Sir Alister Hardy

The Spiritual Nature of Man: A Study of Contemporary Religious Experience

Review by Tim Knepper, 2001

Hardy, Sir Alistair C. The Spiritual Nature of Man: A Study of Contemporary Religious Experience. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1979.

The Spiritual Nature of Man constitutes the result of the first eight years of work by the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU), founded by the author Alister Hardy himself in 1969.  Over these first eight years, RERU’s objectives were fourfold: (1) to build up a body of knowledge of actual experiences collected from first-hand written reports; (2) to examine these reports for patterns; (3) to undertake a few preliminary quantitative studies of the reports; (4) to draw some tentative conclusions.  The bulk of The Spiritual Nature of Man treats the first two of these objectives.  Hardy reports that approximately 3000 personal accounts of religious experience were sent to RERU from 1969 to 1976.  These accounts were then scrutinized for patterns.  Eventually a twelve-fold classificatory scheme emerged – one, however, that classified the characteristics of the experiences and not the types of experiences.  The presentation and explication of this classificatory scheme constitutes the bulk of The Spiritual Nature of Man (and in my opinion constitutes the work’s only significant contribution to the study of religious experience, therefore I will include it in its entirety on the following two pages).  After presenting this classificatory scheme, Hardy not only expounds upon each subdivision but also cites a few excerpts from the reports themselves that pertain to each and every subdivision (Hardy also provides a statistic for each subdivision/characteristic that denotes the number of reports out of 1000 that contained that characteristic/subdivision – these figures are notated parenthetically on the following two pages).  In the closing chapters Hardy mentions a few additional studies engendered by the data collected by RERU, briefly hints at the quantitative aspects of RERU’s research, and summarizes his findings by offering a list of the “essential features of man’s spiritual nature” (as revealed by his study): “feelings for transcendental reality which frequently manifest themselves in early childhood; a feeling that ‘Something Other’ than the self can actually be sensed; a desire to personalize this presence into a deity and to have a private I-Thou relationship with it, communicating through prayer” (131).  If these “essential features” of spirituality sound too Judeo-Christian, consider not only that Hardy undertook his research in England in the 1960’s and 1970’s but also that those who offered their religious experience reports to RERU were disproportionately middle-aged and elderly (and female).  Moreover, Hardy’s own Christian bias should be born in mind, a bias that rings loudly and clearly toward the very end of The Spiritual Nature of Man: “To return to what I was saying about an experimental faith. I like to think that our studies at the Religious Experience Research Unit are not only helping, however modestly, to build up an academic knowledge towards a better understanding of the spiritual nature of man, but that they are, as I have suggested, also providing the evidence which, as it accumulates further in the future, may induce others to make the act of faith which is expressed in the words of Jesus as reported in the Gospels (Mark 7:7 and Luke 11:9): ‘Ask and it shall be given you; seek and ye shall find’” (140).