From biology to spirituality

Sir Alister Hardy’s quest

Article and photo illustation by Geoff Olson

• Two women, two entirely different stories of spiritual loss and renewal. The first woman was recovering from “a very distressing love affair” while staying with some friends and their children at a beach cottage. Months earlier in London, the mother of the family had given her suffering friend a book on Chinese philosophy: the I Ching. Although the book “quite impressed” her, the woman did not give it much more thought due to her preoccupations.

“Quite by chance – how important and strange that factor is – someone else gave me a copy of the very same book, just as I was about to leave for my holiday… For the next few days, I gave the book [my] fully, undivided attention and gradually I became aware that I had an explanation for the previously inexplicable, that there was an order in the intangible world of emotions, relationships and ‘happenings’ which followed a similar kind of order to things in the physical world. I realized that the natural (the nurturing of each in reference to the other) could produce harmony of being, or ‘serenity’ if you like, and that God was overseer of this. This insight made Christianity comprehensible to me and I realized that contact with God had to be reinforced and strengthened as it was vital to achieving the desired harmony. The ritual of religion now had a meaning which is why I decided to go regularly to church.” (Church of England). *000463

Another woman was nearly 40 when she became “aware of having finally shaken off all the dreadful Christianity that pervaded everything in those times….” She contrasts her “delight with Nature” with her “completely phony” religion.

“Nothing I was given to read at school or at home helped at all; my real educational reading only began when I left school and could choose to read comparative religion, philosophy and science… I have entirely thrown off and repudiated my early religious feelings and ideas, thank goodness, and only when I had finally done so did I feel that I could be an honest, guiltless, socially poised person. The life of deceit and double talk/think which I led as a child was miserable… If Prime Cause there be, I’m very sure it will be found to be a part of universal nature, not something ‘outside’. This belief is so reassuring because it removes God or whatever you call IT, from those damp distant clouds and brings it right here and all around. We are of one substance with the Universe and it won’t stop to let us get off whether alive or dead.” *000493

These two accounts seem to come from opposite poles of belief. Yet these women shared at least one thing in common. Years ago, they responded to a question posted in British newspapers by Sir Alister Hardy: “Have you ever experienced a presence or power, whether you call it God or not, which is different from your everyday self?”

The first woman found solace in the Church of England after reading an Eastern philosophical text. The second, as Hardy wrote in his 1979 book, The Spiritual Nature of Man, was a “person who might at first sight be thought by some to have changed against religion; it is clear, however, that she has moved from one form which was meaningless to her to another which provided her with a deep sense of spiritual reality.”

A marine biologist by training, Oxford professor Sir Alister Hardy was brilliant enough – or quixotic enough – to see common ground between the two stories. His famous “Hardy question” netted thousands of stories of religious, spiritual and pararnormal experiences from men and women across the world, which are now archived at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David in Lampeter, Wales.


Lampeter, known to locals by its Welsh name Llanbedr Pont Steffan, is a Lilliputian market town nestled in the Kryptonite-coloured hills of West Wales. The small bakeries, restaurants and shops bracketing its winding streets are defiantly human-scale. As I wandered about the town square, I saw very few patrons and pedestrians with their noses stuck in digital devices. The most notable landmark in Lampeter is the university – the oldest campus in both Wales and England, apart from Oxford and Cambridge. I arrived here on a typical spring day in Wales, wet and overcast. The grey skies didn’t seem to bother the birds calling from the trees on the campus grounds. As I rolled my suitcase into the university’s front office, I heard a choir performing a madrigal in the concert room across the hall. Wales is renowned as a nation of singers, which is echoed in the people’s musical dialect.

The international reputation of the university for studies in philosophy and theology belies its small scale. This may be the reason it became home in 2000 to the world’s largest archive of religious, spiritual and psychic experiences, following the relocation of the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) from Oxford.

The 6,000-plus accounts in the archive’s computerized database range from private revelations to beyond-words bliss to stunned shock to existential terror. A significant portion of the correspondents defined these experiences as life changing and many admitted never having communicated them to anyone until they corresponded with Alister Hardy’s research centre. The experiences of some correspondents were prefaced by bereavement, grief or bodily and mental stress. Occasionally they followed fasting, meditation, prayer or the ingestion of psychoactive substances. But most of the accounts in the RERC archive were communicated by people reporting good health and stable moods. In these cases, there was often an inspiration/trigger in the outside world. It could be anything from a moving passage of music to an inspiring piece of art to the touch of another’s hand. Frequently, it was an appreciation of nature and/or just a state of deep relaxation and contentment.

In a small, fluorescent-lit office in the campus library, I was given the privilege of researching the computer database of RERC accounts, with the guidance of Archive Supervisor Jean Matthews. No one person could hope to navigate this amount of text in the space of a few days. I was there to dip my toe, rather than swim the channel.


Born in 1896, Sir Alister Hardy is not what you’d today call a household name. He was a charismatic figure out of step with the intellectual climate of his time, a man who stood astride the 19th and 21st centuries. He had one foot in the stiff upper lip culture of the pre-war British bourgeoisie and another in today’s postmillennial spirituality, yet he’s all but forgotten now.

As a talented watercolourist and an expert in animal camouflage, the youthful Hardy was deemed a perfect fit for a top-secret department of the British Navy that specialized in disguising warships at sea. After a stint patrolling the Lincolnshire coast, he found himself tasked with designing so-called “dazzle-ships” – vessels painted in bright patterns that hid their profiles on the sea’s horizon.

During this posting, he made the acquaintance of a medium by the name of Mrs. Wedgewood, who claimed to be clairvoyant. One day they met up for dinner. He later recalled how Mrs. Wedgewood had exclaimed, “Oh, what have you been doing? I see a large pink square on the table in front of you.” Just hours earlier, at his top secret job, Hardy had taken a large sheet of white cardboard and painted it in a “most vivid pink distemper.” He had stood with the dazzle ship design piece in his hands looking at it for minutes, waiting for it to dry.

“Again, I am quite certain that no one could have told Mrs. Wedgewood what I had been doing, for no one at the camouflage school knew her or knew that I was going out to dinner with her… From that time on, I must admit that I was myself, in my heart of hearts, convinced that telepathy was real; at the same time, I knew that my account was not scientifically good evidence and could not convince others.”

Hardy was an empiricist at heart, who began with the most primary datum of experience: his own. Based on his youthful experiences in the woods of Northamptonshire, he believed in the value of transcendent human experiences, which establishment culture generally addressed only in withering or dismissive terms.

The marine biologist’s radical concept of human possibilities extended well beyond the primly maintained gardens of theology or the intellectual track fields of psychology, sociology and anthropology. “I think telepathy is just as great a discovery as gravity,” he said in a 1971 BBC interview. “Linking together minds is something as fundamental in the universe as gravity.”

When he came to Oxford at the peak of his career in the 1940s, “Alister felt that he needed to be much more circumspect, since he was well aware that some of his colleagues were extremely dismissive of religious beliefs as wrong-headed or infantile,” observed colleague David Hay in his excellent biography, God’s Biologist: A Life of Alister Hardy. As for his scientific opinion on psychic phenomenon, the marine biologist kept his mouth shut, although he remained a discreet member of the Society for Psychical Research for years.

It was not until his retirement in 1960 that Hardy felt secure enough to pursue the vow he made as a youth to what he called God: to reconcile science and spirituality in a manner acceptable to the academic world. To this end, he launched the Religious Experience Research Unit at Manchester College at Oxford. He was not particularly interested in psychic experience per se. Rather, he wanted to understand the larger context of spiritual experiences, whether or not they included so-called psychic component.

In his Gifford Lecture series, “The Living Stream,” the retired prof argued for evolutionary theory, but against biological reductionism. Living creatures were more than just Darwin’s wind-up toys and human spirituality was not merely a species-specific overshoot of primitive superstition, turbocharging tribalism and war, as Dawkins and others would argue decades later. To the contrary, these unusual states of mind often granted a fundamental sense of cosmic belonging. They created social capital by facilitating compassion and openness. Spirituality was often adaptive, not counteradaptive.

For all the intellectual errors and social crimes of organized religion –which Hardy acknowledged – the private spiritual experiences of individuals ‘worked’ because they drew on something deeply embedded in the human psyche. Unfortunately, the marine biologist’s musings went over like a lead balloon with most of his colleagues. “His words were taken as the amiable eccentricities of an otherwise brilliant man, and hence they were tolerated, then ignored,” Hay noted in his biography of Hardy.

Trained as a zoologist, the aging scholar attempted a taxonomy of spiritual experiences, by breaking the stories gathered in the growing RERU archives down into discrete categories with cross-referenced patterns, similar to the way he had identified and categorized zooplankton as a younger man in his beautifully illustrated books on marine life. His efforts were suggestive, but incomplete. In his 1971 BBC interview, Hardy noted that most of the reports gathered by his research team were from Britain, the US and Western European countries. “But I’m hoping later on to get many from the Oriental countries. When I’ve got more money, I can actually have the help of oriental scholars.”

On his 89th birthday, Hardy received a telephone call informing him he had won the Templeton Prize, considered to be the Nobel Prize of science-and-spirituality studies. Months after Hardy’s surprise birthday gift, 700 guests gathered at London Guildhall for the awards ceremony. The Duke of Norfolk arose to tell the audience that Sir Alister was unable to attend, after suffering a severe brain hemorrhage the day before the presentation. Hardy passed away a few days after the awards.

Money from the Templeton Prize, which was funnelled into the Alister Hardy Trust, allowed the marine biologist’s objectives to outlive him. In 2007, professors Paul Badham and Xinzhong Yao released the results of a study on the religious experiences among China’s population, which not only fulfilled the wish Hardy expressed in the 1971 BBC interview, but also supported his thesis on the universality of patterns in human spiritual experience.

In the end, Hardy’s work was unwelcome at both poles of culture, by religious ideologues and scientific materialists alike. He argued that human beings are more than just bags of protoplasm with a best-before date, struggling to survive in a random, meaningless cosmos, but he did so within the constraints of evolutionary theory. He also believed science could give credence to personal spiritual experiences, as beneficial states of mind, if not glimpses into a wider reality in which we are embedded.

Hardy’s colleague David Hay notes the host of expressions of love and gratitude after Hardy’s death, some of them preserved in the archive of the Bodleian Library. Writes one former student: “His greatness seems to me in some way linked to his childlike approach to life, his tremendous respect for, and wonder at every tiny part. I wish I could have known him better, but I am very grateful for having known him at all.”

*Accounts from the Alister Hardy Religious Experience Research Centre archive.


Hardy photo by permission of the Alister Hardy Trust.

1 thought on “From biology to spirituality”

Leave a comment