Melding scientific with spiritual What happens in a 'spiritual transformation'? Metanexus' research project elicits strong interest.

Posted: October 13, 2002

When the Metanexus Institute on Science and Religion solicited research proposals for studying "spiritual transformation," its officials didn't expect to be inundated with 500 applications.

Proposals arrived from 21 countries, outlining research on topics such as the evolution of personal spirituality after childbirth, among cancer survivors, and among Vietnam veterans.

Scientists proposed examining changes in the brain during prayer and the effect a religious CEO can have on corporate culture.

"What we know right now is mostly from the traditional religious [sources]," said Solomon Katz, president of the University City-based institute. "We are trying to form a new field of research with great ethical concerns and a scientific method of study so that we can understand what this process is all about."

Katz is overseeing a $2.5 million research program that he hopes will fill a void that scholars say exists because of the historical divide between the realms of science and faith.

The Spiritual Transformation Scientific Research Program will examine the biological, social, psychological and cultural factors that underlie the transformation of individuals and groups.

Metanexus, a scholarly organization funded by the John Templeton Foundation, will award 20 grants of between $75,000 and $150,000 to specialists to study the process of spiritual transformation in a variety of contexts.

Sixty finalists selected from the pool of 500 attended a conference last week at the University of Pennsylvania. Participants discussed scientific methods of study and interdisciplinary approaches to spiritual transformation, and held one session just to consider a definition of the term.

Spiritual transformation is a dramatic change in world and self views, purposes, religious beliefs, attitudes and behavior, say institute officials.

According to scattered findings now available, the experience can be brought on by stress and anguish, can evolve through rigorous religious practices, or can occur spontaneously. Manifestations may be in the form of intensified devotion, a shift from no spiritual commitment to a devout one, or a change from one faith to another.

"Traditionally, transformation happens because of suffering, love and beauty," said James K. Wellman, assistant professor of Western religious traditions at the University of Washington.

Wellman has submitted a proposal that asks whether the transformation makes a difference in a business climate.

"Does spiritual transformation lead to an ethical life, and what are the problems along the way?" said Wellman, author of Gold Coast Church and the Ghetto, a study of a wealthy Chicago congregation's outreach ministries. "Can corporate culture overwhelm individual spiritual transformation so that maybe it doesn't matter?"

Scholars trace scientific investigation of spiritual transformation to philosopher William James and his ground-breaking book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902). In a publication derived from a series of lectures in Scotland, the Harvard professor urged that religion be considered as an individual emotional experience, and examined what happened to people because of their beliefs. Until then, scholars primarily studied God, but James focused on the believer.

The gulf between science and religion remained until about 25 years ago.

Since then, significant research has included studies described in The Transformed Self: The Psychology of Religious Conversion, a 1989 book by Chana Ullman. Ullman compares "conversion processes" across different religious groups, including converts to Orthodox Judaism and Roman Catholicism. She found that the major issues motivating transformation were emotional, involving problematic family relationships, unhappy childhoods and a history of troubled personal relationships.

A 1998 study found that a sample of Christian college students who had either "sudden" or "gradual" transformations experienced a change in how they viewed themselves and improvement in their sense of personal adequacy and competency.

A 1996 study of converts to Islam found that intellectual concerns about the "meaning of life" and emotional distress preceded conversion.

A 1994 study found that 52 subjects considered their spiritual transformations turning points in their lives. They reported an increase in the "sense of meaning," a decreased sense of something missing in life, and increased happiness, satisfaction, and a closeness to God.

Another result, says research scientist Helen Black, can be a calling to help others. Black has studied the elderly and issues of suffering, death and poverty in her work at the Polisher Research Institute of the Madlyn and Leonard Abramson Center for Jewish Life in Jenkintown. Her Metanexus proposal is to investigate the spiritual experiences of people who work in long-term care of the elderly.

In interviews she has already conducted, Black has found that caregivers have often undergone a severe trauma and emotional loss.

"I want to have a better understanding of the spiritual backbone of people who say they are called to do work that many consider the dirty work," Black said.

Researchers Andrew Newberg and Nina P. Azari are each the co-author of studies that use measures of blood flow to the brain as a way of examining neurological occurrences during religious activities.

Newberg, of the University of Pennsylvania, and Azari, of the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, have found that sections of the brain involving rationality, reason and high-order thinking are activated during religious activity such as prayer and meditation. Other researchers view religious activity as the domain of emotion.

Spiritual-transformation research has implications for studies in neuroscience, psychology and health care, where scientists have found that religious people tend "to be healthier, do better, and cope better," Newberg says.

On the other side, studies will illuminate why a prayer or hymn moves people and why behaviors and beliefs often change, Newberg said.

"There are tremendous implications on both the spiritual and scientific side," Newberg said.

Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 215-854-2791 or

comments powered by Disqus