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Sam Woolfe

Sam Woolfe is a London-based writer and blogger with a particular interest in psychedelics, philosophy, mental health, and psychology, as well as the connections between these subjects. His work has been published by Philosophy Now, the Institute of Art and Ideas (IAI), the Partially Examined Life, and Epoché Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter and find more of his work at www.samwoolfe.com.

Published on the Secular Web

Modern Library

Embracing the Aliveness of Nature without Spirits

Animism—the widespread belief among indigenous groups around the world that natural features like plants, rivers, rocks, and mountains are alive and animated by anthropomorphic spirits—is widely considered to be the oldest form of religion. Following the work of Justin Barrett, Stewart Guthrie, and others, the human propensity to attribute humanlike traits to natural objects is a plausible extension of an evolutionarily adaptive hyperactive agency detection device ubiquitous throughout the animal kingdom. After all, the false positive detection of an imaginary predator is much less costly to survival and reproduction than the false negative dismissal of a real one. In this essay journalist Sam Woolfe argues that a "soft animist" need not posit that personhood permeates the natural world in order to preserve the essential animistic sense of responsibility to respect and protect nature in all of its aliveness. In this sense animism can signify not a particular metaphysical viewpoint, but rather the beneficent relationship to nature that such a viewpoint has traditionally inspired.

Secular Ecstasy: Mystical States without the Supernatural

During a mystical experience, one's awareness of the external world is greatly reduced and the focus is centered on the interior and spiritual awareness of an ostensibly divine presence, interpreted as God in the monotheistic traditions. Such experiences can be felt by many to be confirmation of a supernatural reality. Yet it is worth emphasizing that not everyone will eschew a naturalistic view of the world following such experiences. In this article Sam Woolfe explores the idea of "secular ecstasy," an ecstatic experience of the "divine" without a belief in a mind-independent divinity—a meeting with a God who ceases to exist when the experience is finished. Woolfe argues that this marrying of a secular or atheistic worldview with mystical states is in no way contradictory, and that by respecting and integrating these aspects of secular ecstasy, an individual can deepen the sense of well-being felt in everyday life.

Toward a Naturalized Spirituality

Among secular rationalists, the term spirituality is often criticized as being vague or meaningless at best, or pseudoscientific at worst. But secularists can acknowledge a rational middle ground between these two extremes. Building upon eminent psychologist Abraham Maslow's lesser-known concept of "self-transcendence" atop his more famous original hierarchy of needs (whose pinnacle is self-actualization), Sam Woolfe weaves concepts from humanistic psychology and the philosophy of psychedelics to advance a concept of spirituality grounded in the realization of our innate capacities within awe-inspiring experiences that situate us fully in the present moment and allow us to transcend our normal personal identity in ways that lead to meaningful improvements to our well-being and life satisfaction. A metaphysical naturalist can thus reasonably understand the process of transcending limitations for the sake of oneself and others as fundamental to leading an authentic spiritual life without any need to posit the existence of supernatural entities, forces, or realms.

How Psychedelics Can Ease the Fear of Death within a Naturalistic Framework

Psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy has great potential to resolve existential concerns underlying much psychological distress, having produced reduced death anxiety in terminally ill patients, the most meaningful experiences of patients' lives, and a greater sense of connection to nature, one's own emotions, and other people. In this essay Sam Woolfe concentrates on the potential of psychedelics to alleviate death anxiety since that existential concern has the most propensity to instill terror, as evidenced by (among other things) philosophical and theological systems constructed to nullify it. Why are patients able to overcome their fear of death during a psychedelic experience? While psychedelics can radically change people's metaphysical beliefs to include belief in an immaterial soul and supernatural realms and entities, they can also produce a heightened sense of spirituality that's grounded in the natural world alone by expanding a person's sense of connection to community, society, the planet, and the universe. Since this enlarged self is not completely annihilated by death even on naturalism, psychedelic experiences can open people up to seeing death as nothing to fear as a final Epicurean release from suffering.