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“The Spiritual Child”

By WizenedSage (Galen Rose) ~

The 2015 book, “The Spiritual Child,” by psychologist Lisa Miller, is a poorly disguised promotion of religion in the service of child rearing. As an atheist, I see keeping children away from religion as one of the most important things we can do for our nation’s mental health. Thus, Lisa Miller and I have a fundamental disagreement on this issue.

First, a confession. I have not read the book. My comments are largely based on a review of the book by Michael Schulson and posted May 15, 2015 on religiondispatches.org. To my mind, this and a few other sources provided more than enough information to make a reasoned judgement on the practical and scientific value of the book.

Near the beginning of her book, Miller writes,

“Spirituality may not speak to you at all, but it is foundational to your child.” 

Whoa! “Spirituality” is one of the slipperiest words in the English language. I become immediately suspicious whenever I see the word.

It’s been my experience that the word “spirituality” is usually intended as just another word for god belief. Some folks mean the word in the sense of the word “awe,” as in a contemplation of a dark starry sky being a spiritual experience. The thing is, we already have a word for that, and it’s called “awe.” Secondly, the use of “spiritual” in this sense lacks clarity since the root word is “spirit,” which can mean having to do with supernatural entities.

Miller defines spirituality thus: “an inner sense of relationship to a higher power that is loving and guiding . . . spirituality encompasses our relationship and dialogue with this higher presence.” A higher power that is “loving and guiding”? While she tries elsewhere to convince the reader that spirituality doesn’t necessarily involve a god, there’s no mistaking the identity of the “higher power” she has in mind since an impersonal “higher presence,” without a mind and intentions - like a god - obviously could not be “loving.”

In places, her book slides into downright “woo.” At one point she discusses what she called “heart-knowing.” But she is not speaking metaphorically. She suggests that the heart may literally function as a “neurophysiological organ of perception, particularly in relation to intuition,” citing a paper that argues that hearts are able to perceive the future. You can’t get more “woo” than that, folks. William Harvey discovered, way back in the 1600’s, that the heart is merely a pump to circulate the blood.

Miller also cites a study that claims that psychic healers in an fMRI scanner can cause brain activation in a recipient being scanned in another room. As a reviewer on “The Beast” wrote, “These ideas aren’t incidental—Miller includes such scientifically suspect abilities like heart-precognition and psychic links as part of her six core spiritual strengths.” Obviously, what Miller accepts as science goes well beyond what most scientists would accept. She undermines her own case with this kind of shaky nonsense.

Miller discusses at length a study by Yale psychologist Paul Bloom which dealt with the responses of babies and toddlers to nice and to mean puppets. In this study, Miller found evidence of the young subjects’ “unconditional love and acceptance” and their “generous and complete” hearts – something they lost by the time the babies turn 1 and act based on “moral merit” and “contingent value.”

However, the author of The Beast review had been an assistant in Bloom’s lab and so he contacted Bloom to get his take on this experiment. According to Bloom, and contrary to Miller’s “unconditional love and acceptance” interpretation, the study showed “that even the youngest babies carve the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ and they are strongly biased to favor the ‘us.’ Babies are tribal beings, favoring those in their group and cold-blooded towards the rest of humanity. Our morality is pretty much what you would expect given that our natures have been shaped not by a loving God, but by the unforgiving force of natural selection.” So much for that “loving” spirituality.

In the religiondispatches.org interview, Miller said, “Dozens and dozens of studies send a clear signal that that personal relationship with God is 80% protective against risky sex in girls.”

Hmmm. Having my doubts about this claim, I found some intriguing data on the following site: thenationalcampaign.org/data/compare/1701. The data was a state-by-state comparison of teen birth rates among girls aged 15 to 19. Numerous data sources show that religious membership and church attendance is highest in the deep south of the US, hence the term ‘Bible Belt.” Thus, it would seem that, according to Miller, teen birth rates would be lowest in this part of the country where teens are highly likely to receive considerable spiritual guidance. What we find, however, is just the opposite. The states with the highest teen birth rates are across the south, from New Mexico east to Alabama and including Oklahoma, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and West Virginia. This is a pretty close approximation of what is termed “the Bible Belt.”

Miller’s closing remarks tell me that this woman has allowed her religious sentiments to override her science. She says, “We have multiple ways of knowing: we have intuition, we have rigorous logic, we have investigation. We need to use them all. They’re all important, valid forms of perception.”

Now, intuition may provide useful clues to lead one toward genuine knowledge, but intuition itself is nothing but a feeling. In no way can the objects of intuition be called knowledge without testing in the external world.

Then, Miller hits the “woo” jackpot with her closing statement: “But if you allow the question of what is my meaning, what is my purpose, what’s ultimate meaning and purpose? to be responded to by the heart, there can be a synthesis of deep-felt wisdom, a deep-felt clarity. That’s real. That’s not less real because it involves multiple forms of knowing. It makes full use of the human instrument to engage in life.”

Did you get that? You use “the heart” to get “deep-felt wisdom, a deep-felt clarity.” In other words, your feelings lead you to ultimate wisdom. So, when my friend felt deeply that his teenage girlfriend truly loved him, he was onto “deep-felt” wisdom. I just can’t figure out how we square that with the fact, discovered later, that she had been cheating on him with regularity, and dumped him just when he thought they were getting serious.

As I said, this woman has allowed her religious sentiments to override her science. I don’t think any atheist or agnostic – or anyone else for that matter – should have too much confidence in her book of woo. I think we would be better served by just forgetting the spirituality nonsense; if we treat our kids with love and attention, they’ll turn out just fine.


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