Every once in a while, we come across a person, article, or even a book referencing Spiritism as “Kardecism.” While these are always well-meaning, they also always miss the mark: the enlightening progressive body of knowledge brought forth by the spirits in 19th century France is called “Spiritism,” not “Kardecism.” Although this issue may seem trivial for some, names matter — a lot. In this case, there are very good reasons why we want to use the right term, Spiritism.
It is understandable that those who have not yet acquainted themselves with the nature or history of Spiritism may sometimes use the term “Kardecism” innocently. In fact, there is often much confusion around the term “Spiritism” here in the United States as well as in Brazil exactly for that reason. For those of us unaware, the word was first coined by Allan Kardec in the introduction of The Spirits’ Book published in 1857, it may look and sound simple enough; “Spiritism”: doesn’t it have to do with the belief in spirits? Yes, but there is more to that…
Technically speaking, Spiritualism is the belief in something spiritual — that is, the spirit. For that matter (or the lack thereof), every philosophy, ideology, or religion that believes in the existence of spirit is spiritualist in nature. It was exactly for that reason that Kardec decided to create, as he explains in the introduction of The Spirits’ Book, a new word: Spiritism. “When new concepts arise,” Kardec explained, “new words are needed (…) to avoid the confusion inherent in multiple meanings for the same terms.” To call it “Spiritualism” would be to add another layer of meaning to a term that already existed, making it all even more ambiguous and confusing. Imagine, for example, if we called buses, trains, and airplanes “cars” as well… how confusing would it be to take the “3 o’clock car”? Should we go the airport, the train station, or the bus stop for that? Although they are all modes of transportation, I hope we can agree they are different from each other…
“Spiritism” is indeed the better term for this astounding body of knowledge of ours. While it does hold the existence of spirits as its core like Spiritualism, Spiritism also tells us: of the existence of one supreme and benevolent God; that spirits are immortal; that they reincarnate into physical bodies as many times as it is necessary for them to evolve spiritually; and that it is possible for us in the physical plane of existence to communicate with those who have lived before us. On the other hand, belief in these concepts is not a requirement for calling oneself a Spiritualist. That is: it is possible that one can very well believe in the existence of spirits without necessarily accepting reincarnation, a single God, or that it is possible for us to communicate via mediumship with those who have already departed. In that case, one would be a Spiritualist; Spiritists hold all of those as key tenets to their belief system.
In that sense, Spiritism is a small subset of Spiritualism — like many other religion traditions and philosophies that may share commonalities amongst them but do not necessarily completely overlap with each other. That is why the attentive reader will find that Kardec included “Spiritualist Philosophy” on the title page of The Spirits’ Book, Spiritism’s foundational work. To use the terms Spiritism and Spiritualism interchangeably, then, is to do a disservice to both Spiritualists in general and Spiritists in particular.
Lacking this key understanding, however, some resort to the term “Kardecism” to refer to Spiritism while attempting to differentiate it from Spiritualism at-large or from other religion traditions. While the effort is commendable, the act misses the mark. By using the term “Kardecism” we are implying at least two things:
1) that the whole of Spiritist knowledge was created by Allan Kardec, and that
2) Spiritists follow the figure of the man we know of Allan Kardec.
While there is some merit to both of these assertions, they are partially inaccurate. Here are some of the reasons why:
Implication #1: the whole of Spiritist knowledge was created by Allan Kardec
Spiritist knowledge did start with Allan Kardec but, by no means, does it end there; as a progressive body of knowledge, Spiritism keeps growing with time as other contributors add to its depth and breadth through their own investigations. To limit Spiritism to just Kardec’s work, however admirable his work may be (and it is!), is to severely handicap and short-change Spiritism. Since Kardec, we have seen a series of complementary works arise from the likes of Leon Dennis, Camille Flammarion, Leon Tolstoi, Victor Hugo, Andre Luiz, Emmanuel, Joanna de Angelis, etc., to name a few. It would be hard to imagine Spiritism as it is today without their valuable contributions.
Implication #2: Spiritists follow the figure of the man we know as Allan Kardec
Allan Kardec was a pseudonym, a pen name, used by Hippolyte Leon Denizard de Rivail at the request of the spirits themselves so that their work would not be confused with his own. An established author himself, Professor Rivail was not to use his previous fame and clout to leverage this new work; this new philosophy was to stand on its own merit. That is also why the enlightened spirits decided to call Spiritism’s foundational work The Spirits’ Book, and not “Rivail’s Book.” Because human custom and tradition require the name of an author for a publication, they saw fit to use a fictitious one to drive home the point the entire body of knowledge was the result of many intelligences, in both planes of life, and not of Rivail alone. Using the name “Allan Kardec” was another step in ensuring we would not confuse the fruit of the spirits’ work with those of Rivail himself.
Further, to insist in associating the teachings of the enlightened spirits with the image of just one man is to work against one of Spiritism’s central messages: it is not the form that matters, but the essence that is ultimately important. Spirit prevails over matter. We must learn to evaluate content on its own merits by developing the necessary and critical skills — and not accept it just because we value the source. After all, unshakable faith is only that which can meet reason face-to-face at any given point in time.
Unshakable faith is only that which can meet reason face-to-face at any given point in time.
Thus, by using the term “Kardecism” we are bringing excessive attention to the person of Allan Kardec as if he were the final word in all things Spiritism — when he was, in fact, the start. Although spiritists everywhere (this one included) admire and are extremely grateful to him for beginning a spiritual revolution that has transformed million of lives throughout the planet, we should remember many others have played and will still play a role too. In fact, such was Rivail’s character that I risk saying he would corroborate that statement — and insist on it as well.
So, next time the urge to use the term “Kardecism” rears its ugly head again, let us resist it. In doing so, you will be helping all of us apply the right word to the right concept, reducing confusion and contributing to greater clarity. Should the opportunity arise, also consider taking a minute to politely share with those who may use this unfortunate term that this progressive body of knowledge we all admire is named “Spiritism”, and not “Kardecism”, for very good reasons.