A Sociologist Looks at Spiritual Growth in America


A Sociologist Looks at Spiritual Growth in America

Written in 1991, this is the first in the series of the “late” Madison papers. I am clearly starting to think about what to DO.  It is extremely interesting to me that the Inglehart book is another piece that I just stumbled upon. No one recommended it. I wasn’t looking for it. I had never heard of it. I just happened to to find it on a shelf in the stacks of Memorial Library at the University of Wisconsin. But it is a pivotal work for understanding the present age.

“New-age” personal growth methods have been rising up spontaneously out of the social mass for approximately twenty years now. They are all responding to the same social condition.

Ronald Inglehart (Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, Princeton, 1990) observes that since World War II the advanced industrial societies have had three successive generations of economic sufficiency. He says, “The overall pattern is clear: wealthier nations tend to show higher levels of life satisfaction than poorer ones.” (pp. 31-32) It shows up as “the rise of Postmaterialist values.” By “Postmaterialist values” he means an interest in the top two levels of Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. These are the social and self-actualization needs, as opposed to the physiological/material needs of the bottom two levels.

Throughout the history of pre-industrial society, and continuing well into early industrial society, population tended to increase to meet the available food supply—at which point food became the limiting factor. It determined how most individuals spent most of their time and effort. … As long as getting enough to eat is the crucial problem for most people, economic determinism provides a reasonably good first approximation in attempting to explain human behavior. In advanced industrial society … economics remains important, but it is no longer the critical factor. Motivations of prestige and self-realization become more salient. (pp. 431-432)

Inglehart’s data shows that in the past few decades “a substantial number of Postmaterialists” has shown up in advanced industrial societies. This means on the order of five percent of the adult population. These people are interested in more than just physical survival. They are interested in “self-actualization” and “fulfillment.”

If we turn then to the researches of people such as Ken Wilber (E.g., Transformations of Consciousness: Conventional and Contemplative Perspectives on Development. Boston, Shambhala, 1986.) we can get much more specific about the actual content of “self-actualization” and “fulfillment.”

Wilber and others have compared the developmental systems of Eastern religions and Western psychology. They find much agreement on the nature of personal growth. They propose a “full-spectrum psychology”, a description of the stages a person’s consciousness goes through from the womb to the highest levels of spiritual awareness.







conception to 6 mos


form bodily basis


6 – 18 mos.


form libidinal self objects


18-36 mos.


distinguish self from objects


3 – 6 yrs.


form mental self


7 – 14 yrs.

concrete operational

learn rules & roles


13-18 yrs.

abstract thinking

form self-conscious self


18 yrs. on


open self-system to spiritual ground


20s on

advanced vision-logic

distinguish self from body


20s on

archetypal intuition

distinguish self from archetypal realm


20s on

unitive self

union with ground


The early stages are the familiar ones discussed in the works of people such as Erik Erickson, Jean Piaget, Maslow, Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan. The later stages, of mysticism and contemplation, are discussed in Eastern treatises such as the Mahamudra and the Yoga Sutras. (Each stage has more aspects than the ones indicated in the table above. E.g., inputs required to complete development, principle pathology of each stage, treatment for each pathology, social symbol-system, and form of social organization associated with the dominance of the stage.)

Inglehart’s Postmaterialists are making a transition involving stages five, six and seven: from the dominance of abstract thinking to integrated whole-brain awareness that Wilber calls “vision logic.”

We should be clear about the positive function of abstract thinking. It is a high order of human achievement and completes the work of earlier stages of development. A civilization based on the achievements of abstract thinking has the resources of science, technology, modern financial systems and corporate organization to enhance the quality of human life. These are no small accomp-lishments, but if they are not completed by the later stages, they become destructive.

Thus there is a two-fold impetus to further growth. (1) Success at the lower levels invites the developmental thrust to the higher levels: the educated classes of industrial society seek more authentic spiritual fulfillment. (2) Fixation at a particular stage destabilizes the organism. Rational systems can produce extreme imbalances in the distribution of wealth and out-of-control violence. Nor can guilt remedy these problems. The attractiveness of the alternative does this. We will consume less material goods when we enjoy consuming less material goods.

On the personal level, when individuals move from the dominance of the rational to integration, they encounter all the content of their psyche. This includes the deepest elements of repressed pain generated by the harsh pedagogy of industrial society. (Recently the Swiss psychiatrist Alice Miller has shown just how widespread is such pedagogy.) This is the source of the commonplace neuroses of the western world: lonliness, self-pity and greed. It also includes the ineffable ground of human existence discussed by all spiritual systems.

Encounter with ultimate ground is a growth-issue encountered in former ages only in the best monasteries with the most advanced teachers. But it has always been a transition to which the human organism is naturally open when the resources of proper nurture are provided.

So, as the Postmaterialists seek growth they run into the split-off elements of their self-system that they repressed/dissociated under a regime of harsh pedagogy. The new-age personal growth technologies address this problem. Since the need is great and the pace of change is rapid, these experiments show a wide variety of quality. Some are half-baked, some are ingenious but have significant pieces missing, and some approach maturity. We are learning that there are many valid methods for growth. We are learning that talking is not enough to do the job; we also need movement, touch, silence, music.

So we are now in a tricky situation with regard to spiritual growth. The seeker is advised to experiment indeed, but carefully.