A Brief History of the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program

A Brief History of the Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program

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STPThe John Templeton Foundation first funded the Metanexus Institute to develop and conduct a program of scientific research focused on spiritual transformation (STP). In July 2001, at the formal beginnings of the Metanexus Institute, we accepted the challenge of extending the already developed constructive dialogue between religion and science into a newly emergent field, hypothesis-driven, empirical research at a transdisciplinary scientific level focused on spiritual transformation.1 As of January 2008, this $3.55 million dollar STP research project (including over $600,000 matching funds from universities, private foundations, state and federal grants and funds directly from the Metanexus Institute) had produced 45 peer reviewed papers, 5 books, 6 book chapters, 11 national and international symposia organized on ST at professional organizations, 65 published abstracts, 4 documentary films, and hundreds of published and syndicated newspaper and other media interviews and internet publications. While this record from our 22 research projects and advisory committee members is not complete (there are still publications in preparation or in review) and we await the test of time to determine the lasting significance of these scientific contributions, this record clearly shows the substantial productivity of this program, which surpassed all of our expectations.

The productivity of our project raises an important question that has been asked repeatedly of me: how did this happen? Is there anything special about STP or the topic that inspired such high productivity? This paper addresses these questions by providing a brief overview of the history of the project with the idea that a better understanding of our plans and processes will help answer these questions and help others who wish to further the emergence of transdisciplinary approaches to spiritual studies.

From the beginning we reasoned that STP was not an ordinary type of scientific research. On the one hand, scientific research on a spiritual phenomenon that is a major goal of all religions bore all of the burdens of the philosophical debate about religion and science in which many scientists flatly rejected anything to do with religion and looked upon this kind of research as a form of scientific heresy. On the other hand, many persons in and out of the religious studies community questioned the wisdom of opening up a profoundly important part of a person’s spiritual life to the lens of science. They argued that such studies might diminish the meaning of the spiritual phenomenon within a person’s life and might also diminish the meaning of the phenomenon for the wider religious community.

Furthermore, the scientific establishment had not yet grappled, in any systematic way, with designing this kind of research program. Because of this, we took several steps back and examined the entire enterprise carefully. We aimed to combine and integrate the results of studies from various fields, including anthropology, sociology, psychology, psychiatry, pharmacology, neurology, biology, neuroscience, and religious, theological, and ethical studies. This combination helped develop a transdisciplinary program of rigorous investigation into the nature of the biological, psychosocial, and cultural conditions and factors that underlie spiritual transformations of individuals and groups. Our parallel goal for using this broad integration was to build a program that would be carried out constructively and remain sensitive to the concerns of both science and religion, so that it could be a critical building block in the formation of a new field of transdisciplinary spiritual studies with an open conceptual framework within which our own and subsequent scientific studies could develop and flourish.

Growth of the Scientific Literature. To help determine the status of empirical scientific research questions about spiritual phenomena, I studied the degree to which terms such as “spiritual” and “spirituality” were being used in more than 30,000 scientific journals covered by Pubmed (the free, international web-based bibliographic service that is supported by the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) Library). I conducted a study of the use of these terms in either the title or abstract of all articles published each year. I tracked the growth of use of these terms in the medical literature each year beginning in 1976 and ending in 2002. The result shows that before the mid-1980s there was a relatively constant use of these terms and after that time, and especially after the mid-1990s, there was an exponential increase, indicating a much more serious focus on these terms in investigating their clinical significance.This demonstrated an important trend that continues today (for example, using the same criteria to search Pubmed for the calendar year 2007 showed 831 publications as compared with about 385 in 2001-2), which is an increasingly wide recognition that spirituality is considered an important dimension for understanding health concerns.


Although the NIH started funding complementary and alternative medicine in 1994, it was not until Dr. Wayne Jonas, a researcher at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, became Director of the Program in mid-1995 that it started to make a difference in the more systematic publication of work related to spiritual issues and health. This accounts for a portion of the increase seen since those times. However, this newly emerging literature only partially addresses the need for empirical research. Throughout this time, with the exception of the excellent work supported by the Fetzer Foundation under the division leadership of Lynn Underwood, there were few, if any, systematic attempts at coming to grips with how scientific research could be developed to form a field of study open to transdisciplinary research. For example, factors such as paying careful attention to standardizing methodologies used primarily by health psychologists to understand the role of spiritual and religious dimensions as factors contributing to human health represents an important step. However, even this work was limited in the fields represented and the scope of the work.

Hence, there was a real need to provide a new conceptual framework for work in this area. Clearly there was a growing belief among health scientists that spiritual states and matters were important factors to be better understood, with not insignificant skepticism from some in the psychiatric community. Previous studies of spiritual transformation were largely limited to conversion studies in the religious literature and a few seminal studies in the rest of the social science literature. Our review of the literature led us to conclude that a broader definition of spiritual transformation was needed to capture the relevant phenomena. In addition, William James’ classic work, The Varieties of Religious Experience, provided an historic waypoint for us to reconsider the scientific study of religious and spiritual phenomena more broadly.

Role of Key Questions. We believed that the questions we asked would help build a constructive approach to religion and science, in contrast to the negative approaches that were exhibited in the media and even in the literature. Our approach was to bring a legitimate scientific focus on elements of spiritual life that could be studied scientifically. This did not mean that all questions could be studied using a scientific paradigm, but rather that new insights could be derived from focusing the lens of science on those that could. We believed that a program such as ours could not be successful unless we showed respect to those people willing to be subjects and share their experience with us. Our objective was not to diminish the personal meaning of the experience, but rather to achieve greater understanding that could support advances in a variety of areas.

Our primary goal was, broadly, to help define how empirical research on spiritual phenomena could be carried out to build the field, employing dimensions not included in previous studies. To accomplish this goal we set out on two tracks:

First, we had a series of general goals, which included:

  • expanding the general knowledge base about ST;
  • creating a working definition of ST which we expected, as is the case of most scientific studies, would be changed and altered as our knowledge about it grew and evolved;
  • stimulating the development of new methodologies to improve the specificity and precision of various measures of ST;
  • agreeing on procedures to be used in the conduct of studies whenever appropriate;
  • scrutinizing the ethics of our program carefully and ensuring that we reviewed and followed every project with the highest standards;
  • working as creatively as possible to enrich the cooperation and collaboration among investigators and to provide a stimulating and supportive environment in which to conduct the research and share the results;
  • building an extended advisory board, the members of which could evaluate proposals and facilitate the broader development of the field with various kinds of syntheses, provide mid course guidance, peer review and feedback to help specific projects avoid research pitfalls (ultimately we had 38 scientific and religious advisors and reviewers representing a wide range of disciplines and fields of inquiry who brought leadership, intellectual credibility and a vast array of scientific experience in the disciplines necessary to peer review the proposed research (see List of Advisory Network in the on line PDF in STP)); and, finally,
  • establishing an overall ethos that would accelerate the further development of the field by supporting cooperation and sharing of results.

Second, because we had a mandate to conduct competitive peer review for making grants, we wanted to clarify a series of questions that would broaden the basis for conducting research and simultaneously demonstrate that we wanted the best scientific studies that could be developed. Hence, we attempted to define the parameters of the field by posing broad, carefully developed questions that crossed the usual disciplinary boundaries and were inclusive, not exclusive.

We framed questions that would expand the existing knowledge base by adding scientific paradigms that were not part of the William James legacy in psychology. We also defined the critical concepts so that the diversity of religious experience would be recognized, including spiritual transformation that results from lifelong practice as well as spiritual transformation that it results from a single experience, as the conversion literature implies. Of course, we knew in advance that it was unlikely that we would answer all of the questions we raised with the first projects we funded, but we used those questions to communicate the scientific openness of our enterprise; to stimulate novel, high quality proposals; and, ultimately, to help with the recruitment of the extended advisory board.

The questions we posed began with a heuristic model of ST that was based upon existing literature, including the excellent work carried out by Arthur Schwartz of the John Templeton Foundation (see white paper), the revitalization movement concept involving the ST of a charismatic religious leader developed by Anthony F. C. Wallace many years earlier, the epidemiological work of Sir Alister Hardy on religious/spiritual experience, and Lewis R. Rambo’s work on religious conversion, as well as the work of many other scholars of religion and history. See Questions: https://www.metanexus.net/spiritual_transformation/request/topics.html

The questions we developed were concerned with definition, pathways for various forms of spiritual transformation (both incremental and rapid), evidence about the processes of ST, the antecedent conditions, and the outcomes following ST. We solicited insights about developmental aspects, including genetic, neuropsychological, cognitive, and biosocial and cultural factors. We also focused attention on social and individual characteristics that facilitated or inhibited ST. Some questions were concerned with special states that may increase the opportunity for ST to take place, such as the use of entheogens, or the presence of psychosocial states such as depression that may increase the likelihood of its occurrence.

We recognized that there are many religious traditions that actively or passively seek to create a state in individuals and/or groups that facilitate an ST to occur as a conversion experience. These states are typically associated with prayer, meditation, worship, pilgrimage, readings of scriptures and other sacred texts and stories, “telling one’s story”, artistic endeavor, relationship toward nature, acts of service to others and other related practices. In addition, there are other practices such as fasting, use of pharmacological substances, solitude, singing/music, confession and celebration that become incorporated in religious and non-religious practices that may act to trigger or facilitate ST. We also addressed the possible differences in ST from non-religious and religious contexts, from the perspectives of the antecedents, the intensity of the experience and the outcomes, including individual, social, and political outcomes. At another level, we framed questions that encouraged the development of new theoretical models of ST. (The actual questions can be found on the STP web site at Metanexus).

A New Kind of Conference. Once we completed the basic development, we were ready to solicit letters of intent. Two major co-occurring issues influenced the reception of this project by the scientific community. First, STP was conceived and launched at a time when there was great controversy between religion and science at a national level. The active rejection of the teaching of Darwinian evolutionary theory in public schools under the leadership of the Christian religious right in the US, along with the federal funding of religious charities under the leadership of President George Bush in the year 2000, became rallying cries for secularists to reject anything that seemed to contradict the traditional separation of church and state. Many scientists loudly agreed with this position, partially out of fear that any backing away from that position would further erode the freedom of science to pursue its goals unfettered by religious dogma. In this context of unease, the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Towers and Pentagon occurred within the context of Muslim religious fundamentalism.The research program on ST was launched (coincidentally) within months of the 9/11 attack, and the association of the attack with religious fundamentalism appeared to intensify the interest in what we hoped would be our ground breaking program.

We received over 470 significant letters of intent, which was the largest number generated by any program the JTF had funded to date. We solicited letters of intent entirely on the Internet to provide equal access to scientists from all over the world. From these letters we selected 60 applicants that held excellent promise of providing significant scientific advances.Then, we held an unprecedented conference with the applicants at the University of Pennsylvania to conduct a comprehensive review of the current state of the knowledge and art in advance of them developing their full proposals for possible funding. We hoped that this approach would demonstrate a disparate knowledge base from which all prospective investigators could benefit, regardless of the outcomes of proposal writing.

This field development conference had several effects. First, it provided an in-depth review of all the critical literature on the topic from the points of view of various disciplines, and included the relevance and history of ST within all of the major religions (the conference book, “Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program: Research Conference October 5-7, 2004,” prepared by Christopher Stawski and Andrew Rick-Miller, is on line at the STP site). Second, it focused on methodology, research design, peer review processes, budgeting, and the ethical concerns about conducting this kind of research. Third, it focused on methodologies within and among disciplines in order to mix and enrich the nature of the dialog. (https://www.metanexus.net/spiritual_transformation/conference/research_conf_2002/agenda.html.)

There was an unintended consequence of our carefully planned meeting. Many investigators revealed in a survey conducted after the meeting their amazement at finding so many other respected scientists sharing their interest in spiritual transformation. Most also reported that this was the first time that they could be open about their serious interest to conduct scientific research on topics related to spiritual life, and the size of the group gave them hope and a sense of solidarity that they could work more openly in this arena. (A brief summary of the session can also be found in the research program booklet on pages 6-9 in the STP PDF;
https://www.metanexus.net/spiritual_transformation/news/index.html; click on Prospectus.)

Once we peer reviewed and scored the final proposals, selected the finalists and the finalists responded to the peer review comments by justifying and/or amending their research protocols, we were ready to embark on the next phase of our work. We inaugurated this phase at a conference held as a part of the 2002 Metanexus Annual Meeting.

Our goals at this point of the project were to focus on operational definitions of spiritual transformation and to discuss the recognition that these definitions would undergo a winnowing process, as we explored the emerging scientific and religious experiential data. We also focused on new methodologies and on improving existing methodologies by emphasizinghigh quality peer review by the finalists themselves and members of the advisory board. This peer review process was used during the reporting of mid-course results to provide feedback and advice so that mid-course corrections could be instituted to avoid serious pitfalls that would interfere with the quality of the research projects. We placed strong emphasis on new methods of measurement, which would be likely to be the future building blocks for the field. Also, by exchanging methods and discussing the pros and cons of each at an early stage of development, we put in place a cooperative ethos that would help the further development of the field and accelerate the research work. This process of sharing of results was repeated two more times as the investigators and some advisory board members met with a few invited guests. In addition, we presented aspects of some our data to the larger Metanexus community as we met in a parallel annual sessions in 2003 and 2004, allowing broader exchange to take place.

Opening STP up to Scientific Scrutiny. In 2005, the School of Public Health of the University of California at Berkeley hosted our final meeting in partnership with the Dean, Stephen Shortell, and Professor Doug Oman, one of our investigators. Dr. Shortell recognized that sharing our results with a University wide faculty (and Bay Area audience) who were known to be skeptical of research on spiritual matters, was the best objective way to demonstrate the quality of our results. In addition, Dr. Shortell believed an open presentation would help build greater faculty interest in what he recognized as an important new departure in public health studies and its integration with other disciplines within the University. This first symposium of the STP results demonstrated that our empirical scientific work could stand on its own under the scrutiny of a panel of 39 outside experts paired with each of the presentations from the UCB faculty and other major institutions. From the field formation perspective, this symposium enabled us to demonstrate the legitimacy of our transdisciplinary scientific project in which meaningful scientific questions are pursued, hypotheses are evaluated and accepted or rejected, and new sources of truth statements about spiritual transformation emerge to be discussed, examined, and retested—just as they are in the normal pursuit of scientific understanding. We were also able to share, in the midst of our concerns for intellectual and scientific rigor, a deep respect for all who served as subjects of our research. The details of this three full day symposium can be found on this URL: https://www.metanexus.net/spiritual_transformation/conference/symposium2006/index.asp. We continue to review and synthesize our work. In collaboration with Dr. Joan Koss Chioino, we have pursued a number of theoretical advances in various symposia held since the major symposium at UC Berkeley.

The Future of ST Studies. Many issues and challenges remain. We need to continue to explore new avenues of research because our scientific pursuit is bounded not only by the questions we ask and answer, but also by the questions we do not ask and those that we ask, but cannot yet answer. We also need to continue to focus on methodology, which in many respects flows directly from the new questions we ask. As new technologies become available, (neuroimaging is an example of a recent development) they enable new questions to be posed.

Our initial round of research was also limited in an important way; the research conducted in the first phase largely came from established techniques and assessment tools. We believed this was key to our early steps toward field formation because our initial projects had to succeed under the strict peer review of the validity and reliability of the methods, as well as the appropriateness of their experimental design. In the future, a greater emphasis on case studies and ethnographic research, for example, could provide very rich new qualitative data and key theoretical insights to processes that are often not amenable to study through more standard survey and quantitative research. At the same time, experimental and quasi-experimental designs as well as a full range of other innovative methodologies (e.g. multilevel modeling, accelerated longitudinal, etc.) to studying spiritual transformation are also necessary methodologies to develop further.

We also need to recognize the limitations of past research on spiritual phenomena and continue to set the record straight so that future research does not get entangled in syncretism based on inaccuracies and other limitations of the past literature. The long established literature accepted conclusions from the older Freudian literature, which prejudged the religious experience as a product of delusional thinking that was induced by various brain states or personality disorders.We reasoned that such pre-conclusions about the phenomenon on the part of scientists broke the basic rules of empirical research by reaching potentially biased conclusions without first understanding the phenomenon. We also reasoned that in addition to this scientific error, it was ethically inappropriate to pre-label these profound human experiences with any preconceived categorization which would, undoubtedly, inhibit individuals from participating for fear of stigmatization and thereby lead to potentially biased conclusions.

We are convinced that this inadequacy in the literature needs to be aired further in order to determine its impact on the rights of individuals. It is importantt hat our ethical stances help to avoid harm to the integrity of the individual’s spiritual experience. This ethical stance fitted our goal of bringing the lens of science to phenomena that some had long experienced but that had not been studied by science in an unbiased way. It was our hope that resulting new knowledge would give rise to a new field of scientific study of spiritual phenomena that is not biased. This ethical approach became a cornerstone of our field formation work and also needs to be more broadly considered in continuing the process of field formation toward a science of spiritual studies.


1 I would like to recognize the enormous help and efforts of our team members and advisory board consisting of David Hufford, my Co-PI, Billy Grassie, Byron Johnson, Joan Koss Chioino, Philip Hefner, Kenneth Pargament, Edward F. Foulks, Ralph Hood, Andrew Newberg, Karl Peters, and, in the STP program, Chris Stawski, Jim Coleman and Andrew Rick-Miller and our PR consultant, Phoebe Resnick. Also, I would like to acknowledge the great help and support of the JTF, particularly Drs. Arthur Schwartz and Jack Templeton and Pamela Thompson.