The subtitle of David Haye's work, Something There, is The Biology of the Human Spirit. Such a subtitle immediately raises the expectation of a “nature over nurture” approach to spirituality. While Haye presents some interesting evidence that edges in this direction, reading this book with the expectation that he has mapped out the cellular or genetic mechanism for thinking, acting, or being in a spiritual way will lead to some degree of frustration. Having said this, the book is still an essential read for any serious student of spirituality. Haye draws a number of important ideas and insights together which point to potential new directions in the field.
One of the first signs that Haye has not identified a distinctive mechanistic source for spirituality is that he delves quickly into a sociological exploration of spirituality based on seemingly significant field studies. From these observations he pulls several case studies which are meant to highlight the change in religious attitudes amongst people in the United Kingdom who might have had a religious orientation in another day and age. Through these studies he attempts to identify indications that a spiritual inclination survives even when overt religious behaviors have been set aside. The subjects of his study were arranged into six categories of purported religious or spiritual experience with two other categories also being mentioned but left empty due to the difficulty of asking the necessary questions in the survey. The first six categories include: a patterning of events, and specific awareness of the presence of God, a prayer answered, a sacred presence in nature, the presence of the dead, and an evil presence. The two additional categories, which were sadly left out, are awareness of a presence not named, and “awareness that all things are one.” He justifies the use of these first six categories as he works carefully and thoroughly through one of the most significant problematics of the discipline of spirituality: What “pertains” to this field?
Haye draws heavily on the work of Alister Hardy to move his theory along. Hardy counters both design theory and Darwin's natural selection theory, opting instead for a concept of “behavioral selection.” This explanation depends on “conscious choice” for humans and “active choice” for other creatures. Where spirituality ties in is that the choice to be spiritually aware gives an inner strength to stand up under adversity and thus adapt and evolve as needed. The argument is then made that spiritual awareness is “logically distinct from religion,” and is “the biological context in which religion can arise....” Haye goes into greater detail on what this spiritual awareness is. His use of the phrase: “a way out of existential loneliness,” hints at the kind of void that has given rise to ideas like “wish fulfillment” and the need for an object of repressed desires, but he moves the search in a more positivistic relational direction. A co-worker came up with the term “relational-consciousness” to describe the central feature of spirituality, but in order to not fall too far to either side of the nature/nurture divide, Haye advances the idea that “relational consciousness is made manifest as the primordial mode of being-in-the-world.” He is unable to identify an exact mechanism that causes this mode, but he goes to great effort to tie together various scientific studies that hint at biological support measures for acting spiritually, the most interesting of which ties reduced blood flows during meditation to the area of the brain that regulates bodily boundaries. Bringing in a historico-political analysis of the last few centuries, he finds that the tendency to be either religiously oriented or relationally aware has been tempered by such various influences as the industrial revolution's effect on time, the privatization of church, the rise of individualism concurrent with modernity, and finally a loss of the awareness of immediacy (a core component of relational consciousness) with increased literacy rates in the West. Regarding this last influence he contends that, due to growing literacy, people “acquire a disembodied, theoretical consciousness of the self, withdrawn from engagement in the surrounding environment.” His answer to this problem is to formulate better means to communicate this relational consciousness which is, by nature, very difficult to communicate. In this way he hopes to re-awaken this capacity as an antidote to many of the current social ills in the world.
Haye goes to great lengths to support his point, covering just about every avenue of research from which counter arguments could be developed, but in the end he is faced with the greatest counter-argument to any point, the theorist's, sometimes courageous, decision to take the middle ground. An argument against the social transmission of spirituality that depends on a socialization process that works against spirituality, in the end seems to still support a social explanation. But for its many other merits, read this book.