Much of my scientific work has been about plants and the development of forms in living organisms. I’ve also worked in tropical agriculture at the International Crops Research Institute in Hyderabad, in India. More recently, as a Fellow of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, and Director of the Perrott-Warrick Project, I’ve been working on the unexplained powers of minds.
My work is essentially field-based: studying the sense of direction in homing pigeons in pigeon lofts; filming dogs in people’s houses; filming people at home receiving phone calls, or in schools; research in real-life conditions; and some online experiments that people can join in. I log the results, analyse the data, and publish papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals.
There’s now evidence that minds extend far beyond brains, and much of my research involves looking at phenomena that suggest interconnections between minds at a distance. For example, the sense of being stared at implies that, just by looking at somebody, you can affect them, and there’s now experimental evidence that this is indeed the case. I summarised this research in The Sense of Being Stared At. There’s also evidence that animals are telepathic, and many dogs, cats, and other pets pick up their owner’s intentions, often telepathically; so I wrote Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home.
Among humans, the commonest form of telepathy is telephone telepathy, whereby people think of someone who then rings. I’ve shown experimentally that this isn’t just coincidence. In experiments where people had four different callers, when the caller was selected by the experimenters, at random, the subjects guessed who was calling very significantly above the chance level of 25 per cent.
Although these phenomena are often called paranormal — beyond the normal — I think they’re thoroughly normal, everyday phenomena. And they’re not uniquely human: animals often have better psychic abilities than humans. But these psychic phenomena are not, in themselves, spiritual: they’re part of our biological nature.
I do think that animals have a spiritual nature, but it’s a minority position. That God is in nature, and everything is sacred, is not a majority Christian view, which would be that, for example, saying grace before meals sacralises eating, whereas a dog eating his dinner is not sacred. Most Christians I know don’t have any objection to factory farming. Animal-rights activists do, but they’re not the same people as the average churchgoer. In terms of environmental destruction, the record of Americans — great churchgoers — is appalling.
Most people take it for granted that nature is unconscious and inanimate. That’s the view of nature I try to deconstruct in [my book] The Science Delusion, but our whole civilisation is split. In working hours, our mechanistic world-view rules the roost; but, at weekends, people are Romantics, and want to get back to nature in a car, clogging the roads with traffic on Friday nights. The Romantic view of nature isn’t usually connected with Christian traditions: it’s more animistic, neo-pagan. A lot of people say, “My church is being outdoors — that’s where I find God.” They may experience God in nature, but they call it “Nature” or “Spirit”. One of the great challenges of theology is to reconcile this split, in panentheism.
[Sir David] Attenborough recognises that animals aren’t just machines; but that non-mechanistic view doesn’t necessarily lead to a belief in God for him or people who watch his programmes. Connecting God with nature doesn’t happen because theology — especially Protestant theology — separated them. That’s one of the reasons why there’s a real effort needed to reconnect Christianity with its roots in the living world. Cathedrals of the Middle Ages were a product of the worldview that doesn’t see God as separate from nature.
My research is controversial, because materialists believe, as a matter of faith, that all these phenomena are impossible. They assume that minds are nothing but the activity of brains, and confined to the insides of heads. Biologists and psychologists are usually the strongest believers in the materialist worldview, and some are far more dogmatic than my fellow Anglicans. I wrote The Science Delusion about the ten central dogmas of science, because science is being held back by uncritical dogmatic thinking.
In Science and Spiritual Practices, I describe seven practices that have been investigated scientifically. Research shows that religious and spiritual practices generally make people happier, healthier, and live longer; so I’m writing both for people who follow a religious path, and those who aren’t religious but are open to spiritual practices. For example, many people meditate, even though they are not part of any formal religion, and they benefit because meditation reduces blood pressure, stress levels, helps them sleep better, and counteracts depression.
As a practising Anglican, I take part in all seven — meditation, the practice of gratitude, connecting with nature, relating to plants, singing and chanting, rituals, and pilgrimage — in a Christian framework.
The practices that relate most closely to historical events are rituals such as the Passover, or the eucharist, which allow us to connect with that original event, and all those who have taken part in it ever since.
Carrying out spiritual practices for a pragmatic reason does not make them unspiritual. A great deal of religion is undertaken for pragmatic reasons. People pray about things they care about: for example, for the health and well-being of their nearest and dearest. If one motivation for being religious is to be saved rather than damned, that’s pragmatic.
The main difference between religious people and atheists is that religious people believe that there are forms of consciousness beyond the human, including God, spirits, and angels. Most atheists are materialists who believe that all mental activity is confined to brains and there aren’t any forms of higher consciousness — though many still meditate or sing together, or connect with nature for the benefits that they experience inside their own bodies. But it may well be that they also change their point of view as a result.
There is large-scale secularisation of spiritual practice, but isn’t it better that people are doing something which could lead to a deeper understanding? They’ll find that out themselves, and it will be more powerful for them if they do.
If you want to learn meditation, you can learn it online or go on courses; but if you want to learn how to pray, it’s much harder. It’s taken for granted that you know how, even if no one has ever taught you. A recent survey in The Guardian reveals that about 50 per cent of people in Britain pray every day — far more than go to church — but without much guidance. There are good books on prayer, but you’ve got to be in a churchy world to find them. The Church of England could be very much more effective if it ran courses on how to pray. People might learn that the best way to pray is to pray together — to go to church.
I helped set up choralevensong.org, which tells you where to find choral evensong anywhere in the UK more easily (News, 9 October 2015). [Choral evensong] is one of the Church of England’s greatest treasures, and most people are completely unaware of it. I took a neighbour-friend of mine, who’s an atheist, and now he’s one of the most regular members of the congregation. It’s a very attractive way to re-enter Christianity. For young people who’ve all read Harry Potter, it has the tradition and ceremonial which fascinates them.
Last year, we organised receptions in cathedrals, and invited local people such as teachers, hoteliers, councillors, and businesses to choral evensong, followed by a reception in their town hall. They all said: “This is amazing — and we didn’t know that it was happening.” Some of the congregations tripled. So, if I was running a church or a cathedral, I’d have massive promotional campaigns. Matins is also much more accessible for non-Christians than the parish eucharist, which is very good for bonding Christian communities.
I fast during Holy Week. Asceticism can be important in a spiritual pathway, but it doesn’t in itself imply holiness. Some people fast for purely health reasons, or to look more attractive; and many sportspeople have ascetic training regimes, which are about winning rather than about helping others. Holiness literally means being connected to the whole, and this has strong moral implications.
I pray every day, starting with the Lord’s Prayer, praying for the coming of the Kingdom of heaven. Exactly what form it will take, or how the world in its present state will move towards it, is often unclear, but what gives me most hope for the future is the possibility that, through prayer and God’s providence, we’ll be guided to a better way of living on this beautiful planet and with each other.
The teacher who influenced me most was Fr Bede Griffiths, a British Benedictine monk. I lived in his ashram in South India for two years in my thirties, and wrote A New Science of Life there, about morphic resonance, my hypothesis of memory in nature.
If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d choose him as my companion, because he was always radiantly present — open, inclusive, non-threatening. He was essentially inclusive in his attitude to other religions and other people, and always spent time with visitors to his ashram. He brought out the best in people, and they always came away from him radiant. He was also very inclusive intellectually — very grounded in Western philosophy and depths of Christian theology, like Aquinas integrating the best aspects of Greek philosophy and Christianity, with a deep grasp of the Upanishads and Hindu understanding of reality.
Dr Rupert Sheldrake was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.
The book, Science and Spiritual Practices: Transformative experiences and their effects on our bodies, brains and health is published by Coronet.