Science, Spirituality, and Dualistic Fundamentalism

At some point on the learning journey, many scientists and philosophically-inclined students are apt to wrestle with the relationship between science and spirituality. When we feel tension regarding the relationship between science and spirituality, we may adopt a variety of beliefs, whether through conscious deliberation or acceptance of the status quo. We may decide that science and spirituality are completely separate, yet compatible, domains. We may decide to embrace one and reject the other as invalid. Or, we may push away from the subject altogether.

Sometimes, we pick and choose rather arbitrarily between scientific and spiritual explanations depending on the circumstances. Thereby, increasing the inconsistency between our beliefs and actions. We may say that we do not believe in spirituality, yet talk to God on a daily basis. Or, we may say that we are not scientifically-minded people, yet proceed to rely on empirical evidence to train our doctors and teachers. If we want to take a step closer to clarity and consistency (regardless of our conclusions), we need to be free to explore science and spirituality without relying on societal approval. Currently, neither academia (one of the homes of science) or the church (one of the homes of spirituality) truly offers an environment that encourages this type of exploration. This tension is particularly relevant in the field of psychology, which will be my area of emphasis.

The history of the intersection of science and spirituality offers examples of religious institutions’ reluctance to embrace scientific findings. For example, evidence for a spherical Earth, provided initially by philosophers like Aristotle, was rejected by some influential religious leaders, including Lactantius (AD 240-320) and Cosmas Indicopleustes (AD 550).1 Religious institutions were also reluctant to accept Copernicus’ heliocentric universe (although there is considerable debate to what extent, given that the relationship between Copernicus and the Catholic Church is complex).2 When writing these historical examples, it is important to note that many of the scientifically-minded individuals responsible for these revolutionary findings believed in God and spirituality, including Aristotle3 and Copernicus.4 Academia arose out of monasteries and was originally governed by the church.5 Therefore, painting the history of science and spirituality as a dichotomy between spiritual figures and atheist thinkers is unrealistic. Instead, it is more accurate to state that religious institutions wrestled with revolutionaries who frequently arose out of the same religious circles.

When placing scientists into religious or secular boxes becomes increasingly difficult, we are left wondering whether there is another force undergirding the historical tension between science and spirituality? This is where taking a closer look at philosophies that hinder the exploration of science and spirituality is necessary. One philosophy that I believe has continued to stall open exploration of science and spirituality is dualistic fundamentalism.6 Here, the term refers to a worldview that emphasizes the strict separation of the mind, body, and spirit. As a result of the dualistic fundamentalist belief, an individual who embraces this philosophy will likely be opposed to any critique or rigorous study of her or his belief system. The study of the belief system is rejected because the individual adopts the stance that these beliefs are completely distinct (and, therefore immune) from any form of logical criticism.

Instead of judging another person that embraces this philosophy, note that all human beings are dualistic fundamentalist at one point or another. And when we really believe that our belief system is beyond logical critique, we are more likely to stop listening to any evidence that points in a different direction. Perhaps, evidence that points in a different direction triggers our fears and insecurities. Perhaps, overtime we avoid these conversations altogether because of the discomfort they elicit. Regardless of the reason that we still (in some contexts) embrace dualistic fundamentalism, this dynamic was also present when Copernicus was proposing his theory.

Imagine that you live in the early 16th century. Every day you look up at the sky and observe that the Sun appears to revolve around the Earth. The Sun rises in the morning, and falls in the evening. Moreover, you heard that the other side of the world has sunlight when it is dark on your side of the planet. You were never formally trained in the scientific method. Your sight is your best measuring stick. Thus, what reason do you have to listen to Copernicus and his heliocentric model? It is not the only competing theory, and as far as you can tell, it appears to contradict what you can deduce through direct observation. The idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun may even trigger discomfort or pain. Not only is it embarrassing to admit that your logic was flawed, but you will also be a minority voice articulating this novel idea. For individuals who believed that science could play no role in answering this particular cosmological question, they had decided that their theory was beyond critique.The consequence was shutting down a learning opportunity, rather than encouraging deeper exploration.

The field of psychology would also clash with dualistic fundamentalist perspectives, particularly in its early years. In the late 1800s, the novel idea that the mind could be studied scientifically was in stark contrast to the prevailing notion that only materialistic, nonhuman phenomena could be studied scientifically. In addition, the public argued that, unlike rats and monkeys, it was unethical to place a human being under the microscope. With the Enlightenment, Descartes challenged these views by proposing bidirectional dualism, which argued that the body could influence the soul and the soul could influence the body.7 Nevertheless, it was not until two centuries later that early physiologists, such as Johannes Müller, began to seriously experiment on the human body. And, in 1879, the first official psychology lab was founded at the University of Leipzig in Germany by Wilhelm Wundt.8 In accordance with the trajectory of public interest, Germany’s first psychology labs had strict scientific protocols. Topics such as sensory perception and reaction time were much more characteristic of these early labs than psychopathology or social concerns. Even these experiments were met with considerable resistance due to their use of human subjects and the variability inherent in psychological findings. Given the strong initial resistance to psychology, early psychological experimenters equipped themselves to resist dualistic fundamentalist beliefs that shut down experimentation. Likewise, when public interest in studying spiritual phenomena would eventually increase, psychologists generally worked to disprove spirituality in order to establish psychology as a rigorous science alongside physics and chemistry.9 Here, it is crucial to note that the main goal was not to openly consider whether spiritual phenomena could be a part of reality. Instead, the main goal was to advance an emerging discipline that found itself caught between public demands and academic pressure.

Today, the field of psychology has migrated away from its anti-spirituality approach and many religious associations are embracing psychology as a science. Nevertheless, tension between science and spirituality (rooted in the field’s convoluted history) is still present today. In some religious institutions, psychologists and psychiatrists have a reputation for being spiritually unwelcoming. On the flip side, in academia, religious institutions are often portrayed as rigid and unintellectual. There is resistance toward working with religious institutions on common goals and a subtle sense of fear and defensiveness that permeates spiritual and religious exploration. Of course, the stereotypes are not helpful, yet we all need to change our philosophy if we are going to make progress in reducing academic and religious fear. At this point, allow me to interject a counterargument that I have heard from my acquaintances that distance themselves from spirituality. Some individuals who do not believe in spirituality believe that the optimal way to address spirituality is to reject any exploration of the subject. Nevertheless, these two positions do not need to go-hand-in-hand. Censorship and dualistic fundamentalism never served society. Combating spirituality in a way that is dogmatically opposed to exploration perpetuates the same ills of the past. Continuing to dialogue about science and spirituality is one way forward: openly exploring and reducing defenses.

Thankfully, many open-minded practitioners have challenged dualistic fundamentalist ideals by emphasizing that our physical, mental, and spiritual health are intricately intertwined. Taking an antidepressant not only impacts our mood, but likely will impact our thoughts and behaviors as well. Mind, body, and spirit are intricately linked. As spirituality and academia continue to wrestle, the dualistic fundamentalistic mindset will continue to die. In all of this, we have a role to play. We can become aware of our own biases and false dichotomies. We can find opportunities to initiate, rather than shut down, uncomfortable dialogue. We can choose to openly wrestle with the deeper questions of human existence.

  1. Jeffrey, R. (1991). Inventing the flat earth. History Today, 41, 13-19. 

  2. An astronomy professor at Ohio State University describes the “ambivalence” that characterized the relationship between Copernicus and the Catholic Church. Pogge, R. (2005, January 2). A brief note on religious objections to Copernicus. An Introduction to Solar System Astronomy. Retrieved from 

  3. McClymont, J. D. (2010). Reading between the lines: Aristotle’s views on religion. Acta Classica, 53, 33-48. 

  4. Milosz, C. (1983). The history of Polish literature. Berkeley: University of California Press. 

  5. Havlidis, D. R. (2015, March 20). Medieval education in Europe: A force of freedom and submission. Retrieved from 

  6. The words dualism and fundamentalism are not easy to define. In this essay, I used the term fundamentalism to emphasize that I am referring to strict, dualistic beliefs. Note that I am not commenting on dualistic moral beliefs (i.e., the assertion that there is ultimate evil or good). Instead, my focus is on mind, body, spirit dualism. Therefore, please take my definition with a grain of salt, rather than making a direct comparison with the myriad of ways that the term dualism or fundamentalism is used in other blog posts. It gets messy. I chose to use this term because there are many forms of dualism, and I believe that the word fundamentalist (in this context) emphasizes the rigidity and defiance that characterizes the philosophical stances that have halted our progress toward understanding reality. 

  7. Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, E. S. (2012). A History of Modern Psychology (10th ed.) Belmont, California: Wadsworth. 

  8. Nicolas, S., & Ferrand, L. (1999). Wundt’s laboratory at Leipzig in 1891. History of Psychology, 2(3), 194-203. 

  9. Coon, D. (1992). Testing the limits of sense and science: American experimental psychologists combat spiritualism. American Psychologist, 47, 143-151.