Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects

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Experience, Religious: Philosophical Aspects

Although Protestants had previously used the phrase religious experience as a rough synonym for spiritual biography, William James (18421910) first employed religious experience to denote a generic category, applicable to all religions and susceptible to scientific analysis. James's The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) gave the new category a broad extension. He described his topic as "personal religion in the inward sense," contrasted with institutional religion and theology (p. 42). From a psychological standpoint James aimed to provide a "descriptive survey of the religious propensities" (p. 22), including religious feelings and emotions, religious impulses, religious motivations, and nonritualized religious actions. James's methodological decision to focus on the extreme expressions of personal religion exhibited by "religious geniuses" (p. 24) has contributed to a tendency to narrow the category of religious experience to include primarily extraordinary, paranormal experiences and mystical states of consciousness.

With his "descriptive survey of the religious propensities," James hoped to contribute to a "Science of Religions" as he conceived it. His Science of Religions would distill the beliefs of various religions until they harmonized with each other, and then formulate hypotheses that reconciled this universal content with the rest of science. James identified as common to religions the consciousness of something "more" that is continuous with the higher part of oneself. To render this generalized religious content palatable to science, he invoked the subconscious. He hypothesized that "whatever it may be on its farther side, the 'more' with which in religious experience we feel ourselves connected is on its hither side the subconscious continuation of our conscious life" (p. 386). James believed that a Science of Religions would commend itself to believer and scientist alike, and could prove as credible as the natural sciences. Though others too have hoped to reconcile science and religious experience, few have entertained so sanguine an expectation.

An early theory

Despite the fact that James adopted the term religious experience at the turn of the twentieth century, the scientific interest in what James and later thinkers would call religious experience dates to the eighteenth century. David Hume's (17111776) essay "Of Superstition and Enthusiasm" (1741) represents one of the earliest psychological explanations of religious experience. It attempts, moreover, a sociology of religious experience. With the notable exception of Emile Durkheim's (18581917) The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912), most later theories focus exclusively on either the psychology of religious experience or the sociology of religious experienceits social determinants and social uses. Hume wanted to establish general principles with which to explain human nature (moral philosophy) in the same way that Newton had established general principles with which to explain physical nature (natural philosophy). Hume drew on his science of human nature to explain religion. Superstition and enthusiasm, he argued, represent different implicit explanations of anomalous emotional states. A superstitious person, ignorant of the physiological cause of objectless fear, attributes it to the existence of invisible malevolent beings who require appeasement through rites and mortifications. An enthusiast, by contrast, ignorant of the physiological cause of unwarranted hope or pride, attributes it to divine inspiration and experiences transports, raptures, and ecstasies. In both cases the subject resorts to imaginary causes to satisfy an explanatory interest.

Hume believed that the proportions of superstition and enthusiasm in a religion had important social consequences. He argued that superstition requires priests to interpose on behalf of the cowed fearful, whereas enthusiasm will not abide priests because the enthusiast believes his sacred commerce with God obviates institutions and their representatives. Enthusiastic religions begin tumultuously, even violently, but quickly moderate because their weak institutional structure cannot sustain the fervor. Nevertheless, enthusiasm's spirit of self-reliance and autonomy bolsters civil liberty. Superstition, by contrast, gains ground gradually by taming its adherents and ends in tyranny. Despite the fact that Hume emphasizes only the influence an individual's emotions have on his religion and overlooks the extent to which the doctrines of a religion inform the quality of the individual's emotions, his account is superior to many later theories for at least one major reason. Hume stresses the cognitive nature of religious experience, that explanatory commitments are constitutive of religious experience. The subject's own tacit or implicit commitments about the proper explanation of the experience are what makes the experience the experience it is. Many later theorists, including James, elide this feature of religious experience.

Polemics and apologetics

Hume's theory had a polemical tenor. He labeled both superstition and enthusiasm "species of false religion" (p. 73), and the essay has a political sub-text. Hume is instructive in this regard. The study of religious experience, like the study of religion itself, had its origin in polemics and apologetics. This history explains the contours of the concept. Religious experience was forged in response to the modern challenge to religion. Since the Enlightenment, rational inquiry had impugned the traditional sources of religious knowledge. Baruch Spinoza (16321677) and the subsequent development of higher textual criticism undermined scriptural authority. The creation of modern probability theory eroded the once intrinsic connection between doctrinal authority and credibility. Hume and Immanuel Kant (17241804) effectively thwarted the aspiration for natural theology, while Hume, furthermore, produced what he called a "check" against the credibility of miracle claims. By way of rejoinder, apologists turned to spiritual or mystical experience as a ground for religious commitment. They argued that religious experience is cognitively immediate (i.e., not influenced by, or a product of, prior beliefs) and, therefore, unassailable by rational and historical inquiry into the defensibility of religious beliefs. If religious experience were, in part, a product of prior religious beliefs, one could not use religious experience as an independent ground for religious commitment. Armed with this understanding of religious experience, the increasing exposure to the vast diversity of religions presented not a challenge, but a defense in numbers. Despite incompatible beliefs and practices, all religions at bottom stem from the same or similar experiences, feelings, or sentiments.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (17681834) inaugurated this apologetic conception of religious experience. In On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers (1799) he explained that religion consists in piety, a distinct moment of consciousness that he construed as "a sense or taste for the Infinite." In his later systematic theology, The Christian Faith (1830) he described piety as the "feeling of absolute dependence" that accompanies all self-consciousness. In both works he sharply distinguished piety from belief and insisted on the immediacy of piety. Ultimately, he heralded an "eternal covenant" between science and religion, whereby religion allows to science all that is of interest to it (1981, pp. 6465). The immediate, noncognitive nature of piety, he claimed, eliminated the possibility of a conflict. The tendency to treat religious experience as immediate and to consider it the source of religion became widespread after Schleiermacher. Despite James's refusal to distinguish sharply between feelings and beliefs in his more psychological and philosophical works, he too displays this tendency in The Varieties of Religious Experience when he claims that personal religious feelings are immediate, primordial, and ultimately productive of beliefs.

Naturalistic explanations of religious experience, such as Hume's, had their effect on the concept of religious experience as well. Ann Taves, in her book Fits, Trances, and Visions (1999) has shown how American religious groups, especially among the elite, tended to construct their notions of genuine religious experience by contrasting it with experiences that could be explained naturalistically. Furthermore, they often adopted the naturalistic explanations for experiences they wished to discourage. In the eighteenth century, for instance, Jonathan Edwards (17031758), the Calvinist divine, distinguished in his mature writings between genuine religious affections and enthusiasm, the latter involving "imaginary ideas . . . strongly impressed upon the mind" (Taves, p. 39). In the nineteenth century, religious explanations of religious experience continued to compete with naturalistic explanations, now phrased in terms of mesmerism. Seventh Day Adventists and Christian Scientists explained false religion by invoking mesmerism, while mainline denominations tended likewise to dismiss the experiences of Adventists and Christian Scientists as products of mesmerism. Some religious movements, such as Spiritualism, embraced mesmerism as a natural and sufficient means for attaining access to the spirit world and, therefore, attempted a form of religious naturalism. Taves's work demonstrates that thought about religious experience has implicitly been thought about naturalistic explanation as well.

The polemical and apologetic history informing the concept of religious experience has shaped its connotation. The concept suggests ethereal experiences like those that have come to be called mystical because these states seem more resistant to naturalistic explanation, more plausibly immediate, and more promising as a ground for religious commitment than somatic automatisms or visionary experience. The latter seem pathological and best explained naturalistically. James's ultimately unsuccessful labors to neutralize "the bugaboo of morbid origin" in the very first chapter of The Varieties of Religious Experience, before even defining his topic, reflects this concern to hedge religious experience from pathology (p. 35). The insistence in many mystical texts on ineffabilitythat the experience cannot be describedhas lead many to consider mystical states of consciousness the paradigmatic religious experiences. Ineffability is taken to signal immediacy. The modern interest in religious experience has frequently led to interpretive mistakes. Some religious thinkers engaged in negative theology, such as Pseudo-Dionysius, who assert the ineffability of its conclusions, have been mistakenly read as describing altered states of consciousness.

Contextualists and perennialists

The alleged immediacy of mystical states continues to be a point of controversy in the study of religious experience. So-called contextualists or constructivists follow in Hume's footsteps. They argue for the cognitive nature of religious experience. In Religious Experience (1985) Wayne Proudfoot argued on logical grounds that the subject's implicit explanation of their experience in religious terms makes their experience a religious experience. The commitments the subject harbors about the causes of their experience and the terms appropriate to describe it are constitutive of the experience. They determine its intentionality, or what the experience is of. For this reason subjects who adopt commitments derived from different religious traditions have different experiences. Proudfoot argues, moreover, that one should not understand the ineffability reported in mysticism as an unanalyzable, descriptive characteristic of experience indicating its immediacy but rather as a feature of the theological concepts and commitments informing the intentionality of the experience.

So-called perennialists follow in Schleiermacher's footsteps. They argue for the immediacy of certain forms of religious experience. Robert Forman has argued largely on phenomenological grounds for the existence of states of wakeful, nonintentional consciousness. He calls episodes of this state of contentless consciousness Pure Consciousness Events (PCEs). They are nonintentional because they are not experiences of anything. Forman sees evidence of PCEs in a number of meditative traditions around the world. Because PCEs have no content, he claims, they cannot be culturally specific. Mystics of any tradition achieving PCEs have the qualitatively identical ineffable experience. Contextualists reply that the textual evidence adduced by perennialists does not support the assertion of a cross-cultural uniformity of experience. They also argue that phenomenological descriptions of what feels like contentless consciousness do not necessarily mean that the experiences are immediate (i.e., unconditioned by prior beliefs). Regardless, one should note that even if Forman has indeed identified a form of contentless, immediate consciousness, that fact has no intrinsic religious significance. Religious significance could only come ex post facto from interpretation. Because PCEs have no intrinsic religious import, they cannot by themselves serve the apologetic motivations that inspire the search for immediate experience.


Advances in neurobiology have fostered the hope that a better understanding of the brain can explain religious experience. For some scholars brain function (or malfunction) provides models for accounts of extraordinary religious states. Michael Persinger, for instance, observes the similarities between the psychological effects produced by temporal lobe epilepsy and what he calls "God Experiences." On this basis and with no intention of stigmatizing religion, he infers that transient electrical microseizures in the temporal lobe of the brain explain "God Experiences." Eugene d'Aquili and Andrew Newberg offer a different neurological explanation of religious experience. They provide a complex model whereby ritual and meditation, by different routes, lead to the activation of the autonomic nervous system. This stimulation, in conjunction with the subsequent activation of some and isolation of other higher brain areas, creates various forms of religious experience, including contentless mystical states of Absolute Unitary Being (AUB). Like Schleiermacher and James, they view religious experience as the source of theology and institutions. They maintain that these circuits of neurophysiological stimulation, which affect areas of the brain responsible for causal and holistic cognition, produce religious concepts and even mystical traditions. D'Aquili and Newberg's theory is generally considered highly speculative. It also slights the cognitive dimension of religious experience. The physiological under-pinning or component of experience does not suffice to make an experience a religious experience. The subject's implicit commitment to a religious explanation of the experience makes an experience a religious experience. To this extent a social or cultural explanation of religious experience is necessary. Neurology by itself is insufficient.

See also Consciousness Studies; Experience, Religious: Cognitive and Neurophysiological Aspects; Hume, David; Mind-body Theories; Mind-brain Interaction; Mysticism; Neurosciences; Psychology of Religion; Sociology


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matthew c. bagger

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