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Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Two


You can read part one here.

Scott Peck  was a psychiatrist and author of The Road Less Traveled. His framework was more conclusion than starting point for me, as I’d done a lot of reading before I stumbled across his work. However, it seems useful, and should give more clarity to where some of the authors in later series posts fit in.

Of particular interest, he posits that skeptics, agnostics and atheists, are actually more spiritually advanced than fundamentalists! (Not something you’re likely to hear preached from pulpits.) However, he also noted that after going through an atheistic stage, some went back to being religious, but not the same sort of religious views they held before. He labels this Stage IV as “Mystic.” (Note that mystic is a very problematic term, since it’s used by such a wide variety of people, from monks in monasteries, to tarot card readings at the county fair. The tarot card reader is probably not really a mystic as it’s used here. Alas, I’ve yet to find a better commonly understood term.)

The description of the types of people rings true from what I read. The description of how groups of people of various stages get along (or don’t) in a group was also interesting.

An excerpt to whet your appetite appears below, but follow the link to read the full description of the stages and how they interact with each other:

M Scott Peck Stages of Spiritual Growth (link no longer active)

Over the course of a decade of practicing psychotherapy a strange pattern began to emerge. If people who were religious came to me in pain and trouble, and if they became engaged in the therapeutic process, so as to go the whole route, they frequently left therapy as atheists, agnostics, or at least skeptics. On the other hand, if atheists, agnostics, or skeptics came to me in pain or difficulty and became fully engaged, they frequently left therapy as deeply religious people. Same therapy, same therapist, successful but utterly different outcomes from a religious point of view. Again it didn’t compute–until I realized that we are not all in the same place spiritually.

With that realization came another: there is a pattern of progression through identifiable stages in human spiritual life.

STAGE I: Chaotic, Antisocial. [….]

STAGE II: Formal, Institutional, Fundamental. [….]

STAGE III: Skeptic, Individual, questioner, including atheists, agnostics and those scientifically minded who demand a measurable, well researched and logical explanation. [….]

“Despite being scientifically minded, in many cases even atheists, they are on a higher spiritual level than Stage II, being a required stage of growth to enter into Stage IV. The churches age old dilemma: how to bring people from Stage II to Stage IV, without allowing them to enter Stage III. ”

STAGE IV: Mystic, communal. [….]

You can also read more in the Wikipedia about M. Scott Peck and the Four Stages of Spiritual Development.

Peck seemed surprised that there were different types of religious people, i.e., Stage II and Stage IV, with very different perspectives, despite both claiming to follow the same religion. During my reading prior to this, I’d also been surprised to find a few religious authors with whom I could actually agree with respect to much of what they wrote that seemed to fit into Peck’s Stage IV. Essentially, I was slowly becoming aware that this other category of mystics even existed, and I suspect that many others are also unaware that such a category exists.

Some liberal Christians are probably at the boundary between stage II and Stage III, and they simply waffle back and forth. They are usually uncomfortable with some of the fundamentalist theology, but aren’t quite willing to become atheists, and often have no clear explanation for why they accept some parts of the Bible but not others. However, some liberal Christians are Stage IV. I’d guess they have a clearer idea of what they believe and don’t believe, and why.

My guess is that most of Bruce’s readers are at the boundary between Stage II and Stage III, or solidly in the Stage III camp. Stage IV people are pretty rare overall, and hence probably rare among Bruce’s readers too.

To Be Continued….


  1. Avatar
    Bruce Gerencser

    My difficulty with Peck’s four levels is that he assumes all humans are spiritual. I suspect many atheists would have a big problem in being categorized this way. That said, atheist Sam Harris does talk about human spirituality. For me personally, I just don’t see the need. I readily admit that my religious past likely keeps me from seeing such things in a favorable light.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      The words Spiritual and Mystic are used in widely varying ways, so perhaps part of your repulsion is from the words chosen and now they’re quite commonly used. Alas, there don’t seem to be any better words available that are commonly understood. However, if you read the article the excerpt linked too, the way Peck explains spirituality by the examples he uses, I suspect fewer people would object, as the examples he uses are people that seem pretty sane, and not caught up in “woo-woo.”

      Sam Harris is coming in a future post. He notes that when he reads someone like Meister Eckhart, he often knows what Eckhart is talking about. So my interpretation is, that some phenomenon exists, although the cause of that phenomenon doesn’t mean that the theology of the person experiencing the phenomenon is correct.

      Another post coming up is from Susan Blackmore, a scholar that studies consciousness and memes, who had an out-of-body experience that at the time she thought was a paranormal astral plane experience, but through extensive experiments over the following decades, she now believes it’s just the way the brain works. Again, the phenomenon exists, in multiple cultures with different theologies.

      Or, stated another way: “With all this horse manure, there’s gotta be a pony in there somewhere!”

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    I’m always suspicious when a genuine person of science arrives at these types of conclusion. Neuroscience in particular has an especially poor record in this regard, for example Ben Carson and Evan Alexander.

    The word ‘spiritual’ is so wide as to be almost meaningless. At one end are the loonies; fortune tellers, exorcists, mind readers, some of whom are so deluded they actually believe what they say. At the other end are people who simply see nature, those who can contemplate the more appealing parts of the world around us, switching off, if only briefly, from the less appealing.

    I have grave doubts that there will have been hordes of atheists through his doors transforming into mystics. Perhaps the odd person who hasn’t really thought through their beliefs, but not the considered atheist, who reaches their conclusion by reason. I haven’t read the book, and nor do I intend to, but I may check through some reviews.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      I agree “Spiritual” is broad and almost meaningless. However, there doesn’t seem to be a better word. If you read the actual examples he gives of the people in each category, I don’t think he’s talking about the real flakes. Reads to me like univeralist type people.

      And he’s a long way from a Ben Carson, who I suspect was raised Fundamentalist and never questioned it, despite being an accomplished neurosurgeon.

      Re: “…Perhaps the odd person who hasn’t really thought through their beliefs, but not the considered atheist, who reaches their conclusion by reason.”

      Perhaps your concept of mystic or religious is to anchored by your own experience. Is your comment directed at the words, or the examples of the people he used?

  3. Avatar

    Annie Dillard, in her wonderful Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writes about walking around in the Pacific Northwest. In her regular wanderings she one day comes upon a ‘tree on fire’. The reader (this one anyway) goes up in a poof of smoke at the expression of this moment with Dillard. I do not claim it as anything but gloriously human, being suddenly, completely alive in the senses and lifted from within.
    Emily Dickinson once spoke of the effects of real poetry, a human effect: If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.
    Human life is not simply explainable. Science is a response to awe. One moment is enough to humble the brain. I like the word, mystery. It stays out in front of me no matter where I go. When somebody says, God did it, I answer, No speaky English, no speaky speaky…
    Wonder and mystery are free with the breath we take and not the result of torture on Crosses or the sacrifices of the ages. The fact that we suffer wonder or celebrate mystery is just that dang human conundrum… trapped by joy, bubbling in misery, you name it.
    I have always been interested in the need to invent the suffering Perfection of a God, to kill off the Jesus and drink blood. We are not far from the caves, not ever it seems but we have Science and Poetry. We have our humanity.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      I’m not very familiar with Annie Dillard, but checking a list of her quotes, she seems to have a number of interesting things to say, eg:

      “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. ”
      ― Annie Dillard


      Like you, I do not ascribe these effects as “god,” however, reviewing the mythology of multiple cultures around the world, these sorts of sentiments are often buried in their culture’s mythology. Of course, it’s also found in poetry and art.

      Today, particularly due to the religious right’s involvement with politics over the last few decades, the willingness of many to identify as “religious” when they’re in Stage IV is probably much lower than at the time Peck’s books were published.

      eg, a comment on Amazon that summarizes the survey results from the book unChristian shows just how negatively Christianity is viewed by younger non-believers:

      • Avatar

        David Kinnaman reflects what has essentially been my observation over the past many years: Christianity, no matter its ‘ownership’ of the definition of ultimate love in Christ, is at its heart a harmful belief. It harms people and trains them to harm others. It goes into the streets to name-call and condemn and suggests this is the basis of love in Christ. It terrifies us as children and cajoles us to speak falsehoods for love, for familial rewards and life everlasting! That many young people seem pissed at Christianity shows that young people are not lost at all and are able to react to harm done to them. Even those brainwashed in American nationalism faith!
        The Authority raises his hand to harm and says with reverence, I do this for your own good and to obey my holy master. Then the Authority, the parental or whomever, proceeds to harm, to disrespect basic humanity. They commit these acts on little children and they do it to adults as well. Patriarchal sickos like Steven Anderson, like Doug Wilson bully and prey over their flock. They make money mocking detractors. They are doing God’s dirty work.
        Nobody brought up with basic respect given them, with basic love, would ever tolerate such abuse but there are millions of us who were not really loved and respected as children but were abandoned, were trained up for the army of Christ, or abandoned for the bottle, were given over. I would never read the heinous tales of the Bible to a child and say it is truth. I maintain that those who do are abusers of human innocence, bullies. They serve a vicious master and give up their human loves, their own children. Sometimes criminals in prison claim that their new-found faith in Christ set them free from bondage to one criminal life or another. I absolutely believe them, that they have substituted one form of harm for quite another. It works for them. When the old man took his son to the stone to gut him as a sacrifice, he did it for the voice that ran him. He did it in a kind of trance or psychosis, as I read it. What father with an inkling of love for his son would ever have begun to listen to such commands, such voices…. not a one, of course! You have to be responding to voices, to believe the sounds are commands from the magic man who might destroy you and all your family at any moment. Sad that such a sick story garners such adoration and wonder in churches. Very near Stage One faith, wouldn’t you say? Right next door to pure chaos, to mayhem.
        They smile at me when I say this and tell me that one day I will see. I will answer to God. Stage One? Fresh from the caves?

        • Avatar
          Kindred Spirits

          Yes, there are many abusers in Christianity. However, when college football coach Joe Paterno was fired after it was revealed he did not report an incidence of paedophilia that occurred by one of his sub-coaches, there was rioting, not caused by religion.

          Or witness all the deaths that have occurred due to the leader of a country following a idealogy like communism. Or the nationalism of Germany or Japan during WWII. Or the various right-wing authoritarian regimes in Latin America over the last century. The infamous Milgram experiment writ large in the history books. So blaming religion alone seems to leave all the other ways of creating that same chaos off the hook.

          The human species seems to fall into chaos far too easily. Too many leaders are socio-paths with a will to coerce many other people, willing to use any tool at their disposal, whether religion or ideology. Too many people seem to willingly go along with whatever the latest grand concept is, disregarding any clues of that concept’s inhumanity along the way.

          Along the way, there are a rare few that manage to see past fervor of the moment. Surprisingly to me, some of those people identify as religious. Investigating these people, their own view of what their religion teaches is quite different from what the average (Stage II) person, or the average skeptic (Stage III) thinks the religion teaches.

          • Avatar

            As I repeat ad nauseum, I see religion as a tool. People who are damaged (and many of us are) easily latch on to this tool to continue their harmful ways. Religion is a virus that decent human beings can live with and still do good; both you and I and several others 😉 see this often enough. Still, over all, I am getting the hint? that you feel religion is a good thing sometimes in certain Stage cases?
            There is one sure way to improve the world as we know it: Learn to love our children and not harm them. They will then be unwilling to tolerate bloody Cross Christian imagery. They will say Stop! when others tell they that they are fallen and useless without Christ. They will look after themselves and suffer the frog effect when abused. Please do not try to inform me or anyone else just what religion teaches. There is too much harm done and you cannot change it.

  4. Avatar

    I know Peck’s “The Road Less Traveled”. It made a whole lot of sense to me when I read it about 15 years ago and was an important step in confronting my depression and dysfunctional marriage without destroying my faith completely.
    I disagree with Kindred Spirit’s classification of most readers here as being somewhere in Stage III. While that is likely the assessment most would give of themselves if they used Peck’s scale, I see several Stage IV people here or at least close to it. Kindred Spirit, our host Bruce and frequent commenter Brian are Stage IV in my opinion, the later two, perhaps to their protests otherwise. There are likely others as well. This essay is a “Stage IV post” (duh), and Bruce has built this wonderful community. I think community building classifies as inherently communal, thus Stage IV. Brian reminds us above that wonder, mystery and poetry are not the exclusive domain of any Stage, but the birthright of every human. Again, quite communal with elements of mysticism (mystery). Bruce and Brian profess Stage III, but they seem to be “living” Stage IV. In my opinion the political Religious Right professes Stage II but wants Stage I to reign going forward (see Donald Trump, et al). And like that old adage says, actions speak louder than words. Namaste.

    • Avatar
      Kindred Spirits

      I agree with you that there are Stage IV people here. However, from some of Bruce’s past comments, my impressions are:

      1) There are several hundred to in the thousands of readers, most of whom do not comment.
      2) He gets private emails from people who are struggling with their faith, which I presume means they’re on the border between Stage II and Stage III.

      I think he was had a rough estimate of how many were atheist or agnostic, and that’s probably a bit of a majority. If they don’t comment, there’s really know way to know where they really are.

      So, if there are 10 commenters that you think are Stage IV, but there are 200 readers, most of whom are likely not Stage IV, that is only 5%. If there are 1000 readers, then that is only 1%. So there’s a really large number of readers out there that are really unknown. While there may well be a much higher percentage than among the general population, my general impression is that Stage IV is rather rare everywhere, so I assume that’s generally true here among the readers (not just the commenters) as well.

      Statistics aside, and definitions of “god”, spirituality and mysticism aside, the real point of this series is to show that from a pretty wide variety of backgrounds, there are rare luminaries that, to me at least, all seem to be saying similar things about the human condition. So for those that can’t find a tribe to belong to, that don’t fit with the typical religious group, but don’t subscribe to “whoever dies with the most toys wins” or however you want to describe current mainstream western culture, that there are in fact a few landmarks or beacons that might inspire you, even if you don’t agree with everything they say.

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