hope of properly applying the seventh pillar here is to keep your standards of evidence open and sophisticated. Of course, I am not suggesting that you believe everything you come across without sensibility or discernment. If nobody has ever said this to you, then allow me to be the first to tell you (as I have throughout this book), when it comes to religion and spirituality, there is a lot of silliness, stupidity, and snake oil out there. You don’t want to get suckered in, distracted, or turned away from authentic spirituality by all that jazz. At the same time, you can take skepticism and criticism too far such that it also harms your ability to see, understand, and make forward spiritual progress. It is best to take a sophisticated and balanced approach. Be open and sophisticated when it comes to evidence, but remain critical and inquiring when it comes to discernment.


[1] It is common in the sciences to distinguish so-called “hard” sciences like physics and chemistry from “softer” sciences like sociology and psychology. The assumption is that hard sciences use “hard” methods and find “facts while softer sciences rely on softer evidence with less epistemological and ontological rigor. This way of characterizing the epistemological differences of the sciences is unacceptable. Not only is it a highly sexualized and chauvinistic presentation, but it implies that softer sciences are somewhat impotent when compared to the “alpha-scientists” using their “hard” methods. To counter this chauvinistic presentation, feminists have suggested that we use the terms “dry” versus “wet” to distinguish natural versus social, but this just reverses the sin. I prefer to suggest that natural sciences, because their subject matter (atoms, molecules, compounds, etc.) is simple, can get away with less sophisticated methodologies. By contrast, sciences like psychology, sociology, history, and so on require more complex and sophisticated approaches.

Cite This Article

Michael Sharp (2015). Authentic Spirituality – Empirical Sophistication. The Sociology of Religion. []

By: Dr. S.

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