‘I want to demonstrate that spiritual values have naturalistic meaning, that they are not the exclusive possession of organised churches, that they do not need supernatural concepts to validate them, that they are well within the jurisdiction of a suitably enlarged science, and that, therefore, they are the general responsibility of all mankind.’
Abraham Maslow 's presentation: Further Reaches of Human Nature (1967)
Abraham Maslow's Interview on Self Actualisation and Peak Experiences
Abraham Maslow on Spotify
Religions, Values and Peak Experiences (1964)
Abraham Maslow
In Summary

One of the 20th centuries’ most well-known psychologists dares to apply the scientific method to spirituality, uncovering ‘peak experiences’ where the self is fully and gloriously actualised.


You may be familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, a model that outlines human needs in a five-tiered pyramid. The first two levels of the pyramid include basic physiological needs, such as food, water, and sleep, as well as safety needs such as physical security and financial stability. Once these needs are met, individuals can focus on fulfilling their social needs, such as a sense of belonging (for instance, forming a family) and intimacy with others, as well as their need for personal esteem, which includes confidence, success, recognition, and freedom. All that is left is to summit the fifth and final step, reaching the apex of self-actualisation and joyfully maximising one’s creativity, rationality, morality, and overall potential.

Maslow became famous for establishing these principles, which explored what he identified as the inherently good and wholesome psyche of ordinary, ‘salt of the earth’ folks. This was in stark contrast to the overwhelming emphasis at the time upon abnormal and pathological psychology as found in the rival camps of the Freudians and behaviourists — causing the humanists to often be referred to as the ‘third force’ in 20th century psychology. 

His role among the humanists, along with his famed hierarchy, makes Maslow’s influence difficult to overstate. In later years, Maslow founded the field of Transpersonal Psychology and published Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences, arguing that mystical experiences are part and parcel of the fifth and highest stage of self-actualisation. In fact, he places spirituality firmly at the peak of human existence.


Many have severed science and spirituality, relegating them to distinct spheres: one that deals with rational facts and the other dealing with values and fantasy. Faith became the opposite of reason, burrowing blindly into its dogmas while emphasising a transcendent hope for heaven over any embodied spirituality within the here and now. Whereas much of science, with its dogged focus solely on empirical evidence of the here and now, has continued to reduce our understanding of existence to a meaningless flow of atoms in a void. This is as true in Maslow’s own discipline of psychology as it is in the hard sciences, with the Freudians, behaviourists, and positivists dismissing meaning and the spiritual instinct by relegating them to our cultural conditioning or repressed subconscious. 

By contrast, Maslow offers us a way forward that unites the two paths, identifying a spirituality that respectfully recognises the concrete realities that define the here and now while simultaneously locating profound meaning in humanity and nature itself. While he agrees with scientific critiques of mainstream religion, Maslow believes that atheists often throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, losing sight of a spiritual encounter that is available to the atheist and theist alike and which can be documented and studied in the same way as any other scientific phenomenon. He calls these encounters peak experiences. 

Peak experiences are moments when our full potential is unlocked. These peaks are often aroused and activated by such things as music, art, drugs, sex, or an appreciation for the complexity and beauty of nature. Maslow documents countless subjects who reported intense moments of inner harmony, joy, accomplishment, effortlessness, spontaneity, creativity, warmth, strength, flow, and meaning. 

These peaks are the secret ‘oomph’ that gave the historic religions whatever experiential credibility they have. Yet such moments are also available to the atheist, for the source of this experience is not some transcendent deity, but the joy and power that lies within ourselves and the simple miracles afforded by the natural world. Therefore, what counts is not whether you’re an atheist or a theist but whether you are a ‘peaker’ or a ‘non-peaker’—whether you are willing to open yourself up to these types of experiences or would rather drown them out in scientific skepticism or mindless religious rituals. And precisely because these experiences do not require any higher supernatural object, they are open to organic enquiry and evidence. As such, while Maslow is skeptical of churches that want to bring prayer back into schools, he does believe peak experiences are sufficiently provable and universal enough to merit a genuine place in education.


Not only does the endorsement of someone as respected as Abraham Maslow lend credibility to the spiritual impulse, but he also presents a tried and true system which enables this impulse to logically cohere. In turn, by inhabiting the peak of Maslow’s five-layer triangle, the fully self-actualised individual will live a sacred life dotted by numinous and meaningful ‘eruptions’. 

Maslow has found a way to include everyone, even atheists, in his brand of spirituality, a fact that some will scorn as its greatest weakness and others will praise as its seminal accomplishment. He also adds the notion of ‘plateau experiences’ in the preface to a later edition, including those who feel a quiet yet ongoing sense of the mystical without need for constant interruptions and peaks (similar to a married couple that has gotten past the honeymoon stage but is still very much in love forty years later). Maslow thus provides any scientifically and psychologically astute reader with a way forward, should they have the courage and spiritual stamina to summit the celestial peak.

Further Reading By This Author

Maslow also wrote Toward a Psychology of Being, A Theory of Human Motivation, Motivation and Personality, and Maslow On Management, amongst other titles.

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