Arts & Books Books

Is playing sport really a spiritual practice?

A controversial biologist thinks so, says Michael White. But I’m not convinced

Ways to Go Beyond and Why They Work
By Rupert Sheldrake
Coronet, 336pp, £20/$25

To be a scientist in modern times has generally meant being a materialist: hostile to religion, hostile to the idea of a conscious universe, and adamant that “mind” is just the function of a selfish, self-contained and self-sufficient brain. The most high-profile public spokesman for that point of view is Richard Dawkins. But he has opponents in the scientific world, and one of them is Rupert Sheldrake: a biologist of standing (former Fellow of Clare College, Cambridge, Research Fellow of the Royal Society) who believes the mind is porous, open to connection with a deeper, broader consciousness that justifies the term “divine”. This process of connection he calls “spiritual practice”.

Some years ago he wrote a treatise that selected various examples – meditation, chanting, rituals and pilgrimage among them – and discussed their scientifically assessable effects on physical and mental health. Now he’s produced a follow-up which looks at other practices, although the ones he chooses this time take him into less conventional and sometimes downright controversial territories. It’s fair enough to talk of fasting, prayer and holy days as “spiritual”. But sport, relationships with animals and psychedelic drugs? That may be asking too much of his readers.

His argument for listing sport as having a spiritual effect depends on the phenomenon of “flow”: the cultivation of a mindful attitude that builds into a state of bliss, transcendence and intensity as what you’re doing when you score a goal or jump a hurdle activates some kind of energy beyond your own conscious intentions. And it’s something anyone totally absorbed in a skilful activity can perhaps appreciate.

But does that make it spiritual? Wouldn’t it apply to a burglar carrying out a complicated and, in its way, skilful heist? And is burglary therefore to be dignified as a spiritual practice? I don’t see it.

I have a similar problem with animals. Sheldrake has done extensive research into the possibilities of telepathic communication between dog-owners and their dogs; and, as someone who loves dogs, I’m happy to believe his findings. But to call this a spiritual practice is perhaps wishful thinking.

And when we get to drugs, things become still more problematic. Sheldrake is very interested in this subject, wading into the data with a degree of technical detail that’s strangely at odds with the rest of the book, and making much of a Brazilian Catholic offshoot that imagines it was instructed by the Virgin Mary to incorporate mind-altering substances into its worship.

By comparison he’s cheerfully straightforward on the safer ground of prayer, with statements of the obvious like “most atheists do not pray” while “most religious people do”. But then, this may not always be as obvious as it seems, judging by the example he goes on to give of a prayerful, atheistic neuroscientist who claims to sense the presence of God as a matter of faith while knowing intellectually that this is merely an activity of the right hemisphere of the brain. Challenged to defend the contradiction, the neuroscientist says that “human beings did not evolve for truth but rather for survival, and letting go of stress feels good”.

One matter very much not sorted out is a scientific verdict on the efficacy of prayer. Long-term experiments by Harvard Medical School into the consequences of praying for the sick have been at best equivocal. But there’s better news from studies in Britain, which lead Sheldrake to assert that “if a new drug had as dramatic an effect on health and survival as praying, it would be hailed as a breakthrough”.

Where this book gets truly fascinating, though, is in the chapter on cultivating kindness and morality. Richard Dawkins’s argument that humankind is programmed to be selfish, with no possibility of genuine altruism because everything we do is ultimately for our individual good, runs back through Freud to Nietzsche. But Sheldrake offers credible examples of animals behaving altruistically without immediate benefit. Even insects apparently live within collective moral codes.

Further, the growth of the positive psychology movement in recent decades is based on evidence that the default position of humankind is social, that society is real and necessary (whatever Margaret Thatcher claimed to the contrary), and that pro-social behaviour makes us happier. Indeed, if you follow the direction of the new science, in which matter is no longer fundamental because particles are not “stuff” but vibrating structures of energy, then scepticism about the possibility of what Sheldrake calls “going beyond” – the connection between a porous mind and some greater all-embracing consciousness – begins to soften.

When Rupert Sheldrake first came out as a biologist who believed in spirit, he was dismissed as cranky; an outsider figure. Now it looks as though he could be poised for a re-entry, vindicated and triumphant, into the establishment. The world, perhaps, has turned.