AskDefine | Define spiritism

Extensive Definition

Spiritism is a spiritualist philosophical doctrine, established in France in the mid-nineteenth century.
Spiritism, or French spiritualism, is based on books written by French educator Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail under the pseudonym Allan Kardec reporting séances in which he observed a series of phenomena that could be only attributed to incorporeal intelligence (spirits). His assumption of spirit communication was validated by many contemporaries, among them many scientists and philosophers who attended séances and studied the phenomena. His work was later extended by writers like Leon Denis, Arthur Conan Doyle, Camille Flammarion, Ernesto Bozzano, Chico Xavier, Divaldo Pereira Franco, Waldo Vieira, Johannes Greber and others.
Spiritism has adherents in many countries throughout the world, including Spain, United States, Japan, Germany, France, England, Argentina, Portugal and especially Brazil, which has the largest proportion and the greatest number of followers.


In his introduction to The Spirits Book (the first volume of the Spiritist Codification series) Allan Kardec claimed to have coined the term "Spiritism" to name the movement he was initiating because "new things deserve new names". However, much like the word daemon (which in Greek mythology merely designated supernatural beings and spirits, and had no negative connotation), the word Spiritism was eventually appropriated by non-Spiritists as a derogatory term for the various movements and religions that practiced mediumship attributing to them an evil concept, in an attempt to "demonize" Spiritism and the other religions. Religions that were at one time called "Spiritism" are Candomblé, Umbanda, Cao Dai, Santería, Quimbanda, Santo Daime and a host of African Diasporic and animist traditions. Such confusion is less common today, as the followers of various religions tend to emphasize the use of their own proper names.
Spiritism began as part of the Spiritualist movement that emerged in the mid 1800s. In its broad sense, Spiritualism is any philosophical or religious movement that opposes materialism . In its narrower sense, it is any movement that believes that spirit entities exist and that human beings can engage in spirit communication and mediumship. Therefore, Spiritism is Spiritualist.
Kardec reaffirmed that on the cover of his groundbreaking work "The Spirit's Book". Another famous author in the Spiritualist movement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included a chapter about Spiritism in his book "History of Spiritualism" confirming that Spiritism is Spiritualist (but not vice-versa). As consequence, many Spiritualist works are widely accepted in Spiritism, particularly the works of scientists Sir William Crookes, Sir Oliver Lodge and other intellectuals.
In the early 20th century, the broad Spiritualist movement faded and the surviving ones in America and England reorganized themselves in a religious movement, incorporating many aspects of a church organization (mass, pastoral leadership, chants, donation baskets). In the USA the name Spiritualism has sometimes been used to address this group only.

Character of Spiritism

Spiritism is not a religion. Rather, it is a philosophy with scientific roots and moral consequences that studies on rational basis concepts of religiosity and faith. It is a science that studies the relationship between incorporeal beings (spirits) and human beings, as defined by Kardec in "What is Spiritism?" book ("Qu'est-ce que le Spiritisme"). It is devoid of liturgical rituals, although certain format ritual activities are engaged. Spiritist rituality can be compared to the way in which a surgeon prepares for an operations. For someone ignorant of medicine, the surgeon's ritual of preparation by taking a shower, washing the hands carefully with "holy" hot water, dressing a specially sterilised "blessed" garment, gloves, and mask, and lifting the hands high to protect them from contact with non-sterilised objects before the surgery would appear to this ignorant to look like a religious rite.
The religious aspects of Spiritism include praying to God, the ultimate causal principle/source of all things and beings. In the Spiritism, the concept of God does not need to be seen as a religious belief, but can be perceived as a natural and somewhat necessary hypothesis within the Spiritist paradigm in order to explain the good and interconnected nature of all human beings.
Making an anology to science, the conception of God is not unlike current scientific paradigms of cosmology: According to current scientific theories, the Big Bang is conjectured as the causal origin of the Universe, and yet the Big Bang per se is the moment where physical laws as we know break down. Therefore it is impossible for science to completely describe what the Big Bang is in the current paradigm, although some characteristics may be inferred from the Universe we see today, for example, from uniformity of the Cosmic Microwave Background. In the same way, Spiritist doctrine conjecture God as the causal origin of the soul/spirit that is immaterial in its essence, not causally related to the Big Bang. Spiritism does not define what God is, but simply describes some of its attributes which have been observed in Nature and in the inlimited power of human beings to achieve the highest levels of altruism, love and compassion.
In accordance with its scientific approach, in Spiritism, prayer is not a rote ritual, since no specific words or prayers matter, but only the quality of a person's thoughts and intentions matters. This concept is in accordance with three decades of experiments have been validating the power of thoughts. Remarkably, are said to have shown that the power of thoughts and prayers is multiplied in group gatherings; an idea also in agreement with Spiritist studies and practice.
The Spiritist moral principles are in agreement with the ones taught by prominent figures like Jesus, Francis of Assisi, Paul the Apostle, Buddha or Gandhi and are, therefore, universal. The philosophical side is concerned with the study of the moral aspects in the context of living an eternal life in spiritual evolution through processes of reincarnations, as revealed by a multitude of Spirits and indicated by a multitude of researches. The scientific inclinations of the Spiritist paradigm can be found in the works of Sir William Crookes, Ernesto Bozzano, the Society for Psychical Research, William James, Charles Richet (Medicine Nobel Prize), Prof. Ian Stevenson 's group at University of Virginia , and Prof. G. Schwartz at University of Arizona, among many others. A good account of the early works can be found in.
The main characteristics of Spiritist movement is the emphasis on the study and investigation of the Spiritist Doctrine in its triple aspects, scientific, philosophical and moral.
Spiritism fulfills the role of the Consoler that was promised to mankind by Jesus (which interprets the Consoler as being a doctrine, not a person) to "reestablish all things in their truer meaning", since as a Science, Spiritism is in search of the truth of our spiritual nature, not biased by one person/prophet opinion only. Spiritism does not have believers, since everybody is invited to question its principles and it does not seek to convert any believers from other religions.


Developments leading directly to Kardec's research were the famous Fox sisters and the phenomenon of the Talking boards. Interest in Mesmerism also contributed to the early Spiritist practice.


Emanuel Swedenborg ( Swedberg) (January 29, 1688March 29, 1772) was a Swedish scientist, philosopher, seer, and theologian. Swedenborg had a prolific career as an inventor and scientist. Then at age fifty-six he entered into a spiritual phase of his life, where he experienced visions of the spiritual world and claimed to have talked with angels, devils, and spirits by visiting heaven and hell. He claimed of being directed by God, the Lord Jesus Christ to reveal the doctrines of His second coming.
From 1747 until his death in 1772 he lived in Stockholm, Holland and London. During these 25 years he wrote 14 works of a spiritual nature of which most were published during his lifetime. Throughout this period he was befriended by many people who regarded him as a kind and warm-hearted man. Many people disbelieved in his visions; based on what they had heard, they drew the conclusions that he had lost his mind or had a vivid imagination. But they refrained from ridiculing him in his presence. Those who talked with him understood that he was devoted to his beliefs. He never argued matters of religion, and if obliged to defend himself he usually did it with gentleness and in a few words.

Fox sisters

Sisters Catherine (1838–92), Leah (1814–90) and Margaret (1836–93) Fox played an important role in the creation of Spiritualism. The daughters of David and Margaret Fox, they were residents of Hydesville, New York. In 1848, the family began to hear unexplained rapping sounds. Kate and Margaret conducted channeling sessions in an attempt to contact the presumed spiritual entity creating the sounds, and claimed contact with the spirit of a peddler who was allegedly murdered and buried beneath the house. A skeleton later found in the basement seemed to confirm this. The Fox girls became instant celebrities. They demonstrated their communication with the spirit by using taps and knocks, automatic writing, and later even voice communication, as the spirit took control of one of the girls.
Skeptics suspected this was nothing but clever deception and fraud. Indeed, sister Margaret eventually confessed to using her toe-joints to produce the sound. And although she later recanted this confession, both she and her sister Catherine were widely considered discredited, and died in poverty. Nonetheless, belief in the ability to communicate with the dead grew rapidly, becoming a religious movement called Spiritualism, and contributing greatly to Kardec's ideas.

Talking boards

Just after the news of the Fox affair came to France, people became even more interested in what was sometimes termed the "Spiritual Telegraph". In the beginning, a table spun with the "energy" from the spirits present by means of human channeling (hence the term medium). But, as the process was too slow and cumbersome, a new one was devised, supposedly from a suggestion by the spirits themselves: the talking board.
Early examples of talking boards were baskets attached to a pointy object that spun under the hands of the mediums, to point at letters printed on cards scattered around, or engraved on, the table. Such devices were called corbeille à bec ("basket with a beak"). The pointy object was usually a pencil.
Talking boards were tricky to set up and to operate. A typical séance using a talking board saw people sitting at a round table, feet resting on the chairs' supports and hands on the table top or, later, on the talking board itself. The energy channeled from the spirits through their hands made the board spin around and find letters which, once written down by a scribe, would form intelligible words, phrases, and sentences. The system was an early, and less effective, precursor of the Ouija boards that later became so popular.
Allan Kardec first became interested in Spiritism when he learned of the Fox sisters, but his first contact with what would become the doctrine was by means of talking boards. Some of the earlier parts of his Spirits' Book were channeled this way.

Franz Mesmer

Franz Anton Mesmer (May 23, 1734March 5, 1815) discovered what he called magnétism animal (animal magnetism) and others often called mesmerism. The evolution of Mesmer's ideas and practices led James Braid (1795-1860) to develop hypnosis in 1842.
Spiritism incorporated and kept some practices inspired or directly taken from Mesmerism. Among them, the healing touch, still in Europe, and the "energization" of water to be used as a medicine for spirit and body.


Spiritism blends together notions taken from Christianity, Positivism and Platonism.

Basic books

The basic doctrine of Spiritism ("the Codification") is defined in five books written and published by Allan Kardec during his life:
  1. The Spirits' Book — Defines the guidelines of the doctrine, covering points like God, Spirit, Universe, Man, Society, Culture, Morals and Religion.
  2. The Book on Mediums — Details the "mechanics" of the spiritual world, the processes involved in channeling spirits, techniques to be developed by would-be mediums, etc.
  3. The Gospel According to Spiritism — Comments on the Gospels, highlighting passages that, according to Kardec, would show the ethical fundamentals shared by all religious and philosophical systems. This may be the first religious book to acknowledge the existence of life elsewhere in the Universe, based on Jesus' saying "The houses in the realm of my father are many" (John, 14, 1-3).
  4. Heaven and Hell — A didactic series of interviews with spirits of deceased people intending to establish a correlation between the lives they lead and their conditions in the beyond.
  5. The Genesis According to Spiritism — Tries to reconcile religion and science, dealing with the three major points of friction between the two: the origin of the universe (and of life, as a consequence) and the concepts of miracle and premonition.
Kardec also wrote a brief introductory pamphlet (What is Spiritism?) and was the most frequent contributor to the Spiritist Review. His essays and articles would be posthumously collected into the aptly-named tome Posthumous Works.


The five chief points of the doctrine are:
  1. There is a God, defined as "The Supreme Intelligence and Primary Cause of everything";
  2. There are Spirits, all of whom are created simple and ignorant, but owning the power to gradually perfect themselves;
  3. The natural method of this perfection process is reincarnation, through which the Spirit faces countless different situations, problems and obstacles, and needs to learn how to deal with them;
  4. As part of Nature, Spirits can naturally communicate with living people, as well as interfere in their lives;
  5. Many planets in the universe are inhabited.
The central tenet of Spiritist doctrine is the belief in spiritual life. The spirit is eternal, and evolves through a series of incarnations in the material world. The true life is the spiritual one; life in the material world is just a short-termed stage, where the spirit has the opportunity to learn and develop its potentials. Reincarnation is the process where the spirit, once free in the spiritual world, comes back to the world for further learning.

Relation to Jesus

Jesus, according to Spiritism the greatest moral example for humankind, is deemed to have incarnated here to show us, through his example, the path that we have to take to achieve our own spiritual perfection. The Gospels are reinterpreted in Spiritism; some of the words of Christ or his actions are clarified in the light of the spiritual phenomena (presented as law of nature, and not as something "miraculous"). It's only because of our own imperfection that we can't achieve similar things; as we evolve, we will not only understand better, but we will be able to do similar things, for all spirits are created equal, and are destined for the same end.

Evolution and karma

Spiritist Doctrine stresses the importance of spiritual evolution. According to this view, we are destined for perfection; there are other planets hosting more advanced life forms, and happier societies, where the spirit has the chance to keep evolving both in the moral and intellectual sense. Although not clear from Kardec's works, later writers elaborated on this point further: it seems that we cannot detect more advanced life forms on other planets, as they are living in a slightly different "plane" from ours, in the same way the spiritual plane is superimposed over our own plane. There is no scientific evidence to back this claim directly, but researches on reincarnation and near death experience support the survival of the soul after death and the existence of incorporeal beings (spirits).


The communication between the spiritual world and the material world happens all the time, but to various degrees. Some people barely sense what the spirits tell them, in an entirely instinctive way, while others have greater cognizance of their guidance. The so-called mediums have these natural abilities highly developed, and are able to communicate with the spirits and interact with them by several means: listening, seeing, or writing through spiritual command (also known by Kardecists as automatic writing). Direct manipulation of physical objects by spirits is also possible; however, for it to happen the spirits need the help (voluntary or not) of mediums with particular abilities for physical effects.

Spiritist practice

Kardec's works do not establish any rituals or formal practices. Instead, the doctrine suggests that followers adhere to some principles regarded as common to all religions. The religious experience within spiritism is, therefore, largely informal.


The most important types of practices within Spiritism are:
  • Regular Meetings - with a regular schedule, usually on evenings, two or three times a week. They involve a short lecture on some subject followed by some interactive participation of the attendants. These meetings are open to anyone.
  • Medium Meetings - usually held after a regular meeting, only those deemed prepared or "in need" of it are expected to attend.
  • Youth and Children's Meetings - once a week, usually on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings, are the Spiritist equivalent to Christian Sunday schools.
  • Healing
  • Lectures - longer, in-depth lectures on subjects thought to be "of general interest" which are held on larger rooms, sometimes at theatres or ballrooms, so that more people can attend. Lecturers are often invited from far away centers.
  • Special Meetings - special séances held in relative discretion which try to conduct some worthy work on behalf of those in need
  • Spiritist Week and Book fairs.


Spiritism is not seen as a religion by its followers because it doesn't endorse formal adoration, require regular frequency or formal membership and claims not to be opposed to science, instead trying to harmonize with it. It should be noted, though, that there's no acceptance to Spiritism in mainstream science and that its belief system is largely coherent with the notion of religion (that doesn't include regular frequency, membership, formal adoration or declared opposition to science).
Spiritism is practiced in different types of associations, formal or not, which can have local, regional, national or international scope.
Local organizations are usually called Spiritist centres or Spiritist societies. Regional and national organizations are called "federations", as the Federação Espírita Brasileira and the Federación Espírita Española , while international organizations are termed "unions", such as the Union Spirite Française et Francophone .
Spiritist centres (especially in Brazil) are also often active book publishers and promoters of Esperanto.


Spiritism shares its roots with many other religions and denominations, mainly Christianity and Western traditions. It is unknown the extent of the influence of Hinduism, Buddhism and Shamanism over the doctrinal aspects of Spiritism, as set by Allan Kardec because the mentions of such religions are sparse in all his works. Kardec, however, acknowledges the influence of Socrates, Plato, Jesus and Francisco of Assis; as well as the religious tradition of Greek and Roman Paganism.

Spiritism in popular culture

Despite being little known by the population at large; many works or art contain allusions to facts, circumstances and concepts that resemble some spiritist beliefs:


  • Ghost, with Demi Moore and Patrick Swayze was perhaps one of the earliest depictions of an after-life moderately similar to Spiritist teaching. It was highly popular among Brazilian Spiritists too. Swayze plays the role of man that is killed by a petty thief, leaving his wife (Moore). He, as a ghost, makes contact with a "psychic" played by Whoopie Goldberg and manages to help his wife before finally leaving earth.
  • The Sixth Sense, starring Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis, is perhaps the better known film approaching the thematic of Spiritism. Cole Sear (Osment's role) is an infant medium facing the disbelief of everyone.
  • What Dreams May Come, starring Robin Williams, Annabella Sciorra, Cuba Gooding Jr and Max von Sydow depicts an afterlife remarkably similar to the concept advanced by Spiritism, down to the tiniest detail. After his own death, Williams' character seeks to rescue his wife from damnation for committing suicide.
  • Shutter depicts a passably accurate situation of obsession, complete with physical manifestations and materialization of a spirit.
  • The Others (2001) depicts what happens to spirits who do not realize that they are actually in spirit form, according to Spiritist doctrine.
  • Sole Survivor, a 1970 TV-film starring Vince Edwards and Richard Basehart, begins with a B-25 bomber crashing in the Lybian desert during WW2 and all crew members onboard dying. Decades later, the wreck is spotted and an Air Force team is sent to investigate the crash site. The spirits of the dead bomber crew, unaware of their disincarnate condition, are still there, waiting for a salvage expedition to find them. The behaviour of the dead in this story is in accord with Kardecist teachings and Spiritist theory.

Soap operas

In Brazil three soap operas have been produced entirely based on the concepts of Spiritism. Another soap opera, Terra Nostra included a subplot of a young man obsessed by the spirit of his mother's youth lover who had been killed by his grandfather.
  • "A Viagem" (The Journey), produced in 1976/77 by the extinct Tupi TV had a complex plot involving mediumship, death, obsession, reincarnation, etc. It was remade by Globo TV in 1994.
  • "O Profeta" (The Prophet), produced in 1977/78 also by Tupi TV and also remade by Globo TV (2006/07) included spiritism as one of the philosophies trying to explain the main character's gifts, including being able to predict the future.
  • "Duas Caras" (Double Sides), currently being aired by Rede Globo includes a character, namede Ezekiel, who is an a born-again Christian but is being challenged by manifestations of his mediumship.


Until World War I

Spiritism began attracting criticisms almost immediately once formulated. Kardec's own introductory book on Spiritism, What is Spiritism?, published only two years after The Spirits Book, includes a long dialogue between his persona and three idealized critics, "The Critic", "The Skeptic" and "The Priest", which as a whole summed up most of the criticism Spiritism received since then: of being charlatanism, pseudoscience, heresy, anti-catholic, witchcraft and/or a form of satanism. In further books and articles published in his periodical, the Revue Spirite, Kardec kept addressing these and other criticisms until his death in 1869. Later, a new source of criticism came from Occultist movements such as the Theosophical Society, who saw the Spiritist explanations as too simple or even naïve.
Even though these criticisms were sharp, there was little variation in them until roughly the end of World War I.

Interwar period

As the interwar period saw a sharp decline in the number of Spiritists, so did works critical of their beliefs. One notable exception was René Guénon's 1923 book The Spiritist Fallacy, in which he criticized both Spiritism specifically and the more general concepts of Spiritualism. This work, coupled with Guénon's earlier Theosophy: History of a Pseudo-Religion (1921), inaugurated the Traditionalist School's broad critique of modernity, a new approach that clashed with modern philosophical concepts, on which most of the new religions and "spiritual movements" based their foundations. Another was the development of the modern discipline of Parapsychology in the 1930s.

Traditionalist School

The Traditionalist School in general, and René Guénon in particular, criticizes Spiritism from many angles. Among these, the most general are its criticisms of what it sees as Spiritism's materialism and moralism, and its reliance on the reincarnationist hypothesis.
Guénon starts by criticizing Spiritism's concept of reality. According to him, ancient religions understand that time and space are limited and finite aspects of a much broader, unlimited reality that encompasses, transcends and determines material reality. For them perpetuity, i.e., an unlimited amount of time, is different from eternity, the timeless, beyond-time source of time itself, much in the same way that a huge distance, even an unlimited one, is different from but has its source in infinity. Having thus a clear distinction between eternity and mere time, and between infinity and mere location, these ancient religions can focus on reaching eternity and infinity, or even the Absolute beyond both. Spiritism, on the other hand, lacking this distinction, can only strive for finite goals inside time and space, which is the cause behind it placing perfection in the distant future, as the state of "pure spirit", and in a distant somewhere, a "celestial planet", i.e., as sums of finite lapses of time coupled to an hierarchy of places, in this way confusing the infinite-eternal happiness with a much lower sequence of happy states inside spacetime.
It is this strong focus on solely material time-spatial realities, in the afterlife and even as the ultimate goal, that leads traditionalists to label Spiritism as a prime example of spiritual materialism.
Spiritism also affirms that, being God supremely just and good, morality underlies Creation, and therefore that any attempt at understanding nature requires moral valuation. The Traditionalist School counters this assumption by arguing that, although all ancient religions in fact have each a moral aspect, they all also agree in that their moral aspects pertain to the realm of the relative, not to the ultimate reality proper, i.e., that it does not apply to God Himself.
Another specific criticism is the way Guénon counters the belief in reincarnation by targeting modern egalitarianism. While Guénon does not agree with Spiritism that morality is a fundamental aspect of reality, being at best relative and secondary, he however argues that, even if one concedes that to be the case, the notion that the reincarnation hypothesis accords with that supposed moral foundation while the "a single life only" one does not, is nonetheless false.
The argument goes like this: Spiritism states that individuals are all created absolutely equal, and that this egalitarian creation is a necessary manifestation of God's Justice, God being "supremely good and just". Consequently, Spiritists say, acts performed by individuals in previous lives supposedly account for their current differences.
However, Guénon argues that it cannot explain how the very first differences came to be, as either: a) choices made by each individual back in their origin were at random, for, being absolutely equal, there is no room for different individual preferences to exist at an earlier stage, what means that this very first random choice is a de facto original differentiation, regardless of any considerations to the contrary; or b) individuals simply were not all created equal. As the practical result of either approach is the same, an original, inescapable differentiation must be concluded.
Thus, if we insist on holding that reality is fundamentally moral, then we must agree that the above mentioned differentiation is itself moral too. That being the case, then "all" further differences, deriving as they do from that original differentiation, are also moral, and therefore no objective thresholds can be set to deem as just or unjust differences below, above or within their ranges.


Post-World War II

As criticisms of Spiritism diminished in Europe for lack of followers towards whom directing these criticisms, after World War II they continued to be developed in Brazil, were the religion got a firm hold to this day. Among these the works of Catholic priests such as Franciscan Bishop Dom Carlos José Boaventura Kloppenburg, who wrote extensively in the 1960s and 1970s from a post-Vatican II perspective against Freemasonry and new religions, Spiritism included, and Jesuit Parapsychologist Oscar González Quevedo, who writes also extensively on how Parapsychology supposedly proves invalid Spiritism's claims of being a science, are well known, with Quevedo himself having hosted a long series of paranormal debunking newscasts on Globo's hugely popular Sunday prime time news show Fantástico, and many Brazilian Spiritists having written rebuttals for both authors' works.
Scientific skeptics also target Spiritism frequently in books, media appearances and online forums accusing it of being a pseudoscience. And some ex-spiritists, such as medium Waldo Vieira, accepting the criticisms that accuse Spiritism of having failed at becoming a science, but not accepting these critics view that it cannot reach that goal if properly worked, leave Spiritism to start new, Spiritism-based movements intended in actually reaching it, such as Vieiras' own Projectiology.
More recently, since the Traditionalist School began spreading in Brazil in the 1980s, Traditionalists also began criticizing Brazilian Spiritism on the grounds provided by Guénon's original approach, two examples being Theravadin Upāsaka Ricardo Sasaki's 1995 book The Other Side of Modern Spiritualism: Understanding the New Age, and philosopher Olavo de Carvalho's derisive comments on both Kardec's and Blavatsky's specific teachings, as well as, on a more general level, on the "habit" Brazilians would have of taking seriously religions and philosophies that no one follows anymore abroad, mentioning Spiritism, the Positivist church and syncretisms inspired by African polytheisms as the main examples of this behavior.


External links


Groups and societies

Skeptical views

  • Channeling - at the Skeptics' Dictionary;
  • Medium - at the Skeptics' Dictionary;
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