Sacred River (sacred_river) wrote in neurotheology,
Sacred River

The Religious Experience, Part I

[The following essay is cross-posted from my own journal. A few people expressed interest, so I'm sharing it here. Again, I don't know if it is fully appropriate here, since I approach religion from a biased perspective. However, I hope you enjoy it. If I get positive feedback, I will continue to cross-post here. Thank you.]

While my posts thus far have focused on a philosophical framework for spirituality, it is important to understand that such constructs are not the meat of a religious life. Ultimately, what makes a path spiritual or religious is the experience of it as such. As Jennifer Dornan (2004) writes, "the symbols and abstract ideas of a religion do not have the social force of belief unless there is some performative, experiential aspect to provide meaning and import to those symbols." At the same time, such experiences have little intrinsic meaning until interpreted in the light of some established philosophy or ideology, and this dynamic dance is the engine behind the countless number of religious systems in the world. With this in mind, let's begin to explore the world of religious experience.

Defining Experience, Religion, and Spirituality

First we have the difficult task of definition. David Yamane (2000) defines experience as "an ongoing temporal flow of reality received by consciousness, where consciousness is understood more broadly than simply as cognition" that also includes "feelings, expectations, and bodily states." I agree with his insistence that a distinction be made between subjective experience and the interpretation of experience—"existing social or cultural structures predispose us to experience certain emotions, sensations, and bodily states in particular, culturally inscribed ways...there is no such thing as an unmediated experience. All experience is always already shot through with interpretation." This will come into play a bit later in the essay.

Religion can be defined as "a covenant faith community with teachings and narratives that enhance the search for the sacred and encourage morality" (Dollahite, 1998). Another take says that religions "are rooted in authoritative spiritual traditions that transcend the person and point to larger realities within which the person is embedded," whereas spirituality involves "inner, contemplative practices" dealing with things like transcendence and meaningfulness, with the search for the sacred being the link between the two (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003). Other theorists describe spirituality not in terms of the sacred but as human characteristics, such as the development of insight, the awareness of the interconnectedness of all things, the experience of awe and mystery, an attitude of compassion and gratitude, and the "expression to the being that is in us; it has to do with feelings, with the power that comes from within, with knowing our deepest selves" (Beck, 1992). It also goes without saying that religions include non-sacred functions, such as social affiliation and self-identity, but these aspects aren't as relevant within this discussion, so I shall leave them aside for now.

Defining the Religious Experience

And so, we come to defining religious or spiritual experience. It should come as no surprise that there is little consensus as to what is and is not a genuine religious experience. A broad definition might include all experiences subjectively interpreted as religiously important whereas a more narrow one might include only dramatic encounters with God, spirit, or ultimate reality. Perhaps a more sophisticated definition of religious experience involves "a continuing feeling of transcendental reality or of a divine presence," not simply dramatic experiences, but also "seemingly more ordinary but deeply felt experiences" (Hardy, in Yamane, 2000).

After reading many definitions (and having such experiences myself) I shall use the following for the sake of this essay: a religious experience is one that results in a profound and meaningful shift in perspective—whether of time, space, function, relation, or state of being—involving an embodied sensation and a resultant interpretation that is explicitly religious in nature. While this can often involve the sensation of a paranormal presence, this is not absolutely necessary. For example, one might look at a blooming flower and be overcome with awe. On the flipside, sensing the presence of a disembodied being in a creaky old house might result in a strong emotional state, but wouldn't necessarily be interpreted as a religious experience (although it might).

There are a wide range of events that can evoke experiences that people interpret as religious—ceremonial rituals, ecstatic dancing, prayer, transcendental meditation, chanting, musical performance, vision quests, conversion experiences, psychic communication, tantric love making, communion with nature, entheogen consumption, communal worship, almsgiving, lectio divina, fasting, sensory deprivation, and on and on. I think it is safe to say that the various experiences that each of these would evoke would all be quite different from one another. Before we talk about the differences, though, let's explore what holds them together. On a basic level, there are three components that can lead to the type of religious experience defined in the preceding paragraph—(1) priming, (2) sensation, and (3) interpretation.


Priming is a well-established effect within psychology. It is the activation of certain pre-existing conceptual schemas, whether conceptual or perceptual. Priming evokes certain ideas, memories, and expectations, so that proceeding events will be largely framed within those constructs. For example, walking into a church will evoke far different schemas than walking into a bar, shaping the interpretations of otherwise similar experiences within them.

Psychologists Granqvist and Larsson (2006) write, "through the use of religious schemas, a religious individual may be predisposed to interpret a somatosensory sensation coupled with a sensed presence as the presence of God. A nonreligious individual may interpret the same sensation in anatomical or secular terms and may even seek medical help on the assumption that it is a hallucination." Said simply, people are socialized to religion, and the existence of certain notions in the mind about religion are one vital component of the phenomenon (although I note that the next component, sensation, can itself be the priming agent). David Yamane (2000) agrees—"We know that existing social or cultural structures predispose us to experience certain emotions, sensations, and bodily states in particular, culturally inscribed ways...There is no such thing as an unmediated experience."


The next component is sensation. Although the sensation of perception is common (i.e. the feeling that one is receiving information via one or more of the five senses), at the core of a religious experience is emotion. "The connection between religion and emotion," writes Emmons and Paloutzian, "is a long and intimate one. Religion has always been a source of profound emotional experience, traditionally love, gratitude, and thankful joy." In general, there are two branches of emotional experience within religion: the charismatic and the contemplative. Fraser Watts (1996) explains that the "charismatic movement stresses the cultivation of intense positive emotions...whereas the contemplative tradition stresses a calming of the passions and the development of emotional quietude," while a third, less common tradition involves the disciplined, creative expression of emotion.

But even when emotions are not being deliberately manipulated, they nevertheless play a central role. This is because emotions provide a sense of realness to an experience. Even William James acknowledged the legitimizing effects of emotions, and modern research further suggests that they "can play an important role in revealing the world rather than merely obfuscating our intellectualization of things" (Ratcliffe, 2003). Ethnologist Raymond Firth (1996) explains that it is the "element of emotion in whatever kind of experience that gives the basis to the belief [and] provides it with a strong flavour of reality"...Ultimately, "it is not intellectual or moral proofs for belief, or religious concepts that provide validity; it is the emotional proofs."


The final component to the religious experience is interpretation. An event cannot be religious unless it is given meaning as such, plain and simple. Yamane (2000) maintains that there is no such thing as a religious experience "in-and-of itself. There are simply experiences which are made meaningful after the fact, often in terms of narratives furnished by certain religious groups." It is not uncommon for an event to be considered highly religious at one time only to be seen in a completely different light after a change of perspective. An example might be certain experiences during hallucinogenic drug use interpreted as religious while in one's teens, only to be seen merely as weird, chemically induced illusions as an older adult. Similarly, it might take the wisdom of age to perceive the profound spiritual beauty in a sunset, which was long overlooked as a youngster. Such an event in itself remains unchanged, but the perspective applied to it can change the meaning completely.

These three components—priming, sensation, and interpretation—weave a complex tapestry. Indeed, they each feed and are fed by the others. Pre-existing beliefs or schemas can be primed for or by a specific type of somato-emotional event which can then be interpreted as religious. However, interpreted experiences can also transform beliefs leading to new schema for priming. In talking about ritual, Dornan writes, "Ritual can both channel experience based on belief, and alter belief in accordance with experience...ritual performance is more than representation or symbolic expression of belief—it is the actual practice of ritual that both instantiates, reinforces, and authenticates belief though subjective experience." Essentially, the same could be said of any religious practice.

To summarize: a religious experience is one that involves some shift in perspective (one might say a change in consciousness) related to an embodied sensation that is interpreted to be religiously meaningful. Such an experience involves (1) pre-existing beliefs or schemas, (2) a somato-emotional event, and (3) an interpretation involving religious concepts. Such a shift might be dramatic or it might be gentle, ongoing or fleeting, (seemingly) metaphysical or tellurian. And, as a general rule, religious experiences occur within the context of some established model of belief and practice, while each experience is yet unique and individual.

Categories of Religious Experience

So far we've established a broad, but I think well-defined outline of religious experience. Although the list of religious activities (prayer, meditation, ritual, etc.) is a very long one, I have not been able to find any established taxonomy for religious experiences themselves. Below I will describe various categories that are listed in the literature, and others that conform to my own experiences and observations.

The most common category written about involves mystical experience. There is no hard and fast definition, but I will say that, at the least, it involves a loss of ego or sense of isolated self, which is often a peak or ecstatic event (but not always). Normally called transcendence, this can involve, say, achieving a non-dual state with ultimate reality or God, where one can see "a fundamental unity underlying the diverse strivings of nature" (Emmons & Paloutzian, 2003). But in my definition, mystical experience can also include entering fully into a state of flow, where all awareness is swept up fully into the activity at hand.

Another category involves what is called psychism, defined simply as sensory intrusions within the stream of consciousness. These intrusions usually involve sounds, images, or a sense of presence, which can be experienced as originating from outside of the self. Such events can interrupt what is known as the "natural attitude", and so they can be given a special status—since they do not easily conform to empirical constructions of the world, they can engender a new belief system if the "intrusions are intense enough, the interpretations are plausible enough, and the identity commitments are either weak enough to be abandoned or are strong enough to survive a change" (Laubach, 2004). If supernatural beliefs are already held, then psychic events can further intensify those beliefs. It is also not uncommon for those who interpret such intrusions as religiously veridical to feel special or privileged themselves, and research suggests that such folks often develop "privatized" religious practices and beliefs that support and legitimize their unique experiences.

Similar to psychism but of a different category is portaling, which, as the name suggests, involves the experience of out-of-body consciousness. Traditionally, this practice was mostly familiar to shamanistic traditions, but is now common in New Age movements that promote the idea of astral travel. Portaling is a cross-cultural phenomenon that has been studied in detail, seen by neuropsychologists as a "radical re-entrainment of the neurological systems mediating experience in the brain" (Dornan, 2004).

Affiliative connectivity is yet another broad category of religious experience. I include two sub-sets of experience—communal and individual. Communal affiliative connectivity involves profound religious feelings arising from group activity, most often in the form of worship or ceremony. The other subset, individual affiliative connectivity, primarily involves a personal sense of connection, which can include a deity, nature, or humankind as a whole. It is of a kind as the mystical union given above, but is generally not a peak experience involving ego-loss or attaining a non-dual state. Rather, it reflects profound religious feelings involving a sense of relationship, of being a part of or connected to something beyond the individual self. Although these two subsets have unique characteristics, obviously they can work in concert.

Many people are also drawn to the occult. For these folks, the true nature of things is seen as concealed from normal reality, and so the religious experience is typified by a sense of mystery and exploration. Meaning is found within models used to decipher the code of existence, which can involve the Hebrew Tree of Life, numerology, Tarot cards, astrology, and similar tools used to divine hidden truth.

Spiritual transformation can also be a profound experience. This term is most often applied to conversion experiences, also known as quantum change, which can be a sudden or gradual event. I myself include any religious experience, not just conversions, that involves a meaningful sense of change (which can happen during change-of-state rituals, such as baptisms or initiations). Interestingly, research suggests that such change has minimal effect on basic personality (i.e. the Big Five), but can lead to major differences in things like goals, attitudes, and behaviors. Indeed, Emmons and Paloutzian (2003) explain that "self-defining personality functions (such as identity, life meaning) do change dramatically after a spiritual transformation."

One other possible category is tranquility, which is common in contemplative traditions. Here, profound spiritual meaning is found by achieving a deep sense of peace and harmony. This experience is unlike those outlined above in that it involves a state of being rather than a discrete event. Tranquility describes a way of being that is applied to all events, and so this category exists somewhat outside the scope of the others. Since tranquility doesn't fit perfectly under my definition of a religious experience, either it isn't one or my definition needs refinement.

The Experience Grid

The image above offers a simplistic model for organizing various religious experiences. One axis is the emotional, with the other representing the empirical orientation. Barring any changes, this is the model I will be using to organize both experience and eventually praxis. It isn't too hard to figure out which quadrant various experiences fit. For example, contemplative meditation might result in a #1 experience whereas speaking in tongues might fit in #4. Being overcome by a sense of wonder of the natural world might belong in quadrant #2, and a #3 experience might involve a nurturing spirit encountered during astral travel. This model will be developed further in future posts.

In Closing

This brief foray into the realm of religious experience has only barely touched the surface. There is so much else to cover, including the possible nature of these experiences, the effects they can have on one's life, how to know which are healthy and effective for any given individual, and the possible range of intentions, motivations, and aims related to each. This will certainly involve a long, ongoing discussion, and I look forward to your participation.

Before moving on to Part II, I will give you a teaser. In that upcoming essay, I will be addressing the two following assertions:

1) All sensory experiences involve a physical process within the brain and so must be caused and mediated by physical objects and processes. As such, all metaphysical or supernatural sources or states are considered non-veridical.

2) Religious experiences, regardless of the veridicality of the interpreted source or medium, certainly do occur phenomenologically and can lead to increased well-being. As such, they possess great potential value.

My task will be to find a way to square these two statements.

Thank you for joining me thus far. Whatever your own spiritual path, I wish you success and joy.


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Emmons, Robert & Paloutzian, Raymond. (2003). The psychology of religion. Annual Review of Psychology, (54), 377-403.
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