Spiritism is a religion, self-described as a spiritualistic philosophy, that started in the 19th century by the French educator Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, who, under the pen name Allan Kardec, wrote books on “the nature, origin, and destiny of spirits, and their relation with the corporeal world”. Spiritists refer to Kardec as the codifier.
Spiritist philosophy postulates that humans, along with all other living beings, are essentially immortal spirits that temporarily inhabit physical bodies for several necessary incarnations to attain moral and intellectual improvement. It also asserts that disembodied spirits, through passive or active mediumship, may have beneficent or malevolent influence on the physical world. Spiritism is an evolution-affirming religion.
The term first appeared in Kardec’s book, The Spirits Book, which sought to distinguish Spiritism from spiritualism.
Spiritism is currently represented in 35 countries by the International Spiritist Council. It has influenced a social movement of healing centers, charity institutions and hospitals involving millions of people in dozens of countries, with the greatest number of adherents in Brazil. Spiritism is also very influential in Cao Đài, a Vietnamese religion started in 1926 by three spirit mediums who claimed to have received messages that identified Allan Kardec as a prophet of a new universal religion.
Spiritism is based on the five books of the Spiritist Codification written by French educator Hypolite Léon Denizard Rivail under the pseudonym Allan Kardec, in which he reported observations of phenomena at séances that he attributed to incorporeal intelligence (spirits). His work was later extended by writers such as Léon Denis, Gabriel Delanne, Arthur Conan Doyle, Ernesto Bozzano, Gustav Geley, Chico Xavier, Divaldo Pereira Franco, Emídio Brasileiro, Alexandr Aksakov, William Crookes, Oliver Lodge, Albert de Rochas, and Amalia Domingo Soler. Kardec’s research was influenced by the Fox sisters and the use of talking boards. Interest in Mesmerism also contributed to early Spiritism.
Main article: Emanuel Swedenborg
Swedenborg, however, warned against seeking contact with spirits. In his work Apocalypse Explained, #1182.4, he wrote, “Many persons believe that man can be taught by the Lord by means of spirits speaking with him. But those who believe this, and desire to do so, are not aware that it is associated with danger to their souls.” See also Heaven and Hell #249
Nevertheless, Swedenborg is often cited by Spiritists as a major precursor for their beliefs.
Main article: Fox sisters
Skeptics suspected this was deception and fraud, and sister Margaretta eventually confessed to using her toe-joints to produce the sound. Although she later recanted this confession, 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, which contributed significantly to Kardec’s ideas.Sisters Leah (1814–90), Margaretta (1836–93), and Catherine (1838–92) Fox played an important role in the development of Modern Spiritualism. The daughters of John and Margaret Fox, they were residents of Hydesville, New York. In 1848, the family began to hear unexplained rapping sounds. Kate and Maggie 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 or psychography, and later even voice communication, as the spirit took control of one of the girls.
After the news of the Fox sisters came to France, people became more interested in what was sometimes termed the “Spiritual Telegraph”. Planchette, the precursor of the pencil-less Ouija boards, simplified the writing process which achieved widespread popularity in America and Europe.
Spiritism incorporated various concepts from Mesmerism, among them faith healing and the energization of water to be used as a medicine.
Difference from spiritualism
Spiritism differs from Spiritualism primarily in that it believes in reincarnation. Spiritism was not accepted by UK and US Spiritualists of the day as they were undecided whether or not to agree with the Spiritist view on reincarnation.
In What Is Spiritism?, Kardec calls Spiritism a science dedicated to the relationship between incorporeal beings (spirits) and human beings. Thus, some Spiritists see themselves as not adhering to a religion, but to a philosophical doctrine with a scientific fulcrum and moral grounds.
Another author in the Spiritualist movement, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle included a chapter about Spiritism in his book History of Spiritualism, in which he states that Spiritism is Spiritualist, but not vice versa. Many Spiritualist works are widely accepted in Spiritism, particularly the works of 19th-century physicists William Crookes and Oliver Lodge.
The basic doctrine of Spiritism (“the Codification”) is defined in five of Allan Kardec’s books:
- The Spirits’ Book—defines the guidelines of the doctrine, covering concepts such as God, Spirit, Universe, Man, Society, Culture, Morals and Religion;
- The Mediums’ Book—makes claims about the mechanics of the spiritual world, such as the processes involved in channeling spirits and techniques to be developed by mediums;
- The Gospel According to Spiritism—comments on the Gospels, highlighting passages that Kardec believed represent the ethical fundamentals shared by all religious and philosophical systems;
- Heaven and Hell—purports to provide interviews with spirits of deceased people intending to establish a correlation between the lives they led and their conditions in the beyond;
- The Genesis According to Spiritism—attempts to reconcile religion and science, dealing with three major conflicts 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 were posthumously collected into the Posthumous Works.
As defined in The Spirits’ Book, the main principles of spiritism are:
- “God is the Supreme Intelligence-First Cause of all things.”
- “God is eternal, immutable, immaterial, unique, all powerful, sovereignly just and good.”
- “A spirit is not an abstract, undefined being, only to be conceived of by our thought; it is a real, circumscribed being, which, in certain cases, is appreciable by the senses of sight, hearing, and touch.”
- “All Spirits are destined to attain perfection by passing through the different degrees of the spirit-hierarchy. This amelioration is effected by incarnation, which is imposed on some of them as an expiation, and on others as a mission. Material life is a trial which they have to undergo many times until they have attained to absolute perfection”
- “A spirit’s successive corporeal existences are always progressive, and never retrograde; but the rapidity of our progress depends on the efforts we make to arrive at the perfection.”
- “The soul possessed its own individuality before its incarnation; it preserves that individuality after its separation from the body.”
- “On its re-entrance into the spirit world, the soul again finds there all those whom it has known upon the earth, and all its former existences eventually come back to its memory, with the remembrance of all the good and of all the evil which it has done in them.”
- “Spirits exert an incessant action upon the moral world, and even upon the physical world; they act both upon matter and upon thought, and constitute one of the powers of nature, the efficient cause of many classes of phenomena hitherto unexplained or misinterpreted.”
- “Spirits are incessantly in relation with men. The good spirits try to lead us into the right road, sustain us under the trials of life, and aid us to bear them with courage and resignation; the bad ones tempt us to evil: it is a pleasure for them to see us fall, and to make us like themselves.”
- “The moral teaching of the higher spirits may be summed up, like that of Christ, in the gospel maxim, ‘Do unto others as you would that others should do unto you;’ that is to say, do good to all, and wrong no one. This principle of action furnishes mankind with a rule of conduct of universal application, from the smallest matters to the greatest.”
According to Kardec, the Spiritist moral principles are in agreement with those taught by Jesus. Other individuals such as Francis of Assisi, Paul the Apostle, Buddha and Gandhi are also sometimes considered by the Spiritists. Spiritist philosophical inquiry is concerned with the study of moral aspects in the context of an eternal life in spiritual evolution through reincarnation, a process believers hold as revealed by Spirits. Sympathetic research on Spiritism by scientists can be found in the works of Oliver Lodge, William Crookes, William Fletcher Barrett, Albert de Rochas, Emma Bragdon, Alexander Moreira-Almeida and others.
The five chief points of the Spiritism are:
- There is a God, defined as “The Supreme Intelligence and Primary Cause of everything”;
- There are Spirits, all of whom are created simple and ignorant, but owning the power to gradually perfect themselves;
- 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;
- As part of Nature, Spirits can naturally communicate with living people, as well as interfere in their lives;
- Many planets in the universe are inhabited.
The central tenet of Spiritism is the belief in spiritual life. From this perspective, the spirit is eternal, and evolves through a series of incarnations in the material world.
Spiritists assert that communication between the spiritual world and the material world happens all the time, to varying degrees. They believe that some people barely sense what the spirits tell them in an entirely instinctive way, and are not aware about their influence. In contrast, they believe that mediums have these natural abilities highly developed, and are able to communicate with spirits and interact with them visually or audibly, or through writing (known by Kardecists as psychography or automatic writing).
Kardec’s works do not establish any rituals or formal practices. Instead, the doctrine suggests that followers adhere to some principles 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 followed by some interactive participation of the attendees. These meetings are open to anyone;
- Medium meetings—usually held after a regular meeting, only those deemed prepared or “in need” are expected to attend;
- Youth and children’s meetings—once a week, usually on Saturday afternoons or Sunday mornings; the Spiritist equivalent to Protestant Christian Sunday schools;
- Lectures—longer, in-depth lectures to a broader audience on subjects thought to be “of general interest”, sometimes at theatres or ballrooms, often given by guest speakers;
- Special meetings—séances held discretely, intended to conduct some worthy work;
- Spiritist week and book fairs.
Spiritist associations have various degrees of formality, with some groups having local, regional, national or international scope. Local organizations are usually called Spiritist centres or Spiritist societies. Regional and national organizations are called federations, such as the Federação Espírita Brasileira and the Federación Espírita Española; international organizations are called unions, such as the Union Spirite Française et Francophone. Spiritist centres (especially in Brazil) are often active book publishers and promoters of Esperanto.
For many of its followers, the description of Spiritism is three-fold: science, for its studies on the mechanisms of mediumship; philosophy, for its theories on the origin, meaning and importance of life; and religion, for its guidance on Christian behavior which will bring spiritual and moral evolution to mankind. Spiritism is not considered a religion by some of its followers because it does not endorse formal adoration, require regular frequency or formal membership. However, the mainstream scientific community does not accept Spiritism as scientific, and its belief system fits within the definition of religion.
Spiritism has adherents in many countries, including Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Jamaica, Japan, Portugal, Spain, United States, and particularly in Latin American countries such as Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and Brazil, which has the largest proportion and greatest number of followers. The largest Spiritist group in Asia are the Vietnamese followers of Cao Đài or Caodaists, who formed a new religion building on the legacy of Allan Kardec in 1926 in Saigon and Tây Ninh in what was then French Indochina
In Brazil, the movement has become widely accepted, largely due to Chico Xavier’s works. The official Spiritist community there has about 20 million followers, although some elements of spiritism are more broadly accepted and practiced in various ways by three times as many people across the country. Some statistics suggest an adherence to Spiritist practices by 40 million people in Brazil.
In the Philippines, there is the Union Espiritista Cristiana de Filipinas, Incorporada (Union of Christian Spiritists in the Philippines, Inc.), which was founded at the turn of the 1900s and registered with the Securities and Exchange Commission in 1905. The religious organization, which uses human mediums to communicate with spirits that have already attained purity or divinity for moral and spiritual guidance, has tens of thousands of members and worship centers in many parts of the country, mostly in Northern Luzon, Central Luzon and the National Capital Region. Its motto: “Towards God through wisdom and love.” Its doctrine: “Without charity (good deed), there is no possible salvation.” It uses the Holy Bible as the basis of its teachings, supplemented by messages from divine spirits.
Before World War I
Since its early development, Spiritism has attracted criticism. Kardec’s own introductory book on Spiritism, What is Spiritism?, published only two years after The Spirits’ Book, includes a hypothetical discussion between him and three idealized critics, “The Critic”, “The Skeptic”, and “The Priest”, summing up much of the criticism Spiritism has received. The broad areas of criticism relate to charlatanism, pseudoscience, heresy, witchcraft, and Satanism. Until his death, Kardec continued to address these issues in various books and in his periodical, the Revue Spirite.
Later, a new source of criticism came from Occultist movements such as the Theosophical Society, a competing new religion, which saw the Spiritist explanations as too simple or even naïve.
During the interwar period a new form of criticism of Spiritism developed. René Guénon’s influential book The Spiritist Fallacy criticized both the more general concepts of Spiritualism, which he considered to be a superficial mix of moralism and spiritual materialism, as well as Spiritism’s specific contributions, such as its belief in what he saw as a post-Cartesian, modernist concept of reincarnation distinct from and opposed to its two western predecessors, metempsychosis and transmigration.
Post–World War II
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (paragraph 2117) states that “Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it”.
In Brazil, Catholic priests Carlos Kloppenburg and Óscar González-Quevedo, among others, have written extensively against Spiritism from both a doctrinal and parapsychological perspective. Quevedo, in particular, has sought to show that Spiritism’s claims of being a science are invalid. In addition to writing books on the subject, he has also hosted television programs debunking supposed paranormal phenomena, most recently in a series that ran in 2000 on Globo’s news program, Fantástico. Brazilian Spiritist, Hernani Guimarães Andrade, has in turn written rebuttals to these criticisms.
Scientific skeptics also frequently target Spiritism in books, media appearances, and online forums, identifying it as a pseudoscience.